The Bible and Phenomenology

Sep 21, 2020 | Apologetics, Blog, Theology

To the extent possible, I want you to place yourself in the shoes of the ancient Hebrew writer.

You have no “modern” scientific knowledge. You don’t know that stars are balls of gas. You don’t know how big the world really is, etc.

(That is NOT to say they were ignorant, primitive brutes. No—ancient man was rather intelligent. They just did not have access to the kind of information we have access to today.)

And yet, God seems to task you with writing things that have implications for the world at large—perhaps even the universe.

How might God accomplish this?

It seems to me that the writers of the Bible, when describing things that would seem to go beyond their sphere of immediate knowledge, were simply writing about what they saw.

My personal conviction is that there is widespread error promulgated in the church today by folks who either don’t understand or don’t agree with this principle.

Here’s an example: Consider the heavens (Heb. shamayim).

Many Hebrew scholars believe that ancient Hebrew thought has a sort of “vault” or “sky dome” over the earth, held up by pillars, on top of which exists waters (hence the blueness of the sky).

They point to other cultures around the world who supposedly held a similar view, and reason that, based on what they see in the biblical text, its writers thought the same.

But never once in their discussions of this have I heard them address how that thinking about the universe, for the cultures around Israel, is highly theological in nature.

In other words, Israel would have not have believed the many other things one with this worldview would have believed.

Worse, there’s evidence to suggest that even those cultures that did think of the universe this way were thinking metaphorically.

So again, I ask: Why can’t we let the writers of the Bible be who they are, and simply realize they were writing about the things they saw?

What are the “heavens” for a biblical writer? Simple: The sky. Everything “up there.” Why? Because that’s what they saw.

They also had depth perception. They were smart enough to know there’s a distinction between the space where birds fly and where the sun and moon reside, even though they sort of “blend in” to one another.

There are many other examples that could be used. The point is: the Bible makes use of phenomenological language. That is, language that is descriptive of what can be seen or experienced, and distinct from strict ontological accuracy.

Also, this is a useful concept when defending the Bible from attack.

By understanding that we often communicate in terms of what we are seeing, we can make sense of biblical statements that maybe don’t correspond to things in the precise way we understand the world today.

And, the same will be true a hundred years from now. We will have learned new things, and people today will understand we were working with limited knowledge and describing things to the best of our ability.

But it’s not erroneous to do so—no, it is perfectly legitimate to describe a phenomena from the perspective of an observer. And that’s what we find.

To dive deeper into this and other concepts that will aid you in defending the Biblical worldview against skeptical attacks, check out my book Truth Be Told here:

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Hi, I’m Steve, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world.

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