Reasons to Believe

Historic Age Debate: Dependence on Translations, Part 5 (of 5)

Most Christians favor one Bible translation over others. Some prefer the formal sound of the King James Version, whereas others find the casual language of The Message. Either way, each translation influences our understanding of the Bible.

The previous four parts of this series laid out the case that much of the controversy and confusion over Genesis 1-11 stems from the fact that theologians–going all of the way back to the earliest days of the church–have relied on Old Testament translations rather than the original Hebrew. This misplaced dependence impacts interpretations in at least three distinct ways: linguistic differences (part 2), cultural factors (part 3), and issues in specific translations (part 4). For many people, this brings up an uncomfortable question, "So, does that mean that I can't trust my Bible?"

The Clarity of Scripture

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (also known as the perspicuity of Scripture) sits at the heart of this question. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) defines it as follows:

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. (1.7)1

Essentially, this means that the key points of Scripture must be understandable by even ordinary people and not limited to just religious experts. This belief was central to the Protestant Reformation, which emphasized that all believers should read the Bible for themselves. Of course, most people aren't fluent in Hebrew and Greek and must read the Bible in a language they can understand. So, what does this mean for interpreting Genesis?

In looking at the above definition, we see that not everything in Scripture is easily understood. Secondary issues, such as the age of the earth, needn't be readily accessible to the laymen. Philosopher Kenneth Samples writes:

Its [Scripture's] perspicuity [or clarity] does not mean that every passage is equally clear, nor that scholarly study is not needed, but this quality does signify that the essential message of salvation is plainly revealed within its pages.2

In other words, the clarity of Scripture doesn't excuse us from making a careful study of its meaning. Certainly some details (such as how to align Bible events with external history) require the abilities of trained scholars to fully sort out.

Primary Points v. Secondary Details

In recognizing that we may not readily understand everything in Scripture, it is good to remember an important principle of interpretation, highlighted by Samples:

And because not all Scripture is equally clear, hermeneutically speaking the less clear parts are meant to be interpreted in light of the clearer parts (Scripture interprets Scripture).3

Interpretation should begin with identifying the most clear statements before moving to the obscure. One method includes focusing on the primary point (or points) of a passage before tackling the secondary details. The primary point is the "big picture." It represents the author's most important message. As such, it is woven into every part of the passage and usually stated in multiple ways. Therefore, it should be comprehensible, even if we rely on translations or even paraphrases. Understanding key doctrine does not require knowledge of the original languages of the Bible.

Once we understand the primary point of the passage, we can then move on to the secondary details. Authors use fewer pieces of information to communicate secondary details, so they require extra attention from readers. Consulting multiple translations and examining other relevant passages can shed additional light on the subject. In some cases, it may be helpful to study commentaries, Hebrew/Greek dictionaries, and historical references. Most importantly, we must avoid becoming dogmatic when dealing with interpretations of secondary details, including information that affects the age-of-the-earth debate.

We tend to read Genesis in light of the questions we want answered. For example, if we approach Genesis 1 with the goal of resolving the nature of the creation days, we naturally gravitate toward those few secondary details that might address it. This puts the spotlight chiefly on three words–"evening," "morning," and "day." The danger is that Hebrew nouns are generally far broader and less specific than their English counterparts (part 2). In this way, our questions drive the interpretation of the text (by focusing our attention on certain details) rather than letting the text drive our interpretation. Instead, we should focus first on the primary point of Genesis 1, which is that God is Creator; the second point is the Sabbath principle.4 Moses highlights these points at the beginning, and conclusion of the chapter, respectively.

Essentials v. Non-essentials

Last and most importantly, readers of the Bible must remember the distinction between issues of orthodoxy and debatable concerns. Issues of orthodoxy encompass those subjects that form the foundation of Christianity and that are clearly laid out in Scripture (e.g., the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, etc.) Such topics are typically included in church creeds, confessions of faith, and similar doctrinal statements that are accepted by large portions of the church (although debatable concerns can sometimes also be found in such documents).

The church must unite on essentials, but on issues where the Bible doesn't speak decisively, we must show charity and understanding toward varying interpretations (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Titus 3:9-10). With regard to the historic age debate, only the doctrine of creation ex nihilo has been traditionally considered as an issue of orthodoxy. In contrast, the nature and length of the creation days, the age of the earth, and similar topics have been treated as debatable concerns and weren't included in key doctrinal statements. Though they have provoked discussion over the last two millennia, not until the last few decades did they produce a rancorous argument.

The only way to make progress in the modern dispute over the age of the Earth is to treat it as healthy debate. Every side needs to remain open to dialogue with each other and to learn from other perspectives.

My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to KansasCity@Reasons.org


Dr. John Millam

Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Subjects: Bible Difficulties

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Endnotes:

  1. "The Westminster Confession of Faith," The Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcfwithproofs/, (accessed May 25, 2009)

  2. Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 119.

  3. Ibid.

  4. This is discussed in more detail in part 1.