Phe-nomenal!!

This one is about use of language in the Bible – or one particular use, anyway.  It’s a follow-on from ‘A Brief Word on Biblical Interpretation’, one of my earliest posts.  In that I established that the Reformation idea of interpreting the Bible ‘after the literal sense’ didn’t mean dumb wooden literalism, but making full allowance for the Bible to use all kinds of figures of speech, literary conventions, etc.  Not special biblical stuff, but actually everyday use of language.  One such is what is called ‘phenomenal’ language. 

One example of ‘phenomenal language’ we use pretty much every day – and the Bible uses it quite often as well.  Consider this…

“Dear Television Company

I’m writing to you about your weather-persons.  I’m appalled that you employ people so out-of-date and unscientific.  Every day they give us the times of sunrise and sunset, as if it were the sun that moved around the earth, rather than the earth’s rotation on its axis that produces the movement of the sun across the sky!   Have these ignoramuses never heard of Copernicus??  Have them fired immediately and get us proper scientific weather-persons…”

If I actually sent such a letter, I don’t think the TV Company would pay much attention apart from laughing at my stupid pedantry.  But of course I am right – the sun doesn’t rise or set, it really is the earth’s own rotation that causes the effect – why do we continue using words that we all know are unscientific?  The basic answer is simply that, from before Copernicus worked out his theory, we humans have described the movements of the sun by how they appear from our perspective.  In the past, they actually believed the sun moved, now we don’t – but the words are still there as the everyday word.  This kind of language, describing how it looks regardless of the scientific theory about it, is called ‘phenomenal’ language – fitting the ‘phenomenon’.  Sometimes we do change our language when we learn better; sometimes we find it more convenient to carry on using the original words – that’s how language is.

Furthermore, there is some point to using such language.  It does describe exactly how things look.  Therefore for everyday purposes, it is useful.  I can tell a child who hasn’t yet learned about Copernicus that we’ll do something ‘at sunset’ and he’ll know what I mean without having to have a science lesson first!  Likewise (less often nowadays, of course) I can use such language with a primitive native up the Amazon, again without having to give that science lesson; and as most languages use words meaning literally sunrise and sunset, I don’t bother finding a special word to make things scientifically accurate, I just use their everyday word.  Only when it really matters do we bother being scientifically exact about this (and when we do, we find out how much more complex and unwieldy the more exact language can be).  Also in passing please note that the ‘phenomenal’ language usefully remains true even when theories are in flux; it could have been very confusing if people had kept having to come up with new words every time the theory changed while scientists were still arguing about exactly how the solar system worked.

The Bible, of course, constantly uses the language of sunrise and sunset and of the moving sun generally.  Indeed I couldn’t find a contrary example.  Does this mean that the Bible ‘teaches’ a geocentric solar system in which the sun moves round the earth, and that therefore a person who believes the Bible must reject Copernicus?  Or does it just mean that in giving his Word to people who didn’t have modern astronomy, God used their own everyday language and didn’t confuse things by telling them a state of affairs they couldn’t have checked and would have found incredible? 

A slightly more complex example is found in Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis.  In around 1500 he actually hadn’t quite got round to agreeing with Copernicus, though the principles he stated suggest that with adequate proof (not achieved till later) he would have accepted it.  But have a look how he deals with the passage in the Creation account about the heavenly bodies.  He rejects the idea of those bodies being intelligent beings, the ‘gods and demons’ of paganism, and emphasises that God portrays them as just ‘lights’, for our use.  That of course is a major point which in due course allowed scientific investigation and at least began to free people from superstitions about the stars.  But Calvin also makes an interesting point about interpretation.

Genesis refers to the Sun and Moon as the ‘two great luminaries’ (as the Berkeley version translates it).  By Calvin’s day, astronomy had sufficiently advanced that it was known that, in absolute terms, Saturn, despite appearing the smallest of the known ‘planets’, was actually larger than the Moon, just further away.  Is the Bible therefore wrong?  No, says Calvin, because ‘to the sight it appears differently.  Moses therefore adapts his discourse to common usage’ .  That is, in the terms of this essay, Moses uses phenomenal language.  He ‘wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand’.  OK, he also did so because he, Moses, didn’t personally know the astronomy we now do.  But the basic point is still sound.  God isn’t confusing the issue by giving Moses and the Israelites details they’d no way of checking, and which might even possibly have led them to reject the account as untrue.  God says, in effect, these are lights which are my gift to you, rather than the gods and demons which the pagans believe and are slavishly ruled by; there are two lights which, to your viewpoint on your world[i], are big lights – one giving you the brightness of day, the other bright enough to see by at night.  Their absolute size doesn’t matter in this account, what is in view is their usefulness.  Astronomers in their university ivory towers will eventually discover the sun to be small on the cosmic scale, and the moon to be small in the solar system – but that doesn’t change the everyday fact that on earth, they are the great luminaries.

I could produce other examples; but I’ve already got one friend who tells me my blog posts are TLTR – too long to read!!  So I’ll just leave it there as food for thought….


[i] Terminology changes; in pre-Copernican days ‘planets’ were ‘wandering stars’ compared to the other ‘fixed stars’, so far away that it takes centuries to see them move significantly.  In those days the Sun and Moon as they ‘moved’ were also considered ‘planets’.  I originally wrote ‘on your planet’ but realised that of course the ancient Israelites didn’t consider the Earth a planet!

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