Evolution, Metaphorically Speaking (1 of 5)

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origen of Species, I’m going to come out of the closet (on this blog, anyway, most everyone who knows me personally and cares about this sort of thing already knows): I’m an evolutionist.

This admission is only meaningful in the context of my history. I grew up in the Bible Church, complete with a Bible College education, and in that tradition, taking evolution seriously is definitely “Runnin’ with the Devil.” (For that matter, the fact that I like that song well enough for its title to come to mind in this context is probably a second indication that I’m runnin’ with the devil … be that as it may.)

But here’s the curious thing. I’m not an evolutionist because I think the scientific proof is so overwhelming. I’m not a biologist and I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs, but from what little I know, it seems there are some serious holes in the finer points of evolutionary theory. (In fact, I’ve heard evolutionary biologists say just that.) Rather, I’m an evolutionist because I think it fits the Bible far better than any creationist theory currently extent.

I began to suspect six-day creationism in Bible College, and specifically when I was taking Hebrew and Hermeneutics classes (ie, the science of interpretation) at the same time. One of the basic principles of hermeneutics is that we shouldn’t try to make a text same something the text itself doesn’t want to say. This is especially true in the realm of poetic texts.

It (hopefully) goes without saying that not all biblical language is intended to be literal. For instance (and this one is utterly obvious), David says that if it weren’t for the Lord, his enemies would have swallowed he and his troops alive (Ps. 124:3). They must have been big enemies to swallow the troops whole!

But there’s more to metaphorical language than the mere point that it’s not to be read literally. Metaphorical language (of which poetry is a type) has the ability to say more than is written on the page. To understand a passage that’s intended to be metaphorical in a literal sense is to remove the truth from the passage. To illustrate, I turn to Ezekiel.

Ezekiel says God is going to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26). In this case, Ezekiel is dipping into a whole trajectory of Hebrew poetic language. At the simplest layer, the will (a vague concept) is spoken of by referring to the heart, a bodily organ. Does the human heart literally control the human will? Nope. But, the heart becomes a concrete way of speaking about the nebulous concept of the will.

Once this metaphor is established, a metaphor within a metaphor is possible: the vice of stubbornness is talked about as a “hardness of heart.” It’s now a very small step (and poetically stunning) for Ezekiel to take this to a third level and make the idea of a hard heart utterly concrete (yes, the pun was intentional) when he calls stubbornness, “a heart of stone.”

In short, poetic language is not literally factual, but because of the emotional freight that poetic language can carry, it becomes far more true than a merely factual statement. The truth of “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” is far deeper than the truth of the factual statement, “I will turn your stubbornness into obedience.” It’s a far deeper truth because it means more than it says (to borrow a phrase from Michael Polanyi).

Many centuries later Jesus would teach us that we are, quite literally spiritually, dead and the Holy Spirit can make us spiritually alive. Once we know this truth that Jesus taught, it’s easy to see that Ezekiel was pointing forward to this in his poetic language, and if Ezekiel would have forgone poetic language and stuck to the facts, saying, “I will turn your stubbornness into obedience,” that conceptual leap from Ezekiel’s prophecy to Jesus’ fulfillment could never have been made.

That’s the power of poetic or metaphorical) language. Truths that can never be quantified can be spoken with poetic language. And if we fail to recognize poetic and metaphorical language where the author intended it, we essentially deny the truth of the passage by diminishing the truth.

At least that’s what Mr. Gehman, my Hermeneutics teacher hammered into our heads.

While Mr. Gehman was pounding home this point in Biblical Hermeneutics class, I learned in Biblical Hebrew class (and saw clearly with my own eyes) that the Genesis 1 creation account, if not a poem in the strictest sense of the word, is written in a highly stylized and poetic form. (If you fail to recognize the poetic structure, the text is kind of weird.) You can click here to see an overview of that poetic form.

Way back then, under the unintended tutelage of Mr. Gehman and Mr. Parkhurst, I began to doubt the obviousness and biblical proofs for creationism.

And then somewhere along the line I read Gen. 1:11, 1:20, and 24 literally (instead of figuratively, as the Creationists do), and I had an aha! moment about proof-texting and the danger of allowing our assumptions to blind us to what the text says. “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …'” (v. 20). “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …'” (v. 24). Literally (if literalism is a practice you value), God didn’t create the living creatures, he told the waters and the earth to bring them forth. Curious.

If these curious observations were the extent of the matter, the fact that I’m an evolutionist would be insignificant. But changing how one reads Gen. 1 changes how one sees other passages in scripture. And that’s where this whole evolution question gets interesting. But that’s another essay.