Arguing with Galileo

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 — Happy Birthday, Honey!

Arguing with Galileo, Audio Version
Medieval Sketch

“Before answering the adversaries’ arguments,” a contemporary observer reported of Galileo’s debating style, “he amplified and reinforced them with apparently very powerful evidence which then made his adversaries look more ridiculous when he eventually destroyed their positions.”

Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter

When he would debate an opponent, Galileo would not only summarize his opponent’s position, he would “amplify and reinforce” their arguments. Then Galileo would demonstrate the flaws in their position, point by point. Galileo often left his opponents feeling humiliated. In the mind of their audience, there was no question who had thought through the topic better.    

A few days ago a friend of mine suggested I find and watch a recently-released Bible prophecy video. If I were to watch the video, he wanted to know what I think of it. I told him I would look for it online, which I did, with some trepidation and measured skepticism. Still, out of respect for my friend, I did look for it. I found it and watched it. I watched the entire video. Sigh.

Sad to say, a lot of the Bible prophecy-related material online is under-informed junk or worse. I say that based on years and years of studying such material. I feel quite conflicted whenever I receive suggestions or recommendations from friends. But I will often go ahead and watch or listen or read whatever they suggest. Candidly, I usually expect the suggested material to be bad or, at best, bland. And it usually is. But every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised.      

“Well, you do know that a lot of people approach your blog exactly the same way.” 

Sigh. Yes, I do know that. And honestly, well they should. There is so much under-informed and misleading #prophecy junk online, people should be understandably wary that what I say here might be more of the same. Still, I hope they give me a chance and read or listen anyway.

But it can be discouraging. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to just avoid everything related to Bible prophecy, the Book of Revelation, and the End Times. Most pastors, professors, and bloggers avoid these topics like the plague, except in times of plague, which might be now. With Coronavirus, people show an uptick in interest — albeit, wary interest.

It is admittedly confusing. If someone has not studied through all things End Times, how can they possibly know what is believable and what is not? That’s a good and necessary question. After watching the recommended video, I did follow through with my friend. And he said as much. He has not studied all this, so it’s hard to discern what is right and what is wrong. A lot of the material presented in the video did sound biblical and thus seemed kinda convincing.

In response, here’s what I suggested: Look for whether a presenter ever mentions or shows awareness of alternate positions and interpretations. Like all other prophetic material, the Book of Revelation requires careful interpretation. Does the presenter seem to be aware of alternate interpretations? If all you hear is a dogmatic take on what a particular passage must mean, be very cautious. That should at be a yellow flag. Granted, sometimes a presenter will deliberately avoid mentioning alternate interpretations. Listeners do want a succinct message, so a presenter might opt to KISS, to keep it simple and straightforward. But intellectual integrity will sometimes require a careful interpreter to present viable alternate interpretations.

Here’s another thought: a good interpreter will be able argue their position like Galileo. A good interpreter will understand alternate positions thoroughly and will be able to explain them accurately, even to the satisfaction of an opponent. An excellent interpreter will thereafter be able to explain why his/her interpretation is indeed superior to alternate interpretations.

The Bible-prophecy video I watched failed on these points. The presenter showed very little knowledge of alternate interpretations. He only presented his own camp’s interpretation. A skilled debater with an adequate grasp of the relevant prophetic material would be able to delineate multiple factual and logical flaws in his interpretation, to put matters very politely.

As I write these blog posts, I am attempting to strike a balance between KISS and what I hope is adequately careful scholarship. Frankly, it ain’t easy. It can be a hard balance to find. But I hope to argue somewhat like Galileo, albeit with more tact.  

Revelation 1:3

Burnt or Fired?

Friday, May 1st, 2020
Audio Version

In my last blog post, I referenced the sobering obituary in Leviticus 10 of the deviant, errant eldest sons of Aaron, brother Nadab and brother Abihu. They lost not only their priestly jobs but also their mortal lives to an incinerating blast of furious flame. They were very literally fired.

To speak of their fearsome demise as being fired, might sound glib. But I do have a good reason. I am not just playing cute with terminology. My intent is to demonstrate the important difference between the literal use of a word as opposed to the common use of a word. 

For example, if I were to say, “I got fired today” you would very likely understand the word fired in a common, conventional way, and not in a strictly literal way. We know that the phrase to get fired means that one’s employment was abruptly revoked. That is just how the expression to get fired is commonly used. But it is not the literal meaning — not at all. Hopefully, no one got burnt, singed, or scorched in the event. Someone simply lost their job.   

This confusion of the literal and the conventional can become a problem for us when we read texts in translation, like the Bible. Our tendency is to lean too much on the literal meaning of a word. Unsurprisingly, we want to read things literally. It is seemingly the most straightforward and simple approach. But it is not necessarily the best approach. Sometimes a word is better understood through common convention or specialized use. We need to find out how that word was commonly used or how it might have been understood in a special context.

For example, in the Book of Revelation Jesus is spoken of in many different ways. He is called Jesus Christ. He is called the Alpha and the Omega. He is called One Like a Son of Man. He is called the Faithful Witness. He is called the Son of God. He is called the Holy One, the True One. He is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is called the Root of David. He is called the Lamb. He is called the Word of God. He is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is called the Bright Morning Star. He is called all of these names and titles, and quite a few more.

Some of these names and titles for Jesus are literal. He is literally the Son of God. He is literally the Faithful Witness. But some of the names given to Jesus in the Book of Revelation cannot possibly be literal. Jesus is not literally a lamb. Jesus is not literally two Greek letters. He is not literally a lion. He is not literally a star. We should acknowledge the difference. And we should try to understand these non-literal names and titles within their historical and literary context, and by virtue of their common, conventional use by Christian churches way back in the first century.

Rather than think of the Book of Revelation in strict literal or non-literal terms, it is much more helpful to think of the book in historical and contextual terms. We should ask questions like: How would first-century Christians in the Roman province of Asia have heard and understood this? What would have been their common understanding of this word, this sentence, this symbol, this image, or this reference? 

We should also pursue answers to questions like: What exactly is being referenced here? Is there a historical reference here? Is there a scriptural reference here? That last question is especially important, since subtle scriptural references appear in almost every verse of Revelation. That’s no exaggeration. 

In conclusion, we cannot read Revelation in strictly literal terms. It has too much symbolism. And it contains far too many subtle references. But sometimes Revelation does have literal elements. Since every reader is an interpreter, every reader must try to discern when the book is presenting literal material and when it is not. Revelation itself will often provide telltale clues. Always try to discern whether what you are reading is symbolic, literal, or a blend of the two.