You are hereBeyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Genesis Debate – Part 2
Beyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Genesis Debate – Part 2
by Timothy P. Martin
It’s easy to overlook the importance of basic hermeneutic principles in any theological discussion. Most disagreements come when two people with different hermeneutic systems look at a text of Scripture and come to different conclusions. The differences do not come from the text itself. Both people read the same text. The differences come from the principles used to understand the text.It’s easy to overlook the importance of basic hermeneutic principles in any theological discussion. Most disagreements come when two people with different hermeneutic systems look at a text of Scripture and come to different conclusions. The differences do not come from the text itself. Both people read the same text. The differences come from the principles used to understand the text.
What is true of differences between individuals is also true of differences between entire theological systems. The debate among rival theological systems, at root, is about hermeneutics, principles of biblical interpretation. For example, a covenantal approach relies on what is known as the grammatico-historical method. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, operates by the method known as literalism. Covenant thinking rests on the belief that it is essential to interpret Scripture in light of other Scripture, always allowing the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament. Dispensationalism stresses the Bible must be read literally at all points possible. In the words of Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation.” Ken Ham, a leading Creation Scientist, echoes this hermeneutic method when he says, “I take the Bible literally unless it is obviously symbolic. Even where it is symbolic, the words and phrases used have a literal basis.” This literalist method can be shown to be problematic, but it is the heart, or engine that drives the train of dispensationalism. Just as a covenantal approach more compatible with preterism is powered by the belief we must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture.
A Troubling Fact
It is no secret that every leading writer for the Creation Science movement supports some version of eschatological futurism. Thoughtful preterists should ask why this connection to futurism, mainly of the dispensational variety, is uniform across the ranks of leading Creation Scientists. In fact, given the fundamental difference between preterism and dispensational futurism, it is odd preterists support the Creation Science movement. Is the error of Creation Science isolated to a single branch of theology named eschatology? How can they be correct in Genesis, yet so wrong when it comes to Matthew 24 and the entire book of Revelation?
A quick look at how Creation Scientists argue for a global flood reveals how they employ a dispensational hermeneutic from the very beginning. In their foundational book, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications, John Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry Morris begin by emphasizing a particular hermeneutic. I quote from the foreword:
The reader who desires to accept the Biblical account literally and without reservation will discover that the authors have shown such a position to be supported by excellent proof and sound interpretation... I would suggest that the skeptical reader, in like fashion, before he dismisses the Biblical-literal viewpoint of this book as unworthy of notice, should at least give it a careful reading... If a worldwide flood actually destroyed the entire antediluvian human population, as well as all land animals, except those preserved in a special Ark constructed by Noah (as a plain reading of the Biblical record would lead one to believe), then its historical and scientific implications are tremendous. [emphasis mine]
The fact that Morris and Whitcomb start with a hermeneutic of literalism does not, by itself, prove their view wrong. We know, for example, that even a covenantal hermeneutic leads to physical literalism when appropriate. This is determined by the immediate context of a passage as well as how that passage fits into the wider context of Scripture. For example, a covenant approach demands the literal, physical, sacrificial death of Christ on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. Covenant thinking teaches the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. There is no need to overreact to the bad habit of literalism with the opposite bad habit of over-spiritualism. Scripture interprets Scripture.
No one involved in this debate over a proper reading of the flood denies there is literal history in the Genesis flood account. The question is not if there was a literal, historical person named Noah and a great flood. There certainly was a physical-literal flood and a physical-literal man named Noah. The real question Morris and Whitcomb ignore, because of their dispensational bias, is whether or not a scientific-literal reading of Genesis 6-9 in regard to the global language is appropriate. The troubling fact is the Creation Science movement is based on a belief supported exclusively by the dispensational-literal hermeneutic of futurism. Preterists should ask themselves an important question when they investigate Creation Science claims about the biblical account of the flood. Does global language in the Bible always indicate universal or worldwide events?
Covenantal Exegesis of Genesis 7
Those committed to the grammatico-historical hermeneutic of a covenantal approach should find the fundamental assertion of the Creation Scientists, as it stands, simplistic and inadequate. When it comes to Genesis 7 it is certainly possible that the text teaches a global flood. It is obvious from a surface reading. But preterists must first ask some deeper questions before he grants that conclusion. I would suggest they must consider how these same phrases, terms and Hebrew idioms are used in other parts of Scripture. If they are truly committed to the principle of interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture, there is more work to do than merely assume that the language of the Genesis flood requires global events from a surface reading in modern English.
The flood may be global if these same constructs support that conclusion as used elsewhere in Scripture. It is also possible the flood may not be global in physical detail if these same constructs are used elsewhere in cases we know were regional. In other words, if we are self-consciously covenantal, we will not first ask, “What is the literal meaning of this text?” nor “What does science say about a global flood?” We will first say, “Let’s examine these same constructs as used elsewhere in the Bible and interpret this Scripture in light of the rest of Scripture.”
For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. Every living thing that moved on the earth perished - birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days. Genesis 7:17-23.
The Problem of Global Language Which Isn’t Global
The Hebrew word translated as “earth” in this passage is “erets.” Many overlook the fact this word carries no inherent global, spherical connotation from the Hebrew. “Erets” is translated as “land” in the Old Testament over a thousand times. It is also repeatedly translated as “country” and “ground.”
One example of how the word “erets” often works in the Old Testament occurs only a couple of chapters after the account of the flood. Genesis 12:1 reads, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.’” Translators have smoothed this passage for English readers. In the Hebrew it literally reads, ‘Leave your [erets]... and go to the [erets] I will show you.’ Clearly, we shouldn’t believe Abraham was to leave planet earth and go somewhere else though this generally fits with dispensational futurism. This passage only shows “land,” “country,” and “earth,” are all interchangeable translations for the Hebrew term “erets.”
Another example occurs during the plagues on Egypt in Exodus 9:33b, (NKJV), “... the rain was not poured out on the earth.” The same Hebrew word, erets, is used in that passage as Genesis 7:10, “And rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights.” The word for “earth” in the Genesis account is identical to the Exodus example. I will point out a surface reading of the flood account is substantially changed for the modern English reader by replacing “earth” with “land,” “country,” or even “ground.”
The first problem with reading the flood as a global cataclysm is the many places in the Hebrew Scriptures where the language of the entire earth was included or all men are included in things which we know were not global.
Consider these examples. Ezra 1:2 says, “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth.’” Are we to suspect that the kingdom of Cyrus was global? No, the term “earth” is used in a regional way. Another passage is Habakkuk 1:6 which reads, “I [God] am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.” The consistent literalist has a real problem with this text. Archaeology teaches Babylonia was a regional power. Their conquests did not cover the entire globe, even though the Bible speaks “globally” of the empire. The same use of global terms to describe events within limited contexts can be seen in this example:
See how the waters are rising in the north; they will become an overflowing torrent. They will overflow the land [erets] and everything in it, the towns and those who live in them. The people will cry out; all who dwell in the land [erets] will wail. Jeremiah 47:2.
The Hebrew language of this passage is the same as the language of Genesis 7. It could also be rendered, “They will overflow the earth and everything in it... all who dwell in the earth will wail.” In this passage, the prophet is referring to the regional destruction of the Philistines – it has nothing to do with the earth as a globe. Likewise, the term “earth” in Genesis 7 should not mindlessly be read as the globe. Those who approach the account in this fashion only demonstrate their unfamiliarity with the Hebrew origins of the Old Testament.
As we move from the Hebrew of the Old Testament to the Greek of the New Testament we see there is no essential change in the communication of the biblical authors. The same biblical method of using global language in reference to regional events continues in the New Testament. Consider Matthew 24:14. It says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” We know this was fulfilled in the first century, but this does not mean the Christian gospel went to every part of the globe. It is another example of global language in our Bible which simply isn’t global in a scientifically precise, modern sense.
Luke 2:2 is even more explicit, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” Translators of the NIV took the liberty to insert the word “Roman” to qualify the word “world.” A more precise translation would read, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire world.” What is interesting is that Luke would categorize the Roman Empire, a regional power, as the entire world. Another similar example is listed in Acts 11:28. It says, “One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world.” Again, the word “Roman” is not in the Greek text. Luke could naturally associate a specific region as the “world.”
Consider how James speaks about the drought in Israel during Elijah’s day:
Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. James 5:17-18, (KJV).
A literalistic, surface reading would demand a disastrous global drought which should be evident across the world in all cultures contemporary to the time of King Ahab in Israel. However, I would suggest it would be a stretch to argue dogmatically from James’ statement that there must have been drought across the entire globe for three and a half years in Elijah’s day. Likewise, it is just as much of a stretch in Genesis to dogmatically demand that when we read “rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” that what the text is communicating is a global rain event which lasted more than a month.
Another New Testament example of global language used in a local or regional way is Romans 1:8. Paul writes, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.” Should we imply from this the gospel had gone to every part of the globe, and every continent in the first century? The consistent literalist must, but the text only shows how biblical writers will commonly use global language (as it reads in English translations) for things that aren’t global in a scientific sense.
A further point to consider is this. All these examples of global language are within a historical narrative. That demonstrates clearly that the global language in the term “earth” in Genesis 7 does not have to be interpreted globally by virtue of its own literal meaning in modern English.
In all fairness, Creation Scientists do recognize the terms “earth” or “world” don’t necessarily imply the globe. For example, Morris and Whitcomb quote this explanation by Herbert C. Leupold:
Yet since ‘all’ is known to be used in a relative sense, the writer removes all possible ambiguity by adding the phrase, ‘under all the heavens.’ A double ‘all’ (kol) cannot allow for so relative a sense. It almost constitutes a Hebrew superlative.
Morris and Whitcomb offer their own explanation of this issue:
For example, when we read in Genesis 41:57 that ‘all countries came into Egypt to buy grain,’ we are not to interpret this as meaning that people from America and Australia came to Egypt for grain. And thus, by the same token, the statement of Genesis 7:19, that ‘all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven were covered,’ may be interpreted as referring to only some high mountains under part of the heavens.
This analysis seems to lead us back to belief in a global flood. The problem is Morris and Whitcomb have simply repeated their dispensational hermeneutic. They assume, by virtue of its own literal meaning in English, the phrase “under the whole heaven” requires a global conclusion. The question is never asked where else in the Bible this phraseology is used. It never dawns on Morris and Whitcomb to interpret even this phrase in light of other Scripture. They simply dismiss the objection with trite sarcasm.
This is inadequate for those committed to a biblically informed hermeneutic. There are many other places in Scripture where the phrase “under heaven” occurs. Some of them must be understood as global in a theological sense. Job 28:24 for example, “For [God] views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.” Also, Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Acts 4:12 is often recited as gospel proclamation. Few understand Peter’s statement in terms of the experience of Peter’s immediate audience. Peter’s phrase is a redirection of a common Roman phrase used in many Roman legal documents of the time. Peter’s phrase is similar to “Salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than Caesar Augustus.” Understood in its context, Peter’s statement was a radical pronouncement of the kingship of Christ to the Jewish leaders who accepted the imperial claims of Rome in exchange for their authority in Judea.
While both these examples of this phrase are global in a complete sense, at least by theological extension, the phrase is often used where the referent is clearly not global. Deuteronomy 2:25 promises Israel, “This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you.” This is not referring to all nations living on the globe in a scientific precisionist modern sense, but to the nations of the region of Canaan who would have actually been threatened by the Israelite conquest.
One explanation of this text in relation to the Genesis flood is:
[T]he phrase “under the whole heaven,” cannot be taken in its literal sense, but must be understood with limitation; and there are various other passages of Scripture in which the same universal term is used with a restricted signification. See instances in Deut. ii. 25, where a promise is made that the fear of the Jews would be put “upon the nations that are under the whole heaven;” but on comparing this with ch. xi. 25, which lays their “fear” and “dread” “upon all the land” that they should “tread upon,” it will be seen – what needs no proof – that the statement applied only to the people of Canaan and the neighbouring nations.”
As we move from the Hebrew of the Old Testament to the Greek of the New Testament we see, again, there is no essential change in the communication of the biblical authors. The same non-global use of the phrase “under heaven” is seen in Acts 2:5. “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” Does this language demand a global reading as the Creation Scientist demands in the case of the same language in the flood account? Were there American-Indian Jews represented at Jerusalem at Pentecost? African Pygmy Jews? Australian Aboriginal Jews? These civilizations all existed at the time of the writing of Acts. They are all “under heaven” in the sense Creation Scientists take it to mean in Genesis 7.
If we believe that the language of Genesis 7 requires a global conclusion, should we not also understand Acts 2:5 the same way? If not, why the inconsistency? They both use the same “under heaven” language. They both come from historical narrative. These questions reveal the perennial weakness in the dispensational-literal hermeneutic. Literalists tend to be selective. Those who require a global reading of the flood because of that language should apply their hermeneutic consistently.
A final example in the New Testament is Colossians 1:23, “This is the gospel you heard and that has been proclaimed [past tense] to every creature under heaven....” This refers to the region of the then-known world, not every creature or every man in the entire globe. The Bible uses “under heaven” language routinely in a geographically limited sense.
“Face of the Earth”
Some may see the logic of reading the term “earth” and “under heaven” language in a non-global way by comparison with other biblical use, but what about the third construct in Genesis 7? Surely, the phrase “Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out” can’t be understood in a geographically limited sense, right?
This language occurs regularly in the Bible. English translations sometimes render it in a form which hides the basic similarities so obvious in the Hebrew, which is unfortunate. Many readers of the English Bible would be surprised if they saw how often these phrases occur in original biblical texts, particularly in cases which are obviously not global.
The Bible uses this language in a regional way even before the account of the flood. The NKJV presents Genesis 4:14 as, “Surely, You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground [lit. earth – erets].” This quote from Cain refers not to the earth as a globe, but to a regional area of land. Cain was removed from a certain geographical region, not the earth as a globe.
Another example is a famine which is described in familiar terms. The NKJV renders Genesis 41:56, “The famine was over all the face of the earth....” Was this a global famine?
By the implications of Creation Science logic, another global calamity occurs in Exodus when Moses says to Pharoah:
Or else, if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory. And they shall cover the face of the earth so that no one will be able to see the earth... For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land [lit. earth – erets] was darkened. Exodus 10:4-5, 15, (NKJV).
Another interesting use of the phrase from Genesis 7 occurs in the account of Balaam and Balak. Balak complains to the prophet, “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me” Numbers 22:5, (NKJV). Did the Israelite population cover the globe?
The construct also appears in the Old Testament prophets. Speaking of the Israelites, Ezekiel says, “My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth” Ezekiel 34:6, (NKJV). The absurdity of a global reading is apparent.
Daniel 8:5 from the King James reads, “And as I was considering, behold, a he goat came from the west on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground....” The goat in Daniel’s vision refers to the kingdom of Greece according to Daniel 8:21. Greece, however, never spanned the entire globe.
The most explicit use of flood language in a geographically limited context occurs in the book of Zephaniah:
“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both men and animals: I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem. Zephaniah 1:2-3.
Within the context of Zephaniah it is clear the prophet is not referring to a global judgment. He is using global language identical to Genesis 7 in reference to the coming regional destruction of Judah in 586 B.C. If proponents of a global flood were consistent, they would teach global destruction must have accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. It is impossible to overlook the linguistic similarities to the Genesis flood. Zephaniah raises a real problem for proponents of a global flood. How can the prophet use that language in the context of local judgment, when the language itself requires a global reading in Genesis 7?
Advocates of a global flood have only one way to avoid the obvious implication of this passage. They arbitrarily declare the referent of Zephaniah 1:2-3 to have nothing historically to do with the destruction of Judah. Evangelical scholars, Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, give this explanation:
Before focusing attention on Judah, Zephaniah issues a general warning of coming destruction in broad terminology. God is judge of the whole world, and especially his people, Judah. The expression “face of the earth,” used of the great Flood of Noah’s time (Ge. 6:7; 7:4), refers to more than just a local land, unless a specific limitation is added. [emphasis mine]
This desperate approach handcuffs the text in order to protect a prior belief. The authors intuitively understand that if this language can be used in a local way, then the global flood doctrine is in jeopardy. But their arbitrary method still doesn’t work. Universal destruction language is not limited to verses 2 and 3. The chapter ends with more universal language:
Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth. Zephaniah 1:18.
Zephaniah’s prophecy gives us the antecedent for an important concept developed more in the New Testament. His proclamation of “global” destruction by fire in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem is renewed by the Apostle Peter in 2 Peter 3. We’ll examine 2 Peter 3 closely later, but it seems clear that Peter draws from the prophecy of Zephaniah in his writing.
What all these biblical examples prove is that there is no biblical warrant to assume the language of Genesis 7 is global by virtue of its own literal meaning in English. This alone should give pause to any who are willing to break fellowship over the issue of the scope of the Genesis flood. Perhaps Gleason Archer, the renowned conservative Hebrew scholar, best sums up the textual defense of a regional flood view by saying:
In explanation of this assertion [that the flood was regional, not global – T.M.] it needs to be pointed out that the Hebrew ‘eres, translated consistently as “earth” in our English Bibles, is also the word for “land” (e.g. the land of Israel, the land of Egypt). There is another term, tebel, which means the whole expanse of the earth, or the earth as a whole. Nowhere does tebel occur in this account, but only ‘eres, in all the statements which sound quite universal in the English Bible.
While there are good textual reasons to reconsider a global reading of the flood, what has been shown so far will hardly convince die-hard preterist proponents of Creation Science to switch to a regional flood view. The next chapter will explain, theologically, why those committed to preterism should not read the language of Genesis 7 globally, but rather, regionally.
To be continued…
Copyright 2005 by Timothy P. Martin. All rights reserved. Reprinted by Permission
[This book will be available through the Planetpreterist bookstore]
Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 86.
Ken Ham, The Lie: Evolution (El Cajon: Creation-Life Publishers, 1987), p. 80.
John C. Whitcomb, Jr. & Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961), pp. xvi, xvii, xix.
Strong’s Concordance, number 776.
Henry Morris demonstrates this problem in his book, Scientific Creationism. On p. 252 he writes, “It almost seems frivolous to try to show that the Bible teaches a worldwide flood. The fact is so obvious in the mere reading of Genesis 6-9 and one who does not see it there will hardly be influenced by other reasoning.”
See Matt. 24:34; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:16.
John C. Whitcomb, Jr. & Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, p. 2.
Ibid., p. 56.
 See also Acts 17:7
 Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary: Three Volume Set (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, 1997), vol. 1, p. 96-97.
Kenneth L Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), vol.1, p. 1502.
See also Zephaniah 3:8.
Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), p. 210. [Archer’s quote references the same “erets” even though there is a slight variation in English spelling.]