Those of us who claim to hold to a natural interpretation of God’s Word can expect to face certain criticism.
The fact is that many aim to downplay the historical veracity of the Bible in an attempt to make believing in its truth seem either more convenient, or wholly irrational.
As a consequence, critics like to pull specific teachings out of their proper context and attempt to demonstrate how holding to a natural interpretation would necessitate subscribing to views that, almost certainly, Bible-believers do not.
Geocentrism is one such example.
Hopefully, having read the title, you realize where I am going with this blog post. This may cause you to stop reading, but I would encourage you to continue on. As creationists, we ought to “take every thought captive”–including this one.
It would behoove you to understand the history behind this objection, the false accusation of “hyper-literalism,” the biblical precedent for understanding this issue in context, and a more thoughtful approach for understanding the Bible as a whole.
Introduction: A Brief History
While popular belief holds that biblical teaching caused many to erroneously conclude that we lived in a geocentric solar system, nothing could be further from the truth.
In a 2001 paper, Faulkner helpfully demystifies the convoluted (and incorrect) claim that geocentrism was a view invented by the church, in accordance with what they read in the Bible:
“In the middle ages and well into the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church did teach geocentrism, but was that based upon the Bible? The Church’s response to Galileo (1564–1642) was primarily from the works of Aristotle (384–322 BC) and other ancient Greek philosophers. It was Augustine (AD 354–430), Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) and others who ‘baptized’ the work of these pagans and termed them ‘pre-Christian Christians’. This mingling of pagan science and the Bible was a fundamental error for which the Church eventually paid a tremendous price. Confusion persists to today in that nearly every textbook that discusses the Galileo affair claims that it was a matter of religion vs science, when it actually was a matter of science vs science. Unfortunately, Church leaders interpreted certain Biblical passages as geocentric to bolster the argument for what science of the day was claiming. This mistake is identical to those today who interpret the Bible to support things such as the big bang, billions of years, or biological evolution. Therefore, any evangelical Christian misinformed of this history who opines that the Bible is geocentric is hardly any more credible a source on this topic than an atheist or agnostic.”
Dr. Faulkner herein makes an interesting point. When we begin to interpret the Bible in light of current scientific theorem, we at least risk tragically undermining the teachings of God’s Word.
The reality is that we know far less about the human body than we thought. Just this year, a new human organ was discovered that scientists are calling the “interstitium.” And guess what?
They say it could be the largest organ in your entire body.
For all that we do know about the human body, we’ve just now learned about what could possibly be its largest organ, which in turn may even help us to understand more about how cancer spreads.
When you begin tallying up the unanswered questions for naturalistic scientists–e.g, how the universe was actually formed, how life arose from non-life, how massive jumps in the organismal record could have taken place without any intelligent guidance, how irreducibly complex organisms developed without being wiped out by natural selection, etc.–it becomes clear that to interpret the eternal Word of God according to our current “knowledge” would be an egregious error.
That said, I am sympathetic to the argument in one sense. I can see how one could take such passages (as will be considered below) and interpret them in such as a way as to attempt a rescue of the current scientific consensus.
Thus, in no way do I mean to argue that if I had been living at that time I would be an exception to the rule (although I’d like to think that I would); rather, I aim to demonstrate how this error should be a learning experience for Christians today, and offer some suggestions as to how we can avoid this in the future.
I’d be remiss to move much further without first clearing away this massive obstacle that seems to plague young age creationists.
In a recent podcast episode, I spent almost an hour analyzing a recent debate and nailing down the proper interpretation of the word literal. If you’ll notice, I prefaced this post using the term “natural interpretation,” which I advocate for in the podcast.
Here’s why: By “literal,” creationists really mean natural, straightforward, actual history, according to a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. We strive to understand authorial intent/meaning; not to press the text according to a presupposed outcome.
Now–this is not an area where creationists are “redefining” terms. In literary studies (and everyday language) it is perfectly acceptable to use non-literal verbiage in a context where the writer/speaker intends to convey literal meaning.
For example, in a conversation about your son’s soccer game this past Saturday, you might have told your buddy that your son’s team obliterated their opponents.
Of course, this is hyperbole. You are speaking in a very literal context about real events that happened, there may even be proper nouns involved (such the name of your son, his team, etc.), and you naturally inserted a hyperbole (intentional, figurative exaggeration) for effect, without for a moment thinking that your buddy would not have understood.
Your buddy does not take you to mean that your son’s team literally obliterated the opposition with AK-47’s, rather, he takes you to mean that they had a much higher score than the other team, and therefore, won the game by a wide margin.
For all intents and purposes, you would have been understood to be speaking in a narrative sense, and you would, in turn, expect to be taken literally.
This is how creationists interpret the Bible. This is also how other biblical writers–and Jesus Himself–interpreted the Bible.
Staff writer at Answers in Genesis, Simon Turpin, helpfully clarifies:
“Biblical creationists interpret Genesis 1 using the historical-grammatical approach, which means taking the text plainly according to its literary genre. This approach understands Genesis 1 as historical narrative, which of course takes into account such things as metaphors and figures of speech (Genesis 2:23, 4:7, 7:11). The plain meaning may be understood as “the meaning intended by the human author, as that sense can be plainly determined by the literary, and historical context.” Therefore because of the negative connotations associated with a “literal” interpretation of the Bible and Genesis 1, it is better to say “grammatical-historical interpretation.”
In the above-mentioned podcast, I propose either using Turpin’s suggestion (grammatical-historical interpretation), or opting for a word such as “natural” or saying that you interpret according to “the author’s intended meaning.”
That out of the way, let’s take a few moments to understand the argument from a biblical perspective.
There are a few verses commonly cited that, if taken at face value, are alleged to suggest a geocentric view of the solar system. We’ll examine a few of those throughout this section.
This issue usually rears its ugly head in one of two ways: (1) As evidence that the Bible is factually incorrect, and therefore, fallible, and therefore, not the Word of God. And (2) that creationists selectively interpret some passages non-literally, while selectively interpreting other passages “literally.”1
Objection #2 is the entire reason for the section above. (I tackle it first because it is a bit less complex.) It is a strawman fallacy to assert that creationists “cherry pick” which verses are to be taken literally since it is quite easily seen (as above) that one can use figurative language in an otherwise literal context.
Furthermore, scholars have suggested that biblical writers often used what is called “phenomenological language”; that is, language which is written from the viewpoint of the observer.
For example, in Exodus 32, we find Moses coming down from his meeting with the Lord to find that the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses’ own brother, Aaron, had formed a golden calf and had begun to worship it.
When Moses witnesses this, he and God have a little conversation in which God indicates He is essentially ready to wipe out the entire congregation and make a Moses a great nation anew. Moses pleads with God, and we find this strange statement in vs. 14: “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”
But if God has foreknowledge (see Romans 8:28-29, for example), and He “changes not” (Malachi 3:6), how can God have possibly just “changed His mind?” Wouldn’t this suggest that God did not actually have knowledge of the future, and therefore, changed His mind according to a new set of circumstances?
Well, of course not.
It simply means that Moses perceived an intended action on God’s part, pleaded His case before God, and God chose not to carry out the perceived intended action. Any parent can relate. If I tell my son that I am going to spank him for misbehaving and decide instead to respond with grace by taking him for ice cream, that in no way suggests that I was ever actually going to spank him.
It just doesn’t follow. So, in this case, from Moses’ (the writer’s) perspective God simply changed His mind, even though God Himself knew exactly how the scenario would play out.2
Applied to the discussion at hand, we can see something similar going on in Joshua chapter 10. In a battle with the Amorites, God caused the sun to stand still “…until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies…and [the sun] hasted not to go down about a whole day.”
Critics repeat this specious objection as if is the death-knell to Christianity, yet it carries no such consequence! I don’t aim to speculate on the nature of the event (i.e., whether it was entirely miraculous or God accomplished this using natural means), just simply to say that there is no error or contradiction in the way the account is written.
To say this passage teaches geocentricity would be to assume that Joshua herein meant to comment on the nature of reality based on an accurate understanding of the solar system. I see no reason to think that Joshua, though a skilled warrior, had any scientific insight as to the relationship between the Earth and the Sun.
Instead, if we assume that Joshua was merely writing about what he saw with no deeper scientific or theological speculations involved, then it becomes clear this is just a case of phenomenological language. Joshua saw the sun “stand still” in the sky; therefore, that’s what he wrote.
Further, this approach is scientifically acceptable, to boot! Henry Morris has long ago noted that,
“One trivial objection to the long day account is that the writer made a scientific mistake when he said that the sun stood still. The sun does not move, it is argued, so Joshua should have told the earth to stand still. The sun does move, however, and so does every star, planet and satellite in the universe, so far as known. Scientifically, every motion must therefore actually be expressed as relative motion, using some arbitrarily assumed reference point of zero motion. The latter is normally chosen for maximum convenience and simplicity of calculations. As far as relative motion of the sun and the earth is concerned, the optimum method normally is to define the point of the observer as the point of zero motion. Thus the most scientific approach is (as in the Bible) to assume that the sun moves relative to the earth”
Objection #1 has a few more layers, but also reduces to nothing more than unfounded speculation on the part of the critic. Let’s break down the argument a bit.
To reiterate, the argument is that since the Bible allegedly teaches geocentricity which we know to be false, the Bible is factually incorrect, and therefore, fallible, and therefore, not the Word of God.
First of all, we have already seen one such example (arguably the most popular) in which the Bible’s alleged “geocentric teachings” are actually not that at all. Let’s look at another.
Faulkner points out a critical evaluation of the word-choice used by the KJV translators in Psalm 93:1 in a lengthy portion of his above-mentioned paper:
“Bouw quotes part of Psalm 93:1 from the KJV, ‘ … the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved’.16 He claims that ‘stablish’ is the proper translation as opposed to ‘establish’, that is used in most modern translations. He states that the former word means to stabilize, while the latter means to set up. However, none of the English dictionaries (including the Oxford) I consulted support this distinction. All of the dictionaries revealed that ‘stablish’ is an archaic variation of ‘establish’. Bouw further alleges that this subtle distinction is also present in the Hebrew. This is patently not true, as can be demonstrated with Strong’s Concordance. The Hebrew word used in Psalm 93:1 is kûwn, which is translated as ‘stablish’, ‘stablished’, and ‘stablisheth’ only one time each outside of Psalm 93:1. The same word is translated as ‘establish’, or ‘established’, 58 times elsewhere in the KJV. A closely related Hebrew word, qûwm is translated ‘stablish’ three times and as ‘establish’ or ‘established’ 28 times in the KJV. Indeed, kûwn appears twice in 2 Samuel 7:12–13, but is rendered ‘establish’ and ‘stablish’ in the same passage. Thus the distinction that Bouw claims in these two words does not exist in either Hebrew or English. Bouw uses this unfounded distinction to draw some questionable meaning from 1 Chronicles 16:30 and Psalm 96:10,18 where the word ‘establish’ is used in the latter verse. These passages declare that the world is not to be moved, from which Bouw concludes that the world does not move.
This is fallacious. The Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (mowt) is in the niphal stem, which often refers to the passive voice, as indeed it does here. This is reflected in the English translations—to be moved or not to be moved suggests the action of an external or causative agent to bring about change in position, but does not exclude the possibility of motion apart from an external agent. Bouw frequently chides those who disagree with him on Biblical passages that speak of the rising of the Sun by claiming that they accuse God of being a poor communicator. Therefore, we may apply Bouw’s standard to his own work: the Lord could have rendered these passages to read, ‘… the world does not move’, if that is what He intended. As is, these passages are hardly geocentric.”
Generally speaking, I find that a common theme among critics of biblical creationism (whether evolutionists or old-age-affirming Christians) is to use poetic passages of Scripture in an attempt to determine scientific meaning.
On the one hand, evolutionists have no stake in the game and are largely ignorant (for understandable reasons–see 2 Peter 3, Proverbs 1:7, Colossians 2:3. etc.) to matters of biblical exegesis and interpretation. And yet, they often back-hand creationists for interpreting the Book of Genesis as factual history, despite the solid research confirming its literary genre.
On the other hand, those Christians who affirm old-age geology/cosmology and also claim to hold a high view of Scripture often commit the exact opposite error, using poetic books (such as the Psalms) to interpret the historical writings in Genesis!
Neither case demonstrates good exegesis, but rather, fallacious eisegesis. There is no precedent according to which historical narrative should be reinterpreted using poetic language–not in today’s writings, and not in the writings from the ancient Near East.
Additionally, according to Faulkner,
“Much of the case for geocentrism relies upon many Biblical passages that refer to sunrise and sunset. Geocentrists argue that since the Bible is inspired of God, then when He chose to use such terminology, the Lord must mean that the Sun moves. By this reasoning, virtually all astronomers and astronomical books and magazines are geocentric, because ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ is exactly the language that such sources use.”
This objection is silly, inconsistent, and is also subject to the above discussion on phenomenological language.
There is yet another issue to be addressed, although this one’s a bit more controversial.
In the argument, if it can be shown that the Bible supports geocentrism and is, therefore, fallible, does it necessarily follow that the Bible is false?
Although most Christians (including myself) hold that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it would not become wholly false according to any logical necessity were the assertion that it teaches geocentrism proven to be true.
Many scientific journals and magazines in print at this very moment make conjectures that will be almost certainly be falsified in the near future. That’s how science works! Does it follow from that premise that every other claim in the journal is false? Of course not.
In fact, there are many God-fearing Christians who, although I stand in stark disagreement with them, are not biblical inerrantists. That is to say that while they believe the Bible speaks correctly about Jesus of Nazareth and the theological truth it presents, they are open to the possibility that some matters of a historical and scientific nature are incorrect.
In sum, these objections fall flat on all counts. The passages in question are either exegeted incorrectly or the claims are based on a misunderstanding of biblical inspiration, and even if it could be shown that the Bible teaches geocentrism, it would not follow logically that Christianity is false.
Understanding the Bible
As a matter of general importance, there are a few helpful distinctions and techniques that must be considered when attempting to get a grasp on God’s Word.
We could discuss textual and geographical contextual parameters, authorial intent, figures of speech, parts of speech, literary devices, literary genre, exegetical principles–the list of considerations is nearly inexhaustible.
However, my approach here will be much more modest and general.
Although this is a very deep and intricate subject, I want to discuss just three relevant areas where biblical interpretation is often misunderstood (by all parties):
- Spiritual Illumination
- Human Attestation
- Divine Preservation
Spiritual Illumination. There is a part of me that finds it amusing when biblioskeptics offer that I interpret parts of Scripture incorrectly.
In 1 Corinthians 2:14, the Apostle Paul says, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him…” As a Christian, how can I not take this seriously? This immediately disqualifies skeptical opinion on the theological truths taught in the Bible.
Think about it: Are you going to let someone who thinks the Bible amounts to foolishness correct your understanding of God’s Word? That’s worse than misguided; it’s utterly nonsensical. You would not operate by that standard in any other area of your life.
I don’t mean to suggest here (and neither does the Apostle Paul) that the natural man cannot know anything at all, or even that there are things about the Bible that a natural man can’t know.
What I mean to communicate is that this person is blinded by Satan (see 2 Corinthians 4:4), and is, therefore, unable to grasp the truth presented by God’s Word.
On a different (albeit very important) level, many Christians are guilty of trying to understand the Bible with the head rather than the heart. Of course, the Bible has much to say about the mind–my point is that Bible reading is a very spiritual discipline, and therefore, we ought to prayerfully ask God to illuminate the truth of the Bible (in our heads and hearts) each time we open its pages.
Only when we read the Bible as regenerate Christians and with a spirit of genuine humility and teachability can we ever hope to understand what God is trying to communicate.
To attempt this otherwise is meaningless at best, and more accurately, utterly foolish.
Human Attestation. Another important point to understand is that the words written in the pages of Holy Scripture were written by actual, fallible human beings who existed in the fabric of space-time. And in most cases, were eyewitnesses to the events!
This is important for a number of reasons, a couple of which I’ll mention.
First, it speaks to the authenticity of the Bible. The Bible is not some sort of “magic book” that fell from the sky one day. In it are truths about real history. In fact, the Bible often is the first source of information we have about new archaeological and historical discoveries.
Even our first knowledge of entire civilizations is found in God’s Word!
The Bible is a practical guide for living (some have called it our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”), and is primarily a book about theological truths (about God, His relationship to us, ours to Him, etc.), but it portrays a theology that is rooted in God’s involvement in real history with real people. This is not myth (as far as genre is concerned).
Second, there are many who claim that since the Bible was written by fallible men, it can’t possibly contain the truth about God. This is fallacious. For one thing, a worldview must be evaluated on the merits of its own claims.
The Bible teaches that there is such a way that a fallible person can write in cooperation with the inspiration of God. 2 Peter 1:21 says, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
This does not constitute some sort of “divine dictation”; rather, it simply means that men of God spake and their speaking was influenced by the Holy Ghost, such that it conformed to His will and intent.
Therefore, to deny that this is possible is tantamount to circular reasoning; it denies a fundamental tenant of the view and then uses that denial to say that the view is false. This is not only circular but disingenuous since it requires the creation of a strawman.
Further, this is not even reasonable from a practical perspective.
For example, I have many books on my shelf–both by Christian and secular writers–which contain statements that many deem to be true about reality. Just because a “fallible man” writes something does not necessitate that his view is untrue.
Divine Preservation. I mean this not only in the sense of the Bible’s veracity throughout time, but in the immediate context, I mean that the Bible’s truth transcends time and generational considerations.
Sadly, some of the concepts I mentioned above (textual and geographical contextual parameters, authorial intent, figures of speech, etc.) are not properly run through the filter of preservation.
Please do not understand me to mean that these things are not important.
On the contrary, they are utterly important to understand what the writers meant. But we mustn’t forget that while the human writers were writing to an immediate audience, The Divine Writer was writing to all generations!
I see this often in the example of creationism: Many have attempted to say that we should understand Genesis in an allegorical fashion since it is “obviously contradictory” to the consensus of today’s modern scientists.
They argue that the ancient Hebrews were not concerned with such matters and that Moses meant only to convey the diametric thought system the Hebrews were to live by when contrasted against the Egyptians and other ancient Near Easterners.
Moses certainly did mean to convey these differences, but many liberal scholars make an unnecessary leap to the conclusion that, since there are also some superficial similarities, Moses was just making up a “Hebrew myth,” so to speak, to teach them about the One True God of Israel.
There are myriad reasons why I think this should be rejected (a few of which have been dealt with here), but the simplest to me is that God meant for His Word and Truth to be easily understood by all generations of His people!
The text itself gives no indication that truths about the order of creation and the age of the earth, for example, are mysterious and should be thought of allegorically; on the contrary, there are many important details in the text which seem to show intentional inclusion of this information (see here and here for further discussion)!
The bottom line is this: an attempt to understand anything about the Scriptures without first considering spiritual illumination, human attestation, and divine preservation, will almost certainly end in fruitless failure.
Although there are areas of difficulty to consider when interpreting the Bible, we are doomed to err when we apply our preconceived notions onto the text.
If we press the text for hyper-literosity, our understanding will suffer. Similarly, if we press the text to produce allegorical meaning where there is none, our understanding will suffer.
When we read the Bible naturally, as we would expect to read any document, we find the truth is illuminated! We can make sense of our experience in the world, and the Bible will always be able to explain what we see.
Sadly, the number of those in positions of spiritual leadership and authority who have left this basic view of Scripture is only growing. It is seemingly impossible to find an institution today whose faculty are required to hold views of Scripture that are consistent with what the Bible’s own writers–and even Christ Himself–held.
When Paul said Adam was a real person–the “first man”–who fell in a real place called the Garden of Eden, I believe Him. When Jesus said that in the end times, it will be like it was in the days of Noah (who He obviously thought was a real person), I believe Him.
I don’t know how to make it any clearer than that.
Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!
- I am ignoring a third issue intentionally–namely, that there is a small group of creationists who both believe and *accept* that the Bible teaches geocentricity. I think there are good scientific reasons to reject that claim, and, as will be shown, I think I can demonstrate that the Bible knows nothing of it as well.
- It’s worth mentioning that a possible objection to this position is that since the Bible is based on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (see 2 Peter 2:21), it’s nonsensical to suggest that the Holy Spirit would lead the writer to write one thing about Himself when another would actually take place. But this is simply a misunderstanding of the doctrine of inspiration. No true biblical authority in history has held the position that these men were (in every case) being “divinely dictated” to, so to speak. Rather, the writers each wrote from their own unique perspective, in their own “voice,” and God providentially inspired their writing. So while the writing would be quite original to the author, it would also consistently bear the mark of The Author!
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