The Genesis Debate

A Plea for Sanity

August 18, 2014Filed under theologyMarkdown source

A brief note on the title: I unabashedly stole it from D.A. Carson’s very helpful little book, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea For Realism, which is a good read and has a title I thought apropos. Now: on to the post’s business!


Clarifying Remarks

The point of this post

I want you to walk away persuaded that there is room for a (much) wider degree of disagreement on the age of the earth and the details of creation than many evangelical and fundamentalist leaders sometimes assert—and indeed, that this has been the case historically.

I am not particularly interested in persuading you that my particular view of the age of the earth is correct, or indeed that you ought to change your views at all. I just want you to walk away with an appreciation for the points to consider on the topic, and hopefully encouraged about the open door for future development of Christian thought on this complex and interesting issue.

My take

Let me get a few things out of the way, right up front—I want you to know where I am coming from:

  1. I believe the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, and that when we read the Bible we are actually reading God’s word. As such, I affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. I do not necessarily affirm anyone’s favorite articulation of that important doctrine.12
  2. I am an old-earth creationist. I affirm that the universe is most likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 billion years old, that the earth formed about 5 billion years ago, and that there is an enormous well of geological history from which there actually are things Christians can learn.3
  3. I do not in principle have an issue with God having used nearly any means to bring about the present biological state of the world we observe.
  4. I believe that Adam and Eve really did commit original sin, leading all of humanity into the bondage from which Jesus Christ delivered us in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
  5. I do not see these position as inherently contradictory—though many of my friends, peers, and even pastors disagree.
  6. I think that Christians run two serious risks in this area: capitulating to the assertions of a world that we know to be hostile to the things of God, and rejecting real God-given knowledge and wisdom in ways that unnecessarily compromise our witness and cause us to miss out on things God wanted us to know about himself and his world. While the former of these risks is indeed more serious, ignoring the second risk puts us in hot water quite regularly as well.

Now, onto the meat of the post!

The Boundaries

This discussion is complicated by several major issues. First, readings of Genesis 1–11 have been enormously varied over the history of the church. Second, the narratives directly intersect with scientific data in ways that much of the rest of the Scriptures do not. Closely related to this is a third point: the complexity of the essential texts themselves.

History

On this first bit: suffice it to say that the church’s view of the days of creation has been extremely varied over the last two thousand years. It is common today to hear evangelical leaders (notably including but not limited to Al Mohler and Ken Ham) suggesting that denial of six 24-hour days of creation is tantamount to a denial of the inerrancy of Scripture. In the history of the church, such a position is novel, to say the least. In addition to the oft-cited Augustine quote on the matter, countless others have affirmed non-24-hour day views.4 Importantly, this number includes such modern luminaries as B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen—no wobbly-kneed capitulators to modernism or feeble falterers on inerrancy they, but both affirmed the “day-age” view of the days of creation, not six 24-hour days.5

To be sure, simply pointing to authorities’ takes on the position does not tell us what Scripture teaches (and indeed to do so is to commit the fallacy of argument from authority!), but it should provide us with a degree of caution in making pronouncements about the bounds of orthodox opinion. More, it ought to give us pause when we start to identify our own interpretations with the bounds of orthodoxy or even the bounds of inerrancy. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that those who have gone before us were mistaken (as indeed I think some of them were). It is something else entirely to suggest that they were not only mistaken but were all of them somehow rejecting the inerrancy or authority of Scripture simply because their positions do not accord with our own. In particular, when Warfield and Machen affirm an old earth, we would do well to recognize that any interpretation of inerrancy which excludes dogmatically an old earth is inherently problematic.

Note well: I am not making here any comment at all on what the age of the earth is, nor even on whether we should or should not affirm an old earth view is within the bounds allowed by Scripture. I am simply calling for a dose of humility in the face of the reality of centuries of witness that differ from the line taken by many evangelicals and fundamentalists today.

Scripture and Science

There are only a few areas in which the things the Bible says intersect directly with the findings of natural science. This is one of them. To be sure, there are many ways in which God’s revelation informs (or at least, should inform!) Christians’ view of the world around us and the value of scientific undertakings. Moreover, our affirmation of a supernatural character to the world means we will reject certain ideologies—hard naturalism is simply an untenable stance for us. That being said, though, the early chapters of Genesis are one of the only places in Scripture where the natural sciences and the Bible speak directly to the same issues.

In Genesis, we have an account of the creation of the world and the origin of humankind. The natural sciences6 also give us an account of the creation of the world and the origin of humankind. Whether the two do or can be made to agree is one of the major points of contention not only among Christians but also between many secularists and believers: simply witness the barbed critiques of Christianity at the hands of the New Atheists over the last decade, many of them aimed directly at this point.

In most conflict-ridden areas of our lives and public witness, Christians stand opposed to the moral positions of the world around us. In this area, we stand at least potentially in opposition to an quite different aspect of the world: the pursuit of natural knowledge. True: all orthodox Christians grant that the human mind is in some ways “fallen” and therefore unable to properly apprehend all truth. At the same time, we also affirm that even the fallen mind is the mind of a being made imago dei and situated in a world made rationally by a wise God. We believe that we see in the “book of nature” the handiwork of our creator, and in our own minds the apex of that creation. We affirm that there is a great body of knowledge available to all human beings, that our minds still allow us to understand the world around us rightly even if incompletely.

More than that, we believe that it is precisely because of God’s handiwork on display that all humans stand accountable before him; Paul reminds us that we are all without excuse because creation itself points to the existence of God.

We therefore ought to hesitate before suggesting that the many scientists who have read th book of nature to suggest an old earth are simply victims of the fall. It is one thing to suggest that the evidence can be misread: of course this is so. It is something else to suggest that nearly all astronomers and geologists, Christian and non-Christian alike, are simply deluded. This is an incredibly strong claim, and the evidence is on those who would advance it to back it up—not simply to assert it.

The reality is that we face an area of tension here. The most straightforward reading of Genesis 1–11 is that of a young Earth which was covered in a worldwide flood. The most straightforward reading of the natural record is of an ancient Earth scarred by many catastrophes (but not, as near as we can tell, a global flood). These two readings stand in tension with each other. It is easiest to collapse the tension one way or the other: to dismiss modern science as a dangerous delusion, or to dismiss the early chapters of Genesis as mere mythology. I think both of these are missteps, and both fail to do justice to the seriousness which the topic deserves.

Public Witness

One corollary of this is that our stance on the relationship between science and Scripture impinges on our public witness in unique ways. When as believers we suggest that all of modern science’s readings of the book of nature are delusional, we are doing more than critiquing the findings of that science. We are speaking of those who conduct the science. The timbre of much discussion of non-young-earth views among evangelicals and fundamentalists is one of implicit or explicit suspicion that “those secularists” are waging a war against the truth. I heartily affirm that there really are spiritual forces at work opposing the truth of God—both internal and external to human nature itself. That being said, perhaps we ought to be careful when asserting that the only reason someone might disagree with our reading of Genesis 1–11 is Satanic delusion.

We unnecessarily hinder our witness when we make disagreement on this point a matter of conspiracy or willful opposition to the truth. Whether the young-earth creationist is right or wrong, the assumption that those who disagree with him are conspirators or blinded by lies is astoundingly arrogant. It leaves no room whatsoever for the notion that one might actually be wrong. It is far more profitable to grapple with the tensions in our positions, whatever those positions may be.7 Failing to do unnecessarily leaves us without any credibility at all.

Let me be clear: I am willing to be taken as non-credible by the world around me. Wherever Scripture demands that we stand against the world, I will do so. My question is simply this: Does Scripture demand that here? Or is it simply my interpretation that demands it? If the latter, it behooves me to offer others a more charitable interpretation.8 Perhaps they are not hostile conspirators or pitiably deluded fools after all.

As a friend of mine (who characterizes himself as ‘an empirical agnostic atheist’) put it some months ago:

I would have a lot more respect for that group [Ken Ham and Anwers in Genesis] if they could just say “we believe that Earth is only a few thousand years old, and we recognize that our current scientific understanding strongly indicates otherwise, but at this time we just can’t reconcile the discrepancy” instead of “secularist have hijacked science to mislead you into thinking Earth is older than it actually is.”9

He is right: it takes a great deal more humility to say, “Look, I recognize the trouble with my position, and I hold it nonetheless” than to say, “There is no trouble with my position!” in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We can facilely pretend that any opposition we receive is simply the result of our faithfulness to the truth—or we can recognize that sometimes, we earn hostility from the world because of our own lack of charity and superciliousness.

(For the record, that has been me, too many times to count. I am not pointing my finger at young-earth creationists here; I am pointing it right at the man in the mirror. I have alienated my fair share and then some of non-Christians by my intransigence and my accusatory attitude. God forgive me.)

The old earth creationist has to face up to the fact that his reading of the Bible is less natural than the young earth creationist’s. The young earth creationist has to face up to the fact that her reading of the world is less natural than that of the old earth creationist’s. Can we not simply be so honest as to admit as much? All of our positions have weaknesses. One of them is right (or at least, more right), and we can hold them confidently and even boldly—but we do not need to assume that those with whom we differ are either the victims or the perpetrators of some conspiracy to hide the real truth.10

Textual Issues

The crux of this issue in many ways is what exactly the text says in Genesis. On this, I want again to suggest not that you embrace my particular interpretation but that you recognize the need for humility in dealing with the particular passages in question.

It is common among young-earth creationists to assert that the days of Genesis 1 are obviously meant to be taken as literal 24-hour days. Those holding this view point to the use of the Hebrew word yom translated “day” here. The word most commonly refers to 24-hour days, and all but one other time when put in context with the words for “evening” and “morning” which punctuate the text in Genesis (“and there was evening, and there was morning, the first day…”) certainly refer to such a span.

However, there are a number of reasons why we should be cautious in making such an assertion with any degree of dogmatism. First, the very first time yom appears after this is Genesis 2:4, where it very certainly does not refer to a 24-hour period. Second, the days certainly were not all solar days if we take the passage at face value. (This is not to say they were not 24 hours long, only that the first three were apparently not solar days per the straightforward reading of the text.)

Third, and most important, is the question of genre. There is a clear and distinct shift in language between the elevated prose of Genesis 1 and the more normal historical narrative language of Genesis 2 and following.11 The first chapter is not poetry, but it makes heavy use of standard Hebrew poetic devices, especially repetition, in ways that set it off from what follows. The clear shift between the two should caution us

Conclusion

There is a lot of room for disagreement on the specifics of this issue. While there are some lines we should not cross, those lines are much broader than some evangelical and fundamentalist leaders often suggest. One can be a thoroughgoing evangelical with a deep commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and believe the earth old and even—dare I say it—that God used gradual means to bring about the biological diversity of the planet.12 Whether affirming the Framework Hypothesis, a functional account of origins interpretation, a preparation of the land view, a day-age view, or with the Fathers yet other readings, there are many legitimate ways of reading Genesis 1 apart from literal 24-hour days, and all of them within the bounds not only of orthodoxy but also of the affirmation of inerrancy.13


  1. I also do not think that one must affirm inerrancy to be a healthy Christian—though I do think it is quite helpful and important, I do not think it is essential for salvation or indeed for a great deal of sanctification.

  2. In particular, I have not spent enough time thinking carefully about the ramifications of e.g. the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy to know whether I can affirm it meticulously.

  3. For those of you “in the know” I basically take John Sailhamer’s “preparation of the land” view of Genesis 1.

  4. If you want a detailed exploration of the history of the church’s intepretation of the creation account in particular for its first millennium and a half, see Robert Letham, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” WTS 61:2 (1999) 149–174.

  5. Warfield helped formulate our modern explications of the doctrine, and Machen was one of its firmest defenders in the modernist controversy that embroiled the American denominations early in the 20th century; he quite literally stands at the head of the fundamentalist tradition that spanned the 20th century.

  6. And particularly, what used to be called “natural history,” as my friend Vernon King pointed out in a recent conversation.

  7. For my part, I have to deal with the fact that the most straightforward reading is not the old-earth reading of the text, and especially with the difficulty of reading something besides an actually global flood in the Flood narrative. I fully grant that this is the weakness of my position.

  8. More on this below in the Textual Issues section below.

  9. Private correspondence with Jerrad Genson, February 12, 2014.

  10. And yes: here I am calling out Ken Ham a bit. Every time he and his fellow travelers assert that the evidence obviously points to a young earth and a global flood, they are being remarkably uncharitable to anyone who disagrees with them—and remarkably arrogant.

  11. Note: this still very much leaves the old-earth creationist with problems with the Flood and Noah’s Ark, which are part of the latter, historical section. It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw a strong line between the literary character of Genesis 2–11 and that of Genesis 12ff.

  12. A final aside, with every intent to be provocative: consider that given the physical limitations of the ark Noah built, God certainly had to engage in a massive program of theistic evolution to repopulate the earth after a global flood. See here for an example of the sort of evasion of the issue that goes on at Answers in Genesis dealing with precisely this issue. This is the worst sort of hair-splitting. Again: we should have the intellectual integrity to admit the weaknesses of our positions.

  13. On Michael Gungor, who sparked this whole discussion this time around— To be clear, I think Michael Gungor is mistaken about Genesis 1–11. I think a mythologizing reading of those chapters is textually misguided and spiritually unhelpful. But I also think that he might have landed in a position more like the one I embrace—a position that affirms both the inerrancy of Scripture and an old earth—if such an option had been presented to him coherently, rather than ruled out by young earth creationists as just as heretical and dangerous as the mythological view. I do not think Michael Gungor is a heretic; I simply think he is wrong on this in ways that may set his feet on an unhelpful trajectory—and I hope that he might have conversations with folks who can help him come to reconcile the inerrancy of Scripture with an old earth.