Literalism and Slippery Logic

From Eli

My apologies for taking so long to reply to your post Jon; I have a decent excuse for December (I went to China for a week) but I have just been plain lazy in January. So I need to make up for lost time, let’s get back to it shall we?

Re-reading your post a month and a half later I was struck by your take on inerrancy:

It may be the case that Moses did not intend all of Genesis to be read literally. And we need to further realize that if it turns out that we discover that the author of Genesis did intend for his writing to be taken literally and a literal reading turns about to be wholly irreconcilable with science, then the whole Christianity does not collapse in on itself like the Hamites imagine. We simply need to adjust what we believe about the bible. Perhaps it is inspired without being inerrant.

I can tell you from my experiences in the Church that this is a radical notion. I grew up in a home and in Churches where the doctrine of inerrancy was not even remotely up for debate. In fact, I recently ran across this news article about a Noah’s Ark Museum that is being built in Kentucky by the very same “Hamites” you mentioned in your response. Before reading the article is under the impression that Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham’s organization) was something of a fringe group that lacked real influence. Imagine my surprise when I read that this “museum” that will feature dragons and unicorns (not a joke) will cost $150 million and that it will be receiving $40 million in tax breaks from the citizens of Kentucky. The literal truth of the Bible is obviously not up for debate for the Hamites and a lot of other Christians if that kind of money is available. But I digress; let’s get back to interpreting the flood story.

I agree that when we are dealing with the Bible we have to put things in context and pay attention to the intent of the author. Obviously, not everything is meant to be taken literally, such as the example you gave of the story where Jesus says that you can move mountains with faith the size of a mustard seed. We can plainly see that this not meant to be taken literally. Faith is an idea and it lacks physical properties. The mustard seed story is just a good way to illustrate an abstract concept. This is very different than the factual assertions found in Genesis. I don’t see how else we could possibly interpret a verse like this other than literally:

They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. (Genesis 7:14-15)

The author of Genesis is claiming that two of every single land animal, many of which would have to cross entire oceans, gathered together and where able to fit on and survive in for months on a boat made with Iron Age technology. There are no allusions to complex ideas that would allow for a non-literal interpretation; the author is simply recording a story to the best of his abilities. So we are left with two choices: 1) The laws of nature were completely different 4,000 years ago when the story took place (we have no evidence for this assertion) or 2) Genesis was written by a person with a primitive understanding of the world who lacked the knowledge we take for granted today. If I can’t be reasonably certain about the factual accuracy of a story like Noah’s Ark why should I believe that Jesus really rose from the dead? Why should we assume that story is meant to be taken literally and that Noah’s ark should not?

This slippery logic also bothers me because it can be used by any religion to justify any claim. In a way, it puts all religions on an equal playing field. We have no more reason to believe one over the other because they all make outrageous claims that may or may not be literally true. There is no middle-road, either you believe in talking snakes and giant boats that can carry the entire earth’s ecosystem or you don’t.

  1. Jon said:

    Great post Eli,

    I’ll make just a couple of comments:

    The argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ stands independently of the doctrine of inerrancy. In fact, the evidentialst approach to the argument for resurrection (i.e. William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas’ arguments) explicitly state that their arguments do not need the doctrine of inerrancy to be convincing or successful. So if the doctrine of inerrancy were to fail, we would still have very satisfying reasons for believing that Jesus did rise from the dead.

    In regard to interpreting the Flood account, all I’m suggesting is that perhaps Moses, as the author of Genesis, did not intend for the Flood account to be taken in a completely straightforward manner. The fact that he includes specific details does not contradict this possibility. Details might be included for symbolic or stylistic reasons. Biblical interpretation may also require other considerations besides what can inferred from the text itself. Historical considerations as well as issues of genre need to be considered. If we allow for these kinds of considerations when making interpretations, we are able to get closer to what the author intended. It may also result in an interpretation that is different than what we might get from a “plain reading of the text.”

    Dr. Matthew Flannagan has suggested a “new” reading of the book of Joshua that, if correct, shows that the “plain meaning” of Joshua is quite different from what the author really intended. He makes his case by appealing to historical context and issues of genre. I think the account of the Flood must also be considered in light of its historical context and genre. Such considerations may indicate that the Flood account ought not be interpreted as if it were a product of a modern historian.

    (As a side note, historical considerations and issues of genre do support reading the gospels as historical narrative. We don’t “assume” that they should be taken literally; we believe it should be read that way on the basis of good hermeneutics. We can discuss the reliability of the gospels some other time if you wish. )

    I don’t think is a slippery slope at all. Trying to get at the author’s original meaning can hardly be a bad thing. And if we really believe in inerrancy (which I do), we must pursue the original intent, even if that intent clashes with what we think the text says from a prima facie reading. I don’t think this degrades the bible so that Christianity has the same chance of being true as any other religion. First, because Christianity is true whether the bible is inerrant or not (We can, in fact, believe in the resurrection of the Son of God and not talking snakes). Second, because all I’m suggesting is we take the text of the bible as it was intended to be read. I don’t see how that subverts Christianity, or even the doctrine of inerrancy, in any way.

  2. Jon said:

    Here’s a great quote from Dr. Flannagan’s blog that summarizes the general principle of what I’ve been trying to suggest:

    “Consequently, if one does not read the texts in isolation and is sensitive to the genre of Ancient Near-Eastern writings then a literal reading is far from obvious. As Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier notes, such a reading commits “the fallacy of misplaced literalism … the misconstruction of a statement-in-evidence so that it carries a literal meaning when a symbolic or hyperbolic or figurative meaning was intended.” This underscores an obvious but often neglected point, the bible is not written in accord with the conventions of 21st century English. It was written in ancient foreign languages and in the conventions that governed historical, legal, epic, etc writings of that time. To understand what it teaches accurately one needs to ask what it teaches given these factors. When one does this, it seems probable that the Old Testament does not teach that God commanded or that Israel carried out the genocide or extermination of the Canaanites.”

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