The Great Debate, Part Two

I am regretting having started to think around the 'debate' (if I can dignify it with that name) between the 'biblical literalists' and the 'militant atheists'. It has forced me to try to think out an opinion on things which I was (and still would be) happy to let rest as mysteries until that last day when I meet God in person and can either ask Him, or else it all becomes blindingly obvious!

I was (and would still be) happy to believe that the universe came into existence via some sort of 'Big Bang', though with God saying "Right then, let's get started!", rather than it being through the mechanism of pure chance. That way God is still creator, but the science can still be in there. Similarly with the creation of the earth's living things - I was happy enough for God to have created them, and then allowed them to evolve. But I've been forced, recently, to re-examine these, perhaps somewhat naive, beliefs, and to try to set them on a firmer footing. Oh, how I wish I hadn't bothered - it's given me a real headache!

I am not happy at all with the claims of those whom I would describe as 'recent creationists' - those who believe that God created the world on October 23rd, 4004BC (or whenever it was), and who maintain such things as that the geological record, fossils, etc, are all sediments laid down in a year or two after Noah's flood. There is just too much evidence to the contrary, in almost every field of human intellectual endeavour, for their views to be sustainable. Maintaining the fiction is just too difficult... In most things I am inclined to believe that the simplest explanation is the most likely - and in this case, it is that the geologists (and others) are probably right when they say that the earth is several billions of years old - that is the simplest way to explain the evidence.

I am also (switching to cosmology for a moment) almost equally unhappy to accept the Big Bang Theory in its atheistic expression - the probability of 'something exploding into being from nothing', and then becoming ordered, giving birth to life, etc, is almost infinitesimally tiny... So, again, why not apply something akin to Occam's Razor - the simplest possible explanation being the most likely? In other words, we're back to God again - having Him 'speak the world into motion' is, probably, the simplest explanation.

But where does that leave the bible? For instance, if I don't believe the book of Genesis to be literally true, does that not leave me in the position of having pushed over the first domino in the chain, with all the others also bound to fall? If Genesis is not literally true, then might not the same be the case with 1 Timothy 1:15: "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost."?

I believe that the story of Genesis is not, as the ‘biblical literalists’ would have us believe, intended to be read as a literal account of the creation of the world. It is a story; a story to ‘underpin’ the real message - which concerns God’s goodness, man’s rebellion and rejection of God, and the beginnings of God’s efforts to help mankind overcome the wrongheadedness which led to the rebellion, and return to a right relationship with Him and each other.

But just because I can’t, in all conscience, believe that the story of Genesis is meant to be read literally, does not mean that everything I believe in is false - a line of dominoes in which, having knocked over the first one, all the others are bound to fall too. This particular argument boils down, essentially, to whether we are meant to read the story of Genesis literally or not. For thousands of years, I doubt whether anybody bothered to question whether it was true or not - there was no reason to doubt it. It just was. But as well as the ‘literal’ interpretation of the story, for thousands of years there was, and there still is, also the allegorical, figurative, interpretation. Those who believe in the allegorical interpretation, which is very ancient, claim that the intention of the story is to describe mankind’s relationship to creation and its creator.

Some (but not all, as the more militant atheists would have you believe), modern Christians read Genesis literally, and they malign any allegorical interpretation of Genesis as a belated attempt to reconcile science with the biblical account. They assert that the Genesis story had always been interpreted literally until modern science arose and challenged it. But, though they’d like you to think that there is a consensus on this view - in fact there isn’t, because there is good evidence that figurative, or allegorical, interpretations have been around for at least the best part of two thousand years.

The first century Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria, wrote that it would be a mistake to believe that creation happened in six days or any determinate period of time, whilst the fourth century theologist, Augustine of Hippo, argued that the entire Universe was created in an instant, and not in six days as a literal reading of Genesis would require.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said: “...for most of the history of Christianity (and I think this is fair enough) an awareness that a belief that everything depends on the creative act of God, is quite compatible with a degree of uncertainty or latitude about how precisely that unfolds in creative time.” [Interview for The Guardian newspaper, 21st March, 2006]

Some historians believe that biblical literalism (i.e. the belief that the bible is meant to be read, and interpreted, literally) came about with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism; they maintain that before the Reformation, the bible wasn’t always interpreted in a completely literal way. Father Stanley Jaki, a Benedictine priest and theologian (who also happened to be an eminent physicist) in his ‘Bible and Science’ (Christendom Press,1998), said:

“Insofar as the study of the original languages of the Bible was severed from authoritative ecclesiastical preaching as its matrix, it fuelled literalism... Biblical literalism taken for a source of scientific information is making the rounds even nowadays among creationists who would merit Julian Huxley's description of 'bibliolaters.' They merely bring discredit to the Bible as they pile grist upon grist on the mills of latter-day Huxleys, such as Hoyle, Sagan, Gould, and others. The fallacies of creationism go deeper than fallacious reasonings about scientific data. Where creationism is fundamentally at fault is its resting its case on a theological fault-line: the biblicism constructed by the [Protestant] Reformers."

Even the biblical literalists don't take the whole bible literally... The sane ones anyway...

Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, says:

"I've never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true. I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist. Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat and sitting on pillars and cannot move (Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6). It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26)." (http://web.archive.org/web/20080615062211/http://www.newreformation.org/literalism.htm)

Do you know anyone who believes the earth is flat and stands on pillars? I don't think I do! But I do believe the bible is true. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." [NIV]

But I am left with a nagging sense of doubt... Which bits of scripture do I interpret literally, and which bits do I treat as allegory and, probably most importantly, how do I tell the difference? If I'm not careful, I might, in my sinfulness, dismiss something vital to my salvation as not requiring me to interpret it literally...

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2020