When do we consider a description an allegory vs something literal?


(Helen Tan) #1

Hi Nathan, thank you for spending this time with us. I’m interested in your thoughts on the passages of the Bible which skeptics and nonbelievers pick on to discredit Christianity in terms of how the Bible seemingly contradict scientific facts. I know that the Bible is not a book of Science but how do we best answer these critics? Thank you.

Ask Nathan Rittenhouse (March 5-9, 2018)
(Nathan Rittenhouse) #2

Hi Helen, do you have some specific examples in mind, or is this more of a general question?

(Helen Tan) #3

Hi @Nathan_Rittenhouse, thank you for your question. I had left the question open, hoping that you would point out the ones which you have found more challenging in your experience :)) There’s one thing I struggle with and that is: when do we consider a description an allegory vs something literal? For example, the Bible talks about pillars holding up the the earth, the 4 corners of the earth and the earth being a ‘circle’, not specifically a sphere. I’ve also read Dr Hugh Ross’ book, Hidden Treasures in the book of Job, where he points to scientific statements. How do we determine whether a statement is scientific or an allegory/ metaphor and be credible in our discussions?

Having said that, I would like to leave this open for you to take it in any direction you see fit so I can learn from your knowledge and experience. Thank you.

(Kay Kalra) #4

(Nathan Rittenhouse) #5

Hi Helen, this is a really important question. It likely requires a longer response than I can type out here, but perhaps we can establish some pointers to get us going in the right direction. By the way, I really enjoy Dr. Ross, but some of his connections have also left me to do a little head scratching. All that to say the experience isn’t unique to you! When I read your question it made me think of some passages that I read this morning while I was reading in Revelation: “The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. (Rev 9:1 NIV)” What!? A star holding a key? 
For future reference, there are many books out there about how to read and interpret scripture:
From a Dispensationalist perspective there are books like Basic Biblical Interpretation: A Practical guide to discovering biblical truth by Zook, or How to Read the Bible as literature by Ryken. From a more moderately reformed perspective How to Read the Bible for all its worth by Fee and Stuart. There are many others that a google search would yield. [If anyone has read some good ones, feel free to note them in response to this post.]
The summary of all of those is that evangelical scholars have long worked to faithfully read the Bible as literature and seek a more accurate understanding of it by realizing that there are different types of literature within the Bible.
So I guess I would say that step one to your question is to ask ourselves what type of literature we are reading. When I was reading Revelation this morning I didn’t stop to think “I wonder if main sequence stars have appendages that are capable of grasping security devices” as a scientific question because the point of Revelation 9 is about God’s judgement, not the physiology of balls of gas. I knew that I was reading apocalyptic literature that is highly symbolic and allegorical. Note, this does not mean that it isn’t true; it simply means that what is being stated is not communicated in scientific terms. Psalm, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Job, Ecclesiastes, and parts of all the prophetical books would fall into this category. Daniel and Revelation and other apocalyptic sections also do not present themselves as books to be taken scientifically. I believe they are true, but Daniel and John were seeing things that we have no frame of reference for in time and space and thus they did the best they could to describe divine things in human terms.
A very large percentage of the Bible is poetry. Particularly books like Job and the vast majority of the prophets express grandeur and majesty, and sorrow and destruction with heart-warming, and wrenching, beauty through poetical language. You could say “The Lord takes care of us” or write Psalm 23. Both are true, but the Psalm communicates the emotion and feeling of the truth much better.
Secondly, when asked about a specific verse, it is helpful to consult a few different translations. Often the ones that skeptics like to hammer on have more to do with translation issues (like unicorns in the KJV, or equating birds and bats).
For the pillars, many interpreters see this as a reference to the mountains, since the verse doesn’t actually say that the earth sits on them (Job 9:6 is talking about God moving mountains). That doesn’t answer the questions to all of the references to the ‘foundations’ of the earth, but these seem to be more about God providing stability in a chaotic world, not a geological survey. The ancient world did poetically talk about the world being on pillars in other sources, but again, it wasn’t a scientific statement. Rarely do people approach any scripture primarily for scientific truths. Science is possible because of the larger truths of scripture, which means that scripture isn’t subservient to the demands of science.
The question to ask is, “What is the reader intended to take away?” In Job 9 it is the power and righteousness of God compared to man. I guess if God sits above the circle of the earth (again cross reference- translations vary here. Also, I just thought of this, there isn’t an angle that you can look at a sphere from where it doesn’t look like a circle) the bigger question is, if this is literal, “Does God sit? Does God have a physical body…? All sorts of odd scientific questions could pop up, but we don’t explore those because we see Isa 40:22 as a statement of God’s superiority, not His location.
On the topic of the four corners, I think Hugh Ross’s point about your location, vantage point, and frame of reference dictating your special perception of what is happening is valid. Things can look quite different if viewed by people on earth opposed to viewed and described by God.
What we are stating here is that we need to distinguish between literal and literalistic. When John called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, what was he saying? If we take it literalistic-ly, we now have a reference to one of the first manifestations of the Reptilians. (Yep, just now thought of that). If we take it literally, we see a group of dangerous deceivers of the people of God who need to repent.
One of the tricks is that often the prophets use literal events as allegories for future events. Certainly many prophecies about Christ could fit into this, so we need to leave a both/and category open also. Jesus pointed to a real physical fig tree, to make a real spiritual point. So, just because something real is used, doesn’t mean it can’t be a poetical pointer for something spiritual. For example, God can ask Job, “Who let the wild donkey free?”- Which wild donkeys are a scientific fact, but the point of the question is to poetically point to the providence of God.
In many of these texts we get words that tip us off to metaphor -“is”, allegory - ‘is like.’ Your original question was about allegory. The main thing is to remember that allegory is just one sub-category of the big picture of biblical poetry. Hopefully there is a thought in here that helps. (I mean that literally ).

(Helen Tan) #6

Hi @Nathan_Rittenhouse, I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my question with such care. You have added to my understanding and given me much to think about and provided the direction for me to explore further. My purpose in asking the question is so I can share what the Bible says responsibly and not be shot down (not literally) when presenting something it’s not saying. Thank you.