In my last few posts (here, here, and here), I looked at how Karen Armstrong freely takes quotes of some of her sources out of context to make her case that the literal ‘modern God’ was recent and at odds with the original ancient view of God.
In this post I’m going to explore some of the other reasons I find this view suspect.
The Non-Literal Garden of Eden
One case she makes several times (so many it started to hurt) is that the Garden of Eden account in the Bible was not intended to be taken literally. She presents Origen as an ancient example of this.
Here she is basically correct. Of all the accounts in the Bible, there have always been many that the ancients took as highly (though not fully) symbolic. The Garden of Eden is just such a case. This might, in part, explain why (as Armstrong claims) the Jews had very little issue with imagining multiple, and mutually exclusive, creation accounts.
But what Armstrong seems to have missed is that ‘modern’ Christians feel just about the same way about this account. Even the extreme young earth creationists tend to not literally believe, for example, that a serpent came to Adam and Eve.
So Armstrong’s technique here is to simply take an account that has traditionally been understood as at least somewhat figurative, compare it to the most literal (and minority) view (that of young earth creationists), and then claim that all scripture is the same as this and therefore we shouldn’t take any of it literally. It’s an extreme form of cherry picking.
Worse yet, Armstrong, by cherry picking out symbolic and non-literal understandings of Eden, skips right over the fact that there simply is no doubt that the ancient Christians took significant portions of the account quite literally. The most overwhelming example of this is Paul’s doctrinal treatment of Adam as a literal person. (see 1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Timothy 2:13) Armstrong consistently leaves out counter examples like this.
Is it really even possible that make sense of Armstrong’s argument that the Bible stories were originally only meant to teach us something about ourselves through personal interpretation of a myth? Any amount of reading of ancient commentaries shows just how literally ancient Christians – from the beginning – took their beliefs in scripture. Admittedly they did not always understand the scriptures literally, but nor do any modern Christians that I know of.
Arguments over what should be taken literally and what figuratively is both an ancient and modern practice. Nothing has changed much here over the years here, contrary to Armstrong’s presentation of the subject. This seems to be another significant blow against her thesis of ‘the modern God.’
The Ancient Concept of “Literal”
Part of the problem we face when looking at Armstrong’s interpretations of history is that we moderns do not think like ancients. We cannot simply ‘pretend’ to not have the scientific knowledge that is now integral to our culture. It is therefore quite natural that someone like Calvin would decide that the Bible’s account of the creation was not intended as a scientific view of the world and read it ‘literally’ this way:
Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; … He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere
Whether or not Calvin is right about Moses’ motivations does not matter here. The key point is that one can ‘literally’ understand scripture through an interpretation like this. This is not necessarily an example of making scripture non-literal per se.
Further, Armstrong tries to hold up this quote from Calvin as an example of how Christian orthodoxy has changed to be too literal. But let’s bear in mind that Calvin is well into the era of the ‘modern God’ she is lambasting. Likewise, she holds up the Deuteronomists as bad examples of having taken their beliefs too literally, but fails to note that they existed in the ancient era before her ‘modern God’ was supposed to exist at all.
Another aspect of Armstrong’s presentation that does not square with fact is that just because some parts of scripture have traditionally been understood figuratively that therefore all of it was understood that way. Armstrong has claimed considerable support for her views in the figurativeness in the account of the Garden of Eden. But in reality, this is just a misrepresentation of how the ancients and moderns actually felt about scripture.