This coming semester I will be teaching my Faith and Science course at Steinbach Bible College for the fourth time. (If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to come and audit the course.) In preparation for it, I have been rethinking a number of things after reading some good and not so good books on the topic and I want to use this blog as an aid for me to sort out my thoughts. Any comments or questions you might have on the content of this and subsequent posts will be very appreciated. Iron sharpens iron after all.
I’m not sure exactly where these blogs will take me, but I would like to start by exploring what the Bible actually says about beginnings; so we will start with exegesis. Once we start to delve into what the Bible says about beginnings, we will discover that it’s more than we think in some ways, and not as much as we think in others.
We are going to begin at the beginning in Genesis 1-2:3. I’ll talk about the division of Genesis 1-2 and its significance at a later time. But before we can get into the text we have to ask a simple question, with a complicated answer – what is it? This is a question of genre (literary type or style). The answer to this question will be a significant key to interpreting and applying the passage. In fact it is a key question in interpreting ANY text or form of communication. C.S. Lewis says it this way, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.”
So what is Genesis 1:1-2:3 and how should it be used? Is it chronological history? Is it myth? Is it scientific review? Is it part of a redemptive historical story? Is it polemic / apologetic? Is it concerned primarily with building a worldview? Is it some combination of some or all of these?
To best answer this question, we need to set these verses in the greater context within which it is found, namely Genesis 1-11. We don’t have the space to go through all of these chapters, but we can say this about them: they set the stage for God’s calling of Abram into covenantal relationship. The are introductory material to the redemptive story of Scripture. John Collins reminds us that in these chapters we learn a number of key things:
we learn of the one God who made everything there is (Gen. 1:1-2:3), and who had a special plan for mankind (Gen. 2:4- 25). Mankind fell into sin (Genesis 3), and then began to disperse over the earth (Genesis 4-5). The stories of the flood (Genesis 6-9) and of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) are similar: all mankind are accountable to the same God, the very one who made the world and mankind; and with such power no one can stop him from bringing about his righteous judgment. But all mankind are his—so the plan for Abram looks forward to restoring all mankind to a right standing with God.
Is Genesis 1:1-2:3 historical?
So when we speak about Genesis 1-2:3 we are speaking about chapters that are a part of this greater story. So this means that Genesis is only partly a cosmogony (a story about how the universe came to be). But is it a historical account? Well, it all depends on what you mean by “historical”.
If you mean – the Genesis account tells you its events in just the order in which they happened, or that it’s a complete record, or that there are no figurative elements in it – then, no, Genesis 1-2 is not history.
But, if you mean – the things that happened in the past – then, yes, Genesis 1-2 is historical. Scripture speaks about the origin of things and of historical matters. It starts the story of redemption and explains why things are the way they are. The beginning of Genesis does not present myth, saga or poetry but history from the unique perspective of redemptive history which conveys theological truths upon which later Scripture is based.
Does Genesis 1-2:3 give us a chronology?
The short answer is, yes. This is the result of the narrative form (genre) that is being used by Moses. This form describes events in sequential order, as is evidenced by the 6 days with evenings and mornings. BUT at this point we must decide whether the narrative is chronological or whether creation was. Or to put it differently, did the author narrate in chronological sequence for logical or theological reasons, rather than scientific ones? Let’s take day 5 as an example. Collins asks, “day five includes the great se creatures – is it possible that they are there for logic reasons (grouping with other things that live in the water)? Again, if you define history as the second option above there is on issue between history and narrative chronology. But if you define history according to option one above, you’ve got a big problem.
One of the key ways to answer this question will come later when we examine the “evening and morning” formula. For now we must note that this is a very unusual way of referencing the daytime, since the evening and morning refers to the night. This may be an indication that the author is using narrative chronology to describe creation rather than referring to actual creational chronology.
Is Genesis 1:2-3 a “scientific” account of creation?
Once again we have to define our terms. (cf. Collins)
If, by “scientific account” you mean – “suited to the purposes for which today’s [or any other day’s] scientists might want to use the information,” then we must, of course, answer “no”.
But, if by “scientific account” you mean – “true,” or even “superior to ordinary language,” – then of course we want to say “yes”, Genesis 1:1-2:3 is a scientific account of creation.
Let’s explore why we must make this distinction. The first point is so obvious that it is most often the one missed. Moses did not write to 21st century Christians who live in a culture of scientism. He wrote to a wandering people who came from a nation (Egypt) with a cosmogony and mingled with other nations with cosmogonies and thus the issues that Genesis 1-2:3 are going to deal with are going to be the ones related to that context. The present day scientist and modern day interpreters need to be aware of this reality. John Calvin gives us wisdom here:
To my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here [in Genesis] treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere… Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.
Here are some contextual reasons why Genesis 1:1-2:3 should not be viewed as a “scientific” account of origins as per the first understanding of the term above:
- It paints with broad strokes (cf. Collins) – except for the male and the female, no single species of plant or animal receives a proper name. We find no details about how the earth brought forth vegetation, or how the animals appeared in their different environments. When it mentions plants and animals, it certainly does not use the kind of taxonomy that we’re used to: the land animals, for instance, are grouped according to their relationship to a peasant farmer. The categories in 1:24 are “livestock” (animals that man can tame and put to work, such as sheep, goats, cattle, camels), “creeping things” (small creepy-crawlies such as mice, lizards, and spiders), and “beasts of the earth” (larger wild animals). The account describes things with suggestive terms, such as the “greater light” and the “lesser light” (strange names for the sun and moon, for which there were ordinary words in Hebrew).
- The author uses ordinary language that suits his purposes – Remember God is speaking to a wandering nation of former slaves, he is not speaking to scientists at a convention in 2016. He is describing things in ways they understand as he sets up the covenantal relationship between him and Adam and then Abram. He is speaking to them so that they understand their place in redemptive history.
- The author speaks within HIS context – The Egyptians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, all had a cosmogony and they all would have been known, at some level by the Israelites. Each of them tells a very different story regarding origins, humanity, the gods and redemption. Given this reality we must see Genesis 1:1-2:3 (and beyond) as polemical cosmogony. It is polemical in that it argues against these other cosmogonies and it is a cosmogony because it explains to Israel, and to us the truth – not a theory – concerning the coming into existence or origin of the universe, and it tells about how reality came to be and further why it is as it is. It offers Israel the true worldview among a plethora of contrary and false worldviews.
We must realize the danger of misunderstanding these chapters of Genesis and asking the text wrong (read present day scientific) questions. Often we ask these verses to speak to historical or scientific questions that it was never intended to answer. Doing this brutalizes the text! These verses don’t speak to the issue of the age of our universe or earth (millions or thousands of years old). In fact none of Scripture does. Nor do these verses speak to how (by what process) God created the universe and the world. In fact, none of Scripture does. Nor do these verses speak to the manner in which God brought forth life and various species. We are simply told that when God spoke stuff came into being.
The first 3 chapters of Genesis as a unit speak instead to deeper, and frankly more important questions; questions of cosmogony, that reveal to us the nature of God’s character and his relationship to his work of creation. It puts us as human beings in our place as the creature and not the Creator, as the subordinate and not the ruler, and as such lays out for us very clearly how we need to respond to being in such a position.
So how does Genesis 1:1-2:3 speak to us in our context? We will explore the answer to this question in greater detail as we move along, but at this point we can make some general observations. We must be faithful to the biblical text as we seek bring it forward into the 21st century. We cannot brutalize the text, making it say things and speak to things that it was never intended to address. What we need to do is use the text as it was intended by Moses and God to be used. When we do this we realize that Genesis 1:1-2:3 actually says a lot. It provides us with a foundation for science and philosophy (including metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, etc.). It provides us with the proper way to view our world (worldview) and the proper way in which we must interact with our world. It tells us that objective truth is there. Reality reveals the truth which can be discovered by us. Our world is rich in truth and we can know that truth. Our intelligence is a gift to be used to be the vice-regent of this earth and to glorify God. Most importantly, it tells us that a good and wise God made the world for us to explore, work and enjoy. In fact, he has commanded us to do these things.
Soli Deo Gloria