God’s Unsolvable Biblical Problem

My title: “God’s Unsolvable Biblical Problem”, might seem at first to be an oxymoron, if not even somewhat blasphemous. Something God cannot solve? Orthodox Christianity presumes God to be both omniscient and omnipotent. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14) But there are at least two categories where this apparent paradox is true. One is when the task proposed for God is nonsense. Can, for example, God make a square circle? No, but not because of a God-limitation. The terms square and circle are mutually exclusive, by definition. Thus the phrase is semantic gibberish. A second category is when there is an interaction between God and humanity, and the constraint on what God can do is because of human limitations, not God. By analogy, consider how silly it would be for me to try and teach differential calculus to my cat (assuming I understood it myself). In this case there is an apparently inherent limitation with my cat[1]. This God-human limitation might be because of our inherent inferiority, but it can also be because of other human limitations that, while not inherent, exist for every one of us. These involve such things as language, culture, education, sinfulness and a wide range of differences in human temperament and talents.

Human Limitations

I want to especially focus on these non-inherent, but real limitations, and how (so say I) that leaves an unsolvable biblical problem for God.

First, let us generically consider the problem of communicating something in writing, unambiguously, which will also remain clear over time. The problem of interpretive uncertainty arises immediately because:

  1. Words in every language contain a degree of definitional circularity. If you try to trace the meaning of a word using a dictionary you will quickly see that definitions lean on other words that, when their definitions are examined, will frequently eventually circle back to employ the original word as part of the dictionary’s explanation.
  2. Every language shifts over time and words come in and out of usage. Try reading Shakespeare without consulting a dictionary. What’s a “bare bodkin”? (Hamlet , Act 3, Scene 1) Sounds like nudity.
  3. Translation to another language produces ambiguity, as often a word or phrase used in the original does not have a precise equivalent in the target language. This problem is further complicated if the author used any idiomatic phraseology. Idioms demand significant cultural context to even have a chance of being properly translated. The literal, surface meaning is often quite different from the actual idea being expressed.
  4. Because language is always an expression of culture, time and location, what the author means will inevitably fade somewhat as time advances and what was written – perhaps very well understood by the original readers – becomes less and less clear when later in time the new reader is no longer privy to the original cultural and linguistic setting.

I’m sure there are more problems, or variations on the above, that a more detailed analysis could explore. But this will suffice. The Bible, as a collection of writings, exemplifies all these difficulties. There are multiple original languages, written in times and by authors in contexts quite unlike modernity. Then translated and sometimes re-translated[2] from languages whose words can become obscured over time[3].

None of this ought to be controversial or surprising. It begins to be problematic, however, if you have – or want to have – an oversimplified view of biblical interpretation. A phrase familiar to the conservative Christian subculture is plain reading of the Word. And to many, this idea is understood to mean: if I read something in the Bible and it seems clear to me, then that is indeed what is being said – by God. And being disabused of this convenient and comforting oversimplification can be disconcerting and unwelcome.

Several decades ago I was discussing some of these ideas on an Adventist online forum (not Spectrum) and another commenter took offense at what he perceived was my denigration of the Bible. He proposed a distorted analogy by saying my description of the difference between God’s original truth and what we see in the Bible was like high quality oats being fed to a donkey with the material we read being manure coming out the back end. His choice of “analogy”, of course, was intended to put what I was saying into the worst possible light. And I surmise that this occurred to him in part because of how threatening it might be to have ambiguity clouding what formerly had been perceived as a clean, simple and unadulterated communication from God to him. With his “plain understanding” retaining, of course, the full inspiration of the original.

Unfortunately, little resolution occurred in that conversation (surprise, surprise). But even after discounting for his disparaging “manure” characterization and his being threatened, there are legitimate questions and degrees of obfuscation inherent in my above-described process, with impact on the reliability of the typically semi-casual understandings of an “average” person-in-the-pew.

So it’s helpful, I think, to consider the biblical material as being in two very broad categories. Doing this is simplification, with its attendant risks, so caution is advised. But, caveats applied, consider the material as being: a) ethical/moral directives and illustrations to apply in our daily lives; and b) specific information otherwise unavailable to mankind. In this second category one would find, among other things, eschatology and prophecy. But also definitional material about what does or does not constitute sin and salvation – crucial parts of the revelatory material.

As a brief, but relatively clear example, consider these two texts:

  1. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)
  2. “The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach.” (Revelation 12:14, NIV)

The first (a) is speaking to one’s moral duty; the second (b) is prophetic, using imagery that has been subject to a wide range of interpretation throughout Christian history.

What I suggest about these two categories is this: biblical material dealing with prescriptive moral norms is much more universal and thus understandable across the sweep of time, from the original recipients to those who read it today. The second category sometimes needs to be interpreted much more cautiously and tentatively[4]. This has been difficult for Adventists throughout church history, but is basically a generic human problem. And it illustrates, better than my category (a), God’s unsolvable biblical problem. If God inspires an author, who commits the inspiration to language, that idea is immediately frozen in context. And as time proceeds the clarity of the original intent recedes. But, I argue, ethical material (category a) is generally more easily and accurately understood than specific propositional information (category b). So, why might God have even given category (b) material if the risk is high for misunderstanding? Sometimes its primary purpose might have been for the original hearers, not us. It’s also possible that God actually wanted some ambiguity to allow for varying spiritual applications to be considered by people born into different cultural contexts. There are a lot of possibilities, but the fact remains that moving an idea from “the mind of God” and into written text, results inevitably in the risk of human failure to properly, adequately understand. And this inevitability too often eludes Christian readers. Then, like my years-ago interlocutor, fear and resistance can enter the picture. It ain’t as simple as we would like!

The Issue of World View

But now I wish to consider a problem that is bigger, and at a higher level of abstraction. One that subsumes the sort of difficulties exemplified by my above 4 points. I will label it: World View shift. This whole issue of a shifting World View throughout history has been mostly unexplored until recently[5]. It is 100% a human limitation, but is a critical, yet unsolvable problem for God. When revelation is committed to language the words become fixed into a time/culture context, as written by a finite, albeit inspired, author.

To begin with, what do I mean by the phrase: World View? Here some appropriate definitions:

  • A particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.
  • The set of beliefs about fundamental aspects of Reality that ground and influence all one's perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing.
  • The whole of the individual's or society's knowledge and point of view.

Both the biblical authors, but more importantly the original target audience, operated under a world view that is significantly different from that which prevails in modernity. And this difference is particularly acute and relevant in attempting to understand the Genesis creation story.

As John Walton frames the issue[6]:

“… Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their ‘scientific’ understanding of the cosmos. … They believed that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters. In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”

If Walton’s assertions are correct (and those who disagree shouldn’t have a knee-jerk reaction simply based on unfamiliarity and possible perceived threat), then we need to wrestle with the dilemma of God communicating a message within the world view limitations of its original hearers/readers, but consequently causing a problem when those words get filtered by a modern world view, one that adds the category of natural causes. And secondarily has the risk of moderns wishing the material to address issues that were beyond the understandability of the ancient target audience, and not the focus of the original message.

Walton continues[7]:

“Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. … This represents one attempt to ‘translate’ the culture and text for the modern reader. The problem is, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we. … If we try to turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. … Since we view the text as authoritative, it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say.”

The full and very contentious topic of what the Genesis creation story does or doesn’t say is bigger and obviously beyond the scope of this essay. What I wish to be understood, in the context of difficulty for God, is the problem of communicating with mankind over a timeframe where human limitations result in an audience that can have significantly different backgrounds and perspectives. This then causes them to approach any written material (unless sensitized to the risk) with implicit presuppositions and framework, and can constrain their ability to understand what is actually being said and not said. So, if God is primarily communicating to the original audience, those “downstream” in history can re-interpret the text erroneously.

These considerations exemplify the generic problem whenever a thought is committed to language and thus frozen by writing it down. It doesn’t go away if the thought inspiration comes from God. It doesn’t even go away if (like the Koran) the actual words in the autograph language are understood to have been dictated by God.

None of this necessitates concluding that the end result – the Bible – becomes incomprehensible garbage, as my conversation-partner inferred many years ago. But neither does it mean that we ought to uncritically read the text and impute our modern sensibilities into what the biblical authors have written. And I think this is very frequently the standard way an average Christian reads the Bible. Mostly I think this over-simplification is done quite honestly and innocently, as there has been little effort by church leaders and theologians to commutate such things to the laity. But I would hope, as such complexity becomes recognized, that we all would be trying to responsibly exegete what we are reading. And the collective result of this caution would be positive: a closer alignment between God as message-giver, and Christians seeking clarity in their message-receiving.

[1] Although I suppose my cat might have abilities I have not discerned, but would just rather sleep – not unlike me when I took the class, years ago.

[2] For example, some of the King James Version of the Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, itself a translation from the original languages.

[3] See, for example: https://www.skipmoen.com/2016/11/untranslatable-3/

[4] Prophecy is notorious for being interpreted in a wide variety of ways – notwithstanding the belief by many Adventists that the church’s understanding is both correct, and obviously so. But I do not want to ever suggest that all specific information (b) is esoteric and hard to understand. Probably the most recognized Bible verse is: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 KJV) This is pretty clear, transcends culture and time, and does not fall under the ethical category (a), above.

[5] There are two sets of books/authors that are particularly relevant. The first in each set focuses on the biblical creation story. The second on the flood narrative. They are:

1a) John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)

1b) John H. Walton, Tremper Longman III, The Lost World of the Flood (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018)

and

2a) Brian Bull, Fritz Guy, God, Sky and Land (Roseville, CA: Adventist Forum, 2011)

2b) Brian Bull, Fritz Guy, God, Land and the Great Flood (Roseville, CA: Adventist Forum, 2017)

[6] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 14.

[7] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 14-15.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9979
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When I apply the type A or B classifications to Genesis, chapter 1, a problem immediately becomes apparent in that not everyone agrees as to which category some Bible passages should be in, notwithstanding the far more obvious texts cited in this article. But then the ambiguity of that may be the most effective characterization of God’s ineffability. Can we live with the idea of a God who refuses to be “nailed down” by a literal understanding of the text?

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I recognize the many problems with textual communication you’re describing are real, but I think you’re selling an omni-God short when you call this communication problem “unsolvable.” As you point out, I’m just a human, but I can think of a number of possible ways an omnipotent and all-powerful God could communicate with humans in far more effectual ways. Here are just a couple.

  1. An all-powerful God could have our brains “pre-programmed” with all sorts of useful knowledge about him and the cosmos around us which would not in anyway limit our freedom of choice, but enhance it. Imagine children who were born with inherent and SPECIFIC knowledge of God. Everyone alive would agree on the reality of God and his instructions to us, with no disagreements whatsoever on questions of God’s will or nature. We would recognize God’s reality just as easily as we recognize the existence of our parents. Greater knowledge of something does NOT interfere with free will. Imagine you are given a free choice to purchase one car, or another. We may choose one or the other based on conflicting hearsay and the subjective testimony of others who have been to the lot and seen both cars. However, they disagree! Some say the car is white, others blue. If you go to the lot yourself and gather more data, does that limit the freedom of your choice? Not at all! Instead more secure knowledge allows you to make a better-informed choice. An omni-God could have done this.

  2. God could give everyone in the world a single, consistent vision of himself and his will on, say their 15th birthday. These visions could potentially be witnessed by others, so we would all share in these experiences and recognize their consistency. Of course, we would still be free to disregard whatever instructions God had for us, just as Adam and Eve did. The choice remains ours, but the instructions are clear.

Instead, we have the Bible. And as you point out, there is no way to avoid human subjectivity, error and misunderstanding with historic texts. To me, these facts disconfirm an all-good omni-god who wants to communicate with us directly and precisely. This is not what we’d expect if such an entity existed. If, instead, these documents were written by fallible humans with differing opinions, all trying to understand their God and his will through time–well that makes perfect sense.

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The problem equates to this false conclusion by those who reject the bible.

The bible can not be understood, so we can not possibly be held accountable to God for anything.

This is the bogus conclusion that many hope is true but will find out otherwise in the final judgment.

God has made Himself adequately clear and just because we can not know everything does not equate to the conclusion that we don’t need to know anything.

We know enough to be held accountable for what we know, and what we could know if we did not cover our eyes and pretend we don’t know.

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”The problem equates to this false conclusion by those who reject the bible.

The bible can not be understood, so we can not possibly be held accountable to God for anything.”

From where in the article did you draw this conclusion, Bill?

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“conclusion that many hope is true.” My friend, you know nothing of unbelief and the anguish that often comes with it. You think I don’t want an all-good deity who takes care of me, loves me, and will ensure ultimate justice in the world? I’d be an idiot not to want those things. As a child, I also badly wanted an older gentlemen to come down my chimney on Christmas eve to deliver presents. Wanting a thing does not make it true, much to my own disappointment.

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I am happy to concede that in some other, hypothetical world, God could solve this problem. He could also have embeded a Urim-Thummim-like mechanismin in our inner-ear that went ding whenever our brain misunderstood His word. But in the actual world - admittedly a silent premise of mine - the problem of potential misunderstanding due to human limitations seems essentially unsolvable. In any event, I’m not really interested in getting hung up on that word. More crucially is the tendency for people to discount or be unaware of the reality of their misunderstanding of things in the Bible that are more subject to cultural shift than ethical maxims. With Genesis being a particularly prominent example.

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“If the shoe fits, wear it.”
Why get hyper if you don’t think it applies to you?

As for Kim’s question, I conclude he creates more doubt and uncertainty than assurance. And I agree with much of what he stated.

The bible gives us adequate assurance coupled with fear. Fear is just as important as assurance as the proper motivation to continue to ask, “What must I do to be saved?”

Any absolute assurance without fear genders presumption.

“Fear God and give glory to Him for the hour of His judgment is come.” Is an exhortation to the Christian community just as much as it applies to the unbelieving world.

But all we hear today, even by so-called conservative elements in the church is “If you trust in Jesus, you don’t need to fear any judgment.”

That’s not the comprehensive bible message. Even Paul who is a major advocate of assurance stated, “I fear, lest having taught others, I myself should be cast away.”

The law rightly creates fear because we are guilty, and even if we are not disobeying at the moment, we may well be in the future. The gospel of grace and forgiveness does not negate the authority of the law.

If you get a speeding ticket, you are under the condemnation of the civil law. When the ticket is paid, the condemnation is removed, but not the authority of the law. You are still “under the law” as the rule of driving your car. So all Christians are still “under the law” of God’s authority, namely, the ten commandments.
And the law continues as a “schoolmaster” to keep us in Christ.
Where is this advocated on this forum or any other for that matter?

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To dichotomize Scripture into ethical/moral instruction and “specific information otherwise unavailable to mankind” is foreign to hermeneutical thinking. Given that the entirety of Scripture is historically conditioned, the ethical/moral instruction is not absolute, transcendent, universal, or eternal. Instead, the ethical/moral instruction must be translated into our specific historical context, analogous to translating an ancient language into English. Most Seventh-day Adventists, because they do not understand hermeneutics, do not do this. Instead, they assume that the historical context of the ancients is identical to our historical context. Their heuristic shortcut is rough and not precisely accurate but usually sufficient to satisfy their needs. “Specific information otherwise unavailable to mankind” must also be translated, as it were, into our historical context. One might think that a brute fact, such as the shape of a circle, transcends all historical contexts. But we know from hermeneutics that this is not the case.

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I said I was making a simplification, which has risks - which you correctly note. I was not attempting to dichotomize. It is indeed all blended to various extents. What I wished to state (which you might also disagree with) is that to the extent that biblical material is ethical it can comport with our internal moral compasses and thus transcends better the time/culture shift. Specific material - like the ontological presuppositions of the original recipients of the Genesis narrative - can get cloudy, and the world-view of the ancients has altered so much by science-informed modernity that this cloud risks obscuring the original intent by a modern’s re-interpretation with their current world-view, with typically unrecognized presuppositions.

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"But all we hear today, even by so-called conservative elements in the church is “If you trust in Jesus, you don’t need to fear any judgment.” "

From Wiki Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a certain stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.

Isaiah 43:1 “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.”

1 John 4:18 “Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear”

Deuteronomy 31:8 “He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

To each his own, I prefer to believe God and what He says. I am alwasys curious as to the reason some want to be afraid of their future with salvation even in the face of His admonition to not be fearful. Of what value is that fear when trying to instill it into others? What picture of God does that create in the mind? It is us that is weak and, in my belief, Lucifer enforces that attitude starting with the serpent in the garden. So yes, count me in that group that is learning to accept and get rid of ‘fear’!!

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So you don’t “fear” you will get a ticket if you go a hundred miles an hour in a 50 mile an hour speed zone?

And you don’t “fear” God if you ignore His law and do as you please, as Adam and Eve did after the Devil convinced them they need not fear to disobey God?

It seems you like Adam and Eve have embraced his lie, “You shall not surely die.” So, do as you please.

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1 John 4:16 can be though of as this.
God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God
lives in them.
Have boldness on the day of Judgment. We are as He is
in this world.
There is no fear in Love. Fear has to do with punishment.
If one fears has not reached perfection in Love.
We love because He first loved us.
[God is within us. Just have to be awake of that.]

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Sure, that’s fair, and I recognize I’m pulling you out on a bit of a tangent here. To me, all the problems you accurately point out make it seem really, really odd that an omnipotent God would choose to communicate with his people using such a fallible medium. But I certainly agree with you that readers of the Bible should do their best to recognize their own biases, preconceptions, and be humble about their interpretations. I just think an omnipotent God could do better.

At the risk of continuing speaking past each other, I just wanted to clarify that any “hyperness” on my part is a reaction to the implication that unbelievers do not want to believe, and so choose not to willfully in order to live selfishly and reject God. That may be your belief, but from the point of view of someone who has gone through that process, it appears ignorant and hurtful. It’s a bit like telling an orphaned child who had spent years looking for his father, only to finally give up in despair that his failures must be the result of his own choice to “reject” his father. For myself at least, it’s like pouring salt in an open wound. Just thought you should understand in case you ever speak with other unbelievers and have any wish to be civil and respectful.

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I gave you a definition and several Biblical quotes on not doing as defined. We all have a choice to either live in fear or in the assurance that God is correct as His word. I do not obey or seek a relationship because I am afraid. To be afraid is to be a slave to it. I am satisfied that, since I am not perfect, I will nedd to live in a state of asking for giveness and knowing God has forgiven. Really quite simple, for me!!

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" Fear is just as important as assurance as the proper motivation to continue to ask, “What must I do to be saved?”"

Why would you think that this is, Bill? Do you believe that negative “motivation” is more powerful than positive “motivation”? Do you believe that negativity is part of God’s nature?

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Most people in the world are motivated by fear…in fact, it can be used to be more powerful a motivator than “positive”. Much of this is conditioning in life and what you have experienced as a child growing up, etc.

There are Copywriters that use the negative emotions to persuade others to buy into nearly anything. A few Copywriters refuse to use negative emotions as they see them as unethical. Strangely enough, most religious copy (advertising/marketing) is replete with fear, anxiety, etc. Why? Because it works…and if it works to “motivate” individuals to give money to their ministry, donate materials and time, then all is well and good.

I abhor that in these particular Christian cases that the “End justifies the Means”. But it is used every day to “motivate” the Faithful to be better stewards.

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How in the world do you conclude this from this article? Rather, you prove its point. You read into it your own bias and presuppositions. What many do with the Bible…

Frank

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and this is why we have egw, who’s eye witness account of fiat creation in books like Patriarchs and Prophets is so clear, there’s no room for misunderstanding…

any kind of revision of the standard understanding of the creation story with an adventist audience is going to have to overcome egw - a daunting, if not impossible, task…

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