The previous two parts of this series focused on largely philosophical questions. This last part, however, turns to a decidedly more theological question. In fact, our focus here goes to the source of theology — that is, Divine Revelation and how to understand it.
A vocal branch of creationist cryptozoologists have a decidedly non-scientific reason for finding certain cryptids. Inspired by a literalistic interpretation of Scripture, these scholars cite sightings of supposed sauropods, potential plesiosaurs, and tales of pterosaurs, as irrefutable proof that the scientific dating of the world is inaccurate. The world is about 6000 years old, they argue, as can be deduced from the genealogies of Genesis, and the evolutionary theory of life’s development cannot be correct, since it does not reflect a literalistic reading of Genesis 1 & 2.
While scientific debate over the scientific merits of a scientific theory like evolution is outside the realm of theology, theology has a lot to say about Biblical interpretation. How we interpret the Bible determines how we hear God speaking through Scripture. Does the creationist style of reading Scripture reflect that of the Catholic exegetical tradition?
Making Sense of Scriptural Senses
Traditionally, the Church has approached Scriptural interpretation in two major ways: the literal sense and the spiritual senses. The literal sense focuses on what the text says on its surface, or what the author of a particular passage meant when he wrote it. Finding out the literal sense of a passage often involves other sciences, such as linguistic studies and archaeology; it is in using this sense that we take our knowledge of Ancient Near East history and culture and apply it to what we read in the Bible. The great recent Biblical documents of the Magisterium, from Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, all echo the important role the sciences play in aiding Scripture scholarship.
The literal sense is the basic level of Scriptural interpretation. We need to master the literal sense to really delve into the spiritual senses, which are the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the eschatological sense.
The allegorical sense examines how a Biblical passage points forward to Christ, Mary, the Church, and the sacraments. For example, we can read the story of Noah’s flood as preparing for baptism, in that just as Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood from evil, so also we are saved from sin in the waters of baptism (see 1 Peter 3:19-22).
The moral sense examines how a passage of Scripture teaches us how to properly live out our lives. Many of Jesus’ parables can easily be interpreted according to this sense. We should love our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan loved the stranger; we should convert with the repentance of the Prodigal Son.
The eschatological sense sees how a passage points toward the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. We can see in, for example, Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the resurrected dry bones a hint at the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. We see in the sober story of the Son separating the sheep from the goats the fate that awaits those who love the Lord and those who reject Him.
Catholic Scriptural exegesis is also keenly aware of genres and historical contexts. Scripture is the inspired Word of God; at the same time, it is the product of particular human beings living in particular time periods at specific stages in Israel’s history. Being aware of these points help us understand the authors’ intentions when writing. Just as you would not interpret every book in a library the same way, regardless of genre, so also you should not read all books of the Bible in the same way. A passage describing the works of God in the Psalms should not be read the same as the historical account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Both passages teach important theological truths, even as one uses metaphor while the other uses historiography.
Literal vs. Literalistic
There is a temptation, especially among certain fundamentalist Protestant sects (and Catholics who follow their exegetical lens) to read Scripture not in a literal sense but rather in a literalistic sense. The distinction is a slight but important one; it is particularly important when reading passages that come up in controversies connected to cryptozoology.
As previously mentioned, a literal interpretation of Scripture reads a passage as the author of the passage intended it to be read. The account of Jericho’s fall is, then, a record of a military battle that happened soon after the Israelites returned to the Promised Land from Egypt. A literalistic interpretation reads the passage as if the exact details, the specific words, of a passage are accurately recorded details. Keeping with the fall of Jericho, when the author notes that “On the seventh day, beginning at daybreak” (Joshua 6:15) the army of the Israelites began their seventh day of marching around the city of Jericho, this would mean that they began marching as soon as the sun rose on the horizon, no earlier and no later.
Such an example may seem silly, and most literalistic interpretations of Scripture are not as obsessed with details. However, when it comes to more controversial passages, such as the first eleven chapters of Genesis, or describing creatures like the Behemoth in Job 40, a literalist creationist scholar takes the exact texts of Scripture as literalistically true, that is, what is reported in those passages is exactly as it was. Unless the passage clearly indicates that the author is using a simile or metaphor (as in 2 Peter 3:8), then it must be taken at face value and be literally true.
Many scholars, both for and against a literalistic interpretation of Scripture, have commented on interpreting the prehistory narrative of Genesis. Both
literalist creationists and atheists want the passage to mean exactly what it says, the creationists to proclaim the wonders of God, the atheists to show how silly Christians really are. Yet both might miss that deeper understanding of Scripture, the nuance of God’s Word. Both view the world of God’s Revelation incompletely, the former missing the beauty of God’s work discoverable through human reason, the latter missing the wonders of the Scriptures.
Barney in the Bible?
The logic of the literalistic understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 bleeds into interpretations of other passages in the Bible. Take, for example, Job 40-41. The passage follows a grand tour of the entire created order, from the vastness of the sky to the details of each animal and plant surrounding us. The point of the tour is to explain to Job, who had challenged God to explain why He had allowed evil to befall him, the unending love and unfathomable mind of God.
At the conclusion of the tour of creation, God mentions two puzzling creatures. The first, the behemoth, is a massive animal with a “tail like cedar” (Job 40:17), who is not disturbed by a rushing river; the second, the leviathan, is a strange beast that breathes fire and cannot be tamed except by God. Many literalist creationists, reading the accounts of these animals as literally accurate depictions of massive beasts, claim they are depictions of living dinosaurs, which existed on day six of Genesis 1, along with man. The one literalistic interpretation follows upon the other.
Such an interpretation, however, misses the whole point of the passage and, as one commentator noted, reflects more about the subjective views of the exegete than the meaning of the Scriptures. The behemoth and the leviathan seem almost god-like, more powerful than anything one could encounter in real life. That, then, is the key. They are impossible creatures, combining all the power of earth (in the behemoth) and chaos (in the leviathan). The world and chaos are not objects of worship, as the pagans thought. They are subject to God, to whom all glory should be given.
In this way, there is a direct connection to Genesis 1, as one could interpret the six days of creation, in the moral sense, as God teaching that man should not worship anything in creation, either living or non-living, as all came into being because of the will of God, who spoke and it was. This seems to be the theme of the behemoth/leviathan passages. They are not catalogs of cryptids, but something more powerful: avenues through which God explains His infinite power and love.
As with our discussion of God and the soul, we have seen how our fascination with mysterious creatures provides a vehicle to discussions of deeper theological and philosophical truths. If our interpretation of Job 40-41 is correct, and that the behemoth and leviathan are methods of teaching theological truth, rather than a catalog of real animals, then our use of cryptozoology to catechize has ancient Biblical roots.
Perhaps Nessie, Bigfoot, and other cryptids might have a place in the New Evangelization after all, even if they do not currently have a place in biology textbooks.