“THAT’S JUST YOUR INTERPRETATION!” A Response to Dr. Thomas Howe on Understanding the Bible

© 2018, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

 INTRODUCTION

 [N.B. READ THE FOOTNOTES, FOLKS.  THEY ARE IMPORTANT!]

 Recently, Dr. Thomas Howe posted “A Response to Ken Ham” on the SES website,[1] in which article he took Ham to task for claiming that Christians who maintain that the Earth is some 4.6 billion years old (“old-earth”) reject Biblical authority; according to Howe, Ham is thereby saying that his “interpretation is equivalent to the Word of God, [and] that people who reject [his] interpretations, such as those of my fellow professors who are old-earth inerrantists, reject the authority of the Word of God.”[2]  In this day and age when the Bible is coming under increasing attack and the church is crumbling in the western world, it is truly unfortunate that Howe would take this position.  His argument is not only wrong; it is risible and it stymies itself.  And since “old-earth” Christians frequently resort to this argument, it is worth taking the time to debunk it thoroughly.

First, we have to consider the difference between “meaning” and “interpretation.”  The fundamental rationale of communication is that one person can convey what he means (i.e. what he has in his mind that he wants the other person to know) to another person, and that this is done by means of using shared vocabulary and syntactical constructions.  A propositional statement expressed in this way can be understood, and if it is expressed as a univocal statement, it need not (nor can it legitimately) be “interpreted” to mean something other than what the words and syntactical construction convey: “I want to eat a hamburger now” can mean only one thing, and attempts to “interpret” it to mean something else are invalid.

Second, we note that Howe’s argument is based fundamentally on the fact that people are “fallible.”  That is axiomatic, but the implications that Howe draws from them are wild non sequiturs, as we shall see.

We begin by asking, does being fallible mean we cannot understand what the Bible says but only make fallible interpretations of it?  Does this apply to, say, homosexuality?  Do we understand the meaning of the passages that teach that homosexual acts are sinful, or is that just a fallible interpretation upon which we cannot insist if we encounter a professed inerrantist who claims that homosexual acts are acceptable?  What about Jesus rising from the dead?  Do we understand the meaning of what the Bible says about this, or are we just making a fallible interpretation?  Does the Bible teach salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, or is that just a fallible interpretation?  If the latter, why are we arguing against liberal scholars who say that Jesus rose only in the hearts of His disciples?  What makes our interpretation better than theirs?  Is this not “believing that [our] interpretation is equivalent to the Word of God”?

Naturally, Howe recognizes this problem and attempts to forestall it, saying, “Many passages of the Bible are perspicuous (that is, ‘clearly expressed and easily understood’). The perspicuity of the Gospel was an important conviction of the Reformation theologians. However, there are also passages in the Bible that are more difficult to understand concerning which there are often may [sic.; I think he meant “many”] conflicting points of view. Even Peter recognized this fact.”  Let us overlook the fallacious appeal to authority here, as if the opinions of fallible “Reformation theologians” settled any matter.  Let us avoid the temptation to ask if we should view the “important convictions of the Reformation theologians” as “equivalent to the Word of God” or just their fallible interpretation.  Let us get to the real issue here:

If being fallible means that we cannot understand the meaning of what the Bible says but only make fallible interpretations of it, then by the same token, being fallible means we cannot know which matters are “perspicuous (that is, ‘clearly expressed and easily understood’) and which are “more difficult to understand.” We can only make fallible interpretations about that, tooAnd that means WE CANNOT KNOW ANYTHING about what the Bible teaches.  We can only hold lightly to our own fallible interpretations while being “open to hear[ing] what others say so that [we] might learn more and do a better job of interpretation” – though we can never know if our job is now actually better or worse.   All we are left with is a farrago of conflicting personal “interpretations.”  Welcome to the Emergent Church.[3]

There is no valid way out of this for Howe.  If our fallibility means we cannot understand the meaning of Bible passages, then it also means we cannot understand which passages are perspicuous and which are not.  One can, of course, do a fallacious special pleading for the doctrines one considers particularly important (“such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of the Word of God, and that God created the universe out of nothing”) but that does not change the fact that, if Howe’s view is correct, we can never know whether these really are the particularly important ones, nor can we insist upon our “interpretation” of them.  That is an unacceptably high price to pay to accommodate “old-earth inerrantists.”

In point of fact, Howe’s contentions are nonsense.  We do not need to be perfect to understand correctly what is being said via propositional statements; if we did, all communication among people would be impossible.  We would not be able to do so much as order a hamburger in a restaurant.  Of course we can understand exactly what propositional statements say, and if they are univocal, there is no room or reason for honest misunderstanding.

Furthermore, if we can understand propositional statements made by people, why should we think that we cannot understand God’s propositional statements?  Is God not able to breathe His words (2 Timothy 3:16) in such a way that we can understand their meaning?  After all, the Bible was written for our understanding (Romans 15:4).  Its propositional statements were written to be clear (Habakkuk 2:2) and we are trusted to understand them (2 Corinthians 1:13).  So of course we can understand what the Bible says; we are not left to wallow in uncertain “interpretations.”

Neither does Howe’s appeal to 2 Peter 3:15-16 help his case; in fact, he has fundamentally misunderstood the passage and drawn false applications from it.  Howe wrote,

[T]here are also passages in the Bible that are more difficult to understand concerning which there are often may conflicting points of view. Even Peter recognized this fact: “And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15–16). Every interpreter must diligently study in his efforts to interpret the Bible. It is a life-long process of study and learning, and there are some passages which an interpreter holds to tentatively simply because we are all fallible, that is, capable of making errors.

The first thing to notice is that Peter says that some things are “hard to understand,” not that that they are impossible to understand so that we can only reach fallible interpretations to be held lightly.  On the contrary, what is being called for here is careful exegesis, because “the ignorant and unstable twist [these difficult passages] to their own destruction.”  Who does this?  “The ignorant and unstable,” not Christians who practise careful exegesis.

Thus, there is nothing in this passage that suggests that “concerning [these difficult passages] there are often may [sic.; I think he meant “many”] conflicting points of view”; there is only the call to do careful exegesis on these passages.  Now, it may indeed be that on some passages, there are “many conflicting points of view,” but 2 Peter 3:15-16 certainly does not predict that or endorse it and suggest we should simply accept that we cannot know the correct point of view but only hold to our own interpretation “tentatively simply because we are all fallible.”  And while it is essentially true that “Every interpreter must diligently study in his efforts to interpret the Bible. It is a life-long process of study and learning,” the point of such study is to understand (not simply “interpret”) the Bible, and the idea that we must spend our lives studying difficult passages without ever being able to come to the correct understanding of them instead of tentatively held “interpretations” is ridiculous.  On the contrary, the Bible tells us that it is the ungodly of the end times who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7), not Christians who carefully exegete the Scriptures.

We should also point out that, in point of fact, what Genesis 1 teaches is not at all “hard to understand.”  The language and syntactical construction of this chapter is as clear as just about anything else in the Bible.[4]  So, too, is the numerical data given in the chronogenealogies (Genesis 5, 11) and elsewhere in the Bible, which show that the world is a maximum of 7,683 years old.[5]  The meaning of all this is obvious in the English and certainly in the Hebrew.  As Oxford Professor James Barr wrote,

… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

a. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience

b. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story

c. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.[6]

 

Again,

Dr John R. Howitt, a personal friend of mine … wrote to appropriate professors in nine leading universities, asking, “Do you consider that the Hebrew word yom (day), as used in Genesis 1, accompanied by a numeral should properly be translated as

a day as commonly understood,

an age,

either a day or an age without preference?”

‘Oxford and Cambridge did not reply, but the professors at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Toronto, London, McGill, and Manitoba replied unanimously that it should be translated as a day as commonly understood. Professor Robert H. Pfeiffer of Harvard added, “of twenty-four hours” to his reply.’[7]

 

In light of these facts, it is not surprising that the young-earth creationism[8] was the unanimous teaching of the church until the 19th century; these teachers and commentators were quite capable of understanding the meaning of Genesis 1 and the numerical data, and had no need to hold “interpretations” lightly or tentatively.

This did not change until the 19th century, and Howe would do well to wonder why.  The text of Genesis certainly did not change.  The clear meaning of the Hebrew did not change.  What did change was the rise of secular science, spearheaded by men such as Charles Lyell, who wrote the hugely influential three-volume work Principles of Geology (1830-1833), who intended to “free the science from Moses.”[9]  It was part of the ethos of the day, which was “pushing God out” of society,[10] and required that science be illegitimately wedded to naturalism and led to the acceptance of the theory of evolution.  It is impossible to conclude otherwise than that the driving force for “reinterpreting” Genesis 1 had nothing to do with a sudden lack of clarity of the text but the mistaken belief that science had proven that the Earth was much older than the Bible said (“deep time,” which eventually grew to 4.6 billion years).  Being misled by the siren song of secularized science, Bible commentators began to try to “save” the Bible by “interpreting” it in a way that would accord with “deep time,” thus setting the authority of secularized science above that of the Bible, and so the collapse of the church in the western world took another great leap forward.[11]

In summary, it is not even remotely true that the fallibility of human beings means that we can never correctly understand the meaning of the Biblical text, but only come to tentative “interpretations”; the Bible was designed by God to be understood by us.  And I think Christians know this; they hold all sorts of beliefs based on what the text says and are sure of them.  In fact, the claim that we cannot truly understand the meaning of the text but only interpret it seems to be brought up only when there is an issue about which, for one reason or another, the Christian does not wish to accept the plain meaning of the text, whether it is the proper role of women in the church or the age of the Earth.  But that does not work; if our fallibility prevents us from truly understanding the meaning of the text, then it also prevents us from knowing which things we can know.  It is an “all or nothing” matter, not something that can be selectively invoked.

The Biblical testimony, then, clearly teaches YEC 7,683, and one does not need to be infallible to understand that.  By holding to this fact, one is not “believing that one’s interpretation is equivalent to the Word of God,” as Howe absurdly puts it, but is simply accepting the meaning of God’s word.  So the appeal to “just your interpretation” to try to avoid the indubitable meaning of Genesis 1 and the numerical data in the Bible related to the age of the Earth, is untenable and unacceptable from start to finish.  It is one of the most specious and pernicious gambits of those who subordinate the word of God to secularized science.  Let us have no more of it.

And, contra Howe, there is no such thing as an “old-earth inerrantist.”  That is an oxymoron.

 

ADDENDUM

The depth of the intellectual vacuity of Howe’s position is perhaps best shown when he writes,

There is, of course, a self-reference problem with Ham’s assertion. He presents the dilemma as holding to the authority of the Word of God or allowing man’s fallible ideas to be used in authority over the Word of God. But, isn’t Ken Ham a fallible man? Isn’t he presenting his interpretation as the authority concerning what the Bible says? If indeed we should hold to the authority of the Word of God rather than the fallible ideas of men, does it not follow that we should not hold Ken Ham’s ideas since he, like all the rest of us, is a fallible man?

In a word, no.  Ken Ham is not telling people to believe that the Earth is young because that is his interpretation, but because it is the indubitable meaning of Genesis 1 and the numerical data in the Bible.  It does not depend on Ham’s authority.  Howe’s position can be described, and only charitably, as a red herring.

But the truly absurd part of this is the statement that “If indeed we should hold to the authority of the Word of God rather than the fallible ideas of men, does it not follow that we should not hold Ken Ham’s ideas since he, like all the rest of us, is a fallible man?”  The obvious answer that Howe is getting at is, “No, we should not hold Ken Ham’s ideas” – “we” being Christians.  But Ken Ham is a Christian, so he shouldn’t hold to Ken Ham’s ideas either, since he “like all the rest of us, is a fallible man.”  “Like all the rest of us”!  Indeed.  So, according to Howe’s dictum, we (including Thomas Howe) should not hold to Thomas Howe’s ideas, since Howe, “like all the rest of us, is a fallible man.”  And John Tors is a fallible man, so no one (including John Tors) should hold to Tors’ ideas, since he “like all the rest of us, is a fallible man.”

So, if we follow Howe’s advice, “hold[ing] to the authority of the Word of God rather than the fallible ideas of men” means we should not hold to any ideas about what it actually means (since they all come from fallible men).  I suppose we should just let our Bibles sit on the shelf and look pretty – if Howe is correct.  I wonder if he has thought through the implications of his ill-thought-out article.


 

Footnotes

[1] Howe, Dr. Thomas. “A Response to Ken Ham.” Posted January 18, 2018, at https://ses.edu/tom-howe-response-to-ken-ham

[2] All quotations from Howe are from the article in f.n. 1.

[3] Ironically, Howe writes, “Indeed there are even controversies over which passages are more easily understood and which are more difficult,” apparently without realizing that this makes his position one that destroys the ability to know the Bible accurately in any matter.

[4] See Tors, John. “Is a 4.6-Billion Year-Old Earth Compatible with Biblical Inerrancy? A Response to Norman Geisler” at http://www.truthinmydays.com/is-a-4-6-billion-year-old-earth-compatible-with-biblical-inerrancy-a-response-to-norman-geisler/ for a detailed discussion of the exegesis of Genesis 1.  We can add to that discussion the fact that the Hebrew word yōm (“day”) when it is without any affixes can only mean “24-hour day” or “the daylight hours of a 24-hour day,” both definitions being given in Genesis 1.

[5] Hardy, Chris and Robert Carter. “The biblical minimum and maximum age of the earth.” Journal of Creation 28:2 (August 2014), pp.89-96

[6] “James Barr, Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University, England, in a letter to David C.C. Watson, 23 April 1984.” Quote and attribution from “Oxford Hebrew scholar, Professor James Barr, on the meaning of Genesis” at https://creation.com/oxford-hebraist-james-barr-genesis-means-what-it-says

[7] Dr. Bolton Davidheiser. “A Statement Concerning the Ministry of Dr Hugh Ross.” Quote from “Professors: A day means a day!” Creation 16:3 (June 1994), p.44.  Available at https://creation.com/professors-a-day-means-a-day

[8] There were some church fathers, such as Augustine, who indulged in allegorical interpretations of Genesis, but they nevertheless believed that the Earth was created and was less than 6,000 years old. (Zuiddam, Professor Benno. “Augustine: young earth creationist—theistic evolutionists take Church Father out of context.”  Posted October 8, 2009, at https://creation.com/augustine-young-earth-creationist.  It would be difficult to find even one who taught that the Earth was older than 6000 years.

[9] Grigg, Russell. “Charles Lyell: the man who tried to rewrite history.” Creation 36:4 (October 2014), pp.36–39; Catchpoole, David and Tas Walker. “Charles Lyell’s hidden agenda—to free science ‘from Moses’.” Posted August 19, 2009, at https://creation.com/charles-lyell-free-science-from-moses

[10] “During the Enlightenment, during, say, the 1700’s, notions of evolution began creeping back in, that, is, creation by natural law.  If a people are intent in pushing out God, or rejecting divine causation, really the only alternative is where species, well, they could be eternal, as Aristotle said, or they had to come from other species.  Where else could they come from?” (Professor Edward J. Larson, University of Georgia. “Theory of Evolution:  A History of Controversy.” The Great Courses, Course No. 174)

[11] Old-earth creationists sometimes traffic on the fact that in the great Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy of the early 20th century, the Fundamentalists did not defend the young age of the Earth and, indeed, left the door open for deep time.  Indeed, that is so.  What the old-earth creationists overlook, however, is that the Fundamentalists lost that war.  And it is no surprise; one cannot defend inerrancy while allowing for Biblical error regarding the age of the Earth.  One such compromise is indeed enough to lead to defeat.  The old-earth creationists also try to make much of the fact that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy issued in 1978 by the ICBI also did not defend the young age of the Earth but left room for old-age beliefs.  Do notice that we continue to lose the war.

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