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”.
(c) 2015. Professor Tertius & the Bible.and.Science.Forum at Gmail.com.
All rights reserved. Email us at Gmail.com address for permissions on reposting and publication.