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Scriptural originalism

Searching for the meaning of Scripture


Published: 20 November 2018 (GMT+10)

The world has recently observed the brutal machinations surrounding the nomination of a new Supreme Court judge in the US. The criteria upon which the suitability of candidates is evaluated largely revolves around their approach to interpreting the founding documents of the United States, primarily the US Constitution. Broadly, judges fall into two categories; those who are originalists and textualists, and those who are not.

Originalism is “a legal philosophy that the words in documents and especially the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as they were understood at the time they were written”1 by those that framed and ratified the Constitution and its various amendments. Textualism is closely aligned to Originalism and holds that when applying the law, the words of the Constitution itself are to be the final authority. In essence, originalists believe that when interpreting the Constitution, the purpose of the writers, the historical meaning of the words they used, and the words themselves should define the application of the Constitution in applying laws.

Judges who are non-originalists believe that interpretation of the Constitution should evolve in line with changing cultural, moral and social mores. It does not take much contemplation to realise the incredibly subjective nature of this approach. The late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia argued that this approach meant that if judges, “are not bound by words and history, they will inevitably exceed the limits of their judicial authority and, like ’activists’ or ‘super-legislators,’ make the Constitution say whatever they want.”2

It was this latter approach that was used over the past generation to deny equal treatment before the law to persons to whom the Constitution guarantees this protection—that is, the unborn. Life and liberty were arbitrarily denied to developing babies merely by stripping them of their ‘constitutional personhood’. The Roe v. Wade decision expressly excluded human fetuses from definition as a person. Justice Blackmun’s conclusion was, “the word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.”3 That would have been a shock to the Framers!

The same approach to the law has been used to undermine and destroy many other foundational values of western society. It is an approach that brings to mind Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872) – “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.” In other words, if you make yourself master over the meaning of words, you can make them mean anything you want.

In the recent Supreme Court nomination furor, Evangelicals were often named by the media as supporters of the originalist nominee. The reason for this is obvious as to hold on to biblical mores and values, a fidelity to the culturally Christian context within which the constitution was framed is essential. It is therefore a bitter irony that many of these same evangelicals do not take an originalist position on our own ‘founding document’ as Christians, the Bible—particularly the ‘preamble’ to the Bible, the opening chapters of Genesis. Many (in fact most) evangelical leaders today have abandoned the fundamental principle of a historical-grammatical approach to their interpretation of the scriptures when it comes to origins. This approach basically entails the idea that the original meaning of the words and the intentions of the authors are essential in rightly understanding and interpreting the Bible. The scriptures are divinely inspired and therefore stand on their own authority.

There can be no doubt as to the intent of the original writers of Genesis. In a well-known quote the Oxford Hebrew scholar James Barr, himself hostile to the Genesis account of creation a few thousand years ago, nevertheless asserts,

“… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

  • creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
  • the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
  • Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.”

More recently, the Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig made the following statements:

“Amidst all the debate, one thing I am relatively certain of is that the traditional view of the church (not to mention Judaism) is that Adam and Eve are the sole progenitors of the entire human race …

I suspect that many of the outlandish interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis (e.g., so-called “functional creation” or the day-age theory) are motivated by the dread fear that biblical theology pursued independently of modern science would reveal that the Young Earth Creationists are right and, hence, the task of the systematic theologian becomes hopeless. If the Young Earth biblical theology of creation is the correct interpretation, then we face two very difficult choices: either (1) try to defend the scientific viability of a 10-20,000 year old universe, which seems, as I said, hopeless, or else (2) revise one’s doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority so as to allow Scripture to teach error …

I’ve been reading this week the Genesis Commentary by the eminent Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. Again and again von Rad seems to side with the Young Earther that Genesis is to be interpreted scientifically and factually rather than mythically or figuratively. Does he therefore agree with Young Earth Creationism? Of course not! "4 [Emphasis added]

Note the amazing admissions Craig made there! Craig understands that the longstanding traditional view in both Christianity and Judaism is that the writers of Genesis were recording historical events, people, places and chronologies. Elsewhere Craig also states, “The really hard part for that, though, is that Jesus and Paul seemed to take it [Genesis 1, 2 & 3] literally.”5 Barr and Craig admit that an originalist approach to the Bible seems to lead to a historical creation a few thousand years ago. A careful reading of Craig’s words leads one to suspect he is questioning this longstanding traditional interpretation, however. He seems to be open to the possibility that the church has been seriously misunderstanding the original intent of the opening chapter of the Bible for thousands of years. Apparently, what the church had been missing all along was the uniformitarian speculations of anti-biblical geologists like Charles Lyell!

Many evangelicals, Craig included, have been intimidated by the claims of scientists (working within the constraints of philosophical naturalism) into questioning that plain reading or believing that interpretation is wrong. Their authority has sadly become secular scientific consensus over against the clear testimony of Scripture. Craig continues to apply himself to the question, and so far is non-committal on the historicity of the creation account and Adam and Eve specifically, and by extension, the creation history of Genesis. We can certainly pray he winds up taking a strong stand for the Bible in the end.

And so, many Christian leaders and theologians have adopted one of the ‘outlandish interpretations’ that Craig alluded to and have embraced a non-originalist approach to Scripture. It is little wonder, then, that like the retreating morality of the Western world since becoming unglued from its biblical worldview, the church also finds itself on foundations of quicksand as it tries to defend Christian values. Like politics, Christianity also finds itself downstream from culture. There was a time when biblical values, founded upon the rock of inspired revelation from God, drove the cultures they permeated.

While individual churches may be numerically growing for various reasons, on a broad front the church is in retreat (at least in the West). The church increasingly does not ‘hear [the original meaning of] Moses and the prophets.’ We should therefore not be surprised when the unbelieving world will not be convinced, “even if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)

Jesus was clearly a scriptural originalist as were the Apostles, most of the early church Fathers and Reformers. All Christians should be as well.

References and notes

  1. Merriam Webster online dictionary accessed 9 October 2018. Return to text.
  2. Levy, K. The Problems With Originalism, New York Times online editorial, March 22, 2017. Return to text.
  3. Weaver, Jr., W., High Court Rules Abortions Legal the First 3 Months, archive.nytimes.com, accessed 29 October 2018. Return to text.
  4. Craig, W., #588 The Historical Adam, reasonablefaith.org, 22 July 2018. Return to text.
  5. Craig, W., The Historical Adam and Eve, reasonablefaith.org, 1 February 2015. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
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Refuting Compromise, updated & expanded
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard Cover

Readers’ comments

David S.
Once again I see the “leaders” of the evangelical church compromising the straightforward, simple reading of the Genesis creation text out of what seems to at least partly be a fear that “intellectual” people won’t be able or willing to accept it. So they are sacrificing a truth that many would gladly accept on the altar of “reaching the smart”. Since when has God ever made it seem that He cared to play to intellectuals? Instead He warns them not to trust in the wisdom of men. I’m telling you, this pseudo-intellectualism that so many apologists adhere to is doing the church and the gospel no good.
I’m content to hang with the foolish (meaning those humble enough to take God at His word).
Ryan D.
I've always found it interesting that those who compromise on Genesis never present a consistent method of interpreting the Bible. They're certain Genesis 1-11 is being interpreted incorrectly but not say John 3:16. They say we're interpreting Jesus's words incorrectly when He talks about the first chapters of Genesis but not when He says He is the son of God. It becomes an arbitrary interpretation of the Bible, choosing what we like and don't like. Interpretation is left up to the personal views of the interpreter. That leads us to exactly what we're seeing in society, that all that matters is your own personal "truth." It doesn't matter how good a person's theology is when the authority behind it has been eroded.
Bill P.
The day is at hand when ALL will stand before The Lord God Creator of heaven and earth and answer for why they took it upon themselves to twist The Word of God into a lie. Makes no difference if they believe this or not It Will Happen. Everyone must ask themselves, Is it better now to teach God's Word Truthfully and risk the wrath of those who have no love for "The Truth" (knowing That The Lord holds His Word in high regard even more than His Name), or would they who twist His Word rather stand before Him and explain why they taught His Word as meaning something He never intended it to be.

The Living God has since the beginning proven Himself to be God in His Word even though so many have willingly chosen to ignore this fact. This is a serious matter and time is short. Thanks for the work you folks do.
Gian Carlo B.
Craig’s attitude is essentially this: “The Church fathers and essentially all of Judaism have taught Young Earth Creationism! Even a prominent OT Scholar suggests so! Unlike the outlandish claims made by some evangelicals about Genesis, Young Earth has been the orthodox hermeneutic. But defending scientifically a young Earth is pretty outlandish to me, so much so that I can’t believe it! Therefore the orthodox must be wrong because I cannot conceive of a scientific defense for a Young Earth even though I’m trained as a philosopher to be able to conceive of such a scenario; but I don’t because it can’t be!!!!”

Craig is just really in a fallacious predicament of argument from incredulity. He'd rather be as ‘outlandish’ as the evangelicals he criticizes than be biblically consistent as both a theologian and a philosopher? Honestly, he is loosing his edge and it’s not even funny but it’s still bitterly ironic.
Norman P.
Moreover, Biblical Originalism works beautifully!
I have found that the Bible contains all things necessary for life and godliness, and is as a two-edged sword which cuts between the soul and the Spirit with mathematical precision. It is the very embodiment of Christ, from beginning to end. 'If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself' (2 Tim 2:13)
Imagine standing before Christ with such a compromised view: there will be nowhere to hide. Yet, he knows our hearts; and if such doubters were genuinely hung-up in their world-view, doubtless, he would show them mercy. But Oh, what sorrow they will feel: 'but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire' (1 Cor 3:15).
Adrian M.
A colleague of mine once remarked scornfully, "I can't believe that you an educated student of science could believe in a six day creation!". Ironically, as a student of history, the colleague, invited me back to class to share my "irrelevant - out-dated - view of science" to presenting an alternative view of history! If we find ourselves fearful of the coming changes in mainstream culture, and tempted to side with stylish contemporary relevance for the sake of being accepted; then we sacrifice our true relevance that we could have to mainstream culture and water down our faith. However, we find ourselves in good company with many who did not sell out on the truth of history, and had something of substance to say like Jeremiah.

"Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear ..." (Jeremiah 36:23-24)
Russell N.
Great article, thank you very much Marc,

When I listen to/read what 'scholars' like William Lane Craig have to say on certain things, it makes me wonder if he (& they) has ever read the Bible or not. He refuses to believe what Jesus & the N.T. writers told us in Matthew 19:4 & Mark 10:6, etc. And Craig must not have really studied about how biased & bogus the dating methods can be by evolutionists either. Has he ever studied the O.T. genealogies like Genesis 5 & 11? Has Craig ever studied what the Christian Hebrew scholar Dr. Stephen Boyd has proven concerning Genesis that it is a historical narrative??? It appears NO is the answer to all of these--or else Craig is willingly compromising on purpose, in my book.

All of us Christians have a tremendous responsibility to keep in mind such Scriptures as: James 3:1; II Timothy 2:15; I Peter 3:15; etc., not just for our own lives but also for the sake of other peoples' lives and souls we are trying to help and reach for Christ. I am so tired of Biblical compromisers, who compromise God's Word no matter how obvious God's Word is to the contrary of what they are choosing to believe/promote. That's why I don't get that excited when I see one or more doctorates behind some Biblical scholar's name, because so many of them cannot be trusted to properly interpret/be totally true to God's original meanings in His Word any more. That is why I love CMI so much, because you folks are true to God's original historical meaning from the very first verse of Genesis. Thank you for that Marc, and thank all of you at CMI for that too. You all have helped me so much, I cannot tell you just how much! God bless & guide all of you always.
W. Wade S.
I find myself praying that “no root of bitterness springs up” (Hebrews 12:15) with regard to high profile, influential Christians such as William Lane Craig. Because I also find that I cannot overlook a parallel between them — who (it appears) steadfastly refuse to review, consider, and accept the powerful scientific evidences for a precise Biblical interpretation of origins and natural history, as copiously presented by, e.g., CMI — and those who likewise refuse to review, consider, and accept the extraordinary measures the Creator has gone to redeem us (and through us, his Creation) to Him. Moreover, there is an important — nay, “vital’ — connection at play here. For when Christians of Dr. Craig’s stature continue to compromise with evolutionist fallacy and myth, effectively giving sovereignty to secular “scientism” over Biblical truth: it generates an incoherence with regard to Biblical doctrine; effects “Fallout” among the uninformed faithful; and undermines fruitful evangelism. “If the Bible cannot be trusted in regard to origins, why should it be trusted in regard to salvation, and the Person of Jesus Christ?” As we rush toward the conclusion of all things, it may be that the division between YECs and evolutionist compromisers is one that makes the Arminianist v. Calvinist divide seem like an agreeably easy-going tiff by comparison. May the Body of Christ be theologically united on “essential things”.
John P.
So-called evangelicals who do not take a literal view of those first 11 chapters of Genesis can no longer be rightly called evangelical but rather have abandoned truth for heresy and apostasy and belong in the liberal camp.They need to humble themselves and realize scripture is right and fallible man is wrong.The constructs of the liberals are nothing more than fairy story and man made myth telling-just their own futile imaginings.
If he allows the Holy Spirit to guide him Craig will come to realize the truth of God's Word from the beginning.,
Peter prophesied about this sort of thing by mentioning uniformatarianism and men abandoning truth and being given over to foolish doctrines, and even the elect being led astray if such a thing were possible. We see it happening now and its consequences.
Terry H.
Good article Marc. Belief in the original historical meaning of scripture is not championed by most today. Thankfully though 'the gates of hell will not prevail'

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