Recently, I ran across a statement in an article about how to tell whether the Genesis creation account is figurative or not. The statement implied that a natural reading pointed to a literal interpretation, which is a common perspective for interpreting these passages. However, I’ve begun to question what a “natural reading” really means. It seems to refer to how the text reads without making any non-obvious inferences. But how do we decide whether an alternate interpretation is justified? Doesn’t that depend on how the passage appears to our mind? In fact, doesn’t this imply use of just the natural mind?
So perhaps another way to describe this approach is that whatever seems most correct to the natural mind, must be the truth. In other words, however an unsaved person (who’s only discernment capability is the natural mind) would read the text, must be right. Thinking about it that way sets off alarm bells for me, though. Consider the following verse:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14
Now, Paul is probably talking about unsaved people in verse 14, not necessarily use of the natural mind in general. But he does address how one interprets Scripture, so this juxtaposition highlights what could be meant by “the natural reading” of text. If we don’t want to allow any interpretations that are not plainly evident in the text to the natural mind, then there’s no room for Spirit-inspired insight, right? In which case, the unsaved mind would have the same perspective as the saved mind.
However, the context of Paul’s statement, and in fact the tenor of the entire first couple of chapters in 1 Corinthians, teaches against this very idea. He starts with the truth of the Cross, then generalizes to spiritual truths in general. He presents the superiority of God’s wisdom over man’s, and the inability of man’s wisdom or thinking to comprehend spiritual truths. Given this, the typical reliance of natural understanding to assess use of figurative writing in the Genesis creation account seems out of place.
It especially seems out of place when you consider the very real possibility that the Genesis passages are prophetic revelation. Since no human was present at creation, the only way we can know anything about it now is through spiritual revelation from God, which in the Old Testament was through prophets.
Now, we should take care to note that figurative language in the Bible does not necessarily mean spiritual ideas are being presented. Rather, it means that whatever is being communicated was likely given through spiritual revelation (Numbers 12:6). So if we are trying to discern the nature of a passage that is very possibly a prophetic revelation, should we rely on just the natural mind?
When Jesus encountered wrong interpretation, He sometimes chided His listeners with spiritual challenges. In other words, at least some of the problems His listeners had recognizing figurative language were with spiritual discernment, not just intellectual understanding. (eg, Matthew 15:10-16 or Mark 8:13-21)
So why on earth would one focus on what seems right to the natural mind, instead of approaching the passage figuratively, as with other prophetic descriptions of cosmic events? Instead, we should read such passages both naturally and supernaturally, and be open to what God says no matter how He chose to say it.
I fear that this is the real danger that science represents to the faith — that we can come to know truth through human reason, and that the Spirit is not necessary. Instead, we need to listen to God speak, and not just rely on our natural minds.