Man has come of age, we are told. Today the classic past, and even the New Testament era, are often belittled as “the pre-scientific age.” In an academic environment this supercilious attitude—displayed, as it often is, by scholars in a field that has long since ceased to be regarded as the queen of the sciences—seems singularly inappropriate. It hardly does justice to the significance of past achievements of the human mind.

To the so-called pre-scientific age belong Homer, Callicrates and Ictinus (the architects of the Parthenon), Dante, Michaelangelo, Bach, Shakespeare. What name or names can today’s “come of age” men add to this list? Already in the third century B.C. Eratosthenes of Alexandria, having learned that at noon on a midsummer’s day the sun shone directly down the shaft of a well at Aswan 5,000 stadia from Alexandria, was able to calculate the circumference of the earth to be 24,600 miles. By any standards this was no mean achievement. Some three hundred years before, Pythagoras had described the solar system fairly accurately and was well aware that the earth was not the central planet. Copernicus openly acknowledged his debt to him.

Such knowledge would certainly have penetrated the Hellenized culture of Palestine; it is quite improbable, therefore, that any thinking Palestinian would have believed the earth to be flat. There is certainly no evidence that our Lord did. In fact, that he did not believe it was flat is implied by his description of certain activities that will all be occurring simultaneously at his return, activities that in Palestine normally took place at different times of the day. Grinding at the mill (Luke 17:35) was a morning occupation; working in the fields (Matt. 24:40) was a daytime chore; and the reference to two sleeping in one bed (Luke 17:34) points to the night.

We greatly need to remind ourselves that men of New Testament times were not cavemen and barbarians. They lived in an era that followed an age unmatched for intellectual productivity. That the content of human thought has changed spectacularly since then cannot be denied, but surely in artistry and mode of thought the ancient masters remain unsurpassed. In sheer intellectual output, our own age, despite its technical advantages, falls far short even of more recent “pre-scientific” times. Writing with a whittled quill by the light of a tallow candle, Shakespeare produced lines that will be read and spoken until the end of time. In our day it is easy to provide substitutes for personalities we do not possess. The millionaire has his art collection, the third-rate scholar his grandiose title, the cleric his ornate vestments, the theologian his idiosyncratic terminology; all stem from a primitive mental attitude in which appearance means more than reality. It ill becomes those who have had no active share in the achievements of this scientific age to usurp a luster they have not attained. A little unfeigned humility is long overdue in some quarters.

Article continues below

Perhaps there is a link between this absence of humility and the modern attempt to pry God out of his place, or to find a successor for him. Men engaged in the high enterprise of deicide should not, one would think, be expected to concern themselves much with the minutiae of linguistic expression. Yet it is exactly here where they find much of their offensive material for attacking the traditional interpretation of the Bible.

Anyone with a knowledge of linguistics can quickly see the irrelevance of much of the theorizing based on linguistic forms. The assumption seems widespread that linguistic devices are restricted largely to metaphor and analogy. But this is far from the case. Equally common and no less important is transference. By a process of extension, one uses terminology from one dimension to describe conditions in an essentially different dimension. No assumption of likeness is involved, and so this is not analogy—certainly not if we accept Kant’s definition of analogy, “perfect similarity between two totally dissimilar things.” Nor is it metaphor, for metaphor, despite its etymology, is only a species of simile, and a germane relation exists between the vehicle and the tenor of a metaphor. In transference we use terms descriptive of a material situation, for example, to describe some aspect of experience. Often there is nothing to suggest that the choice of terms is other than arbitrary.

An example of transference is the linguistic expression of time. Here many of the words are taken from the description of objects in space. Thus we speak of the length or the shortness of time, or of a space of time. For the lapse of time, we say time “goes,” or “comes,” or “flies.” In doing this we adopt a linear view of time without at all needing to associate it with spatial linearity. Although Greek uses terms that seem to suggest a quantitative view of time, there, too, verbs denoting the motion of bodies in space are used of time-lapse. Certain theologians might have saved themselves a great deal of folly if they had first undertaken an exercise in the “despatialization” of the terminology of time. To create a non-derivative substitute terminology to describe a phenomenon which is not accessible to the five senses and not subject to scientific observation and experiment, but to the existence of which all human experience would attest—this could well prove to be beyond the bounds of linguistic possibility.

Article continues below

Not only for the description of time do we look to our experience of space to provide terms; from the same field we transfer many of our terms to describe rank. When we say, for instance, “The man has risen to the top of his profession,” we think neither of motion nor of altitude. Members of a royal family, whatever their stature, will always be “Your Royal Highness,” and it would be ludicrous to seek analogical associations with the primary use of the term. In many languages, too, it seems quite normal to speak of going up to a capital or other place of importance, though often a descent may be involved. Only a pedant devoid of all linguistic sense would be troubled by such discrepancies between literal and transferred senses.

Biblical writers made full use of transference. The opening section of John 13, for instance, with its dramatic present tenses, its ascription of motion to time, and its subtle changes of prepositions in the compound verbs denoting motion, is explicable only with an understanding of transference.

In the biblical references to God, transference in the use of terms is clearly imperative. Here anthropomorphic terms are not used analogically or metaphorically, as they are when used to describe inanimate objects. Without transference, such passages as the Second Commandment and Deuteronomy 4:12 would be incomprehensible.

Atheism can make no claim to modernity, for the psalmist knew of such a view and understood the character of its advocates. When he labeled them “fools,” he used the word in the Hebrew sense of one who is morally—not intellectually—deficient. The counterpart today is the extravaganza of theology without theos. God is equated with a subjective relationship in which the divine pole is absent. Apparently, what we had mistakenly thought to be God turns out to be merely a “human phenomenon.” That this is a travesty of the biblical proclamation can easily be seen. Take almost any verse that refers to God and replace “God” with the words “human phenomenon.” Romans 1:25, for example, would read: “who changed the truth about the human phenomenon into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator.” No one is likely to be foolhardy enough to claim that any benefits, ethical or intellectual, have come to us through this new approach. To many, the whole activity is rather like plowing desert sand first made inaccessible to living water. Trafficking in subtle paradoxes that have no semantic content is surely not the business of serious scholarship.

Article continues below

Natural man wants a God accessible to his senses. If such a “model” is not available, he will make one. Idolatry had its roots in this primitive desire that reflects a kindergarten type of mentality. Even today, apparently, there are still those who associate some kind of tangible “whereness” with the presence of God. It must have come as a surprise to many people to learn on episcopal authority that there were Anglicans who believed in a God “out there.” Presumably, English Anglicans with such views would expect their Australian brethren to perform a U-turn in space! A thoughtful reading of Psalm 139 could have saved them from such naïveté.

In this connection one might ask about the significance of the form of the Ascension. There is here, as in all divine mysteries, something beyond our understanding. If one could consider the matter from a purely mundane point of view, it would seem impossible to conceive of any appropriate alternative, of any other way human eyewitnesses could have received their proper qualifications.

The Bible is concerned not with the “whereness” of God but with the “whereness” of man. In the parable of the lost sheep, the problem was not the Shepherd’s “whereness”—he was not lost—but rather the potential danger of the sheep’s own “whereness.” Even the very first question in the Bible concerns the “whereness” of man. God asked the question not for his own information but to bring home to man the now tragic implications of his “whereness” in the light of his former relationship with God.

Two views are current in theological circles today. For one, the decisive factor is man’s view of God; for the other, God’s view of man. These two views are mutually exclusive. The latter implies a belief in the existence of an objective revelation.

If we were solely or mainly concerned with what distinguishes these views from each other, we would confuse our priorities. The all-important thing is not so much that belief in a divine revelation distinguishes evangelical Christians from those of different views, but that such a belief identifies them with the people of the New Testament.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.