Rev. Tony Breeden “knows” the “clear, plain meaning of Genesis.” Does he really?

Today the Bible.and.Science.Forum was cc’d on a rather condescending and dismissive email from Rev. Tony Breeden, who directs yet another Young Earth Creationism ministry, this one apparently called Defending Genesis.  The first link I clicked on the ministry’s History page took me to a West Virginia “creation science group” where an apparently not so current event page announced that they would be viewing some Kent Hovind DVD at their January meeting. (Rev. Breeden appears to consider all other Christians with any other view on origins to be “compromising” Christians, or worse, and seeing how he does not hesitate to take cheap shots at everyone he can, I’d wager that he gets lots of cheap shots in return, with the Kent Hovind and the West Virginia associations being much like red flags and “Kick Me!” signs for those who are prone to respond to his cheap shots with cheap shots of their own.)

I found myself dissecting Rev. Breeden’s cheeky email in a detailed reply and even decided to send a reciprocal “REPLY TO ALL”, although I doubt if many of the infamous YEC ministry “celebrities” and organizations in the address list ever read emails which might possibly educate them on science or the scriptures, especially when it comes from a “compromising Christian” foe like me. I may share excerpts of my email reply in the future but today I just wanted to react to one of the lamest of Young Earth Creationist justifications that I found on his Compromise Creation webpage at https://siriusknotts.wordpress.com/creationevolution/compromise-creationism/.   [As happens on occasion, WordPress is refusing to let me insert a link, so I apologize for the raw address that is not automatically clickable. I gave up on retries.] Here’s what he said:

“This page is dedicated to posts dealing specifically with Old Earth Creationism [OEC], such as Thesitic Evolution, Progressive Creationism, Gap Creationism and similar Creationist stances which compromise the clear, plain meaning of Genesis to try to account for the long-age assumptions of uniformitarianism and which attempt to incorporate evolutionism into God’s Creative process.”

Considering how many interpretations/views can be found even among Bible-believing Christians of remarkably similar doctrinal positions, I find this claim remarkable. Moreover, how likely is it that a modern-day reader of an English Bible translation (of a several thousand year old Classical Hebrew text from a very different culture) will easily know the “clear, plain meaning of Genesis”?

Now I’m not saying that understanding an ancient text in translation is beyond any hope of comprehension, as some post-Modernists might claim. Yet, most of us have lived long enough that when someone insists on prefacing a statement with “Everybody knows that…” and “Without any doubt…”, we usually have reason to be cautious about what an author declares so presumptuously.   Moreover, especially when dealing with scripture, what is the “clear, plain meaning” may only be “clear” and “plain” only to the person making the claim–and the proclamation is obviously (!) a not-so-subtle attempt to convince the reader that anyone questioning the writer’s confident declaration is obfuscating what is allegedly beyond all doubt. (One might just as well say “Even the youngest of children can see that what I’m saying is true!”)

I do believe that there are many “clear and plain” meanings to be drawn from countless Biblical texts. Indeed, I consider Genesis 1 to be among them! However, the “clear, plain meaning” which I draw from Genesis 1 is not at the level of detail of Breeden and other YECists. To me it’s simplest, clearest, plainest, and even obvious meaning is that Israel’s God created everything and is superior to the deities of neighboring peoples.

What is not so obvious to those who are not familiar with Hebrew language and culture is that the ancient Hebrews were far less temporally/chronologically-oriented. (Their language didn’t even have the kinds of verbal tenses which we would expect.) Therefore, I seriously doubt that ancient readers gave much thought to Genesis 1 as being focused on the details of what the creator did so much as on WHO did the creating. I will not explain this further in this article because that topic deserves its own treatment.

Yet, I will say that if I were pressed for my personal view on Genesis 1, I would say it is basically a “Hymn of Tribute to the Creator” and that the author uses a seven day week to put the power of God ELOHIM into human perspective:  God can create the universe [expressed in Hebrew via the idiom “the heavens and the earth”, i.e., “everything above and all that is below”] in a single week.  This in no way denigrates the text and the same fundamentalist Christians who are fine with similar literary genres elsewhere in the Old Testament nevertheless on a rigidly literal interpretation of Genesis 1 as an “obvious historical description” [even though it lacks many of the features we would expect and includes various features we wouldn’t expect] because their Young Earth Creationist traditions demand it.

Nevertheless, my primary purpose in this article on the “clear, plain meaning of Genesis” is to explain why we must be careful about such simplistic and presumptuous claims.

Foremost among our cautions is the simple fact that language translators are often forced to make difficult choices which may make the end result look far more “plain and obvious” in translation than in they knew the text to be in the original language.  To illustrate that reality, I cite an example shared by a fellow Bible translation conference speaker of years ago. Unfortunately, I can no longer recall his name. Yet, I know that he did a lot of work with Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics and he said that this was from the experiences of one of the field translators whom he assisted as a regional consultant. Over the next thirty years I’ve cited his example countless times as it illustrates that a literal translation sometimes distracts from and even contradicts the intended meaning of a text and reminds us of the dangers of the “clean, plain meaning” of a Biblical text.

When Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock….”, the plain and simple meaning to a typical modern English reader is: “A friend wants to see you.”   Yet, in that Amazonian rainforest culture, “the plain and simple meaning” was obviously this:

1) There is an enemy at my door.
2)  He is knocking to determine if anyone is within the home.
3)  If nobody responds to his knocking, he will assume that he can go in and steal my property OR he can burn down the home and get revenge for something without being seen by anyone inside.
4) If somebody responds to his knocking, he can run away before anybody catches him or accuses him of being a thief.

Again, those interpretations of “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” are the obvious clear, plain meaning of that familiar English Bible passage among many of the peoples living in the Amazon River basin when the Bible translation team was doing their work there.

Moreover, despite the naive claims of some fundamentalist Christians, the Biblical languages and cultures entail many of the same kinds of language complexities, ambiguities, and difficulties.  The myth that Biblical Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic are somehow immune from such problems and are “perfect languages” [whatever that means] is yet another “everybody knows that” factoid that misleads the naive and linguistically uninformed.

Obviously, if reading and interpreting the Biblical text of Genesis 1 was “clear, plain, and simple”, we could at least expect Christians (if not all English readers) to agree on the meaning–but it isn’t and we can’t.  Indeed, most of us prefer to live in reality and most Christians are honest enough to admit that legitimate disagreements exist. So unless one is going to insist that “my view is automatically the correct one and all others are wrong”, one must admit the complexities and potential ambiguities of the various Biblical texts. Accordingly, the “clear, plain meaning of Genesis 1” remains one of the lamest of Young Earth Creationist arguments.

What did the Bible translator decide about “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”?  Because a literal rendering of the well-known evangelism passage would be so misleading, he chose to go with a dynamic equivalent type of translation philosophy:  “Behold, I stand at the door and call.” In that culture, a visiting friend would never knock like a thief. He would call out the name of his friend and politely announce his visit. Yet, the change would probably mystify most people–until someone explained the cultural issues.

Very complex topics often strike the uniformed person as remarkably simple. When one knows so little about the massive evidence for billions of years–and that radiometric dating is just one of many scientific methodologies for determining the age of geologic strata and fossils–it is incredibly easy to assume that all of the world’s brilliant scientists are ignorant and that a science-illiterate pastor is fully qualified to chide them for their errors and magnanimously tutor them on where they went wrong. If the Kruger-Dunning Effect ever needed a poster-child, Rev. Tony Breeden would have a very good shot for a full-ride scholarship. Ignorance of both scientific and scriptural evidence remains the best qualification for starting one’s own “creation science” ministry organization. Smug condescension towards “compromising Christians” and overbearing hubris and dismissive scorn towards those annoying “materialist scientists” are not explicitly stated in the “creation science” ministry leader’s job description but they don’t have to be.  Although not totally essential to do the job, those “skills” are easily mastered.

After all, there are so many other science-denying YEC leaders to emulate.  Rev. Tony Breeden’s websites will show the young aspiring origins ministry entrepreneur how to preserve man-made traditions while ignoring the Biblical text and to never let scientific and scriptural evidence get ahead of traditional YECist dogma. After all, anything else would be “compromising”.

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11 responses to “Rev. Tony Breeden “knows” the “clear, plain meaning of Genesis.” Does he really?

  1. Anyone longing for massive doses of every bogus “creation science” argument against The Theory of Evolution ever promoted by a science-illiterate activist should visit Rev. Breeden’s website. You’ll find it all at https://siriusknotts.wordpress.com/creationevolution/

    Indeed, for someone like me who was part of the “creation science” movement of the 1960’s, I marvel at how little the abominable pseudo-science arguments have changed since Morris’ & Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood. While real science produces a steady stream of discovery and useful explanations of how the universe operates, “creation science” produces neither–because it’s not science at all.

    • I’ve seen recent Facebook comments (not on his own Facebook page so I cannot readily re-locate them) by another YEC, Charlie Wolcott of Worldview Warriors, where he implies that it much WORSE for a professing Christian (and he doubts that such people are real Christians) to believe in long ages or even theistic evolution than it is for an unbeliever to do so. Might some people in the US and elsewhere who accept ‘historical’ science hesitate to become Christians because most Christians they know are hardline Bible fundamentalists who they are not keen on antagonising?

  2. Might some people in the US and elsewhere who accept ‘historical’ science hesitate to become Christians because most Christians they know are hardline Bible fundamentalists who they are not keen on antagonising?

    There certainly seems to be evidence that that is the case. If so, I find it amazing that the same people who realize that Ham is wrong about science are nevertheless willing to assume that he accurately represents the Bible’s position on the age of the earth and how a “true Christian” must regard science. I wonder why? Why not decide that Ham is wrong about everything–and that his false dichotomy is just as silly as everything else he claims?

  3. Personally I think the Bible does point, indirectly, to a young Earth. But YECs indulge in eisegesis rather than exegesis, and extra-biblical speculations, in order to make ‘the Bible’ support their claims – or their claims support ‘the Bible’.

    • Personally I think the Bible does point, indirectly, to a young Earth.

      I did too–until I studied Hebrew and had a lot of “translation experiences” where I was forced to realize just how differently other cultures can look at things. I don’t say that condescendingly at all. It is not an easy thing to “start from scratch” and read a text without the traditions and presuppositions. (And I was quite slow to catch on, despite years of study.)

      Of course, there were also features of the text right in front of my face that I had overlooked. For example, in every Sunday School coverage of the creation topic, everything presumed that the very first creative act of God was “Let there be light!” Yet, before that the text says that “the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” It also speaks of the TOHU VAVOHU, an extreme chaos of material. Where did the “waters” come from? And why all that “debris”? That is one way one could visualize TOHU VAVOHU. Of course, the traditional KJV translation is “without form and void.” In other words, it could describe the raw materials of the earth, perhaps molten lava, and not yet shaped and cooled as rock.

      The bottom line is that there is a lot of ambiguity and room for vast stretches of time–which is why The Gap Theory is based on Genesis 1:2.

      Yet, by far one of the hardest aspects of Semitic culture for we moderns to grasp is the lack of verbal tense and emphasis on chronology in Hebrew language and culture when dealing with past events. English has a complex panoply of time-related words for communicating complex time relationships, such as “the continuing future past perfect” which are difficult to convey in Classical Hebrew because the culture didn’t focus on such “subtle” relative time relationships.

      What I try to convey to students is the mindset of pushing aside what we already know (or think we know) about a Biblical text and try to read it as if we’ve never seen it before. So, before determining what it most likely meant to the author and his original audience, it is important to consider what it could mean. What meanings does the text allow? When this approach is used in the classroom, it is always interesting to see how the students gradually start seeing more and more possibilities within the text.

      In fact, one time I decided to use “raining cats and dogs as an example by imagining a discovery of such an English language text in the distant future. What could “raining cats and dogs” mean? As one student illustrated in this kind of “be open to the possibilities” interpretive exercise, she said, “Perhaps during years of abundant rain, there is more food available and so people noticed the the population of stray cats and dogs increasing. So, over time, rain and the animal population were linked in the minds English language speakers in that culture, resulting in a somewhat whimsical ‘observation’ that the rain itself brought animals.”

      Now, imagine applying that kind of “open thinking” to each phrase of every verse in Genesis 1. Obviously, it is just one element of understanding an ancient text. It may even lead one to think that nobody can ever know what a text means. Yet, what it should tell us is that we often expect an ancient text to tell us things which the author never meant to convey. If the author’s purpose in Genesis 1 was simply to identify Israel’s God as the creator of everything–and that God is so powerful that he could do it all in a single week–then most everything else makes sense as poetic structure and flourish. (Indeed, Genesis 1 doesn’t read like a typical historical account. The “evening and the morning” repetitions are obviously “chorus repeats” like one finds in the poetry used in songs, just like we have them in our culture.)

      I often mention the Piraha people and language of the Amazon. Linguists were surprised to find that their language lacks a great many features which we assume are absolutely essential to human communications: verbal tense or anything to describe the past, numbers, and any descriptors beyond the very closest of family relationships (e.g., wife, child.) In fact, that was the culture where efforts to teach people to count to ten and do simple arithmetic totally failed. Thus, extreme examples like the Piraha help us realize the folly of this popular assumption among many Young Earth Creationists: “People have their differences but everybody generally looks at things the same way, regardless of language and culture. Therefore, I can read an ancient text and assume that the simple, plain, and clear meaning of the passage is the right one.” Of course, to the original author and audience, the meaning probably was quite clear. So to determine that meaning, we have to get inside the culture and language.

      That brings me to the interesting habit of creationists in assuming that they can easily understand what others take years to study and grasp. They love simplicity. Thus, they see no need for tedious exegesis of the Hebrew text of Genesis–and they have the same casual approach to the fields of science which they don’t understand at all. I was struck by this the other day when a “creation science” website was explaining to YEC readers that “It takes very little study to understand the limited evidence and terminology used by paleontologist to make themselves sound very smart and the science beyond the reach of the average person.”

      What I also find interesting is that YECs have no problems with other chapters of the Old Testament where similar language and poetic structures are used. Yet, because Genesis 1 is so loaded with importance and has traditionally been assumed to be an historical account meant to address modern day questions rather than the Preface to Israel’s history and national constitution.

  4. Thanks for the link, Ashley! I’m glad to see that a growing number of writers are making the same observation: Young Earth Creationist ministries are driving young and old from the church.

  5. “Professor,”

    You seem to be wholly unfamiliar with the doctrine of perspicuity. Another reason to think you’re a Poe. Anyway, read up a bit on that before your respond, dear “professor.” In the meantime, we do not that your cherry-picked exceptions do not disprove the general rule of perspicuity.

    btw, statistics show that churches that teach what you believe are losing more of our young people than those of us who affirm the traditional teachings of the church, so wrong again there as well. But don’t let the facts stand in the way of your dearly held opinions, right?

    • Mr. Breeden, how about you tell us how the “doctrine of perspicuity” was defined by the Reformers and became part of the Westminster Confession. Then explain to us why knowledge of that history doesn’t debunk your attempt to play games based on your misunderstanding of perspicuity.

      As to “churches that teach what you believe”, I’ve never found one that teaches what I believe on these topics. Nevertheless, what’s your evidence that such an imaginary church is losing more young people than Ken Ham lamented in his book on the massive losses of young people from Young Earth Creationist churches? (Also, I find it amusing that you don’t recognize the logical fallacy in your Argument from Popularity blooper. Did you honestly believe that an academic venue like BSF would not notice such a feeble debate tactic based upon a Logic 101 fallacy?)

      Thank you for bringing your brand of entertainment to the Bible.and.Science.Forum blog! You are most welcome to post your interesting angry rants. (Indeed, I find your anger entirely justified. Were I in your position, I would feel just as angry and embarrassed as you do.)

      I expect that Ashley Haworth-Roberts will love your post! (I know I do. I appreciate it when the worst of denialist and Young Earth Creationist tactics come to us on their own and we don’t even have to go looking for them.)

      • Apologists defending the doctrine of perspicuity has taken into account your cherry-picked exceptions; you’re simply pretending as if your objections were the rule rather than the acknowledged exception. [It means you’re making mountains out of molehills].

        The fact that liberal churches —

        Yes, they do exist, “prof” and are in numbers sufficient to include in statistical analysis. And since there are even liberal churches that teach pure atheism, like John Shuck’s [PC-USA], I’m sure you simply haven’t been looking hard enough for a church that teaches what you disbelieve, Mr. Poe]

        I digress.

        The fact that liberal churches are losing more young people than conservative churches is not based on Mr. Ham’s research but rather various statistical studies, most of which were conducted by the NCC or the liberal churches themselves in an effort to figure out why they’re hemorrhaging members. Do yourself a favor, “professor,” and do some actual research. You’re Poe’s looking pretty ignorant concerning things that are common knowledge for Christians, much less creationists.

        Telling me I’ve committed a fallacy without demonstrating it is pretty weak kung fu, sir. Reminds me of the Sensuous Curmudgeon’s poor grasp of argument

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