Hey guys, so have you ever seen those viral videos of teenagers trying to figure out how to use unfamiliar tools from the distant past like… rotary phones? They’re funny to watch and all, but there’s a lesson there. Before you can use something properly and effectively, you have to understand how it works and how it was intended to be used. When you don’t take time to understand the thing, you end up looking a little silly and in extreme cases may end up hurting yourself, or others.
Like teenagers with rotary phones, the Bible is a spiritual tool that all too often we don’t know how to use. In this video, we’re going to look at one common misunderstanding about the Bible and how we can readjust in order to use this equipment properly. Let’s jump in.
Alright so before we get into an example from the Bible, we need to lay some groundwork. Today most people believe, (and rightly so) that the earth is a globe suspended in space, orbiting the sun. This is our modern understanding of the universe. But, for example, in the ancient Middle East, people generally believed that the earth was the shape of a flat disc, supported by massive pillars. Overhead was a solid dome called the “firmament” which kept out the cosmic waters surrounding the earth. Within the dome, you had the sun, moon, stars, the dry land, oceans, rivers, etc. Some people describe this model as sort of an inverse snowglobe, where the inhabitable space is on the inside and the water is on the outside. It’s sort of like… Sandy’s tree dome from Spongebob.
This was the predominant understanding of the universe in the ancient Middle East. The Bible is an ancient Middle Eastern text. But it is also scripture — the word of God, right? So, quiz time: when we read the Bible, should we expect to find the incorrect but popular cosmology of ancient times? Or should we expect to find our correct but modern understanding of the universe?
Well, let’s take a sample from the Creation account in Genesis chapter 1 and see which model fits best. Here are verses 6 and 7, before dry land and all that good stuff: “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.”
It’s the ancient model. In fact, acknowledging this ancient context really helps make sense of these verses. Without that context, it’s just really hard to figure out what’s going on here. But here’s the problem: not all, but many Christians believe that because the Bible is scripture — because it’s the word of God, and God-breathed, it cannot be wrong about anything — it is inerrant. In other words, the Bible is a book of divine facts. For example, consider this quote from a popular Christian website:
“When all the facts are known, the Scriptures … will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences …. what [the prophets] say is what God says, and no human error is mixed in with it.”
If this is what you believe about scripture, when you find things like this incorrect model of the universe in the Bible, it may be troubling to you. And different people handle this issue in different ways. Some people will end up rejecting the Bible as inspired scripture. Other people, since the Bible simply can’t be wrong, will reinterpret it in such a way that it veers away from this model of the universe. Others will adopt a more narrow view of inerrancy: “The Bible might get some science stuff wrong but everything else is right.” And others will pause to reevaluate some of these deeper assumptions about the Bible they’ve brought to the table. Maybe the whole idea of inerrancy itself amounts to a misunderstanding of how this “rotary phone” is supposed to be used.
For example, Pete Enns, who is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, wrote, “Genesis and modern science are neither enemies nor friends, but two different ways of describing the world according to the means available to the people living at these different times … It is important to remember that God always speaks in ways that people can actually understand. In the ancient world, people held certain views about the world around them. Those views are also reflected in Genesis. If we keep this in mind, much of the conflict can subside.”
God tailors revelation to the understanding and cultural context of the imperfect people who receive, interpret, and express that revelation. It’s OK for scripture to use an incorrect model of the universe to convey a message that is astronomically (no pun intended) more important: That God is the Creator. Is God trying to deceive people? Of course not. That said, this concept may lead to the question: If there can be things in the Bible that simply aren’t true, how can we believe anything the Bible has to say? This is one reason why some people grasp onto this idea of biblical inerrancy so tightly, because, as another popular Christian website says, “If the Bible is fallible, we as Christians have nothing on which to base our beliefs.”
And even though we Latter-day Saints reject the idea of Biblical inerrancy, many of us ask this same question about modern prophets — if they can get things wrong sometimes, how can I trust anything they have to say? But imagine if we extended this logic into other realms of life. For example, on occasion, your eyes might deceive you. Does that mean you should just wear a blindfold all the time? Sometimes modern science gets things wrong. Should we just abandon science altogether? Of course not. Despite the possibility for error, everyone still has rational faith that things like science and your eyes are reliable sources. I think the same principle applies to the scriptures and modern prophets.
Now, in this episode, we’ve explored just one way we might be using the Bible (our spiritual rotary phone) incorrectly. There are lots of other important factors we need to consider as we approach scripture, but we’ll save those for future episodes. If you want to learn more about this subject, check out the resources in the YouTube description, check out some of our other videos related to this topic while you’re here, and have a great day.
Latter-day Saint bible scholar Ben Spackman tirelessly provides excellent resources that help both members and non-members of our faith to better understand how to read, interpret, and use the Bible. Check some of his stuff out below:
— “Truth, Scripture, and Interpretation: Some Precursors to Reading Genesis”: https://bit.ly/2WqMAnW
— “Episode 45: Misunderstanding the Bible — Ben Spackman” (LDS Perspectives podcast): https://bit.ly/2YmP6MM
— “Virtual Sperry Fireside on Reading the Old Testament in Context”: https://bit.ly/3mjN5JE
— “Resources for Studying the Bible in Context”: https://bit.ly/3m6Q4Vm
— “Interpreting Scripture, History, Science, and Creation: A Free Course by Me!”: https://bit.ly/39V7RJM
— An interview of Spackman (in 8 parts) in which he talks about subjects like Genesis, evolution, concordism, etc.: https://bit.ly/3kjoLaY
These additional sources may interest you:
—“The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point,” by Pete Enns (non-Latter-day Saint): https://bit.ly/3A1qS7D
—More on inerrancy from Pete Enns (FYI I have not read every one of these articles): https://bit.ly/3oi51Xz
—“What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” via Patheos (note that I am not a Concordist. I think it’s another misuse of the Bible): https://bit.ly/3kYXhYx