I sang those words in my high school choir, the opening lines of a number from Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation oratorio. At the time I was at best dimly aware that this was based on Scripture (Psalm 19:1); I certainly did not grasp how profound this statement was. Today, I think I may have an inkling.
In my second post, I hinted at some thoughts on science and Scripture. These ideas have a long history in Biblical scholarship, but in some circles they are still explosive. It may be helpful to cast them in a different way.
As I’ve said before, I greatly respect science and scientists, though I have no aptitude in the field. People using the brains God gave them to observe the universe God created are going to find cool stuff. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian and science challenges your ideas of what a Christian is supposed to believe, by all means question it, but don’t fear it. Fear nothing and no one but God.
Now, about that creation story. You can venture outside the scientific mainstream, you can train your mind in a particular way, and you can erase any doubt that the only proper way to read the first chapter of Genesis is literally. And you may be right. I mean that. God is God, and if that’s how He created the universe, and humans have misread the evidence of the heavens and the Earth, who am I to second guess Him? The last thing I intend is to undermine the Bible’s authority or trustworthiness.
But if you’re willing to consider another way to respect both the Bible’s authority and the intelligence God gave humanity, turn to…the Book of Revelation. I think most Biblical scholars would agree that very large portions of Revelation are allegorical. The last book in the Bible is packed with symbols, though where the symbols end and the literal parts begin could keep an army of theologians busy for a very long time. Why did God have John write it that way? Why not spell it out plainly?
Let me suggest a possible reason among many that may apply. Imagine trying to explain the world of the 21st Century – or a future time even we can’t imagine – to a man of the First Century, and in turn having him explain it to a wider First Century audience. Imagine the heads exploding from Rome to Jerusalem.
Now, rewind to Genesis. Imagine trying to explain astrophysics, biochemistry and plate tectonics to people living thousands of years earlier than the apostle John. Heads exploding.
Perhaps the earlier parts of Genesis – to what point I couldn’t say – and most of Revelation form allegorical bookends to the story God unfolds in the Bible. Maybe some of us are asking the Bible to be something it couldn’t be for its authors or their first readers – a science book, written by and to people with no concept of modern science.
So what about the Bible’s truth and authority? For me, it still stands. The Bible tells us what we need to know about creation: God is its author. Exactly how he wielded the pen wasn’t critical knowledge for the Bible’s writers. That knowledge is more discoverable and more interesting to us, but what we believe about it won’t save or condemn us.
To put it another way, the story of creation is written across the pages of Genesis in a way that the ancients could read and understand. But the Bible itself tells us the story is also written across the heavens, which “proclaim the glory of God.” It is written in our DNA. Perhaps, as scientists continue to insist, it is written in canyon walls and on primordial beaches. And generations such as ours are able to discover and read these accounts in a way that Moses and his contemporaries could not.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16 plainly declares the Bible’s authority. But nowhere do I read the word “literal.” Perhaps something like this could be a paraphrase for our time, with a couple of thousand years of hindsight: The Bible, properly understood as to context and literary form, will never misrepresent God, His character or His work, nor will it ever teach anyone to do evil.
The debate over creation has become a wedge between sincere people of faith on one hand, and skeptics on the other who might be more receptive – if they didn’t suspect they were being asked to stop thinking. Again, I don’t know which story of creation is true. But I believe the Bible, largely through the creation debate, has been reduced from the sword of the Spirit to a blunt instrument in the culture wars, part of the all-or-nothing, us-or-them battle between Christian conservatives and all varieties of liberals. To give an inch on the literal reading of the Bible, to some, is treason against “our” side.
Now, if the Bible isn’t true unless it’s all literal, I see the problem. By this logic, if parts of it aren’t literal, then parts of it aren’t true. The whole book, and therefore our faith, are thrown open to question. But is this a straitjacket that American evangelicals have put on the Bible and Christianity? If you take the literal reading to the limit, you’ll be facing some much harder questions than how the Biblical creation story could be true.
The truth is, no rational person takes it that far. For example, if Jesus were literally every object or substance He said he was at various points in the Gospels, he would have been a very curious entity. If Solomon’s regrets written in Ecclesiastes were all doctrinal statements, we would have our work cut out to reconcile them with the rest of the Bible. We allow Jesus and Solomon literary leeway. Perhaps we should grant the same to the Spirit who spoke through the Bible’s authors. Not that He needs our permission.
In my research for this post I found an interesting word: bibliolater. The implication is clear. At some point in our thinking, the Bible can cross the line from a vital guide – “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – to an object of worship. This is first of all wrongheaded, but it also sucks the life out of the Bible.
When we make an idol of something or someone, we actually distance ourselves, because getting too close will always shatter whatever we have set up our idol to be. So it is with the Bible. Not that it contains any defects, but it will engage us, challenge us and surprise us – as long as we allow it to live and breathe and speak to us.