Essay / Theology

The “Language of Appearance” in Genesis

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

Biblical scholars sometimes resort to the argument that a “language of appearance” can allow for the cosmology and history of the Bible to be false while still not destroying inerrancy. The Bible can assert in Genesis that the flood came from an ocean above the earth through windows, because the human author was working within his pre-scientific world view. His ideas were literally false, but true to him. God is able to embed theological truth into this account.I think there are three reasons to doubt that this is coherent.

First, extra-textual evidence cannot tell us the opinions of brilliant writers like Moses or Plato. Such men create their own vocabularies and defy the assumptions of their age. Background information about the period can suggest ideas about a work, but only the work can interpret itself. Going into a work “knowing” what the writer believed about the world constrains our reading of the text.

Second, the notion that God would reveal theological truth to a writer, while leaving cosmological “error” unchecked seems implausible. Why? Is it unimimportant to be wrong about such things?

Finally, the Biblical writers frequently make certain details of their accounts more plausible. One example of this occurs when Moses changes the shape of the ark from the pagan cube to a more boat shaped object. Why do this if these details do not matter? The “language of appearance” applied too broadly is just a polite way of saying “wrong.”

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