Encyclopedic Assumption- the Canard of the Naturalistic Hermeneutic

Joe Carter from Evangelical Outpost analyzes the views of Roy Clouser on Genesis 1, and finds them acceptable. They take the view that to read Genesis 1 as teaching scientific truth is just a sophisticated version of the “flip-and-point” method of exegesis. They assert that it is to read an interpretation into the text that Moses never intended. Clouser calls this the “Encyclopedic Assumption”, which means that the reader assumes that the Bible is intended to answer all sorts of questions, like an encyclopedia.

The encyclopedic assumption may not go so far as to think that the answer to every question is in Scripture, but it does suppose Scripture to contain answers to all sorts of nonreligious questions. It ignores the Bible’s own central theme and purpose, and instead of trying to ascertain the literal meaning of the text (where “literal” means the intent of the author), it tries to force the text to yield truths about matters which never crossed the minds of its author(s).

I’d be interested how they know what intention Moses had. It appears to me that he intended to tell us how the universe came to be, how long it took and how long ago it happened.

Joe asserts that the text is about “teleological order”, rather than chronological order. But how does he know that? There sure seem to be a lot of chronological references in there. Joe says that Genesis is not intended to tell us how old humanity is. And yet there is chapter after chapter telling us that x lived so many years, begat y children, and then died. Why all this detail if it is not the intention of the author to communicate these facts?

This is just the same old chestnut we’ve heard a thousand times before. When Joe started talking about overly simplistic interpretations of Scripture, I knew right where he was going, because they always go to the same place, which is that Genesis 1 isn’t really saying what it’s saying.

He plays right into the hands of the naturalists by creating a division between “scientific knowledge” and other kinds of knowledge. He approvingly quotes Clouser who says, “The encyclopedic assumption may not go so far as to think that the answer to every question is in Scripture, but it does suppose Scripture to contain answers to all sorts of nonreligious questions.” The exact length of time that the earth has been here, and how it came to be, is a “nonreligious question” “. Well thank you very much Immanuel Kant for your continued influence on our thinking. It was Kant who firmly ensconced in our thinking the extremely unbiblical idea that some knowledge was knowable by our senses and experience, and some knowledge was mystical and mysterious in nature, and religion was the topic of the second kind of knowledge only, and not the first.

All issues are religious issues. If you think the question of creation versus evolution is a nonreligious question, then you’ve got more in common with Pharyngula than you do with Christianity. You’ve just divided truth into things that are important to know God, and things that don’t matter. You’re just like the Israelites who said, Jehovah’s a great war God and so we worship him on Sabbath but Baal’s great for getting the crops in so we’ll listen to him the rest of the time. You are, in short, committing syncretism. You are combining philosophies, saying that Christianity’s good for some things but that we have to turn to naturalism for others. But when Jesus appeared to Thomas and called on him to believe, he showed him the nailprints and invited Thomas to feel them. The natural world always supports the Bible, and if we think the natural world contradicts the Bible, it is our understanding of the natural world that needs to change rather than the plain statements of Scripture. This I would ask of you, Joe: How much scientific evidence would be required to overthrow your belief in the resurrection of Christ?

Creation NEVER interprets Scripture. Only Scripture interprets Scripture. And when you bring up that old “two-book” stuff again, you assume that we have somewhere written down for us in never-changing form what the book of nature says. But there is no such book. So what you’ve just put on a par, Joe, is the eternal Word of God and some scientist’s interpretation of how old the world is, which will change by next week.

It’s not hard to understand Genesis 1. It’s not a mystery. It’s only a mystery because you think atheistic scientists have something to tell us about what the Bible says. Your rebellion against the text is what makes it hard. But the text is clear. God made the earth in six days, about six thousand years ago, and then rested the seventh day. You make it hard because you want to believe something else.

Joe and Closer want to say that this is an essentially interpretive issue. They say that they understand Genesis 1 better than we do, since they put this fancy gloss about “teleological purpose” on it. But big words don’t change the fact that they’ve denied what Genesis 1 says. They have stood the meaning right on its head, as I go into in more detail here. And they always give the game away in the end, by their assertion that the natural world informs us that the plain reading of Scripture must be wrong. It is the “science” of the issue which always drives them to say that six days must mean something other than six days. If Joe had stuck to plain Scriptural interpretation then I might have a tiny bit more respect for his position. But he explicitly states that it is the popular interpretation of the natural data which drives his understanding of Scripture and not the other way round. And Roy Clouser begins his article by introducing it as an attempt to resolve the conflict between Scripture and evolutionary theory.

I’ll give you a hint how to resolve that conflict- one of them is true and the other is a lie from the pit of hell.

Hebrews 11:3- By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

I’m sorry if this is tough language. I like EO enough to have it in my blogroll. But if we don’t give up this nonsense about scientific truth versus religious truth, then we might as well fold up shop, because the naturalists have already won. This post by Joe is the argument of a naturalist. Let’s start making the arguments of Biblicists. Let’s start submitting purely and simply to the word of God.

UPDATE: I guess I want to back off the tone of this post just a little. I really am very concerned about what Joe is expressing in his post, but I certainly don’t need to imply that Joe is less than committed to the truth of Scripture. So I’m sorry for the tone of the post, but I stand by the substance of it.

11 thoughts on “Encyclopedic Assumption- the Canard of the Naturalistic Hermeneutic

  1. Matt,

    I’ll try to find time to respond to some of the claims you make but first let me say that I’m disappointed in your post. You are being rather presumptious in claiming that you have the only “right and true” interpretation of Genesis and that anyone who disagree must be in error.

    I also think that your approach leads to inconsistecies. For example you claim that I’m assuming that a “plain reading of Scripture must be wrong.” Yet if we are using a “plain reading” hermeneutic then we have to explain why “day” means a 24 hour period in Ch. 1 but something different in Ch. 2 (or, of course, you may claim that “death” doesn’t mean physical death — as a plain reading of the text would imply — but a “spiritual death.”

    I’m not saying that I am right or that you are wrong. But on a point where there is some question — as most people who read Gen. 1 would find — I think a bit more humility is in order.

  2. Joe,
    The problem isn’t that I disagree with your exegesis. You provide no exegesis. It is your separation of so-called “religious” and “scientific” truth that I am taking issue with here. That’s an epistemology that is driven by Kant and the naturalists, and not the Bible. You state clearly that scientific extra-biblical evidence can judge the meaning of Scripture, and that is the argument of a naturalist. Roy Closer says the same thing.

    As I’ve said many times, if you want to present an exegetical understanding of Genesis 1 that differs from mine, I’m perfectly content to listen. I am objecting here to your rationalistic, naturalistic epistemology.


  3. ***It is your separation of so-called “religious” and “scientific” truth that I am taking issue with here.***

    I think you might be misunderstanding both what Clouser is saying and the point I was trying to make. Let me see if I can provide a clarifying example: Suppose you were to ask me “What is the meaning of life?” and I provided the answer, “37.” It is not that just that the answer is wrong (though I suspect it is) but that it isn’t the type of answer that fits the question. You asked me a philosophical question and I responded with a mathematical answer.

    We could also reverse the process and you provide a book with a single blank page and the number “37.” It would be rather strange for me to assume that if I asked the book to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” that I would be able to get the correct response.
    Now, this is not to say that there is a separation between “mathematical truths” and “philosophical truths” as if one could be better than the other. But not all questions can be answered by any type of answer and vice versa.

    Asking Genesis to provide a scientific answer to a question that you pose it is, in my opinion, committing the same fallacy we find above. It is not that the answer can’t be congruent with science but that the text never intends to address matters of science – primarily because what we call “science” wasn’t invented until several thousand years later. In order to properly interpret Scripture we must first ask what questions the text is trying to answer. We may disagree on that point but at least then we can clarify that our disagreement is based on what type of answers the text provides rather than whether the text is “literally true” or not.

  4. I am asking Genesis only to say what it says. Genesis talks a lot about days and years, and not just in Genesis 1. On what basis do you say that Genesis 1 is not talking about days and years when it talks so much about days and years? You say that’s a scientific matter, not a religious matter. If I ask, how old is the earth, Genesis provides a direct, easily understood answer. If I ask what process did God use to create the earth, Genesis 1 again provides a direct, easily understood answer. As Closer’s article directly states in the first three paragraphs, it was only when Darwin came along that this became a problem. That is, it was a particular “scientific” argument, which was more about philosophy than science anyway, that the standard interpretation of Genesis 1 was called into question.

    So again I’d ask- what level of scientific evidence would you require to disprove Christ’s resurrection? Is there any?

  5. Stuart says:

    Genesis 1:5 KJV And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

    How do you read that then conclude that it was not a normal day? We know what an evening and a morning are.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Creation NEVER interprets Scripture. Only Scripture interprets Scripture.

    There is no way for anyone to read and understand Scripture without doing so through the lens of what they have learned outside Scripture.

    When Scripture talks about the four corners of the earth or the circle of the earth, we understand that to be figurative speech, not because it is obvious from the text itself, but because we have other information indicating the shape of the earth.

    How do you read that then conclude that it was not a normal day? We know what an evening and a morning are.

    We know that evening and morning are relative to the rising and setting of the sun. The first evening and morning occur, according to Genesis, before the creation of the sun. Ergo, that was not a normal day.

  7. BTW, the view that the Genesis account is about teleological order is strongly pressed by John H. Walton in the NIV Application Commentary on Genesis. Walton’s scholarly background is strong on ANE studies and he uses this to claim that ANE views of creation are always about teleology. I found the creation portions of his commentary fascinating (and he spends the bulk of the commentary on the first few chapters of Genesis), but ultimately unsatisfying.

    Walton is illuminating on ANE cosmology, but one still ends up thinking: “an ancient reader would have understood Genesis to be an account of a 7 times 24 hour period of creation, whether teleologically oriented or not”. If this is what the ancient reader would have understood (in accord with the intent of the ancient author), it seems that under Walton’s view we would be no nearer to having an reconciliation between evolution and the notion of inerrant scripture. Yet Walton seems to think his interpretation of Genesis can effect such a reconciliation.

  8. Matt,

    Have you taken the time to read Ross’ “The Genesis Question” or “A Matter of Days”? Or Gleason Archer’s analyses? Or Norm Geisler? (just to name a few) While they certainly could be wrong, it’s hardly proper to question their methodology as playing into atheistic naturalism.

    I would take issue, though, with the concept of a “plain reading” of the text. You and I are 21st century Western bred men. We have virtually nothing in common with the writer of Genesis nor the recipients of his writings. This, of course, ignores the fact that Moses wrote Genesis in a language that I (and probably you) don’t understand, much less read. How, exactly, am I to trust my “plain reading” of an English translation of text that is thousands of years old?

    Consider the fact that the Sun and Moon are not named in the Genesis creation account. Why? They certainly had names in ancient Hebrew, yet they are referred to as the greater and lesser lights. Would a “plain reading” tell us that the creation account stood in stark contrast to the animistic religions of the era (namely, the Egyptian systems) and, as a method of stressing the fact that God created the natural realm, not even the sun and moon were named so as not to give any reference to deities within the Egyptian system?

    Or consider the account of the 10 plagues brought on Egypt. The Israelites, Egyptians, and surrounding nations understood very well that each of the plagues corresponded to Egyptian deities. God was demonstrating who He is and that He created and controlled the natural realm that the animists worshipped. I would wager that a 21st century man would not garner that information from a “plain reading” of the text.

    I would argue that the intention of Moses, in the Genesis creation account, was not to tell us how long it took for God to create the universe and the earth. What would be the point of that? However, doesn’t it fit in, theologically, that one of the intents of the account is to establish the fact that God exists outside the Natural Realm, that God created the Natural Realm, and that God controls the Natural Realm? Doesn’t it fit, theologically, to establish a 6/1 pattern, if one is to eventually use that pattern as part of the Law?

    You already know that I’m an old earth creationist. I started studying this topic several years ago to bolster my understanding of the evidence for an old earth. But, it’s kind of funny, the more I’ve studied it, the more I’ve come to understand that the accounts of creation have precious little to do with time… it has never been the point of the passages.

  9. Rusty,
    No, I haven’t read all of those. I’ve certainly read plenty of others, though. I read the paper that Joe referred to, and I’ve heard this perspective presented as long as I can remember. I don’t think there’s some required reading list that I have to fulfill before I’m allowed to exegete Scripture. And I think it’s perfectly proper of accusing someone of naturalistic assumptions if that’s what it appears that they’re doing. Ross and Geisler don’t get a pass just because they’re well-known.

    I’ll write an article that actually deals with all of the exegetical issues that you’ve raised here. But I’d just raise this point- you mention the 10 plagues to support your point- do you think it’s at all important that the 10 plagues actually occurred the way Exodus relates them in order for them to have the teleological value that you say they have?

    And again, I’d ask- how much scientific evidence would be required for you to overthrow your belief in the resurrection of Christ? Why is that historical event essential, and six-day creation not?


  10. Hi Matt,

    I agree that being well-known does not give one’s viewpoint a pass. My point is that there are well respected Christian scholars who have a differing viewpoint than you do. There have been well known Christian scholars in the past who had differing viewpoints than you (dating back to the early Church fathers). If I accept the reasons you have given to dismiss their views, then what is to stop me from putting up a so-called wall around the entire Bible? Were I to do so would I then conclude that the Sun revolves around the Earth (since, according to the Bible – supposedly – the earth does not move)?

    My point on the 10 plagues (and the lack of naming the Sun & Moon) is that our 21st century viewpoint structures the manner in which we approach the text. This is not necessarily wrong, but it is something we must acknowledge. We can address it through several means: learning or learning about the original language (or its idiosyncracies), learning about the culture in the context of the passage, learning about the author, learning about the original recipients, learning about the genre of literature used, learning about how the passages relate to the entire context of the Bible (ouch), etc. Almost all of these actions require that one use extra-Biblical sources of knowledge.

    To answer your question, yes I believe that it’s important that the 10 plagues occurred as described. But be careful here because in order to fully understand how the events occurred, we must fully understand the methods I described above. It appears you place a high importance on the plain reading of the text? Is that true? Do you consider it suspect if one delves into all aspects of the text to garner as much information as possible? Doesn’t it help us understand the requirements Paul sets down for church leaders if we know what was happening on the island of Crete when reading his letter to the church there? Hosea and Amos (and much of the OT) use various puns which only occur in Hebrew – could we understand that without extra-Biblical sources?

    Why do you shy away from scientific evidence? I find no indication that we should do so from the scriptures. In fact, I find the opposite. Look at how detailed Luke wrote Luke and Acts. He put in specific historical details into the account, thereby allowing the text to be verified. Christianity itself screams out to be verified… it’s one of the unique characteristics of it.

    Have you ever considered that the resurrection is falsifiable? I’m not talking about someone saying that it didn’t occur because it doesn’t occur (a non-sequitir). I’m talking along the lines of McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I’m talking about the fact that, theoretically, if one were able to find the bones of Jesus, then they would prove that the resurrection did not occur. Christianity stands on the fact that it can be falsified and that it is not based on blind-faith.

    I’ve never stated that God could not create in 6 24 hour days. He certainly could.

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