Poythress, Vern S. “Three Modern Myths in Interpreting Genesis 1. ” WTJ 76 (2014): 321-50.
Poythress makes the case that many interpreters of Genesis 1 have fallen prey to the following three “modern myths”: (1) “The Myth of Scientistic Metaphysics,” (2) “The Myth of Progress,” and (3) “The Myth of Understanding Cultures from Facts.”
The first myth asserts that modern scientific metaphysics describes reality while phenomenological language does not. “The ‘unreality’ of appearances follows only if we have a metaphysical principle of reductionism, which says that science gets to the “bottom,” the “real” foundation of being, and that everything above the bottom is unreal in relation to the bottom. This metaphysics has no real warrant based on details of scientific investigation, but is a groundless assumption that is imposed on the investigation” (328). The example Poythress uses is biblical language about the sun rising. Those who fall prey to this myth may argue “the ancient people carried along a raft of assumptions about the cosmos, and that we now know that those assumptions were wrong. For instance, they thought that the earth was at the center in an absolute sense” (326). To which Poythress responds, “Well, perhaps they did. And perhaps they did not. Might it just be the case that the average Israelite did not worry about complicated physical and mathematical systems for describing motions of the heavenly bodies?” (326).
The second myth is the belief that modern science and technology make modern cultures superior in their understanding to ancient cultures. Poythress uses the existence of demons as a counter-example. Many modern people would dismiss their existence as unscientific. But in this case the ancient cultures would have the better understanding of reality (329-30). When interpreters in thrall to this myth interpret Genesis 1, they think they must find “some core religious message” and discard its “cultural trappings.” Poythress says, “This attitude undermines empathy, and lack of empathy hinders genuine understanding” (330).
The third myth assumes “we can study and understand a culture effectively with a dose of armchair learning about the facts” (330). Poythress finds the confidence expressed in this myth misplaced. “With the ancient Near East, these difficulties go together with the absence of direct contact. We cannot function like a well-trained field worker in social anthropology, actually immersing ourselves within an ancient culture and learning it seriously and empathetically ‘from inside.’ In addition, the ancient Near East consists of many interacting subcultures that changed over a period of millennia. The extant documentary and archaeological evidence is fragmentary. People who are richly informed by evidence, who have skills in cross-cultural thinking and adaptation, and who have innate empathy, may often make good inferences up to a point. But knowledge of such a culture as an interlocking whole remains partial and tentative” (330-31). As an example, Poythress examines the oft-made claim that the ancients believed the sky to be a solid dome. But Poythress doubts the assumption that since ancient people didn’t have our scientific understanding of the atmosphere that they must have had an incorrect scientific understanding. Perhaps they were not thinking in those terms at all. For instance he notes the Egyptians are said to believe in a solid sky held up by the gods, yet the same texts that speak in this way speak of the gods as forming the sky and air. Poythress notes, “Inasmuch as both pictures involve gods, one may doubt whether a materialistic interpretation captures the point in either case. Both pictures may perhaps be artistic representations, not quasi-scientific models of physical structure” (332, n. 24). Poythress not deny that the Bible speaks of windows in the heaven and such, but he questions the value of these images in giving insight into the Israelites conception of the physical makeup of the world. He says, “We talk about a person with a big “ego” without committing ourselves to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ego. Likewise, might ancient discussion of the observable world creatively use the imagery of a house, with pillars, windows, doors, or upper chambers, or the image of a tent, or an // expanse?31 Could such imagery appear, without teaching a detailed physicalistic theory? Modern physicalistic readings run the danger of not recognizing analogy and metaphor in ancient texts” (335-36).
A method of interpretation that Poythress believes falls for these myths he labels the vehicle-cargo approach. In this approach ancient cosmological ideas, or ideas otherwise shown by science to be false, are merely the vehicle that carries the cargo of theological truth. The goal is to uphold inerrancy: “Consequently [upon the adoption of the vehicle-cargo approach], Gen 1 contains no errors in its teaching. In fact, its teaching harmonizes well with modern science, because when rightly understood it is not teaching anything directly about science or anything that could contradict science” (322). But Poythress is doubtful that inerrancy is actually protected: “Suppose that a modern interpreter says that Gen 1 is about theology and not specific events in time and space. This dichotomy is problematic. Theology is expressed precisely through God’s actions in events in time and space. If we make a false dichotomy in Gen 1, this same dichotomy can spread to other parts of the Bible. A principle of this kind easily becomes a wedge by which people pull away from the reality that God acts in history and speaks about history” (346). So, on Poythress’s, analysis the vehicle-cargo approach suffers fails to protect inerrancy while also, ironically, falling prey to myths similar to the ones it set out to avoid: “The vehicle-cargo approach criticizes naïve modern readings of Gen 1 for artificially projecting into Genesis ideas from modern science. It also criticizes the philosophers and theologians who resisted Copernicus, because they projected Aristotelian and Ptolemaic theories of ultimate structure—metaphysics—into Gen 1. But is it doing something analogous? The vehicle-cargo approach also projects its own brand of “metaphysics” into Gen 1, namely, the metaphysics that it has found from reading ancient Near Eastern myths” (345).
This really is a must-read article.