THE DANGERS OF ‘LITERALISM’ — FLAT EARTH THEORY AS A TEST OF ORTHODOXY

There is a vast amount of speculation about CERN.  Do a search on YouTube and you will retrieve too many videos to count.  Certainly too many to watch.  And for the most part, you shouldn’t bother.  The speculation goes off the chart. 

Recently, Anthony Patch and I (S. Douglas Woodward) did two videos on CERN for the Lyn Leahz Channel.  These videos scored almost 375,000 views.  That’s a lot in case you don’t know.  The two videos are being compressed (cleverly) into a 2-hour DVD by BookMinistry.org that will be available in about two weeks from Amazon. More on that later.  Given the number of views received, we should expect we would get some strong reactions — mostly good responses, but a few bad ones.  And, not surprisingly, it would be likely that we would experience at least one criticism that would be especially appalling.

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Sure enough, a weird critique popped up about three days ago.  In it, the critic hammered Anthony Patch and me for speculating much too much.  That criticism is understandable at one level. It is not hard to advance an argument against our message because we were “connecting the dots” about the meaning of CERN. (Just so you know, CERN is a French acronym that when translated into English means The European Center for Nuclear Research). It’s a given that our presentation/discussion was dealing with the really big dots. Nevertheless, they were still just dots (to be more articulate I would need to classify them an “individuals factoids”). We did our best to differentiate between what we believe and what the standard point of view believes.  But sometimes we might not have been as clear as we should have been. Okay.  Mea culpa — at least as far as I am concerned.

However, the “over the top” criticism came from a fellow Christian (not that he acted like one given the way he chastened us).  His critique amounted to saying that Patch and Woodward were “cosmic evolutionists” — which I take to mean that we believe in a Big Bang theory and accept all the standard academic theory about how the universe came into its present state.  Honestly, I don’t know what all of his criticisms might be.  He didn’t go into detail.  He mostly lamented how difficult it was for him to listen to the interview and how foolish we were to adopt an unbiblical point of view.  Despite the fact that we completely dismissed and disparaged many of the scientific assumptions of the secular experts of our age, he excoriated us for failing to support a biblical point of view. Why so harsh?  And more importantly, was his critique of Patch and Woodward justified?

Well, let’s take a closer look. First, allow me to communicate the points that we covered right up front about what we did not believe in — those “scientific axioms” that we clearly challenged.  Here’s the list:

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So, to be precise the very first meaning of “revising reality” — the name of our book (co-written by Patch, me, Josh Peck, and Gonzo Shimura) is this:  we mustn’t let the secular (if not atheistic) academics destroy our faith in the Bible because we are not able to reconcile what they teach us about the Cosmos with what the Bible teaches. We should readily admit, as the late Christian intellectual Dr. Francis Schaeffer so cogently put it, that the Bible is neither a history book nor a science book.  However, when it touches on science or on history, what it communicates is true.  As I point out in the “slide”, our discussion specifically listed the issues on which we “choose to differ” with the views of the famous cosmologists of our day, such as Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and even Stephen Hawking.  But the real issue is what does the Bible teach about science, about the Cosmos, and about how God created the heavens and the earth?

Now for the provocation:  the criticism was founded upon a singular hypothesis that — hold your breath — the earth is flat.  Yes, the challenge was from a “flat earther”.  From my assessment (I listened carefully to his criticism), we ran afoul of orthodoxy because we believe the earth is a sphere.  We ignorantly buy into that assumption of “modern science” (which was a view held since Copernicus–at least).  We are, therefore, “heliocentric” — which means we also believe the earth orbits the sun.  Because we don’t agree with his two core assumptions of the flat earth position, we are heretics.

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What are the main reasons that “flat earthers” believe the earth is flat, that it lies at the center of the universe, and all celestial objects orbit the earth? I believe it has to do with espousing a fundamentalist hermeneutic — a traditional method for expressing how we interpret the Bible.  This amounts to an oversimplified way of expressing the inspiration of scripture. It represents the view (commonly said among most of us who call ourselves conservative evangelicals), that “we take the Bible literally“.  Those who believe in the flat earth are contending that this is what the Bible teaches.  They are sincere.  They are passionate.  But saying that we must “take the Bible literally” actually is a snare.  Instead, what we should rather say is that “we interpret the Bible as the author intended that he be interpreted”.  In other words, we must not force our preconceptions or assumptions onto the text.  We need to let the text speak for itself.  We need to let other scriptures interpret what the text says. Yes, in any given ‘context’ we must not be oblivious to what the biblical author understands about the Cosmos, to the extent we can discern what his understanding is.  Usually, however, that isn’t obvious nor is it relevant to interpreting the text. Therefore, whether we are liberal or conservative theologically, we cannot presume to know what the biblical author believed. And we must always be mindful that “figures of speech” shouldn’t be taken literally.  It is dangerous to interpret the Bible allegorically.  But it can be just as dangerous to interpret it literally if that isn’t how the biblical author intended his statement be understood.

Granted, the flat earthers contend that to believe the Bible is God’s Word, we must acknowledge and agree with them regarding what the Bible says about the earth, sun, moon, and stars and how God placed them in the heavens.  At stake is correctly dividing the Word of Truth, or understanding the proper way to interpret the Bible. And we would disagree on what the Bible teaches regarding the Cosmos.  But we agree that God created it and sustains it. (I discuss this extensively in the introduction to Revising Reality). Obviously, this posting is not able to address the doctrine of scriptural interpretation or biblical hermeneutics. Whole books are devoted to these critical topics.  But the question is whether believing in a flat earth is a proper test for orthodoxy and whether we are rightly dividing the Word of Truth. Likewise, I don’t really want to go into the details at all to expound upon their interpretation of scripture.  I really don’t want to do that, I would have to study it in more detail to do it justice, just like I would have to study in detail the “hollow earth theory” to critique it on a scientific basis.  Anyway, since probably 99% of my readers dismiss the claim that the “Bible teaches the earth is flat” as just a medieval perspective (and therefore deserves no response to even “dignify the claim”), I only wish to address the matter of “literalism”.  Furthermore, flat earth advocates have provided scores of videos to advance their argument. Opponents are created scores of videos asserting the opposite: that flat earthers are crazy to even propose something so out of left field.  I actually wish to state at this point that if you believe the Bible teaches the earth is flat and that you are comfortable that the science supports that view, that doesn’t cause me a problem.  But if you demand I believe the same thing then we have a problem.

The same could be said about many other doctrines folks hold dear.  If you believe in the Post-Trib rapture and insist that I should therefore no longer hold to the Pre-Trib view because I’m a heretic (many assert that about me), I say “balderdash”.  Scriptural arguments can be adduced that support either view.  You are free to be a Post-Tribber — but allow me to be a Pre-Tribber, even if you regard me as stupid to hold to that perspective.

Therefore, I wish to disagree, not with the flat earth theory (although I do), but with the notion that NOT believing in a flat earth makes the naysayer a heretic. I maintain I am not a “cosmic evolutionists” (to the extent I understand what that implies) for accepting the earth is essentially a sphere, it orbits around the sun in 365.24 days, and stars are virtually motionless when it comes to comparing their movement as seen from the earth during a single human lifetime.  My challenge:  believing the earth is flat is not a test for orthodoxy.

I assert that believing the earth is flat stems from a failure to understand a metaphor as a figure of speech.  Literalism as a way to express your view of biblical inspiration is dangerous.  Allow me to tie something I wrote way back in my first book:  Are We Living in the Last Days?  This was from one of my “deep dives”.  I hope you find this helpful!


DD#1 – When Literalism Can Harm Biblical Interpretation

A red moon isn’t literally red—it may appear to us on Earth that it is red. Language about consciousness and the structures of consciousness comprise a philosophy known as Phenomenology, founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Thinking in terms of how we perceive something may make a statement more or less literal depending upon how precisely we wish to define ‘literal.’  There is, as Immanuel Kant rightly said, a “thing in itself” and there is a “thing as we perceive it.” Kant believed the human mind is locked into the latter.  He built his philosophy upon this point.

The Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer suggests that isn’t the last word.  God created our minds to be able to know and understand the world in which we live. He made the world and our knowledge of it ‘coherent.’ With faith in God, we break down the ‘knowledge dilemma’ posed by the skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant. (See Schaeffer’s book, He is There and He is Not Silent). In essence, our reason may be limited, but through faith our limitations can be overcome. In this way, faith and reason can work together.

My First Book from 2011

However, evangelicals must be careful when classifying themselves as ‘literalist.’ For instance, if one reads the Gospel of John carefully, it is clear that one of the biggest challenges that Jesus faced in communicating with the religious leaders (and the common people) of His day was their blindness to the truth motivated by their ‘literal’ ways of thinking. Consider Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus: “’You must be born again.’ Nicodemus couldn’t help but ask, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’” (See John 3:1-12). Jesus was incredulous. Paraphrasing, Jesus says, “And you are a teacher of Israel? How can you be stumped by such simple Bible lessons? You don’t understand earthly matters. How will you then understand heavenly things?” Assuredly, Jesus confounds ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John time and time again by His use of metaphors to describe Himself— “I am the Light of the Word,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Door,” and especially, “I am the Bread (manna) from Heaven.” We should recognize that there is much more in these metaphors than mere ‘figures of speech.’ There is ‘reality’ in these metaphors—indeed, there is ‘ultimate reality!’ And yet, taking them literally would be missing the point and could even lead to spiritual death. We see this explicitly when many of his disciples ‘just didn’t get it.’ “’These are hard sayings’ and from that day forward many of His disciples walked away” (See John 6:66). Additionally, we should not overlook that Jesus taught in parables intentionally hiding His truth to those ‘that did not have ears to hear.’ The fact that his principal means to teach his followers was to utilize images and stories which he spoke in ‘riddles,’ should give us pause when we insist that Christian truth is fundamentally propositional. There is a measure of ‘cloaking’ the truth for a very specific reason. Proverbs 25:2 sets forth a strategic principle in biblical interpretation: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” From this, we can conclude that it is the nature of God not to ‘spell it out’ for those that do not want to believe. For those that will take the time to search out a matter, they will be rewarded with understanding.

One of the weaknesses of the Reformed tradition is an overreliance upon stating beliefs propositionally. As we will argue later, Christian truths certainly must be stated propositionally. That is important. But if that is the only way we experience the truth of our faith, we become overly cerebral, typically legalistic, and somewhat stiff and boring. Yes the truth can be ‘black and white,’ but color is usually a more pleasing presentation! Reflecting upon C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s (1892-1973) trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, who among us believes that such fantastic tales and morality lessons, presented in these wonderful formulations, reduce our ability to understand the Bible’s principles and its principal characters? Fantasy doesn’t pretend to uncover intricate details and facts. But it does intend to disclose the value of ethics, morality, and faith. Pictures can be worth a thousand words!

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