Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Scope of the Flood

Well, I got pretty busy for a few days, but I think I promised in the last post to address another huge misunderstanding about the flood of Noah's day, the one recorded in Genesis 6-8. This misunderstanding exists especially among conservative (Bible-believing) English-speaking Christians, but its popularity among such Christians has led many unbelievers to assume that it is what the Bible teaches. That is, this misunderstanding presents a significant barrier among educated people to considering the central claims of Christianity, like the deity, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I'm talking, of course, about the idea that the flood encompassed the entire planet.

Where did this idea come from? Well, it came (and comes) from a particular interpretation of Genesis 6-8, but one that didn't gain any traction until the late 1800's. Throughout church history up until that time, no one seriously claimed for this passage a global scope. But by the late 19th century, a couple of things began to change. For one thing, people came increasingly to see the world in global terms, as crossing from one side of the planet to the other became realistic. It was perhaps inevitable that modern readers would begin to interpret this passage from a global perspective that would have been completely foreign to previous generations. In addition, a host of evidence from the sciences--particularly from geology and paleontology--began to call in to question another interpretation held dear by many Christians of that time, that the earth and universe were created in six 24-hour days only some 6,000 years ago.

The first person recorded as claiming that the flood of Noah's day covered the entire planet and could be used to explain (away) the geologic and fossil records was Ellen G. White, the prophetess and founder of Seventh Day Adventism. She claimed to receive revelations directly from God in her frequent trance-like visions, and her followers considered the resulting pronouncements to be on an authoritative par with the Bible itself. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers (The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism)
Because of their distinctive Sabbath doctrine, Adventists adamantly opposed any scientific theory that proposed interpreting the days of creation symbolically. To follow "infidel geologists" in supposing that the events described in Genesis 1 "required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment," argued White. "It makes indefinite and obscure that which God has made very plain."
One of White's disciples was an amateur geologist named George McCready Price, and in 1923 he authored a geology textbook, The New Geology, whose main thesis was that the flood was the central geological event of Earth's history. In part because of his Adventist roots and his lack of credentials, Price's book received little attention. But in 1961, theologian John Whitcomb and hydrology engineer Henry Morris resurrected Price's ideas in The Genesis Flood, a heavy tome with all the trappings of a scientific publication. This book garnered a much wider readership, at least among conservative Christians desperate for an argument against evolution and scientific naturalism but unable to reason through the arguments and evidence for themselves. Indeed, for a particular group of people--conservative American evangelicals--this book was so influential that it led to the proliferation of so-called creation science organizations, groups dedicated not to doing good science but to filtering all scientific evidence through the very fine filter of their modern interpretation of Genesis. Their starting point was and remains that the Earth and universe are only thousands of years old and that the flood of Noah's day was global (and thus explains away all of the scientific evidence that seems to show a much older Earth).

Interestingly, the hermeneutic grounding of this position remains very similar to Ellen G. White's personal, subjective approach. John MacArthur, for example, who without any scientific understanding maintains a young-earth and global flood view, grounds those in the hermeneutic dictum
If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other.
The first significant problem with this principle is that it is subjective. To whom must the plain sense make sense? Let's acknowledge (for the sake of argument) that a plain sense reading of Genesis 6-8 might include a global scope for the flood. That sense didn't make sense to any readers of this passage until very recently, when we began to see the world in global terms. More importantly, it doesn't make sense to me, or to anyone else with a modicum of understanding about the planet on which we actually live. It doesn't make sense to geologists or hydrologists or anyone who takes seriously the idea that God has faithfully revealed Himself both through Scripture and through the creation. In short. MacArthur's principle is too subjective to be valid.

In addition, this principle is not a well-recognized one among Bible scholars, but seems to be an ad hoc principle, one established in order to support dubious interpretations like that of a global flood. There are other hermeneutic principles that are both more important and more universally accepted that would seem to make MacArthur's unnecessary and ineffectual.

In the next post, I'll discuss two such principles as they relate to the flood, considering the intent of the passage and considering the context of the passage. I hope to show that ignoring both of these very basic interpretive principles is fundamental to arriving at the conclusion that Noah's flood encompassed the entire planet.

I hope you'll hang with me, even though these posts are lengthy.

1 comment:

Mike Caba said...

Thanks Rick:
I have not studied the flood issue in much depth, yet I have examined worldview changes over time, and your critique of John MacArthur is spot on. Anachronistic interpretations are one of the banes of hermeneutics. Scripture must always be read with the mindset of the original author and readers in view.