Is all interpretation created equal?
Published: 28 June 2011(GMT+10)
The January 2011 issue of the U.S. Airways in-flight magazine promoted a book entitled Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis, by John R. Coats. It was heralded as a ‘must read.’ In this work, Coats invited his readers to view the Bible through his interpretation of it.
What one finds interesting is Coats’s use of the word ‘interpretation’ in the subtitle. It has become common to view such a word as rather benign and many would say that Coats has every right to interpret the Bible as he sees fit. But does he?
Biblical ‘interpretation’ needs context for not all interpretation is created equal.
The goal of a responsible reader of the Bible is to discover the plain meaning of the text (Ephesians 5:10). The Christian should interpret Scripture through a discerning spirit of obedience and humility. A correct understanding of His work is what we are trying to achieve, and we recognize that our own interpretations can be flawed because we are flawed. This subservient approach to the Scriptures can be called a God-fearing interpretational approach because it places the goal of truly understanding the Almighty God at the summit which we are trying to reach.
The Christian should interpret Scripture through a discerning spirit of obedience and humility.
However, the broader society of our modern world has adopted, by and large, a postmodern view of life. To the postmodernist truth is relative to whatever the individual wishes it to be. This mindset destroys any instructional or authoritative message the text has for an individual.
The spoken or written word no longer is used to convey a precise meaning from the speaker or author, but rather, it allows the hearer or the reader to determine the meaning of someone else’s message. This method has become a worldly interpretational approach where the consumer of the information is the one who gives the meaning to the information.
Through worldly interpretation, the postmodernist can read the Bible and establish a new purpose for it and disregard its claims of being the divine Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). The postmodernists can simply change for themselves what they want the Bible to be. This is what Coats appears to have done despite the fact that every New Testament author and Jesus Himself believed Genesis to be an accurate record of History.
He provides a backdrop to his story that helps us understand how he reached his conclusions, and I really think his story has wide application to the church today.
As a young Southern Baptist boy, he had many questions about the Bible, but his questions were met with disdain. He writes:
“So it was more from curiosity than rebelliousness that I began to ask questions. It seems I asked too many of them and of the wrong sort as I was expelled and sent home with a note that read, ‘Johnny can come back to Sunday school when he stops asking so many questions.’ With orders from my mother to keep my mouth shut, I was allowed back the following Sunday. But I never quite returned. As the years passed, I continued to separate from the idea of the Bible’s literal truth until, finally, I put it away”.
Biblical ‘interpretation’ needs context for not all interpretation is created equal.
Evidently, his family and church were unable to provide answers to his childhood questions. Those entrusted with his development failed to obey the Bible’s command to always be prepared to give an answer to those who would question the faith (see 1 Peter 3:15).
Unfortunately, Coats, in the excerpt, did not go into detail about the questions he had as a child that went unanswered. Experience has taught us here at CMI, that more than likely many of his questions could have been readily answered if people had just been equipped (See The Creation Answers Book for answers to commonly asked questions). But most regrettably, according to his own testimony, Coats was never given what he craved: answers. This spiritual malnutrition shaped his entire life.
Now, as an adult, he does confess a doubt that he has. He may not be so certain that Abraham was actually real, as the Abraham in the Bible is said to be. He left this up in the air, as if it didn’t matter. To give validity to his point, he cites a second-hand source of an unnamed 93-year-old archaeologist who said that Abraham was only known through the records of the Bible. It is thereby insinuated that if there was not an external evidence of Abraham, then it is likely he was only a biblical character who was not based in solid fact.
But such a claim is simply not true. Not only does the great historian Flavius Josephus write in depth about Abraham, but Josephus also cites other historians who do as well; Berosus, Hecataeus, and Nicolaus of Damascus all recorded events from Abraham’s life.1
Coats further gives the Bible no respect in terms of historical factuality. He states unequivocally that he does not believe in the Garden of Eden, Adam or Eve, Cain or Abel. And he treats this matter of biblical historicity (or lack of it) as a closed matter that has been resolved in his favor. But again, this is not true.
The well-regarded archaeologist Nelson Glueck stated that:
“It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”2
Archeology has also confirmed the war of four kings vs. five, which is recorded in Genesis chapter 14, and involved Lot and Abram.3
Whether Coats is unaware of the evidence, one cannot know. But this lack of information, his lack of answers, changed how he viewed the Bible.
He discussed how his reading of Scripture shifted and his perspective went from believing the Bible as historical truth to being better understood as metaphor.
He then further migrated and said that the Bible, as a metaphor, was no longer an admonishment about right and wrong. One of those literary moments was this poignant statement in particular:
“And as a metaphor, it [Bible] loses all purchase as a measure of one’s goodness or badness, loses its tyranny.”
As a metaphor to be interpreted by Coats, the Bible no longer is a divine revelation teaching humanity of our sin before a just and holy God. Not to mention, we see a slight tip of the hand. Perhaps, descending deeper than his lack of answers, we find the foundation of his rejection rooted in what he calls “tyranny,” which can only be his feelings of being accountable for sin before a Judge. This shows that one cannot simply reject the historical details without damaging one’s view of the Bible’s reliability in theological and ethical areas. As Jesus said, “If I have told you of earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
But Coats does not reject the notion that humanity has character flaws that need improvement. He cites openly that the Bible can teach us lessons of the evils of jealousy, greed and envy, and that in the stories of the fictional characters, we can find glimpses of ourselves.
However, employing the power of worldly interpretation, one does not have to recognize that our sins are actually against God. Scriptures become muddied with metaphor and the Bible becomes nothing more than a self-help book recast in the image of anyone who reads it.
He gives his readers an invitation to ‘live inside the metaphor’, and no doubt many will. For under these postmodern parameters the person never has to deal with sin before God, and the prospect of needing a savior.
The tragedy that we find is that, according to Coats, this journey started because his family and church could not answer some questions about the Bible.
This is a perfect example of why Creation Ministries International exists. We give answers to those questions of a young and old John R. Coats. We equip the family, Church, and Sunday school teacher with the information to stand firm on the Word of God. We demonstrate that the Bible is the literal history of the world and it can be effectively defended in its true historicity.
If your church would like to have a CMI speaker attend your service and help equip your congregation with the answers that an increasingly secular community is asking please click here. For the US only click Request a speaker.
- Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 1.7.2, Josephus, The Completed Works, Nelson, p. 44, 1998. Return to text.
- Nelson Glueck (Archaeologist), Rivers in the Desert: History of Negev, 1969. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J. “Should we trust the Bible?”, Creation, 33(1):32–36 (p. 35), 2010. Return to text.