How Trustworthy is the Bible? (3)
Written by Cornelis Pronk
|Reformed Practice - The Bible|
In his book "The Trustworthiness of the Bible," the author, Dr. Loonstra, states as his major thesis that God reveals Himself to us in His Word metaphorically, i.e., by using figures of speech, rather than in a strictly literal way. As was pointed out in our last article, Scripture does indeed include figurative language, but wherever this is the case, the reader will recognize it immediately. The problem is that today there is a trend among Bible scholars to find metaphorical language in passages which have traditionally been taken as literal and which the authors clearly intended to be read as such. Loonstra sees this "new" method of interpreting Scripture as a way to get around the problem of many apparent contradictions, discrepancies and inaccuracies in the Bible. Scientific research, especially in physics, astronomy and archaeology, has all but demonstrated that Scripture contains many statements that are at variance with scientific and historical facts. We now know, it is alleged, that some Biblical accounts, for instance, of the creation of the world and of the Flood, include a great deal of mythological elements borrowed from pagan cultures, and that such stories as the life of Abraham, the crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel and the conquest of Jericho, can be traced to sagas and legends which may or may not have historical roots.
For Loonstra none of this matters because God, in revealing Himself to man, has accommodated Himself to man's level of understanding and the culture in which he finds himself. This means that to people living in pre-scientific times God revealed His truth in terms they could understand and relate to culturally, even if this meant using myths, legends and sagas. In other words, God supposedly, spoke truth by resorting to untruth!
What is a myth? The term myth (Greek mythos) occurs five times in the New Testament (I Tim 1:4; 4:7; II Tim.4:4; Titus 1:14; II Pet. 1:16). In each instance it signifies the fiction of a fable as distinct from the genuineness of the truth (cf. II Tim. 4:4,"And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables" (literally: myths). In classical Greek too, mythos always bears the sense of what is fictitious as opposed to the term logos, which indicates what is true and historical. Thus Socrates describes a particular story as "no fictitious myth but a true logos" (Plato, Timaeus, 26E). Today, also for most people, the terms "myth" or "mythical" signifies that which is fabulous, fantastic and therefore inauthentic.
Loonstra, however, claims that Scripture abounds with myths or at least, statements that contain traces of mythological elements. Not only in the Genesis account of the creation and the flood, but also in Job, the Psalms and some of the prophets, one finds evidence of mythological discourse. With respect to Genesis 1 to 11 Loonstra sees definite analogies between the Biblical record and the mythical accounts found in the Babylonian creation and flood stories. For instance, the division between waters above and below the firmament as well as the separation of the waters from the dry land (Gen.1:6-9) finds its counterpart in the Enuma Elish story which goes back to even older Sumerian myths. According to the Babylonian account, Marduk, the supreme god, cut the body of the mother goddess in two, making heaven from half of her and earth from the other half. The story of the Garden of Eden also finds its parallel in the Gilgamesh epic which tells of man's quest for eternal life. The hero, Gilgamesh, a legendary king of Uruk, is directed to the plant of life which he has to recover from the ocean depths, but no sooner has he done so or it is snatched away from him by a serpent who devours the plant. Dejectedly, the superhuman Gilgamesh returns to Uruk to face life as all other mortals do. The same epic contains an account of a mighty deluge which bears some similarities to the Flood story in Genesis. In fact, all over the world one finds ancient people's myths which tell of a time when the human race lived in a happy and peaceful Edenic environment without pain or death. This blissful situation came to an abrupt end when man committed the "sin" of curiosity for which the punishment was death and all other miseries to which the human race is now subjected.
The question we need to ask here, Loonstra says, is whether the author of Genesis has borrowed material from these extra-biblical mythological creation and flood accounts. For most liberal scholars this is an established fact. Orthodox scholars, on the other hand, offer a different explanation, namely that these ancient myths are the result of a corruption of the original record. Herman Bavinck, for instance, says that the tradition about the origin of the world was preserved intact by Israel, while in pagan nations a gradual process of adulteration of the record took place. Loonstra takes issue with this position on the grounds that the Old Testament is replete with mythological concepts which admittedly are foreign to Israel's religious convictions. Examples are the frequent references to sea monsters as Leviathan, the crooked serpent and the dragon (Isa. 27:1; Job 26:12,13); the garden of God and the holy mountain of God (Ezek. 28:12,13), all of which, says Loonstra, are themes borrowed from Babylonian and Sumerian myths.
Against those who interpret these mythological references merely as symbols of Israel's enemies and forces of nature over which Jehovah has triumphed, Loonstra contends that this would credit the Israelites with a degree of sophistication they could not have possessed at this stage of their development. It would imply that they understood that these myths as used by the surrounding nations were completely devoid of truth and reality. In other words, according to this interpretation, Israel knew that the gods of the pagan nations did not exist and were figments of their worshippers' imagination. This Loonstra disputes. In his view, the essence of Israel's faith consists not in their denial of the existence of these gods, but in the superiority of Jehovah their God over them. If Jehovah had indeed defeated these rival gods and other hostile forces, they must have posed a real threat, otherwise it would have been an empty victory. Conclusion: Israel did believe in the existence of pagan gods and other mythological figures and took them seriously. Even more than that, the Biblical record shows that pagan religion held a considerable attraction for the Israelites. At the very least this means that the mythical view of life did not leave them totally unaffected (pp.132-133).
There is an element of truth to what Loonstra says here. The way in which mythological language is used by some Bible writers seems to support his contention that mythical concepts were part of the mental outlook of the Hebrews. Perhaps the situation was similar to that of Europeans living in the 16th century who still believed in witches and other superstitions. But does it follow from this that God revealed His truth through myths, legends and sagas? Can the idea of accommodation be stressed to the point that corrupt heathen notions would serve as vehicles for God to communicate with man?
There are plenty of conservative scholars who vigorously reject such a notion. R. K. Harrison, for instance, states that although some Old Testament passages appear to be influenced by Near East myth, what survives is only a remnant of the myth form, that is, a name devoid of its mythological implications: "the mythological content is so attenuated as to justify the conclusion that it was merely employed as dead verbal imagery whose origins were even then almost completely forgotten" (Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 451). Another author explains, "While mythology frequently intrudes into its pages, the Old Testament never employs the term myth. Mythology in the Old Testament is always depicted as a forbidden pagan environment and as a religious compromise to which the Hebrews themselves were vulnerable from time to time" (Carl Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. I, p. 47).
Also important in this connection is the fact that mythology is often ridiculed by the Bible writers and contrasted with the truth of revelation (Job 7:12; Ps. 74:13). Where mythological language is employed in the Old Testament it carries with it a very different meaning for the Hebrews than for the surrounding nations. For one thing, it is seldom taken literally but almost always in a figurative and poetical sense, as in Job 41:1ff, where Leviathan is not viewed as a mythical foe of Jehovah, but simply as a crocodile.
I mentioned already that the word myth occurs only five times in the New Testament and in each case it is used negatively. The classic treatment of the New Testament attitude toward myth is Gustav Stahlin's essay on the subject in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. According to Stahlin, the Bible has no use whatever for myth because it involves "an inherent antithesis to truth and reality which is quite intolerable on NT soil." Another scholar, Adolph Koberle, writes, "the history of salvation that is directly linked to the name of Jesus is fundamentally different from the world of myth" (Jesus Christ, the Centre of History, p. 65). Even Karl Barth, who is by no means an orthodox scholar, rejects myth as a vehicle of divine revelation.
In view of this negative evaluation of myth it is surprising that so many contemporary scholars accept it as a positive concept. Myth has become the literary genre par excellence to convey divine truth to man. Why is this so? No doubt it has to do with the modern notion that man cannot obtain cognitive or intellectual knowledge of transcendent realities (realities beyond himself and the material world). Revelation, whether general or special, does not communicate objective information about God's nature or attributes or anything else that lies beyond man's temporal horizon. However, while man cannot know anything about God he is able to experience God in some sort of mystical encounter mediated through symbolic language. Myth, in this view, is ideally suited to describe what cannot be expressed in rational or historical categories.
Everything here is subjective and unverifiable. Anyone can claim to have his or her own experience of God which bears no relation whatever to objective truth.
In fairness to Loonstra, it should be pointed out that the above does not reflect his own position. He wants to believe that God can and does communicate objective truth by using mythological and other figurative forms of language. But by adopting this hermeneutical method he leaves himself wide open for the dangers inherent in this unbiblical approach. As Carl Henry explains:
As the liberal Dutch theologian Harry Kuitert has stated over and over again in his writings: "Whatever we say about God above comes from below," i.e., religion is a product of man's own imagination and the concept he has of God and supernatural things varies from culture to culture. There is nothing objective about it; all is subjective and therefore relative. What is true for you is not necessarily true for me and vice versa.
What is true of myth equally applies to sagas and legends. Loonstra defines a saga as a popular story (volksverhaal) about persons with whom the community in which the story is told identifies itself. He distinguishes between family and hero sagas. An example of the former is the cluster of stories about the patriarchs in Genesis, while the latter category is illustrated by some of the stories about the victories of king David over Israel's enemies. Loonstra concedes that these stories contain elements that are not historically accurate in every way, but for him this is no reason to question their basic historical value and trustworthiness (p.135).
But is it possible to determine to which degree sagas are historically reliable? In other words, where do facts end and poetry take over?
Loonstra answers this question by quoting the German scholar Gerhard Von Rad with evident approval: "This is a question which does not do justice to the unique character of the saga. It points up the difference between our [Western] analytical approach to history and the synthesizing approach of ancient Israel which identified itself with the dramatic personae featured in those stories. (p.136). Loonstra' own comment is this: "The Bible gives no objective reproduction of bare facts but a reproduction that is coloured by the personal engagement in and conviction of an enduring event. The trustworthiness of such an event does not focus on the particular details but on the deeper faith-connections which have been laid bare by believing Israel. Therefore, by being joined together by faith we can also feel one with Israel" (p.138).
If you thought of the word gobbledygook just now, you are excused. Is this the language of a Reformed theologian who subscribes to the Three Forms of Unity? How trustworthy can the Bible be if God's truth has to be gleaned from myths, sagas and legends--the truth content of which will probably never be established and ascertained. Loonstra himself recognizes the problem involved, for he asks: "if the historical basis of the saga is in many cases quite weak, how can we fall back on the saving acts of God in history? (p.138). Indeed, how can we? Loonstra thinks it is possible, as we shall see next time, when we will wrap up this series by examining some of the most disturbing implications of what can only be called unbiblical and unreformed views.
Rev. Cornelis (Neil) Pronk is an emeritus pastor of the Free Reformed Churches and the editor of the FRC Messenger. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is republished here with permission.