Saturday, August 9, 2014

Michael Gungor, Augustine, and Literal Six Day Creation

Christian singer and songwriter, Michael Gungor, has stirred up a lot of buzz recently by coming out on his blog with a personal revelation  that he "no longer is able to believe" the traditional biblical creation account in Genesis or the global flood of Noah that rose to the highest mountain peaks.  At the same time he tries to have it both ways, by finding some "value" in the stories even if not true.  In other words, on the level of fables with a moral.
I have no more ability to believe, for example, that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago. I have no ability to believe that there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago and that all of the animal species that exist today are here because they were carried on an ark and then somehow walked or flew all around the world from a mountain in the middle east after the water dried up. I have no more ability to believe these things than I do to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity. But I have a choice on what to do with these unbeliefs. I could either throw out those stories as lies, or I could try to find some value in them as stories. But this is what happens…
If you try to find some value in them as stories, there will be some people that say that you aren’t a Christian anymore because you don’t believe the Bible is true or “authoritative”. Even if you try to argue that you think there is a truth to the stories, just not in an historical sense; that doesn’t matter.
Gungor goes on to complain that evangelicals aren't appeased by his still finding "some value" in Genesis 1-9.

Not surprisingly, there have been scores of responses from the evangelical community, many expressing disappointment and affirming their own solid stance on literal six day creation.  And of course there have been a number of sympathetic, even apologetic articles such as that by Relevant Magazine.

What is troubling, however, is how easily those who want to defend Gungor quote people like St. Augustine, or borrow phrases such as, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in everything else charity" and apply it to a theistic evolutionary viewpoint.  But tossing out the verity of the first nine chapters of the Bible is a big deal.  It is an essential because what we know about the nature of the One True God, and our place in the universe and eternity, is intrinsically bound up in His role as creator.
Of course, there is the mantra 'Oh, we we don't take it literally,' as if merely saying that phrase explains and justifies all.
Of course, there is the mantra 'of, we we don't take it literally' as if merely saying that phrase explains and justifies all. It's akin to saying, "Well, everyone has their opinion," as if there is no way to verify who is right--or as if its a matter of mere taste, as with pizza toppings.  Indeed, the "I don't take it literally" defense has become the great unexamined excuse to cut off debate and reason.  Let's just be friends.  That is usually said by the one who has the weak side of the issue.

But what does "literal" actually mean in these cases?  It simply means taking the author's intended meaning, as we do in normal human language.  That is, we should not look "under" the text as the ancients, and Augustine, did for hidden meanings or allegory.  For example, Augustine believed that Abraham's 318 men
--> (Gen. 14:14) who went to rescue Lot was intended to be hidden, symbol of the Crucifixion because to him the ancient Hebrew characters for 318 seemed to resemble three crosses. But there is no hint in Genesis to take 318 figuratively or spiritually. It is reading into a text a meaning that neither the human or Divine authors intended.  God wanted to communicate with human kind.  He was not playing riddles with them.  And in the few passages where there is an allegory or parable they are clearly labeled as such. There is an indication in the text such as Jesus saying, "What shall I compare the Kingdom of heaven to?" then giving a parable.

Against such spiritualized or allegorical treatment of the Scripture stands the more normal and natural interpretation of language, such as we do on a a daily basis in common life.  So if I said to my neighbor, "Hey, can you lend me a hand tomorrow putting up my fence?" he would not take my request quite literally because I used a common figure of speech.  He would understand that this is a request for assistance, not amputation.  But if I asked, "Can you lend me your truck tomorrow" he would understand that quite literally as a request to borrow his truck.

But so much of the "Wow, you take the Bible literally?" argument depends on readers never going to their Bibles and actually reading Genesis 1 and 2 when they hear the literal interpretation dismissed so casually.

As long as you stay in a blog, or article, or confines of a book, it all sounds very plausible.  But go to the Scripture and read it out of your own Bible and you get a very, very different sense.
As long as you stay in a blog, or article, or confines of a book, it all sounds very plausible.
For example, all of the non-literalists regarding creation say that a "day" should not be taken as a literal day.  But go to your Bible and just read Gen. 1:5,
God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Context for day is abundantly clear:  morning and evening constitute one day, literally.  He is referring to a 24 hour cycle, not an epoch or era, or "seed of evolution," or some other scheme inserted on the text from without.  Otherwise, why ad "evening and morning" as it would only confuse people and lead them to false conclusions.

If I said to my neighbor, "Can you give me a hand tomorrow, take a saw and cut it off?" my neighbor would understand give me a hand quite differently.  In this case, he'd probably think I was joking, making fun of the figure of speech.  And it is very casual conversation.  I'm not trying to communicate vital information or all important truth he must know and live by.  But in Genesis, the author is communicating something very serious and of utmost importance to the nation of Israel.  And in such cases human beings choose carefully their words so as to be crystal clear and not mysterious or ambiguous. Just try being mysterious on your tax return, or use figures "non-literally."

Of course, that leads to the second attempt by the non-literalists to try to support a non-literal interpretation of what is on its face clearly intended to be historical:  form criticism.  That is, if something looks like it might be written in a particular literary form, poetry vs. history for example, then we can confine its "intended meaning" within the bounds of that type of literature.

So, the theory goes, if Genesis 1-11 appears to maybe be in the form of Hebrew poetry or "legend" then we are free to take everything as such so much figurative language, from start to finish.

Sometimes the example is given that in modern language and writing we can recognize a weather report vs. a greeting card.  And we would expect the weather report to try to be as factual and literal as possible, whereas the sentiment on the card could have many different subjective interpretations or nuances.  But this does not stand the test of common sense or the vast majority of examples.  If a greeting card says, "I am so glad you are my wife, you've made me a happy man," we can take it to the bank that it refers to the woman this man has married. Factual, despite the form and sentiment.  We have no justification to say, just because its a card, that "wife" means mistress or anything else we choose.

Go back to our Genesis 1:5 example (and I hope you looked up and read the whole passage yourself) it is clear to any unbiased reader that the author intended a literal 24 hour day.  And this pattern continues for he second day. After God creates the waters below from the sky and waters above it concludes in Genesis 1:8,
And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
And this phrase is repeated at the end of each of the six days of creation, to make it clear that literal, 24 hour days are intended.  Thus is the majesty of creation:  It seems totally impossible, except that God did it.  That is the point apparently; that the reader should be scratching his head and saying something along this lines of, "How in the world?"

To repeat "evening and morning" six times also shows that the author wanted to be crystal clear that he was indeed talking about literal days, and not allow room for figurative interpretation.  Otherwise, why do it?  That is a question none of the non-literalists can answer.

Why do it if all the time the author was thinking these were just non-literal "time periods" or some other such thing?  Why confuse everyone?  The ancients would have been totally comfortable with  something like, "and the first time period was 500 million years, and the second was 200 million years."  They were not cave men.  The ancient Greek myth of the flood has the surviving man and woman throwing rocks over their shoulder that each suddenly take on the form of a man or a woman respectively to repopulate the earth.  So any worry about "they wouldn't understand" is moot.  Who could understand rocks becoming people instantly?

And very telling is the fact that the geologically long time periods to allow creation (or evolution)  to happen is actually more appealing to man's ability to grasp things--so why not just state it that way in the first place if that were indeed the case?  Which is easier for our minds to grasp, "God did it in six literal days," or "It took God a really long time."  We are used to difficult things taking a lot of time, so the answer is obvious.

Finally, we hear the non-literalists saying that the author was simply trying to use overstatement to show how great God was.  But saying it was explicit "evening and morning" 24 hour days when it was actually millions of years is beyond any "overstatement."  It would be totally misleading.  If my boss asked me how many days a project took and I said, "Six" when it actually took all year I would be fired.

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