Are the Bible’s theological claims invalidated if they rest on literary rather than historical grounds?

This is another question that has been posed by a reader. Dr. Smith is answering it because it has to do with biblical interpretation.


Q. To what degree do claims involving spiritual matters depend on the correctness of the physical understanding that prompted them? Clearly, as with Jesus’ parables, you can have spiritual truth communicated through events that never happened. However, for those, the literary genre  precludes the historicity of the events described. Would you say that there are other categories of truth such as literary truth that might be somewhere in between physical and spiritual truth?

To take a different example, whatever view one takes of Jesus’ omniscience while he was a man on earth, one can always extricate him from any factual errors by arguing that, as God did throughout the Bible, Jesus was simply accommodating the knowledge of his audience to communicate spiritual and theological truths (e.g. with his statement about the mustard seed). When it comes to the apostles, though, they seemingly believed in a historical Adam and Eve, but one can’t really argue that in fact, they knew better but were simply accommodating the knowledge of their audience.

So if an argument that has spiritual ramifications is based on a reading of nature or history that is potentially flawed, how does one responsibly handle the spiritual points being made? Another example might be points made by the author of Hebrews based on Old Testament events that may or may not have happened quite as described in the Bible. Should one just abstract or extract inerrant theological truth based on the author’s likely understanding?

A. For one thing, many of these problems go away when we have a better understanding of the biblical culture and language. For example, Jesus’ statement that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds” is often cited (sometimes gleefully) as proof that he wasn’t omniscient, because there are all kinds of seeds that are actually smaller. However, this is the kind of statement that’s made in Hebrew all the time to express extreme rather than superlative meaning. It’s like when a person says, “That was the best party ever!” While that’s a superlative statement, we shouldn’t take it literally and undercut it by saying, “I don’t know, back in ’02 we had a party that I think was probably better.” The person is actually saying, “That was a very good party!” And Jesus, for his part, is really saying, “The mustard seed is a very small seed, but it grows into a large plant.” An additional shade of meaning may be, “The mustard seed is the smallest seed you’re familiar with,” i.e. “I bet you can’t think of a smaller seed than the mustard seed, but what a large plant grows from it!” We are taking our modern, rational mindset and trying to impose it on statements that are hyperbolic and poetic, and that’s where the trouble often comes from.

On the other hand, I don’t see any need to defend the idea that Jesus was omniscient on earth. I believe he actually could have had a limited knowledge of world-wide botany, among other things, because the Bible itself says very clearly that he “emptied himself” when he came to earth. Most interpreters understand this to mean that he emptied himself of the so-called “non-communicable” divine attributes, i.e. those that God doesn’t share with humans, such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. But Jesus retained the “communicable” divine attributes such as holiness, wisdom, etc. In that way he’s an example for us, showing us that we can share those attributes as well. So I would not argue that Jesus knew better but was simply accommodating the limitations of his audience when he made statements such as that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.” We know that the sun doesn’t actually rise; the earth rotates. But Jesus, when on earth, may well have believed in a stationary earth around which the sun revolved. No biggie.

The book of Hebrews is a very interesting case not because it appeals to  events that may not actually have happened in history (I’m not aware of any cases of that), but because it relies on the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Scriptures and so makes some linguistic moves that would not be possible from the Hebrew text. For example, it quotes the phrase “a body you prepared for me” from Psalm 40 in the Septuagint as support for the idea of Christ’s incarnation and the efficacy of his sacrificial offering of his “body.” The Hebrew text, however, actually reads “my ears you have opened.” I’ve addressed this issue of quotations that seem inexact in a post on my other blog Good Question (where there’s a link to my study guide to Hebrews, where I discuss the issue even further). The author of Hebrews is always very careful with the text; he “sees Christ as culmination of the story of God’s covenant dealings with humanity, and so earlier figures, events, institutions, and objects are seen as prefiguring his life and work. There is always a close and appropriate thematic connection between the earlier context in the First Testament and the situation in the life of Christ.”

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that all of us read and understand the Bible within a culture-bound tradition of interpretation. Another example of this is how Paul, speaking of the Israelites in the wilderness, refers to “the rock that followed them.” He’s adhering to a rabbinic interpretation that grew up in response to the question, “How could the rock that Moses struck in one place in the desert have provided water for the Israelites all throughout their journey?” The rabbinic answer was, “The rock must have followed them around, all the way to Canaan.” Now the Bible says nothing of the kind, and we can be pretty sure that this didn’t happen historically. But Paul is assuming this as a fact because he’s operating within a particular tradition of biblical interpretation.

This kind of thing is simply inevitable, because we are time-bound, history-bound, culture-bound humans. We can see it more clearly in the case of the biblical authors because we’re looking in from outside their framework. It’s harder for us to see in our own case because we’re within our own framework and so we don’t recognize what comes from it and what comes from the timeless redemptive work of God that the Bible captures. Perhaps it does not capture it completely, any more than a painting can capture an scene, but it does so at least as accurately as a painting captures a scene. (Though one limitation we experience because we are operating within a particular tradition of interpretation is a difficulty with statements that don’t make sense within our rational-scientific framework, e.g. that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. These difficulties should not cause us problems with our faith; they should make us recognize and contextualize our framework.)

However, I think that the issue of the New Testament epistle writers not only believing in Adam and Eve as historical individuals, but basing significant theological doctrines on this belief, is something different that goes beyond anything I’ve addressed so far. Still, many of their statements are actually not as problematic as some might feel. For example, consider Paul’s statement, “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” This is a warning against false teachers and an expression of Paul’s concern for his spiritual flock in Corinth. It would not be invalidated if the episode of Eve and the serpent were literary but not historical.

We also hear many appeals, especially by “complementarians,” to Paul’s supposed argument that women should not be in authority over men because Eve was created second and was deceived, while Adam wasn’t. But as I understand it, this is actually a refutation of a proto-gnostic myth that the creator God was not the true God and that Eve (or Zoe) brought the knowledge of that fact to earth. (I discuss this in another post on my blog Good Question.) In other words, the problem here goes away when we understand the true message of the passage.

Probably the most serious issue arises from Paul’s depiction of Christ as the “second Adam.” However, even in this case we need to realize that Paul sees Adam essentially as a representative human (the “federal head” of the human race, as some theologians would put it), not primarily as a historical individual. And this is in keeping with the portrayal in Genesis itself, where the term ‘adam refers sometimes to an individual, sometimes to the first couple, sometimes to the human race, and sometimes to the entire created order. I’m confident arguing that Paul, a rabbi steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have had this notion essentially in mind, rather than the modern individualistic notion of Adam being important and significant primarily as a single historical person. This is another case where the theological argument is not invalidated if Adam is a literary figure rather than a historical one, particularly when when we realize that in the original literary presentation itself (in Genesis), he’s not just a historical person.

Still, I may not yet have given a definitive answer to the question of whether a theological claim apparently built on a historical figure or occurrence is invalidated if that figure or occurrence turns out to be  literary instead. This is because example after example turns out to be not quite a case of that. But let me say generally that the real issue here is probably, “Where does the inspiration and authority of the Bible lie?” Some would say that it’s in the actual words of Scripture themselves (“verbal plenary inspiration”); others would say that it’s in the biblical authors’ intended meanings (many inerrantists argue this). But I believe that the authority of the Bible lies in its testimony to the redemptive works of God in history—in other words, it’s the divine acts that are authoritative and revelatory of God’s character and purposes. However, we don’t actually have those acts themselves. We have the story of those acts. So effectively, all we really have as an authority is the story. In that sense, maybe trying to draw too strict a distinction between what is “literary” and what is “historical” is not a meaningful exercise. God has given us access to his character and purposes through his acts in history, but he has given us access to those acts through the biblical story.

This is not all tied up in a neat bundle, I realize, but I don’t think it can be. In one sense, trying to use the discipline of history to validate the biblical account of God’s redemptive activity (or else to create a counter-story or meta-story to which the biblical story needs to conform if we are to respect and believe it) is a lot like trying to use natural-scientific disciplines to confirm the biblical account of God’s creative activity. We should recognize that we are dealing with different disciplines that answer different kinds of questions by following different “rules of the game.”

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