Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Source of Authority #4: Figurative Language

Moses writes in Genesis 1-2, in a straightforward fashion about God creating the earth in six days. He indicates what was created on each day. He provides specific details extraneous to a merely figurative account (notice, for instance, in verses 11-12, the details about the trees “bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind”, or the statement in 2:5-6 regarding the lack of rain and the function of the mist).

Obviously, Moses' account does not square with Darwinian theories of the origin of the species. Herein is the problem. For latter-day prophets of science, this round peg of creation won’t fit into the straight lines of the square hole of science’s competing view of the beginnings of the cosmos and its diverse life-forms.

So what do we do now? The answer to that question depends on your chosen Source of Authority. We all agree that Moses is not writing a science textbook. That’s a straw man raised by people hoping to score easy points on people who believe in the Genesis account of creation. What we don’t agree on is whether Moses is writing a historical account of an actual event, or a stylized, figurative account that functions as an etiological narrative of the origin of the cosmos, and of the origin of evil.

So what, you ask, is an etiological narrative? In answer to that, let me simply ask you to think of Paul Bunyan (yes, Paul, not John) and his blue ox Babe. Perhaps you have forgotten that this dynamic duo dug the Grand Canyon, created the Great Lakes, and left footprints behind them as they meandered through Minnesota, forming puddles known as the 10,000 lakes. The legend of Paul Bunyan is a piece of American folklore, an etiological narrative, a myth, that explains various features of the North American landscape. The etiological narrative Genesis presents, as BioLogos would have it, is a figurative creation myth that teaches higher spiritual truths.

So to what do some bible scholars resort when they wish to avoid conflicts between science and the Bible? They retreat to the “figurative language” argument. Genesis, they say, is highly figurative. Christianity Today cites Tremper Longman: “there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage [Gen. 1-3] so filled with obvious figurative description.”

Apparently, figurative language must exist in the eye of the beholder, because there is nothing obviously figurative to me, at all, in Genesis 1-3. Every word can be taken in its plain sense without violating any human sensibility, especially when you consider that any account of a supernatural origin will necessarily include features for which science can give no account. Having said that, there is nothing in Genesis 1-3 that even remotely approaches the jarring narratives of, say, Ezekiel 1 or Revelation, or the even the beautiful imagery of the Psalms.

Longman is comfortable with a mythical Adam (although in fairness to him, he states that he has not yet come to his own firm conclusions regarding Adam). In the CT article he is quoted as saying, “it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.” Yes, it is possible, but it does not carry near the force of an analogy between two actual, historical figures, nor do fictional figures establish that which is normative. Keller rebuts this dodge in the CT article, saying, “If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’—falls apart.”

Why do some say that there is figurative language in Genesis 1-3? Because there must be, since science, so obviously true, renders a literal reading of Genesis impossible. It’s not a question of language, at all, in the end. It’s a question of what you trust, what your Source of Authority is.

After all, it is quite impossible to divide a sea below the waterline, walk on water or stop a meteorological event (think, storm on the sea of Galilee) with a simple spoken word. Are these features of Scripture also explained away as ‘figurative language,’ and if not, why not? On what grounds is the simple reading of Genesis rejected in favor of a figurative one, and the simple reading of Exodus 14:21-31 is allowed to stand. Surely the dividing of the sea as presented there is anathema to modern scientists.

The truth of the matter is that once you label as figurative a narrative that Paul did not consider figurative, you are setting yourself up as "more enlightened" than God's apostles. Tremper Longman, Pete Enns, and other BioLogos supporters are truly brilliant men, but I would not begin to compare their knowledge and skill at interpreting the Hebrew language with Paul's. We know from Galatians 4:24 that Paul was no stranger to figurative language (in that case, allegory). The claim of "figurative language" in Genesis 1-3 withers if the apostles did not see it that way.

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