There’s a very real danger, I’m sure, of paying so much attention to theoretical questions about the origin of the cosmos that we neglect the much more practical ones about what it means to live as stewards of creation in the here-and-now. But the two things are related, and questions of origin do at least bring cosmology and theology into speaking distance with one another. And, in any case, Scripture itself begins with an account of the origin of the cosmos and so we have good warrant for giving it some air-time.
In fact, it’s the early chapters of Genesis that I want to reflect on just now. Christians (and others) continue to be unsure about how to read the accounts of creation in Genesis. I’d like to set out the main options that are available for those who have a high regard for the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
Lots of good stuff has been written about this, not least Henri Blocher’s In the Beginning. But I want to take as my main guide here David Wilkinson, in his book The Message of Creation (IVP). Wilkinson is both a scientist and a theologian. He is a Methodist minister and is currently Principal of St John’s College, Durham. He’s well qualified for the job.
One thing is clear: whatever sceptics may say about the early chapters of Genesis, they were regarded by Jesus and the early church as just as inspired and authoritative as any other part of the Bible (see Mt 19:4-6; Jn 1:1; 1 Cor 15:45, 47; 2 Cor 4:6; Eph 5:31; Jas 3:9; 2 Pet 3:5-6; Rev 22:2). Indeed, all Christians would agree that Genesis 1-3 gives us the basis for understanding the universe as created by God. But beyond that general agreement there is much difference of interpretation.
Here are the main options:-
1. Seven-Day Creationism
This view sees Gen 1-3 as literal history, describing how the Universe was created over a seven-day period just a few thousand years ago. It is a view promoted by the American Institute for Creation Research and the British Creation Resources Trust. Its approach to understanding the text of Scripture is straightforward. However, its understanding of science is not straightforward, since the generally accepted view is that the universe is at least 12 billion years old. One attempt to reconcile the supposed biblical date with the scientific data is to suppose that God created the universe very recently, but with the appearance of extreme antiquity. Another approach is to argue that scientists has got their dates completely wrong and that scientific data itself indicates that the earth is young.
This understanding of Genesis 1-3 has a number of problems: (a) there are indications within the text itself that it should be read figuratively rather than literalistically; (b) this position assumes that creation must have been instantaneous, rather than occuring over an extended period; but the biblical text does not require this; (c) the notion that God created the universe with an apparent age seems to involve a huge deception; and those biblical passages that speak of nature’s witness to God (e.g. Psa 19:1; Acts 17:22-31) are called into question; (d) the argument that modern science has made such a series of blunders about the nature and origin of the universe denies the work of so many scientists – both Christian and non-Christian – whose results have been trued and tested by the scientific community. It is easy to raise doubts about this or that piece of scientific evidence, but it is quite another matter to question the whole edifice.
2. The ‘Gap’ Theory
The ‘gap’ in question is between Gen 1:1 and Gen 1:2. Verse 1, it is suggested, refers to the original creation, which could have taken place billions of years ago. But then, relatively recently, the earth ‘became’ formless and void due to the ruin and destruction brought about by the fall of Satan. The rest of Gen 1 is an account, not of creation, but of re-creation.
The main objections to this view are, (a) most scholars do not think that ‘became’ is an allowable translation in verse 2; (b) there is little support in the rest of Scripture for the account of the fall of Satan required by this view.
3. The ‘Age-Day’ View
According to this view, the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 are not 24-hours days at all, but much more extended periods of time. It is then argued that Genesis 1 and the fossil record give a concordant view of the order of the creation events.
But, (a) there is little evidence in the text itself that the writer was using the word ‘day’ in this way. After all, he refers to ‘evening and morning’, and places the whole sequence in the context of a week; and (b) there are disagreements between the text and the fossil record as to the order of creative acts – for example, in Genesis the tress appear before marine creatures, and evening and morning before the Sun and the Moon.
4. Days of Revelation, not Creation
This view maintains that Genesis presents, not an account of creation itself, but of how God revealed creation to Adam. But Genesis 1:1 does not say that ‘God made known the heavens and the earth’, but that he ‘made the heavens and the earth’.
5. The Literary Approach
This approach begins by asking what kind of literature Gen 1 actually is. There are indications that the text is theological and polemic in nature, rather than scientific and descriptive. For example, on the seventh day book of Revelation picks up the imagery of Genesis (e.g. ‘serpent’, ‘tree of life’) in a way that suggests that it is being understood figuratively. Then again, the structure of Gen 1 makes good logical sense but less good chronological sense. Once more, there are indications that Gen 1 reflects a liturgical form and hat it was intended for use in worship; it is, in fact, more like poetry or hymn than like scientific history. ‘It is a meditation on the work of creation so that we can understand that the creation is related to God.’
Recognising Genesis 1 as primarily poetic does not turn it into a fable with no truth content or revelatory purpose. Real events can be presented an a symbolic way, just as in Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants, Mt 21:33-41. Gen 1 is true, but its true is theological rather than scientific. Galileo famously said, “The Bible does not tell us how the heavens go but how to go to heaven.”
If Genesis 1 had been written as a scientific text then, of course, few people would be able to understand it. Moreover, the scientific picture is constantly being modified, and if scientific language were used in Genesis then it would quickly have gone out of date. In Genesis, God communicates truth to all peoples in all ages.
With a robust understanding of Scripture and of science we can with confidence bring God’s two books together – the book of his Word and the book of his works. Since God is the author of both, we need not fear the truth in either, nor suspect that any contradiction will be found between then. On the contrary, they complement one another, so that our understanding of one sheds light on our understanding of the other.
J.I. Packer has a helpful summary of his views on the relation between the biblical creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) and contemporary scientific thinking about origins. This makes it clear that he regard the account as primarily theological rather than historical:-
- the narrative is a celebrating of the fact of creation and of the Creator’s wisdom, power and goodness, rather than an observational monitoring of stages in the creative process;
- the story focuses not on the cosmic system as a system, but on the Creator apart from whose will and word it would not at this moment exist;
- the narrative method is imaginative, pictorial, poetic and doxological…rather than clinically descriptive and coldly prosaic in the deadpan scientific manner;
- the Earth-centredness of the presentation reflects not scientific naivety about the solar system and out space, but theological interest in man’s uniqueness and responsibility under God on this planet;
- the evident aim of the story is to show its readers their own place and calling in God’s world, and the abiding significance of the sabbath as a memorial of creation, rather than to satisfy curiosity about the details of what happened long ago.
God’s Words, p60.
If Genesis does not teach science, what does it teach?
In a panel discussion on the origins of life Dr Andy Karplus (Professor of Biochemistry, Oregon State University) advocated a ‘theistic evolution’ position.
Such a position raises the question, ‘If you do not think that the first two chapters of Genesis teach science, what do they teach?’ Dr Karplus gave a helpful summary of the main doctrines taught in these chapters:-
- There is one all-powerful God, who is distinct from creation and created all things.
- The special position of humankind as created in God’s image.
- The goodness of creation, and the God who cares.
- The charge to be care-takers of the earth.
- A validation of both hard work and regular rest.
- A special relationship between a man and a woman.
- An explanation of a disrupted relationship between God and a promise of redemption.
John Stott comments that ‘God’s Word is designed to make us Christians, not scientists.’ It was not God’s purpose to reveal in Scripture what we could discover by means of observation and experimentation. Genesis 1-3 reveals four truths that we could not have learned from science:-
- God made everything.
- He made everything out of nothing.
- He made man male and female in his own image.
- Everything which he made was ‘very good’.
(Authentic Christianity, 89)
Calvin on Genesis and science
Moses is not analyzing acutely, like the philosophers, the secrets of nature; and these words show it. First he sets the planets and stars in the expanse of the heaven. Astronomers distinguish a number of spheres in the firmament and teach that the fixed stars have their own place in it. Moses mentions two great luminaries. The astronomers prove with strong arguments that the star Saturn, which seems small because of its distance, is larger than the moon.
All this shows that Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them.
The study of astronomy not only gives pleasure but is also extremely useful. And no one can deny that it admirably reveals the wisdom of God. Therefore, clever men who expend their labor upon it are to be praised and those who have ability and leisure ought not to neglect work of that kind.
Moses did not wish to keep us from such study when he omitted the details belonging to the science. But, since he had been appointed guide of rude and unlearned men rather than of the learned, he could not fulfill his duty except by coming down to their level. If he had spoken of matters unknown to the crowd, the unlearned could say that his teaching was over their heads. In fact, when the Spirit of God opens a common school for all, it is not strange that he chooses to teach especially what can be understood by all.
When the astronomer seeks the true size of stars and finds the moon smaller than Saturn, he gives us specialized knowledge. But the eye sees things differently; and Moses adapts himself to the ordinary view.
God has stretched out his hand to us to give us the splendor of the sun and moon to enjoy. Great would be our ingratitude if we shut our eyes to this experience of beauty! There is no reason why clever men should jeer at Moses’ ignorance. He is not explaining the heavens to us but describing what is before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their own deeper knowledge. Meanwhile, those who see the nightly splendor of the moon are possessed by perverse ingratitude if they do not recognize the goodness of God.