The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 4- Propositions 16 and 17

The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate
by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton
Propositions 16-17

Proposition 16- Flood Stories from Around the World Do Not Prove a Worldwide Flood

A number of YEC groups will advertise that flood stories or legends from around the world prove that Noah’s Flood was worldwide.  Charles Martin authored a popular book, Flood Legends: Global Clues of a Common Event that advanced that argument.  There are certainly many flood stories from around the world, here is a comprehensive list.

Dinosaurs and Humans Diorama in the Creation Museum

It might seem to be a logical argument; if Noah’s Flood was global then the memory of it would be passed down in various people groups as a legend.  But it is about as compelling an argument as the various legends of dragons prove humans and dinosaurs co-existed.  A more reasonable explanation for the pervasiveness of flood stories is that large floods, even catastrophically large floods, are common enough and impressive enough that they remain in people’s collective memory and are passed down, especially in predominantly oral ancient societies.

Proposition 17- Science Can Purify Our Religion: Religion Can Purify Science from Idolatry and False Absolutes

Walton and Longman recognize that some of their more conservative readers might take issue that they seem to be taking cues from modern science.  As I said last post, can Scripture be judged by science?  The more conservative evangelical would say no, science is the product of fallen, fallible, sinful men, while Scripture is the product of an infallible, all-knowing God, who cannot lie, tell a falsehood, or even inspire something that is in error.  Walton and Longman say:

We have already asserted our affirmation of the view that the Bible is indeed inerrant in all that intends to teach.  We also agree that any human project is subject to miscalculation and error.  But to pit the Bible against science in this fashion is problematic for more than one reason.

The first reason is that Christianity has always affirmed a “two book” view of God’s truth.  God reveals Himself in both the Bible and nature.  They quote the Reformed Belgic Confession:

  1. By what means God is made known unto us

We know him by two means; first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely His power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says, Rom. 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

Secondly, ultimately the two books cannot conflict; God is the source of all truth and all truth is God’s truth.  Borrowing an illustration from Gordon Glover’s wonderful video series on “Science and Christian Education”:

The study of God’s general revelation is what we call science.  The study of God’s special revelation (i.e. the Bible) is what we call theology.  But because of epistemological and hermeneutic limitations we have neither perfect understanding of nature nor perfect understanding of the Bible.  So our understanding of both the Bible and Science is a result of interpretation.  This cannot be disputed.  You may dispute that your interpretation of Scripture is more closely aligned with what the majority of commentators have always interpreted.  That may well be true… it is still no less an interpretation.  It is also beyond dispute that interpretations of the Bible have changed as understanding of God’s creation has become more sophisticated.  Do I really have to rehash Galileo/Copernicus again?

There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved.  But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.  Martin Luther, Table Talk

Walton and Longman note that since the Reformation, the Protestant church has vigorously defended the perspicuity and sufficiency of scripture, as do they.  Unfortunately, some readers take this to mean that the Bible is clear in everything it says.  But that is clearly not the case.  W & L cite the Westminster Confession of Faith to illustrate this point:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.  (WCF 1.7)

So taking into account the clear geological evidence that no flood ever flooded the whole planet at one time, and therefore the biblical author must have been engaging in literary hyperbole, is in no way a threat to the “plain and simple” reading of scripture.  Right?  You’re still saved, God still loves you, Jesus still died for your sins and was raised for your justification.  Otherwise, the danger is that Augustine’s warning comes to pass about knowledgeable people scorning the Bible because some Christian’s interpretation is contradicted by the observable evidence.

 …If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.   Augustine– The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [AD 408]

But does this work in the other direction?  How does religion “purify science”?  Walton and Longman believe it does, but not in the same way that science informs religion.  The main reason for this is that they assert the Bible does not intend to teach us scientific truth.  That God’s actions can be explained by “providence” or proximate cause; mechanical, secondary, physical, measureable, rather than by miracle does not make it any less God’s actions.  The Bible is more interested in affirming His agency in creation, not the secondary mechanisms that were used.  Remember the mundane example of a tea kettle in the Science and the Bible essays.

We observe a kettle on the stove.  Why is the water boiling?  Well, water is boiling because heat from the burner is transferred to the water raising the energy level of the individual water molecules until they overcome the latent heat of vaporization and undergo a phase change from liquid to gas.


Why is the water boiling?

Because I want a cup of tea.

Now you will notice that neither cause is less true than the other.  One simply deals with the proximate cause; mechanical, secondary, physical, measureable.  The other deals with the ultimate, or teleological cause; meaning, purpose, reasons for existing.  The proximate cause answers the question; How?  The ultimate cause answers the question; Why?

The Bible really doesn’t offer much in the way of detailed proximate causes, but it is full of statements about ultimate or teleological causes (and often collapses or subsumes the proximate into the ultimate, i.e. the biblical authors didn’t care all that much to draw a firm distinction between something they saw as a unity anyway).

Secondly, they say, religion must challenge science when it oversteps its bounds and proclaims itself the sole arbiter of truth, particularly when scientists start proclaiming in the name of science that religion is false.  Walton and Longman say that here is where science becomes idolatry, even though the great majority of scientists know better, there are a handful of well-known exceptions (W & L are looking at you, Richard Dawkins).

I found this book a useful guide to interpreting events described by the Old Testament authors and redactors that would have been ancient history to them, i.e. Genesis 1-11.   The insight that they would have not viewed the event as authoritative, but rather the theological interpretation of the event was what carried authority, is profound.  This speaks to the Bible’s emphasis on the “why” rather than the “how”.  The biblical authors would have expected their audience to understand “why” God flooded the earth, but saved Noah and his family, rather than that audience being concerned with the precise hydrological and geological mechanisms of that flood.  As Walton and Longman say:

We have developed the idea that Genesis 1-11 in general, and the flood narrative within it, provides the backstory for the covenant with Abraham and his family that unfolds in the ancestor narratives in Genesis 12-50.   God extends grace to humanity through the covenant, he brings order through the Torah within the covenant, and he continues to move toward the restoration of his presence on earth, lost at Eden and reestablished in the tabernacle.

Consequently, if we were to pose the question, Why does the compiler of Genesis include Genesis 1-11? The answer would not be that he wanted us to know about these events.  Rather, he is using these well-known events of the past to help the reader understand how the covenant with Abraham fits into the flow of God’s plans and purposed for the cosmos, for his creatures, for his people, and for history.  The backstory of Genesis 1-11 explains how and why God came to identify a particular people he chose to be in covenant relationship with.

This way of interpreting these scriptures is far preferable and shows much more respect for the actual text than having to come up with all sorts of nonsense to explain physical impossibilities that aren’t in the text at all.  Like a vapor canopy to explain where all the water came from, even though that would have produced Venus-like (melt lead) temperatures at the earth’s surface… not in the Bible.  Or floating vegetative mats to explain why all the marsupials got to Australia after migrating across the whole continent of Africa and the Indian Ocean… not in the Bible.  Or hypersonic-speed continental drift that would have melted the continents had it occurred… not in the Bible.  Or hypersonic-speed evolution (oops, I mean speciation) to explain how all the animals in the world fit on the ark… not in the Bible.  I could go on and on to list all the comically stupid things that supposedly would have to occur for the whole planet to be flooded and all animals to be saved on one wooden boat.  How is that supposed to respect the “plain and simple” reading of the Bible?  Answer—it doesn’t.  But Walton and Longman’s interpretation given in this book actually respects the ancient account as God’s inspired word.

22 thoughts on “The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 4- Propositions 16 and 17

  1. It’s so easy to revert to all-or-nothing, but the amount of reality that can fit into all-or-nothing is a vanishingly small thin slice. That’s true.

    However, an understanding of Christian truth based on a constantly revised and shaded reinterpretation of Scripture that every few years shrinks the ground of certainty regarding its historical veracity can stretch the average person’s credulity to the point of shrugging the whole thing off as an impossibly abstruse matter suitable only for the interest of experts in ancient texts.


  2. If we’ve never heard of a resurrection happening before or since Jesus, can we count on it being true….?


  3. If there’s one thing that bothers me most about science and the Bible it’s this one activity: walking on water.

    I mean, most miracles in the Bible you can point to having been done multiple times in various settings in the past and even now – healing, exorcisms, etc – but why, in the recorded history of mankind, have only two people ever walked on water (Jesus and Peter)? Wouldn’t you think that kinda thing would happen more often, say when a ship sank or when an airplane crashed into water?

    Most of my doubt centers directly on this. If we’ve never seen it happen since Jesus and Peter, can I count on it being true…?


  4. Heather: I would assert that the gospel accounts of the resurrection are not the same type of literature as the Genesis 1-11 stories. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15 can be reasonably tracked back to within a few years of the resurrection, not really enough time for a legend to develop. Of course, many will disagree with that, but, let me commend to you Chaplain Mike’s (ambiguous) apologetic:


  5. Floating Vegetative Mat void where prohibited by law, or common sense.. Not available in NJ, NY, MA . Please read full disclosure agreement before use. Do not drink or take drugs and operate mat.

    Well, maybe it would be better to drink before you use the mat. However based on our lawyer, yes you guessed it, Mat Lock, RIP, warranty is void if mat gets wet.


  6. ” Floating vegetative mat islands” as seen on info commercial on late night TV. Why swim? when you can float and eat your vegetables with the same mat. For peat’s sake this is a great deal and if you buy one now you get a Popel Pocket Fisherman so you can fish as you vegetative float.

    Also for peat’s sake the Danish bog man looks like my passport photo, which is why I am banned in several countries. I will not get bogged down with the details , look what happens in the bog.


  7. Nice rant, Stephen. Remember, that is Walton and Longman’s statement on inerrancy. Michael Spencer convinced me a while ago that inerrancy is really a name for nothing, it dies the death of a thousand qualifications. He didn’t find the term useful, and I agree. As far as “doing science” what does one really expect from ancient near easterners. They did the science of their time. Dawkins and the fundamentalists are flip sides of the same coin: “If God wrote the Bible then there can’t be any 21st century science errors in it.” Whatever… I’d like to beat both of them with a beam.


  8. As one of the vast majority of believers, I tend to feel this way too.

    Not about The Flood, because I figure most people in ancient times lived along rivers and lakes (for food, water, and transportation), and thus there were indeed great floods over all the earth, but just not all at once. If the Danube or the Yellow River or the Mississippi flooded in ancient times, that memory was retained through generations, and there is the story of The Flood.

    I once asked by email a modern theologian about Christ’s resurrection, and received — well, I can’t call it “verbal orgasmic blather about “metaphysical substrates” (though I love that phrase) — but let’s just say the answer was unsatisfyingly fuzzy. So I wrote back about Paul’s famous text from 1 Corinthians 15, saying (14) “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” and (19) “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” She replied, yes, Paul said that, and “I wonder what he meant by that.”

    Well, day-um! If Paul’s words are not plain and clear enough, what would be? But I’ve learned since then that indeed, most modern preachers and theologians in non-evangelical circles do NOT believe that Christ Jesus was raised from the dead. They think the stories are some kind of sign of something, but not that they literally happened. But also, they take many pains to conceal these beliefs from the people in the pews, the “vast majority of believers.” Because TVMOB would probably walk out even faster than they’re walking out now.

    So I do struggle with this concept, because if the resurrection stories are “just-so-stories” like the Flood and the Tower of Babel, then really what is there to hope for? I guess I’d put my hope in the fact that Jesus believed in the resurrection and the afterlife (“This day you shall be with me in Paradise”), so if he was willing to jump off that cliff I am willing to follow him.


  9. “the Bible is indeed inerrant in all that intends to teach”

    What does this even mean? Errancy is an absolute state. Not subject to qualification. It either is or it ain’t. And who determines what the Bible “intends” to teach? (Although there is no end of self-appointed candidates.)

    Here is the problem I think. People who say “the Bible isn’t doing science” can’t resist doing science. Even theologians can’t be satisfied to dwell continually on a metaphorical level. They want to be saying something truthful about the real world. So this idea of “the bible isn’t doing science” is reduced to an apologetic trick to be pulled out whenever science demonstrates some religious assertion about reality to be false or inadequate. But as soon as everyone’s attention wavers there are the apologists back acting like they’re making truth claims about the real world. Sooo…if the Bible is not doing science then STOP DOING SCIENCE!

    The Dalai Lama famously said that if science contradicted one of the doctrines of Buddhism then he would give up the doctrine. Now that’s someone willing to live and die by science. Can you imagine one of our Christian apologists saying that out loud?

    Far be it for me to defend Richard Dawkins but he thinks exactly the same way as the vast majority of believers do in that ‘if it didn’t happen it’s not true’. No Jordan Peterson level of verbal orgasmic blather about “metaphysical substrates” is going to change the fact that most Christians think that if it didn’t happen it’s not true. Before we pluck the mote out of Richard Dawkins’ eye perhaps we should remove the beam out of our own.


  10. Hello Mike-The-Geologist,

    that is a great link . . . the description of the Michigan ‘floating bog’ was especially interesting . . . . what I don’t know about ‘bogs’ is a lot, but I do remember the Danish ‘bog’ mummy who was preserved in a peat bog for thousands of years


  11. I’m copping the “floating vegetative mats” for one of my Freelance Traveller “Jump Destination” world writeup articles. And coining the term “Perelandran” for the type of world with extensive “floating vegetative mat islands”.


  12. “Or floating vegetative mats to explain why all the marsupials got to Australia after migrating across the whole continent of Africa and the Indian Ocean”

    wait… what? I obviously missed some flannelgraph curriculum…


  13. Another nice article to get us to think and reflect. I just like to pull this out of my memory bank as I read it somewhere and find it to be helpful. The Bible was not written to us, by “us” I mean we alive in the 21st century but for us. God inspired a book that transcends the ages from the Bronze age understanding to us. God gave us the ability to learn and grow .

    As Mrs. Bullard , noted fourth grade Sunday School teacher and sage told us, There are many Bible stories that reveal the truth that God loves us and will save us if we believe in God and salvation though Jesus, our ark. . It was ok with us and we started to like the “stories” that have action and a message.

    I have not progressed much intellectually, as if I need to say it, but sometimes faith, common sense and understanding by reading the Bible with an open heart and mind helps in your journey. Mrs. Bullard was certainly a fundamentalist meaning the truth of the Bible was fundamental and the truth was it was inspired by God for us to help us on our faith and life journey.

    Of course, my big question to Mrs. Bullard was how big was the jaw bone of an ass, partly because I wanted to know plus I wanted to say ass in Sunday School. So when Samson movie with Victor Mature and Heddy Lamar came out on TV , we all knew the story. If it was not “true” it should have been but it got the point across.

    Jacob tied his ass to a tree and walked a thousand miles, I guess I am still at the fourth grade level but it is funny.


  14. Hello Ben,

    Concerning that ‘unity’, here are some quotes to think about:

    “”…methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith,
    because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.

    The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

    “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth”.

    (Gaudium et Spes, a pastoral letter)


  15. “the biblical authors didn’t care all that much to draw a firm distinction between something they saw as a unity anyway”

    Well, it *IS* a unity.

    Science was conceived as an exercise in deliberate tunnel vision. Though it has unfortunately become unwitting blindness.


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