God’s Unsolvable Biblical Problem

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Published:
October 31, 2019

My title: “God’s Unsolvable Biblical Problem”, might seem at first to be an oxymoron, if not even somewhat blasphemous. Something God cannot solve? Orthodox Christianity presumes God to be both omniscient and omnipotent. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14) But there are at least two categories where this apparent paradox is true. One is when the task proposed for God is nonsense. Can, for example, God make a square circle? No, but not because of a God-limitation. The terms square and circle are mutually exclusive, by definition. Thus the phrase is semantic gibberish. A second category is when there is an interaction between God and humanity, and the constraint on what God can do is because of human limitations, not God. By analogy, consider how silly it would be for me to try and teach differential calculus to my cat (assuming I understood it myself). In this case there is an apparently inherent limitation with my cat[1]. This God-human limitation might be because of our inherent inferiority, but it can also be because of other human limitations that, while not inherent, exist for every one of us. These involve such things as language, culture, education, sinfulness and a wide range of differences in human temperament and talents.

Human Limitations

I want to especially focus on these non-inherent, but real limitations, and how (so say I) that leaves an unsolvable biblical problem for God.

First, let us generically consider the problem of communicating something in writing, unambiguously, which will also remain clear over time. The problem of interpretive uncertainty arises immediately because:

1) Words in every language contain a degree of definitional circularity. If you try to trace the meaning of a word using a dictionary you will quickly see that definitions lean on other words that, when their definitions are examined, will frequently eventually circle back to employ the original word as part of the dictionary’s explanation.

2) Every language shifts over time and words come in and out of usage. Try reading Shakespeare without consulting a dictionary. What’s a “bare bodkin”? (Hamlet , Act 3, Scene 1) Sounds like nudity.

3) Translation to another language produces ambiguity, as often a word or phrase used in the original does not have a precise equivalent in the target language. This problem is further complicated if the author used any idiomatic phraseology. Idioms demand significant cultural context to even have a chance of being properly translated. The literal, surface meaning is often quite different from the actual idea being expressed.

4) Because language is always an expression of culture, time and location, what the author means will inevitably fade somewhat as time advances and what was written – perhaps very well understood by the original readers – becomes less and less clear when later in time the new reader is no longer privy to the original cultural and linguistic setting.

I’m sure there are more problems, or variations on the above, that a more detailed analysis could explore. But this will suffice. The Bible, as a collection of writings, exemplifies all these difficulties. There are multiple original languages, written in times and by authors in contexts quite unlike modernity. Then translated and sometimes re-translated[2] from languages whose words can become obscured over time[3].

None of this ought to be controversial or surprising. It begins to be problematic, however, if you have – or want to have – an oversimplified view of biblical interpretation. A phrase familiar to the conservative Christian subculture is plain reading of the Word. And to many, this idea is understood to mean: if I read something in the Bible and it seems clear to me, then that is indeed what is being said – by God. And being disabused of this convenient and comforting oversimplification can be disconcerting and unwelcome.

Several decades ago I was discussing some of these ideas on an Adventist online forum (not Spectrum) and another commenter took offense at what he perceived was my denigration of the Bible. He proposed a distorted analogy by saying my description of the difference between God’s original truth and what we see in the Bible was like high quality oats being fed to a donkey with the material we read being manure coming out the back end. His choice of “analogy”, of course, was intended to put what I was saying into the worst possible light. And I surmise that this occurred to him in part because of how threatening it might be to have ambiguity clouding what formerly had been perceived as a clean, simple and unadulterated communication from God to him. With his “plain understanding” retaining, of course, the full inspiration of the original.

Unfortunately, little resolution occurred in that conversation (surprise, surprise). But even after discounting for his disparaging “manure” characterization and his being threatened, there are legitimate questions and degrees of obfuscation inherent in my above-described process, with impact on the reliability of the typically semi-casual understandings of an “average” person-in-the-pew.

So it’s helpful, I think, to consider the biblical material as being in two very broad categories. Doing this is simplification, with its attendant risks, so caution is advised. But, caveats applied, consider the material as being: a) ethical/moral directives and illustrations to apply in our daily lives; and b) specific information otherwise unavailable to mankind. In this second category one would find, among other things, eschatology and prophecy. But also definitional material about what does or does not constitute sin and salvation – crucial parts of the revelatory material.

As a brief, but relatively clear example, consider these two texts:

a) “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)

b) “The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach.” (Revelation 12:14, NIV)

The first (a) is speaking to one’s moral duty; the second (b) is prophetic, using imagery that has been subject to a wide range of interpretation throughout Christian history.

What I suggest about these two categories is this: biblical material dealing with prescriptive moral norms is much more universal and thus understandable across the sweep of time, from the original recipients to those who read it today. The second category sometimes needs to be interpreted much more cautiously and tentatively[4]. This has been difficult for Adventists throughout church history, but is basically a generic human problem. And it illustrates, better than my category (a), God’s unsolvable biblical problem. If God inspires an author, who commits the inspiration to language, that idea is immediately frozen in context. And as time proceeds the clarity of the original intent recedes. But, I argue, ethical material (category a) is generally more easily and accurately understood than specific propositional information (category b). So, why might God have even given category (b) material if the risk is high for misunderstanding? Sometimes its primary purpose might have been for the original hearers, not us. It’s also possible that God actually wanted some ambiguity to allow for varying spiritual applications to be considered by people born into different cultural contexts. There are a lot of possibilities, but the fact remains that moving an idea from “the mind of God” and into written text, results inevitably in the risk of human failure to properly, adequately understand. And this inevitability too often eludes Christian readers. Then, like my years-ago interlocutor, fear and resistance can enter the picture. It ain’t as simple as we would like!

The Issue of World View

But now I wish to consider a problem that is bigger, and at a higher level of abstraction. One that subsumes the sort of difficulties exemplified by my above 4 points. I will label it: World View shift. This whole issue of a shifting World View throughout history has been mostly unexplored until recently[5]. It is 100% a human limitation, but is a critical, yet unsolvable problem for God. When revelation is committed to language the words become fixed into a time/culture context, as written by a finite, albeit inspired, author.

To begin with, what do I mean by the phrase: World View? Here some appropriate definitions:

- A particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.

- The set of beliefs about fundamental aspects of Reality that ground and influence all one's perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing.

- The whole of the individual's or society's knowledge and point of view.

Both the biblical authors, but more importantly the original target audience, operated under a world view that is significantly different from that which prevails in modernity. And this difference is particularly acute and relevant in attempting to understand the Genesis creation story.

As John Walton frames the issue[6]:

“… Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their ‘scientific’ understanding of the cosmos. … They believed that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters. In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”

If Walton’s assertions are correct (and those who disagree shouldn’t have a knee-jerk reaction simply based on unfamiliarity and possible perceived threat), then we need to wrestle with the dilemma of God communicating a message within the world view limitations of its original hearers/readers, but consequently causing a problem when those words get filtered by a modern world view, one that adds the category of natural causes. And secondarily has the risk of moderns wishing the material to address issues that were beyond the understandability of the ancient target audience, and not the focus of the original message.

Walton continues[7]:

“Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. … This represents one attempt to ‘translate’ the culture and text for the modern reader. The problem is, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we. … If we try to turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. … Since we view the text as authoritative, it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say.”

The full and very contentious topic of what the Genesis creation story does or doesn’t say is bigger and obviously beyond the scope of this essay. What I wish to be understood, in the context of difficulty for God, is the problem of communicating with mankind over a timeframe where human limitations result in an audience that can have significantly different backgrounds and perspectives. This then causes them to approach any written material (unless sensitized to the risk) with implicit presuppositions and framework, and can constrain their ability to understand what is actually being said and not said. So, if God is primarily communicating to the original audience, those “downstream” in history can re-interpret the text erroneously.

These considerations exemplify the generic problem whenever a thought is committed to language and thus frozen by writing it down. It doesn’t go away if the thought inspiration comes from God. It doesn’t even go away if (like the Koran) the actual words in the autograph language are understood to have been dictated by God.

None of this necessitates concluding that the end result – the Bible – becomes incomprehensible garbage, as my conversation-partner inferred many years ago. But neither does it mean that we ought to uncritically read the text and impute our modern sensibilities into what the biblical authors have written. And I think this is very frequently the standard way an average Christian reads the Bible. Mostly I think this over-simplification is done quite honestly and innocently, as there has been little effort by church leaders and theologians to commutate such things to the laity. But I would hope, as such complexity becomes recognized, that we all would be trying to responsibly exegete what we are reading. And the collective result of this caution would be positive: a closer alignment between God as message-giver, and Christians seeking clarity in their message-receiving.
 

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[1] Although I suppose my cat might have abilities I have not discerned, but would just rather sleep – not unlike me when I took the class, years ago.

[2] For example, some of the King James Version of the Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, itself a translation from the original languages.

[3] See, for example: https://www.skipmoen.com/2016/11/untranslatable-3/

[4] Prophecy is notorious for being interpreted in a wide variety of ways – notwithstanding the belief by many Adventists that the church’s understanding is both correct, and obviously so. But I do not want to ever suggest that all specific information (b) is esoteric and hard to understand. Probably the most recognized Bible verse is:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 KJV) This is pretty clear, transcends culture and time, and does not fall under the ethical category (a), above.

[5] There are two sets of books/authors that are particularly relevant. The first in each set focuses on the biblical creation story. The second on the flood narrative.  They are:

1a) John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)

1b) John H. Walton, Tremper Longman III, The Lost World of the Flood (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018)

and

2a) Brian Bull, Fritz Guy, God, Sky and Land (Roseville, CA: Adventist Forum, 2011)

2b) Brian Bull, Fritz Guy, God, Land and the Great Flood  (Roseville, CA: Adventist Forum, 2017)

[6] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 14.

[7] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 14-15.

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Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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