googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: The Plain Meaning of Words

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Plain Meaning of Words

As usual, I was discussing the creation and evolution debate online when an evolutionist who posts under the name HRG starts questioning my interpretation of the Scriptures. Here are a few of his comments:

The plain words of the Bible tell us that the Earth is stationary and flat, covered with a solid dome. It took science to tell Christians not to interpret them literally.... Start with the objective evidence for an old Earth and common descent, and if you believe that the Bible is the word of a non-deceptive god, let this evidence be your guide to interpret it and distinguish myth and metaphor from reality.... Which interpretation of the Bible should we start with ?.... Are you infallible when interpreting a particular text ?

The omitted parts represented by the ellipses are primarily my comments that HRG was responding to. You can see that he means to say that the Bible can't mean what it plainly says and actually questions my ability to correctly interpret Scripture. I found a couple of things curious about HRG's comments.

First, nowhere does the Bible “literally” say the earth is stationary, flat, and covered with a solid dome. HRG is confusing terms here. There is a difference between “plain meaning” and “literal meaning.” If I said someone has a heart of gold, would most people understand plainly what I am saying? I suspect so. On the other hand, we all know that no one “literally” has a heart made of gold so it's a straw man to say that Christians mean the Bible to be taken “literally.”

The plain meaning of Genesis 1 needs little interpretation. If we can't understand the plain meaning of the words, then I would maintain it would be impossible to understand ANY part of the Bible. When the Bible says, for example, that Jesus rose in three days, how do I know that means three days? How can I be sure it even means He rose? How can I be sure it means Jesus is even a real person? If Adam is a metaphor then maybe Jesus (the second Adam) is a metaphor as well. It's no secret that some passages in the Bible are difficult to understand. However, I don't believe there's any passage in Genesis 1-11 that fits in that category.

But there's a glaring irony in HRG's comments. HRG is questioning my ability to correctly interpret Scripture and is trying to convince me that the words of the Bible do not mean what they plainly say. At the same time, however, he is counting on my ability to understand the plain meaning of his words! HRG seems to think I'm able to understand his arguments but just not able to understand words of the Bible.

What kind of discussion could anyone ever have if words don't mean anything? What if we applied the same standards toward critics of the Bible that they ask us to apply to the Bible? According to the critics “six days” can mean billions of years. OK then, when a critic “says” he doesn't believe the Genesis account of creation, I know he really means to say Jesus is the Creator of the universe.


Steven J. said...

If you say that someone has a heart of gold, no one is likely to take you literally. But if you say that someone "believes in his heart" that such-and-such is true, or that he "has his heart set on something," that would have been understood quite literally by, say, Aristotle, or Shakespeare, both of whom thought that the heart, rather than the brain, was the seat of thought and emotion.

We speak of "sunrise" and "sunset" and understand these as figurative, or as referring to our subjective experience, but up through the 17th century, these were meant much more literally. Early radio announcers sometimes spoke of sending messages "out over the aether," even though by the time commercial radio arrived, physicists had discarded the idea of a luminiferous aether. Sometimes, usages we regard as "figurative" are not so much figurative as fossilized or vestigial: remnants of a time when they were meant quite literally.

So when we read, in Isaiah, of the sky spread like a tent over the disk of the Earth, or in Genesis and Malachi of the "windows in the sky," we can read those as figurative -- but we find, middle eastern writings contemporary with the Bible, descriptions of a cosmology in which those are quite literal descriptions of the universe as they understood it.

When Jesus speaks of wanting to gather Israel "under his wings," we pretty much have to read that figuratively, as it seems very unlikely that Jesus had wings or that anyone thought he did. But we know from the book of Enoch that Jews in the first century BC thought the Earth was a flat disk. We know from the writings of Josephus that many Jews in the first century AD still thought that the sun went from east to west across the inside of the sky by day, and from west to east across the outside by night to get back to where it would rise again.

These people would not have read a reference to "windows of the sky" as figurative. They would not have read a reference to people "thinking in their hearts" as figurative. They would not have read a reference to "the circle of the Earth" as referring to a sphere rather than a flat disk. Why, then, is it "plain" that these passages actually are figurative?

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I'm going to start by repeating the last point of my post: you seem to have confidence in my ability to understand your words. What exactly are you trying to say then? That I can't understand the plain words of the Bible? It sounds like you think I'm bright enough to understand that I'm too stupid to understand the Bible (although it would be out of character for you to call me stupid).

I concede that, from time to time, people become over zealous about interpreting the Bible. In the parable of the wedding feast, the father of the groom tells his servants to go, seek out guests for the wedding, and “compel” them to come to the feast. During the Inquisition, that passage was cited to justify torturing people into accepting Christ. However, misunderstandings made by people reading the Bible is not an argument about the correct meaning of the Bible.

In your example from Isaiah, surely you cannot mean that the passage is meant to be literal or even that the ancient readers would have understood it to be narrative. It is obviously a poetic expression (technically, it's a simile). In the same passage (Isaiah 40:22) it says, “and the inhabitants thereof [of the earth] are as grasshoppers.” I am certain you do not believe the original readers would have believed God was telling them they were “literally” grasshoppers.

But let's cut to the chase (another idiomatic expression there but I'm sure you understand). In Exodus 20:8-11, the Bible says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work,... For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

So tell me, what literary device is being employed here if not the narrative? If God did not mean the creation week was six days plus the Sabbath, how could the ancients be sure the literal work week was to be six days plus the Sabbath? Shouldn't they believe this literally? If the commandment was not literal, then what of the other commandments?

Some people will always read the Bible and see in it what they already believe is true. The fact that some people thought the world was flat is not an indictment of the Bible. It's a red herring. The Bible is true and the ordinary meaning is likely the intended meaning. We need not over think it.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!