Theological implications of reading Genesis 1-3

June 17, 2020

Theological implications of reading Genesis 1-3

Andrew Leslie

How we assess different possibilities concerning creation and human origins from a theological perspective largely stems from our core convictions about Scripture: in particular, its authority to make truth claims in this space, and the clarity with which it makes those claims. 

Two foundational convictions

The authority of Scripture
The authority of Scripture is a conviction tied to the very nature of Christian faith itself. As the Christian believer comes to confess that God is a ‘God of truth’, so he or she also ascribes the same truthfulness to the Scriptures by which God has brought them to faith.  Believers can uphold the truthfulness of Scripture even while acknowledging that it is a word God has inspired through fallible, sinful agents.  For however fallible those agents may be, it is impossible that a God of truth would inspire and appropriate a discourse which is untrue in anything it sets out to affirm. This is not only the case with respect to doctrine or morality, but also in relation to any claim it makes, whether historical, geographical, or even in relation to the natural sciences.  Of course, it may be that the Bible is not always making historical or scientific claims, and it is the believer’s job to figure that out.  But it does mean that a simple mantra which refers the ‘why?’ questions to the Bible, and the ‘how?’ questions to the natural sciences, for instance, will not do if the Bible is, indeed, answering a ‘how?’ question after all.

The Christian faith is therefore confident in the face of other claims on truth, including those of the modern scientific consensus concerning origins. The God-given capacity to make observations about his world means that science might help me read the Bible more carefully—a Christian need not be ‘anti-reason’ or ‘anti-science’. But the pronouncements of human reason and observation are always subordinate to Scripture, and therefore, the Bible’s authority and truthfulness does not stand or fall by the next scientific discovery. If the Bible emphatically teaches certain things about the age of the earth, or a historical Adam—and these are obviously questions we need to decide—then whatever the natural sciences might claim to tell us about these things, Scripture’s statements take priority as the yardstick by which these claims need to be assessed.

The clarity of Scripture
It’s one thing to say that God causes us to recognise that the Bible’s truth has authority over our lives.  The truth God communicates to us through Scripture also has a certain content.  The centrality of Christ to human salvation and eternal life—what we might summarise as ‘the gospel’—has implications for interpreting Scripture. It attests to Scripture’s single, divinely intended ‘sense’ or meaning.  Whatever its variety of human authors, styles, situations, and history, it has an essential spiritual unity.  Each part of Scripture contributes to this truth in different ways.  God has spoken to us through the kaleidoscopic diversity of biblical history and the unique personalities of the Bible’s human authors.  To recognise those differences is an important part of faithful biblical interpretation. 

Furthermore, a particular passage of Scripture may have both a historical dimension in relationship to a specific situation, and a dimension that arises from its place in the wider biblical canon.  That is not to say there are two different or discrete meanings, one literal or historical, versus another spiritual or canonical.  Rather, it is to admit that the single, divinely intended sense of any passage of Scripture is multidimensional.  In the broadest respect, it is about Christ and the gospel.  But that summary also embraces the original, historically contingent truth claims of its human authors.

This last assertion requires some explanation. First, the accent deliberately falls on what is actually said to be true rather than on what the author actually thinks is true.  We are interested in what the divinely inspired discourse claims on its own terms.  For instance, where the Psalmist writes, ‘the world is established, firm and secure’ (Psalm 93:1), it may well be that he himself is committed to an ancient, geocentric astronomical system where the Earth is stationary and the sun and moon travel around it.  But it is another thing altogether to say that the text itself is claiming that such a model is true when it manifestly is not.  Even where texts such as Genesis 1 describe the world’s creation in accord with ancient models, that does not necessarily mean the text is declaring that such a model is a true description of reality, regardless of what the human author may have thought.  The author’s ‘intention’ is only one factor among many relevant in discerning the truth claims of any given text.  Questions of language, genre, and context are also highly significant.

Secondly, the concept of a truth claim is deliberately broad.  Since the seventeenth century, one popular way of dealing with potential differences between biblical claims about origins and the emerging scientific consensus has been to limit the Bible’s truth claims to theological or salvation-related matters.[1]  This allows that the Bible could make erroneous claims about the natural world or human origins, because God ‘accommodated’ theological truth to the perspective of an incorrect ancient world view.  (Note that this is more than just an admission that the Scriptures describe origins from an ancient perspective, which allows that such a description could be a figurative rather than literal affirmation of a particular model.  John Calvin, for instance, is willing to admit that where the Psalmist speaks of God pitching ‘a tent for the sun’ (Psalm 19:4), he is not attempting ‘to teach the secrets of astronomy to the rude and unlearned’, but is simply speaking in a ‘homely style’.[2]  By contrast, the ‘accommodationist’ maintains that the Bible is purporting to make factual claims about origins and the natural world which have since been proven wrong. The difficulty with this strategy is its denial of biblical inerrancy.  If we make any concession here, it will no longer be possible to insist that Scripture as it stands is the inspired word of God.

If the Bible is setting out to make a truth claim on any given matter, it is incumbent on the Christian to acknowledge its truth, regardless of the modern scientific consensus.  Of course, what the modern scientific consensus may well afford us is an opportunity to read our Bibles more carefully.  Science may press me to revisit questions of authorial intention, language, and genre, and ask if it is absolutely necessary to interpret this particular statement as a literal statement of fact, irrespective of the way the statement has been interpreted in the past.

But what if we get to the point where, after careful consideration, we cannot decide if, or how much of, any given text is making a literal statement of historical fact?  This possibility need not trouble us in principle, since we can safely assume that if God had wanted us to know something with confidence, he would have communicated it in a way that left us with no reasonable doubts. 

Do the opening chapters of Genesis fall into this category?  At first glance, it appears that they may.  From the variety of ways in which the word ‘day’ (yom) has been understood in Genesis 1, or the questions interpreters have asked about the geography and literary features of Genesis 2-3, it might seem impossible to decide what is being claimed as literal historical fact.  However, before being too hasty in assuming any given biblical claim is purely metaphorical, a couple of significant, longstanding interpretative considerations come into play.

The first is the ‘rule of Scripture’.  Given Scripture’s unity as the inspired word of God, what other parts of the Bible might help guide us in putting the necessary stakes in the ground concerning the historical details of origins?  The second, closely related consideration, is the ‘rule of faith’: what foundational theological principles regulate these decisions?

While Christians do come to quite different conclusions on these matters, most apply these rules in one form or another.  Even the most historically sceptical approach to the Genesis account would recognise the biblical and theological significance of insisting that the account affirms at least one historical detail—that God created the world and everything in it.  At both ends of this interpretative spectrum, and at every point in between, these rules will be at play.  The lack of consensus is not a reason to despair at the possibility of finding a clear interpretation, nor to deny the importance of maintaining theological convictions where necessary. However, it should give us reason to exercise a certain amount of charity towards those with whom we disagree.[3] 

If we were to apply the rules of Scripture and faith to the question at hand, what might we conclude?

The question of origins

The rule of Scripture
First, let’s consider the rule of Scripture applied to the days of creation, and the question of the historical Adam.

The days of Genesis 1
The less contentious matter here is the age of the earth, and particularly, the interpretation of Genesis 1 and its reference to six ‘days’ of creation. The word ‘day’ (yom) has been variously understood throughout the history of Christian interpretation.  Before the seventeenth century, the vast majority of Christian interpreters understood this to mean a literal twenty-four-hour period, but there is certainly precedent within the tradition for reading Genesis 1 in a non-literal fashion.[4]  More importantly, as Herman Bavinck observed around 1900, there are reasons within the text itself that might lead us to question whether the days are literal twenty-four-hour periods.[5]

More recent attempts at reconciliation follow from a similar admission that there are details within the text itself which push back against overly literalistic interpretations.  For instance, C. John Collins follows a popular view that Genesis 1-11, with its striking genealogical structure, offers a kind of proto-history or prelude to Israel’s patriarchal history, which is intended to situate their peculiar national identity in a cosmic context.  However, unlike other advocates of this view, Collins is confident that such a proto-history, of which there are analogues in Ancient Near Eastern literature, at least assumes the historical facticity of various names and places it narrates.  Therefore, to his mind, Genesis 1-11 cannot be entirely set aside as unhistorical, even if it is a different kind of history-telling to the more familiar and fine-grained details of Genesis 12-50.[6]  Accordingly, Collins is open to detecting some broadly historical sequence in Genesis 1, but postulates that the precise timing is unique and only analogous to human days.  In other words, in keeping with the literary function of Genesis 1-11 as a whole, he believes the language of Genesis 1 is likely to entail some anthropomorphic ‘accommodation’ to our limited capacities, so that what is presented as a literal sequence of days as we understand them, may, in fact, have been far more fluid and undefined.[7]

Admissions like this about Genesis 1-11 might lead us to wonder why we need to bother seeking correspondence between the text and ‘what actually happened’ at all, especially if any hypothesis ends up feeling quite arbitrary.  However there is one factor that looms larger than any other in this quest: the question of a historical Adam.

A historical Adam
Rule of Scripture arguments in favour of a historical Adam, and especially a historical fall, typically attend to the way Adam features elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, Adam features in genealogies in Genesis 5 and 10-11, which stitches him into the family of Abraham, and then in 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3, which stitches him into the family of the Messiah.  Is this intending to communicate that he was a real historical figure? Quite probably yes. Since genealogies in comparative ancient literature typically only include the names of real, historical people, it is reasonable to expect the same of the Bible’s genealogies.

The place of Adam in redemptive history also speaks to this question.  Aside from the numerous references to creation and the Garden of Eden throughout the Old Testament, there are also particular allusions to Adam and Eve which arise in the context of Israel’s role in bringing God’s blessing to the nations.[8] Does the biblical history of redemption, woven into the story which began with Adam, demand us to regard Adam as a historical person?  Arguably it does.  God’s plan of redemption, involving Israel and her Messiah, clearly rests on real historical events and people; and the Bible manifestly links that redemptive story, in all its historical particularity, to the history of Adam and the wider human family.

Finally, while Adam does not appear very often in the Old Testament, he features a number of times in the New Testament.  Take, for instance, the parallel Paul draws between Adam and Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-9, and Romans 5:12-21.  Regardless of some challenging details in these passages, Paul obviously assigns Adam and Christ foundational and representative roles. Paul understands Christ’s representative function in our salvation to rest on his life, death, and resurrection: our destiny as those ‘in Christ’ is determined by what he actually did.  Therefore, it is unlikely Paul would be thinking of Adam as a legendary figure, included here purely for illustrative purposes, but as a real person whose actions have had a universal effect on the destiny of all people ‘in him’.[9]  Paul clearly infers from Genesis 2-3 a straightforward conclusion that neither sin, nor the curse of death, were inevitable features of human nature in the beginning, but only arose through the deliberate, culpable, and ultimately inexplicable transgression that was Adam’s fall.

This certainly complicates matters for any seamless rapprochement between Paul’s understanding of sin and death and modern evolutionary accounts of human origins which have to admit that physical death was already an inevitable feature of our inherited biology. There have been many attempts to resolve this dilemma but there is no doubt the dilemma exists. It might be possible to construct hypotheses that offer an olive branch to the scientific consensus, whether they extend to the age of the earth, or even as far as recognising common genetic material between human beings and earlier biological life, but biblical teaching about the character of sin and death will inevitably put a fork in the road at some crucial juncture.

But why should we accept Paul’s interpretation of Genesis?  At one level, as we have said, the canonical authority of Paul’s teaching ought to be sufficient for us to acknowledge its truth and regard his interpretation of Genesis as the correct one.  What about the theological significance of Paul’s claim, though?  This brings us to the rule of faith.

The rule of faith
Theologians have classically inferred from this kind of reading of Paul and Genesis that sin and death were not inevitable features of human nature.  Of course, Adam did sin and he did die, just as we sin and we die.  But unlike us, who cannot but sin and die, Adam was created free from this sentence to enjoy the possibility of an everlasting relationship with God.  His physical and spiritual mortality was a direct result of his sin.  When God created the first humans, he did so in a way that quarantined their initial existence from the inevitability of physical decay, disease, entropy and death.  All these things are a distortion for which Adam is responsible, and for which we too are guilty, inasmuch as he is a representative head of all humanity.  There is more that could be said about the doctrine of original sin, but at least this much is central to this doctrine.

Why does this doctrine matter?  The answer has to do with the very character of God and the world he has made. 

Death, sin, and the goodness of God

If we invert the relationship between sin and human mortality, or if we say that both these things emerged in no particular relationship at some point in the evolutionary chain, it is hard to escape the conclusion that God is responsible for having afflicted us with these ravages of nature rather than Adam.  It would be as if God deliberately brought forth flawed humanity, with a hairline fracture that inevitably opened up into the gaping chasm we know as sin and death.[10]

If that is the case, we have to ask, why would God do that?  Again, different suggestions have been made, but they struggle to avoid casting a shadow on the genuine goodness of God and his creation, especially if human sin is bound up with these realities. Sin becomes something natural rather than an unnatural intrusion.  Furthermore, if that is the way God has made things, the cross is no longer a gracious and free solution to an unnatural problem of our making, but ultimately becomes a solution to a problem of God’s making.  Such a concession would not only force us to revise our perspective on God’s judgment but also the very nature of the cross.  If sin has a natural origin, why does it need to be punished, even in a substitutionary, salvific sense?

In summary, if the rule of Scripture compels us to regard some details of Genesis 1-3 as historical—not least the historical existence of the first humans under conditions at least analogous to those described in the Garden—the rule of faith helps us to see the rightness of this claim.  Quite apart from questions we may have about the age of the earth, a historical Adam and historical fall touches on who we understand God to be, the nature of creation, the nature of sin both in history and in our own lives, the just judgment of God, and the person of Christ in terms of what he has come to do in dealing graciously with a problem of our own making.

Some final observations

These conclusions do not necessarily mean a highly literalistic reading of Genesis is the way forward.  In that regard, a few final and brief observations are in order.

First, Genesis is a divinely inspired interpretation of reality, not an exhaustive recitation of facts.  And the innate, literary features of this text need to be taken seriously.  If it has taken the discovery of comparative Ancient Near Eastern literature, as well as the discoveries of modern science, to help us pay closer attention to those literary features, that’s not a bad thing.

Even so, we do need to put stakes in the ground regarding certain historical features of the Genesis account.  Given the way the rest of the Bible refers to it, it appears God is intending us, at the very least, to regard Adam and Eve as real historical people who in some way are representative of humanity as a whole.

Finally, we should be confident that the Bible’s account of our origins is ultimately reconcilable with what can be naturally observed and known about our world.  Truth is a unity that finds its origin in God, whether it is revealed to us in Scripture or in nature.  But there are real limits to our ability to understand this world in this current age. In this state, Scripture and the Holy Spirit help us to know where to put those stakes in the ground. We may not, at present, be able to see precisely how the claims of Scripture and the observable realities of our world come together in harmony, but what we can do is offer hypotheses for how they may fit together.  But hypotheses are just that, and they all come with greater or lesser degrees of scientific and theological plausibility that need to be carefully assessed. 

To read the next article in our Origins edition, click here.
To see all articles in this edition, click here

[1] Elsewhere, I have discussed an example of this hermeneutical approach in the work of the German-born Dutch theologian Christoph Wittich (1625-87), who possessed certain Cartesian sympathies: Andrew M. Leslie, ‘The Reformation a century later: did the Reformation get lost two generations later?’. M. D. Thompson, C. Bale, and E. Loane (eds.), Celebrating the Reformation: Its Legacy and Continuing Relevance (IVP, 2017), pp299-303.  In our day, Peter Enns seems to adopt something similar to this approach in, say, distinguishing Paul’s theology (which should be upheld) from his convictions about the historical Adam (which can be disregarded).  See, e.g., Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins (Brazos Press, 2012).

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Eerdmans, 1949), I.315.

[3] As an illustration of that kind of balance between theological conviction and charity, note, for instance this statement from Westminster Theological Seminary concerning the days of creation in Genesis 1: 

[4] Although the reasons Augustine and others understood it figuratively were very different from our modern scientific concerns.

[5] To Bavinck’s mind, given that Genesis 1 does not refer to the creation of the sun and moon until day four (Gen 1:14-16), the demarcation of a literal twenty-four-hour period may not have occurred until then, allowing for the possibility that at least the first three days of creation were considerably different in character.  Where verses 4 and 5 refer to morning and evening on the first day, there is no necessary application of a daily rhythm as we understand it: all that is entailed is the mere separation between ‘light’ and ‘darkness’.  Such attention to the subtleties in the text perhaps offers a caution to overly dogmatic pronouncements regarding the precise length of each day in Genesis 1. See, Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Baker Academic, 2003-2007), II.498-99.

[6] See, e.g., C. John Collins, ‘Adam and Eve in the Old Testament’. H. Madueme and M. Reeves (eds.), Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives (Baker, 2014), pp8-9.

[7] C. John Collins, ‘How Old is the Earth?  Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3’. Presbyterian 20 (1994).; C. John Collins, ‘Reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 as an Act of Communication: Discourse Analysis and Literal Interpretation’. J. Pipa Jr. and D Hall (eds.), Did God Create in Six Days? (Covenant Foundation, 1999).  For another recent variation on the day-age theory, see, Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (NavPress, 2004).

[8] For instance, David’s offspring is identified as the one who will bring this blessing in Psalm 75:17, although of course, the Scriptures situate this promise much earlier in the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3; 22:17-18), and arguably even further back in the expectation that one of Adam’s offspring will ‘crush’ the deceiving serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).

[9] Indeed, his argument in Romans 5:12-21 makes the point even more acutely.  Here it is impossible to dispute that Paul believes both the universality of sin and the punitive consequence of human death were squarely a result of Adam’s fall.  Some have attempt to circumvent this by regarding Adam as a cypher for a collection of humans or, indeed, the race as a whole.  Given Paul’s reference to the transgression of ‘one man’ (5:12, 15, 17-20), and the clear parallel with the ‘one man’ Christ, this is exegetically improbable.

[10] Traditionally, theologians have held that however ‘possible’ Adam’s fall was, it was an inexplicable inversion of the upright state in which he was made.

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