On Reading Genesis ‘Literally’

genesis bookIn many popular debates between ‘creationists’ and ‘scientists’ over questions of origins (such as the recent Ham vs. Nye debate), one very important question rarely comes up. That question is this: How should we read the early chapters of Genesis? Quite often, debaters on both sides simply assume that Genesis should be read as a literal and scientific historical account of how God created the earth, step by step. Scientists then reject Genesis as not being scientifically viable while creationists attempt to prove how Genesis does recount reliable science.

But why should we read Genesis in this way? (See also, my post on reading the Bible ‘literally’ here). The ancients were not concerned with scientific questions! They tended to employ their ‘science’ – what they observed  phenomenologically about creation – in the service of their cosmogonies and religious worldviews. If God had wanted to give them a modern scientific explanation they wouldn’t have understood any of it anyway (quarks and quarks, microbiology, general and special relativity theory, and other modern ideas would have sounded like utter nonsense). So, instead of speaking scientifically, God accommodated God’s revelatory message to them. God descended to their level to speak to them in language they could understand. As St. Augustine put it,

“Perhaps Sacred Scripture in its customary style is speaking with the limitations of human language in addressing men of limited understanding. … The narrative of the inspired writer brings the matter down to the capacity of children.” (St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

So, a key question to ask is: how does the actual text of Genesis ‘want’ to be read? What clues does the text itself give us  about its meaning and focus? Genesis is an ancient text. A very ancient text. And we should be careful about imposing our own views about what the text must say without carefully considering the kind of text that it is. How do we know what kind of text it is? By paying close attention to genre, grammatical structure, literary style and devices, and contextual issues (its context in Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the rest of the canon; its historical and cultural context in the Ancient Near East).

Another important question that often does not get addressed (people simply make assumptions about it) is: how do we integrate modern scientific knowledge with our reading of Scripture and with our theology? Does science even get a voice? If so, how strong a voice? This is a huge issue, which I cannot address right now (I’ve posted some other thoughts on this question here). But I do want to suggest that science should get a significant voice, particularly when we are asking questions about nature and physical reality (which is what science is designed to study and does so with impressive results). A good axiom is: the nature of the reality being studied must determine the methods we employ to study it. Spiritual truths must be discerned spiritually (aided by divine revelation); truths concerning the natural world must be determined by methods befitting the physical nature of the natural world (i.e., science).

On the relationship between theology and knowledge about creation, consider the wisdom of St. Augustine (4th – 5th century):

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?”

– St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Consider also the wisdom of John Calvin (16th century):

“If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf, were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God?”

– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II.2.15.

Perhaps the worst tragedy in all of this is that when we do not consider such questions, we fail to hear the message of Genesis as God actually intended it. We miss out on hearing the voice of God as God intended to speak! I have found that when we read Genesis according to the questions and issues it is actually addressing (rather than our modern problems), its message is so much more powerful and wonderful! I will devote a future post to discussing the powerful, life changing truths that Genesis teaches, truths that were quite revolutionary in their own time and continue to be today.

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