I recently wrote about an approach to reading the Bible called Moderate Literalism. This article expands that approach with a hermeneutic I am calling Denotative Dominance. The idea is about the proper ascertainment of the meaning of words used in scripture. I propose the following ordering is ideal:
- When scripture defines its own terms, the scriptural definition must dominate.
- When scripture doesn’t define a term, we should look to the grammatical and historical context of its usage and the intended meaning.
- When scripture doesn’t define a term and historical usage is relatively absent then we have grounds to take a verse more or less at face value. In the language of its writing.
An application comes on the issue of Young vs Old Earth Creationism. The debate is around the term ‘day’. The current debate centers around a couple points:
- The word used in Genesis 1, yom, literally means a 24 hours day.
- Except this is only one of many literal translations, and it appears among the most implausible of all possible literal interpretations given present scientific knowledge.
One thing that irks me is that scripture itself is often overlooked in the rebuttal of YEC. It gives the impression to some that YEC is more scriptural while OEC amounts to accommodation. Now, I don’t agree with that point anyway as I think we mutually understand the Bible by what’s in it and what’s out of it. For example, I had to learn English to read an English translation. So we always interpret mutually on the basis of internal and external information.
To the main point, 2 Peter 3:8 indicates that God’s idea of a day is not a 24 hour period. Depending on your reading of that verse it either means that God’s concept of a day is one thousand years, or, even more literally and logically consistent in my view, that God is timeless. Depending on how you draw the line about what counts as a straightforward definition, this verse may or may not count as a definition on its own. It certainly, however, falls in line with a wide systematic theology on the eternal and timeless nature of God. If the point isn’t clear enough, Genesis refers to God creating things and calling them day and night; so it is certainly in the purview of God’s concept of day rather than man’s, and man’s use of the term yom doesn’t strictly refer to the 24 hour period anyway.
I appreciate the rebuttal of YEC given in 2 above and I don’t intend to portray it as invalid, but as a general hermetic in scripture I think we should first look to whether scripture establishes its own meaning of certain words and only secondly refer to standard practices of language translation. As demonstrated in this particular application, the scriptural understanding of yom as used in Genesis doesn’t seem to support YEC and it therefore agrees with the more secular reading based on standard language translation and scientific knowledge. I would caution that such agreement is not always the case. I think faith and love are examples where we should be careful to adopt the scriptural understanding rather than to adopt their general use at any point in time whether that be at the time of writing, or, even worse, on their modern meaning. Everyone agrees the latter is anachronism, but I think many people would not recognize the error in the former which may be taken as a sort of secular literalism and another form of hyperliteralism.