Biblical Truth

What is Truth ?

Matthew 10

 

 

The bible is at the heart and centre of Christianity. Whenever the practises and beliefs of Christianity have become institutionalised, or strangled by tradition, new believers have returned to the teachings of Christ and a fresh wave of life has risen up. The Methodists, the baptists and even the modern charismatic movement all had their roots in such breakouts. The bible is the 'holy book' of Christianity and the only record of the teachings of Jesus and the practises of the early church. For many, ALL the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity are to be found within it [1]. Its ultimate authority has even entered the language - 'that's gospel truth mate !'.

But the subject of bible interpretation can be highly controversial. No part more controversial than the question of how literally we must take the early passages of Genesis. Are these tales of the Creation (and perhaps some of the later ones too...) allegorical stories with a spiritual meaning or are they intended as a historical record of factual events. One of these two extremes leads to an inevitable conflict with modern science, yet the other can seem an abandonment of true faith. This 'clash of dogmas' has been a cause of many arguments over many years.

Really a more important question is what kind of truth do we expect to find in the bible. Although the bible often does give us a record of events its real purpose is to teach us the mind and heart of God. When we read the bible in this way, looking for the character and will of God, it doesn't matter how we see the events from a historical perspective. If we are reading in this spirit then we will receive exactly the same wisdom from the bible whether we see it as allegory or history. The first part of this article is about how some of the important truths of the bible can be allegorical without detracting from their truth and the second is to show how the bible can be reconciled to the findings of science without compromising faith.

Part 1

In 2 Tim 3 : 16-17 Paul says

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good wor'.

He also says in 1 Tim 1 : 5

5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

So the point of scripture is that we be better equipped to do the work that God sets before us, that we come away from reading the scriptures more able to love. In 1 Tim 1:4 he specifically warns us against getting into pointless argument about scripture !

Some passages are obviously allegories that point us to a spiritual truth or principle. A good example of this would be the parables of Jesus; little stories he used to communicate a message. Now these passages are not themselves 'true' in the conventional meaning of the word and yet they can carry very important truth. In the parable of the 'good Samaritan' there was never any Samaritan (since it is a story !) and in that sense the story could be said to be not true, like any fiction. Yet the story tells of how any man can be a neighbour to another and fulfil the law to love our neighbour as ourselves - a very important truth. This passage points us to truth by giving us a means to visualise it - through allegory. The important part of that story, the bit that is true, has nothing to do with Samaritans, or robbers, or innkeepers at all.

So what about the truth in scriptures that are not so obviously allegory. Lets look quickly at the scriptures relating to the fall of Adam. In these Adam eats the forbidden fruit and through that act he is cut off from his creator.

Gen 2 : 9
9 Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and
good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of
good and evil.
Gen 2 : 16-17
16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely;
17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day
that you eat from it you will surely die."

But then Eve, deceived by Satan the serpent eats the forbidden fruit and brings it to Adam who also eats it.

Gen 3 : 17 - 19
17 The LORD said to the man, "You listened to your wife and ate fruit from that tree. And so,
the ground will be under a curse because of what you did. As long as you live, you will have
to struggle to grow enough food.
18 Your food will be plants, but the ground will produce thorns and thistles.
19 You will have to sweat to earn a living; you were made out of soil, and you will once again
turn into soil."

The important truth in those scriptures is not that Adam had a snack. Eating the 'forbidden fruit' was more than Adam quenching a minor hunger but is symbolic of him (and all mankind through him) reaching out deliberately for knowledge away from his creator. It shows that the root of sin is man's thirst for knowledge outside of God. This spiritual principle is illustrated in the New Testament scripture

1 Cor 8 : 1-2
....We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.
2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing.....

The physical facts of the garden of Eden event are irrelevant and remote from our lives, they have long faded into history - but the spiritual truth it points to is highly applicable to us. That 'knowledge' puffs up whereas love builds up - spiritually where we eat from the tree of life we build but where we eat from the tree of knowledge we destroy. For this reason it matters not one jot whether the tale is allegorical or a factual historical record - in either case the truth it contains is the spiritual principle it points to. So it is with much scripture - the important truth is the spiritual principle they bring us to.

You have to be a little careful with this. It is possible to ascribe to the allegorical anything that your faith has difficulty stretching to. We must not take away from the power of God, who is more than capable of doing all of these things. Some facts we cannot possibly ascribe to the allegorical if Christianity is to have any truth at all. Most importantly the historical reality of the death and ressurection of Christ ! In 1 Corinthians 15 St Paul explains that our hope and belief rests not in the theory of Christianity but in the physical resurrection of Christ. Sure, Gods power works through the symbolic power of this act - Christ died once, for all - but there must be an act for it to carry this symbolic power - 'else our hope is in vain and we of all people are to be pitied most'. The important thing though, is not to get hung up on dogma. Our insistence that the bible be viewed in a certain light could become a barrier to someone else finding God!

This is the difference between an exoteric and an esoteric interpretation of a passage. The exoteric meaning is the plain, down to earth, record of what happened. The esoteric meaning is the spiritual principle, the hidden meaning. The equal but opposite evil to an over strict literal interpretation is to always be looking for a hidden meaning in what is plain and obvious. Some occultists, for example, hold that Jesus was part of a Jewish sect called the Essene. They look in the sayings of Jesus for 'code' to the supposed magical practises of the Essene. This misses the point just as badly as those who insist on a purely literal meaning.

Part 2

This is also relevant to non-believers who are looking at Christianity. When presented with dogmatic beliefs they may see them as not just outlandish but demonstrably wrong. The central fact of Christianity is Christ, his death and ressurection. This is a belief which, in this scientific age, is certainly outlandish - but not demonstrably wrong. In fact there is much historical evidence that can be used to point to the truth of the gospels.

The strictest literal interpretation of Genesis says that the universe and the earth and all the creatures on it were created by God in six 24 hour periods (days). The earth, and perhaps even the universe, was created looking more or less the way it does now. Man and the other creatures were created fully formed in all the divergent species and no new species have arrived since. All the animals were vegetarians, living in harmony with each other, until the fall of man. According to the genealogical records in Genesis and the gospels (the list of descendants from Adam to Jesus) creation all happened approximately 6000 years ago - in fact one bishop even put a time on it, just after teatime I think he said. This last theory, that the earth is about 6000 years old, is called the 'young earth' theory - or group of theories really as there are several variations. As you can imagine these beliefs rest uneasily with several branches of science, including evolutionary biology, palaeontology, cosmology and geology for example.

The problem a scientist (that nebulous entity) has is that he cannot discard any of these planks from the edifice that is modern science in isolation. All these different branches extend out from one body of knowledge and fit together. For example, one important tool of the geologist, radio-carbon dating, is established according to the principles of nuclear physics. These same principles are used by the cosmologist when he looks at how the stars function and how the universe is structured. Two obvious examples of scientific discoveries that would seem to contradict such 'strict' beliefs as the young earth theory are the discovery of dinosaur fossils and the discovery that the universe is expanding.

The first discovery implies the existence of carnivorous creatures from before mankind. The second discovery - that the universe is expanding - was one of the facts that led to the general acceptance of the 'big bang theory'. This is the theory that the universe originated in a huge explosion millions of years ago out of which both time and space leapt into existence. From this mass of heat and energy, galaxies congealed and planets formed. In Genesis chapter 1 verse 3 we are told 'Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.' Now this sounds very similar to the big bang theory to me - at God's command light explodes into existence. The fact that scientific evidence confirms this is remarkable ! In fact before this theory it seemed, from a scientific point of view, that the universe had always existed. This made it harder for a scientist to accept the biblical version that creation happened at a specific moment of time. Those who first 'observed' the ripples in the background radiation of the universe - another confirming fact of the 'big bang theory' - said it was like looking at the thumbprints of God - one of his marks left on creation. However, if you accept this is the case you are already accepting that some of the language in Genesis is poetic and allegorical. You accept that the phases of creation - the six 'days' are not periods of twenty four hours. This is a step some are not prepared to make.

Once one accepts the existence of an omnipotent God and his role as creator it is perfectly legitimate to believe that he chose to create the world in six periods of twenty four hours and that evidence that he did it any other way has an alternative explanation. However where the evidence indicates that the biblical ordering is true but partly allegorical, this seems a perfectly reasonable thing to believe. The only position it is not legitimate to take is one insisting that in order to be a 'true believer' you have to believe in one particular version of these beliefs !

What I would like to show is that based on spiritual principle there is at least one interpretation of Genesis that can fit in with a scientific timetable of creation. This is not to say that the following sequence of events is 'the right one' or even the only possible one, but that it is entirely possible to be a bible believing Christian who also has no argument with the findings of science. (This is an alternative version of the gap theory that theologians may be familiar with).

This version particularly revolves around the timing of the fall. The order of the creation of the earth, plants, animals and then man already fits the pattern proposed by the 'theory of evolution'. But, a traditional reading of genesis says that creatures must have been herbivores before the fall; living in harmony with each other until death and destruction entered when man ate the forbidden fruit. If evolution is true then creatures have developed, adapted to kill and feed off each other. This is reflected in the fossils of long extinct creatures and the creatures around us today. So we have an apparent conflict.

What that reading fails to take into account is that creation and created life includes the angelic realms and hierarchies. This obviously includes the angels themselves as God created them too [2].

Talking of Jesus, Paul says (Col 1 : 16)

16 Everything was created by him, everything in heaven and on earth, everything seen and unseen, including all forces and powers, and all rulers and authorities. All things were created by God's Son, and everything was made for him.

The following passage is lifted straight from 'Lectures in Systematic Theology by Henry C. Thiessen' (p133 The Origin of the Angels).

'The time of their creation is nowhere definitely indicated, but it is most probable that it occurred before the creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1), for according to Job 38:4-7, "the sons of God shouted for joy" when God laid the foundations of the earth. Clearly, they were in existence by Gen 3:1 when Satan, an angelic being, made his appearance.'

Obviously the fall of the angels happened before the fall of man - since it was a fallen Satan who tempted Eve. Therefore 'creation', looked at as a whole, had already fallen before the fall of man.

One thing I have always wondered is why was Adam placed in a garden in the first place - a secluded paradise ? If the whole of the earth was a perfect paradise then why restrict Adam to a small part of the earth. If imperfection was already woven into the fabric of creation that would explain why. In support of that is that when Adam and Eve rebelled against God they were thrown out of the garden - implying that outside the garden was already a worse place to be.

Gen 3 : 23 (Contemporary English Version)
23 So the LORD God sent them out of the Garden of Eden, where they would have
to work the ground from which the man had been made.

(He threw them out of the garden so that they wouldn't eat of the tree of life).

Some pundits hold that the use of the word 'void' in Genesis 1 : 2 - 'the earth was void and formless' - indicates this initial chaos and fallen state. I don't really hold with that reading - just look at my website title to get some sense of the meaning I might ascribe to 'void' ! I see it as more meaning unformed and potential, but the position that creation had already fallen (carried this imperfection) before the arrival of man is not necessarily an unorthodox Christian view. The earth as it grew and developed already could have carried that curse of sin and death that we see all around us (and we see evidence of in the pre-human fossil record).

The spiritual legitimacy of the corruption was sealed in the fall of man, in Eden. God had placed rulership of his creation in the hands of man - but that rule was given over to Satan when he caused man to turn away from God. This was only to be returned to redeemed man in the sacrificial death of Jesus - the 'New Adam'. Scripture heralds him as the 'lamb slain before the foundation of the earth'. The symbol of the lamb speaks of meekness and innocence and also the sacrificial lamb that fulfilled the Old Testament law for the forgiving of sins. That he is described as 'slain before the foundation of the earth' hints that this pattern of fall and redemption was somehow within Gods plan.

This still begs the question of how did a perfect God create or allow an imperfect world ? I know of no complete answer to this question - the only vaguely satisfactory one I know kind of leaves the question open. Here it goes anyway - 'sin must have been within the sovereign will of God', which is kind of obvious but puts the mystery firmly back within Gods province. From touching Gods nature - all I can say is that Gods two best qualities are his faithfulness and his justice. He never breaks his promises/he stays totally true to us and the oppressed will be avenged, the wrongs they have suffered will be righted...... Hmmmmm...... another difficult lesson to learn is that sometimes we can't have all the answers.

Written May 2003.

Footnotes

[1]Some 'streams of churches'' hold that the bible is the only arbiter of beliefs and practises. In as much as Christian means 'follower of Christ' and the bible is the only convincingly authentic record of his life this makes sense. Others have a body of church tradition that is accorded equal status, like the Roman Catholic tradition for example. Unfortunately this can be a way in for error in doctrine.
[2]Lectures in Systematic Theology by Henry C. Thiessen says (p133 The Origin of the Angels) 'Psalm 148:2-5 includes angels with the sun, moon, and stars as part of God's creation. John 1:3 indicates that Jesus created all things. Among "all things" are all things "in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities" (Col. 1:16; cf. Eph. 6:12) '

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