I’ve chosen to devote myself to the study of the Christian Scriptures. As I prepare to finish my undergraduate studies and move on to the graduate level, I’m trying to collate the lessons I’ve learned so far, to distill them into a few key principles, if only for my own personal benefit and clarity of thought.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned (or have begun to learn) involves the necessity of humility as we approach the biblical text. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss the rich complexities and beautiful truths of Scripture. At best, we’ll walk away with a shallow understanding of God and his world. At worst, we’ll do serious damage to others and ourselves.
To assume that the biblical text was written primarily for me, a 21st-century Caucasian middle-class American Christian, to immediately answer my questions, is both prideful and naive.
The Bible, like Jesus, is both divine and human. As God’s Word, it contains timeless truths and, I believe, the answers to life’s most important questions. As a compilation of human writings, it was directly written to a variety of audiences spanning both several years and cultures. We must hold both in tension. This can be a difficult and time-consuming process, but I believe it is worth the effort.
A specific instance in which this issue plays itself out is the interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2. This affects me personally, for I grew up very much enamored with Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, who proclaim themselves to be the champions of a literal hermeneutic of Scripture. They advocate a common-sense reading of Genesis 1-2, and claim that taking any other approach is symptomatic of a lack of trust in both God and His Word. After all, if we cannot trust Genesis 1-2 to be literally true when it comes to science and history, how can we trust the rest of the Bible? I heeded their call, and at one point planned on devoting the rest of my life to refuting evolution for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
However, the more I’ve learned about studying the Bible, the less I’ve been impressed with the methods employed by Ken Ham/AiG when it comes to the Scriptures.
Now, there are some who disagree with their interpretation of Genesis on scientific grounds alone. They simply think the evidence points toward evolutionary theory and not toward young earth creationism, and they therefore throw out Ken Ham’s interpretation of Genesis 1-2. Others disagree because they think the Bible is complete fiction. It doesn’t matter how you interpret the text, they’d say, because it’s worth nothing more than anything written by Goethe or Shakespeare.
I’m part of neither group. I disagree with their interpretation of Genesis 1-2 because it lacks consistency with how we’re supposed to interpret the rest of Scripture. I don’t care if you’re reading Romans, a Psalm, Mark, Revelation, or 2 Chronicles… knowing something about the historical and literary context of a biblical passage is absolutely necessary if you want to correctly interpret. Most people agree with this. And yet, so many seem to take a different approach when it comes to Genesis 1-2. Why?
The creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 were not composed in a historical and literary vacuum. They are ancient Israelite cosmogonies, composed by a specific author and written to a specific audience. This doesn’t mean that they have no meaning for 21st-century Christians. It does mean, however, that they need to be approached on their own terms. It would be disastrous if you tried to interpret a love poem as if it were a newspaper article. You’d miss the richness of a Shakespearean sonnet if you tried to read it like a recipe. And you’ll miss the main point(s) of an ancient Israelite cosmogony if you try and read it like a science or history textbook.
This doesn’t make the cosmogonies any less TRUE or IMPORTANT, it just calls for humility as we read and interpret them. In fact, I’d argue that, if we learn how to ask the questions that the biblical texts were written to answer, we’d emerge with more truth and a stronger biblical worldview than if we try to force our own questions and purposes on the text. We’d then be better-equipped to do battle, as it were, against the competing worldviews of our day.
“Thus, we risk doing a grave injustice to the inspired, sacred text of Genesis when we try to make it answer our questions of precisely when and how. God created all things, to be sure — God himself and not merely some impersonal forces or natural laws — this is affirmed not only in Genesis but throughout the Christian Scriptures. But Genesis was simply not intended to answer the sorts of modern questions Christians have of exactly when or how God created all things. We are not taking the text of Genesis more seriously by trying to make it answer these questions; we are in fact taking the text of Genesis less seriously, forcing it to answer our questions, rather than making its questions our questions and submitting to the answers it was intended to give. If we truly wish to hear the voice of God through the text of Genesis, if we truly want these stories of Genesis to shape our thinking and our living in line with God’s purposes, then we need to seek the text’s answers to the deeper worldview questions of who and what and why: Who is God? What is the world? Who are human beings? Why do human beings exist? What is our purpose related to God and the world and one another? What is wrong with the world? How can things be made right?”
Do we trust the Word of God enough to take it seriously? To humbly recognize that we, although we are loved by God as our Father and Creator, were not the original audience of the biblical texts? To devote ourselves to the rigorous pursuit of the rich and beautiful truths of the sacred Scriptures, even if it takes our entire lives to walk down that road of learning, even if those truths are sometimes difficult to apprehend?
I pray that I can answer “yes” to those questions for the rest of my days.