I decided to take a bit of a break from the definite atonement series. I need to finally just put this out there. I will continue working on the definite atonement series in the coming weeks, but with college starting next week and all, I’m pretty swamped. Keep an eye out.
A variety of viewpoints may be observed amongst conservative Christians, on this controversial topic of origins. I have trouble labeling myself, because I don’t fall easily into any established categories. But the classic categories are young earth creationism (Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Ministries International), old earth creationism (Hugh Ross – Reasons to Believe), and evolutionary creationism (or theistic evolution, the position of BioLogos). Each hold differing interpretations of Genesis. I hope, through this blog series, to lay out for you my own interpretation, and also make some comments about what I believe about science.
1. My View of Genesis 1:1-2:3
I was raised a young earth creationist. My church supports ministries like Answers in Genesis, and we even used their VBS this year. I’m no stranger to the idea that Genesis ought to be taken “literally.” I attended Christian schools for both elementary and high school, so I was never indoctrinated by the science teachers to believe in evolution; in fact, I was taught the controversy: given both sides, and then tasked with making an informed decision. In 9th grade biology class, we wrote long essays (graded in both science and English) on “creation vs. evolution,” and I sided with the creationists. That was that.
Then I entered senior year. Having become more and more grounded in my faith over the years prior, learning more and more about Reformed theology and how we ought to interpret the Bible, I entered my senior year Christian philosophy and apologetics class with high expectations. I couldn’t wait to learn about Aquinas, and Augustine, and Hume, and really learn to defend my faith against skeptics and those gosh-darned atheistic evolutionists. Alas, my high hopes proved to be misplaced.
My teacher was a flaming liberal! At least, he was from my perspective. He wasn’t Reformed, he didn’t believe the Bible was inerrant, he believed in evolution; this guy was whack. After the first semester, I kind of zoned out, only barely paying attention. (I must say, though, that the section on Mormonism was fun.) However, some things that he showed me and the class stuck in my brain and made me itch for months and months.
I did not think that there were any other credible views on Genesis besides my own. I had been taught that it ought to be read straightforwardly, as historical narrative. God created in six, literal, 24-hour days, and rested on the seventh. I was taught that it couldn’t possibly be interpreted any other way. My teacher, however, demonstrated rather effectively that if I was to truly take Genesis 1 literally, I would be forced into the position of flat earthism. I would have to accept the ancient cosmology embedded therein. Or so it seemed at the time.
Unfortunately, I found him to be telling the truth. He was absolutely right: Genesis 1 does indeed contain an ancient science, an ancient understanding of the cosmos, which I’ve written about before. In Genesis 1:6-8, God creates the firmament (Heb. raqiya) to separate the primordial waters (the “deep” over which the Spirit of God hovered, v. 2). Moses envisioned, as did other Old Testament authors, a hard, dome-like surface to keep the waters above from crashing down on the earth. On day four, God creates the sun, moon, and stars, and places them in the firmament; not above it out in space, but literally in “the firmament of the heavens” (v. 17), the very same place where birds fly (v. 20).
How could this be? The sun, moon, and stars are not anywhere near our atmosphere; the sun is a gigantic ball of burning gas, 93 million miles away, and we’re orbiting it at an incredibly fast speed. The moon is a giant space rock, a three days’ journey through space from earth, orbiting our blue planet; the stars are other burning balls of gas millions and billions of light years away from us; and there aren’t any waters above the atmosphere as the Hebrews would have envisioned them.
This shook me up a bit. Was my teacher right? Was the Bible not inerrant? Are there good exegetical reasons not to take Genesis “literally?”
So, being the good Calvinist that I am, I consulted Calvin’s commentary on Genesis to see what he said about this firmament and the waters above the earth.
Moses describes the special use of this expanse, to divide the waters from the waters from which word arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theater which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses.
Calvin’s conclusion is essentially that God accommodated to his readers, using their cosmology and way of thinking to describe his creative acts. The Holy Spirit wasn’t intending to give us detailed astronomical information, because if he had, then those who are “rude and unlearned” wouldn’t be able to understand the account. Those who assert that we must believe that there are waters above the earth because the Bible says so are “not in accordance with the design of Moses.” In other words, the Bible isn’t necessarily a science book.
I still believe the Bible is inerrant, but I believe there are certain exegetical evidences that render the “literal” 6-day approach untenable. My position now is that Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 was a polemic against the creation myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, written in a 6-day literary structure; it was a counter-story, written to defend Yahweh against Baal and Dagon and Marduk. Comparing Genesis 1 with the story of the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation account) is a fascinating exercise, demonstrating that the author of Genesis sought to correct the mistaken notions about the origins of the universe in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
For example, we hear from Babylonia that Marduk, the son of another god, fought with a goddess named Tiamat; Genesis tells us that there is but one true God. Marduk won the battle and used Tiamat’s body (divided in half) to create the earth and the sky; God created the earth and the skies himself not from the body of a dead goddess, but from nothing, a great feat of engineering. Marduk enslaves the other gods and goddesses over whom he reigns, until Marduk kills Tiamat’s husband, and sprinkles his blood across the earth, creating humanity, whose sole purpose is to work for the gods; Genesis tells us that God created humans in his own image, to be his stewards and co-laborers in maintaining the earth. 
The days in this narrative function as a literary device to accomplish the purpose of correcting the pagans (sometimes referred to as the “framework hypothesis,” probably most clearly enunciated by Meredith G. Kline; for a more detailed explanation, see here).  Notice, the pre-creation cosmos is described as “formless” and “empty,” two rhyming Hebrew words (tohu vabohu) that clue us in to the structure of the narrative. The first three days tell us about God’s activity in giving form to the earth and the material that was already there. During the remaining three days, God fills that which he has given form to. The chart below should be helpful.
|Formless – Give it Form!||Empty – Fill it Up!|
|Day One: Light||Day Four: Luminaries – Sun, Moon, Stars|
|Day Two: Sea and Sky||Day Five: Sea Creatures and Birds|
|Day Three: Dry Land||Day Six: Land Animals and Humans|
It could be contended that Genesis 1 refers solely to functional origins, rather than material origins, as argued by John Walton in his book, The Lost World of Genesis One. This means that Genesis 1 describes God giving order and functionality to the universe, rather than describing where the material, or stuff, of the universe came from. He argues convincingly from the ancient near eastern context in which Genesis was written, and I do recommend his book. It’s a worthwhile read, even if you disagree.
On the view here enunciated, none of the theology of creation is lost. God is the sovereign and sole creator of the entire cosmos, creating out of nothing; mankind is made in his image to rule over the creation; and the seventh day is a special day to be set apart for worship. In fact, the seventh day is still ongoing, because nowhere does the text tell us that it had an evening and a morning. Hebrews tells us that we ought to strive to enter God’s rest. Think about that. 🙂
Please note, that this interpretation was not motivated by a desire on my part to shoe-horn science into the text; I believe that to be a fool’s errand. I adopted this perspective before I even believed that modern science had anything good to say. I was, in truth, motivated by a desire to remain true to what the text was telling me, and that involved putting it in its ancient Near Eastern context.
Two classic interpretations of Genesis 1 exist for the old earth view: the day-age theory, and the gap theory.
The day-age theory basically says that the days in Genesis 1 are not necessarily literal, 24-hour days, but could refer to long stretches of time (amounting to billions of years). This view tries to account for the massive geological evidence giving testimony to the earth’s great age (calculated to be about 4.56 billion years) and the astrophysical evidence for the universe’s great age (about 13.7 billion years).
The gap theory postulates that between verses one and two of Genesis, a great amount of time could have occurred. God created the earth with a number of creatures on it , but then it “became formless and empty,” rather than existing as formless and empty when God began to create. Thus, the geologic column that we observe today is the result of that former creation; the account of God remaking and reordering the creation is what we find in the rest of the chapter.
I find these positions to be eisegetical rather than exegetical. Wanting to find some way of reconciling the age of the earth with the Genesis account, Christians in the 1800s came up with these interpretations with little regard for the original context. Surely the ancient readers would not have understood there to be a gap between verses 1 and 2, and surely their minds would not have conceived of those days as billions of years long.
These two positions were made popular amongst fundamentalist Christians in the 19th century (and for much of the early 20th century) by CI Scofield through his reference Bible. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Christians began rejecting the evidence for an old earth in favor of the common young earth interpretation, which says that the Genesis flood is responsible for the majority of the geologic column, thereby making the earth only about 6,000 years old.
The young earth view of Genesis 1 has already been summed up: take it on its face. The plain reading ought to be how we interpret it. This view, I think, does violence to the text by removing it entirely from its ancient near eastern context, reading it through our modern, 21st century eyes. It also refuses to acknowledge the ancient cosmology.
Each of these positions can be found among serious, conservative, Bible-believing Christians. The church has never been univocal on the first few chapters; there have always been differences. We must, however, keep a few key hermeneutical principles in mind:
- The Bible was written for us, but not necessarily to us. We must carefully examine the historical and cultural context in which it was written, to gain insights into how the original readers would have understood the text. Grammatical historical exegesis is our goal.
- God accommodates. This means that he speaks down to us, using human terms and thought processes to communicate. He must stoop down and speak to us as babes, as Calvin put it, because otherwise we would not be able to understand what he was saying, as his thoughts are infinitely above our own. 
2. The Uniformitarian Assumption
Uniformitarianism (also called actualism) is the rather reasonable assumption that the same laws and natural processes that are active now have always been active throughout all time, and are the same everywhere in the universe. This assumption is the guiding principle in most of modern science today. For example, we observe that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second today, and therefore, we assume that that speed has remained constant throughout all of time. In such an example, if a star is, say, 168,000 light years away (as the supernova SN 1987A is), then the light from that star will take 168,000 years to get to earth. We observed that supernova in 1987, but the supernova itself actually took place (assuming, again, that the speed of light has remained constant) 168,000 years before 1987.
This principle applies to biology, geology, astronomy, you name it. Ironically, while most people who hold to it are secularists, uniformitarianism only makes sense in a world where God’s providence exists.  In fact, if it were not for God’s providence, the natural world would be chaotic and irregular. But because we know that God exists, we can assume that the created order is functional and regular and orderly. The laws that God has set in place, such as gravity, have been operating just as they ought to from the beginning of creation.
I must, at this point, make this very clear: God is free to break his own natural laws whenever he wants to. In no way does uniformitarianism deny the miraculous or the supernatural. The resurrection, the incarnation, the parting of the Red Sea, any miraculous event in Scripture did indeed take place just as described. Many liberal theologians and scientists have perverted this principle (and others) to rule out any occurrence of the supernatural; they are quite mistaken to do so, however.
Because of my interpretation of Genesis 1, I do not feel obligated by the text to believe that the earth and universe are only 6-10 thousand years old. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the earth and universe aren’t 6-10 thousand years old; only that the interpretation I propose does not render judgment either way.
3. What about evolution, Adam and Eve, and the flood?
The theory of evolution makes an even bigger mess than geology and astronomy. Biology, it seems, is much more difficult to understand than the other disciplines, at least, in my mind. I have decided to leave evolution alone, and let the scientists figure it out. From what I have read, however, the evidence is rather compelling; evolution is not simply a fairy-tale invented out of nothing. If you’d like to traverse the dangerous waters of trying to understand what it claims, I recommend Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True. Be warned: Coyne is a rather militant atheist; take what he says with a grain of salt, and ignore his attempts to disparage the Creator, and you should end up alright.
The biblical text mandates that I believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical people; I think there are good reasons, though, to believe that they were not necessarily the first humans on the planet, nor the parents of all of mankind. How that fits into Reformed theology, heck if I know. If you’d like to read up on what position I’m leaning toward at the moment, John Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve is a good place to start.
As for the flood, I do believe that it was also a literal, historical event; but again, I don’t think that the text indicates that it was global in scope. It was certainly large and catastrophic, covering quite a large area. Essentially, what I’ve boiled it down to is the meaning of the phrase “kol eretz,” which is traditionally translated as “the whole earth,” or “the whole land.” The question then becomes, to what land is the text referring? Would “eretz,” in this context, have been understood by the Israelites as referring to the whole globe? These are important questions. I am continuing to study this out. Pray for me as I do; it would be much appreciated.
This, I think, will suffice as a sort of “position paper” as to where I’m at on the origins spectrum. Please, don’t hesitate to consult the resources that I’ve provided below that further expand on certain topics. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below, and don’t be afraid to join the chat channel. 🙂
- Read the Enuma Elish here.
- An excellent article advocating a view similar to the framework hypothesis can be found here.
- Quotes and a definition concerning accommodation can be found here.
- An excellent blog series on the biblical basis for uniformitarianism can be found here.