Hidden Assumptions Play 'Hide and Seek': Using Context and Clarification to 'Tag' Bible Critics
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. *
Hide and seek is a childhood game that many of us played years ago. But how many of us recognize that same "game" when it is played by those who criticize the Bible? In many instances, when some skeptics criticize the Bible's accuracy or logic, the real game being played is a sophistic version of hide and seek. In order to "tag" their hidden assumptions, attention to context and clarification is needed.
In the examples that follow, note the importance of two errors committed by the Bible's critics--adding to the Scripture, and subtracting from it.
Location, Location, Location
Realtors know the importance of location. Context counts! Whenever someone criticizes a portion of Scripture, keep in mind that the criticized section is only a part of the whole. It is the whole of Scripture that provides the overall meaning that must be used to contextualize all of its component parts. Thus, the use of an Old Testament phrase in the New Testament must be understood in context. Otherwise, a misreading results.
Consider this simple example: John the Baptist called Jesus "the Lamb of God" (John 1:29). Was John calling Jesus a young sheep? No, the context indicates that the meaning of John's phrase "Lamb of God" involved Jesus's redemptive role of "taking away the sin of the world." The immediate context thus suggests that John was not calling Jesus a young sheep.
Moreover, the Old Testament repeatedly documents how literal lambs were used as sin sacrifices, according to the Law of Moses, to prefigure the redemptive role that Jesus would fulfill as the promised Messiah. (For details, read Leviticus.) In other words, it is illegitimate to read the phrase "Lamb of God" apart from the context-qualifying typology taught in the Old Testament. That typology provides foundational meaning for Christ's redemptive role as the Lamb of God.
Does Scripture Have an Avian Ecology "Mistake"?
Now for a more complex example, which arose in a college course titled Ornithology and Avian Conservation. Jesus taught on at least one occasion:
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? (Matthew 6:26)
A Bible critic may choose to find fault with this verse by saying that some birds do "sow and reap," since certain birds--such as the pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)1--hide seeds in the ground and neglect to retrieve them later. Many of those forgotten seeds may germinate and become a new generation of seed-bearing trees that are capable of being "harvested" by later generations of the same species that "planted" them. Is this avian "sowing and reaping" a contradiction of Matthew 6:26?
For a critic to reach such a conclusion, he would need to construct a logical argument (a syllogism) based on certain suppositions or premises. The necessarily implied (i.e., hidden) assumptions in the skeptic's syllogism are:
- Jesus said that there are no "fowls [i.e., birds] of the air" that "sow" or "reap."
- Repeated observations in nature show that some birds do "sow" and "reap."
- Conclusion: Jesus erred in making a universal claim about birds that is disproven by exceptions.
However, with some attention to scriptural context, plus some clarifications about the words actually used in the Bible, we shall see that the answer to the question of error is a clear-cut NO.
First, recall the historical context of Matthew 6:26. The Lord Jesus went up a "mountain" (the original word in Matthew 5:1 is oros, meaning mountain or hill), where He sat and began teaching His disciples. This Sermon on the Mount was not a teaching on the universal traits of all birds living anywhere, anytime, on planet earth. Rather, Jesus used the example of some nearby birds--literally "the" birds then present--as a conveniently available outdoor illustration to aid His teaching about God's providence and the impropriety of worrying.
The Bible provides no justification for thinking that literally "all birds" of the air were flying there at the time Jesus was teaching His disciples. So, do not imagine the disciples looking up in response to Christ's command "Behold"--emblepsate, a second person plural aorist imperative verb, which in East Texan translates as "y'all look now!"--to watch the behaviors of Steller's jays (Cyanocitta stelleri), pinyon jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus), turquoise-browed motmots (Eumomota superciliosa), and Iceland gulls (Larus glaucoides).
Second, to clarify, when Jesus said "the fowls" that could then-and-there be seen at that historic "teachable moment," He directed the disciples' immediate attention to the birds--that is not the same as describing universal traits (such as feathers) that apply to all birds of the world. Notice how this negates the skeptic's first universal assumption (premise) identified above. Those birds were not all of the birds of the world (and Jesus did not use the word "all").
However, whatever birds Jesus did point to then were the kind of birds that did not have a lifestyle of "sowing" and "reaping," much less storing in barns. (In fact, even pinyon jays that "sow" do not "reap" seeds from the same seeds that they plant, because those planted seeds do not become reapable during the planters' lifetimes.) Accordingly, it is safe to assume that the specific birds that the disciples were commanded to "behold" were not pinyon jays. But can we guess what specific kind of birds they were?
Further Clarification, Using a Biblical Cross Reference
Two witnesses of an automobile accident may see the same event and yet describe it differently, sometimes due to a difference in perspective. One eyewitness may honestly testify, "It was an orange car," while someone else (more informed) may say, "It was Bob Webel's orange Maverick." Neither misspoke. Both told the truth, yet one provided more particular information.2 The reality of this type of evidence analysis is routinely appreciated in law courts.3
Notice that Luke records Jesus as saying the following:
Consider the ravens [korakas]: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? (Luke 12:24)
Contextually, we know these were not Baltimore ravens; these were Israeli ravens. Yet repeatable observations indicate that ravens are not much different wherever they live. They are scavengers, often eating carrion. Ecologically speaking, ravens do not have the lifestyle habit of sowing and reaping. Ravens have a "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle, not a "tree farmer" lifestyle.4 In Luke's research of the historical accounts to be summarized in his gospel--the purpose for which is introduced at the beginning of his book (see Luke 1:1-4)--we can glimpse Luke the science-minded physician at work, even caring which birds the Lord alluded to when He talked about their avian habits.5
Some may argue that the Sermon on the Mount discourse in Matthew 6 is different from the similar discussion that Luke summarizes in Luke 12. Even if that is so, it still does not negate the likelihood (or at least possibility) that ravens were literally in view during both discourses. So, either way, the skeptic has misrepresented the historic discussion by changing the imperative "behold" (to direct eyes to an available illustration) into some kind of "universal" (one-size-fits-all) generalization about the ecological behaviors of birds who live anywhere, anytime, on earth.
In short, the mischaracterization of what Christ said (and meant) to His disciples at the time requires adding to the Word, an illegitimate way to read Scripture. Also, to the extent that the skeptic ignores cross-referencing the insight provided by Luke's passage in his interpretation of the Matthew passage, his failure to compare Scripture with related Scripture functions as an illegitimate form of subtracting from the Word.
Keep "hide and seek" in mind if you hope to "tag" a skeptic's logic-cheating tactics--such as adding to and/or subtracting from the Word in order to render it a vulnerable "straw man" effigy of supposed errors. Those who really want truth must seek out and target the assumptions that hide within the skeptic's syllogisms. Those assumptions often result in conclusions that are contrary to God's Word, because skeptics routinely misrepresent what God has actually said.
- See Johnson, J. J. S. 1997. Providential Planting: The Pinyon Jay. Creation Ex Nihilo. 19 (3): 24-25; Kricher, J. C. 1993. A Field Guide to the Ecology of Western Forests. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 147-149; Lanner, R. M. 1981. The Piñon Pine, A Natural and Cultural History. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 45-55.
- This apologetic insight derives from the teaching of Chaplain Bob Webel, to whom due credit is hereby given.
- See pages 19-28 and 31-36 in Simon Greenleaf's The Testimony of the Evangelists, originally published in 1874 and reprinted in 1995 by Kregel Publications.
- Because of ravens' natural habits as opportunistic "takers" (not "givers"), it is all the more noticeably miraculous when God employed ravens to feed the fugitive prophet Elijah as he hid by the brook of Cherith (see 1 Kings 17).
- For another example of Luke's physician's-eye for detail, compare these accounts of Jesus healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath: Matthew 12:9-14 ("hand"); Mark 3:1-6 ("hand"); Luke 6:6-11 ("right hand").
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Hidden Assumptions Play "Hide and Seek." Acts & Facts. 39 (6): 89.