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