I recently found myself in an argument with a Christian gentleman who claimed the Earth was flat and, what is more, that the Bible clearly taught the Earth was flat. In the argument, I represented myself as a very old-fashioned Ptolemaic geocentrist, which should suffice to show that I am not dismissive of any theory simply because it is recherché and out-of-date. As for the idea that the Earth is flat, who could be offended at such a quaint claim? As for the idea the Bible clearly teaches the Earth is flat, I take extreme umbrage.
If you poke around online for a few minutes, you can probably find an old Angelfire or Geocities relic devoted to cataloging all the verses in Scripture which obviously describe the flatness of the earth. Such lists often seem born out of BibleGateway.com searches for the words “foundations” and “moved,” for nearly every verse in the Bible which describes the “foundations” of the earth is given as evidence the world is flat, as well as every verse which claims the world is stable and shall “never be moved.”
Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved. -1 Chronicles 16:30
And the channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were discovered, at the rebuking of the Lord, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils. -2 Samuel 22:16
Besides verses such as these, passages which reference to “the corners of the earth” are given as proof the earth has corners. Corners are obviously features which a sphere lacks. And if the world shall “not be moved,” then it is obviously not spinning round and round.
Very little room exists in an argument with someone who believes that Scripture “clearly and obviously” teaches something. While I style myself as someone with a dull and unexciting fidelity to traditional moral and liturgical systems, I am not content that Scripture “clearly and obviously” teaches anything. While I believe it is wrong to murder, I don’t believe “Thou shalt not commit murder” is the whole ballgame. Neither is this because I am a relativist or an agnostic; words cannot mean whatever a man wants them to mean.
No word has a singular, lonely, absolute value, as though meaning were simply the last post in a long fence. All words are defined by a community of persons; all three Persons of the Trinity are co-eternal, which means that while there is a Word, there is no “first word.” When Adam speaks, he carries on a work of God which cannot be traced back to a singular primary historical event; for this reason, Augustine speaks (City of God, Book XI) of God being eminently prior to creation, but not chronologically prior. If you should prefer a practical example of what I am talking about, have a room full of students bring dictionaries to class.
1. Ask one student to look up the word work and write all the significant terms from the definition on the board. You will get activity, physical, effort, achieve, purpose, result.
2. Now have students look up each of these significant terms.
3. If you look up effort, the significant terms employed in the definition are vigorous, determined, and attempt.
4. Look up the word attempt and you get effort and achieve.
5. With only two moves in the dictionary, you’ve circled back around to work, which also employed effort in the definition.
You can perform this little experiment with any word in the dictionary. All words circle back around to themselves, often with only two or three moves. As opposed to concluding that all meaning is circular (and “circular” does have rather nasty connotations in a logic class), I prefer to say that all meaning is communal; the truth of the Trinity is inherent within the structure of meaning. Meaning is not so much absolute as it is irreducibly complex. We cannot “skim off the multiplicity of the world to get to the truth of the one, for God Himself, infinite truth, is multiple,” as Leithart summarizes Hart’s summary of Gregory of Nyssa.
I will grant that Christian thinkers as universally revered as Augustine have allowed for some passages of Scripture to be easier to understand than others. At the same time, Augustine will absolutely vex anyone who is looking for Scripture to be clear and obvious. In the City of God, while discoursing on Noah’s ark, Augustine suggests the three floors of the ark represent the three returns on a godly investment (30 fold, 60 fold, 100 fold), or else they represent the three forms of godly chastity (virginity, marriage, widowhood). If neither of these interpretations is sufficient, with a rather laissez-faire flick of the wrist, Augustine allows for any other interpretation of the three floors so long as it does not violate “the rule of faith.” Upon reading this, I have heard more than one student exasperatedly moan, “He’s turning hermeneutics into a game.”
On what grounds is one passage easier to understand than others? Let us grant that “Jesus wept” sounds quite simple, and that John 1:1 is a good deal more abstract. However, when a certain man does not like the implications of this or that passage, he is far more likely to make it into a Borgesian conundrum. We rich people, for instance, adopt the sci-fi hermeneutics of Origen when unpacking passages which praise the poor. “Woe to you rich, for you have received your consolation!” How very obtuse and mysterious this saying is! And yet the same stodgy old traditionalists make as though “I do not permit a woman to teach…” is as self-explanatory as a punch in the nose.
My plea, to theology teachers and Bible teachers and philosophy teachers, is little more than this: Do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one father, and he is in heaven. Is this teaching of Christ’s (Matthew 23:9) not profoundly simple? This is no twisting, undulating, vaporous theology of St. John. This teaching is not attended by a “call for wisdom” (Rev 13:18), as befits the Theologian’s 666 apocalypse puzzle. Call no man on earth “father.” When your students celebrate Father’s Day, chastise them. When the administration of the school sets up a Father-Daughter Breakfast, rebuke those sinners for obviously rebelling against the clear teaching of Christ Himself.
However, if the teaching of Christ concerning the word “father” is not sufficiently clear in and of itself— even though the teaching is unambiguously worded and does not employ a lot of abstract metaphysics— then let us not be glib and make as though any passage of Holy Writ may be breezed over. If we are not ready to immediately proscribe any and every use of the word “father” which does not reference the Heavenly Father, then let us not treat our most sacred text as though this or that passage means exactly what we think it means at first blush. Let us be willing to make a case for our beliefs which transcends a materialist, monolithic and insistent finger-pointing at the Bible, as though if we breathlessly point hard enough our opponents will come around.
When we point at the text as though it is obvious, lucid, and self-evident, we stand to bully others out of the close community we are assuming with the author, and this is especially problematic when the author is not from our epoch, not from our nation, not from our communion, or not from our side of the creator/creature divide.