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When Bill Nye got it right

promo-slide[1]So I watched the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye on Tuesday evening. I wasn’t going to. I had other work to do, but I thought I would let it play in the background while I worked. It didn’t happen…I couldn’t NOT watch. And I’m glad I did.

All in all, it went the way I expected, and they made the points I have heard repeatedly. Ken Ham did a great job of framing the question properly. He did not allow for the debate to be “science vs. creationism” or “academics vs. creationism,” providing videos of several respected scientists who believe in a young Earth and the Biblical description of six, 24-hour days of creation.

Instead, he showed that the two options were creation based on the Scriptures, with God being the authority, or naturalism based in human reason, with humans being the authority. This is the true debate, not creation vs. science, but Scriptures vs. reason, God vs. man.

And Bill Nye filled his role. In one point after another, Mr. Nye proved Mr. Ham’s case by relying on reason. “A reasonable man could not believe this” and “I am not satisfied by this,” Nye insisted multiple times, referring to a young Earth, a wooden ark, a global Flood. Whereas Ham consistently referred to the Scriptures, Nye continued to rely on “reason.”

But Bill Nye was not all wrong. In fact, during his one-minute response to an audience question directed to Ken Ham, Nye provided some serious ammunition to his followers. From the archived video at http://debatelive.org (accessed on 2/5/2014), this question was posed to Mr. Ham at about the 2:24:20 mark:

Mr. Ham, do you believe the whole Bible is to be taken literally?

As always, this was followed up by specific examples: What about touching pigskin (football anyone?)? What about men marrying multiple wives? Do you think they should be executed?

Mr. Ham did a great job during the second half of his answer.

  1. He ably showed that, just as we have laws in America that are limited to America, so Israel had laws that were limited to Israel. Even though they are recorded in the Bible, those laws do not apply to Christians today.
  2. He showed that the Bible accurately recorded the sins that people committed, and that recording them is not the same as condoning them. For instance, the fact the Bible says that David and Solomon married many women doesn’t make it right.

He should have said that first and stayed on topic. Instead, he started his response like this:

“If it’s history, as Genesis is – it’s written as typical historical narrative – you take it as history. If it’s poetry, as you find in the Psalms, you take it as poetry. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t teach truth, but it’s not a cosmological account in the sense that Genesis is. There’s prophecy in the Bible. There’s literature in the Bible concerning future events and so on. So, if you take it naturally, as written, according to the type of literature, and you let it speak to you in that way, that’s how I take the Bible.”

As soon as he started, I began to watch Bill Nye, and I could see it in his face as he formed his response – the exact response I expected him to bring. And he was right.

“So, it sounds to me, just listening to you over the last two minutes, that there’s certain parts of this document, of the Bible, that you embrace literally and other parts you consider poetry. So it sounds to me in these last two minutes that you’re going to take what you like and interpret literally, and other passages you’re going to interpret as poetic or descriptions of human events.”

If this debate had taken place on a major university campus rather than at the Creation Museum, Nye would have received a standing ovation. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, but I nodded in agreement with him.

In that one statement trying to support a proper interpretation of the Scriptures, I’m sad to say that Ken Ham did the exact opposite.

Ham fell into the trap of what we call “genre interpretation,” that is, interpreting the Scriptures based on the type of literature in which the passage occurs. Basically, Ken Ham told the listening world, “Poetry does not have to be read literally. Prophecy does not have to be read literally. Only History or Historical Narrative requires a literal interpretation.”

And I say he’s wrong. Using that method, what is to keep Bill Nye, or even Ken Ham, from saying, “Well, I don’t think Genesis is Historical Narrative. I think it’s Oral Tradition or Fable or Myth, which means it’s probably exaggerated. We can’t take that literally.”?

I don’t know if Mr. Ham really meant to put it that way or if he just stumbled over it. (Public speaking isn’t as easy as they made it look!) I do know that, if that question were posed to me today, this is my response, and I hope you can respond the same way:

Mr. Goepfrich, do you believe the whole Bible is to be taken literally?
 
Yes, I believe from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, the Bible is the very Word of God, down to each individual word. The purpose of words is to convey meaning, and if words can mean anything, depending on who reads them, then they mean nothing at all.
 
Does that mean that every word applies to every person? Not at all. Different sections were given to different peoples. But every word should be taken in the sense it was written – its literal meaning, within its historical context, according to the rules of grammar in its original language. The Bible cannot mean something today that it did not mean when it was written.
 
Yes, I believe the whole Bible is to be taken literally.

Can you say the same? If so, how are you letting it affect your life?

By the way – the real winner last night? God. Ken Ham presented the gospel of Jesus Christ several times in a clear, respectful way and gave all glory to God throughout the entire program. For that, I say, Well done, Mr. Ham!

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Monte Stroup February 5, 2014, 1:00 pm

    Sounds to me as if you and Mr. Ham agree on how to interpret the Bible in its intended context. Yet the person asking the questions was clearly wrenching details from the Bible. May I ask whether you have taken the opportunity to discuss this question with Mr. Ham or anyone at Answers in Genesis? I have found them to be very humble servants of God that are very willing to learn from other believers and discuss points of interest.

    I personally believe that your response would be easily countered by taking some of the poetic imagery of the Poetical books and claiming that they are intended as scientific teaching rather than using the science contained in the verses to illustrate a truth. I am thinking of Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. While I believe that you, Mr. Ham, and I all agree on the teaching of this verse, I do believe that in the debate context Mr. Nye could easily refute your response in a different way than how he refuted Mr. Ham’s response. (I did not get to see the entire debate as I was on baby sitting duty for part of the debate. Yet I did not get the impression that Mr. Nye had researched the scientific feasibility of the flood let alone much research of the Bible itself.)

    I really believe that the difference between yourself and Mr. Ham is semantics. While there are many thoughts and ideas that you have neatly summarized, I believe that both you and Mr. Nye failed to incorporate what Mr. Ham said and intended as he said to take the Bible as it is written. I believe that to be a more accurate way to describe Biblical interpretation. Much of unfulfilled prophecy is in figurative language. Your answer seems to indicate that you would take what God has intended to be figurative and choose to interpret it literally. I really doubt that is what you would do. (Rev. 6:12,13 [12] And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
    [13] And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.)

    Does claiming that the Bible should be taken literally when it states that the stars will fall to the earth? Do you take it literally when it says the moon be like blood? Maybe you do take these literally. Maybe you do think that stars will fall on the earth. However, when the Bible uses terms like, as, etc. I believe that we should take it figuratively as it is written and intended. I believe an accurate understanding of these events would be a meteor shower and an eclipse.

    I believe that you have taken an inaccurate assessment from Mr. Nye of what Mr. Ham actually said. Mr. Ham said that he takes it naturally as written. Mr. Ham is not willy-nilly choosing to believe certain parts as Mr. Nye accused. I do not agree with you that Mr. Ham encouraged an improper interpretation of the Bible as you have accused him.

    • Daniel Goepfrich February 5, 2014, 1:48 pm

      Thanks, Monte. I know that it sounds like semantics, but I think it goes deeper than that. I have not contacted Mr. Ham on this, but I noted that it could have been that he simply stumbled over his words. As a pastor and teacher, I tend to do that a lot!

      Here’s my definition of “literal” from the post and how it answers your specific questions:

      every word should be taken in the sense it was written – its literal meaning, within its historical context, according to the rules of grammar in its original language.

      Particularly important to your examples is the last phrase: “according to the rules of grammar in its original language”.

      You asked: “Do you take it literally when it says the moon be like blood?” Yes, I do, because “like” is a simile, a valid use of language. When the text says, “The moon will be like blood,” I take that literally – it will indeed be “like blood.”

      There is a major difference between interpreting figuratively and interpreting figures of speed as they were intended. In Mr. Ham’s statement, it sounded like genre determined whether or not he could interpret literally. I heard it that way, Mr. Nye heard that way, and his response was on point.

      Again, maybe (hopefully) Mr. Ham doesn’t interpret based on genre. No matter the type of literature we let the text speak for itself in the literal way the writer intended it.

      Does that help show the difference between what I mean by “literal” and what Mr. Ham said?

  • Steve Picray February 5, 2014, 1:08 pm

    Bravo. His response to that question bothered me also, especially since this canard is one that gets thrown out every time I have an online discussion about the Bible with atheists/Non-Christians. They say, “Oh, you take the Bible literally? I hope you don’t eat bacon. Do you stone your children to death when they disobey? Do you wear polyester?”

    And there’s a difference between literalists and hyper-literalists, which I think is what Ken Ham was trying to point out (unsuccessfully). Should every word in the Bible be taken literally? He started out well by saying, “you have to define the meaning of words.” What do you mean by “literally?” Do the trees of the field LITERALLY have hands to clap? Does God LITERALLY have feathers and wings? No, I don’t believe so. But a literal reading of any text will include figures of speech, which everyone understands are not to be taken literally. When a recipe calls for liberal use of “elbow grease,” we don’t go to the store looking for some.

    Should the Bible be taken literally? Yes. Should it be taken hyper-literally? No. And in that, I think you are correct, Daniel, in your assessment of Mr. Ham’s answer. Bill Nye was correct in his comment that Ken Ham’s answer could be taken to mean that some parts of the Bible should not be taken literally, and I can’t believe that this was Ken Ham’s intent.

    • Daniel Goepfrich February 5, 2014, 1:53 pm

      Thanks, Steve – I don’t think that’s what he meant either. But you could hear it in Bill Nye’s voice and see it in his face that he took that point. Which is sad, because Ken Ham could have used those two minutes to promote what “literal” means when approaching figures of speech, prophecy, poetry, etc. from a grammatical-historical perspective.

      Unfortunately, the good part of the response about different laws for Israel and Christians was completely overshadowed by the mistake which Nye picked apart.

  • stilus February 5, 2014, 4:37 pm

    Pascal writes: “…and to claim to have achieved a proof with such an argument [of the creation] , is to give them cause to believe that the proofs of our religon are indeed weak. I see by reason and expereince that nothing is more likely to arouse their contempt. This is not how scripture, which understands better the hings which are God’s speaks of them. It says on the contrary that God is a hidden God… [Isa 45.15]” So me thinks Ham did a good job presenting the gospel. Where Kent Hovind when you need him?

    • Daniel Goepfrich February 5, 2014, 8:52 pm

      Thanks, stilis – I agree to a point. However, both Psalm 19 and Romans 1 say that creation does speak to God’s existence and power. Pascal’s problem was that he tried to prove God instead of starting with God. Trying to prove God does not work, and we will be ineffective in our message as long as we think that we are responsible for doing so.

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