Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Biblical Literalism and Genesis

For many Christians, Biblical exegesis can be summarised with the popular line, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” It is particularly popular with fundamentalist organisations such as Answers in Genesis, who promote a literalist interpretation of Genesis that posits a young earth and special creation. Needless to say, such organisations are aware that a literal interpretation of Genesis is directly contradicted by science, which has amassed a huge body of evidence in favour of an ancient universe and an evolutionary origin of the species. Their response has been to use one of two approaches. The first is to rebut the evidence for an ancient earth and common descent. The second is to argue that a literal interpretation of Genesis will always trump scientific evidence, no matter how strong.

This approach is in fact part of the foundation clauses of creation science organisations. For example, in the AiG Statement of Faith (point 6 section 3) they assert:
By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information. [1]
In short, this is little more than the popular slogan “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” expanded. While no Christian who takes the Bible seriously would ever quibble with the general concept that genuine Divine revelation ought to settle dispute, it is not unreasonable to argue whether a literal interpretation of Scripture is the correct way to interpret the creation narrative. When one examines literalism, huge problems quickly become apparent.

The first is of course being able to justify the decision to interpret Genesis literally, especially when that decision was also made by “fallible people who do not possess all information.” The second is that it is a highly polarising position to take, since it alienates the entire scientific community, and by implication any Christian who is trying to reconcile a modern scientific understanding of the world with his or her faith. Not a few Christians have abandoned their faith [2] because they found it impossible to reconcile Biblical literalism with modern science. Those who do accept modern science and retain their faith have been subject to not a little hostility by those who regard even accepting a great age of the earth, let alone evolution as tantamount to heresy [3].

Those who are aware of the overwhelming evidence in favour of an ancient earth [4] and common descent [5] have found countering this mindset difficult. The problem is not that the line “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” is wrong per se, since one could view it as an unsophisticated version of sola scriptura [6]. The real problem for Christians who accept the authority of Scripture and an evolutionary origin of life (and these two principles, pace both the new atheists [7] and the creationists, are not irreconcilable [8]) is one of eisegesis. Young earth creationists have simply assumed – by definition, to quote the AiG statement of faith – that Genesis is to be interpreted in a literal manner, or as a scientific textbook on the origins of the universe.

The problem becomes more acute when creationists argue that any attempt to reconcile even the vast age of the earth with Christianity is theologically dangerous. AiG assert:
Sincere Christians have bought into the lie that the earth is billions of years old, and have compromised the words of Scripture to fit this view. This has caused much confusion as the church begins to doubt that Scripture is accurate and authoritative—if the Bible can’t be trusted when it plainly teaches that God created in six days, then how do we know we can trust it in other areas?...This is a very slippery slope that leads toward unbelief, and the minds of those on the slope become more unsettled the farther down they go. [9]
Such concerns are hardly new. The Seventh Day Adventist creationist George McCready Price argued in 1923 that:
Surely it is useless to expect people to believe in the predictions given in the last chapters of the Bible, if they no not believe in the record of the events described in its first chapters. [10]
This is the heart of the problem for those who accept evolution and the authority of the Bible. No matter how compelling the evidence for common descent and an ancient earth, it will be simply ignored while Christians view the integrity of the Bible and its message of salvation as being based on accepting a literal interpretation of Genesis. Furthermore, while some Christians continue to link any deviation from a young earth with apostasy, then any scientific evidence will be rejected unless it is seen to confirm a young earth [11].

One of the most powerful examples of how this a priori assumption in the primacy of literalism can blind even the brilliant is in the life of Kurt Wise, the creationist geologist. Wise is best known for being one of Stephen Gould's PhD students. Despite his first-rate academic qualifications, he maintains that a literalist interpretation of Genesis trumps any amount of scientific evidence. Richard Dawkins, in a review of “In Six Days: Why 50 Choose to Believe in Creation” observes:
It is actually quite moving, in a pathetic kind of way. He begins with his childhood ambition. Where other boys wanted to be astronauts or firemen, the young Kurt touchingly dreamed of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaching science at a major university. He achieved the first part of his goal, but became increasingly uneasy as his scientific learning conflicted with his religious faith. When he could bear the strain no longer, he clinched the matter with a Bible and a pair of scissors. He went right through from Genesis 1 to Revelations 22, literally cutting out every verse that would have to go if the scientific worldview were true. At the end of this exercise, there was so little left of his Bible that
...try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.
Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.
See what I mean about honest? Understandably enough, creationists who aspire to be taken seriously as scientists don’t go out of their way to admit that Scripture...trumps evidence...Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless. [12]
Wise is not alone in placing his literalist interpretation of Genesis above scientific evidence, no matter how strong that evidence may be. Todd Wood is a creationist biochemist and associate professor of Science at Bryan College (Dayton Tennessee). In a recent blog post, he stated:
What is the reason for my hope? My hope is Christ crucified and risen. I have hope because I'm a sinner saved by grace. That's my whole reason. It's not because I can refute evolution (I can't) or because I can prove the Flood (I can't) or because I can make evolutionists look silly (I don't). [13]
Overcoming this mindset will be difficult. While people continue to accept – as Wise does – that the origins debate is framed in terms of evolution versus Scripture, no amount of scientific evidence will shift them. It is not that the scientific evidence for evolution is flimsy. The evidence for common descent is in fact overwhelming. Both Wood and Wise have accepted creationism not because of the evidence, but because of an a priori assumption that the only way to interpret Genesis is via literalism. My own experience reflects this – there are some who privilege a literal interpretation of Genesis and ignore the scientific evidence. The only way out of this impasse is to demonstrate primarily on Scriptural grounds that Biblical literalism not a viable way of interpreting Genesis, and in turn show what Genesis really meant to the target audience. Only then can we address the issue of the antiquity of the earth, and common descent.

Divine Accommodation

The foundation clause in the BASF is unambiguous in stating how Christadelphians have always viewed the authority of Scripture:
THE FOUNDATION -- That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation. [14]
This is critical. Any attempt to provide a coherent defence of the Faith needs to do so subject to two constraints: respect for the authority of Scripture, as well as respect for the scientific data that impacts upon such an understanding. This has a long and impeccable Christadelphian tradition. John Thomas, writing in Elpis Israel argued:
Fragments, however, of the wreck of this pre-Adamic world have been brought to light by geological research, to the records of which we refer the reader, for a detailed account of its discoveries, with this remark, that its organic remains, coalfields, and strata, belong to the ages before the formation of man, rather than to the era of the creation, or the Noahic flood. [15] - (Emphasis mine)
Thomas' harmonisation of Genesis and geology was consistent with the approaches taken by conservative Christian scholars in the first half of the 19th century. The evangelical historian Mark Noll gives a representative example of this approach:
In 1812, in his inaugural address as the first professor at Princeton Seminary, Archibald Alexander intimated the reasons for being open to scientific conclusions: “Natural history, chemistry, and geology have sometimes been of important service in assisting the Biblical student to solve difficulties contained in Scripture; or in enabling him to repel the assaults of adversaries which were made under cover of these sciences.” [16]
Herein lies the problem. How do we deal with problems which arise when a particular interpretation of Scripture is flatly contradicted by scientific evidence? For those who adopt a 'two book approach' [17] the answer is either the scriptural interpretation is faulty, or the scientific argument is invalid. The question of determining when and how a particular interpretation of Scripture is faulty is the one I wish to address here.[18]

Literalists claim that Genesis must be read literally. For example, Genesis 1v30 is used to back up the claim that every animal was created herbivorous. Appeals to scientific evidence are simply ignored, because of this a priori commitment to literalism. What literalists forget however is that literalism involves conflict not only in areas such as evolutionary biology which they dismiss out of hand, but in areas such as observational astronomy and history. These are disciplines which even YEC regard as uncontroversial, and whose findings they accept without demur.

For example, there are many verses [19] which when interpreted literally appear to teach geocentrism or even a flat earth. The traditional response has been to claim they are either poetry, or phenomenal language, that is, describing events from an observer’s point of view. While it is true that many of these verses occur in poetry,[20] the problem with this response is that it is simply assuming the ancient authors knew the earth was a globe revolving around the sun. In fact, the Copernican view of the solar system has been uncontested for less than half a millennium [21]. The idea that the earth was a sphere can be confidently dated – at least in Greece – to the Pythagoreans [22]. Prior to that, the very ideas of a spherical earth and heliocentrism were simply unknown. The young earth creationist is inconsistent in his Biblical literalism, by accepting the findings of science in observational astronomy and interpreting parts of the Bible in light of this evidence, while insisting a literal interpretation trumps other areas of science such as geology and evolutionary biology.

Another area is the cosmological model of the world employed by the Hebrews. The idea that the firmament was an expanse is actually a fairly modern interpretation. [23] The word translated firmament in Genesis 1 does not mean atmosphere, but solid expanse. For example, both Brown Driver and Briggs and Swanson's Dictionary of Biblical Languages note that the word raqia' refers both to a flat expanse as if of ice [24], as well as the vault of heaven which the Hebrews regarded as a solid space which could hold up heavenly objects such as a throne or water [25]. This is made apparent when the word occurs in Ezekiel 1 and 10, where it most certainly refers to something solid. The scholarly consensus is that firmament does indeed refer to something solid, which strongly implies the ancient Hebrews saw the world as a flat surface covered by a solid dome over which was held water, an idea which is at variance to what we know today. Again, literalists do not interpret Genesis 1 literally when it speaks of a solid firmament, but do so when it appears to teach all animals were created herbivores, even though the evidence in against this is overwhelming. [26]

Interpreting these passages literally – as if they were 21st century historical narratives – lies at the heart of this problem. Its resolution I contend is relatively straightforward, and involves recognising that Scripture can contain concessions to the pre-scientific knowledge of the day, without jeopardising eternal truth. In the conclusion to an article on concordism, Paul Seely writes:
Surely, it is not God's will for evangelicals to uphold interpretations of the Bible which violate its historical-grammatical meaning. If we are really free to rewrite the Bible, then the Bible means absolutely nothing. I believe that there is a much more biblical way to relate science to Scripture than either by rewriting science or by rewriting the Bible. 
The biblical approach that I believe better relates science to the Bible is to accept the historical-grammatical meaning of Genesis 1. Admit that it reflects the cosmology of the second millennium B.C., and that modern science presents a more valid picture of the universe. Then, recognize the fact that the theological message of Genesis 1 stands out in such superior contrast to the mythological accounts of creation (both ancient and modern) that even so radical a critic as Gunkel could see the difference. Finally, draw what seems to me the obvious conclusion: Science and the Bible are complementary...
It is time for evangelicals to lay aside extra-biblical definitions of biblical inspiration, and agree with Jesus that inspired Scripture can contain concessions. Genesis 1 is a concession. Or, as a modern missionary, aware of the imperative need for divine revelation to be clothed in the terms of the culture to which it comes, has explained: Genesis 1 is a case of divine contextualization. [27]

This may appear new – even challenging – to many, but this concept of Divine revelation being framed according to the knowledge of the day has a long history, dating back (in Protestant circles at least) to John Calvin. In his commentary on Genesis 1v6, he writes: 
Moses describes the special use of this expanse, to divide the waters from the waters from which word arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theater which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses. [28]  (Emphasis mine) 
Calvin wrote when the Copernican model of the solar system was yet to win universal assent. However, even he realised that a straightforward reading of Genesis taught that there were waters above the firmament. Two points are worth stressing. Firstly, Calvin observes that those who were interested in astronomy seek elsewhere for that knowledge. The Bible was not intended to give a summary of how the universe was made in scientific detail. Secondly, he observes that Genesis is framed according to how the common man – the 'rude and unlearned' – perceived the universe. Calvin makes this principle more explicit in his commentary on verse 16:
Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage.[29] - (Emphasis mine)
This is perhaps as clear a definition of divine accommodation as one could expect to see. The Scriptures are framed according to common usage. It is simply a mistake to assume that our frame of reference, utterly steeped in modern science is the correct one in which to view a revelation given thousands of years ago in a pre-scientific era.

Apart from Seely, Calvin's principle of Divine Accommodation has won acceptance from other scholars. Peter Enns  notes:
Calvin understood how, in inspiring Scripture, God accommodated himself to the historical context to which he spoke, and this has remained a Reformed trajectory. For example, regarding Gen 1, in discussing the “waters above the firmament”...of Gen 1: 6, Calvin concludes that such an understanding of the heavens is an accommodation to what the “rude and unlearned may perceive” and that whoever “wishes to learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” [30]
while Kenton Sparks points out:
Although the Reformers and many others - to the misfortune of Copernicus - failed to recognize the potential role of accommodation in the astronomical debates of the time, this does not mean that Calvin was unaware, in principle that accommodation played an important role in the Bible's description of the cosmos. His work is well known for its rather clear enunciation of accommodation, even in his Genesis commentary. [31]
One should not, Calvin says, believe "by faith" that there are waters above the firmament when one knows good and well that this is not the case. Genesis merely accommodates itself to the ancient view that such waters existed...Because the text reflects an accommodation to the ancient view of the time, says Calvin "it is to no purpose to dispute whether this be the best and legitimate order or not." In other words, for Calvin, accommodation was a useful interpretative tool because it made irrelevant in such cases any questions about the Bible's correctness.

Literalism is a flawed exegetical paradigm not just because it assumes that the creation narrative is designed to teach us about how God created the universe, but because it is inconsistently applied. If consistently applied, literalism teaches a flat earth with a solid dome overhead, in which are set the stars and over which are contained the 'waters above.' While it is true that the Bible literally teaches these concepts, this needs to be read as an example of Divine accommodation to pre-scientific world views, an idea which is hardly new or radical. 

The Framework Model and Divine Polemic 

There have been a number of approaches to harmonise Genesis and science, once the evidence from geology made it clear that the earth was considerably older than 6000 years. Two of the best known have been the day-age and the gap theories. Unfortunately, such strong concordist approaches are no longer viable. In an exhaustive study on the history of geology and Christianity, Davis Young concludes that...
A review of 300 years of literalistic and concordistic harmonizations between the biblical text and the results of empirical geological study shows that there has been absolutely no consensus among evangelical Christians about interpretation of the details of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood...Perhaps the time has come to make the adjustment, in light of the extrabiblical evidence, away from the idea that the biblical text gives us a scientifically verifiable history of the planet. 
Concordism has been unable to provide a satisfactory agreement between the biblical text and geological knowledge. Concordistic efforts have never been able to do justice to the fourth day of creation and to the relative positioning of the third and fifth days of creation in relationship to geological knowledge. On the other hand the variation of suggestions further demonstrates that concordism has not helped us to understand "scientifically relevant" biblical texts any more than has literalism. Concordism, after 250 years, has also failed and no longer may be assumed to provide a fruitful approach for achieving an appropriate biblical view of geology. [32]

Seely [33] provides examples of where even a sequential reading of the events of creation in Genesis 1 cannot be reconciled with what science has shown about the origin of the earth and the life on it. For example, Genesis starts with water, followed by dry land. This is the reverse of what we know from science, where water came after the earth solidified. The other example is the creation of the sun, moon and stars after the earth was created. This is of course irreconcilable with the fact that the solar system is no older than five thousand million years, while the universe is around fourteen thousand million years old. This sort of strong concordism – as Seely and Young have pointed out is unworkable.

One more line of evidence exists to highlight that a literal reading of Genesis is incompatible with a fairly solid corpus of scientific evidence about the age of the universe and the evolutionary origin of life. Meredith Kline [34] posed the question of whether the “modus operandi of divine providence was the same during the creation era as that of ordinary providence now.” [35] His argument was whether the traditional idea (predicated on the view that the days of creation form a chronological sequence) that God did not operate using natural processes, but instead used supernatural providence.

Part of Kline's argument involves an apparent mistranslation of Gen 2v4-7 which he argues would make Genesis 2 teach that man was created before vegetation, which would flatly contradict a literal reading of Genesis 1. Kline argues that the ASV (he wrote when extant Bible translations were largely restricted to the AV, RV, ASV and RSV) alone of the versions correctly translated these verses to avoid this contradiction.

Kline points out that the ASV of v5 [36] simply describes a point in time where there was no vegetation for one simple reason – there was no rain. He contends that this answers the question of whether natural providence operated during the creation week in the affirmative. Where his argument becomes convincing is in integrating the events described in Gen 2v5 with Genesis 1. Plants were created on the third day according to literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Yet, Gen 2v5 says there were no plans yet on the earth because there was no rain. Kline observes that:

...would it not have been droll to attribute the lack of vegetation to the lack of water either on "Sunday" when the earth itself was quite unfashioned or on "Monday" when there was nothing but water to be seen? Hence the twenty-four-hour day theorist must think of the Almighty as hesitant to put in the plants on "Tuesday" morning because it would not rain until later in the day! (It must of course be supposed that it did rain, or at least that some supply of water was provided, before "Tuesday" was over, for by the end of the day the earth was abounding with that vegetation which according to Gen. 2:5 had hitherto been lacking for want of water.) 
How can a serious exegete fail to see that such a reconstruction of a "Tuesday morning" in a literal creation week is completely foreign to the historical perspectives of Gen. 2:5?  [37] 

The problems faced by a literal interpretation in trying to consistently integrate Gen 2v5 with its parallel creation day in Genesis 1 are highlighted according to Kline by the fact that plants managed to survive without sun until the fourth day, yet they could not be planted because of a lack of rain, despite the fact that the ground had recently divided from the water.

Kline is correct here. It is difficult to maintain a literal chronological sequential reading of Genesis 1 and integrate it with Gen 2v5. However, as Kline and others have pointed out, the six days of creation are actually two sets of three days. The first set of three can be seen as the creation of domains or realms, while the second set of three are viewed as denoting the creation of inhabitants of, or rulers of these domains. (The second division of days 3 and 6 may appear not to follow this rule initially, but the pairing of man and vegetation gains clarity when viewed in the light of Genesis 2 where the humans are placed in a garden filled with vegetation.)

Set 1 (Creation of realms)

Day 1: creation of light
Day 2: creation of firmament separating waters
Day 3a: creation of dry land
Day 3b: creation of vegetation

Set 2 (Creation of inhabitants of realms)

Day 4: creation of sun / moon / stars
Day 5: creation of sea creatures / birds
Day 6a: creation of land animals
Day 6b: creation of man

This lays the foundation for the Framework interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative, as opposed to reading chronologically as a literal interpretation requires. As Kline says:
Purely exegetical considerations, therefore, compel the conclusion that the divine author has employed the imagery of an ordinary week to provide a figurative chronological framework for the account of his creative acts. And if it is a figurative week then it is not a literal week of twenty-four-hour days. Furthermore, once the figurative nature of the chronological pattern is appreciated the literalness of the sequence is no more sacrosanct than the literalness of the duration of the days in this figurative week. [38]
The Framework model has much to commend it. Mark Futato [39] responds to Kline's article (he states that his article is “complementary to Kline's”) and comes to the conclusion that Genesis 1-2 serves as a polemic [40] against Baalism, “because it had rained”.

The idea of Genesis as polemic has been increasingly gaining currency in scholarly circles, and deserves a wider audience if only to highlight to many that the literalism fostered by AiG and other creationist organisations is not the only way in which to interpret the Genesis narrative. Examples include Gerard Hasel, who asserts [41] that the Genesis cosmology:
…as presented in Gn 1:1-2:4a appears thus basically different from the mythological cosmologies of the ancient Near East. It represents not only a "complete break" with the ancient Near Eastern mythological cosmologies but represents a parting of the spiritual ways which meant an undermining of the prevailing mythological cosmologies. This was brought about by the conscious and deliberate antimythical polemic that runs as a red thread through the entire Gn cosmology. The antimythical polemic has its roots in the Hebrew understanding of reality which is fundamentally opposed to the mythological one.

Donald Gowan also sees a polemical agenda here by showing that in Genesis, the sun, moon and stars, which were worshipped in the ANE are shown not to be gods, but merely created entities:
The darkening of sun and moon, or darkness in general, appears frequently in prophetic judgement texts, reminding us again of the close association between Yahweh and light, from the creation story onward. Since the sun and moon were worshiped in virtually every culture of the ancient Near East, it was probably for polemical reasons that Genesis 1 separates the creation of light, on the first day, from that of the heavenly bodies, on the fourth day, and that independent relationship between Yahweh and light is also asserted in several of the eschatological passages of the OT. [42]
James McKeown looks at the issue of similarity between the Mesopotamian creation myths and Genesis, and states
The main difference is that Enuma Elish is unashamedly polytheistic while Genesis is not only monotheistic but is actually anti-polytheistic. Genesis takes every opportunity to deny divinity to heavenly bodies, referring to them as simply lights., In the same way, the account denies divinity to sea monsters, listing them as creatures God created in the same category as ordinary fish and fowl. Further evidence of the apologetic and polemic nature of the Genesis account is found when we compare it with the other Old Testament's references to creation Psalms, In contrast to these references, Genesis leaves mot a vestige of mythical language or thought; Genesis is a complete denial of the polytheistic and mythological Genesis, their very existence was denied. [43]
Genesis as polemic is an idea well accepted in scholarly circles, as the representative quotes indicate. Likewise, the idea that motifs and themes in the ANE were adapted and utilised in the OT is unsurprising. For example, the OT covenant framework is similar to those used in the ANE, particularly the Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty framework.[44] Other motifs that may have been redeployed include the concept of creation as the palace-temple of the deity. Ricky Watts [45] speculates that this motif, which is present in Enuma Elish (Ea building a temple on Apsu's body), and the Ugarit Baal cycle (Baal defeats Yam and a house-temple is formed for him) may utilised in the OT. He writes:
As the Great King, Elohim naturally creates realms for the lesser rulers (cf. Gen 1:16) as he forms his palace-temple out of the deep and gives order to and fills it. And as the Great King, having ordered his realm, he now rules over all in "Sabbath" rest (see Exod 20), sitting in the great pavilion of his cosmos-palace-temple (cf. Ps 93). [46]
Watts goes further, and argues that this creation as palace-temple of the victorious king metaphor spills into Revelation. He comments on the New Jerusalem of Rev 21 and writes:
The significance of these dimensions might lie in the observation that the size of the city corresponds to that of the then-known Greek world, while the height emphasizes the co-mingling of heaven and earth. In other words, the climax of the new creation is not the abandonment of the earth, but instead the coming of Yahweh himself to the earth to dwell among us. Here, then, is the climax of Genesis 1’s six-fold affirmation of the goodness of creation with its progression in both sets of days from heaven to earth. The final goal is not the destruction of creation, but rather the unification of heaven and earth such that the renewed earth itself now becomes Yahweh’s very throne room [47]
The Framework model and the idea of Genesis as Divine polemic have much to commend them, especially given how readily an eschatological view can be incorporated in them. [48] Furthermore, they have the advantage of being sensitive to the historical-grammatical context of the book, something which a misguided literalism completely fails to do. 


The Christadelphian community (along with other theologically conservative Christian sects) faces a challenge to which elements of it have been slow to respond. The evidence for an ancient earth and common descent of all life, including human beings – is overwhelming, yet the response by many has been either a partial acceptance of the evidence (old earth creationism) or a complete rejection of science on the grounds that a literal interpretation of Genesis overwhelms any amount of scientific evidence. For those who are scientifically literate, or have taken the trouble to examine the evidence dispassionately, this approach is unsatisfactory. The evidence that an evolutionary process has occurred is beyond dispute, and we run the risk of losing educated young people to unbelief if this failure to adequately engage the evidence from science continues.[49]

Again, this will be difficult. Many people reject evolution – or even an old earth – because they have accepted the false dilemma that a Christian can either choose between atheism and science or creationism and the Bible. When confronted with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or PZ Myers, many Christians find themselves agreeing with Kurt Wise, and choose God over science. Science itself is therefore seen as dangerous, and rejected. Because of this, no amount of evidence, no matter how convincingly put forward will convince a Christian who has decided a priori to privilege a literal interpretation over science. Reaching this audience requires demonstrating from Biblical grounds that literalism is untenable, hence this article paper.

What I have tried to show is that by applying literalism consistently to the Bible, it shows that definite concessions to a pre-scientific world view were made in order to get the theological message across. Not even a convinced YEC would believe the firmament to be solid, or that the sun revolves around the earth, yet a literal interpretation demands this.

In short, there is strong evidence to show that the Bible did not bother to correct the pre-Copernican cosmology accepted by everyone 4000 years ago. Rather, the Divine revelation was accommodated to the terms of the 'rude and ignorant' as Calvin put it. This however does not impact on the central message of the Bible. The message of salvation does not depend on whether the target audience believed in an old earth, a flat earth, or even a young earth. Likewise, the method of divine providence used to create all life is independent of the message that God is creator.

By insisting that all scientific evidence is to be rejected if it contradicts one particular interpretation of Genesis, literalists are not only alienating modern science – which is not a monolithic block of rabid atheists but a diverse group of people including sincere Christians – but running the risk of alienating current believers who one day may well realise that there is a conflict between an overly literal interpretation of Genesis and science, and choose to reject not only YEC, but the God of Abraham.

God is the author of the Bible, as well as the creator of the universe. He has given us his Holy word, and the ability to interpret it. If we are able to rightly divide the word of truth, we should also be able to study the natural world, and find no essential conflict. How can there be, since he is the Author of both?

This article originally appeared at my Facebook page here


[1] Accessed 29th April 2009

[2] The former young earth creationist Glenn Morton describes his crisis of faith in reconciling young earth creationism with the data from geology he saw when working in the oil industry, “My horror at what I was seeing only increased. There was a major problem; the data I was seeing at work, was not agreeing with what I had been taught as a Christian. Doubts about what I was writing and teaching began to grow. Unfortunately, my fellow young earth creationists were not willing to listen to the problems. No one could give me a model which allowed me to unite into one cloth what I believed on Sunday and what I was forced to believe by the data Monday through Friday. I was living the life of a double-minded man--believing two things.” See Happily, Morton has not lapsed into atheism. Instead, he is now a theistic evolutionist. Not all Christians have managed to retain their faith when trying to square biblical literalism with science. 

[3] Glenn Morton has related the hostility his change of mind engendered among his former YEC associates on his webpage here The evangelical geologist Steven Schimmrich also encountered similar abuse when debating another prominent creationist. See This is of course not indicative of the entire creationist community. The creationist geologist Kurt Wise is respected by both sides of the debate for his intellectual honesty, while the creationist biochemist Todd Wood has received similar recognition. However, one could argue that one example is one too many, given that such organisations are professedly Christian, and have an obligation to emulate their risen Saviour in all areas.

[4] An excellent overview of the subject is found in Dalrymple GB “The Age of the Earth” (1991 Stanford University Press). Although his criticism of evolution is thoroughly dated, Alan Hayward's last book “Creation and Evolution – The Facts and Fallacies” (Triangle 1985) contains a well-argued presentation of the evidence for an ancient earth and a critique of flood geology, which has been well received both by Christians and unbelievers. For those seeking more information on how rocks are dated, the Christian physicist Roger Wiens has written “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective” which provides the educated layperson an accessible introduction to the subject. See

[5] Within twenty years of the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species, hardly any scientist doubted the fact of common descent, even if debate about the mechanism behind evolutionary change continued (and still does). An excellent overview of the evidence for macroevolutionary change can be found in Theobald, Douglas L. "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent." The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.89. 2012. Web. 5 Jun. 2013 <>

[6] This of course presupposes that the exegete interprets the Bible in its cultural and historical context.

[7] Jerry Coyne is one of the more prominent advocates of this position. Typical of his position is this comment in a recent article in The New Republic “It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance.” See Coyne JA “Seeing and Believing” The New Republic. February 4th 2009

[8] Contrary to Coyne's assertion that believing in evolution and Christianity comes at the cost of cognitive dissonance, it is indeed possible to maintain both belief in the authority of the Bible and the overwhelming evidence in favour of evolution. Space precludes even an elaboration of how this is done, but not a few scholars have argued in favour of Genesis as a polemic against ANE creation myths. In short, Genesis teaches who made the universe, not how it was made. Admittedly, Genesis does presuppose a pre-scientific cosmology, but as Paul Seely points out, this is an example of divine accommodation. In many ways, the new atheists commit the same blunder as young earth creationists, by assuming that the only exegetical option allowable is literalism.

[9] See Accessed 29th April 2009

[10] George McCready Price Science and Religion in a Nutshell (Washington DC Review and Herald, 1923). Cited by Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdamans 1994)

[11] This is of course nothing other than confirmation bias. Glenn Morton, a former YEC who maintains a website on origins issues has proposed a model for creationist confirmation bias: “When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell's demon did for thermodynamics. Morton's demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data.” See Accessed 1st May 2009

[12] Dawkins R “Sadly, an Honest Creationist” Free Enquiry Magazine (2001) Vol 21, Number 4

[13] Wood T, “Give an Exegetical Answer” Friday April 17, 2009. Accessed 1st May 2009

[14] The Christadelphian Statement of Faith. Accessed 1st May 2009

[15] Thomas J “Elpis Israel” p 11 (14th Edition – Revised. 1979. Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association)

[16] Noll M “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” p 182 (1994 Eerdmans)

[17] In other words, God authored the Book of Life and the Book of Nature which makes it impossible for there to be any conflict between them, provided both are correctly interpreted.

[18] This is not to say that all points of conflict between science and religion are to be resolved in favour of science. For example, Christianity is itself a miraculous religion, since at its heart is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, an event which is inexplicable by science. Likewise, the miracles performed by Christ have no ready scientific explanation, but we reject the argument that since miracles are unscientific, they cannot occur. The problem is recognising where and when to overrule scientific objections, without sliding into obscurantism.

[19] Joshua 10:12, Job 26:11, Job 38:13, Psa 19:5-6, Ecc 1:5, Isaiah 38:8, Isa 40:22 have been used by geocentrists and adherents to the concept of a flat earth. The fact that extreme literalists cite these verses as proof of their beliefs is evidence that a literalist exegetical paradigm, when consistently applied, will provide beliefs that even young earth creationists regard as incorrect.

[20] It of course does not exclude the possibility that the writer may indeed believe in a flat earth

[21] Aristarchus of Samos did propose a heliocentric model in the 3rd century BC, but this did not win universal assent.

[22] Cambridge Illustrated History: Astronomy (Ed. Michael Hoskin). Cambridge University Press 1997

[23] Seely PH “The Firmament and the Water Above – Part 1: The meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8” Westminster Theological Journal (1991) 53:227-240

[24] Whitaker, R., Brown F., Driver S. R., & Briggs C A. (1997, c1906). The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: From A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles Briggs, based on the lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius (956.1). Oak Harbor WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[25] Swanson, J. (1997) Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLH 8385). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[26] Creationists make much of isolated examples of carnivores that display herbivorous behaviour. The truth is that carnivores are specialised meat eaters, whose teeth and digestive tract are adapted for meat eating. This assertion also ignores parasites and scavengers, both of whom would not survive as herbivores. In fact, example of predatory behaviour can be found back over 500 million years ago. 

[27] Seely PH “The First Four Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (1997) 49:85-95

[28] Calvin J “Commentary on Genesis Volume 1” (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) p 33

[29] ibid, p 37

[30] Enns P “Bible in Context: The Continuing Vitality of Reformed Biblical Scholarship” Westminster Theological Journal (2006) 68:203-218

[31] Sparks K, “The Sun Also Rises: Accommodation in Inscripturation and Interpretation,” in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics (ed. V. Bacote, L. C. Miguélez, and D. L. Okholm; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 112-32.

[32] Young DA “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part Two)” Westminster Theological Journal (1987) 49:257-304

[33] Seely PH “The First Four Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (1997) 49:85-95

[34] Kline MG “Because it Had Not Rained” Westminster Theological Journal (1958) 20:146-157

[35] ibid p 146

[36] The ASV translation is essentially similar to modern versions such as the NASV and the NIV.

[37] Kline op cit p 152

[38] ibid, p 156-157

[39] Futato MD “Because it Had Rained: A Study of Genesis 2:5-7 with Implications for Genesis 2:4-25 and Gen 1:1-2:3” Westminster Theological Journal (1998) 60:1-21.

[40] Futato argues that the structure of Genesis 1-2 is designed to focus on the creation of vegetation, and those who would live on vegetation, with special emphasis on rain. His argument is summarised at the end of the paper by the statement “from the beginning the God of Israel, not Baal, has been the provider of the rain that is the pre requisite of life. YHWH God of Israel has been the Lord of the rain from the beginning! Redemptive theology, as exemplified in texts like Deut 11:10-17 and 1 Kings 17-18, is rooted in the creation theology of Genesis 1-2. Redemption is rooted in creation. YHWH God of Israel claims to be the true and living God, the God whom Israel must serve to the exclusion of all rival deities, Baal in particular. This claim is most deeply rooted in the fact that YHWH God of Israel created all things by his powerful word (Ps 33:6), including the sending of the very first rains in the beginning.” p 20

[41] Hasel GF “The Significance of the Cosmology in Genesis 1 in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Parallels” Andrews University Seminary Studies (1972) 10:1-20

[42] Gowan DE “Eschatology in the Old Testament” (Continuum International 2000) p 122

[43] McKeown, James. Genesis. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. p 14

[44] For an overview, see Lopez RA “Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near East Covenants – Part 1” CTS Journal  (Fall 2003) p 92-111 and Lopez R “Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near East Covenants – Part 2” CTS Journal (Spring 2004) p72-106

[45] Watts R “Making Sense of Genesis 1” Accessed 2nd May 2009

[46] ibid

[47] ibid

[48] A legitimate criticism of seeing Genesis as polemic is that it appears to de-emphasise the centrality of Christ in creation. I would contend that the model thus described readily answers this objection. Much work of course remains to be done in this area.

[49] This subject is close to me since I suffered at least two major crises when dealing with the evidence over the ten years it took for me to move from YEC to theistic evolution. Sadly, not everyone manages to navigate this pathway with their faith intact. The fact that not a few atheists were once fervent young earth creationists shows that a naïve policy of demonising science and making creation science a cornerstone of faith will not prevent a loss of faith.