Is the Bible one book or 66?
And does this affect our understanding of creation?
Published: 3 January 2012 (GMT+10)
Karl Giberson, until recently of BioLogos, recently published a column on The Huffington Post entitled ‘The Bible is a library, not a book.’1 His premise was that since the Bible is composed of several distinct books, the factuality or otherwise of a single book doesn’t bear on the other books. So it would be possible, for instance, to accept the letters of Paul without believing that Genesis actually contains anything historical.
Filters—but what kind?
Giberson appeals to ‘filters’ and says, “You cannot simply read a book like the Bible—you have to read it through complex filters to properly understand it.” Anyone who has even a rudimentary background in Bible study would agree with this, meaning that he is knocking down a straw man. The original language, social context, genre, and several other factors are behind why we should read “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” as literal history, and why we shouldn’t take “Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!” as a statement indicating the Psalmist thinks God has feathers.
But to indicate what happens when someone reads with a wrong filter—Giberson does exactly that by reading a Psalm as a literal statement! “The Bible was quite clear that the earth was fixed and said so in so many words: “The earth is fixed and cannot be moved” wrote the Psalmist with unfortunate clarity in chapter 93.”
First, this is a poem. Poems can convey literal thoughts, but often use imagery to convey an idea through vivid pictures. Furthermore, Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism, where two or more lines ‘pile up’ meaning, each explaining and expanding what comes before. So the parallelism in the context of Psalm 93 (NASB, lines divided and phrases italicized to show parallelism)
The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.
The first thing we should notice is this Psalm is primarily telling us something about God, not primarily about cosmology (this isn’t to say that a passage can never tell us about both). It should be easy to see why I divided the four lines into two pairs, noting the parallelism that exists between the first and second phrases in each pair. In the second pair, “The world is established” is parallel with “Your throne is established from old”. Obviously, the two aren’t saying exactly the same thing, but the ideas are connected. The “It shall never be moved” and “you are from everlasting” seem a bit more disconnected, but both have to do with permanence; the former is true on the basis of the latter.
In the context of the passage “the world is established; it shall never be moved” is saying something about God’s majesty and His rule over creation. In this instance, it is perfectly justifiable based on the context that this is a theological statement—that the earth is firmly under God’s rule, and will not stray from it. It could also be taken to say that the earth will not move from its orbit where God has placed it, but the idea of an orbiting earth may be reading too much modern science into Scripture.
To demonstrate this conclusively, we should note that the same Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (מוֹט môt) is used in Psalm 16:8, “I shall not be moved.” Is the Psalmist saying that he will remain absolutely stationary?
In contrast, we’ve written a lot of articles analyzing various aspects of Genesis, and showing why the creation narrative has to be taken as historical based on the language used.
Giberson rehashes the Galileo story in the typical fashion—claiming that the Church was forcing a literal reading of Scripture onto the science of the day, and poor Galileo got the short end of the stick. But in reality, as we’ve noted before, this was a case where Aristotelian cosmology was imposed on the Bible, and a challenge to that Aristotelian cosmology was wrongly taken to be an attack on Scripture. Galileo himself was a devout Christian, and heliocentrism was originally well-received in the Church. He was a victim of the Aristotelian scientific establishment of his day, and Papal personality politics, not the magisterium.
Raising important questions, but no answers
There are biblical references to Adam and Eve that, if taken literally, suggest they were real people. But these references are no more compelling than those made by the Psalmist to a fixed earth. And Adam essentially disappears from the Old Testament after his brief cameo in the Garden of Eden. The real issue, however, is theological. St. Paul, in the New Testament, speaks of Christ as a “Second Adam” [sic—last Adam], undoing the damage created by the first Adam. If we don’t have Adam to explain where sin came from, then Christianity supposedly collapses. The intertwined biblical and theological problems of the Adam controversy are strikingly analogous to their Galilean predecessors. The Adam issue is more significant, however, since it deals with humanity and connects to Christ.
Now there’s a problem I’d like to see him address (for instance, the genealogy in Luke 3, which makes Jesus a direct descendant of Adam)! But disappointingly, he continues:
These questions are complex and beyond what I want to address in this piece. What I do want to address is a much easier question that keeps coming up about biblical interpretation.
If Giberson didn’t want to address the questions, he shouldn’t have raised them in the first place. However, he has cleverly minimized the problem with a rhetorical sleight of hand, implying that the solution is no more difficult than the Galileo problem. But the two cases are completely different. The Galileo conflict was a mixture of politics and imposing an external philosophical framework onto the text. By contrast, Paul, in two very important arguments (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), bases them entirely on the premise that there was a historical Adam who sinned in history, and that we, who are his actual descendants, are saved through Christ’s historical sacrifice in the same way we inherited the sin from Adam in the first place. You can say “Paul was wrong” (and many of the folk at BioLogos do), but then you’re faced with a huge theological dilemma.
The Bible’s unity of message
Giberson’s point seems to be that because the Bible is made up of lots of different documents, some of them may be more valuable for history than others; some may even contradict others. And if we were talking about a purely human document, it would be reasonable to expect this, because the documents were written over a period of many centuries. But Christians believe that God inspired Scripture in such a way that it does not contradict itself.
Furthermore, Giberson’s argument doesn’t get him off the hook, because the NT authors cite Psalms as theological authorities. The view of the NT authors is that when interpreted correctly, all of Scripture is authoritative and binding. We can see that from how they use the Old Testament.
What Christians should find troubling is how self-identifying evangelicals can so easily find inventive ways to reject Scripture while still holding on to some vestige of faith. This eventually becomes almost indistinguishable from the opinion of an atheist who doesn’t believe in God in any sense the Christian would recognize, but thinks Jesus is a ‘nice guy’. But as we’ve argued many times before, Jesus cites Genesis as history, and taught that Adam was a real person, and that the Flood was a real, global event. If that is the case, and if Genesis isn’t the history Jesus thought it was, then Jesus can’t be God, because He was wrong.
So is the Bible one book or 66? It’s both—the 66 books were penned by many different authors over a span of over a thousand years, but the overarching messianic narrative binds them together into one unit. And they collectively bear witness to God’s creation and His redemption of that creation. It’s no surprise that Giberson’s ‘complex filters’ work against the plain meaning of Scripture.
- Giberson, K., The Bible is a library, not a book, Huffington Post, huffingtonpost.com. Return to text.