If that’s the case, the creationist asks, then why not read Genesis 1 as what it clearly seems to be: a straightforward historical account like any other in the Bible? Isn’t this a clear example of one’s nerve failing and finding a way to get the Bible to say what fits with modern science? And, I’ve heard it regularly suggested, this is the Achilles heel. If when people open their Bible, they explain away the first thing God says, the statement about origins, then the whole foundation is destroyed. It’s irrelevant if you take anything else literally, because it’s got no foundations to support it.
As I’ve heard it put (again a paraphrase from memory, not a direct quote):
What more would God have need to have done to get across the point that chapter one is meant to be taken literally?When the issue is put that way it is extremely powerful. (I should know, for I’ve used it with Jehovah’s Witnesses on the issue of the personhood of the Holy Spirit when looking at texts that speak of the Holy Spirit in a personal way.) It’s powerful because it is a good principle—it’s a way of trying to get at what the Reformers would call ‘the natural sense’ of a text: reading it in a way that isn’t too clever by half, but seems ‘natural’. What could God have done to flag any more clearly that this is a straightforward historical account?
This is one of the few genuinely valuable things that I think Creationism throws up—how do we understand the nature of Scripture, and so what does it mean to be a faithful hearer of the Word of God? So this is going to be a fairly wide-ranging discussion. (Which means, expect more thought for further reflection rather than settled answers by the end of this post.)
We’ll begin with the question of whether chapter one is self-evidently a historical narrative. As I’ve already indicated in earlier posts, I think there are features of chapter one that are not taken literally (at least, not taken literally by people with any kind of orthodox theology). Some examples of these are:
- The deep waters of verse 2 existing before God says anything in verse 3.
- The fact that in verse 2 ‘darkness’ exists before God says anything in verse 3 to create anything which could be dark. (After all, you can’t have darkness without space, and space—physical dimensions—is one of those things that is created in verses 3 and following).
- The firmament separating the waters above from the waters below in verses 6-8, which is an expanse in which floodgates are opened in 7:11 to bring about the Flood.
- The fact that all celestial objects only exist to give light and regulate human time in verses 14-18.
- The fact that the seventh day doesn’t end. It’s quite noticeable, if you have your eyes open. Every day has the same refrain:
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.
No wait. My mistake. Scratch the last one. The refrain is not repeated on the seventh day, the day when God rests from his labours of creating. It is repeated six times and then missed out on the seventh day.
Creationists make much of this refrain: evening and morning, to stress that this has to mean actual, historical 24 hour days. (And I don’t disagree, the days in chapter one are 24 hours, they aren’t ages or the like. The issue is, is this a strict historical account?)
And yet, the seventh day has no evening and morning, it does not end. Why not give that its due weight? Why not take that just as strictly literally? Hold to the view that the seventh day wasn’t twenty four hours, and a week is made up of six twenty-four days and we rest on the seventh, indeterminately long, day.
Or acknowledge, that this another piece of evidence that suggests that the account mightn’t be intended to be taken in a highly literal way.
- Finally, as has been pointed out, the account of chapter one and the account of chapter two are difficult to reconcile. The most probable scenario is that at least one has to be not providing a strictly literal historical account. And I would argue that chapter two ‘feels’ similar to chapter one. One could ask the same question: What more would God have to do to make it clear that the account in chapter two is meant to be taken literally? In fact, chapter two is fairly free of the kind of features that I’ve just highlighted from chapter one, so it’s got more grounds for being taken as a strictly literal historical account.
But what it should do is indicate that there are features of chapter one that no-one should take literally. And if that’s the case, it is not as simple as ‘good guys read this literally’ and ‘bad guys explain it away’. All of us recognise that faithfully hearing this chapter as the Word of God involves not taking all the features in a strict literal sense. And if that’s the case, then a less strictly literal reading does not necessarily signify a weakening of trust in God’s Word.
But where does this approach stop? If Genesis 1 or 2 is going to be taken in a less strictly literal sense, what basis can you give for not sitting loosely on other things that seem to run counter to modern wisdom? After all, creationists generally tend to argue that if Genesis 1 goes, you’ve basically lost everything.
Here I want to start with an issue that I’m indebted to Tony Payne of Matthias Media for raising in The Briefing. In a kind of sidebar argument in an issue dedicated to Intelligent Design he drew an analogy between the current debate over whether Genesis 1 has to be taken literally to the debate between Luther and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper. I’m going to use the issue a bit differently here than how he did, but I’m indebted to him for drawing the link between the two issues to my attention.
The issue relates to the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels:
Matthew 26:26-28 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.
Mark 14:22-24 And while they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it; and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup, and given thanks, He gave it to them; and they all drank from it. And He said to them, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
Luke 22:19-20 And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.
Here we have no less than a threefold (four if you include 1 Cor 11) repetition of what Jesus said about the emblems of bread and wine in Scripture. Unlike most parts of the Bible, this isn’t mentioned once and we move on. It is repeated three times in the Gospels, and once more in an Epistle. That’s a high level of repetition for the Bible, it suggests it is important.
So let’s revisit the arguments we opened with. What more would Jesus have to do to indicate that we are meant to take his words here in a strict literal sense? After all, it’s a strict, literal command—take and eat this physical bread and drink this physical wine. So why do you not take the description of the bread and wine in a strict literal sense?—that it is the actual body and blood of Jesus. It’s a short statement, there’s nothing in the text to even remotely suggest that it isn’t literal. Command, and statement about the emblem. That’s it. So why don’t you take the description of the emblem strictly literally? You interpret the command literally, but the reason for the command as some kind of metaphor.
And you can see the same kind of argument get raised as I summarised at the start for the Creation Scientist. What could be more central to Christianity than Word and Sacrament? If you are going to explain away the sacrament, which stands at the heart of Christianity, then what does it matter if you take any other part of Scripture literally? If you can’t trust the word of God here, in the face of contemporary wisdom that physical bread and wine can’t ‘become Jesus’ and still remain bread and wine to all empirical experimentation, then you’ve already surrendered to the world.
The sacramentalist—Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic, can look you in the eye knowing that they take these words of Jesus in a strict literal sense, and don’t try and explain them away, and they have a lot of Church tradition on their side. The bread is Jesus’ body. The wine is Jesus’ blood. Jesus himself says it. A realist view of the sacrament is the overwhelming position of church tradition.
The general response is to argue that the words are to be taken poetically, that they are a metaphor. Bread and wine symbolises Jesus’ body and blood.
Support is generally enlisted from Paul’s version of the words in 1 Cor 11:
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
Here, it is argued, we are told that we to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. If it is a ‘remembrance feast’ then it is a symbolic identity between emblem and Jesus’ body and blood. But this argument hardly proves that Jesus’ words must not be taken literally. It’s a literal command—do this in remembrance of me. So why read the other bit non-literally—this is my body? And why does doing it in remembrance of Jesus automatically mean it isn’t strictly his body and blood? Surely I remember Jesus more if what I consume really is part of him than if I just eat bread and wine?
Other support for a metaphorical reading come from Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel where there are a number of statements like:
Here are examples where Jesus uses metaphors—saying that he is something, when it is clear that the ‘is’ is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not a physical door to physical sheep. So, it is argued, when Jesus says the bread is his body, the ‘is’ shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor.
John 6:48 I am the bread of life.
John 10:7 I am the door of the sheep.
John 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches;
This argument is weaker than the argument from 1 Cor 11 if you hold to the principle that the Bible should be taken literally except where it can’t.
It’s one thing to say:
I am the vineThat can be fairly easily seen to be a metaphor. Whether you say ‘I am the vine’ or ‘My love is a red rose’ the kind of principles of metaphors are fairly clearly kept.
But when Jesus says, ‘this bread is my body’ it doesn’t fit all that obviously into the principles of a metaphor. ‘this bread is a body’, ‘this bread is the body’—those are fairly clearly candidates for a metaphor. But ‘this bread is my body’ really strains the principles of metaphors. If I said, ‘My love is this rose bush’ at least half of my hearers, I’d suggest, would take me to mean that I devote myself to the rose bush I’d singled out, rather than thinking I was treating that particular rose bush as a metaphorical symbol of a human female for whom I had affection. And if I said “This rose bush is my love” I’d suggest the proportion of hearers would climb even higher.
In other words, there’s no clinching textual argument to show that the words of institution must be taken metaphorically. So, if the Bible should be taken literally as the basic way of reading it, shouldn’t we take the words of institution literally?
What I think this shows is that reading the Bible is not a matter of just taking things literally unless that’s ‘obviously’ wrong and only then accepting a non-literal reading. The Bible doesn’t work according to those rules. And so it’ll be to the issue of rules for controlling the reading of the Bible that we turn to next.