ON GENESIS: WHAT IS AN ALLEGORY? — UPDATE

Update

As mentioned below,  Keith DeHavelle intended to reply to  Matthew’s comment His post is Creation Debate.

A Personal Aside

As my last post explained, I did not feel good yesterday. Unfortunately, I am still recovering. Nevertheless, I can blog a bit now.

Since the comments indicated a strong interest, today’s post will be on the Creation story in Genesis. However, as soon as possible I will write a blog post on the supposed benefits of a secular education. I just need to spend some time visiting some of my favorite blogs first.

Saint Augustine on Genesis

I must admit have never read what Saint Augustine had to say about Genesis. However, others such as Keith DeHavelle seems to have done so. Since Keith is posting a reply (noted here) to a comment from  Matthew (here) on his blog that should be worth checking out.  As it is, in high school I tried reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions, but I expect I was not ready to appreciate it.

Anyway, since I think they are sufficient for the point I want to make I will reference some secondary sources.

How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin? (biologos.org) provides accounts of how Christians generally interpreted Genesis before the Theory of Evolution. Here is that article in a nutshell.

Given the stark difference between evolution and six-day creation, many people assume that Darwin’s theory shook the foundations of the Christian faith. In truth, the literal six-day interpretation of Genesis 1-2 was not the only perspective held by Christians prior to modern science.  St. Augustine (354-430), John Calvin (1509-1564), John Wesley (1703-1791), and others supported the idea of Accommodation.  In the Accommodation view, Genesis 1-2 was written in a simple allegorical fashion to make it easy for people of that time to understand.  In fact, Augustine suggested that the 6 days of Genesis 1 describe a single day of creation.  St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that God did not create things in their final state, but created them to have potential to develop as he intended.  The views of these and other Christian leaders are consistent with God creating life by means of evolution. (from here)

What issue does this paragraph raise? I think the issue is what we mean by “simple allegorical fashion.” In Saint Augustine (chem.tufts.edu) Dr. Smith quotes Saint Augustine. The point the quote makes is that we must not interpret scripture  foolishly. Did Augustine read Genesis as How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin? might lead us to believe? Depending upon what we read into that article, maybe not.

With respect to Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine’s Origin of Species (www.christianitytoday.com) provides a more lengthy explanation of Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1-2. The author, Alister McGrath, believes Augustine and Charles Darwin would have had a serious disagreement.

Augustine would have rejected any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason, Augustine would have opposed the Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God’s providence is deeply involved throughout. The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random. (from here)

Further, McGrath observes what Augustine contribution might make to the current debate.

So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates. (from here)

So what did Augustine think? In Augustine of Hippo (creationwiki.org) we have this observation about The Literal Meaning of Genesis by Augustine.

Augustine wrote The Literal Meaning of Genesis in 415 in which he argued that Genesis should be interpreted as God forming the Earth and life from pre-existing matter, allowed for an allegorical interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, but called for a historical view of the remainder of the history recorded in Genesis, including the creation of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. He also also warned believers not to rashly interpret things literally that might be allegorical, as it would discredit the faith. (from here)

That raises the question again. What did Augustine mean by an allegorical interpretation? Consider how the dictionary defines the word.

allegory

noun, plural allegories.

  1. a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concreteor material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
  2. a symbolical narrative: the allegory ofPiers Plowman.
  3. emblem (def 3).

Although some allegories (like George Orwell’s Animal Farm) can be quite fanciful, an allegorical interpretation doesn’t require much figurative treatment.  Nevertheless, when we call a portion of the Bible allegorical, we do have to be able to justify it.  As Peter said:

2 Peter 1:20-21 Good News Translation (GNT)

20 Above all else, however, remember that none of us can explain by ourselves a prophecy in the Scriptures. 21 For no prophetic message ever came just from the human will, but people were under the control of the Holy Spirit as they spoke the message that came from God.

That is, we must pray for understanding, and we must be prepared to justify our interpretation to our fellow Christians.

What Augustine did was read Genesis carefully, and he considered what other parts of the Bible say about Creation. Here is an example.

Augustine considered Psalm 33:6-9.

Psalm 33:6-9 New King James Version (NKJV)

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap;
He lays up the deep in storehouses.

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.
For He spoke, and it was done;
He commanded, and it stood fast.

And he considered Genesis 2:4. Then he reached an interesting conclusion.

Further, he argues that a close reading of Genesis 2:4 has the following meaning: “When day was made, God made heaven and earth and every green thing of the field.” This leads him to conclude that the six days of Creation are not chronological. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mold it, even to the present day. (from here)

As THE CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF AUGUSTINE’S VIEW OF CREATION (www.asa3.org) by Davis A. Young observed, Augustine believed “the interpretation of Genesis I is not at all obvious and is fraught with difficulties.” Therefore, he probably remained uncertain of his own interpretation. Further, Young says Augustine claimed “that we ought to be willing to change our minds about the interpretation of Genesis 1-3, particularly as new information comes to light.”

Other References:

27 thoughts on “ON GENESIS: WHAT IS AN ALLEGORY? — UPDATE

  1. Tom – Job and Psalms are my favourite books in the Old Testament. Haven’t seen many answers on this thread. The questions seem clear, however.

    Is there any reason a believing Christian cannot regard Genesis 1-2 as allegorical, as opposed to literal? Matthew, I think, says “Yes”, but doesn’t offer an explanation. My answer is “No.” What say you?

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      1. Sorry – I don’t follow. The link appears to be something not particularly relevant. My question is why do some people (primarily Christians) seem to feel that one has to interpret the Creation story in Genesis as literal truth as a condition of being a believing Christian? The link doesn’t address that.

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  2. Tom – why do you say I am creating a “Straw man”? What’s the “straw man”? I am asking a fundamental question that interests me. Nothing “straw” about it. The question is why do some Christians (not all, but some) think that one has to regard the Creation stories of Genesis (both of them) as a literal truth (down to a 24-hour day and a six-day work week) in order to protect the Good News of the New Testament. I agree with you that the Bible is not Aesop’s fables. But some parts are similar. Parables and fables are teaching devices. There is some overlap in the pedagogy. How doe we know that the original documents are inerrant? No one living has seen the “original” documents. If they are inerrant, they are different than what is available to us now.

    Then we keep having this Flood thing poking in. Why do you ask about allegorical interpretations of the Flood? I suppose there are some, but why is that important when we are talking about the creation story in the first portion of Genesis? To answer your question as to whether I have an allegorical interpretation of the Flood (although I have no idea what that has to do with anything here), the answer is no. Do you have a good allegorical interpretation of the Flood? I should be pleased to hear it. I do believe, however, that the “Flood” probably referred to a true cataclysmic event in that part of the world, an event of which there is, plausibly, geologic and archaeological evidence.

    When I went to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, I observed that the designers of that facility spend a lot of time on the Flood. It is how they explain the fossil record. They also have very entertaining displays of all the animals being loaded in pairs aboard the ark, including dinosaurs. Their explanation for the disappearance of dinosaurs is that the post-Flood environment wasn’t very hospitable for dinosaurs, so they died out, whereas mammals and rodents and birds did just dandy post-Flood.

    But I would love to hear something from someone as to why a literal interpretation of the Creation story in Genesis is essential to the preservation of the integrity of the Gospel of Christ.

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    1. Scout – Off the top of my head, I am not certain how many Christian sects there are, but I think it is a good bet that almost none of them are unaware of the fact that the Bible contains metaphors, similes, parables, symbols, and so forth. What the debate is about how to interpret different parts of the Bible. Where the Bible doesn’t offer metaphors, similes, parables, symbols, and so forth, what is the point of pretending that any exist?

      Are there people who call themselves Fundamentalist Christians? Yes. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Fundamentalist?s=t

      That means they believe the fundamental precepts of the faith, and they regard the Bible as an accurate historical record. That does not mean they don’t believe the Bible contains metaphors, similes, parables, symbols, and so forth.

      Once we get past the point we believe that Jesus died for our sins, believing the rest of the Bible gets much easier (even where it does not contain metaphors, similes, parables, symbols, and so forth). We don’t have reinterpret the Bible just to fit the latest secular gyrations in “science.” We can take the Bible as being what it says it is.

      Is the Bible perfect? Check out Psalm 19, the middle portion in particular. Consider also what is meant when it is said that Jesus lived a perfect life. Not certain. Then read Matthew 5:17-20.

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      1. Two words that are hated inside and outside Christendom, namely, fundamentalist and literalist. I am both. (Nevertheless, if we really think about it, by definition, everyone is a fundamentalist and literalist to their respective religion, worldview, etc.) Owing to our sinful nature, we use words to marginalize or insult people. From my experience, I can assure you that both Christians and non-Christians have treated (and still treat) me with contempt owing to my fundamental and literal views of the Word of God. When I was an atheist, I did the same to fundamental and literal Christians. I am merely describing my personal experience.

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        1. Matthew – no one here hates you. And, to the contrary, I think there are large swaths of Christendom in which literal interpretations of even the oldest parts of the Bible are much revered. I think you are in very good and numerous company.

          but perhaps you can help with my question that bounces around whenever these discussions occur and which hasn’t really been addressed here. Why do some Christians (I assume you would be in this group) believe that the Creation story is incompatible with “Old Earth”, scientific notions of earth’s formation and development. Do you think it is possible to reconcile Old Earth views with acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior?

          Like

      2. I guess the question we keep dancing around is whether the Creation story is “offered” (to use your term) as an allegorical account or is to be read as literally true. You seem not to want to close on that. After that, then comes my unanswered query as to why some Christians (your term appears to be “Fundamentalist”, I don’t use that term) believe one has to accept the Creation story in Genesis as literally true in order to protect the meaning of the New Testament. I am as puzzled by that now as I was when we started this discussion. I had hoped for some enlightenment.

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        1. scout – If only the worst of my failures was my inability to satisfy your questions. If only….. Sigh!

          Have you any idea how many questions you have never even attempted to answer? Have you considered that you too readily ask questions and too reluctantly accept answers?

          When we read the Bible, we are trying to understand the mind of our Creator. The words in the Bible are His Words. Have you ever studied the Book of Job? What the Book of Job makes clear is that we cannot understand God’s thoughts, and He doesn’t feel compelled to explain Himself. Who can explain what only God can reveal? No one.

          Hence, when we approach Genesis 1-2, we can learn what we can, but whenever we leave with much the same questions we had when we arrived, it serves no purpose to beat ourselves over the head.

          Consider instead how God began his questioning of Job.

          Job 38:4-7 New King James Version (NKJV)

          4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
          Tell Me, if you have understanding.
          5 Who determined its measurements?
          Surely you know!
          Or who stretched the line upon it?
          6 To what were its foundations fastened?
          Or who laid its cornerstone,
          7 When the morning stars sang together,
          And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

          Like

          1. Matthew should have a hard time with this.

            • Does the Earth literally have “foundations” that were created like human dwellings, measured by a “line” that was “stretched” upon it?
            • Where, precisely, is the “cornerstone” of a planet?
            • Do stars not only sing, but sing in a harmony that would be understood by an ancient human?
            • Did God have many sons?

            It is easy, and trivial, to recognize this as allegory, similar perhaps to the old man telling his grandson that he used to walk through the snow to school as a boy, uphill both ways. He’s making a colorful point, as God is in this passage.

            But if you can treat this as allegorical, how would you justify treating this literal quote of God that way, but insist that the two stories written by Genesis must be literally true? Remember that God is talking here about more events that happened during the Creation, with the foundation being laid to the singing of stars.

            Presumably, this means that “the heaven and the earth¹ ” involves a time lag, since the stars (as part of what man still refers to as “the heavens”) would be needed to sing for the latter part of the process.

            ==============/ Keith DeHavelle

            ¹ In modern writing, references to the planet Earth are in proper case. You could read this passage as referring to simple earth, I suppose, which reminds me of a song in Camelot:

            I find humility
            Means to be hurt
            It’s not the Earth the meek inherit,
            It’s the dirt!

            (from “The Seven Deadly Virtues”)

            Like

        2. Keith – I think you have hit upon the issue, but have you considered what the shoe looks like on the other foot?

          Some statements have to be taken literally. Others not so literally. How do know which is the case? What method of interpretation should we use? How do we know when we have the correct interpretation?

          Since your language skills exceed my own, I expect you realize better than most just how complex it might be to interpret an ancient document written by someone skilled in the use of the language of his day. Because the story of Creation is outside of any experience we share with the ancients, where do we start? Unless we have clear direction to interpret Genesis 1-2 any other way but literally, why would we do so?

          Anyway, may I suggest => https://citizentom.com/2015/01/18/on-genesis-what-is-an-allegory/#comment-56694. Matthew commented on that comment. He did not state any disagreement.

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  3. As I have repeatedly stated. One cannot commingle secular and spiritual presuppositions and biases. Both worldviews contradict each other–oil and water. Theistic Evolution, Gap Theory, Framework Hypothesis, and Progressive Creationism are attempts by unorthodox theologians and Christians who wish to appear relevant with their secular neighbor. St. Augustine interpreted the creation account according to the secular worldview, presuppositions, and biases of his day. So it is with contemporary Christians. Nothing new is under the sun. Scripture interprets Scripture, and Scripture validates Scripture. The Word of God does not need man’s feeble faculties interpreting His Word, since he will always get it wrong–as we often do. The Word of God is axiomatic, which no other text in man’s history can claim.

    The Word of God promises us this fact: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1 ESV). This refers to the consummation of all things. The curse, which we currently live under, will be lifted and a new heavens and earth will be created for the saved (or “elect”) and thus sin, death, and Satan will be conquered and banished forever. Question. How many billions and millions of years will it take to create and evolve this new heavens and earth? This is why we cannot commingle secular and spiritual presuppositions and biases–oil and water.

    If our Creator wanted His creation to know every single detail–and answer every single question–then He would have done so. Since our Creator is sovereign–and we are not sovereign and we are not His counselors–He elected not to reveal every single detail to us. I am perfectly content with that fact and not knowing everything. It keeps us humble and reliant on Him–always.

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    1. I failed to mention. Never trust what I say, or anyone else for that matter, including St. Augustine. Compare and correct me with the Word of God, and the Word of God alone. The protestant reformers compared and corrected the heresies and unorthodox doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church with the Word of God, and the Word of God alone; hence, [em]sola Scriptura[/em]. This ought to be everyone’s principle. Again Scripture interprets Scripture, and Scripture validates Scripture.

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    2. Well, I have not read much of what Saint Augustine wrote, but I think he would have agreed scripture is the final authority. The thing is some of the scripture is subject to allegorical interpretation, and Augustine cringed when some of contemporaries tried to interpret literally what he thought deserved an allegorical treatment. Isn’t that reasonable?

      Genesis 1-3 bothered Augustine. Part of confusion may have been due to the Bible translation he used. One of the sources I referenced indicated that Augustine did not have access to a good translation (5th century must have been awful for those who love to read). In the example I give (the possibility that God created the universe in an instant), I don’t think Augustine’s translation misdirected him. Moreover, Augustine does cite scripture to support his conclusion.

      In addition, I failed to mention something in my post. Because God created time, He is not subject to it. Therefore, the idea that God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh is something the Bible states solely for our benefit. Could God have created the universe in six days and rested on the seven? Even if the earth was not yet revolving on its axis, I suppose so, but idea that God would rest gives me chills. Who would be watching the “store”?

      Like

  4. Hey CT

    Good to see you up and running 😉

    Ever so briefly. For many years the Genesis account has been believed and dismissed. There is however much more at stake than simply knowing whether ‘this or that occurred.’

    God’s word was never given to man to satisfy our curiosity. There are other books for that. The entire credibility of God’s word hinges on Genesis. If that is true, then everything that follows is true.

    When Peter speaks of Noah, he does so not only with what he knew, but with the truth he was inspired to write. When the Lord spoke of ‘the days of Noah,’ again, the veracity of not only the Genesis account is at issue, but the very words of Christ who spoke of it as a historical certainty.

    People do not like to hear this, but if there was no ark, no flood, then Christ could be called a madman or worse.

    Then you have the Hebrew writer speaking of the building of the ark, all part of the warp and woof of scripture. Truth is connected from Genesis, as it is the seedplot for what follows.

    Sorry for the laboring of the flood, but it is important. If it is a fable, then Christ is a fable, and we are still in our sins. (perish the thought)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. We have focused on the creation story in Genesis because that’s where the perceived conflict with science occurs, at least for some (I am not one of them, because I regard the creation story as allegory). Why would your reaction to evolution as a scientific theory have any “political” content? Why would the theory of evolution be at all affected by a large flood? There are geological indications of cataclysmic flooding in the Black Sea/Eastern Mediterranean area. All along the south shore of the Black Sea, there are submerged settlements from ancient times.

    But, to go back to what I find puzzling, why, Tom, do you feel that some people seem to think that it is a requirement for Christian belief to believe the Genesis creation story literally?

    Like

    1. ColorStorm answered your question below. John 3:16 sums it up the issue.

      John 3:16 King James Version (KJV)

      16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

      We don’t have to believe the Bible. We don’t have to believe Jesus was God made man (What a demotion?!!!!!). We can spiritualize the entire Bible to feelgood meaningless babble, but then we will be among those who don’t believe in Him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ColorStorm has not answered the question and John 3:16 seems to have nothing to do with it (at least nothing very direct) to do with it. Why cannot one accept John 3:16 and also believe that the creation story is a legend or story intended to explain things that were beyond the ken of Humans?

        CS says “the entire credibility of God’s word hinges on Genesis. If that is true, everything that follows it is true.” That doesn’t answer my question, it just tees it up again. My response to both those sentences is: “Why?” The more refined question might be “why cannot allegorical or metaphorical speech or writing be ‘true'”? If God, through imperfect Man, inspires a writing with a ripping good yarn about how all matter, plant, animal and mineral came to be, or Jesus decides to illustrate a point with a tale that He in His genius creates for our understanding, why are these gifts of less value than they would be if they were literally, factually true. They are didactic and serve an important purpose.

        Again, I am continuing to puzzle over the Ark references in CS’s responses, as the catalyst for this and the other thread was the Creation story. But, to pick up on CS’s fixation with the Ark, why does Jesus’s divinity swing on the Ark? Jesus, as revealed to Man in the early first Century, was living in Palestine among the Hebrew people. He was completely immersed in that culture and in the Hebrew Bible of that time. Why is it remarkable that he would refer to this when teaching?

        The Bible is full of stories, myths, legends, symbols, parables, examples, man-made errors, translation issues, historical anomalies, misleading names of books etc. We diminish its value by adamantly imposing on it the brittleness of its having to be literally true and inerrant. That approach is the approach that trashes the Bible as a religious work, because it clearly is not inerrant and as soon as one stumbles over an inaccuracy, the whole edifice comes tumbling down IF one unreasonably demands of the work that it be factually precise in all ways. Those of us who cut it a bit more slack on factual accuracy are protecting its primacy as a masterful spiritual work.

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        1. Scout – Do you have a good allegorical interpretation of Noah’s Flood?

          Consider that question in the context of your own statement.

          The Bible is full of stories, myths, legends, symbols, parables, examples, man-made errors, translation issues, historical anomalies, misleading names of books etc. We diminish its value by adamantly imposing on it the brittleness of its having to be literally true and inerrant.

          Now some observations.
          1. You are creating a strawman. Ask yourself. What was the point of this post? Instead of tearing down the arguments of others, build one of your own.

          2. The Bible is not Aesop’s Fables. The Bible claims to be God’s Word to us. The translations may have errors, but we have every right to expect the original documents to be inerrant. Therefore, if the Bible is the Word of God, when there is a conflict between the Bible and some other source, either the other source is wrong, we misunderstand the Bible, or the Bible is not the Word of God.

          3. Do some research on what you call errors. Don’t be lazy or take some lazy writer’s word for it.

          I ask again. Do you have a good allegorical interpretation of Noah’s Flood?

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Tom – this is a very nice job of assembling some pertinent and thought-inducing sources. To me, the continuing quandary identified both in your post here and in the previous one that veered off into Genesis-Land is why do some people feel that a literal interpretation of Genesis is a core value of all Christianity (and, by interpolation, I suppose, all of Judaism)? Keith does a very nice job of working through Matthew’s comments over on his blogsite. But I still don’t follow the notion, advanced by Matthew and a few others in the other thread, that one has to accept Genesis literally in order to somehow protect Christianity. That seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon (Keith makes this point quite clearly) and not one that confounded the early Christian leaders. I hope this very earnest post, and Keith’s fine work at his site, might, in the comment threads, shed some light on this.

    Like

    1. Matthew’s concern is real enough. Here is the comment I left on Keith’s post.

      I will admit my general reaction to the Theory of Evolution is colored by the politics. I don’t worry about theory as proof as to whether or not Genesis is either true or untrue. Genesis is not part of a scientific tome. So there is no point in reading it like it is. Except for that verse about how God watered the Earth (Genesis 2-6), I don’t see much in Genesis 1-2 that contravenes the theory. I also have no idea what scientists would do with Genesis 2-6.

      Genesis is, however, also a history. In this respect, the real difficulty is Noah’s Flood. If we except what the theorists say about the geological evidence as true, Noah’s Flood doesn’t seem fit in. But nobody has ever been able to explain everything we read in the Bible. For some reason, God doesn’t make it easy.

      We have focused on the creation story, but that is only the first two chapters. Noah’s Flood would have occurred far more recently, and Genesis 2-6 indicates either a change in physical laws or just a plain ordinary miracle.

      The science with respect to the Theory of Evolution does not even consider the matter of Noah’s Flood. The implicit assumption is that it did not happen.

      Do you have a good allegorical interpretation of Noah’s Flood? I don’t. I just believe the Bible.

      Like

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