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Recognizing Assumptions

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For some time I’ve involved myself in a few creation science groups online, monitoring people’s claims and reactions about the age of the earth, biblical data on origins, and scientific influences in biblical interpretation. Of all issues that are discussed, the age of the earth and length of days God took to create are not only the most discussed, but the most controversial topics. After observing a recent discussion on the length of days defined in scripture I was reminded about a class I recently taught on inductive Bible study and the four elements necessary for a complete study. I provide four components in effective Bible study: Examination
Interpretation
Application
Transformation

I’ve written previously about each of these in my article, A Complete Bible Study Is Transformational. I’d like to revisit this by adding three components under Interpretation because these three elements, essential to our interpretation of the biblical text, are sometimes misunderstood and misapplied, leading to a mistaken understanding of the text. Now, in this article I am not taking a position on the question of young earth or old earth origins, though I do want to make an observation about their respective interpretations. I’ll get to that in a moment. Let me begin by looking at a simple line of text from Genesis 3 and apply three additional components to our study of the text. Those three components, categorized under Interpretation, are:

Revelation
Assumption, and
Deduction

The process of interpreting a text is that of assigning meaning to its words. I don’t mean existential meaning, rather, I mean a properly understood meaning of what the words themselves say. First, we need to know if our understanding is garnished through the revelation that sits before us, or from another source. Let’s use our example text from Genesis 3:21. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit and God declared judgment against them, the text says,

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.”

The first thing to do is to recognize what is revealed and what is not revealed. This is revelation. In this passage what is revealed is rather simple, God made clothes for Adam and Eve out of animal skin. But notice what is not revealed. We don’t know what kind of animal it was. We don’t know how it was killed. We don’t know who killed the animal before the clothes were made, we don’t know what happened to the carcass, whether it was buried, burned, or something else happened to it. In order for us to discover clues to this kind of information we have to add assumption and deduction to the study process. Let’s move to assumption.

We can take the position that either God killed the animal and acted in a priestly role or that God told Adam to kill the animal (thus acting in the priestly role), then God made the skins to cover their physical bodies. Here’s what is important: both positions are assumptions on the text. Both are reasonable ideas, but both are assumptions. We cannot deduce from this text alone what took place, we have to make assumptions upon the text from clues elsewhere or what we think might have been most reasonable. But either way, we are bringing an outside assumption into our process of interpreting the text, and then deducing what we believe may be a reasonable conclusion.

This process is not a wrong approach to Bible study. It is a necessary one. The Bible was not written in a vacuum with no relation to the world about which it speaks. So outside observations have a role to play in the interpretive process. The key is not to avoid assumptions, but to recognize that we have them and then try and deduce if the assumptions we bring to the text are valid or helpful or erroneous. In terms of my own assumptions on Genesis 3:21 I believe that God killed the animal and not Adam. I deduce this from the idea that God’s wrath against Adam’s sin had to be expressed and he chose to express that wrath upon the animal and then provide the clothing to Adam and Eve as a symbol of the sacrifice covering their sin. I get this idea from other acts of sacrifice and wrath elsewhere in the Bible, but I recognize that my deduction is based on an assumption; so, I hold to it at a persuasion-level rather than a conviction-level. Now, we can see all three components at work in my interpretation of Genesis 3:21: I recognize what is revealed, I bring assumptions from elsewhere into my examination, then deduce what the text means through that combination. I am then free to make application.

Here’s the thing: we all do this. Even if we don’t necessarily recognize it, all of us bring assumptions into our reading of the text. Most importantly, we all bring outside assumptions into our reading of the text. To better illustrate this, allow me to show you how this is true with young earth and old earth adherents.

How Long?

Most Young Earth Creationists (YEC) believe that the creation events of Genesis 1 happened over a period of six 24-hour days sometime in the recent past of 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Most Old Earth Creationists (OEC) believe that the creation events of Genesis 1 happened over a period of millions or billions of years in the ancient past. While both camps have strong opinions and cite many biblical sources for their arguments, there is a difference between the two that is often not recognized by those who hold a YEC view, and it is this: the YEC position depends upon an assumption from outside the text to uphold its view. OEC adherents do the same thing, but they are usually more keenly aware that they do so, whereas many within the YEC camp do not recognize it (this assessment is not meant to be critical). Why is this important? Because many YEC adherents argue that science should not be allowed to influence or guide the interpretation of biblical text because science can sometimes be faulty. What I would like to show is that this is not a reasonable position to take because—in practice—the YEC adherent is dependent upon an outside assumption to guide his understanding of the text. So let’s briefly walk through the process of revelation, assumption, and deduction on this issue.

What is revealed in Genesis 1 about the length of days God took to create? The creation account says that God created then there was “Evening and morning the #’d day.” What is revealed? That God created during a period of time referred to as a day. But what is not revealed? There is no text that says how long each day was. It doesn’t tell us 24-hours or 18-hours or 32-hours, it simply makes a general statement of evening and morning, a day. Some YECs claim that each day’s creative event happened during a normal rotation of the earth, thus, it must be a standard day. So where does the YEC adherent get the idea for a 24-hour or rotational creation event? Only from outside of scripture. The assumption of a 24-hour period or a rotational perspective only comes from science and not directly from the text. Every observation we have is that a day on earth is roughly 24-hours in length—a single rotation. Therefore, the YEC adherent naturally assumes that the Genesis creation events must refer to 24-hour periods. Not from the text, but by bringing what seems to be a reasonable assumption into the text. It allows an outside influence to guide the YEC’s understanding of the text. Thus, combined with what is revealed and what is assumed, the deduction of six 24-hour periods is made.

The OEC adherent does exactly the same thing, but from a different set of assumptions. The difference being, however, that he recognizes that his assumptions are outside the text and he purposely uses them to help guide his understanding and deductions.

So What?

Why is this important? Because our assumptions can sometimes lead us astray, not in our ideas but in our behavior. Some assumptions are mistaken, some are correct. The process of Bible study must include a recognition that we have assumptions and where they come from. I am not, in this article, arguing for or against YEC or OEC. These polar opposites are actually not the only available understandings of Genesis 1-2. I can count at least six different perspectives on Genesis that I am familiar with, all them with interesting and valuable insights that may help guide us into possible interpretations of the text. My ultimate point is that because we all bring assumptions into the text we must be careful and gracious about how we view and treat those who hold a different interpretive position than we do. None of the available interpretations of Genesis are what we might refer to as salvation-critical positions. No one goes to heaven or hell based upon what he thinks of Genesis 1. Salvation issues are far more important, so, be gracious.

Assumptions are an important component in our study of the Bible. But our assumptions should not guide our behavior toward one another. Some might say that that is an assumption. I would say it’s a deduction. And I hope, a valid one.