Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Does the Bible Use Phenomenal Language?

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?).

Conclusion

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).

*****

4 comments:

Jim Pemberton said...

I’ve thought a lot about this. Sure, the Bible uses phenomenological language (PL). However, there’s a difference between the way the Bible describes something and what the bible says something is. The PL argument is typically employed to discount certain miracles. Not all miracles can be so dismissed. PL can’t be used for something like the parting of the Red Sea, for example. In the case of the creation of stars on Day 4 we run into the distant starlight problem. It’s not really a problem, but it’s made out to be a problem. The way it’s made out to be a problem is by an appeal to known physical laws and principles. Interestingly, the way it’s typically answered is by an appeal to the same known physical laws and principles. What is missed is that the bible nowhere says that it was an event that happened using natural means only. Instead, it was an act of creation by an omnipotent Creator. We don’t have the tools to evaluate such a claim because our tools of scientific discovery are limited to the natural laws created to govern observable creation. If we stick only to that as matter of epistemology, then we deny the Creator his right of self-revelation beyond creation. And if we want to deny simple miracles, then we have no basis for trusting that the origin of this world came about by the Creator supernaturally creating.

JohnV said...

Dr, Byl:
In a recent copy of Astronomer’s Handbook, the times of sunrise and sunset, as well as of moonrise and moonset, are all given in earth time according to the time zone of the region for which they are produced. Our GPS system of location, and of satellite placements in their orbits to give us these locations, are all “as they appear to our senses”, in the Ptolemaic or geocentric model.

The Handbook and GPS mean to give us "the actual reality", but describe it in terms of "as it appears to our senses". How, then, would one describe "miracle", if confined to the definitions given by Kant? Metaphysically? In terms of natural laws? Do our senses not tell us that a miracle occurs when we can see no natural explanation for it? Is "phenomenalogical" language any less "noumenal" because of that?

I agree with you and Mr. Pemberton: these are not viable objections from a scientific standpoint. How should one describe a miracle noumenally, what actually happened, by Kant’s definition? It’s a self-defeating assumption to confine miracle to these categories.

JohnV

Daniel Pech said...

Genesis 1 is not simply 'a history'. To definitionally reduce it to such a generic idea would be like definitionally reducing the Moon to 'a round object', or definitionally reducing a human being to 'a life form'.

Genesis 1 is about the Earth, and life, and the value which the Sun, Moon and stars have to life on Earth. The Sun is the 'greater' of the 'two great lights' in this regard.

The skeptic may love to find fault with the account's reference to the Sun and Moon this way. But the skeptic is living a fantasy of an atheistic, and deeply life-indifferent, version of (a) empirical inquiry and (b) exegesis. To fault the account for its failing to mention the factoids of actual comparative physical size of the Sun to many stars is like complaining that, since the 'greatest apple pie' your grandma ever made is smaller than the average, cheap apple pie, it is an error to call her pie her 'greatest' apple pie.

Daniel Pech said...

Genesis 1 is about the Earth, and life, and the value which the Sun, Moon and stars have to life on Earth. The Sun is the 'greater' of the 'two great lights' in this regard.

The skeptic may love to find fault with the account's reference to the Sun and Moon this way. But the skeptic is living a fantasy of an atheistic, and deeply life-indifferent, version of (a) empirical inquiry and (b) exegesis. To fault the account for its failing to mention the factoids of actual comparative physical size of the Sun to many stars is like complaining that, since the 'greatest apple pie' your grandma ever made is smaller than the average, cheap apple pie, it is an error to call her pie her 'greatest' apple pie.