Natural Reading

Those of us involved in the debate about evolution are often amazed at how little impact the enormous evidence for evolution has on anti-evolutionists. Each piece of positive evidence is treated in isolation and belittled, while every open question is treated as proof of the demise of evolution. Positive scientific evidence for special creation is absent, yet every perceived weakness of the theory of evolution is regarded as positive evidence for special creation. There is a reason for this, which will not come as a surprise to most readers of The Panda’s Thumb, but I want to say it again as part of the foundation for what I am about to write. The issue from the creationist point of view is really religious and not scientific, and this is true whether one is advocating young earth or old earth creationism, or even intelligent design. If we did not have a story of creation in the sacred literature of the dominant religious tradition in America, and if that story was not being taken as some sort of scientific evidence, the debate would not be between special creation and evolution, but rather would be between the dominant understanding of evolution and various modifications that might be made to it.

Further, the status of the evidence provided by the Bible is elevated above that of scientific evidence.

We are told that the Bible must be true, and the Bible says that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago in six literal days. I recall an ad on the bulletin board at my graduate school, offering grants to anyone who would do scientific research to “demonstrate that the earth is about 6,000 years old.” Anyone can find plenty of similar statements or offers; this one was not unique. The conclusion has been reached, now the research must be done to establish that the conclusion is true. Framed in this way, the actions of anti-evolutionists constitute an attack on science and the scientific method.

Let me note for the record that while I do believe the Bible has value, even great value, that value is not as scientific evidence, and further that there is no need to discuss any other value in connection with the creationism controversy. If the Bible is not valid scientific evidence, then it should not be used to support (supposedly) scientific statements. I could make a similar statement about The Lord of the Rings, and nobody would suppose that I was denying that the books have literary value. With the Bible, however, people tend to think that I am denying all value because I am denying scientific value. Philosophical, literary, historical, spiritual and any other sorts of value are simply not of concern here.

But the question is whether the Bible can justifiably be used in this fashion. Very often those supporting the scientific approach simply assume that the Bible does, in fact, say all these things and does provide a basis for people to believe what they do, and that the only option is to prove that science is better than people’s sacred book. I’m going to suggest several things:

  • That the basis for the creationist position in all its forms is the Bible, and only the Bible
  • That the supposed plain text or “natural” reading of the Bible done by modern Christians is anything but natural
  • That the use of the Bible in this fashion constitutes a misuse of the literature involved (and I will define what I mean by misuse)
  • That there is no sense in which the Bible can be treated as a source of scientific information-none of its various authors attempt to address scientific issues, and this is clear from the way they write
  • That the Bible is set in its cultural world, and is written based on the common cosmology in the ancient near east in broad outlines, and nowhere challenges this

Now each of these items could constitute at least a full entry on its own, but I think I can survey these issues in an adequate way here and in my referenced essays.

I grew up in the young earth creationist movement and regularly read creationist literature. It never occurred to me that the young earth view had any other basis than the Biblical story. It also never occurred to me that I could understand Genesis in any way other than as a form of narrative history until I began studying ancient near eastern literature in a broader way. (By narrative history I refer to telling a story in which the author intends to convey a series of events in some sort of orderly way including some sense of chronology. The first 11 chapters of Genesis are generally taken as narrative history by young earth creationists. While old earth creationists tend to take various elements of the story non-literally, such as seeing the days as representative of longer periods of time, they also look for factual and chronological information, that not only gives a general idea that creation took place, but also specific events and even scientific ideas.)

I was used to this Biblical and scriptural basis being openly acknowledged. For example, from the cover flap of the book

Genesis and Science

by Harold W. Clark, one of the books from my youth that has managed to hang around my library:

Professor Clark regards the Old Testament Book of Genesis as hisotry; as history, Genesis is basic to a proper comprehension of both biology and geology.

Though I note this is from the cover flap, I believe it is not an unfair characterization of Dr. Clark’s position, and one amply justified by his writing within the book.

With the advent of “scientific creationism” we were presented with a different approach to the argument. This approach suggested that true science would prove creation, and that creationism could be taught as a scientific theory, even without reference to its religious base. Efforts thus far to do so have been dismal. See, for example, my review of What is Creation Science?. In all cases, it has been easy even for the non-expert to trace the religious origins of the system of belief, and to realize that there was no coherent theory being presented.

Recently, Kurt Wise, in his book Faith, Form, and Time (link is to my review) has acknowledged and even focused on this particular aspect. I find Dr. Wise’s book refreshing in the one sense, because he thoroughly acknowledges and even celebrates the religious basis of young age (his term) creationism. On the other hand, I find it somewhat depressing, because of the style of scriptural interpretation that he advocates, followed by his determination that scripture must be above physical evidence:

Dr. Kurt Wise wrote:

The Bible is preserved, reliable, and true because of the nature of its Author. It should be believed over observation and evidence.

Faith, Form, and Time, page 26

This by itself clearly begs the question of how one understands the Bible, and how one determines what it is evidence of. But Dr. Wise does not beg the question in his book. He enunciates a very clear and simple approach to understanding the Bible, and then uses this as the basis for his model for creation. In fact, much of his book Faith, Form, and Time is largely setting the stage for creating a model for creation that is built on the Bible. I welcome this openness in claiming the actual basis for creationism, but at the same time I think it provides an opportunity to examine these methods.

Briefly, referencing pages 17-19, the method includes:

  • Consistency, based on the assumption of a single author for scripture
  • Context, understanding each element both in its own context and in the context of the whole of scripture
  • Language study, based on the fact that though he regards the Bible as divinely inspired he acknowledges that is uses human language
  • Authorial intent, which to Dr. Wise constitutes God’s intent > God had intent in authoring it, and He created man to understand this intent.

Dr. Wise contrasts this with post-modernism, but he would do better to contrast it with more the historical-critical method which also assumes that the text means something. The question is what it does mean. Let’s briefly look at these individual items and then focus in on the key assumption.

  • Whether or not one believes the Bible was inspired by God, it is evident that it was written by a number of authors, and that at a minimum there are differences in personality, style and emphasis amongst these authors. I would argue that the differences are more substantial, but that is not necessary here.
  • Placing something in a context other than that which the author intended can completely change the meaning of a text. If we assume that the Bible was written by one author we might well change the meaning of one text in order to make it consistent when the original intent was not. One must examine a text and let it speak if one accepts authorial intent.
  • Language study is, of course, important, but one must extend this to understanding the cosmology and symbolism of the cultures. Doing this will likely change one’s view of the meaning of a passage, especially when the source culture is substantially different than one’s own.
  • Authorial intent is critical however, and here is where the method outlined by Dr. Wise fails. Without understanding the background of an author and the assumptions of his audience, it will be very difficult to extract a natural meaning. In fact, one may consider a meaning to be “natural” that would be totally foreign to the author.

The key statement of Dr. Wise’s approach is this:

Kurt P. Wise wrote:

The straightforward (or natural) understanding of Scripture is to be preferred over any other understanding (p. 18).

But what is the natural reading? Dr. Wise assumes that reading Genesis as essentially a historical is the most natural reading. He calls God the only eyewitness with the clear implication (developed further throughout the book) that the Bible constitutes or at least includes God’s eyewitness testimony about origins.

Kurt P. Wise wrote:

. . . Since He is truth and is uncompromised by sin, God is not only the sole eyewitness of the past, but He is also the only fully reliable witness. (page 5)

He further emphasizes that the Bible (eyewitness testimony from God) is the basis of his creation model, and that this makes up for the holes in the available theory of young age creation. Because the Bible seems to suggest young age and special creation, according to Dr. Wise’s “natural” reading, and because there are still questions about some of the scientific theories, we can be certain that the young age model is true. We just have to fill in the details.

Kurt P. Wise wrote:

Certainly, the young-age creation model needs to be developed a lot more in order to reinterpret adequately the age-dating methods that exist. Studies are neede in astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, atmosphrics, climatology, and even biology. Despite the incompleteness of the creation model, however, the inconsistencies with old-age indicators provide encouragement, while the claims of Scripture convince us of the truth. (page 68, emphasis mine)

Implicit in this view is that there is substantial evidence for evolution, and indeed Dr. Wise acknowledges some evidence for it, but that we should determine what we actually believe from the testimony of the Bible, understood according to a natural reading. Repeatedly in his book, Dr. Wise acknowledges large gaps in the necessary research for a scientific theory of creation, but because of his understanding of the Bible, he assumes that these gaps will eventually be filled. This kind of hopeful (or could I say wishful?) thinking is particularly obvious in chapter 12 (pp. 170-176, “The Antediluvian World”). Here Dr. Wise explains that since the dinosaurs are never buried with humans and other modern mammals, they must have lived somewhere else, and since there is a river that flows out of the Garden of Eden, it must be at high altitude (and one must assume that the human population stayed near that point, and that the dinosaurs then lived at a lower altitude, thus being buried first by the flood (pp 173-174). He also concludes that there must be a genetic change that occurred over time to reduce the lifespan of humans (pp 175-176). I note these details to illustrate the level of scientific detail that is expected of the Biblical account. Biologists will likely find chapter 8 (“After Their Kind”) similarly interesting with the discussion of baraminology. The efforts required to make scientific sense of the phrase “after its kind” is enlightening in its complexity. God (the author, according to Wise) was either incompetent–or he was not trying to make any sort of scientific statement.

From my personal experience I can confirm that many, many people take essentially this approach to scripture, or simply absorb their understanding from Biblical teachers and preachers who do. This is the difficulty involved in the debate about creation and evolution. If someone has decided that a deity who is both omnipotent and omniscient has expressed himself on scientific issues, it will truly be difficult for mere scientists to compete.

I have already suggested that there’s a clear problem with the idea that God is the author of the Bible in a direct sense. The answer to this is: Read the Bible. It is written in different styles and literary genres, by authors with different theologies, personalities and cultural backgrounds. I will likely write on this later.

But here let’s examine the idea of a natural reading. I would suggest as a standard approach that we should look first at the culture and understanding of the surrounding culture involved in producing a piece of literature in order to understand it. If everything involved in the literature can be explained clearly in terms of that understanding, no further explanation is necessary, nor should one be sought. The great variety of scientific understandings that have resulted from interpretations of Genesis 1 that assume it makes scientific statements suggest that there is some problem with them. This problem is simply that the text was written in the context of an ancient near eastern cosmology, and it can be easily understood in those terms. I have recently posted a translation of Genesis 1 and 2 on my web site. The translation is annotated with some of the cosmological issues involved, and is coded with the structural elements and the sources involved in the text.

Let me comment here on one point: “After its/their kind.” Understood in the context of the time, this statement can (and should) be understood as a simple statement of observation. It is not the result of observing fossils, or of observing multiple generations of bacteria–there were no microscopes and thus no understanding of microscopic life. What was understood was that offspring resembled parents. To read anything else into this statement is to make it cover more ground that it actually covers in its statements.

The problem with the “natural reading” is that a reading by Dr. Kurt Wise (Harvard graduate in the 20th century) would simply not be anything like natural to those who first heard the story, nor to those who first told it, wrote it, and then edited the various sources in the book we now call Genesis in the collection we call the Bible.

(I know that many are waiting for me to comment on Intelligent Design, and I intend to do so, but I’m collecting some additional material.)