Recently I was in a men’s small group discussion, and we started discussing whether certain events in the Bible really happened. When I expressed my belief that events like the Flood and parting of the Red Sea were actual historical events, many looked at me like I believed in Santa Claus.
I am not a fundamentalist. When reading the Bible, I use the four senses of Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (CCC 115–117). Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism states,
“All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.” It couldn’t get any clearer than that. The Church teaches that Scripture is always being literal.
For some reason, though, many people think that using the four senses of Scripture allows us to categorize Scripture, and surmise that certain parts of it fall into just one, two, or three of the four categories. This is a flawed and fragmented view of God’s Word. Each and every part of the Bible possesses the sagacity and vitality of the four senses described in the Catechism. They are dimensions, not categories, so every page of Scripture is four-dimensional.
I’ve heard people say that the allegorical sense of Scripture is the one we should focus on; or that it doesn’t matter if the events really happened, what really matters is the moral of the story. This doesn’t work though.
If it Didn’t Really Happen, There’s No Lesson to be Learned
If the stories in the Bible didn’t literally happen, then the allegorical sense gets lost too. With other allegorical stories, the moral is implied because it is still conducive to the truths about life we already know, even if we change certain elements. We can accept The Three Little Pigs as an allegory because the characters in the story don’t matter as much as the moral. We can put ourselves in the pigs’ shoes, and we all have wolves in our lives.
But change any element in the stories within the Bible and its essence is lost. For example, we can’t substitute God for some other character without destroying the story of the Garden of Eden. If any of the stories in the Bible were simply allegories, the Bible would, in essence, be useless except as a collection of ancient wisdom. The story of the exodus out of Egypt only has a moral if God literally and historically led them out the way the Bible says he did. The Flood only works as an allegory if Scripture literally and historically describes what happened. If Adam and Eve did not literally and historically fall the way it is described in Genesis, then whatever allegorical lesson we try to derive from the story doesn’t matter.
Every detail in these stories matters, and if we find any of them hard to believe we need to re-examine our understanding of Scripture, not retell the stories so they match up with our understandings.
Pieces in a Puzzle
Every part of the Bible is part of a larger story, and if anything in the Bible didn’t happen then the whole story falls apart. Fans of any book are familiar with this great poverty in storytelling. When their favorite book is turned into a movie, far too often the director takes out parts of the story that were essential. Fans of the book then dismiss the whole movie as an untrue representation of the original story. By saying certain things in the Bible didn’t actually happen, we’re essentially cutting out parts of God’s story and saying they aren’t important to the big picture of the Bible. We’re playing the part of the clueless movie director to God’s bestselling novel. Scripture is a saga where all the events leading up to the climax at the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Don’t sell it short by cutting out key elements just because you think they didn’t actually happen.
Historic Enough for Our Ancestors
To say the miracles in the Bible are just allegories is to say our ancestors who passed down the Bible either intended to deceive us or were just clueless fuddy-duddies. It’s like what C.S. Lewis said about Jesus: Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Our ancestors were either fools, con-artists, or normal people who were awe-struck by the stories in the Bible, so much so that they felt it was imperative to pass on these stories to future generations.
Of course, many of the stories in the Bible are unbelievable. That’s why they’re in the Bible. The Bible is basically a collection of the most unbelievable events in early human history, but that doesn’t make them untrue. It makes them significant enough to write down for posterity. The human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit did not just have their words guided by God. Their intuitive sense of significance probably kicked in when they noticed the magnitude of what they were witnessing–as if they said to themselves, under their own will, “I can’t believe what I’m witnessing. I’d better write this down!”
For centuries, the Israelites and then Christians believed these stories to be true. Are we to say thousands of years of handing down these stories was a tradition based on deception or gullibleness or some combination of the two? If they were just folklore stories written to teach life lessons, tradition would hand them down as such. But they’re not handed down to us like that. They’re handed down to us as history.
If the Bible is just a collection of folklore we’re supposed to pass down because of the important life lessons it teaches, its relevance would have faded after a handful of generations. Descendants of believers would have eventually disregarded its lessons after learning the lessons were not firmly rooted in reality, but just loosely based on observations from the past. We see this to be the case for every other ancient work of literature from the West like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf. These great works are widely studied, but they hardly have lasting relevance in everyday life that the Bible has. The Bible is considered more valuable than these classic works–in fact the most valued piece of literature in Western Civilization, if not the world–because its historic validity has held up just as much as its wisdom, beauty, prophecies, and everything else that has made it revered as the Word of God. For some people, they came to believe it was the Word of God from someone they simply trusted. For others, they came to believe because it withstood their tests and it thus remained relevant in their lives.
Experience is the greatest teacher, and God knows this. That’s why he intervened in history and used actual events to teach us what he needed humanity to learn. God is not just the author of the Bible. He is the author of history, and the Bible is the written form that captures his story.
Where Do We Draw the Line?
If we’re not supposed to believe the parting of the Red Sea actually happened, for example, why do we believe the Ascension happened? If the forbidden fruit weren’t actually a fruit, what’s to keep us from saying the wine isn’t actually turned into the Blood? Where do we draw the line? One can say that’s why we have the Church, to help us make the distinction. But do you really believe that’s what Scripture meant to convey when the Ethiopian said ‘How can I understand without someone to teach me?” (Acts 8:31)? Do you think Scripture meant to say you will need a Church to help you determine what parts of Scripture aren’t actually true? That’s not why we need the Church’s guidance when reading Scripture. We need the Church to help us see all four senses because alone we’d be lucky to see more than one.
“Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ”
This quote is often used to point out the importance of reading and studying Scripture, but it is relevant here as well. If ignoring Scripture is like ignoring Christ, then ignoring one of the senses of Scripture is like ignoring a part of Christ. It’s like having an icon of Jesus that’s missing an arm or an eye. If Jesus is the Word of God and Scripture is the Word of God, then Scripture can be nothing other than the truth because Jesus is the Truth. By “truth” I do not mean some abstract, moral, allegorical or proverbial truth. Jesus was the Truth incarnate. He didn’t speak in some kind of code and then expect us to be able to interpret it centuries later. If he is the Word of God, why would Scripture, which is also the Word of God, be any different?
A Man of His Word
The Bible is not just another work of literature. Scripture’s author is the author of life, and whatever he speaks happens. He said “let there be light” and it was so. He said, “Let us make man in our image” and man was made in his image. It’s almost as if God is laying out the dynamics of Scripture right there in its first pages: whatever he speaks can be nothing other than pure truth, and Scripture is him speaking. If you believe he spoke the universe into existence, is it too hard to believe that the words he spoke in Scripture have the same power: the power to actually come about in the real world just as the real world itself did?
I’ve also heard people say we shouldn’t read the Bible like a science book, that doing so would be like reading a chemistry book and saying, “This is the worst poetry I’ve ever read.” But there’s a problem with this logic. True, the Bible is not a science book, but only because it is much more than a science book. If there’s something in the Bible that contradicts the science we know, we should humbly and logically assume we simply haven’t figured out the science behind it yet. We just haven’t yet figured out how it could be true. Yes, believe it or not, even today there are still mysteries in the Bible that transcend our comprehension. Also keep in mind that our God is the Creator of the laws upon which we base our sciences, and he can defy them if he so chooses. St. Gregory the Great said:
Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.
Confide in the Word of God’s authenticity from the start of Genesis through the end of Revelation, and withstand the criticism. As Christians, we do not see things the way others do. We have been set apart to see things as God does. We can start by taking him for his Word.