Taking the Bible seriously?
Published: 6 July 2014 (GMT+10)
A portion of The Great Isaiah Scroll.
This week’s feedback is a response to a critic whose real authority seems to be secular uniformitarian ‘science’. However, he also uses a common line from evolution-friendly theological colleges that hope to be considered ‘evangelical’: taking the Bible ‘seriously’ but not ‘literally’. Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds.
Dear Sir or Madam,
I wish to object strongly to your ministries’ representation of the Bible’s recount of creation in Genesis as a valid scientific alternative to mainstream cosmology, geology and biology.
As a Christian I take seriously the task of reading the Bible. Seriously, but not ‘literally’. It is significant on this first Sunday in Lent (9th Mar) the lectionary readings for the temptations of Christ include passages from Genesis about Adam and Eve’s temptation. Serious exegesis leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the human duty to resist temptation while a pilgrim on the way to the Cross at the end of Easter. The details of the type of fruit or serpent or the alleged dimensions and location of Eden are not important.
As an enthusiastic astronomer and physicist I also perfectly accept that the universe is 13.8 billion years old and the Earth 4.6 billion. Evolution occurs, just as our understanding of science and the Gospel does.
Dear Mr G.
Thank you for writing to CMI. My answers are interspersed with yours.
I wish to object strongly to your ministries’ representation of the Bible’s recount of creation in Genesis as a valid scientific alternative to mainstream cosmology, geology and biology.
Objection noted, but we have no intention of changing. For one thing, you have not in the slightest shown that it’s an invalid scientific alternative or that the current mainstream is right. I refer you to Michael Crichton on consensus science, where he points out that science is not decided by mainstream opinion but evidence. Also, while our Journal of Creation is peer-reviewed, peer review can tend to protect the consensus even to the point of admitting faulty data and blocking good science, as we document in Creationism, Science and Peer Review. Even the secular journal The Economist has picked up on this a few months ago in How science goes wrong: Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself:
The hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested.
As a Christian I take seriously the task of reading the Bible.
As you should. A follower of Christ should follow His example of taking Scripture seriously: indeed, He said, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) (see The authority of Scripture). Further, He believed in a young earth, and in other parts of Scripture most scoffed at today. So why do you disagree with Him?
Photo Dr Clifford Wilson
A Babylonian tablet fragment found at Nippur, an ancient Babylonian site in the same general location that Abraham came from. The area outlined in black is a record about the Flood. There are more than 300 known records of the Flood world-wide, with about 30 of them in writing. Some are remarkably close in their details to the original—the biblical account.
Seriously, but not ‘literally’.
Actually, the ‘serious’ way to take it is governed by two principles:
- Recognize Scripture as ‘God-breathed’ (θεόπνευστος theopneustos, 2 Timothy 3:16), not merely the work of its human authors. God moved (literally ‘carried along’) the writers of Scripture so that they recorded exactly what He wanted. However, God did not usually dictate the words, but superintended the authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they recorded His revelation without error (2 Peter 1:20–21). Otherwise, why bother to take it seriously?
- The true meaning of Scripture is the meaning the original readership would have understood by the words the inspired authors used. Note that this doesn’t concern itself with the ‘original intent’ of the author, which can raise the question of how we can know what a dead author intended. Rather, this is about the original meaning of the words he chose, according to the grammatical and historical context. Hence this is often called the grammatical-historical approach to Scripture, and is analogous to the ‘originalist’ or ‘textualist’ approach to US constitutional law. That is, even if we don’t know the intent of the writer of the law, we can know what the words meant to those who voted on them and to the people of the time. This has been explained many times, including the classic Should Genesis be taken literally?
As for the term ‘literally’, you seem to be using it to mean ‘woodenly literalistic’, denying any figurative language even when the text teaches it. In contrast, medieval and patristic interpreters used the term ‘literal’ to mean the grammatical-historical understanding, which could include a figurative meaning if that’s what the text taught. Thus to them, the ‘literal’ meaning of the ‘the windows of the heavens were opened’ (Genesis 7:11) would include its metaphorical usage for a massive rainfall. Rather, the ‘literal’ meaning was contrasted with a spiritualized or mystical meaning not grounded in the text.1,2 And later, the great Reformer and Bible translator William Tyndale (1494–1536) affirmed the same:
Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is but the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way. Nevertheless, the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.3
It is significant on this first Sunday in Lent (9th Mar) the lectionary readings for the temptations of Christ include passages from Genesis about Adam and Eve’s temptation.
That is indeed significant—precisely because the Bible regards this temptation as a real event. In two very significant passages in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul contrasts the sin of “the first man, Adam”, which brought death, with the righteousness of Jesus, “the second man” and “the last Adam”, who brought Resurrection from the dead. See our classic article First Adam—Last Adam: Both are vital to the Gospel … but exactly how? as well as deeper exegetical articles by a New Testament specialist: Romans 5:12–21: Paul’s view of literal Adam and Christ as the last Adam: Paul’s use of the Creation narrative in 1 Corinthians 15. Indeed, the Bible repeatedly links death with sin: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), but your long-age dogma places death, both human and animal, before sin, thus disconnecting the biblical sin-death link. But if there is no connection between death and sin, then how could Christ’s death pay for our sin? See also The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe.
Serious exegesis leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the human duty to resist temptation while a pilgrim on the way to the Cross at the end of Easter.
Indeed it does. But the very reason it leads to this is that Adam and Eve are the real ancestors of us all, and their sin nature is imputed to (credited to the account of) us, their descendants. However, one descendant of Adam did not inherit original sin: Jesus Christ. The prophet Isaiah foretold this coming Saviour as literally the ‘Kinsman-Redeemer’, i.e. one who is related by blood to those he redeems (Isaiah 59:20, which uses the same Hebrew word גּוֹאֵל (gôēl) as is used to describe Boaz in relation to Naomi in Ruth 2:20, 3:1–4:17). This is possible only because this Saviour is a physical descendant of the first man Adam via Mary (Luke 3:38)—and is called ‘the Last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45)—which makes him the relative of all humans in all ‘races’ or people groups who have ever existed. Thus theistic evolution doesn’t just undermine Genesis and a literal Adam, but jeopardizes this vital Kinsman-Redeemer concept as well. Believers in Christ, our Kinsman-Redeemer, are saved because our sins were corporately imputed (credited) to His account (Isaiah 53:6) when He was on the cross. And His perfect righteousness was imputed to believers in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). See also The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?
The details of the type of fruit or serpent or the alleged dimensions and location of Eden are not important.
We are not told by what authority you get to decide which parts of God-breathed Scripture are not important. But this is a red herring anyway. We actually are not told details of the fruit or the location of Eden, but there was still a real fruit and a real garden. This is important to understand the future. E.g. in two famous passages, Isaiah 11:6–9 and Isaiah 65:25, the prophet clearly understood the Edenic conditions of Genesis 1:30 as real history, and used them to teach about a future with equally harmonious animals, such as the wolf and the lamb, lion and the calf. Then he says “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” unlike the current “Nature red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) that we see in this fallen world (see also The carnivorous nature and suffering of animals and Why would a loving God allow death and suffering?). Irish biblical scholar Alec Motyer, former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, expands on the Edenic connection of the first passage:
There is an ‘Edenic’ element in Isaiah’s thinking … the life of nature itself is transformed. Verses 6–8 offer three facets of the renewed creation and verse 9 is a concluding summary. First, in verse 6 there is the reconciliation of old hostilities, the allaying of old fears; predators (wolf, leopard, lion) and prey (lamb, goat, calf, yearling) are reconciled. So secure is this peace that a youngster can exercise the dominion originally given to humankind. Secondly, in verse 7 there is a change of nature within the beasts themselves: cow and bear eat the same food, as do lion and ox. There is also a change in the very order of things itself: the herbivoral nature of all the creatures points to Eden restored (Gn. 1:29–30). Thirdly, in verse 8 the curse is removed. The enmity between the woman’s seed and the serpent is gone (Gn. 3:15ab). Infant and ‘weaned child’ have nothing to fear from cobra and viper. Finally, in verse 9 the coming Eden is Mount Zion—a Zion which fills the whole earth. Peace (9a), holiness (9b), and “knowing the Lord” (9c) pervades all.4
The end of the Book of Revelation comes around to a future state even better than Eden, lacking any possibility of sin, but with some of its features: the Tree of Life, no death, crying, or pain, because the Curse would be abolished. Indeed, the whole point is the restoration of something that was lost, but under your long-age dogma, never existed. So what do you hope the creation to be restored to? Millions of years of more death and suffering? Randy Alcorn puts it like this:
God has never given up on his original creation. Yet somehow we’ve managed to overlook an entire biblical vocabulary that makes this point clear. Redeem. Restore. Recover. Return. Renew. Resurrect. Each of these biblical words begins with the re- prefix, suggesting a return to an original condition that was ruined or lost. God always sees us in light of what He intended us to be, and He always seeks to restore us to that design. Likewise, He sees the earth in terms of what he intended it to be, and he seeks to restore it to its original design.
As an enthusiastic astronomer and physicist I also perfectly accept that the universe is 13.8 billion years old and the Earth 4.6 billion.
As an enthusiastic Ph.D. physical chemist, I disagree, as do physicist and cosmogonist Dr John Hartnett, physicist Dr Russell Humphreys, astrophysicist and black hole expert Dr Markus Blietz, and nuclear physicist Dr Jim Mason. The baneful effects of long-age dogma on Christian theology are explained above, but the dogma also fails the scientific test—see Age of the earth: 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe.
A blanket statement without defining terms. Yes, there is change, even variation and speciation, as opposed to the ‘fixity of species’ dogma of the old-age propagandist Charles Lyell, Darwin’s mentor and foil. However, the dispute is about the real general theory of evolution aka from goo to you via the zoo, which requires huge increases in information content (see The evolution train’s a-comin’ (Sorry, a-goin’—in the wrong direction)).
just as our understanding of science and the Gospel does.
If the Gospel is really ‘evolving’, one must wonder how it resembles the one revealed in Scripture, or is it a “different gospel” that Paul anathematized (Galatians 1:8)? Consistent evolution really does lead to a “different gospel”, disconnected from its connection to Adam and sin. I’ve explained the baneful consequences of evolution appeasement before. It has also led to a downplaying of biblical morality, including support for ‘gay marriage’ by a former lecturer from the once sound Moore College, now a bastion of theistic evolution—see Gay ‘marriage’ and the consistent outcome of Genesis compromise.
I hope this explains our position. Bottom line: we focus on Biblical authority, while the young-earth position is just a corollary of this, i.e. it follows logically from the propositions of Scripture. However, you could easily have found this out for yourself, and more since our website has over 9,000 articles. Too many critics of biblical creation fail to pay us the courtesy they would expect for themselves: that is, find out what our real position is and the reasons we hold it.
Dr Jonathan Sarfati
Head scientist, CMI–USA (formerly of CMI–Australia)
References and notes
- See also Nemetz, A., Literalness and the Sensus Litteralis, Speculum (A Journal of Medieval Studies) 34(1):76–89, 1959 | doi:10.2307/2847979. Return to text.
- See also Cosner, L. and Sarfati, J., Non-Christian philosopher clears up myths about Augustine and the term ‘literal’, J. Creation 27(2):9–10, 2013. Return to text.
- Tyndale, W.; cited in Packer, J.I., ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, pp. 101–114, 1958. Return to text.
- Motyer, A., The Prophecy of Isaiah, p. 124, 1993. Return to text.
Anthony N.: I have a quick question, but before I ask it let me just clarify that I do not have any faith whatsoever in Darwinism nor the traditional gap theory where Lucifer’s flood took place and there was a pre-Adam human existence and what not. None of that fits the biblical account.
Jonathan Sarfati responds: Quite a lot of questions there ;)
AN: However, what I have always been open to is the idea that the earth is billions of years old—in that God could have created the mass of the earth trillions of years ago, but began creating life on it around 6000 years ago. Thus, when rocks are dated to be billions of years old—perhaps they are—but God’s creation week was a literal 6 days, and it took place about 6000 years ago.
JS: This is just the old soft ‘gap idea’, which we have already refuted. The main problem is that these rocks contain fossils, which are remains of dead things. So if you grant billions of years to the rocks, you must grant them also to the living creatures that were buried in these rocks. And of course, this has the problem that death is placed before sin. See Did God create over billions of years? And why is it important?
AN: After all, the Bible seems to teach this. The account in Genesis implies that a lot of the pieces used for creation were already in place. It says that the earth was “formless and void and darkness was over the face of the deep” as if it had already existed …
JS: By Genesis 1:2, it did already exist—because God had just created it in Genesis 1:1!
AN:—but without life of course.
JS: ‘Of course’, but apparently with rocks containing what look like fossils but are not remains of once-living creatures.
AN: When he divides the water from the land, it is implied that both the land and the water already existed.
JS: Again, God had created them both: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” But you are seeing long time periods that are just not in the text.
AN: Also, a deeper reading into the ‘star creation’ shows that “He put the moon and the sun to shine with the stars” (emphasis added), therefore the stars were already in place—God just added the moon and the sun.
JS: Actually, Genesis 1:16 (ESV) says: “And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” This is how creation of the stars are described—very briefly (wə’êt hakkôkābîm הככבים ואת —kôkāb is star). Although the verb is not close, the wə’êt marks the stars as the object of the verb in this paragraph, “made” (wə = ‘and’; ’êt is the accusative particle that marks the object of the verb). So clearly stars are part of the Day 4 Creation.
The brevity of “and the stars” seems almost as an afterthought. That is, creating even these uncountably many enormous hot balls of gas was effortless for the Almighty Elohim! Also, unlike the sun and moon, they have no ruling function. This shows that we should not depend on them for our fates, but rather rely on the Creator of these stars. Nahum Sarna writes that the brief dismissal of the star’s creation is “a tacit repudiation of astrology.” [Sarna, N.M., Exodus, Jewish Publication Society Commentary series, p. 10, 1991.] Similarly, Victor Hamilton points out:
[T]he antimythical thrust of this section is indicated by the order in which the luminaries are listed: sun, moon, stars. This order contrasts with the order in Enuma elish, in which priority is given to the stars, following which Marduk organizes the calendar and fixes the polestar. Only then do the moon and sun (in that order) come into play … [Hamilton, V.P., The Book of Genesis, chapters 1–17, p. 128, 1990.]
AN: I have trouble buying the argument that everything in the entire universe was created in six days. I don’t feel that the Bible teaches this.
JS: That’s because feelings are an unreliable guide; there is no substitute for grammatical-historical exegesis of the propositions of Scripture.
AN:Did God really sit in darkness for an eternity?
JS: I addressed this argument in my book Refuting Compromise: A biblical and scientific refutation of ‘progressive creationism’ (billions of years) as popularized by astronomer Hugh Ross:
Ross claims (Creation and Time:52):
The brief span of terrestrial history (in context of the wisdom literature) seems like an inadequate metaphor for God’s eternality. The fact that the Bible does consider the antiquity of the earth as a suitable metaphor for God’s eternality suggests the biblical view of a very ancient earth.
For his illustration to make any sense, Ross must lapse into the view of eternity as an infinite time period. But then why should any time period be any better than another when compared with infinite time? Even a billion years would be a speck of time compared to this.
But in any case, as Augustine pointed out, and Ross has also rightly accepted elsewhere, God created the universe not in time but with time. That is, time itself is a created entity. (This is why predictions about the future, which is after all time yet to come, are no problem for the One who is the Creator of time itself.) But this means that eternity is not infinite time but a timeless state. So when eternity is understood correctly, as Ross does elsewhere, Ross’s argument collapses as an incoherent metaphor.
AN: Am I preaching to the choir here, or do you think me misguided as to my reading of Scripture? If so, I would like to learn.
JS: I hope the above helps.
I applaud the patience of everyone here at CMI, for continually answering these endlessly repeating, rehashed comments. Kudos to Dr. Sarfati for maintaining the gentleness and respect required as part of the defence of the faith. Why is it that few of these critics ever bother to sift through all the refutations that have already been published before writing their letters?
Is it laziness on their part, or is it, perhaps, that they are unwilling to study our side of the argument with seriousness, because they have already written it off as rubbish? Indeed, there is no one blinder than he who refuses to see.
May God continue to bless CMI and its ministry!
Too many critics of biblical creation fail to pay us the courtesy they would expect for themselves: that is, find out what our real position is and the reasons we hold it.
While I find the responses to these critics, by the likes of Dr Jonathan Sarfati, to be absolutely brilliant, I do wonder at the sincerity of those critics in their efforts to ‘convince’ YEC that they are wrong. As pointed out, their arguments are easily refuted and their exasperation at our ‘unreasonable" views should be easily tempered by simple research into “what our real position is and the reasons we hold it.” Such research will, quite clearly, show that evolution is not fact and that belief in billions of years, just as clearly, undermines the authority of scripture. These critics always fail to mount a solid argument as to how and why billions of years does not contradict and undermine Jesus’ authority and legitimacy. They always write it off by dismissing it as irrelevant without stating the authority by which they “get to decide which parts of God-breathed Scripture are not important.”
Yet another ‘keeper’ response from Dr Jonathan S. I’m going to use this response as a study for my homegroup. I have often thanked God for Dr Jonathan’s passion for truth and precise responses to critics of the truth. For me he is a type of St Paul’s character in so many ways, yet uniquely ours for this generation.
I find myself constantly frustrated that there are so many Christians who are willing to compromise the integrity of Scripture to make room for evolution. To me, it is abundantly obvious that the two worldviews are incompatible. I posted a link to your site on my Facebook feed and got exactly zero responses. The majority of my FB friends are Christians, and I very much wanted to share with them the plethora of information that you have provided that supports the Genesis creation story as historically and literally accurate. At the very least, the information provided in your pages illustrates the bias that is ever present in the atheistic and theistic evolutionist viewpoints, which in turn colors the interpretations of the evidence evaluated by the scientists with these viewpoints. I will continue to present the information I find here because I genuinely love the people on my FB friends list, and I want them to have the same level of confidence in Scripture and in the redemption gospel that I have. Thank you for making these articles available. I have always believed the Genesis account was true, and now I have evidence and arguments to support my position.
Dr Sarfati’s response receives my highest accolades for him taking the time to respond in such detail as re-posting so many established grounds for the strength of our faith in Creation and Christ. I believe this message is appropriate for so many Christians within science and engineering fields (as well as all believers) as many of us were at that same stage of conflict with today’s dogma competing with the Word of God. Thank you.
Excellent Article, Dr Sarfati! The only comment that I would make is that, for those who are acknowledging the Holy Spirit as He leads, our understanding of Scripture is constantly unfolding to higher heights. What we are finding is that the parts of Scripture that we ignored because they didn’t seem to make sense to us are suddenly making sense by the revelation that comes from the Holy Spirit. And, we are finding out that what God is saying through the Bible is exactly what He wrote through holy men of God—no additions or eliminations by natural selection.
Dr. Sarfati: Excellent response, from my Texas perspective. I truly appreciate the expansive scope of your knowledge and the way you employ it at this critical time!
As an ex-lawyer in the UK I can say that there are two standards of proof: “On the balance of probabilities” (civil law e.g. did you cause the car crash and should you pay) and “beyond reasonable doubt” (criminal law). As Dr Sarfati has stated in his article (The earth’s magnetic field: evidence that the earth is young) the earth/creation cannot be more than 10,000 years old (earth would have been a magnetic star according to the measurements started by Gauss). This data is so convincing and clear that in my opinion it would pass the stricter legal test. Taking the graph forward in time, earth has no more than 2000 years left—probably less as the magnetic shield shrinks to the point that radiation sickness—cancers and the like will begin to affect all life before “zero" point is reached.
Whilst I don't need proof to believe the bible “literally” (using the word in its proper sense as very well elucidated by Dr Sarfati), this data alone is proof enough and so far, no convincing argument has been put forward to refute it.
So a challenge to to Mr. K. G. of Australia, file an “appeal” and see if you can come up with a convincing argument that the “Gauss” data is wrong! If you cannot then I suggest all your other reasoning is flawed.
Excellent response; there are few recent scientific theories or findings that do not evolve, updated or scraped within a relatively short timescale. The last time the Bible was updated or added to was some 2,000 years ago and is without contradiction and stands the test of time.
It is difficult to understand how anyone can take the Word of God seriously if they compromise it with the current mythology of long ages and evolution (which Henry Morris traced to the Garden of Eden—the serpent’s lie to Eve, become like God)
I take God at His Word just as He says in Genesis. Even at 6000 years the world is old, in terms of human lifetimes at least. The only reason it is called ‘young’ is to distinguish it from the mythology of millions and billions of years.
The real big bang comes at the end when God restores a new heaven and new earth, the old heaven and earth described as folding like a garment—probably entering a massive black hole—an awesome spectacle which will only give joy to existing believers at that future time as it is a prelude to us all being in eternity with our Lord and Saviour. Revelation describes this future time perfectly.