Biblical liteeralism – a reaction to science

My last post was about how in my opinion the liberal church with its sceptical approach to the bible, found it hard to articulate any positive reasons for same sex marriage.

That is made all the harder by the fact that the sceptical (again for want of a better word) methodology of critiquing the bible is so clearly a very new thing – something which already feels pretty old hat to me.

But I want to make clear that it’s counterpart along the “biblical criticism spectrum” if there is such a thing, is literalism – a methodology which promotes taking the bible as literally true, so that it is generally seen as without error.

The result of that approach is that the bible is “democratised” – you don’t need to be a historian or a scholar to understand the Bible. But at the same time, it’s claim of being literally true was so outrageous that it only worked when the questions we asked of the bible were very limited.

This part of literalism certainly has its roots in the reformation. But I’d like to suggest that literalism as we see it today is also as new as scepticism of the bible – and it is a pattern of reading the bible which has had its day.

Forgive the circuitous route around this topic, but I feel it’s important to get the historical perspective on this one. The huge disadvantage of biblical literalism is that it has given so much ground to atheism, but pulling up the drawbridge which enabled science and religion to ask robust questions of the bible.

The Bible is not literally true in every sense of that term. For example, it contains factual errors:

In Matthew it says Joseph was the son of Jacob – in Luke it says he was the son of Eli.

In Matthew it says in the passion narrative “as was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet” But it is in fact from Zechariah

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascended into heaven on the same day as the resurrection. But in the Acts, written by the same person, it was after forty days.

There are many wearisome examples of this, and I have heard before ministers and clergy seeking to amend these errors by suggesting that, for example, Jeremiah had indeed said the words which are now in Zechariah, but they weren’t written down. Others I know have had Jesus ascending and then descending again like a yo-yo in order to make both versions of Luke’s account “true”.

Now it’s not as though these discrepancies were unknown by the great biblical scholars of old – Origen, Jerome, Luther, all were aware of these and other “errors”. But they were perfectly at ease with them, which suggests that whatever is happening in literalism today is different from the methodology which they used before.

The best example of this is the one which divides the churches more in America than here – the “young earth” creation.

Now the church has believed that the earth was several thousand years old since before 1684 – which is when Archsbishop Usher, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, calculated the length of years of the patriarchs, and added them up, and came to a guess of as to when God kicked things off – which was, for your interest, about 6pm on the 22nd October, in the year 4004BC. So by that reckoning the world is six thousand and twenty years old this year.

Interestingly, the attempt to calculate the date of the earth was attempted several times before by what we would now call scientists (that word wasn’t invented until 1890s), and it’s interesting to see the difference between Usher’s calculation and that of the scientist Isaac Newton, and also of the astronomer Keplar. Newton thought that rather than beginning six thousand and twenty years ago, the earth was created Six thousand and sixteen years ago. And for Keplar, we would be celebrating the earth’s six thousand and eighth birthday.

You see they lived in a newly scientific age, and they were using the tools at their disposal to ask questions which had never been asked before. And when science, or natural philosophy came up with new understandings of the world, bible, that date changed – changed among clergy and Christians as well as scientists – who were also, on the whole, Christians, and very often clergy.

The date of Usher was challenged as early as 1837 by William Whehel, who was an Anglican priest, who was involved in the then fairly new science of Archeology.

It was further challenged by Benjamin Warfield, a Presbyterian American minister in 1870.

It was challenged further by the Presbyterian American Minister William Henry Green in 1890.

By the time of the great Darwin debate – that famous event at Oxford between Huxley and Wilberforce in 1860, the issue was not, and I repeat, was NOT about the age of the earth – that was settled in the minds of most scientists on either hundreds of thousands or years, or millions of years. And the disparity between various estimates was not based on science versus religion, but on scientific arguments versus other scientific arguments.

The issue concerning that debate was not even specifically about evolution as such. By that time Jean-Baptiste Lanark’s theory of evolution, in the form of “rising complexity” had been largely accepted by most scientists in Oxford (although again, they were referred to not as scientists, but as “natural philosophers”). And most scientists in Oxford were clergy.

The issue was not about evolution. It was about the idea of “by means of natural selection”. Which was at issue.

Even then, the arguments from the “clergy” – which were in fact arguments from Bishop Sam Wilberforce, who was there not as a Bishop but as a scientist, were not about the Bible verses science. It was entirely on scientific grounds that he criticized Darwin – largely supporting Lanark’s views. He argued, for instance, that species tend to revert to type after many generations of selective breeding, which mitigates against Darwin’s view of natural selection.

There’s no need to go deeper into that particular debate, but suffice it to say that there was very little noise about evolution, or the age of the earth contradicting the bible in those days. Those became the issues, and in a way that debate became the “creation narrative” of atheism – but like many creation narratives, it’s historical foundations are very dodgy.

As I said, biblical literalism had taken rise before this time, with Luther and the Reformation, but that sort of biblical literalism had been of a very different order. Luther believed that the source of our thoughts about God should be scripture alone, rather than the wisdom and interpretation of the church fathers, who had constructed a very rigid form of religion.

Jean Calvin, who died 1564, did believe the world was created in six days, but only after a fashion. In his commentary on Genesis, Calvin spoke a good deal about God’s accommodation to us – and by that he means how God speaks in if you like, baby language, so that we can understand him. He eventually reaffirms that the world was created in six days, but he also says “for god, one moment is a thousand years”.

Here are some very telling quotations from his commentary entitled “ethics and the common life” .

“..Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labour whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them…

“Moses did not wish to keep us from such study when he omitted the scientific details. But since he had been appointed a guide of unlearned men rather than of the learned, he could not fulfill his duty except by coming down to their level. If he had spoken of matters unknown to the crowd, the unlearned could say that his teaching was over their heads. In fact, when the spirit of God opens a common school for all, it is not strange that he chooses to teach especially what can be understood by all.

“When the astronomer seeks the true size of stars and finds the moon smaller than Saturn, he gives us specialized knowledge. But the eye sees things differently, and Moses adapts himself to the ordinary view.

Now that doesn’t sound like the sort of literalism whose extremes are presented to us today.

And going back even further than Calvin, back to Augustine, we find that the idea of the six day creation is largely rejected as being simply allegorical.

I love Augustine. He’s so clever I’ve a bit of a man-crush on him. He died 430AD, waay before the evolution debate, or the beginning of what we would call science. He wrote a commentary called the “literal meaning of Genesis” – and by literal he meant “what did the author mean” rather than the more simplistic reading of literal we have today.

In it he concluded that Creation happened in a single moment. Not every individual thing – as in not every plant and tree, but all the matter necessary for God to create everything – including time itself, happened in an instant.

Just let that sink in. All the material which exists in the universe happened in an instant – if you like – in a big bang. Augustine thought of that in the fourth century.

The scientific big bang theory was devised in 1927. So scientists climbed that particular mountain, and found when they got to the summit, that St Augustine had been sitting there for fifteen hundred years.

But St Augustine also wrote this, and let me quote his “literal meaning of Genesis”.

“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, by one who is not a Christian. It is disgraceful and ruinous, and greatly to be avoided, that the non-Christian should hear a Christian speaking so foolishly (idiotically) on these matters…

For that reason, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters of the physical universe in our books, that seems to be at variance with his own observations, let it be said that it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.”

So what he means there is that if there is something in our bible which clashes with scientific fact, then we should not conclude that science is wrong, but that the bible is not intending to teach us something about science, it is intending to teach us something about God.

Augustine’s method of biblical interpretation was the four-fold version which held good until even after the Reformation –

Literal – ie what did the author intend to tell us?

Analogical – ie what in the scriptures is analogous to God – what does it tell us about God?

Anagogical – ie What it tells us about eschatology, or about heaven – what does it teach us to hope for?

And Moral, or Tropological – ie what it teaches us as to the moral purpose of the scriptures – what it motivates us to do, or how to behave.

There was even a handy rhyme:

Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria, Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.

The literal speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

It’s more or less my own method too. It’s damn good, and there’s a reason it lasted 1500 years or so.

So when and why did this new form of literalism come in? Ironically enough it evolved from the literalism of the protestant reformers, but the more extreme iteration, as far as I can tell, came from America in the 1870s and beyond – based at that country was on a diet of (amongst other things) puritanism and pietism.

IN 1845, more than half of America was still unexplored – officially some of it belonged to Spain although no Spaniard had ever been there, and some parts to Russia and Britain, and Mexico was of course a lot bigger than it is today, but there was still a vast swathe of land, about as big as mainland Europe, called the “unclaimed territory”. Within 30 years, there wasn’t one bit of land which wasn’t owned by someone.

And as you can imagine they were wild indeed – morals and patterns of life were extreme, both religion and lack of it. This was the time of the rise of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, Jehova’s witnesses, of millennial cults, and a huge variety of religious practices.

Religious belief, in the free market that was America, became cultural, tribal even, and doctrine was housed in a sort of pseudo-scientific law. We looked to the natural world for scientific laws, we looked to the bible for religious laws. And where there was a conflict, in this brave new world, many thousands of miles from scientific experiments, but within reach of the newspaper headlines, then the religious belief and fervour won out.

It had its place in shaping isolated communities in difficult and harsh environments. It bound together people to exercise compassion for one another. It enabled people to find a new identity for themselves. But it also caused the rise of what became fundamentalism, and the separating of religion from culture and science in a way which had not happened before.

As I say, this form of literalism is not all that common in our Anglican church, and far less common in Britain than in America. But like scepticism, it’s time has gone, and it needs to go soon. At its worst, it becomes not a tool to discern God’s will, but a way of weaponising the bible against perceived enemies – and in doing so limiting which of God’s gifts we can bring to the bible. Which in a way is burying your talents.

It’s worst sin, I think, it that it makes it very very hard to say anything about God which has not been said within the pages of scripture. In short, it makes new prophesy almost impossible




About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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