In the previous post, What is Truth?, we developed the understanding that truth is inherently multi-faceted, and that gaining a full conception of the truth of an entity or topic requires a cohesive understanding of every conceivable perspective of that entity or topic. In light of this, it becomes obvious that even if we do develop such a rich understanding of the truth of a thing, that we may run into an obstacle when it comes to conveying this knowledge to others. And this has been a challenge for the authors of scripture from the beginning: how to convey an eternal spiritual truth in a way that their target audience can readily understand and apply.
Every human has a complexity limit-we can only absorb so much detail before we become overwhelmed or bored with the topic. Additionally, every human defaults to their own cultural and occupational framework of reference when first evaluating what someone else has said or written. Understanding these, we can see that both the natural “complexity limit” and cultural and occupational frameworks of of the audience place a constraint on the ability for a speaker or writer to share truth.
For the duration of Biblical History, the vast majority of God’s followers were uneducated peasants living a day-to-day existence in primitive societies and were steeped in the types mystical thoughts and lore common in nearly all early civilizations. This is why much of the Bible is written in a very plain, simplified way, and also why much of it is framed in the context of the culture and lifestyle of the original authors—they were writing within the constraints of their time and place in history.
As an example, consider the story of the creation of the universe. To explain how God created the universe and everything in it to a PhD Physicist, it would make sense to provide them with multiple textbooks on mathematics, quantum physics, chemistry, and cellular biology. You might take this approach, because you know that a physicist is the type of person who would want to use this information to make other discoveries–perhaps to look for cosmic microwave background radiation.
Moses, however, when he attempted to explain the creation of the world to former slaves (who spent much of their life mixing clay with straw to make bricks for a pharaoh’s temples), chose to write: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The perspective of truth that Moses was interested in conveying was that which explains man’s relationship to God.
So who conveyed truth, the authors of those science textbooks or Moses? For reasons articulated in the previous post, we can conclude that they both did in regard to the perspective they were taking. But from a philosophical point of view, it could be argued that neither expressed the complete truth of creation, because neither presented a comprehensive, coherent description of creation from every conceivable perspective. But as mentioned earlier, this level of description is neither attainable for us, nor necessary for any practical purpose.
Since Copernicus, and especially since Darwin, a great debate has raged in regard to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture to the great detriment of many. When a Bible passage appears to be in error, we may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that the passage is in error. A valuable exercise, at these times, is to make the logical leap that it is our perspective on the passage that may be wrong, and then seek to understand what perspective was taken by the original author. Recent work in archeology, psychology, anthropology, and other sciences provide us with a wide variety of resources to draw upon in our search.
Extending this line of reasoning, we can see that even when we believe a Bible passage to be true, it is valuable to seek out the original cultural perspective because the truth we are perceiving may not, in fact, be the spiritual truth that the original author was trying to convey. Leviticus 19:28 provides us an example of this. In this passage, the Lord says: You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. On the surface, we may take this to mean that the Lord doesn’t like tattoos. However, in the culture of the day, tattooing was done as a religious expression and part of the worship of other gods, and therefore, the primary point of this passage was that the Israelites should have nothing to do with the practices or worship of other gods. We can more accurately conclude that Leviticus 19:28 was essentially a corollary to Exodus 20:3: You shall have no other gods before me.
When reverse engineering a system, a regular exercise is to attempt to put ourselves the shoes of the original authors of a system and then imagine what constraints they may have been under, and then working within those constraints, think about how we might try to accomplish the same goals. This type of exercise holds value when trying to understand the Bible, as well. Put yourselves in the shoes of the original authors, think about the cultural beliefs of the original audience, their history, their occupational knowledge and their ability to absorb complexity, and then ask yourself how you would have conveyed the spiritual truth to this audience. This exercise can help us to see where we, ourselves, may be misunderstanding the intended truth of the Bible.
A danger exists, though, when we are considering the multiple facets of truth, knowing that these truths may have been conveyed in a constrained fashion, and that is we may be tempted to synthesize “truths” that do not exist. We’ll explore this in the next post, What is Not Truth.