Is God Science reading Genesis 1 ‘properly’?
Published: 7 June 2011(GMT+10)
Accepting millions of years puts death, suffering and disease before Adam and Eve, destroying the basis for the Gospel.
The DVD God Science1 addresses the conflict between the Bible and ‘science’, a vital issue for Christian young people. They often flounder at high school and university when they encounter secular ideas that contradict what they have been taught at church. It’s vital also for evangelism. Those who have grown up in our secular culture think the Bible has been discredited by modern science. They need answers.
On the DVD John Dickson, Greg Clarke and Simon Smart of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) in Sydney, Australia, interview 18 prominent scientists, historians and philosophers about belief in God in an age of science.
The CPX team has connections with many evangelical organizations, such as the Sydney Anglicans (which are more conservative but strongly theistic evolutionist), the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and the Bible Society Australia.2 It is likely to be viewed by many within the evangelical movement.
The message in a nutshell
Many evangelical scholars do not accept that Genesis is metaphor but maintain it is describing real history
The message of the DVD to Christians is that we should believe the scientists when they tell us the earth and everything on it has evolved over billions of years. The DVD says we need to realize this is a fact, and there is no disagreement on this among scientists.3
This message clearly contradicts what the Bible says, and leads people to think that Christianity is ridiculous. The producers of the DVD realize this. John Dickson, in the interview “Reading the Genesis creation accounts” says:
“If you take the Bible seriously the Bible says the world was created in six days … On the other hand you’ve got skeptics like Richard Dawkins who think the whole thing is proof that the whole of Christianity is ridiculous because the scientific evidence is overwhelming, they say, that the earth is very old, and that it certainly wasn’t made in six days.”
“Some people say that the very existence of dinosaurs, the age of the earth, which scientists know it’s a very old earth now, these things just wipe the Bible out of the equation.”
But it is not just skeptics like Richard Dawkins who can see this glaring contradiction between the Bible and evolution over millions of years. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code (see our refutations), was confronted by the problem, not as a skeptic, but as a devoutly religious high-school student:
“I was raised Episcopalian, and I was very religious as a kid. Then, in eighth or ninth grade, I studied astronomy, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. I remember saying to a minister, ‘I don’t get it. I read a book that said there was an explosion known as the Big Bang, but here it says God created heaven and earth in seven days. Which is right?’”4
What should we tell those struggling with this question? Dan Brown did not receive any help:
“Unfortunately, the response I got was, ‘Nice boys don’t ask that question.’ A light went off, and I said, ‘The Bible doesn’t make sense. Science makes much more sense to me.’ And I just gravitated away from religion.”
God Science has a different answer: There’s no contradiction. You need to read the Bible properly.
Advocating the literary theory
This conflict has been around for two hundred years now, since the rise of new geological ideas in the early 1800s. These ideas came from the anti-biblical assumption of uniformitarianism, which ignores the historicity of the Genesis Flood.5 It is well known that Charles Darwin lost his faith in the reliability of Genesis because of this new geological paradigm, and he turned his talent to developing his theory of evolution.6
Over the years, evangelical academics have taken four main approaches to resolve this conflict. Three involve reinterpreting Genesis; one involves reinterpreting ‘science’.
Over the years, evangelical academics have taken four main approaches to resolve this conflict. Three involve reinterpreting Genesis; one involves reinterpreting ‘science’. Theologian R.C. Sproul discusses these in this commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith: 1) the gap theory, 2) the day-age theory, 3) the framework hypothesis, and 4) six-day creation.7
In the interview John Dickson presents only the framework theory, also called the literary interpretation, arguing that it resolves the conflict (despite its many problems).8 It says, in effect, that the only reason why people think there is a conflict is because they are not reading the Bible properly; they “misunderstand the basic genre of the text of Genesis.” He goes on:
“It seems to me that both the six-day creationists and the skeptics are reading Genesis 1 the same way. They are reading it literalistically. And I actually draw a distinction between literalistic and literal. A literal interpretation, which is my own interpretation, says, ‘What was the author actually trying to convey through the literary methods available to him?’ And a literalistic approach to Genesis says, ‘Well, I’m not so interested in what the author intended to say. What is actually said? What do the words actually say and don’t worry about whether there is any metaphor or whatever in it.’ So it’s a genre question for me.”
How is it possible to know what the author was ‘actually trying to convey’ unless we seriously examine what he actually said?
This is a clever ploy, to attach a negative label to those you disagree with and marginalize their position. His distinction between literal (read “educated/informed”) and literalistic (read “simplistic/narrow”) may sound sophisticated but there are important questions that Dickson needs to answer. How is it possible to know what the author was “actually trying to convey” unless we seriously examine what he actually said? By this clever tactic he has set himself into a position where he is impervious to arguments from Scripture. He can simply rebut anything from Scripture he does not like by claiming the plain reading is not what the author intended. Once we start reading our own ideas into the text we can make it say anything we wish. The Reformation principle is that we use Scripture to interpret Scripture.
He is wrong to say six-day-creationists are not interested in the literary form of the text. See, for example, the article Should Genesis be taken literally? where issues of genre, poetry and metaphor are discussed. It is the so-called literary approach that is misreading the text, as we will see.
How does it resolve the conflict?
So, how does the literary approach resolve the conflict between ‘science’ and the Bible? What are we to do with creation in six-days? John Dickson explains:
“It’s like a parable. You know, when you come across a parable in the New Testament you know what its intention is. It may or may not be a true story. The parable of the Good Samaritan; it may or may not have actually happened but that is not the point of the story. Or when you come to the Book of Revelation there are plenty of different images of beasts coming up out of water and so on and Jesus returning to earth riding a white horse. The point isn’t that these things will happen in that concrete way.”
But it is a wrong to compare Genesis with the Book of Revelation and conclude that the events described in Genesis 1 did not really happen in the concrete way described. Revelation is quite different from historical narrative, from the history we find in John’s Gospel or the Book of Acts. The text itself in Revelation lets us know that it is not concrete history—there is now even a term for its genre, ‘apocalyptic literature’, since “Apocalypse” is another name for the book. For example, John says he was “in the Spirit” (Rev. 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). In places the metaphorical or mysterious meaning of his vision is clear because it is explained (e.g. “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” Rev. 1:20). There are no clues like this in Genesis that point to any hidden meaning.
It is wrong, too, to compare Genesis with the parables. Although parables are stories designed to teach a specific lesson, almost all are about common situations that the hearers were familiar with. In the Good Samaritan a man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a common sight on that road. He was set on by thieves, a constant hazard for travellers, and shunned by the priest and Levite, for whom this was a regular route. In other words, although the parables were told for a purpose, they were grounded in reality. And again, Jesus explained to the disciples what the terms meant, e.g. the seed in the Parable of the Sower was the Word of God.
Also, parables don’t name names. So the parable of the Good Samaritan would not have been adequate to bring the thieves to justice over that specific attack. For that purpose the judge would insist that there be witnesses to provide dates, times, people and places, and tell what they saw happen. This is what Genesis is like. It establishes the fact that God created this world at a specific time in history, and it ties this event into the rest of world history through its description of what happened, the genealogies, and the other events described in Genesis. That God really created in history establishes his ownership on this earth and everything in it (Psalm 100:3).
Why say it is a parable?
So, John Dickson says Genesis is not describing concrete events—that we are not dealing with historical prose. Instead he says Genesis is a parable or a metaphor. Greg Clarke asks Dickson why.
“Well the things that convince most scholars that we are dealing with a highly literary artistic form are things like parallelism, rhythm and number symbolism—number symbolism especially. For instance, the opening sentence of Genesis 1 is seven words, OK. The second sentence is 14 words. Immediately we are in this place of seven. Anyone who knows the Bible knows that the number seven is the number symbolizing perfection. When you spot that you notice all sorts of things like the word ‘heaven’, one half of the created order, appears 21 times, the word ‘earth’ 21 times, so multiples of seven. And phrases like ‘And God saw that it was good’ occur seven times and of course the whole thing is created around seven days, seven stages. So it should be quite clear to an ancient reader that the author of Genesis, whatever his actual views of physical origins, was trying to convey something through the artistry of literature.”
First, many evangelical scholars do not accept that Genesis is metaphor but maintain it is describing real history. Some of these include R.C Sproul, Douglas Kelly, Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, Joseph Pipa, David Hall, John Whitcomb and Robert McCabe.
Second, the fact Genesis describes God as creating in seven days (resting on the seventh), in seven stages, does not mean it did not actually happen that way. The Children of Israel marched around Jericho on seven days and on the seventh day they marched around seven times. Do we deny this was a concrete event in history, and say instead that it was a parable to illustrate a spiritual truth?
Third, number symbolism does not disqualify the account as concrete history. The same artistry with the number seven occurs in the Gospel of John. Here are some:9
- John recounts seven public signs that Jesus performed, each designed to show that Jesus is God.10
- John presents seven “I am’s”.11
- In John chapter 6 the Greek word translated “bread” occurs 21 times, a multiple of seven.
- In the same chapter the Greek word translated “loaves” occurs 21 times.
- In the Bread of Life discourse the expression “bread from heaven” occurs seven times.
- A similar expression “comes down from heaven” also occurs seven times.
No one would suggest that John in his Gospel is not describing concrete history because of the way his Gospel features the number seven.
Parallelism is a distinguishing feature of Hebrew poetry and Genesis displays very little of this. The New International Version makes this easy to see because of the way it formats the parallel lines. For example, Genesis 1:27 is formatted as poetic, as is Genesis 2:23. But, the fact that something is expressed in a poetic form does not mean it is not describing history. The songs of Moses and of Miriam after the Israelites were delivered through the Red Sea (Exodus 15) are written as poetry but they are describing a real historical event. The same is true of Deborah and Barak’s song in Judges 5.
So, the reasons John Dickson gives for avoiding Genesis 1 as history are not valid.
Not a new idea?
The Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) accepted that God created in six literal days.
John Dickson claimed that the literary approach, of reading Genesis as parable or metaphor, is not a new development in response to the conflict with modern ‘science’. He says it is part of a significant movement of biblical interpretation going back to the first century:
“So the Jewish scholar of the first century Philemon of Alexandria interpreted Genesis 1 in a non-concrete way, in a metaphorical way. And a number of the early church fathers did: Clement of Alexandra, Origen, Augustine, St Ambrose of Milan right through to the Venerable Bede and Thomas Aquinas. All interpreted Genesis 1, not in a literalistic way, but in a more symbolic, theological way. And this is long before the rise of science, before science was a problem for a literalistic interpretation of Genesis.”
This argument is irrelevant. The important issue is what the passage actually says, which we determine by a proper reading of the text, not from how other people have interpreted it. Anyway, the majority of scholars of the past overwhelmingly interpret Genesis creation in 6 literal days some 6,000 years ago, not over millions of years. These include Josephus,Theophilus of Antioch, Methodius, Basil the Great, Lactantius, Victorinus of Pettau, Ephrem the Syrian, Cyril of Jerusalem, as well as Martin Luther, John Calvin.12 So did Ambrose, despite Dickson’s claim, as he commented on Genesis 1 as follows:
“Scripture established a law that twenty-four hours, including both day and night, should be given the name of day only, as if one were to say the length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent.”13
Same with Aquinas, as documented in this section of “Church of England apologises to Darwin”.
Even when a scholar from the past presents an allegorical interpretation, it does not follow that they derived this interpretation from an unbiased study of the text. Philo of Alexandria, whom John Dickson mentioned, resorted to an extensive allegorical interpretation of Scripture but his interpretation was not derived from what was actually written in Scripture. Rather, as a Hellenistic Jew he was attempting to harmonize Genesis with Greek thought.14 That is the same motivation behind the reading promoted on God Science, which seeks to harmonize Genesis with evolution over millions of years. Interestingly, the philosophical basis for modern geology has been described as a return to the old Greek way of looking at things.15
It’s also important to note that those ancient interpreters believed, for reasons from outside philosophies, that God created in an instant, so thought literal days were too long. Some, like Augustine and Origen, strongly affirmed a ‘young’ earth.
The idea of bending God’s Word to suit our own purposes has been around since the serpent talked to Eve in the Garden of Eden.
And finally, just because someone develops an allegorical interpretation of a passage, we should not assume that they reject the literal reading. It is common for a passage in the Bible to be interpreted both figuratively and literally at the same time. So, it does not help Dickson’s argument to say someone once interpreted a passage symbolically. For example, in Galatians 4:22–26 Paul discusses two real people in history, Hagar and Sarah, and considers them figuratively. Using Dickson’s line of argument we could say that Paul interpreted Genesis in a non-literalistic way, but it would be wrong to conclude that Genesis was therefore non-historical. The same applies to Ambrose of Milan. He held that the days of creation were literally 24-hours long, but also considered them as a symbolic pattern for the subsequent history of the world.
So, is the literary theory an old idea? The idea of bending God’s Word to suit our own purposes has been around since the serpent talked to Eve in the Garden of Eden. But the Framework Hypothesis is a new idea, not seen before the early 20th century. If, as Dickson claims, this is the way the author intended it to be understood, how come no one actually did understand it this way for over 1900 years?
Is Genesis 1 based on a Babylonian myth?
If Genesis 1 is not describing concrete historical events, as Dickson says, then what does it mean? Why did the author of Genesis write what he did in the way he did? This of course is the problem we find ourselves in: when we reject the plain meaning of Scripture it no longer can speak to us.
To find a purpose for Genesis 1, John Dickson looks outside of the Bible for clues. He says the purpose of Genesis is illuminated by the discovery, in the mid 19th century, of seven tablets containing the Babylonian creation myth, called Enuma elish.
This myth describes warfare between many pagan gods and says humans were created to serve them. Dickson says that Genesis 1 was written as a piece of subversive theology to refute this Babylonian creation myth. He says that that the author of Genesis used the Babylonian myths as a template for a non-historical/theological polemic. This, John claims, explains why Genesis describes seven days for the Creation and why the order of creation is what it is—it followed the order on the Babylonian tablets.
The deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic.
Now, it’s quite valid to use extra-biblical sources as an aid to determining context and meaning—but Scripture is its own ultimate interpretive authority. Moreover, it’s simply good reading practice to interpret texts primarily according to their near context, and not the background context. The rest of the Pentateuch serves as the near context for Genesis 1 because it had the same author/editor. Ancient Near East creation myths are background information. Exodus 20 (written by Moses and spoken by God himself) and Exodus 31 corroborate the historical narrative interpretation of Genesis 1. Therefore, using Enuma elish to trump the plain reading of Genesis 1 and the simple-to-follow logic of Exodus 20 does violence to the text.
First, you would never derive this idea from Scripture. A literary theorist may claim that the author doesn’t have to say what he’s doing in the text. However Exodus 20:8–11 and 31:17–18 provide a controlling interpretation for Genesis 1 (they are the author’s own interpretation) and they bury the literary theorist’s argument. Further, it is more likely that the Babylonian story is a distortion of the true creation account, as the Babylonian Flood story is a distortion of the real Flood (see Noah’s Flood and the Gilgamesh Epic).
Second, the idea that God would use a subversive, ambiguous tactic to refute pagan profanity does not fit with what Scripture reveals about God. When He challenges pagan gods He does it, not secretly, as this speculation implies, but openly and unmistakably. In 1 Samuel 5:1–4 God demonstrates He is superior to Dagon, the god of the Philistines. In 1 Kings 18:16–39 Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal and confirms the superiority of the Creator God with supernatural power. Isaiah openly exposes the stupidity of those who worship pagan idols and proclaims the true God who created the heavens and the earth. In Daniel 5 God publicly confronts the gods of Babylon and judges Belshazzar and his kingdom after he defiled the gold vessels from the temple in Jerusalem.
Third, to say that Genesis uses a Babylonian myth as a template for a non-historical/theological polemic against pagan creation ideas leads to serious consequences for biblical authority. If Genesis 1 is non-historical, even though the rest of Scripture interprets it otherwise, then Scripture is inconsistent and loses credibility.
Finally, how can Genesis be of any use in refuting a pagan creation myth if Genesis is just an invention? In order to refute error we must appeal to facts, not fairy tales. All the above biblical polemics depend on God’s real actions in history. Some polemical writing involving Genesis from the Church Fathers Theophilus16 and Basil17 includes the literal creation of the sun on Day 4. They used this to point out the foolishness of sun worship, since vegetation was created before the sun in real history.
The only good thing about this literary explanation is that those who value the Scriptures may realize just what damage the literary theory is doing to the credibility of the Bible, and return to the plain meaning of the text.
Evolution over millions of years conflicts with the whole Bible
John Dickson focused on Genesis 1 but the conflict between ‘science’ and the Bible is not confined to that one chapter. It is not possible to dispense with this one chapter and preserve the rest of the biblical message. Like a knitted garment, the events recorded in Genesis are woven into the events recorded in Genesis 2 to 11, and these are intertwined with the rest of the Bible (e.g. Luke 3:23–38, Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Cut out this small chapter and the whole fabric of Scripture unravels.
Chapter 1 of Genesis describes the creation of the universe in six days but that is not the end of the story. Genesis 2 focuses on the creation of the first man and woman, an event that Jesus refers to when teaching about marriage (Matthew 19:3–6 and Mark 10:6–9 cite Genesis 2:27 and 1:24 about the same man and woman. See also Jesus and the Age of the Earth). Chapter 3 describes the circumstances surrounding the fall of man and how that brought death and the curse into the world. The New Testament refers often to the events of this chapter because the Fall explains our human condition and the purpose of Christ’s redemptive mission. Genesis 4 and 5 and cover the first 1,700-year history of the world, the entire period between Creation and the Flood. This history is tabulated in Luke chapter 3 and 1 Chronicles chapter 1. Hebrews 11 recounts some of its highlights as does Jude.
In Genesis chapters 6, 7 and 8 we encounter the global Flood that destroyed the world that then was—an event referred to by Jesus, Peter and the writer of Hebrews, as well as Isaiah and Ezekiel. The biblical Flood is the key to understand the geology of our planet from a young-earth perspective. Scientists think the world is billions of years old becasue they do not believe the Bible when it decribes the global Flood. Consequently, they try to explain geological evidence by slow-and-gradual processes. The Flood is also the link that holds the biblical worldview together. Genesis 10 and 11 describe what happened on the earth after the Flood, including its repopulation. We find a table of Nations that places the people groups of world in context, and a genealogy that links Noah to Abraham. Chapter 12 begins the account of Abraham, the man commended for believing God.
So, the biblical conflict with ‘science’ is not confined to Genesis 1. It affects the whole of the Bible.
It’s time to question the so-called ‘science’
It is clear that the literary theory expounded by John Dickson does not work, even though it is popular in evangelical theological circles today—at least among those who crave respectability from the world. It misreads the text, compromises the whole of the Bible and undermines the Gospel. Using this literary approach to resolve the conflict between ‘science’ and the Bible leads to such serious credibility problems that we need to consider another option. It is time to question the ‘science’.
It was only after theologian R.C. Sproul started to consider the scientific evidence and the way it is interpreted that he changed his mind on Genesis. He now comes down firmly on the plain reading of the text.
“For most of my teaching career, I considered the framework hypothesis to be a possibility. But I have now changed my mind. I now hold to a literal six-day creation, the fourth alternative and the traditional one. Genesis says that God created the universe and everything in it in six twenty-four–hour periods. According to the Reformation hermeneutic, the first option is to follow the plain sense of the text. One must do a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics to escape the plain meaning of Genesis 1–2. The confession makes it a point of faith that God created the world in the space of six days.”18
To question the ‘science’ can be intimidating for those without scientific training. It can also be intimidating for those whose careers are bound up in the academic and the scientific establishments (see Expelled and The Slaughter of the Dissidents). Henri Blocher described a sense of intimidation that affected his interpretation of Genesis, “The rejection of all the theories accepted by the scientists requires considerable bravado.”19 But we are called to stand firm on the truth of God’s Word, and told we need to be courageous (e.g. Philippians 1:20).
If we are to challenge the ‘science’ we need to be informed about how science works, so that we will not be deceived when they speak of evolution over billions of years. We must learn to discern when they are talking about scientifically observed facts and when they are expressing a subjective naturalistic, secular philosophy. When we stand on the Word of God we find that it makes sense of the world, and we will no longer be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14)
Transcript from God Science
Darwin, the Bible and God
Interview with Dr John Dickson: Reading the Genesis creation accounts
[Greg Clarke] The beginning of the book of Genesis has become one of the most talked about parts of the Bible even among some scientists. But how should we understand this account of the beginnings of the universe and what part do literature and history have in a proper understanding of the text? I put these questions to John Dickson who is a biblical historian, senior Research Fellow Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney, and my co-director here at the Centre for Public Christianity.
[Greg Clarke continues] There is a lot of really heated discussion around this question of the origins of life, creation, and especially how we should interpret Genesis chapter 1. Why, John, is this such an emotional issue for people?
[John Dickson] Well on the one hand for many people it is a case of commitment to the Bible. If you take the Bible seriously the Bible says the world was created in six days and that’s it. So you’re either faithful to it or you are not faithful to it. On the other hand you’ve got skeptics like Richard Dawkins who think the whole thing is proof that the whole of Christianity is ridiculous because the scientific evidence is overwhelming they say that the earth is very old and that it certainly wasn’t made in six days. So biblical faithfulness on the one hand, scientific integrity on the other and they appear to be clashing.
[Greg Clarke] Some people say that the very existence of dinosaurs, the age of the earth which scientists know it’s a very old earth now, these things just wipe the Bible out of the equation. It has nothing to say to us on the origins of life.
[John Dickson] That’s exactly what someone like Richard Dawkins says in his latest book. But I think it misunderstands the basic genre of the text of Genesis. It seems to me that both the six-day creationists and the skeptics are reading Genesis 1 the same way. They are reading it literalistically. And I actually draw a distinction between literalistic and literal. A literal interpretation, which is my own interpretation, says, “What was the author actually trying to convey through the literary methods available to him?” And a literalistic approach to Genesis says, “Well, I’m not so interested in what the author intended to say. What is actually said? What do the words actually say and don’t worry about whether there is any metaphor or whatever in it.” So it’s a genre question for me.
[Greg Clarke] OK, so genre seems to emphasize the purposes for which this literature might have been written.
[John Dickson] It does. It’s like a parable. You know, when you come across a parable in the New Testament you know what its intention is. It may or may not be a true story. The parable of the Good Samaritan; it may or may not have actually happened but that is not the point of the story. Or when you come to the Book of Revelation there are plenty of different images of beasts coming up out of water and so on and Jesus returning to earth riding a white horse. The point isn’t that these things will happen in that concrete way. They’re describing something using that metaphor and I think that to read Revelation and the parable literally is sensitive to the original intention. To read it literalistically would say that the parable of the Good Samaritan actually happened, or Jesus will come back riding on a horse. And when we turn to Genesis 1 it’s clear that we are not dealing with historical prose. Most scholars are comfortable in saying what you have in Genesis 1 isn’t like what you have in Genesis 13 for instance where it is more historical prose.
[Greg Clarke] What kinds of literary elements do you find in Genesis 1 that make you think that?
[John Dickson] Well the things that convince most scholars that we are dealing with a highly literary artistic form are things like parallelism, rhythm and number symbolism—number symbolism especially. For instance, the opening sentence of Genesis 1 is seven words, OK. The second sentence is 14 words. Immediately we are in this place of seven. Anyone who knows the Bible knows that the number seven is the number symbolizing perfection. When you spot that you notice all sorts of things like the word heaven, one half of the created order, appears 21 times, the word earth 21 times, so multiples of seven. And phrases like “And God saw that it was good” occur seven times and of course the whole thing is created around seven days, seven stages. So it should be quite clear to an ancient reader that the author of Genesis, whatever his actual views of physical origins, was trying to convey something through the artistry of literature.
[Greg Clarke] Some people say that that literary understanding of Genesis is just the result of Christians having to rethink their understanding of it. Surely Christians in the past, the church fathers and so forth, didn’t think this way.
[John Dickson] Yeah, well Richard Dawkins says that and it is an easy target for him to say, “No, no, no, the only true interpretation of Genesis 1 is this literalistic one and you shouldn’t fudge it by picking and choosing how you interpret it.” But actually but that misses a pretty significant movement of biblical interpretation going right back to the first century. So the Jewish scholar of the first century Philemon of Alexandria interpreted Genesis 1 in a non-concrete way, in a metaphorical way. And a number of the early church fathers did: Clement of Alexandra, Origen, Augustine, St Ambrose of Milan right through to the Venerable Bede and Thomas Aquinas. All interpreted Genesis 1, not in a literalistic way, but in a more symbolic, theological way. And this is long before the rise of science, before science was a problem for a literalistic interpretation of Genesis.
[Greg Clarke] Ok, so the literary reading is not a novel and modern approach. But if we take that as our understanding of how Genesis should be read what kinds of purposes might an author have for writing that way about things like the origins of the world?
[John Dickson] Well we are really greatly helped by a number of discoveries that occurred in the 19th century, actually virtually the same year that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. We discovered some tablets in the Middle East that gave us an account of creation very similar to the Genesis account but it came from the Babylonians. It’s called the Enuma elish. And on these tablets was written a story, on seven tablets actually, it’s a seven stage story, which is interesting. But the opening lines of Enuma elish say that before the origin of the world there was a watery chaos. Now that’s interesting because that’s the same thing that you have in Genesis.
[Greg Clarke] It rings bells for those who know of the Spirit of God hovering on the waters.
[John Dickson] Yes. And so a number of scholars immediately thought, “Aha Genesis is just borrowed from Enuma elish.” But as the dust settled they began to find that the differences between Genesis 1 and Enuma elish are profound, very striking. In fact, contrary. And the standard view now is that Genesis is a deliberate critique of other views of the nature of the universe. so there are all sorts of things that you find in Enuma elish that Genesis contradicts. The form is very similar but it is a kind of parody or a subversion of ancient views of God and of humanity.
[Greg Clarke] Could you give us a few examples?
[John Dickson] Yeah, I will. I’ve already said the similarity of coming over seven stages. The order of creation is the same in Enuma elish and Genesis, and human beings are created in the sixth stage. Sixth day in Genesis, sixth tablet of Enuma elish. However, the basic theme of Enuma elish in terms of its view of creation is that creation is the result of multiple gods. I think nine gods are mentioned in the opening lines of Enuma elish. But you come to Genesis and there is one God. Absolutely solo. To any ancient reader who comes to Genesis they know what is being said here. Creation is not the result of multiple gods but one god. I think the other thing is the coherence of creation. In Enuma elish the creation is somehow the haphazard result of a warfare among the gods but in Genesis 1 God speaks and it is, God speaks and it is. Very coherent and ordered. This is very much the Jewish Christian view of creation, that it isn’t just this capricious, superstitious, haphazard universe but an ordered work of art.
[Greg Clarke] One of the hottest questions today is the place of human beings in the world. Are they special? How does the Genesis 1 account compare with other ancient accounts on that question?
[John Dickson] This is probably its most striking point of contrast. In Enuma elish for example, human beings are created out of the leftovers of the vanquished gods. And that doesn’t give us a very high view of humanity and in any case the only reason the human beings are created is because the vanquished gods were in prison having to serve the victorious gods food all day. And they begged and said, “You’ve got to create something else to do this. We’re gods after all.” So they created humans, in other words, to serve the gods. And then Genesis comes along and says, “Yes, human beings were created in the sixth stage just like in Enuma elish. However they are not created as an afterthought; they are created in the image of God to rule over creation.” And then God says I give you all seed bearing plants. When you contrast that with the pagan view that humans were created to give the foods to the gods we have a turning upside down of ancient views of humanity, and this really gave rise to the strong western view that humanity is special, is a high being that God really cares for and has intentions for.
[Greg Clarke] Does this understanding of Genesis 1 commit you to any particular view of origins?
[John Dickson] Not a scientific view of origins. I mean, reading Genesis this way, as most scholars do, really doesn’t have much to say about how the creation came about. So I think you could be a committed six-day creationist and still admit this is the point of the Genesis 1 narrative.
[Greg Clarke] One final question. Many people look to Genesis 1 for answers to significant questions about life. What questions is Genesis 1 answering?
[John Dickson] Well, I think the first thing to say is that it isn’t answering the question of the mechanics of creation. It’s so anachronistic to think that a text written thousands of years ago could possibly have been interested in the very modern question of the mechanics of the creation of the world. It’s actually asking the universal questions: What is God actually like? What is this creation like? Is it capricious or good? Well Genesis says it’s good. And then I think ultimately, what is our place in the universe and before God and in connection with other creatures. And to all of these profound universal timeless questions Genesis, I think, gives an amazing set of answers.
- http://publicchristianity.org/_product_15166/God_Science_DVD. Return to text.
- John Dickson is part-time senior minister of St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Roseville, Australia. Greg Clarke is the CEO of the newly federated Bible Society Australia. Return to text.
- I have dealt with issue of the age of the earth and its theological implications in ‘God Science’ and the Age of the Earth. Return to text.
- Kaplan, J., Life After ‘The Da Vinci Code’: Interview with Dan Brown, Parade Magazine, 30 September 2009, parade.com/news/2009/09/13-dan-brown-life-after-da-vinci-code.html. Return to text.
- The Genesis Flood is the key to resolving this issue for Christians. Return to text.
- Darwin: The Voyage that Shook the World, DVD by Fathom Media, 2009. Return to text.
- Sproul, R.C., Truths We Confess: A layman’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Volume I: The Triune God (Chapters 1–8 of the Confession), P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, p. 122, 2006. The same four approaches are discussed by Blocher, H., In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis, Translated by Preston, D.G., Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1984. Return to text.
- John Dickson likely did not mention the Gap Theory or the Day-Age Theory because in many academic evangelical circles today they are not considered viable options, which is what six-day creationists have been saying for years (See Creation compromises). Sproul and Blocher, ref. 4. both explain why those two theories do not work. Return to text.
- MacDonald, W., Believer’s Bible Commentary, (Farstad, A., Ed.), Thomas Nelson Publishers, pp. 1464–1465, 1995. Return to text.
- 1) Turning the water into wine, 2) Healing the nobleman’s son, 3) Healing at Pool of Bethesda, 4) Feeding the five thousand, 5) Walking on the Sea of Galilee, 6) Healing the man blind from birth, and 7) Raising Lazarus from the dead. Return to text.
- 1) Bread of Life, 2) Light of the World, 3) The Door, 4) The Good Shepherd, 5) The Resurrection and the Life, 6) The Way the Truth and the Life, 7) The Vine. Return to text.
- See, The history of interpretation of Genesis 1–11; in: Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, ch. 3, 2011. Return to text.
- Ambrose, Hexaëmeron, AD 393; as cited by the Roman Catholic website www.catholic.com/library/Creation_and_Genesis.asp. Return to text.
- Sarfati, ref. 8, p. 117. Return to text.
- Press, F. and Siever, R., Earth, 4th Edition, p. 40, 1986. Return to text.
- Theophilus, To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181, ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.iv.ii.ii.xv.html. Return to text.
- Basil, Hexaëmeron 6:2; AD c. 378, newadvent.org/fathers/32016.htm. Return to text.
- Sproul, R.C., Truths We Confess: A layman’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Volume I: The Triune God (Chapters 1–8 of the Confession), P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 2006, pp. 127–128; emphasis in original, indicating these words are part of the Confession. Return to text.
- Blocher, ref. 4, p. 48. Return to text.
Great piece exposing the convoluted methods used in trying to fit the Bible to the ‘authority’ of ‘Science’! The quote from John Dickson: “… For instance, the opening sentence of Genesis 1 is seven words, OK. The second sentence is 14 words. Immediately we are in this place of seven.” can be proved wrong by any child! Because if one takes the Hebrew text of Gen 1:1 one finds seven words, but Gen 1:2 has only THIRTEEN words!!!! (Blue Letter Bible Concordance, Hebrew and Greek dictionary, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Gen&c=1&v=1&t=KJV#top). It proves again that whatever presupposition one holds, will confirm that what is already believed. For me it is that the Bible is the Word of God from the 1st verse to the last verse. Since it says ‘Your Word is truth’ I am free to critique any argument postulating that the Bible cannot mean what it says and because of my presupposition find error in the reasoning of men. Keep up exposing the reasoning of men and thus magnifying God’s Word.
Great article Tas. So sad that it is even necessary. John Dickson has written many good books for outreach, but with this evolution-biased view of scripture non-Christians would walk all over him.
Very well answered. Really liked the arguments.
- It is interesting to note that when Phillip Adams interviewed Richard Dawkins in 1994 on his radio program Late Night Live, Dawkins had this to say about the long-age interpretation for Genesis:
“Yes, in its most naive form you will get people who say that the story of Genesis, that the creation took 6 days to accomplish, you simply have to read each of those days as, whatever it is, 100 million years or a thousand million years, you get the right answer. I mean that’s very, very naive, of course. You are absolutely right that there is this tendency to resort to metaphor. Which maddens me because I suspect that the original authors of, for example, the book of Genesis, in no sense thought of it as a metaphor. I suggest that they thought that they were probably writing down folk-tales that had been handed down by word of mouth. But they believed them to be factually true, and the vast majority of people in history have believed them to be factually true. So I think that to reinterpret them as metaphor is a kind of evasion.”
- George Gray cogently stated,
“[t]he validity of parallelism as a test to distinguish between prose and poetry in Hebrew literature might be, and has been either actually or virtually, challenged on [the ground]….that parallelism actually occurs in prose.” (Gray, G., The Forms of Hebrew Poetry, Hodder & Stoughton, London, p. 38, 1915.)
- Kugel points out that “the Pentateuch is full of [parallelistic] lines-not only single verses here and there (especially in direct discourses), but whole sections…[including] the account of the birth of Moses.” (Kugel, J.L., The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and its History, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981, p. 59).
One of the connections that John Dickson has himself is with the ISCAST: Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology, where he presented his talk on the non-historicity of Genesis 1, etc. It is worth noting that ISCAST member have espoused Teilhard de Chardin’s theology which is very much evolutionary (British biologist and Nobel Prize recipient Peter Medwar referred to de Chardin’s writings as ‘philosophy fiction’). This is not to lump Dickson with de Chardin, but the company he kept in that instance is hardly orthodox.
Thanks for this excellent article. It’s so hard sometimes to defend the Biblical Creation account, especially in the blogosphere. I’m weary, tired, frustrated, and saddened. I’m sure you guys feel the same way many, many times. It’s as if we’re fighting a losing battle, and I want to throw up hands and quit. I realize this is not the correct attitude to take, and I thank our gracious Lord for ministries like CMI and the faithful staff you have that have tirelessly continued the struggle. May you continue to be blessed.
It can be discouraging but usually that is because we let our focus turn to the problem instead of remaining on the Lord. It’s time to remember some of His promises, such as, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:57)
When John Dickson says that the first sentence of Genesis 1 contains 7 words, which version of the Bible is he using? The NKJV says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (10 words). The Torah translated from the Hebrew says “In the beginning of God creating the heavens and the earth” (11 words). The Hebrew of the words normally translated as “In the beginning God created” (5 words) is Bereishis barah Elohim (3 words). Moses received the Ten Commandments around 1500 BC, when the Proto Canaanite language was still in use, Ancient Hebrew not arising until about 950 BC. Thus any attempt to interpret Scripture based on the number of words must surely be less than scholarly! I’ll stick with what God actually said, it just seems more reliable to me than inventing new methods of exegesis just because you want a different answer.
I recently read an excellent book by John Dickson, “If I were God, I’d end all the Pain”. He looked at various world views on suffering and pain and then put an aspect of the Christian World View. His view makes a lot of sense in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Sadly, because of his own view, the base of his argument crumbles because his text communicates hesitancy and uncertainty in regards to the creation events of Genesis 1–3. He communicates that he does not know if the creation account is fact or allegory. The sad thing is that the book is one of the best in dealing on the subject of pain and suffering from a Christian point of view and would be more firmly cemented with a historical view of the these chapters. Keep up the good work and I trust that you can arrange a profitable meeting with John Dickson and others at Centre for Public Christianity to demonstrate from a evidential point of view the case for a young earth.
My letter below was published in the July Canberra / Goulburn Diocese Anglican News.
Re Books & News, “Evidence supports Gospel” page 16, June 2011 Anglican News.
Well done to John Dickson for his book and Robert Wilson for his review on Investigating Jesus: An Historian’s Quest. I was all the more interested to read the article, as just the day before; I had come across John Dickson’s name, mentioned in relation to the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney and the God Science DVD. (http://creation.com/god-science-reading-bible).
Are they the same person? Well I presume so, but the different approaches make one wonder. In the excellent book review it states “After looking at all the evidence … the author concludes that no one can reasonably doubt the accounts of the life and death of Jesus.” Reassuring, especially when being confronted with atheistic propaganda, alleging that Jesus never existed.
But on the God Science DVD in a discussion about creation in six days we have Dr Dickson saying things like “it’s a genre question for me”, “It’s like a parable” and further on “I mean, reading Genesis this way, as most scholars do, really doesn’t have much to say about how the creation came about.”
So, on the one hand, when some atheists say that Jesus never existed, we get a meticulous, scholarly book from an eminent historian refuting their belief. But on the other hand, when some atheists say that earth history didn’t happen at all like it says in Genesis, do we get (what I think would be fitting) a deferral to suitable authorities for an in depth analysis of these issues?
Well no, you know, Genesis really doesn’t have much to say about that anyway, so whatever (origins) science comes up with today (or tomorrow or in 50 years) we’re sweet, we can accommodate that.
There seems to be a different modus operandi between these two. Is the reason that the scientific evidence for millions of years is so overwhelming? Wouldn’t this same science also disallow turning water into wine or rising from the dead? Isn’t Jesus’ ancestor Adam significant too? (Luke 3).