The great disconnect between Christian faith and modern science may have more to do with people's concept of inspiration than it does about what the Bible actually says. As we develop an understanding of the nature of inspiration, as it is demonstrated in the Bible it is helpful to ask, “what kind of communicator is God?” If you were God, how you would go about the task of sharing the principles of the Universe in a way that would be best understood by those who you were teaching? What would be the best way to communicate?
You might be tempted to do some personal sky writing so that all would be sure to get it, direct from your finger to the eyes of everyone to see, forever! Thankfully God choose a much more personal approach. He comes and reveals Himself directly to us, through inspiration and direct communication with our thoughts! To a few chosen people, He gave a special revelation of His Love and will for humanity. He asked them to write these thoughts down so that they could be shared with the world and preserved through all generations.
What about this special revelation? What do we know about it? When God asked His prophets to write down messages that communicate His eternal principles, how does He do that? (Remember, we are trying to approach these exercises without any pre-conceived ideas about how inspiration works. What we want to do instead is, as objectively as possible, first observe how God communicates.)
Many of the articles of this website will deal with issues of science and creation and so perhaps it is only appropriate that we take a brief look the first chapter of the Bible as a good example of How God chose to communicate Himself to us. Why Genesis? Not only is it a "good place to start", millions of people have actually given up their faith in God as a result of the creation accounts of Genesis and so it is an important place to start!
Setting aside the debate over who wrote the accounts of creation, given in Genesis, it is safe to say that they were probably written somewhere between three and four thousand years ago. The primary audience, the people they were originally written for, had a culture with a completely different worldview then we have today. These people rarely traveled more than 20 miles from the place they were born. Their cosmological belief system saw their flat earth as the center of the universe. The mountains or distant hills propped up a polished dome (the firmament) that covered the earth, inside which, the sun, moon, stars (and birds) passed. For them, a heavy rain meant that God had opened the windows of the dome, and let some of the water that was above the earth fall through. It all sounds strange and foreign to us, but made perfect sense to the shepherds and agriculturists that spent their days watching the sun “make its journey” across the sky.
As much as we would hope that God would sit the biblical authors down and just tell them plain flat out how things really are, in a way that would nicely describe things in the way that we have come to understand them to be today, that is just not what we observe happening in scripture! When we carefully analyze the creation accounts of Genesis we observe God speaking directly to the mindset of the people He is trying to reach! Instead of changing their worldview, God does his best to communicate His universal truths in the terms that they can identify with and understand.
A great example of how God appears to communicate within the context and understanding of the primary audience that He is revealing Himself to, is the description given in the Bible, of the “record keeping system” of heaven. When God wants to communicate the big idea, the big principle, that a record is kept of everything that happens on earth, He had Daniel tell us about the “books” of heaven, where a faithful record is written of the acts, yes even the thoughts of humanity. Reporting a vision that he had about the final Day of Judgment at the end of time, the prophet Daniel said,
“The court was seated, and the books were opened”. Daniel 7:10
What a visual! Every thought and action of every individual who has ever lived on this Earth, over thousands of years, forever engraved on the “books” of heaven. I am trying to visualize the “stacks” in the library of heaven! From my childhood, I have this image in my mind of a painting in one of my Bible story books of an angel with a feather quill in hand, writing on a leather scroll, every action people take on earth.
If God were communicating this same message for the first time today, through a modern-day prophet, He probably would describe the record-keeping process of heaven, more in terms of a computer system, a video record, or some kind of holographic recording that could be one day projected in ultra high definition, on a "sky-screen" for all to see. In reality, even the most advanced machines that we can conceive of today are probably nowhere close to the sophistication of the actual record keeping system used in the courts of God. Would it even make sense for God to talk to us about the actual system? Would it make sense for God to talk to the people in Daniel’s day about computers and holograms? Can we begin to see the wisdom of using concepts and symbols that can be easily understood by the people that you are communicating to?
Using good methods of cross-cultural communication, God speaks to people where he finds them in ways that they can understand. Using the record keeping system of Daniel’s day, the “scroll”, (later updated to “books” by wise translators), God was able to use a simple, common feature of that ancient culture to communicate a huge truth: A record is being kept!
I would propose that this same principle be kept in mind for all of the teachings of scripture. Look for the big concepts, the themes, the principles, the morals, the lessons. Be careful not to be too literal in your applications, especially regarding references to aspects or implements of culture, references to prevailing cosmology or philosophy that may have changed or advanced over the centuries.
As much as we might wish that God would have dictated the Bible, word for word, and described the creation event in absolute terms that best described the actual realities of the creation week, what we actually observe, when we read Genesis, is that He chose instead to speak within the context of the culture and worldview of the day. He leaves it to later generations to figure that out and apply the principles to new worldviews and advanced cosmologies.
Today, when responsible anthropology is done, scientists enter a culture and endeavor to objectively observe and record. If it becomes necessary to communicate, great sensitivity is taken to speak within the context of the people-group being studied so as not to cause irreparable damage to a fragile culture. Should we be so surprised to discover that our Creator has communicated His thoughts to various people groups of Earth’s history, with the same sensitivity and respect for the culture He was befriending?
Why should we be so alarmed that the Genesis account places the birds together with the sun moon and stars inside a dome, that covers our earth? Should that cause us to give up faith in the veracity of Scripture? Should we, as millions of other people have, give up on the whole idea of a Creator God because He “gets it so wrong on the very first page of His book”? Or should we instead celebrate the fact that our God is an amazing “cross cultural communicator”! Instead of insulting a culture, instead of disrupting the careful balance of a worldview by blasting them with concepts totally foreign to their thinking, He reveals Himself as best he can, exactly where they He finds them. He takes His Universal truths and puts them in terms that can be understood, even within the context of the most simple understanding of the cosmos! What a Communicator!
After all of the ink that has been spilled over the last 200 years by Christian apologists, trying to make sense out of the Genesis account of creation, trying their best to make God look better, look right, look true, I would propose that God got it right after all! He communicated his message precisely how He meant to. It wasn’t that God put the sun, moon and stars inside the dome, it was God, using what the people already believed to be true, to communicate the principle truths of Creation of all things by the Supreme, living God. Once again, the problem is not with God, the problem was with us and our presuppositions about how we believe inspiration MUST work. Let’s stop second-guessing God, stop trying to help God look better, stop giving up on God because He "gets it wrong on the first page", and realize that we are the ones that have got it wrong all along by our unfounded presuppositions!