Taking a text literally

13 Apr

Literalists get bad press and are viewed as simplistic and irrational at times.

I’ve recently heard both an agnostic, Stanley Fish, and a Christian, Hugh Ross, expound on how to take a text literally. And they are nothing but reasoned and intelligent men who document a sensible manner to textual analysis.  Both men are experts in their field: Fish is currently a visiting professor at the Cardozo School of Law in NYC.  Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist who founded and guides a Christian think tank called Reasons to Believe.

Our law professor is a practitioner of intentional originalism.  Simplified, this is a method of interpreting the Constitution regarding cases that come before a court.  One examines the meaning of the original words in the written text and searches to find the original intent of those who wrote the law or the Constitution. Antonin Scalia, the recently deceased Supreme Court justice was also an originalist. However, he placed more emphasis on the text and differed from Fish who gave more weight to the intent of the author(s).

Although this distinction is not that wide, what IS striking is the vast gulf in worldviews between Scalia and Fish.  Apparently some critics of originalism have criticized Justice Scalia’s originalism as just ‘code’ for conservative values. That’s a simplistic strawman fallacy, however, even per Fish.

The other misunderstood ‘smart man’ is Hugh Ross who as a Christian takes the Bible literally.  And he is an old earth creationist.  Yes, he does believe the universe was created in 6 days.  But what counts is the translation of the Hebrew term, ‘day’. As Ross explains, Hebrew uses a small vocabulary compared to English. Here’s what Wikipedia writes:

Although it is commonly rendered as day in English translations, the word yom has several literal definitions: [1]

  • Period of light (as contrasted with the period of darkness),
  • Period of twenty-four hours
  • General term for time
  • Point of time
  • Sunrise to sunset
  • Sunset to next sunset
  • A year (in the plural; I Sam 27:7; Ex 13:10, etc.)
  • Time period of unspecified length.
  • A long, but finite span of time – ageepochseason.

To determine the appropriate literal meaning for words in Genesis, one has to look at the context and reasonably (based on REASON) evaluate which meaning best fits the context. Yes, this is a humble undertaking, but not beyond the abilities God has given us and redeemed for His use.

Here’s a clue for Hugh Ross that Yom means an epoch or long time, his view. He points to the words ‘evening….morning, the first day‘ and makes the obvious observation that until Day 4, there IS no sun, hence no 24-hour rotation of the earth.  Look at the text below:

Genesis 1:3-5

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

What do you make, then, of the words ‘evening….morning’?  Dr. Hugh Ross offers the following, as what he thinks could very well have been the intention of the author, God:

  • ‘evening and morning’ are used to communicate the start and the end of a period of time

In the evangelical world, there are Christians who self-identify as ‘young earth creationists’.  From some of the criticisms I’ve heard leveled at their ‘old earth creationist’ brothers and sisters, these Christians FEAR that assenting to ‘an old earth creation model’ smuggles in an accompanying assent to Darwinian evolution.  I can understand that fear, but I believe it is unfounded and not reasonable. These believers are acting more like liberal legislators or judges who fear that originalism might open the door to conservative values.

These differing approaches to finding truth DO encourage me in one way.  They showcase that most folks really do believe and function in a world of values and truth. (good, bad, right, wrong…). And the fact that people hold differing worldviews does not prevent them from agreeing on certain principles.




5 Responses to “Taking a text literally”

  1. rentafriend2000 April 13, 2016 at 11:33 pm #

    Greetings friend!
    Since we’ve already talked about this, it will come as no surprise that I wish to disagree with Dr Ross (Who I would insist does NOT take the Bible literally, but instead ignores the clear text in order to adhere to the secular notion or millions of years), but instead of offering any long rebuttal to his position here (as this will be long enough), I wish only to offer three things.

    1. I have already written a detailed response to his position and a defense of mine in a series called “Confessions of a Young Earth Creationist,” so if you’d like to see the issue broken down into what I feel are the relevant parts, check that out starting here. https://creationsoapbox.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/confessions-of-a-yec-part1-why-am-i-a-young-earth-creationist/

    2. While it seems that both sides agree that context is vital to determining the meaning of YOM, the context is bigger than Genesis 1. The use of the word in Hebrew throughout the old testament is similar to Genesis 1. Consider the following:

    The use of a number with the word “day” is very illuminating. This combination occurs 357 times outside of Genesis 1. The combination is used in four different ways, but each time it is used, it must mean 24-hour periods of time.

    …these terms “evening” and “morning” .. The Old Testament records 38 times when these two words are used in the same verse. Each time they occur, the meaning must be that of a normal day.

    In short, out of the HUNDREDS of times YOM is used in the OT similar to its use in Genesis 1, I have only heard of perhaps two or three where they are not the same 24 hour days, and at least one of those is, in my opinion, an obvious figure of speech per the context. And the writer of Genesis 1 did NOT use words which COULD mean long periods of time, and DID use every convention there is to communicate the fact that these were normal days. If there is another way in which a Hebrew writer could have clarified that these were normal days which was not used in Genesis 1, I have never heard tell of it. Thus, from not only the usage in Genesis 1, but from the biggest context of the entire OT, the context indicates that those days are ordinary days. Without the presumption of millions of years from secular science models, one would never find evidence of them in the text. The OEC position forces into the text faulty science, and does violence to the clear reading of Genesis 1 (and many related passages) by doing so. To over emphasize, the idea that these days are not mere days (let alone millions of years) DOES NOT come from reading the text. The text says clearly and in every way that it could in that language that those days are normal 24 hour days.

    3. There is a subtle logical fallacy in Dr Ross’s explanation of his position. I saw him explaining this on the John Ankerberg show on a youtube video just last week, and I saw the same problem then. You summarize as follows:

    “Here’s a clue for Hugh Ross that Yom means an epoch or long time, his view. He points to the words ‘evening….morning, the first day’ and makes the obvious observation that until Day 4, there IS no sun, hence no 24-hour rotation of the earth.”

    This is the point he makes, and you have summarized it accurately, but consider the details:
    1. God makes LIGHT on day 1, and the first declaration of evening and morning is on that first day. Thus days are defined on day 1, and the days are numbered starting here.
    2. Until day 4 there is no sun- this is accurate per the scripture you sited.
    3. hence no 24 hour rotation of the earth?
    It does not follow from a lack of sunlight that the earth could not rotate every 24 hours. The rotation of the earth is entirely independent of its orbit of the sun, or it’s receiving of sunlight. The only thing which logically follows is that there would not be 24 hours of sunlight received by the earth every day until the sun was made. But there is already light on day 1, and already the declaration of evening and morning and a progression of numbered days, and thus, by reading the text, we should assume a rotation of the earth beginning on day 1. Again, it does not follow that there could not be a 24 hour rotation of the earth since sunlight is completely unrelated to the rotation of any planet, ours included.

    So Dr Ross tries to use the lack of sunlight to say that DAYS did not exist until day 4, which I find on its face to be nonsense. How can you have three days before days? He is literally saying that God did not make the first day until the 4th day. And of course he goes on to argue that, therefore, there could not have been 24 hour days, and thus the days were not DAYS, but EPOCS. However, if you merely look at the text, you would never conclude that because the language is the same every day. There is absolutely NOTHING in the text to indicate that the days were different from each other, and nothing to indicate that they were anything more than ordinary days. Days are DEFINED in day one- there was evening and there was morning (night and day) the Nth day. Again, a rejection of these being ordinary days DOES NOT come from the reading of the text. It comes from an apriori adherence to deep time and/or Big bang cosmology.

    Even more condemning to Dr Ross’s position are the words of God to Moses:
    Exodus 20: 11 says “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” And these are the words of God to Moses, not Moses words about God.

    Sticking to the OEC position requires one to either say God was dishonest when inspiring Genesis 1 and when speaking here to Moses, or to say that, probably because a thousand years is like a day to Him, God does not understand the passage of time sufficiently to communicate to us how long it REALLY took. Neither is acceptable. When all is said and done, most OEC’s are forced to take a position (whether or not they would state it as such) that says the Bible is not historically reliable until at least 12 or 13 chapter in. Which means, for the first 12 or 13 chapters, it’s fairy tale pretending to be history, and worse treated as history by Jesus and the New testament Writers, meaning even Jesus was wrong about the days of creation. Yet, John 1 makes it clear that Jesus IS the Creator. So how could he make such an obvious error as to say God made us male and female at the beginning of creation when, according to deep time models, it would have been at the END of creation?

    So, the issue is not a FEAR of injecting Evolution into the creation (Although, that is inevitably what happens), it is a faithfulness to the text which inspires us to stick to the YEC position. Furthermore, we reject for scientific reasons the faulty Big Bang cosmology and timeline which Dr Ross and many of his peers seem to adhere to (at least in large part). But that also disagrees with the clear teaching of scripture (not to mention scientific observation). But as I said, I describe all of that in my Confessions series. So I invite you to check that out.

    Naturally, if you feel I have gone off the rails, I invite you to stop by my blog and show me where. Iron sharpens Iron, as you know.

    Your Friend,

    • Maria April 14, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

      Bryan – as you can see by the comment that came in prior to yours, I’m again being asked to defend my OEC views. So that is my next logic ‘project’ I will tackle in Him! Printing this out to digest. THANK you for taking the time.

      • rentafriend2000 April 20, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

        Like a guy with an enormous penny collection, I am always happy to toss in my two cents. 🙂

  2. Cody Libolt April 14, 2016 at 6:44 am #

    Interesting points Maria!

    I would say I disagree with your last conclusion in the article.

    I don’t know that there is a strong parallel between the thought process of the anti-originalists and the young earth creationists.

    I could argue just as easily that there is a parallel between the anti-originalists and the the old earth creationists. (But I won’t make that argument now.)

    The validity of your comparison hinges on a more basic question: Is there grounding for treating the 6 days of creation as ages? Or not? And why or why not? That is logically prior.

    If the YECs are simply saying to the OECs, “Your *argument* is wrong because your motive is to try to accord with evolutionists,” then that would be a case of ad hominem.

    But if the YECs are saying to the OECs, “Your reading of the Scripture is not the most natural one, and there is an obvious motive for reading it as such, and that motive has nothing to do with what we see in the Scripture itself,” then that is a different kind of claim, and an important one.

    As a YEC, I do think that the OEC reading of Scripture is not the most natural one. I think every honest OEC would concede that point. For if the days are not regular ones, it is odd that the Scripture would tell us that a day had passed, and also tell us that the day consisted of an evening and a morning. Could we ask for any more precision or clarity from the author about what he means by “day”?

    That is not to say we must always understand every passage by the way it strikes *us* as readers most naturally. We should ask how the original readers would have understood the passage.

    If the passage is meant to be read as describing long sequences of time, then let someone show that. Let them give a specific reason, from within the text, about why that is likely to be the meaning.

    Let them show that the original reader would have taken that as the meaning. Or let them show how such meaning is even possible, given that the day is described in terms of evening and morning.

    If the passage was intended to be read as surrealist poetry (as the Framework Hypothesis suggests), then let someone convincingly show the support for that conclusion. No one has.

    The rest of Scripture, including Moses and Jesus, give us every indication that they took the passage for its plain-sense meaning.

    The rest of Scripture helps us tremendously with understanding the creation account. Here are just seven passages worth thinking over:

    Genesis 1:31
    And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

    (If the days were a sequence of ages, then Genesis 1:31 would suggest that many ages had passed, that much life and death had occurred, and that God said it was very good. But what then would we make of the Bible’s teaching that death is evil and that it only entered the world after the sin of Adam?)

    Genesis 2:3
    And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

    (If OEC is true, how are we to understand this seventh day? Are we currently living in this seventh day?)

    Genesis 2:21-22
    And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
    And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

    (If OEC is true, then is the account of Eve’s creation also true? By what scenario could both be true?)

    Exodus 20:11
    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.

    (Here is another reporting of creation. Israel is commanded to observe the Sabbath every seventh day in imitation of God’s creation act. We see the repeating of the same details in terms of days, and we read it now in a passage that is clearly not attempting to be poetic or surreal, but literal. This fact supports that the inspired author and the original readers would have thought of the creation as happening over six days.)

    Exodus 31:17
    It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.

    (The six day idea is repeated.)

    Matthew 19:4
    And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female.

    (Jesus affirms the Genesis account in general, and by implication accepts all of its details as true.)

    Mark 10:6
    But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.

    (Jesus notes that men and women were present “from the beginning of creation.” By the creation account, they were not present to see the creation of light or the celestial bodies. But “from the beginning” would most naturally indicate that they were created within a short time of when creation begin. How does that fact cohere with the idea that ages of time passed between the beginning of creation and the beginning of mankind?)

    Didn’t mean to overwhelm with analysis! But I’d welcome any discussion.

  3. Maria April 14, 2016 at 7:56 am #

    Cody – thank you for your lengthy comment. I’m printing it out because someone else, another YEC has asked me to set forth my argument for an Old Earth view. Now comes this and I’m going to set to writing down my argument and reasons. Writing IS thinking! I”ll respond to you in a while.

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