Recent polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center find that four out of 10 Americans believe that the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3 are to be read quite literally. In fact, it is safe to say that a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis is a central tenet for most conservative Christianity. This was the case in my experience but no one in my background taught me what St. Augustine said about reading such texts about creation or how theories of literature actually work in terms of certain kinds of texts and how we should read them. I thus went through several phases in my journey through the minefield of questions that touch on origins and the biblical narrative.
More recently a growing number of conservative both biblical and scientific scholars are saying publicly that they can no longer believe the Genesis account, at least not literally. When asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, recently replied: "That would be against all the genomic evidence that we've assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all."
This kind of statement would have shocked me even ten years ago. I am not only not shocked by it now but I am listening with increasing interest to the debate itself. The reasons for listening are numerous but the basic one comes down to the biblical text itself. Science has spoken. But have we understood the Bible correctly? Some believe any compromise here means that we will necessarily give up the gospel there. But how are we meant to understand this “story” of Genesis about the first two human persons? How should we understand their creation and their fall? I very much believe in creation, fall and redemption. I am just not so sure the model we have assumed from a strictly literal reading of Genesis is right. We have been wrong before about how we’ve read science and the Bible. Are we wrong again? I am not sure but like I said, I remain an inquirer who is open to learning and thinking. I know, however that this stance will invite criticism. That I cannot stop even I actually wanted to do so.
This growing debate was recently featured on NPR. If you want to listen to this engaging dialog you can hear it online. My friend John Schneider, a professor of Bible for 25 years at Calvin College, was directly impacted by this debate as reported in the NPR story. There is one thing I feel rather strongly about – how you read the creation story is not a matter of orthodoxy in the end. After all, Church Fathers were not one in their reading and this ought to at least suggest we might be wrong in our dogmatic assumptions about a monochrome way of understanding the Genesis account. Science and the Scriptures are not foes. The question remains: “How do we read the Bible faithfully and continue to listen to science at the same time?”
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You asked four questions.
” But how are we meant to understand this “story” of Genesis about the first two human persons?
How should we understand their creation and their fall?
I very much believe in creation, fall and redemption. “Are we wrong again?
“How do we read the Bible faithfully and continue to listen to science at the same time?”
Here are my four questions, were there “two human persons? Was there an Adam and Eve? You believe in the “fall”, so were the people who were in the “fall” not Adam and Eve? Is the “transgression of Adam” the same as the fall of Adam?
Well said, John. Science and scripture itself are not at odds, if both are approached on their own terms. But many conflicts arise when we approach the ancient biblical texts on our own terms and with our own agenda. I just finished reading The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith and highly recommend it to anyone struggling with this. Smith doesn’t deal directly with the historicity of Genesis 1-3. Instead he explains and deconstructs the (usually unstated) assumptions that evangelicals make when we read Scripture. Those assumptions not only obscure the true purpose of the Bible (which is to witness to Christ) but they also create many unnecessary divisions in the church.
Thank you for the encouragement to listen to the various points of view. Please note, however, the somewhat ironic nature of Venema’s comment: “That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.” So, we are to leverage [only] 20 years of genomic research — that has not been tested by much time yet — to determine that a plain reading of Scripture — that has generally prevailed for thousands of years of theological thought — is incorrect? A call to circumspection on these topics is healthy. However, as you have intimated, recent scientific inquiry should only inform how we evaluate, not be considered authoritative for coming to conclusions. Perhaps this is what Venema meant, since scientifically and probabalistically, “not likely at all” leaves plenty of room for something to still be true, otherwise, the notion at the very core of evolution — beneficial mutation — is so improbable that we should not even entertain the musings and research of “scientists”. So, we can grant that recent research might give us pause to wonder about whether (and how) God did what He said He did, but we must not succumb to rejecting biblical teachings just because we haven’t yet seen how it might fit into our current views. The God of the impossible is still at work. Thank you for encouraging us to reflect on His creative works.
I would also like to remind us that Genesis is not the only place that the Bible speaks of Adam and Eve and creation. So, we ought not isolate the Gen 1-3 text when considering what God has said on the matter. In Hosea and elsewhere we find references that seem to jibe with ‘literal’ readings of Genesis. (as we know, ‘literal’ is a tricky term.) Most notably, I would need a lot of help to understand what Paul was thinking — other than a literal garden, Adam, etc. — when he said in Romans 5: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—”. Likewise, to favor [still evolving] “genomic evidence” over 1 Corinthians , Luke, Jude, and especially 1 Timothy (“For Adam was formed first, then Eve”) will need some very compelling hermeneutics. I remain excited about comparing scientific research with exegesis. I remain convinced that in God’s wondrous universe, they harmonize well — eventually.
All these comments are helpful and resonate with my questions. Joe has summarized the real issue very, very well. In the end the issue here is not the particular hermeneutic that we use to read Genesis but rather the real purpose and intent of the author and the narrative that he (and the Holy Spirit) gave to us. The intent of Scripture is to bear witness to Christ so that we have, by the Spirit’s work, faith in Him.
I suppose the debate will center around whether there is a single couple, specifically Adam and Eve in the most literal sense, who were formed as such at some specific point in human history. I have always believed this to be true but I have been reading Genesis differently and though I am not persuaded I am certainly open to a different understanding of the purpose and meaning of the text at this point. I am sure that I was taught that to be orthodox we must read Genesis as if it was a modern newspaper account. I am sure now that it is not. This opens to door to not defending one reading as science challenges this or that. I also agree with Duncan that we need time, much more time, to see what stands or falls in terms of science. It is, by all admission, discovering how to read data every day. What all this means is that we do not need to be at constant war or live in fear that science and the Bible will remain locked in total conflict for centuries to come.
I suspect there will be many defections from Evangelicals in the future on a supposed “Literal reading” of the book of Genesis. Whether we like to admit it or not, science rules today within Evngelical hermeneutics. A scientific hermeneutic whether from a conservative literal approach or a liberal metaphorical approach takes precedence today.
What this means is science is what gives meaning and authority to Scripture. Science determnines what is cultural or transcultural. Science determines what is normative or not normative. I don’t think we have even begun to see the implications of what respectable, academic, scientifically informed scholarship has done or will do to the Bible in the future.
While I agree with you on the one hand on another I could not disagree more. The Bible will stand on its own without our defense against any new scientific discovery so long as we are looking for Jesus in the Word and not trying to nail down every single item we disagree about in our respective groups. So long as we can affirm classical Christianity and core orthodoxy, all of which predates the rise of modern science, we will be fine. But there will be much shaking of the foundations. Like the earthquakes of yesterday these will grow and there will be more of them as you suggest.
I agree wholeheartedly that the Bible is meant to witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Sometimes I forget this basic, crucial fact because I get so concerned with the minutia of Scripture that I miss the big picture.
I was thinking about this a lot after the post the other day about the Rapture. Because I hold to such a literal hermeneutic in my approach to the Bible, it drives me to want to know with certainty things that are not always so clear.
Perhaps the point of Genesis is not so much about whether it was a literal six day period (although I believe it was), but about the fact that God is the Creator. As verse 1 says, “In the beginning God.” I suppose the same could be said about the Rapture. Is it so important for me to know when and how it will occur? Maybe not. Perhaps the intent of the authors was not to give those kinds of details but to prepare people for the fact of Jesus’ return and to be ready for it by putting their faith in Him.
I guess these are things to ponder and to ask God for wisdom and grace in working through them.
PS – Joe, good to see you out here.
Augustine actually read Genesis several different ways over the course of his life, ranging from metaphorical to literal six days. I personally cannot see any way to avoid reading it as a six day account (how reading it as literature relieves this is beyond me), though we obviously need to recognize that this is still a controversy within the church and that it’s not exactly a “stand or fall” article of faith. Though I maintain the traditional understanding myself, I’m way past condemning others for thinking otherwise.
What I think we need is for people to stop treating this issue as though you have your “position” and I have my “position” and we just get together and arm-wrestle for a while, then go and boast to our fan-base about how the other guy obviously lost. We need some real, soul-searching dialogue from everybody on all sides, all taking the folks on the other positions seriously and wrestle with the text for a while.
Adam, I could not agree with you more. And thanks for the reminder about St. Augustine, a fact that should give us all some pause. Affirming creation is an article central to our faith but affirming the model or “way” we understand it in Genesis is not and was not in the history of the church. Too much of this debate is fueled by modernism and scientific arrogance on the one side and modernism and biblical certitude on the other.
I commented earlier that I appreciate the opportunity to consider how science informs our view of creation — especially our understanding of what God has said on the matter. That said, since a few people here have made an appeal to not regarding a literal reading of Genesis 1-3 as being a necessary doctrine. I feel a need to balance this point just a bit. Namely, while there could be one or more reasonable ways to understand the creation account, we must be very careful to not suggest that if God intended us to grasp it literally (for example), then it would still be okay to interpret it otherwise. In other words, we should be seeking to understand it in the manner that it was intended (this is the most orthodox rendering of “meaning” — what was “meant” by the author), NOT in the manner that we prefer or are satisfied with or have come to from some ‘enlightened’ view thanks to science. I trust that God intends for us to confirm His Word (special revelation, if you like) with His creation (general revelation, if you like) through a variety of scientific endeavors (linguistics, hermeneutics, biology, geology, physics, etc.). This approach means, just as Adam and John have said, that we should enjoy variously diving into others’ viewpoints to evaluate how well we are encountering an interpretation of His word that honors HIM and His intent.
One helpful verse is Matthew 19:4 >
How did Jesus regard the account in Genesis? Jesus didn’t regard the Genesis narrative as flawed. The Bible also says Jesus rose from the dead. I haven’t seen a person rise from the dead in the same way. The Bible says that the Red Sea split and people could walk across. I didn’t witness it. All of these things defy usual everyday physics. Just because I didn’t witness the above things or they seem to defy usual ordinary laws of physics doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. The Bible says in Joshua that the sun stopped. That seems impossible by any logical explanation described in a physics textbook, but the Bible says everything is possible with God.
God said it all; Jesus confirmed it and also regarded the Genesis narrative as truthful. God said it. He’s accountable for the word, not me. I’m just trusting God and his word. Many other peoples’ words were later demonstrated to be hogwash. God is still changing people today. God is still answering prayer and intervening quietly with a gentle whisper or his own way. God is still blessing people who make decisions of faith based on his spoken word, and he’s making a distinction between his people and those not pleasing God just as it was in Exodus.
If we say “everything’s true in the Bible EXCEPT ____.” Well, you’re on a slippery slope getting momentum. Someone will add another item, then it will grow to 100 items and keep growing.
It’s true we can assume many things, like a “day” in Genesis was the same 24 hours today. Some of those might be bad assumptions. Maybe it was the same. Maybe it wasn’t. male is male; female is female.
If God is the Lord, what does that mean? Maybe that has many extra implications too, but Lord is the guy in charge. We should regard God as the Lord, and his word has weight and value, otherwise my own mind and interpretation becomes the Lord and ruler.
The only point I made was science seems to rule. This seems to be like a giant elephant standing in the Evangelical room which many Evangelicals seem to miss.
My first reply was going to ask you how anything I said suggested that I was against new scientific discoveries? Then it occurred to me that people are wrestling with their understanding of Genesis based upon Modern science. I find this all intriguing since I for one don’t see how Genesis gives scientific explantions of the universe much less how some theory of science today should cause one to revise one’s understanding of scripture? Science has been constantly changing from one century to the next.
I remember when Karl Barth criticized the influence of philosophy on theology and Barth was accused by many Evangelicals of being a fideist and naive. I quess I am still enough of a Barthian to stand against the flow on this one. Shalom!
Thanks for this wonderful reminder. Notice [using Venema’s words], the idea that Jesus rose from the dead “would be against all the [scientific] evidence that we’ve assembled over the last [thousands of] years, so not likely at all.” I totally agree. The FACT that it is not likely at all makes it all the more miraculous. This is where scientific research can be most helpful: in displaying the amazing glory of the Lord — glory seen in scientific detail as well as not seen because of His miraculous works. Praise God.
I cannot speak for definitively for John Schneider, the professor who was mentioned as being asked to take early retirement at Calvin, but if you read his written work you will find he is a very orthodox Christian thinker. In fact his book, The Good of Affluence, is one of the finest books on why affluence is not evil but a good for us all is amazing! While I do agree that this issue can become one in which we become beholden to science in the wrong way I know Schneider holds a very high view of the Scripture and the intent and credibility of the written word. I think the issue has to do with how we understand the first human pair in the light of the human genome project and related discoveries. I do not wish to confuse the issues here but this was my primary point in linking the story in the first place. The discussion has now ranged widely in these comments but I was focused on this one issue, or at least asking about it in light of the debate about how to think about Genesis. I am not suggesting everything in Scripture is up for grabs whenever science speaks. I am appealing for us to listen to science much more carefully and not assume every new big idea must be shot down because of how we read Genesis. We can rethink how we read certain portions of Scripture and remain reverent and believe in the historicity of the biblical story.
Commonly the assumption has been that Adam and Eve had to be genetically like us or they were not the first human couple. And what happened before Adam and Eve? These questions seem fair enough to my mind and not opposed to orthodoxy per se? I think this is where the debate rages among relatively conservative Christian interpreters. Again, I am not talking about what non-Christians think about Genesis in this question.
There have been many interpreters of the Bible and many interpretations. The fact that interpreters and interpretations can be wrong does not (or, at least, should not) negatively impact the Bible itself.
Likewise, scientists are merely interpreters of their findings and observations of the natural world and, as such, are not infallible. Neither do they determine what the creation is or will be. History shows us the many turnabouts and back-trackings of science. The interpretations of observed facts can be easily wrong in any field.
I do not believe that science can or will disprove the Bible although many such claims have been made throughout the years. My first response to the statements made about the human genome vis-a-vis Adam and Eve were identical to an earlier poster–let’s see where this field of knowledge stands in another 20 years.
In addition, time will test the changing beliefs and various theories of evangelicals. What will be produced? Will it be of real spiritual value? Does it further or hinder God’s intention? In the early part of last century, many otherwise exemplary Christians tried to understand the Great Pyramid and relate it to the Bible. They were even termed “pyramidologists.” This trend swept through a certain segment of believers but gradually faded; it could not pass the test of time nor did it produce useful fruit.
Mr. Armstrong, absolutely agreed. The best place to start, for me, is to stop treating the “other guy” like he were an idiot. Traditionalists get a bad rap for the most ignorant among us, but many more are not stupid. And we traditionalists can stop sneering down at others for thinking “we all evolved from a bunch of monkeys, yuk, yuk, yuk.”
There are effects or implications to the varying views of how God created, and those need to be traced out, but implications and results are two different things. There might be theological implications to believing in evolution, but thank God we’re not saved by our knowledge, but by grace!
How I yearn for calm maturity from the Church, that Godly men of all the varying points could come together for a synod or council, each taking the others, and the Scriptures seriously, all committed to accepting any idea from the Scriptures, and dismissing those that are not, even from their own beloved beliefs! Someday, perhaps.
Yes, you’re right, and we should struggle to find God’s intended meaning and be willing to give up any position that is at variant with that. But there are more discussions to be had on that very subject. Some claim that Genesis is poetry, others history. I’m unconvinced that Genesis is poetry (it lacks that essential chiastic parallelism of Hebrew poetry). But that’s a discussion we need to have, not an iron-clad position which equals compromise if deviated from.
At the same time, most traditionalists approach Genesis like it were a scientific textbook, still caught in the grip of modernist approaches to knowledge. The text wasn’t designed to answer that sort of question.
And MY four questions of John are:
1) does not this rabbit trail lead people into a God who IS too small?
2) wherein does this mental machination disciple and equip the saints for gospel ministry?
3) is this just a gas pain, or has your ministry focus now shifted?
4) do you truly put such value in this “let’s-see-in-20-years” immaterial issue such as to divert otherwise focused support from your calling?
As my construction boss would say when we’d get sidetracked from the building project, “Get back to work – ALL of you!”
Give me some insight here, John.
Cheers, Don Broesamle