Sunday, January 11, 2015

Myth and the Bible

For at least the last 100 years people have taken to type casting Genesis 1 &  2 as Myth. The contrast has for many been between the text as myth and the text as history. So what is the definition of myth being espoused lately?
William J Larkins JR points out in his book on Culture and Biblical hermeneutics that "the primary purpose of the Bible is to promote the faith of the one true God over the pagan myths of origin, power and destiny, and so direct reference to the lurid content of such myths is intentionally restricted." pg 208.
One should remember that part of the Biblical Worldview is the reality of the satanic and demonic and that this reality must not be scoffed at and dismissed as an adored relic of religious myth. One reason the Bible clearly has a negative attitude towards myth is that it is grounded in a distortion of the truth and that it leads people away from God. As we read in 2 Tim 4:4 which presents the contrast so well, that of the temptation to turn from the truth and "wander away to myth". See also in regard to myth, Titus 1:14, 2 Peter 1:16.
It is hard then to see how one could see a positive role for myth or declare The Word as myth without rejecting this Biblical foundation. Yet some still do this.
I am presently reading Gary Dorrien's 'The Word as True Myth' and I am looking forward to seeing how he deals with this for the suggestion is that the Bible as myth has been the foundation of liberalism since the Enlightenment. This consequence of the Enlightenment is seen in some theologians who declare that the New Testament contain "some accounts which are plainly mythical" Dorrien pg 6.
In declaring Acts 19:11-12 the healing by contact with cloths that touched Paul's body, or Matthew 17:24-27 about the coin in the fish's mouth, or the rock that followed Moses in the wilderness, 1 Cor 10:4 the immediate response seems appropriate that to take such accounts as myth is to assume that the God of the Bible doesn't act supernaturally. Which is exactly the consequences that the Enlightenment engendered through it's rejection of the Authority of God and the position that the reality of Kant's noumena was unknowable. The age of the patriarchs in Genesis 5:1-32 who lived an average of 857 years shouldn't be apriori ruled out under the classification of myth.  I for one doubt the proclaimed position of certain liberals that the biblical stories of the flood and Tower of babel are reworked from mythical Babylonian texts. ibid. There is a more cogent and reasonable answer to what is going  on  there given the  inspiration of  Scripture. However this is not Dorrien's concern in presenting a history of modern theology. pg 6.
Given these texts mentioned above are a motivation for liberals seeing some texts in the Bible as myth, even so this doesn't mean one can and should then infer all the Scripture is myth, yet as we see below this is the consequence of liberals who define myth as the language of religion.

Still, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. We really need first of all to define "myth".
At we read of myth as

"a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature."
and this starkly contrasts with the common understanding of myth, which is more commonly and nontechnically understood as narratives that exclude historicity, stories taken as not factually true. Others define myth as non-historical tales that contain a moral message.
Often times myth has been taken to be story about 'God' or 'the gods', and ultimate reality, especially pertaining to Creation. However it clear that myths do not always narrate about God or gods.
Already these definitions suggest that myth is normally contrasted with the historicity of the account described. However further investigation is required in gaining an understanding of what liberal theologians are getting at when citing a text as myth. 
Dorrien reveals how liberals have reworked the definition of myth over the years.
Beginning with the history of religion school in Germany with representatives such as Troeltsch, Gunkel, Wrede and others, who spoke of myth "primarily as fable or invention" to which Wrede amended it "as the use of imagery to express the otherworldly in terms of human relationships." pg 8. Dorrien calls Wrede's definition "a mode of understanding constitutive of religion itself." ibid  In other words, myth is the language of religion. This prefigured "the 20th century understanding of myth as a true story that discloses exemplary or sacred truths." ibid.  Ernest Cassirer and the literary figure Claude Levi-Strauss "understood myths as fundamental forms of world constructing thought." ibid.
The Theologian Tillich takes myth "as the essential mode of encounter with the sacred." Here "myth is the Universal category of religion." and "it's the narration of a sacred history that relates an even that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the beginnings. put differently it tells how a reality came into existence through the agency of divine beings, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality."  ibid.
Gilkey's definition follows these attempts and declares it a sacred narrative that relates the  "real story" behind the worlds reality. Myth for him clearly is "a mode of language that features a distinctive set of elements"
We need to grasp here that the above understandings of myth see it as primarily the language of the text, an approach which is accepted, almost unargued because it is grounded upon implications accepted without question from the Enlightenment, where man can deal only with the phenomena and never delve into the realm of the noumena.
It's a language that addresses "the ultimate existential questions of human living and death" and to sum it up, again as both Niebuhr and Tillich maintained, it is "the essential language of religion."

So these definitions are somewhat wide ranging and to some extent fluid, they tend to assume a methodological approach that places myth as central to religion under which Christianity was just one of the many investigated religious phenomena. 

All in all, we haven't grasped the significance of the liberal approach to myth if we haven't understood that they love to contrast between so called sacred history and history. The notion that myth records sacred history whereas actual history is what historians deal with, the texts and phenomenological events of time.

Peter Enns who recently wrote a book on Creation understanding Genesis from a functional approach sees myth  as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” (40)
Subtly this definition avoids the question whether these stories narrate real history. And as such it can be seen as applying to certain biblical texts, but it stands as markedly different to the approach of early German liberals who see myth as the language of religion and thus of Scripture.

Returning once again to Claude Levi-Strauss  who intriguingly in his structural anthropology 1963 said

"all mythology is dialectic in its attempt to make cognitive sense out of the chaotic data provided by nature, and that this attempt inevitably traps the human imagination in a web of dualisms:"
Here the focus is man's striving in the face of nature with an attempt to make cognitive sense of his life. Yet for Levi-Straus these are paradoxes that can never be solved.

Still for us, to accept Levi-Strauss' approach is to undermine God's revealed Word where God makes sense of our sometimes chaotic existence due to the fall of man etc.

I like Larkin's definition of myth as "a fictional narrative that exceeds the limits of truth and goes beyond the facts" pg 308. It's a story that is fictional. The problem which then arises for the exegete is how to determine which parts are relevant to the interpretation of that text and the listeners. If it is fictional it suggests that much of the content of the story is merely a tool delivering the payload of the intention of the author and thus in regard to Genesis 1 & 2 the focus so easily ends up on man and his worth, and if anything has the chance of being man centred, and therefore self centred, such would be that type of interpretation.  Don't get me wrong, to have a proper definition of myth doesn't mean that you are classifying Scripture as myth. It merely asserts that you know exactly what Scripture isn't!

I must not bypass what someone has pointed out as being Gilbert Ryles interesting remarks on category mistakes in 'The Concept of mind' 1949 pg 8 where "myth represent the committing of a category mistake committed where there is a presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. How that can be played out in the realm of Biblical Christianity is well worth considering.

Overall, one must remain faithful to the Biblical exhortation against myth, adhere to the inspiration of Scripture, reject Enlightenment presuppositions such as proffered by Kant and so easily endorsed by liberal theologians and exhibit great care in accepting some new nuance of myth.

In Christ

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