Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Word became flesh

This is in response to a post by NaClHv regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1 and John 1. There are two points which I wish to elaborate on, in a way which goes beyond the scope of his post, and so this is more appropriate to its own post than to a comment against his.

Before I begin, I'd like to reiterate several points which have been made more eloquently on NaClHv's blog than I could state them myself. This is all about interpretations, not facts; and we can disagree on interpretations while still maintaining fellowship, respect, and the understanding that our salvation doesn't depend on getting the "right answers" to these questions. If you disagree with my position here, that's great! Disagree from an intellectual and Scripturally-valid basis, and we can discuss the matter. I'm not married to these ideas, and if other facts come up that disprove my interpretation, or if an alternative interpretation proves to be a better fit for the facts than mine, then I will adjust my thinking in response. So, with that out of the way, on to the content.

John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh. What does this mean? How are we to interpret it? The Greek word used here is Λόγος ("Logos"), the same root from which we get the English word Logic. John 1:1 talks of this Logos being "with God" and, in fact, being God. Is it too far-fetched to understand this "Word" as being a person of the Godhead, described as "The Logical One", later on acquiring the name "Jesus"? He then "became flesh", taking on the exact same form as one of his figurines, and spent some time among us, before achieving the ultimate purpose of dying and being resurrected.

And with that interpretation, quite a bit of John 1:1-18 becomes literally true. Jesus was there right from the beginning of time (albeit not with that name, but the same Person was present), and was directly involved in the work of creation. God sent the man named John, as a witness to Jesus and as a herald to carry a message in advance of the greater Person who followed him. Verses 11 through 13 basically summarize the transition from the Children of Israel to the Church of Christ - God is no longer primarily focusing on those of physical heritage, but of spiritual acceptance. The "We" in verse 14 is, of course, restricted to John's contemporaries, as those of us who live in the 21st century didn't actually witness Jesus' glory first-hand, but that's still literally true.

Verse 4 is the least clearly literal part of this passage. "In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind." God is the source of all life, but a literal interpretation of that life being somehow contained within Him, and the life being literally light, does stretch acceptance somewhat. Similarly, the repeated reference to "light" is plausibly metaphorical rather than literal (although Book of Revelation suggests that this, too, may be quite literal). But interpreting these metaphorically isn't inconsistent with interpreting most of the chapter literally.

What does all this mean, then, as regards Genesis 1? Well, there are still some parts that cause confusion, but I would hold that again, most of the text can quite plausibly be taken literally. From what we know of nature (thanks to science), we understand that time can flow at different rates for different observers. We also know that the Bible often describes things as they appear to us here, even if that's not strictly accurate (look at Eccles 1:5-7, where a simple interpretation suggests a geocentric universe); so it would make sense for the days to be as observed here on the surface of the planet. (Yes, even though there weren't any people here until nearly the end.) This is the view posited by Dr Russell Humphreys in his book "Starlight and Time": to summarize, God created a ball of water at least two light years in diameter, the mass of which made a black hole, and then He directly spread it out (turning the black hole into a white hole), with the event horizon crossing this planet's surface about on the fourth day of Creation. While I do have neither the scientific nor mathematical skill to test his theories, I can at least look at his overall explanations and how well they fit the Bible, which they do quite adequately.

If it's true, then, that most of the universe is over a billion years old, but this solar system is less than ten thousand years old (courtesy of gravitational time dilation), then we solve a number of problems, but of course it has its own consequences. For instance, if we accept that this planet has experienced only those millenia, we MUST then accept that there was no time for evolutionary development, and therefore that God must have simply spoken all those different plants and animals into being - we must accept a literal (or at least largely-literal) interpretation of the week of creation. And fossils must have come from some form of cataclysm, not from being laid down over megayears of regular processes. All of this conflicts with the interpretations that many modern scientists make on the basis of the facts they see before them; but at no point is there a conflict with the facts themselves.

It's always possible to draw a metaphorical meaning out of something. Most of the Bible is meant to be taken literally, and I believe that literal interpretations are superior to metaphorical ones, if they have the same interpretive and predictive success. So I believe that it makes more sense to take Genesis 1 and John 1 at face value first, and fall back on calling them pure metaphor only once we have exhausted reasonable options for literal interpretations.

2 comments:

naclhv said...

Thanks for the plug to my blog posts!

I agree that significant portion of the text in John can be interpreted literally, but that still leave a great deal of metaphors at the core of John 1, such as "Word" (which, even interpreted as "logic", still needs the assistance of metaphors to be interpreted as its true meaning as the Second Person of the Trinity) and "light".

But on the whole, I don't like to classify specific words or passages as "metaphorical" or "literal". (Yes, I know I wrote a whole post about making that distinction on all the verses that contain "light", but that was only because I couldn't fully interpret all 200+ verses) I don't think that's how the human mind works, nor how the Bible was written. But this mix of shades of meaning between metaphors and the literal that you describe in this post, that is closer to the truth. So Genesis 1 doesn't have to be entirely metaphor. Even when read literally (or metaphorically; whichever you consider wrong), there's a great deal of truth that it teaches us. And in light of that, it seems unwise to insist on a particular interpretation of a single word, "day", and insist on that interpretation against a great deal of Biblical and scientific evidence.

Chris Angelico said...

Yeah, "metaphorical" and "literal" aren't two alternatives on a binary scale. The validity of the two interpretations can be seen almost to be orthogonal - you can gain meaning and comprehension on either axis. I'm primarily focusing here on "how valid is a literal interpretation?" or "how literal an interpretation is valid?", and I would say that, even if a 100% literal is valid, it doesn't preclude anything else.