Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Confusing Conversations 4: Literally true, and truly literal.

"If you don't believe that the first chapter of the bible is literally true, then how can you believe that the rest of it is?"

I hope that every Christian believes that the bible is literally, true. That is absolutely and entirely truthful in everything it affirms. So, wherever the bible affirms something as scientific fact, then it is scientific fact. Wherever it affirms something as accurate history, it is accurate history. But, the Good Samaritan is not historically accurate (it is a parable). Ezekiel 1 is not scientific fact, it is a vision.

However, this doesn't mean that to truly understand the bible, one must take the most literal interpretation possible. It is always literally (in the sense of totally and utterly) true; the truth is not always literal (in a sense that excludes all metaphor, parable, poetic licence, verbal imagery etc.)

Obvious other examples of this in the realm of cosmology are found in Psalm 19:6

"[the sun] rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat. "

Are we to believe that the sun literally moves from one end of the heavens to another? No! We don't have to believe in a geocentric universe in order to believe that Psalm 19 is utterly true. It is just not true in a literal sense. In fact, to try to understand it as a true scientific account of the orbit of the sun is to utterly misunderstand it; to miss its truth; to distort it. This is fairly easy to see, as Psalm 19 is undeniably poetic. The sun has already been described as a bridegroom, and champion. Are we to envisage a marriage to the moon, or a little horse that the sun rides on? No, it's poetry that teaches how this majestic sun, seen everywhere, giving heat and light shines for the glory of God. But the poetry is more than just those statements; as poetry it attaches an appropriate emotional response of awe and wonder and splendour to those truths. The poetry conveys the truths in exactly the inspired fashion that its divine author intended.

Is Psalm 19 made more problematic had many (or all) of the early readers would have believed in a geocentric universe, and thus, if read literally, understood it to correspond better to the cosmology they held than we would understand it to. No: for that is not the intention of the passage.

What then is the intention of Genesis 1? Is it true literalistically? Does it employ poetic imagery? Does it even employ culturally accepted views of the world in order to convey truths?

These are legitimate questions to ask in bible interpretation. Let's not assume that if we come to different conclusions as to the intention of a passage, and therefore a different conclusion as to which truths are being affirmed in a passage, that we therefore have a different understanding as to whether the text is truthful. Let's all agree to trust what the bible really teaches and then work jolly hard at trying to understand it on its own terms.


David said...

Thank you Mike. This is a critical point in biblical interpretation. We decry liberal interpreters who take straightforward historical narrative and try to make it symbolic. It is a similar indiscretion to fail to consider that Genesis 1 is a Hebrew poem. It's often asked, "Is this the literal word for 'day'?" Well, yes it is. But literal words are the basis of great symbolic imagery in poetry. "Two road diverged in a wood..." Is this the literal word for "road"? Well, yes it is! But we know the literal word "road" symbolizes something much grander than gravel or pavement. Didactic prose is the language of facts and information, but poetry is the language of grand ideas, and there is a pretty grand idea or two lurking in Genesis 1.

Mike Gilbart-Smith said...

Thanks David, yes the fact that words have a literal meaning doesn't necessarily mean that such a meaning is always being employed. Only context will tell us.
I'm not sure, though to say that Genesis 1 is a Hebrew poem, (though v26 is). Yet, it is such heightened and stylised prose, that it may well have poetic overtones. Moreover, it is quote possible for even fairly straight prose to be many other things than history, even in the bible: parable, prophecy, dream, vision.
The difficulty with Genesis 1 is that it is pretty much unique within the bible. We cannot compare it to any other chapter in the bible and say, "the style is the same, and so we can quickly decide that the method of interpretation should be the same."