Does the Bible speak about reality or only about appearances? Sometimes, to avoid conflict with alleged scientific facts, it is claimed that the Bible uses phenomenal (or phenomenological) language, describing things as they appear from our human, earth-bound perspective rather than being factually correct in a more scientific sense.
Applying Phenomenal Language
An early example of this is found in John Calvin's Commentary on Genesis, in reference to the sun and the moon as "two great lights" (Gen.1:16). According to Calvin, this is factually incorrect since science had proven Saturn to be larger than the moon. However, Calvin excuses this on the ground that Moses had to accommodate his message down to the level of unlearned men, by using the language of how things appear to humans on earth. Factually correct language, Calvin opines, would not have been understood.
More recently, similar appeals to phenomenal language are often made to defend biblical references to a moving sun against alleged scientific proofs that the earth is actually rotating. The Bible is then defended as simply describing how things appear to a human observer rather than being concerned about absolute motion.
These examples may seem harmless enough. However, the notion of phenomenal language has been extended to cover further issues.
For example, it has been postulated that the creation of stars on Day 4 refers not when they were actually made, but when they became visible to an earth-bound observer. Perhaps, it is said, Day 4 is when distant starlight first reached the earth (John Hartnett, Jason Lisle) or when the earth's atmosphere became transparent to starlight (Hugh Ross, Walter Bradley). Either way, this allows for the creation of stars billions of years before Day 4.
The theologian Bernard Ramm (The Christian View of Science and Scripture, 1954, pp.65-73) used the notion of phenomenal Biblical language to argue that the creation of the universe was revealed, rather than produced, in six days. He also believed the flood to be local, only appearing to be global to Noah. In fact, Ramm believed that a phenomenal approach could solve most conflicts between the Bible and mainstream science.
Appearance and Reality
The appeal to phenomenal language assumes that reality differs from appearance. The implication is that the Bible deals only with appearances, whereas science enables us to learn about the actual reality behind mere appearances.
Can science genuinely give us such superior knowledge?
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) famously distinguished between the phenomenal (reality as it appears to our senses) and the noumenal (the actual reality behind appearances). He claimed that human science is limited to the phenomenal, and could never attain knowledge of the noumenal. Science is grounded in observations (i.e., appearances); any attempt to get beyond these must necessarily rely on theoretical assumptions that can never be definitely proven by science.
Only God can discern the reality behind appearances. God's view of things is the way they really are. Hence our only means to attain knowledge of reality is via God's revelation of it to us, particularly in the Bible.
The Bible itself never suggests its message is limited to the merely phenomenal, particularly not in Gen.1-11. Indeed, Gen.1-11 is written explicitly from God's perspective. We are told, "God made the two great lights...and the stars...and set them in the expanse...And God saw that it was good" (Gen.1:16-18). Since God is omniscient and omnipresent, the events recorded in Gen.1 should refer to actual facts, not merely human appearances.
How, then, do we explain the above examples? These can easily be resolved without resorting to phenomenal language. In the first example, the moon is indeed brighter than Saturn in terms of its explicitly stated function, which is "to give light upon the earth" (Gen.1:15). In the second example, science can only speak of relative motion. Whether we consider the sun to revolve about a fixed earth, or consider the earth to rotate with respect to a fixed sun, depends solely on what we choose to be our absolute frame of reference. That choice depends entirely on our extra-scientific presuppositions. Hence, the Bible cannot be faulted on scientific grounds for taking the earth as its standard of absolute motion (see my post A Moving Earth?).
The notion that the Bible uses phenomenal language is just another form of accommodation. The underlying concern is that the Bible, taken at face value, tells us something that contradicts what we think is true on the basis of extra-biblical considerations.
In reducing Biblical truth to mere phenomenal appearance, we are in effect elevating fallible human opinion above divine wisdom. Rather, it should be vice versa: the Bible presents us with the genuine God's eye view of things, the true account of reality, whereas science deals with mere appearances.
Nowhere does the Bible ever suggest that God accommodates His message to humans by dumbing it down, so that it says something that is factually false. On the contrary, it constantly warns us against worldly wisdom, urging us to seek the mind of Christ, as revealed in His Word (cf Rom 12: 2; 2 Cor. 10:3-5), which is truth (John 17:17).