Here is a comment that a reader named Ben made on my article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”:
We can definitely believe the Bible. There is no denying that careful interpretation and context are important, but there is no reason to ever assume that the Bible and science contradict. Take a look at the Hebrew word that we translate as “day” in Genesis 1. Biblical Hebrew did not have a huge amount of words and therefore many words were versatile. The Hebrew word “yom” or yowm” can be translated as day or something more like “age” depending on the context. In other words, the creation days were probably very long. Once people step away from the 24-hour day assumption for Genesis 1 it is amazing how much they can calm down. This does not mean that English Bibles are wrong, as we often use phrases like “back in my day” that are not taken to mean a literal 24-hour day. It also does not necessarily mean that evolution is what God used if He took His time creating the earth and its creatures, but I have no problem with the thought of God using the “big bang” to kick-start the universe. Scientific discovery does not put biblical inerrancy in any kind of troublesome spot.
You make many good points in this post, Lee, but your implication that Genesis 1 is merely allegory has me somewhat troubled.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ben!
I am aware that interpreting the Bible symbolically or correspondentially rather than literally is troubling for many people. There is a desire to be faithful to the Bible, and this is seen as requiring adherence to the literal inerrancy of all of its statements. While I applaud the desire to be faithful, this way of being faithful misses the greatest spiritual and divine treasures of the Bible, and limits its adherents to the more superficial aspects of the Word of God.
Inerrancy reduces the Bible to human status
The doctrine of the literal inerrancy of the Bible never arose in Christianity until several centuries after the Protestant Reformation. The movement toward this particular error of Bible interpretation began with Protestant theologians who formed much of their distinctive doctrine in reaction to the errors and excesses of the medieval Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church had long used crude allegorical interpretations of the Bible to support the authority of its ecclesiastical hierarchy, and to anathematize all who did not follow its doctrine and obey its dictates. It also reserved for itself—for the Pope as advised by the Cardinals—the right to dictate doctrine and promulgate the “correct” interpretation of Scripture. In order to combat these Catholic practices, the Protestant reformers asserted the primacy of the text of the Bible in a doctrine called in Latin Sola Scriptura—“by Scripture alone.” According to this doctrine, the Bible itself contains everything required for Christian belief and for salvation.
Even under Sola Scriptura, symbolic interpretation of the Bible was allowed for when the context clearly called for it. And since this doctrine originated in a pre-scientific age, it did not necessarily mean that everything in the Bible had to be read as scientifically and historically accurate. That idea didn’t arise until the early to mid 1800s. The idea of the Bible as inerrant was, in fact, a reaction to the scientific revolution, which threatened the beliefs of a certain segment of Christianity. In other words, the fundamentalist doctrine of literal inerrancy is a Johnny-come-lately in the history of Christian Bible interpretation.
The correspondential interpretation of the Bible presented and demonstrated by Emanuel Swedenborg goes far beyond traditional allegorical interpretations of the Bible. There is nothing “mere” about it. Rather, it takes universal principles of the relationship between God and spirit, and between spirit and nature, and applies them to the Bible. The deeper spiritual meanings in the Bible are not arbitrary and human-derived as in many traditional allegorical interpretations. They flow organically and systematically from the multi-leveled nature of reality and the laws of the universe as created and established by God.
Far from taking anything away from the Bible and its status as the Word of God, this method of interpreting the Bible spiritually establishes it as a book vastly greater than any merely human literature. In the process, it elevates the literal meaning of the Bible far above the status given to it by literal inerrantists, who commonly interpret large sections of the Bible as mere textbook material about science, history, and ancient culture rather than as delivering divine messages about God and spirit to humanity.
The Bible is about Jesus Christ, and about our new creation in Christ
Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and these are they which testify about me” (John 5:39). God did not give us the Bible to tell us about science, but to tell us about Jesus Christ and about our spiritual salvation. And just as Jesus said in John 5:39, at its deepest level of meaning the entire Bible tells the spiritual and divine story of what Jesus accomplished for us during his lifetime on earth.
This is one of the major subjects of Swedenborg’s correspondential interpretation of the books of Genesis and Exodus in his magnum opus, Secrets of Heaven, originally published in eight Latin volumes (London: 1749–1756) under the title Arcana Coelestia. The knowledge of Jesus’ deeper life—especially his “glorification,” or complete union with the Divine from which he came, and his spiritual battles on our behalf against the damning power of hell—is one of the greatest treasures we find when we open up the “chest” of the Bible.
Interpreting the Bible spiritually does not vitiate or invalidate the literal meaning. Rather, it elevates the literal meaning and gives it far more power and applicability to our spiritual life than a mere surface-level “inerrant” reading does. Even if we understand that the word “day” can also mean a longer span of time, covering thousands or millions of years, reading the Creation story as if it were merely about the creation of the physical universe trivializes the Word of God, and brings it down to the level of a human textbook. That way of reading the Bible misses the Creation story’s deeper divine message about our spiritual rebirth as “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) in the image and likeness of God in Jesus Christ.
Moving from spiritual infancy to maturity in Christ and the Bible
I applaud the loyalty to Christ of those Christians who feel they must exhibit their faithfulness by upholding the literal inerrancy of the Bible. If this method of reading the Bible supports and strengthens them in their walk with Christ, I have no desire to impugn their faith by arguing and debating it with them.
However, a literal reading of the Bible is characteristic of the “infants in Christ” that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 3:1–3, who could be fed only “milk,” not “solid food.” Later on in the same letter, Paul goes on to say:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:11–12)
For children, the simple, literal stories of the Bible provide ample “milk” for spiritual growth at their tender age. For those ready to move beyond spiritual childhood and open their eyes to deeper things, far greater spiritual and divine treasures lie hidden within the depths of the Bible. This is the “solid food” of adulthood in Christ.
A literal interpretation of the Bible allows us to see God’s wonders in a mirror, dimly. A spiritual interpretation allows us to see the Lord God Jesus Christ face to face.