Introduction to the Interpretation of Genesis 1

This page opens with a 2009 video clip from N. T. Wright. This is followed by an essay from Clark Pinnock, which introduces us to the main interpretive options to Genesis 1 active within evangelical scholarship in the late 1980s. Though the references are slightly dated, the interpretive approaches they represent are alive and well today.
On the following page, we will look at the ancient science of the Hebrews and see how it is dealt with by different interpretive options.
N. T. Wright

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for evangelical Christians who are resistant to the idea of evolution is a literalist reading of scripture –– in particular, the text of Genesis 1-3, which details the creation of the earth and its inhabitants.

While most biblical scholars would likely advocate a literary reading of Genesis, as opposed to a literal one, the characterization of Genesis 1-3 as a “mythic” text can make some people uneasy. This is largely due to the fact that in our American culture, “myth” has become synonymous with “not true”. From its Greek origin, however, myth is simply defined as a story or legend that has cultural significance in explaining the hows and whys of human existence, using metaphorical language to express ideas beyond the realm of our five senses.

But to suggest that Genesis is both a mythic text as well as the “inerrant Word of God” may require a leap of faith for some.

British author, pastor, and theologian Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright suggests that the mythological part has been misunderstood and discarded by many evangelicals in favor of a reading based entirely on questions of historicity.

He argues that “to flatten that [the text of Genesis] out is to almost perversely avoid the real thrust of the narrative … we have to read Genesis for all its worth and to say either history or myth is a way of saying 'I’m not going to read this text for all its worth, I am just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask'.”

Many might wonder—but isn’t this pursuit of contemporary context a good thing? Not so, Wright replies, “I think that’s actually a form of being unfaithful to the text itself.”

In this 2009 video clip from BioLogos, “Adam, Eve, and the USA”, Wright suggests that questions concerning the historicity of Genesis and the historicity of Adam and Eve get caught up in contemporary cultural issues and miss the larger story. 

Clark Pinnock

Climbing Out of a Swamp: The Evangelical Struggle to Understand the Creation Texts

Interpretation 43 (1989) 143-155.         Biosketch

The lesson to be learned here is the principle of allowing the Bible to say what it wants to say and not impose our imperialistic agendas onto it; our exegesis ought to let the text speak and the chips fall where they may.

AN ESTEEMED EVANGELICAL GEOLOGIST and son of the late conservative Old Testament scholar E. J. Young has written: "The evangelical community is still mired in a swamp in its attempt to understand the proper relationship between biblical interpretation and the scientific endeavor;" and he added, there seems to be more effort being put into name calling than into finding higher and firmer ground to stand upon.[1]

The problem Davis Young identifies is the proclivity of evangelicals to treat the creation texts of early Genesis as a source of usable scientific concepts and accurate historical information which can be employed in dialogue with modern science. This tendency is well known and has been dramatized for the public by the recent Arkansas court case,[2] the resurgence of creationist fervor in its many forms,[3] and by an acquaintance with popular fundamentalism, one of whose prominent traits in recent years is its stubbornly anti-evolutionary streak.[4]

So, to write about the evangelical interpretation of creation texts means that one has to probe an area of sensitivity and unsolved difficulty for evangelical hermeneutics. It will dramatize the fact that evangelicals have devoted much more time and energy to defending the inerrancy of the Bible than to interpreting it impressively.[5] One is thus required to deal with a malady in interpretation rather than a serious interpretation of the doctrine of creation itself. Fortunately more and more evangelicals are asking themselves if they ought to be looking to the Bible for answers to scientific questions and embroiling themselves in these awkward debates. They are searching for ways to back out of a dead-end street.[6]

THE PRESENT SITUATION

The situation at present is roughly the following.[7] On the one hand, there are various kinds of concordists who try in different ways to harmonize the results of exegesis and science. They understand early Genesis to be giving a more or less historical chronicle of what happened in the past and try to demonstrate a concordance or correspondence between Genesis and the actual events of creation. One of their difficulties is that there is little agreement among concordists on how to achieve this. One group practices narrow concordism. They take the days of Genesis 1 to be literal twenty-four hour days and appeal to the tradition of flood geology to explain the difficulties this creates. Why does the earth appear to be so old if it is not? Where did the enormous amounts of water which would be required in a universal flood go afterwards? Though this approach bears tremendous intellectual burdens and requires major leaps into speculation to deal with some of the problems, this is the approach presently enjoying considerable popularity.[8]

Another group practices broad concordism. More liberal in exegesis and more comfortable with the present scientific consensus, they construe the days of Genesis 1 as long periods of time or as intermittent days of creation amidst the lengthy process of billions of years. In this way they are able to accept much of the evolutionary picture, picking fault with it only in a general way, though they seem forced to stretch the text to achieve the concordance.[9]

On the other hand, there are evangelical nonconcordists, who do not read early Genesis to gain scientific information or to discover history as it really was. They read it more as a theological text, best understood in its own context, and therefore do not come into such severe conflict with modern knowledge. These scholars are of the opinion that the various efforts at concordance have failed rationally because they were misinformed literarily. It was a mistake ever to have supposed that scientific questions could be answered using biblical data.[10] Davis A. Young can speak for the nonconcordists:

I suggest that we will be on the right track if we stop treating Genesis 1 and the flood story as scientific and historical reports. We can forever avoid falling into the perpetual conflicts between Genesis and geology if we follow those evangelical scholars who stress that Genesis is divinely inspired ancient near eastern literature written within a specific historical context that entailed well-defined thought patterns, literary forms, symbols, and images. It makes sense that Genesis presents a theology of creation that is fully aware of and challenges the numerous polytheistic cosmogonie myths of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the other cultures surrounding Israel by exposing their idolatrous worship of the heavenly bodies, of the animals, and of the rivers by claiming that all of those things are creatures of the living God. The stars are not deities. God brought the stars into being. The rivers are not deities. God brought the waters into existence. The animals are not deities to be worshipped and feared, for God created the animals and controls them. Even the "chaos" is under the supreme hand of the living God. Thus Genesis 1 calmly asserts the bankruptcy of the pagan polytheism from which Israel was drawn and that constantly existed as a threat to Israel's continuing faithfulness to the true God of heaven and earth.[11]

Why is it, we may ask, that evangelicals are so powerfully drawn to the concordist pattern of trying to integrate modern science and Holy Scripture? There are at least two sets of presuppositions which encourage it—one is traditional and the other modern. First, evangelicals are theological traditionalists or conservatives, and therefore the mere fact that a Calvin or a Luther, for example, had no qualms about reading Genesis to be saying that God created the world in seven ordinary days impresses them, whether it should do so or not.[12] Then there is the fact that what Charles Darwin was proposing did administer a severe jolt to the pre-modern outlook and posed an apparent threat to traditional dogmatics, particularly at the point of the uniqueness of the human and the historicity of the fall into sin. Furthermore, when evangelicals look at what liberals have done when they accommodated to this new way of thinking in relegating biblical truth to the realm of the existential, threatening the historical reality of the entire biblical narrative, they become understandably nervous.[13]

Second, there is a modern set of presuppositions, linked to the realist epistemology most evangelicals favor, which has a profound influence on their exegesis. Having a realist epistemology means that they will tend to favor truth of a factual and scientific kind and not be quite so open to truth of a more symbolic or metaphorical type. One sees it in the evangelical doctrine of biblical inspiration, which is protective of cognitive truth in general and factual inerrancy in particular. It means hermeneutically that the "natural" way to read the Bible is to read it as literally and as factually as possible. In apologetics too evangelicals like to appeal to empirical reason.

They like to ask, If you can't trust the Bible in matters of fact, when can you trust it? In many ways then, evangelicals are in substantial agreement with the modern agenda which also prefers the factual and the scientific over the symbolic and figurative. What could be more modern that to search for scientific truth in texts three thousand years old? Such a modern presupposition will demand the right to read the Bible in modern terms whatever the authorial intention of the text might be. It just assumes that our values must have been the same as those entertained by the ancient Israelites.

The influence of these presuppositions and this mindset is overwhelmingly powerful, and the difficulty standing in the way of evangelicals transcending it is enormous. Changing one's presuppositions is a painful business, and it will not be easy for evangelicals to listen to the Bible's own agenda and to put their own on the shelf. Yet it can be done, and it is happening.[14]

GETTING OUT OF THE SWAMP

The way out of the swamp is to begin reading early Genesis appropriately in its own context, in the setting of the life of ancient Israel, and to stop forcing modern agendas upon it. Evangelicals who are supportive of the final authority of the Scriptures over all the other sources of human understanding ought to be open (at least in principle) to such a strategy. If they are sincere in wanting to submit their minds to Holy Scripture, then this is something they will have to learn to do in the case of the Genesis creation texts.

Does Scripture help us to decide about its own original intentions, or is it helpless in the face of contemporary reader interests? Are there indications in Genesis which support the suspicion that an attempt to find science in Genesis is likely to be a modernity-driven agenda? If there are such indications, it would be ironic, insofar as evangelicals believe it is exactly the opposite, namely, that people are attracted to a literary reading of early Genesis, not because the text requires it, but because they are over-awed by modern science. Let me explain the basis of my conviction that the text invites a literary reading which does not call for a close scientific concordance.

First, evangelicals need to attend to the purpose and function of the Bible and of the creation texts in that context. As Van Till puts it: "Taking the Scriptures seriously involves affirming its status as Word of God and covenantal canon."[15] The Bible's purpose is to present a covenantal relationship between the Creator and his creatures. Genesis 1—11 in particular is a preamble to God's calling of Abram (12:1). It answers questions which have to do with God's decision to call him. Its purpose is not to inform us about history or scientific process as a modern scholar might investigate it but to explain how it came about that God issued this call to the patriarch. It also tells us how Israel came to exist and sets her election against the background of the creation and the fall into sin, thus helping us to understand the purposes of God in redemption. Genesis 1—11 sets the stage for what follows in the rest of the Bible. It places the drama of salvation in the universal context of the creation of the world, the nature of the human, and the fall of the whole race into sin. Its purpose first and foremost is to teach certain theological truths which lie behind God's striking a covenant with Abraham and his seed.[16]

One should add, in order to allay genuine fears, that this does not mean that one has the right to create an ironclad rule for Scripture as a whole that in no circumstances should readers ever "allow" the text to make historically and scientifically relevant claims. This would be to substitute one kind of imperialism for another and drive a false wedge between religious and factual truth. For even though the purpose of Genesis 1—11 is other than scientific, these texts are still talking about the real world and its history in their own way. After all, the creation of the world is the beginning of God's purposeful temporal activity in relation to history and the event of the world's coming into being. My point is more modest, that we should be guided in a general way by the macro-purpose of the Bible and the Book of Genesis and not unduly influenced by debates which have their meaning largely in the context of modern society.

This impression about the function of the Bible is reinforced by specific signals in the text itself which should alert us to it in other ways as well. The fact that God made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day, not on the first, ought to tell us that this is not a scientific statement (Gen. 1:14—19). This one detail in the narrative suggests that concordism is not going to work well and that the agenda of the writer must have been something other than one of describing actual physical processes.

Second, the original purpose of the writer of Genesis 1 is brought out rather forcefully in several ways. For one thing, there are numerous indications that he wanted to combat the errors contained in the creation myths of the ancient world such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. When placed alongside this document, Genesis 1 reads like a strong polemic against the kind of pagan ideas we find there.[17]  In general, it thoroughly demythologizes nature and sees it as the creation of the one true God. It presents the one God who created all things and who exists independently of nature. It says that there are no warring deities, and no monster goddess needing to be subdued and cut in half. It describes the separation of the primeval waters as a peaceful operation because the chaos is not a powerful force. Creation is by God's effortless word and requires no struggle at all. The text tells us that the heavenly bodies which the ancients worshipped and feared are just lights in the heavens (cf. Deut. 4:19) and that the great sea creatures are God's workmanship too and not mythical monsters. Most important of all, it teaches us that human beings are not a divine afterthought, created to do the dirty work of the gods. They were created to be lords of the world, because they are personal agents just like God is.[18]

The micro-purpose of Genesis 1 then is to counter false religious beliefs. The author wants to undermine the prevailing mythical cosmologies and call for a complete break with them. The chapter is not myth but antimyth. It is not history either in the modern sense, and it is mistaken to construe its interpretation in terms of the debate over Darwin. The text tells us all this, if we would only listen.

Third, the purpose of Genesis 1 is brought out rather plainly by evidences of literary artistry in its construction. In so many ways it shows itself to be a carefully composed and systematic essay. From one angle the text moves from what is farthest from God (v. 2) to what is nearest and dearest to him (v.26). It moves from the inanimate to the animate, from chaos to Sabbath rest.[19]  There is also an impressive pattern running through the passage: the announcement of God speaking, the command to let something be, the report that it was so, the evaluation that it was good, and the temporal framework of evening and morning. Most impressive of all, however, is the parallelism between the first (1—3) and second triad of days (4—6). The author is using the Hebrew week as a literary framework for displaying the theology of creation. First God creates the spaces, and then he populates them with inhabitants. God deals with the challenge posed by the world being "without form and void" by providing first the form and then the fulness.[20]

To spell it out, the first problem God confronts is one of darkness, and he overcomes it by creating the light on day one and by making the sun, moon, and stars on day four. The second problem is posed by the watery chaos, and God deals with it by creating a firmament to divide the waters on day two and by making birds for the sky and fish for the seas on day five. The third problem is the formless earth, and God takes care of that by separating the waters a second time and forming dry land with vegetation on day three and then making the animals and human beings to dwell upon it on day six. The author is obviously a literary architect who has created a framework which serves magnificently for presenting the totality of creation at the hand of God.[21]

The antimythical agenda coupled with the strong suggestion of literary artifice leads to the conclusion that the logic of Genesis 1 is primarily theological rather than historical or scientific. It is the evidence of the text rather than the desire to avoid modern criticism from science which ought to move evangelicals away from misreading the creation account as a scientifically informative tract and burdening themselves with enormous and unnecessary difficulties...



[1]  Davis A. Young, "Scripture in the Hands of a Geologist," Westminster Theological Journal 49 (1987), 1. This is a long two-part article which traces the centuries-old effort to harmonize the Bible and modern science and which, according to the author, has failed (pp. 1-34, 257-304).

[2] See Langdon Gilkey's racy account of his experience at the creationist trial in December 1981, Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985). For another view, see Norman L. Geisler, The Creator in the Courtroom (Miiford, MI: Mott Media, 1982).

 

[3] Ronald L. Numbers, "The Creationists" in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 391-423.

[4] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 212-15.

 

[5] There are hopeful signs this may be changing; see, for example, Moisés Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? The History of Interpretation in the Light of Current Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987) and Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1980).

 

[6] This is one of the areas of change which Hunter notes in recent evangelical thinking; see James D. Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 27-28, 33, 120, 132-33.

 

[7] Davis A. Young's articles are helpful for background, and Christianity Today recently published a major debate on these matters, "How It All Began," August 12, 1988, pp. 31-46.

 

[8] Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (San Diego: Creation Life, 1976) and Scientific Creationism (San Diego: Creation Life, 1974); Donald W. Patten, The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch (Seattle: Pacific Meridian Publishing Co., 1966); Norman L. Geisler and J. Kerby Anderson, Origin Science. A Proposal for the Creation-Evolution Controversy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987).

 

[9] Nineteenth-century evangelicals practiced broad concordance before the battle lines hardened: David N. Livingstone, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987). Recent exponents would include Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (London: Paternoster Press, 1955); Pattle P. T. Pun, Evolution: Nature and Scripture m Conflict? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982); John Wiester, The Genesis Connection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Publishers, 1983); Robert C. Newman and Herman J. Eckelmann, Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977). Davis A. Young himself was formerly of this persuasion, Creation and the Flood (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977).
 

[10] Nonconcordists would include N. H. Ridderbos, Is There a Conflict Between Genesis 1 and Natural Science? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1957); Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day. What the Bible and the Heavens Are Telling Us About the Creation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986); Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984); Meredith G. Kline, "Because It Had Not Rained," Westminster Theological Journal 20 (1958), 146-57; J. I. Packer, "The Challenge of Biblical Interpretation: Creation" in The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation 1988 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), pp. 21-33.

[11]  "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists," p. 303.

[12] What they do not pause to notice is that Calvin also says in his commentary on Genesis that we should look elsewhere if we wish to know about astronomy and that Genesis 1 was using the language of ordinary description and not teaching us science. 

[13] Langdon Gilkey makes this plain, Religion and the Scientific Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), Chap. 1.

[14] Conrad Hyers makes this point gently but insistently, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984).

[15] The Fourth Day, p. 78.

[16] Van Till leans on Meredith G. Kline for this perspective, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 53-57.

[17] Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), Chap. 1.

[18] The character of Genesis 1 as antimythical polemic was brought out by Adventist evangelical scholar Gerhard F Hasel, "The Polemical Nature of the Genesis Cosmology," Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974), 81—102 Bruce Κ Waltke echoes the same point in Creation and Chaos: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Biblical Cosmogony (Portland, OR Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974).

[19] This majestic movement from chaos to order, which is preserved even when one opts for a literal interpretation of Genesis 1, opens the door to concordism again, but m a very general way and one which does not require Scripture twisting.

[20] This literary framework is noticed by Ridderbos, Is There a Conflict? pp 29-55, Blocher, In the Beginning, pp 49—59, and Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), ρ 46.

[21] It is not at all unusual for biblical writers to arrange their materials artificially in order to make some point; see Ridderbos, Is There a Conflict? pp. 36-40; and Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), "A Theological Postscript," pp. 623-40.

 


 
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