When it comes to the many different interpretations of the first chapter of the Bible, well, “I’ve been everywhere man.” Born as a Young Earth Creationist, drifted towards an allegorical mildly evolutionary accommodating poetic understanding, then clung to a Hugh Ross style literalistic Day/Age view, but I never felt satisfied, neither theologically, nor scientifically.
Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about science, and even more about hermeneutics (the lens we look at Scripture with), and careful exegesis (what the text reveals line by line). I have found that the fundamentalist attitudes and methods used in much of the Young Earth interpretations fail to do justice to the depth of the Word of God itself and, more importantly, they look at the text anachronistically as they try to extrapolate ideas and teachings out of the text which simply are nonexistent to the original audience. Indeed, there is a failure here to even recognize what the Bible teaches about God’s work in history, “He has made everything appropriate in its time… yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
That said, I have found that the “accommodation” and “merely allegorical” views fail to do justice to the God breathed status of Scripture, and they simplistically dichotomize modern science and the Bible’s teachings which I find to be unbecoming a Christian interpreter. Furthermore, such views skip around texts that talk about, or certainly hint at, God’s design in creation (such as Psalm 104, Job, Romans 1) and dismiss them in a “hand-wave” fashion that does not take seriously the implications of such texts. Worse still, is their common (but not guaranteed) failure to recognize the current claims of modern science (or even worse their acceptance of such claims) that blatantly contradict crystal clear teachings of the entire Bible, including Jesus’ words, such as, and most importantly, the historicity of a literal Adam and Eve. Finally, I have become convinced, along with a growing number of religious and non-religious scientists, that the Neo-Darwinian account of the history of life on earth lacks the explanatory power to satisfy all the pertinent data, such as the complexity of cellular structures, the appearance of first life, the inability for survivability of major embryonic morphological change, and the apparent “top-down” taxonomy of higher forms in the fossil record to name just a few.1
So where does that leave me now? Enter Vern Poythress who is professor of New Testament and Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary and who also holds a PhD in mathematics from Harvard, this man can think carefully. Poythress holds an extremely high confessional view of Scripture and he is not afraid to throw some punches towards those Christians who do not appear to share that high view, “To the modern western interpreter, I want to pose the same question that Elijah posed: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” And if you choose to follow Baal—or his modern analogue in the form of philosophical materialism, a mechanistic conception of scientific law, or a modern pantheism or postmodernism, to which might be added some source for ethical principles—you should just be done with the Bible as a religious authority.”2 Some people may find such rather harsh rhetoric off-putting, but can you picture Jesus saying something similar? If you can’t, you and I have been reading about two different Jesus’. Rhetoric in creation conversation can be a very bad thing (I think it most often is on the YEC side), but I believe that is only the case because people are setting their sights on the wrong targets. Instead of considering the reasons for a certain interpretation, they immediately assume that God wouldn’t have said that, or done such a thing, and off they go. Poythress shows great wisdom in knowing where to take aim, are you under the authority of God’s Word or not? If not, be ready for the rhetoric, it’s all over the Scriptures and if it is not at all within us, we ought to be conformed a bit more to the Word.
So what are we to do with modern science and the Word? Poythress is helpful here in drawing on an example from the past, “Copernican theory has stimulated people to ask fresh questions about the Bible. But if all goes well, the resulting answer about the meaning of the passages is one that could have been seen by asking questions even with no knowledge of Copernican theory. The real turning point in interpretive understanding comes not from Nicholas Copernicus but from observing the kind of text and genre that we have in the Psalms.”3 Well then, if we have learned anything from the history revolving around the Copernican Conflict, we know that fresh questions for the text are okay and can actually improve our understanding of what the text actually says, but, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we must always remember “not to approach Scripture saying ‘but it can’t mean that’ — whatever ‘that’ might be. It can. It can mean whatever God has written it to mean.”4 Christian, never forget what God has declared, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
So then, one of the most important lessons we learned from Copernicus is to determine what genre of literature we are dealing with, and, as C. John Collins has argued, Genesis 1 is “exalted prose narrative.”5 Most importantly, that means that it is historical. This is pretty obvious to anyone who takes seriously Romans 5, Matt. 19, Luke 3, I Cor. 15, and Acts 17. The NT, as our religious authority, must guide our interpretation of the OT (also our religious authority, I am not dichotomizing the two), and without fail, the events in Genesis 1-3 are treated historically. If we fail to submit to that, then Baal is always willing to accept our devotion.6
Now, once we establish Genesis 1 as historical we are ready to see just what is being said, or more specifically, what are we to think about the nature of the “days” therewith in? There are many factors that should be considered in relation to these days, but for the purpose of this short article, I will be focusing on what the days are referring to, time or work? But wait? We are talking about a day, are we not? Surely it must be referring to a length of time, right? Yes and no. The analogical interpretation has no problem with time being a factor within the days, yet, it will be argued, that work is the focus.
As we approach Genesis 1, we must consider just how foreign the text really is. We are modern Westerners approaching an ancient Near East text. It is impossible to fully remove ourselves from our own modern assumptions of what an ancient and foreign author must be doing, but we must try to let the text, and the whole of Scripture, speak for itself. Psalm 104:23 (the classic Creation Psalm), states that, “Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening.” This is how the ancient Israelites viewed a day, not necessarily as a certain number of hours, but as a time for work. In the evening, man ceases from his labor, until the next day. As we see in Exodus 20:8-11, this pattern of work and rest, which is given to Israel, is analogous to the pattern of work and rest that God performed during creation. In fact, the whole of Genesis 1-3 opens up to us when we understand that what is being described is analogical in relation to human experience. For instance, the often, so-called, “problematic text” of Genesis 1:6-8 quickly becomes understandable as “we realize that it works with analogies between creation and our present experience of God’s providence in bringing rain.”7
Now, as we start to see the relationship between what the text is saying and our human experience, especially ancient Near East experience, we see the realignment of our perspectives on the text start to change. As Poythress says, “God certainly assures us that the six days of creation were like ours in salient ways. But what counts as most important? Is it the seconds on a clock, or is it our activities and our interactions with other people and with the world of plants and animals? It depends on our point of view.”8 We cannot force our modern focus on time keeping as the primary means of measuring the day, when it is just as possible, if not more probable, that those in the ancient Near East would have had a primary focus on work and rest over against the oscillation of light and darkness.9
Indeed, in the first chapter of the Bible, we have the revelation of the personal creator God, revealing his workmanship to not just the ancient Israelites, but eventually to the entire world through the church. Here is the personal God, the speaking God, revealing his personal work. What fits with this description better? An over focus on cosmic light and darkness, or a personal emphasis on creative work and rest which happened between those periods of evening and morning?10 Furthermore, there are a number of difficulties associated with saying that a specific rhythm of time is the focus of Genesis 1’s days. Indeed, to mention only one such difficulty, there is no exact mention of the length of time that had actually transpired and the second that we try to correlate our timekeeping methods on the text, such as a modern stop watch tracking the time, we are inserting something foreign into the text.
As Poythress observes, “Because of this uncertainty, the point of the narrative cannot be to inform us about the length of each day in relation to a particular technical timekeeping apparatus. The point must be something else. That something else concerns the activity of God the Creator. His activity comes in cycles of work and rest. That is fundamental within the narrative of Genesis 1. Within the point of view used in Genesis 1, a day is first of all—in terms of prominence—this cycle of work and rest.”11 I certainly think that a cycle of work and rest as being the referent of a day is fully warranted and can be derived completely from within the Scriptures. In fact, with such an interpretation, it is the Scriptures that are realigning our modern perspectives and biases, not the other way around.
Could this analogical interpretation be incorrect? Surely. However, as someone who has engaged and embraced a variety of interpretations, I find this realignment of a work and rest focus to be the most dynamically faithful, first and foremost to Scripture, and secondly, but not unimportantly, to God’s natural revelation. As we observe the modern scientific explanations of the history of earth, and when we remember that, “Genesis 1 tells its narrative from the perspective of what a human observer would see from the earth. It does not start with the Milky Way Galaxy, but with earth. It is, in a certain respect, earth-centered. But that is a valid perspective.”12 Then, if we take even a small humble step backward not demanding our desired exactitude, we really can see the amazing overlap between the first chapter of the Bible and the modern scientific understanding of things: A water covered world surrounded by obscuring atmospheric darkness, the emergence of light, the emergence of land, explosive and dynamic life found in the oceans, the emergence of plant life, the dramatic arrival of land animals which reproduce after their own kinds, and finally, the appearance of man.
Christians must not exaggerate claims of “scientific proofs” found in the Bible, as is so often done, yet we need not shy away from the fact that, overall, the two portrayals carry much overlap. Yet, we must not hide from the fact that the current scientific consensus is at odds with the Biblical depiction at critical creational areas. Should we be frightened by such a reality? Or, perhaps we should merely accommodate our traditional understandings in light of every modern scientific claim? I agree with Hans Madueme who states, “I find this naïve for at least two reasons. First, the eyes of faith should not be surprised if there are periods in church history when central Christian doctrines seem highly implausible to the world. No believer should be surprised or alarmed at such realities. They have appeared in the past and will continue to appear; aspects of modern science are only one of many such challenges, though perhaps the most compelling in recent memory.”13 This willingness to be “against the world” is a part of Christian discipleship. Too often we fail to see that “We’ve become all too willing to believe metaphysical pronouncements based on scientific results. ‘Scientifically proven’ is our new ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”14 Which authority shall we live under? Whose word shall have our ultimate trust? What does Christ, the eternal Son of God, the way, the truth, the life, the Living One, what does he demand of us? I think that answer is simple, and yet…
I recall being a silent part of a conversation where a Young Earth seminary graduate stated that the Old Earth view was just “too complicated.” To his credit he had engaged with the view, (albeit within a declared Young Earth seminary) but he found the Young Earth interpretations “just so simple” and therefore embraced those interpretations. I personally do not believe that such thinking adequately appreciates the dynamic nature of the Word of the living God. We should approach the Scriptures with complete obedience, and that includes a willingness to approach them with all our mind’s strength and intellectual rigor. If they only affirm simple interpretations then so be it, but let us not think that they must only be simple, we dare not limit what our God could have done aside from his own declarations. Often, when we dig just a bit deeper, when we are willing to wrestle in the waters of Scripture’s God-breathed depths, oh what lofty heights do we find! May we be able to say with Augustine, “What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing. To concentrate on it is to experience awe—the awe of adoration before its transcendence and the trembling of love.”15
- For those interested in the lack of Neo-Darwinian explanatory power, I’d suggest: Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique for a comprehensive analysis of all topics, or Darwin’s Doubt for a thorough look at the fossil record and Darwin’s biggest doubt, or Signature in the Cell for the cellular complexity, or Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False for an Atheist’s view point.
- Vern S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 46-50
- Ibid. 58; emphasis mine
- Kristen Brikett, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Edited by: D.A. Carson, Chapter 30: Science and Scripture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 985; emphasis original
- C. John Collins, “Response from the Old-Earth View,” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, ed. Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 74; also 248 ; sourced from: J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017), 787
- Those who try to appeal to Genesis 1 as merely a poetic “Song of Creation”, as Tim Keller has done, (I followed him there for a while), absolutely fail to recognize that despite the overwhelming number of interpretations, the majority of scholars are in agreement that Genesis 1 maybe in the form of poetic prose, but it is also historical narrative. Furthermore, a poem is found within Genesis 1, which makes it hard to believe the entire chapter is merely a poem.
- Poythress, Interpreting Eden, 174
- Ibid. 227
- Ibid. 226
- Ibid. 226-29
- Ibid. 227-28
- Ibid. 243
- Hans Madueme, Some Reflections on Enns and the Evolution of Adam, http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/some-reflections-on-enns-and-the-evolution-of-adam-a-review-essay#_ftn20 ; Section # 3 Natural Science and Historical Criticism, accessed: 12/30/19
- Mitch Stokes, How to be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 143
- Saint Augustine, Confessions: A new translation by Henry Chadwick, (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 2008), 254