Moses: God, please, will you tell me where it all came from?
God: Well Moses, about 14 billion years ago there was this singularity, and…
Moses: Uh, Lord? What’s a singularity?
God: Ok, take all the mass in the universe and compress it down to a quantum point, then…
God: Hmm, never mind that. Let’s try…
Moses: By the way, Lord,
God: Yes, Moses?
Moses: Is “billion” bigger than “a lot?”
Any reader that has a young child will realize that the above conversation is not sarcasm in the least. I have had more than one conversation with my overly inquisitive and too-smart-for-his-own-good son that is eerily similar to this. It also comes to the heart, in my opinion, of the recent debate over Genesis I have been following over at The SciFi Christian.
If you have not listened to their podcast on this subject, I would encourage you to do so. You can find it at: The Lost World of Genesis. Though it’s not necessary for understanding this commentary, it does frame the context of my writing and is a very good conversation.
The discussion has come up over whether or not the Genesis creation account is historical and/or literal. Ben took a position that it is neither — at least from the perspective of the hard literalism common to literal-day – or young earth – creationists. Rather he held to a Functional Creation approach proffered by Walton (whom I’ve admittedly not read) which to all appearances is very similar to the more well known Framework Hypothesis. The essential elements of these perspectives is that the Genesis 1 accounts should not be taken as historical in the sense that modern Western thinking considers events history, but within the context of middle-eastern thinking. Ben extends this though the Noachian history of Genesis 12, citing oral tradition and redaction of the editors of Genesis (I.e. the rather common Documentary or Wellhausen Hypothesis). Ben’s exegesis is fairly common and traditional in current Catholic thinking.
Matt would agree with Ben so far as Genesis 1 is concerned but would consider Genesis 2 to note the beginning of recorded history. This is a position more traditional with those who adhere to an interpretation along the lines of the Framework Hypothesis. I’ve also seen this approach by those who classify Genesis 1 more on the line of a poetic polemic towards the polytheistic cultures that surrounded the early Israelites, though that is outside the scope of this conversation.
Though this article is assuming the reader is familiar with the various Creation theories, as a short background, both the Walton and Framework Hypotheses argue that Genesis 1 has no bearing or intent in the discussion of the age of the earth and no relation at all to the historical events of creation. Rather, the account is a treatise on the functional aspects of creation and that the paired triads of the creation days creates a framework for our understanding of God’s relationship with His creation and with Man. These interpretations argue that this approach is consistent with the Middle Eastern priorities in historical interpretation and that to force a Western historical perspective is to make Genesis into something that it is not. If you happen to be a proponent of either of these positions, please indulge my gross over-simplification. I’ll refer the inquisitive to either the podcast or to any of the references at this end of this article.
Speaking as a conservative Christian who holds to a literal, historical and inerrant view of scripture, I have to note that even where I don’t agree with all aspects of this interpretation, it cannot simply be discounted as heretical or even unorthodox. Further, providing that the adherent is still affirming the doctrines of Special Creation and Original Sin – which both Ben and Matt repeatedly made sure was clear – the details of the mechanics and timing of General Creation are secondary or tertiary issues to God’s plan of salvation.
To be honest, I find no problem at all with a Framework or Functional approach to interpreting the first chapter of Genesis. I’d even go so far as to call it good exegesis. Certainly the Bible is written in the historical context of the writer; something that is clear when looking at the 66 books as a whole, spread across the centuries of their writing. One of the first rules of good exegesis is that you must take into account the historical context of the author and his contemporary audience. This approach satisfies that rule and it also satisfies the demand of inerrancy and contextual literalcy. Indeed, I would consider this a fully valid interpretation of Genesis 1.
Where I would argue with this interpretation, is in that while I completely agree with the Functional or Framework principle (I’ll just use Framework henceforth, as it has my greatest familiarity), it neglects to take into account God’s transcendence or inspiration. Scripture is not solely a human endeavor, it is a work inspired by a transcendent God. While it is contextually bound to its historical roots, it is still nevertheless inspired for all people of all times. The Psalmist tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God” and Paul tells us “His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” These are essential principles of Natural Revelation as compared to the Special Revelation of the Bible. So even though I would agree with Framework or Functional theology, I would equally expect that through inspiration this Special Revelation would never find itself in conflict with General Revelation. So that no man in any time may claim excuse.
And you know what? That functional framework – the primary context of the passage – “just happens” to be an accurate match for the great epochs of earths prehistory. No, Genesis is not a scientific document. Yet even so, Special Revelation and General Revelation remain consistent with each other and strengthen one another. Think of it this way, given a Framework or Functional Interpretation for Genesis 1, it still does so in language that is consistent with Natural Revelation. At least in an Old Earth perspective, it’s not an either-or proposition.
As Ben points out, much of the difficulty in this is trying to shoehorn occidental definitions of “literal” and “historical” with the oriental definitions.
The other area to address here is the question of historicity of Genesis 2 through 9 — i.e. Adam through the Flood. In this commentary, I’m going to limit myself primarily to Adam through the fall and only devote a few comments to the Flood. Any in-depth discussion of the Flood would be its own essay.
Hebrew teaching often takes a spiral approach. Starting with a generality, then spiraling in and becoming more specific. This is clearly seen in the Genesis account. In Gen 1:1 we have the starting point of God’s general creation. This spirals in to the perspective of the earth and the Functional/Framework description given in Gen 1:2 through Gen 2:3. Then in the rest of Genesis 2 we spiral in to the crowning point of God’s special creation: Man.
This is completely consistent with Hebraic literary approach. It is consistent with Mosaic authorship, even if Moses did pull from multiple sources as Luke did in his gospel. It is simple, explanatory and consistent. It does not require the complex hodge-podge 6th century BCE approach by a group editors per Wellhausen’s theory. Once you let go of the Documentary Hypothesis, I think it makes more sense to consider Genesis 2-5 historical, contextually at the very least. I would argue that this is more consistent with the Talmud and rabbinic traditions than the documentary hypothesis. One of the rules of good hermeneutics is that you do not add complexity where it is not necessary. In the cases of Mosaic authorship and historicity of Genesis 2 and following, I’ve simply not seen a good case for that necessity.
For the record, I have studied the Documentary Hypothesis – as has pretty much anyone who’s ever taken a course in Old Testament history – and found it interesting and at one time agreeable. However, as my study has continued, I’ve found there’s really nothing in it that is exegetically compelling. I’ve largely abandoned it, especially in the case of the Pentateuch. This has been frequently the case of the past several decades in Protestant theology I know, though I can’t speak of its standing with Catholic theologians. Again, like the creation models, this subject goes far beyond the scope of this simple essay.
I will make one comment regarding the Flood, since I remember it being mentioned in the podcast. There is no reason not to consider the Flood as a historical event. Of ancient myths, one of the most universal is the Flood Myth all with a common structure of a divine judgment and the building of a large vessel by a man to save himself, family and animals. The broad consistency of the story primitives argues well for a historical event. From a biblical perspective, I believe the real discussion is about whether this Flood was a universal or a global event. The former is a Flood sufficient to destroy all humanity, but does not necessarily cover the whole world. The latter, of course, does cover the entire planet. Both interpretations are valid translations of the Hebrew. As I said, though, this really is a discussion for another time.
Finally, I would like to close with these thoughts. Debates of this sort are certainly worthwhile, but they cannot be something that is divisive. Above all, the interpretation of Genesis is not a test of orthodoxy or of salvation and it is unbiblical to presume otherwise. You may not agree with a particular interpretation of the Genesis account, but that does not mean it is not a valid perspective. The discussion can be had without challenging the truth of the Bible or its revelation of God to man. Indeed, the real value of debating the Genesis interpretation is that the discussion brings us closer to God. In doing so we both strengthen our own faith and glorify God. And isn’t that why we are here?
A Short Annotated Bibliography
The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation; David G. Hagopian, editor. A formal written debate on the Young Earth, Old Earth and Framework models by legitimate scholars. One of the best works you will find on the subject for the serious enquirer. This is an honest scholarly debate done with a Christ-like attitude by all.
God’s Word to Israel; Joseph Jensen, O.S.B. One of the standard Catholic texts on Old Testament history and interpretation, it is nevertheless a useful study for protestants as well. It does a fine job explaining difficult passages. The book is written from the perspective of the Documentary Hypothesis, but even though I disagree with that hermeneutically this is still a worthwhile book.
Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine; Wayne Grudem. This is simply one of the best systematic theology texts available. With regard to the scope of this discussion, Grudem addresses the various interpretations fairly and without bias. I strongly recommend this book for anyone serious about theology.
Report of the Creation Study Committee. This is a document prepared by a committee of the Presbyterian Church of America. That means you can expect a very conservative and very reformed (read: Calvinist) approach. Even so, they take a very fair and unbiased discussion of the creation models and make a good defense for the orthodoxy of the three principle models. This document can be found at the PCA History Archive.
Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy; Dr. Hugh Ross. This is a good introductory work in the creation debate, though it is decidedly from the Old Earth perspective. Ross is one of my favorite Old Earth apologists. This book may be a bit dated. You can check for more up-to-date work at Reasons To Believe.