Re: Apologetics and Genesis

George Murphy (
Wed, 11 Nov 1998 11:37:25 -0500

john zimmer wrote:
> 3 points:
> I once heard that there were four complementary ways of reading
> Biblical text. They are literally (or something actually occurred),
> allegorically (what was the meaning of passage), morally and
> anagogically (what does it lead us to do). If this is the case,
> then the literal or physical aspect of Gen 1-11 can't be completely
> ignored.

This understanding of the 4 ways goes back to the Middle Ages. The reformers
insisted strongly on the literal meaning of the text as primary, though Luther, e.g.,
didn't reject allegory as a secondary interpretation. Part of the reason for their
suspicion of non-literal readings is that it is so easy simply to put our own ideas into
a text under the guise of interpreting symbolism. A few comments -
1) Medieval & Reformation interpreters simply weren't aware of the historical
development of thought and of texts in particular, as well of scientific understandings
of the world, as we are. Thus we cannot interpret many texts in as straightforwardly
literal a way as they could.
2) Instead of speaking of "allegory", we should speak of the _theological_
meaning of texts. Allegorical interpretation in the strict sense is usually of
questionable value.
3) I agree that the literal/physical aspect of Gen.1-11 should be ignored. It
is talking about God's relationship with us & our world. I would refer again to the
"rivers section" of Gen.2 here. The fact that some of the rivers this refers to are
ones which we can identify is an indication that the text is talking about our world and
not some mythical space. But that does not mean that
a. we should use the text to try to figure out the location of Paradise, or
b. try to find out what each of the 4 rivers "stands for" in allegorical

> I agree that the way premoderns thought of the physical world
> did not disagree with the Genesis stories, but with modernism,
> our idea of the physical world has changed. That's why I think
> that Morton is right in pointing to a research program that
> reattaches physical meaning to Genesis.

The distinction between "physical" and "theological" meanings may be misleading.
Genesis 1, for example, makes an emphatic _theological_ statement about the goodness of
the _physical_ world. But Glenn isn't satisfied with that & wants scientific
predictions about the physical world.

> The idea of objectivity
> and subjectivity in our experience of nature plays a role
> (Voeglin used the ideas to analyze civic theology and we
> are looking at natural theology here).

I believe that natural theology is legitimate only within the context of
proper Christian theology.

> A good book for appreciating the differences in thought between
> modern and premodern (hence the dilemma) is Lewis Wolpert
> The Unnatural Nature of Science.

George L. Murphy