When I became a Christian, Genesis was just another Sunday School story – like Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve. I accepted every story as actual history because the scriptures tell the stories that way and because the Bible is God’s Word.
In grade ten Geology class I remember my teacher remarking that the height of the average soldier from WWI to WWII had statistically grown several millimeters (I don’t remember the actual statistic). He went on to say that only a few thousand years ago humans were three foot tall furry brown creatures. The notion seemed absurd to me. Think this through: if every twenty years or so the average height of humans grows several millimeters, then do the math backwards from the year 2000 to the year 1 A.D. and everyone at the time of Christ must have been four-feet tall or something (I have not done the actual math). And furry little creatures by the year 2000 B.C.; really? Seriously, this is what he taught.
I remember leaning over to the kid next to me – a popular tough kid at the time – and asked, ‘you don’t believe this do you?’ He looked at me with rage in his eyes as teardrops formed and said, ‘my father died when I was five. Don’t tell me there is a God!’ I had not mentioned God, and he did not know I was a Christian.
I walked away from this experience with three things:
- Evolution is absurd.
- People who believe in it do so out of emotional angst – willing to believe any “science” no matter how absurd, if it did away with God.
- And either one believed in a God, the scriptures, a six-day creation and that the earth was only six-thousand years old, or one believed in evolution, rejected the scriptures, did not believe in a God and believed that the universe was billions of years old. These were the only two viable options.
Epiphany! Planet Earth Is Only 6,000 Old
In my mid-teens the thought had occurred to me that since the scriptures present an unbroken chain of genealogical records from Adam to some definite point in recorded history – like the fall of Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C. – it should be possible to do the math and calculate the actual age of the earth. As I set about doing this I had discovered – to my wide-eyed and mystified delight – that someone had already figured this out. Bishop James Ussher lived during the Renaissance and had calculated that the day of creation was on my brothers’ birthday – October 23 – in the year 4004 B.C.
Mastering Genesis One, Or Not
In Bible College in my early twenties I remember sitting down with a friend to tell him that I had a new mission. I was going to figure out Genesis one. ‘Good luck’ he said, ‘that’s quite a tall order’, and walked away. So I cracked open a bunch of commentaries and got as far as verse 4 before I gave up. I was incited to take on this mission because a professor at the Bible college was teaching something called the Gap Theory (between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 there is a gap of innumerable years, a pre-creation et cetera). The theory is designed to accommodate the scriptures to the science which seems to indicate that the earth is much older than six thousand years. I saw it as a sellout, a compromise to the evolutionary science. Besides, the biblical evidence mustered in support of this theory is as scant and conspiratorial as they come.
Keep ‘About Me’ In Mind
At this point in the story there are a few things you need to keep in mind about me. First my primary concern was scriptural fidelity. In other words, my goal was to remain committed and faithful to the scriptures. If they taught – based on the genealogical records of Genesis – that the earth was only six thousand years old, than science must have it wrong. There must be an explanation. Secondly, I had not yet developed a post-conservative approach to the scriptures. That is, I had never considered the possibility that maybe I was reading the bible wrong. I fact, I didn’t even think that was possible. But things were about to change. I was soon to grow into a post-conservative approach to the scriptures long before I would read Roger Olson’s book where the term ‘post-conservative’ was coined. At first this was difficult for me. But soon it would prove an approach which allowed me to be more faithful and committed to the scriptures then I had ever been before.
Now back to the story… My First Paradigm Shift
After several years I had begun taking Egyptology at the University of Windsor when I first came into real conflict with my six thousand year paradigm. Let me explain (develop an imagination with me for sake of the illustration): what if the scriptures strongly suggest that the global flood of Genesis chapter six had occurred in 1949? We would have to say, ‘no, we must be interpreting the scriptures wrong’, after all, my grandparents were alive at that time, and it is well within recorded history and therefore could not have happened at that time. The problem isn’t with the scriptures, but with my interpretation of them. Now what if the scriptures strongly suggested – based on the genealogical records – that the global flood occurred in the year 27 A.D.? Again, we’d have to say ‘no, that was the year Jesus had begun his ministry, it is well within recorded history, it could not have happened at that time.’ Now what if – bear with me – the scriptures strongly suggested that the global flood occurred in the year 2300 B.C.? I believe we would again have to say ‘no, we must be interpreting the scriptures wrong.’ Why? Because recorded Egyptian history began around the year 3000 B.C., and the era of the Pyramid Building was between 2700 B.C. and 2400 B.C. This means that if the flood occurred in the year 2300 it would be within recorded history and we know that the Pyramid’s have never been under water. It could not have happened at that time. The flood must have occurred later than 3000 B.C.
Here’s the clincher, according to a strict reading of the chronological records of Genesis, and by the accepted math of James Ussher – which I had done myself and can confirm his accuracy to the year, though I don’t know how he came up with the precise day – the flood of Genesis six would have occurred in the year 2300 B.C.! At this point, recognizing that I was no expert, I began to extend my conceived age of the earth from strictly six-thousand years old to “six to ten thousand years old, and probably closer to ten.” For the first time since I became a Christian I found reason to challenge this iron clad belief and to take a small step of reinterpreting what I had always accepted. I reconciled my new belief in the extended age of the earth by accepting the possibility that the genealogical records of Genesis 1-11 are probably intentionally incomplete.
Now throughout this whole period of my life (i.e. that past six years or so) I had fully immersed myself in academic or scholarly works of evangelical scholars and theologians where many of the beliefs I took for granted were challenged on a scriptural basis. Some people may have had a knee-jerk reaction against their systems being challenged. Indeed, whenever my system was challenged by conspiratorial theories (like my professor who taught the ‘Gap Theory’); I too had a knee jerk reaction. But the work by reputable scholars offered serious inquiry into the biblical text. One clear example is G.K. Beale’s book, The Temple and the Churches Mission. In this text he shows how the Garden of Eden was in fact the Temple of God and that Adam was, in essence, the first Kingly-Priest in humanity, and that the tabernacle/temple Israel built were designed to model the Garden-like Cosmos, and the same image is depicted in Revelation 21-22. Is this proof-text style conspiratorial theory? No! It seems to have been a belief shared, not just by ancient Israelites, but also by all the other ancient cultures of the world – Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Another such book that I picked up at about this time (2009) was Henri Blocher’s In The Beginning. In this book Blocher offers a reading of the first several chapters of Genesis which he calls the “literary” approach. The literary approach comes to the scriptures with the ultimate questions, ‘What is the message?’ ‘What is the intent?’ ‘What did the writer mean to say?’ ‘How would the first readers had understood that message?’ ‘How did later inspired biblical writers interpret that message?’
Why had I not seen this before when reading Genesis? I had always believed the scriptures to be God’s Word. But I approached them by way of proof-texting, seeing them as a serious of prepositions that could be reorganized into a set of bullet-points. In doing so I had missed so much of what God was actually saying through the scriptures. Earlier I had commented that “I had never considered the possibility that maybe I was reading the bible wrong”, now I realized not only that this was possible, but in fact I had been reading the bible wrong. I had bypassed God’s message almost completely in favor of reading the scriptures in a bullet-point fashion which defended my presuppositions.
For example, to go back to the genealogical records dilemma, I had always seen the primary importance of the genealogical record of Genesis 1-11 as serving the function of telling us facts of people who lived at that time. There was no purpose for those facts except to tell us that they lived. In Blocher’s book I was introduced to a way to read those records which gave purpose and meaning to the message of God: there are exactly ten generations between Adam and Noah, and there are another ten generations between Noah and Abraham. The inspired author was using the literary function of numbers to communicate a message. Ten usually signifies starting over. Count from one to nine, what is the next number? Ten (“one” all over again). So ten always signified beginning again. And that is exactly what happens at the flood with Noah. God recreates and establishes a new covenant with Noah. But then between Noah and Abraham is the Babel incident where humanity shows to have become horrible again. At this point God implements his plan of redemption by beginning again with another family, Abraham and his descendants.
Hearing the Message
The point of this is that now I could see that the genealogical record served to function as a literary tool to community a message; and in reading the text this way I no longer felt compelled to interpret the age of the earth based on the genealogical records of Genesis. I was free to accept that the earth was much older than six or ten thousand years without compromising my fidelity in the scriptures. In fact, I was being more faithful to God’s Word than before because now, for the first time, I was learning to read God’s message in the Genesis account.
So the age of the earth is no longer an issue. It is not that I accepted that the universe is billions of years old or that the earth is six thousand years old. The issue now is that it simply doesn’t really matter, because the age of the earth is not a question which the bible takes up.
Romans 5 and the Problem of Evolution
Evolution, however, has been (and remains) another matter for me. I have difficulties with the theory of evolution from a scriptural perspective, namely in reconciling Genesis 2 with Romans 5. (I also have practical – non-biblical – problems with the theory of evolution, but that’s for another post.) More recently I engaged in a conversation with a friend on Facebook which transferred over into email correspondents. Through our exchange he had made the recommendation that I read The Lost World of Genesis One by Old Testament evangelical scholar John Walton. As it turned out, I had Walton’s book sitting right there on my shelf!
At the Wheaton conference this past May (think: “Wright”), my friends and I got into a bit of a book buying frenzy. IVP Press had a large table of academic books for 50% off. I remember much hype about the book The Lost World of Genesis One, including a large backdrop banner promoting it; but I was skeptical and refrained from making the purchase. Then at the end of the conference I made one last frenzy spree and in the midst of the excitement, lo and behold I had bought Walton’s book. No sooner did I own it when someone commented, “He’s coming from an evolutionary perspective”. Buyer’s remorse set in right away. It was by far the most disappointing purchase I made that weekend – that is, until I read it!
Learning to Read Genesis One
Throughout this book John Walton promoted an approach to reading Genesis 1 which he refers to as a “functional” reading of the text. We journey back with Walton into the world in which Genesis 1 was written and the worldview which the ancient Israelites shared with the other ancient peoples of the world and – based mostly on the Biblical text itself – interpreted the message of the text for all it’s worth.
What is a functional reading of the text? Remember back to my bible college days when I had sat down with the mission of understanding Genesis 1, I got to about verse 4? The trouble I had was that I approached the text with a modern-scientific worldview which assumed that the (non-purposeful?) question which Genesis 1 was answering was this: “How did God scientifically create the material universe?” I then came face to face with several daunting interpretative conundrums: 1. why does the earth already appear to exist when God begins to create (verse 2)? 2. If the sun was not created on day 1, what was the source of the light that separated the darkness? 3. What was the firmament which separated the waters above from the waters below? Et cetera…
I know that many answers have been offered to these questions, but they never satisfied my hunger to understand the text. They all seemed to be doing lots of stretching and bending to make the different “possible explanations” fit. Walton offered a way beyond the dilemma, and he did so without capitulating to evolutionary science. I need to stress that last point. To my delightful surprise, Walton remains neutral to the question of evolution/creation for the simple reason (within his reading of Genesis 1) that Genesis 1 does not address that question. The battleground of Genesis 1 where Evolution and Creation is usually fought over simply does not exist.
A functional and contextual model of Genesis 1 approaches the text believing the question on ancient Israel’s mind is not, “how did the material universe come to be?”, but “who is sustaining the universe?” And this is the question Genesis 1 takes up; Genesis 1 is more a theological text then scientific (in the modern sense) and only scientific in the sense that in the ancient world scientific cosmology was theology. For example, to take up my previous difficulty of interpreting Genesis 1 scientifically, the light which was created on day 1 separated from darkness was created to serve the “function” of created time. On day 2 God separates the waters above from the waters below meaning – in ancient times as “waters spilled from the sky” – that God was the one who governed the weather. On day 3 God separated the “waters below” to cause dry land to appear thus serving the function of providing vegetation for food. So on days 1 to 3 God creates functions and on days 4 to 6 God creates corresponding functionaries to fill the functions separated on the first three days. So, for example, the sun, moon and stars (functionaries since they “govern” the day and night) of day 4 correspond to the separating of light and darkness on day 1. On day 5 God creates aquatic life to fill the waters below (corresponding to day 2) and on day 6 God creates land animals and humans (corresponding to day 3).
The Age of the Earth is not a Biblical Question
So the answer of Genesis 1 to the question which the text itself implies is that there is One God (contra the other ancient cultures), that this One God created the universe for the functional purpose of humans (contra the other ancient cultures where the gods create humans as slaves; in Genesis the cosmos is created for humans) and finally – as the point is pressed in Genesis 12, that this One creator God is Israel’s God! What Genesis 1 does not answer is “how long ago the universe was created” or even specifically “how it was created”. The point is that it was created for a purpose, and that God is its creator.
The point of all of this is that I have come to a place where the debate is significantly less interesting (or threatening) to me then when I was a teenager.
What About My Literary View?
Interesting enough, of all the views which Walton addresses as “the wrong views”, he turns his attention specifically to Henri Blocher and his book mentioned earlier (which had a tremendous influence on me) and his only criticism of it is that Blocher’s view simply does not go far enough:
While no objection can be raised against the literary structure… for those who have in the past adopted [Blocher’s view], the theory proposed in this book does not require them to discard that interpretation, but only to accept the functional perspective alongside it. This does not require replacement, but would add value. [p.112]
And indeed it has.
So What About Evolution?
One last point; if Genesis 1 (on its own terms) is no longer an obstacle to accepting the reigning scientific paradigm that the universe as very old, what reasons remain for rejecting evolution? Could not God have created through the process of evolution? Walton offers three theological reasons why people might be inclined to reject evolution: 1. Evolution would lead many to deny God’s existence. But this is not the case since science is not equipped to answer that question. The existence of God must be taken (or rejected) on faith alone. No one can make a scientific case for rejection of God because, by definition, God falls outside the realm or reach of science. 2. Genesis 1 teaches that the earth is young, but Walton shows this not to be the case. 3. And finally, Walton (to my delight) addresses the issue I have, namely, the difficulty of reconciling Genesis 2 and Romans 5. Walton proposes some possible solutions to the apparent problem before concluding that “such views… I continue to find problematic on a number of levels… Unfortunately no option is without difficulties.” In other words, Walton acknowledges that the most difficult part of accepting an evolutionary view is in reconciling Genesis 2 and Romans 5. While Walton sees this as a problem, he does not see it as a barrier.
Genesis 1 has surely shown itself to have been lost to me over the years and – beyond a doubt – there are aspects of it still waiting to be explored. I am fascinated by the interpretation of Genesis 1 by the apostles John and Paul. John reads Genesis 1:1-3 and says, “a-ha! The Word by which all things have been created is non-other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself” (John 1:1 ff). And Paul reads that same passage and says “a-ha! The Light which God caused to shine out of darkness is the gospel of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Neither John nor Paul read Genesis 1 and asked, “is there a gap in the creation account?” They read the text and asked, “What is the function?” and lo and behold they saw Jesus all over it!