It Starts With Genesis

apollo08_earthrise Genesis 2dsThe Great Debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye last week was interesting. There is no scientific case for a young earth and Ken Ham did not really offer one. He drew a distinction between historical science and observational science and relegated all scientific evidence for an old earth to interpretation corrupted by a secular worldview. For origins “we have a book” – the inspired word of God revealed to Moses. Theology also comes into the mix, especially the issue of animal death and decay before the fall and the nature of humans as created in the image of God.

This is an important point. Ken Ham’s approach at Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum is not really founded on disagreements about science. It is founded, without exception, on a specific view of scripture. Ken Ham advocates a “natural reading” that takes Genesis 1-11 as a factual, event oriented, history book, akin to a modern text book on World War II say, but with divinely instilled perfection. Science comes into the picture only because modern science conflicts with the young earth view of origins. Given this prior commitment, creation science attempts to find ways to fit observations into a young earth scenario under the conviction that there must be a way. Unfortunately the observations don’t really cooperate, and the difficulties continue to pile up.

The choice isn’t really between young earth creationism and scientific secularism, however. Or at least it need not be. There is an alternative. The alternative is thoroughly Christian and begins with scripture; it begins with Genesis. The young earth “natural” reading is not the only way to read Genesis, and is not even the most faithful to the original intent and focus of the text. It makes the text of Genesis into something it was never intended to be. Evidence that calls into question the young earth narrative does not really call into question the authority of scripture. It will, however, call us to return to the text and read it more carefully.

Over the years we’ve looked at a number of books addressing the issues in Genesis. The following were written by scholars, primarily Old Testament scholars, who take scripture seriously as the word of God. None of these books provide the last word on the subject, but they provide a solid beginning to the discussion.

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton. In this book OT scholar and Wheaton professor John Walton offers new insight into the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3. The book is short and very readable.

Genesis (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) by John Walton. A commentary providing background context for Genesis. A careful consideration of the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis can provide important clues to the appropriate interpretation of the text. This short illustrated commentary provides a glimpse into this context.

Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins by Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III. This book provides another angle on the question of creation and the intent of the creation narratives in Genesis combining expertise in science and Biblical Studies. Richard Carlson is a research physicist at the University of Redlands in Redlands California. Tremper Longman III is an old testament scholar, the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. The book is short and readable. The overview of creation passages in scripture, including Psalms, Isaiah, Job, and the New Testament is particularly useful.

In the Beginning … We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. This book explores the meaning of Genesis, starting with the question: What did Genesis mean to the original authors and readers? Johnny Miller (ThM, ThD, Dallas Theological Seminary) and John Soden (ThM, PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) have a rather conservative take on the interpretation of scripture. They assume the basic truthfulness of the text, including Genesis, but ask questions about the meaning of Genesis 1 in its original context. They argue against a concordist view of the relationship between science and scripture. Modern science (or in fact any science beyond that of the original ANE culture) should not be read into or out of the biblical text.

Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach by Vern Poythress. This book looks at approaches available to reconcile science and faith. The author is a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and takes a conservative and reformed approach to scripture. He describes how he finds it possible to reconcile science, including evolutionary biology, with faith and scripture.

Genesis for Normal People by Peter Enns and Jared Byas. Peter Enns is an Old Testament scholar (Ph. D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard). Although Pete can be intentionally provocative at times on his blog and in other venues, his books are always carefully and thoughtfully written. This short book is written in an informal voice for Christians who have little if any formal training in biblical studies. It will rock the world for some because it presents the purpose and form of the OT in general and Genesis in particular from a point of view that is distinctly different from the approach the average Christian is familiar with. A running theme from Enns and Byas is that we have to learn to read the OT through ancient eyes … this is how we can best understand the message.

Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter Bouteneff. This book explores the use of the creation narratives in Second Temple Judaism (ca. 200 BCE to 100 CE), in the New Testament, and in the writings of the early church fathers through the first four centuries of the church. This is a fascinating book – a bit academic, but not too strenuous a read.

The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins by Peter Enns. In this book Dr. Enns concentrates on the interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis and the use Paul makes of these stories in Romans and 1 Corinthians. His approach is from a position of faith, but he argues that we need to rethink the way we interpret these passages in the context of their intent in scripture. This book fleshes out many of the ideas discussed more quickly in Genesis for Normal People.

Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care by C. John Collins, a professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis MO. Dr. Collins does not hold to a young earth, or rule out evolution. He does take a more traditional view of Adam, however. His goal in writing this book is to show why he believes we should retain a version of the traditional view of Adam. He argues that the traditional position on Adam and Eve, or some variation of it, does the best job of accounting not only for the Biblical material and for our everyday experience as human beings.

Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution by Denis O. Lamoureux. Dr. Lamoureux has a Ph.D. in Biology (Oral Biology–Dental Development and Evolution) and a Ph.D. in Theology. He has put a great deal of effort into thinking through the debates over science and origins in the church. This is a book that describes a way to move beyond the creation and evolutions debates. The book takes modern science seriously but concentrates on the approach to interpretation of scripture. Dr. Lamoureux does not hold to a historical Adam, but he does take scripture very seriously.

Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. Views on Genesis 1-2 and responses by a number of primarily Old Testament scholars. Contributors include Richard Averbeck, John Walton, Tremper Longman III, C. John Collins, and Todd Beall. This book presents a range of views, including a young earth view similar to that of Ken Ham, and provides opportunity for response. Dr. Todd Beall presents the young earth view and has an opportunity to respond to each of the other essays as well. This book, or selections from the book, can be an excellent place to start a discussion.

More general books on the authority of scripture.

Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns. A short and very readable book (no footnotes!) that presents a useful approach to understanding the Scripture that we have as the Word of God. Dr. Enns suggests the use of an incarnational model or parallel. As Christ is fully human and fully divine – so also scripture is fully human and fully divine. Enns invites his reader to consider an important question: How does scripture’s full humanity and full divinity affect what we should expect from Scripture?

The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars by N. T. Wright and his revised and expanded book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Wright’s book deals specifically with purpose of Scripture and the nature of Scripture as authority by asking the following questions (among others): In what sense is the Bible authoritative? How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted?

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy. The Bible was not written to 21st century Christians and cannot be read most clearly through 21st century eyes. It is, Walton likes to say, for us but not to us. In this book Walton and Sandy, both professors at Wheaton College, “take us behind the veil of time to explore the realities of ancient oral and scribal culture and what it means for our understanding of the composition of scripture.”

And an excellent resource for starting a discussion.

From The Dust (DVD) also available on iTunes (From the Dust). This film, by Ryan Pettey at Satellite Pictures, is designed to be a positive contribution to the discussion of science and faith, especially science and evangelical Christian faith. The DVD contains clips and resources to supplement the main documentary. The clip embedded here features N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne and John Walton discussing the interpretation of Genesis.

A few highlights: John Walton points out the importance of culture in translation (6:18-6:35):

We’re well aware that people have to translate the language for us. We forget that people have to translate the culture for us. And therefore if we want to get the best benefit from the communication we need to try to enter their world, hear it as the audience would have heard it, as the author would have meant it, and to read it in those terms.

N. T. Wright at 8:17-9:05 reflects on the intent of Genesis 1 – he agrees with Walton, but also takes it in a his own direction.

Telling a story about somebody who constructs something in six days … it’s a temple story, it’s about God making a place for himself to dwell and this is heaven and earth and what you do with that is the last thing is you put an image of the God into this temple and suddenly Genesis 1 instead of it being “were there six days?” or “were there five?” or “were there seven?” or “were they 24 hours?”, it’s actually about when the good creator God made the world he made heaven and earth as the space in which he himself was going to dwell. And putting humans into that construct as a way of both reflecting his own love into the world and drawing out the praise and glory from the world back to himself. And that’s the literal meaning of Genesis.

And again at 10:32-11:05:

This world was made to be God’s abode, God’s home, God’s dwelling. He shared it with us and he now wants to rescue it and redeem it. So that we have to read Genesis for all it’s worth and to say either it’s history or myth is a way of saying I’m not going to study this text for all it’s worth. I’m just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask. And I think that is a form of actually being unfaithful to the text itself.

Of course there is far more to be said. Some of the books listed above only touch briefly on the questions raised by Paul concerning Adam and sin, others deal with it more completely. A number of the writers hold to a historical Adam largely because of Paul and the doctrine of original sin. Others don’t see this as critical to Paul’s argument and thus don’t hold to a historical Adam. This question, however, isn’t one of science, or even of Genesis, but of theology and Christian anthropology. There is much more to be considered and discussed. But we need to have the conversation.

Are there other resources you have found useful?

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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