Genesis as history: a discredited interpretation?
Published: 18 May 2019 (GMT+10)
Thomas M. writes:
Defending an old Roman Catholic interpretation of Genesis 1–11 is NOT defending the Bible—it is defending an interpretation of the Bible that even the Roman Catholic Church abandoned over a century ago as academically indefensible! As the pastor of a theologically conservative evangelical church, I love the Bible; and when radicalized Christian fundamentalists make a mockery of the Bible and the Christ at the center of it, I feel very badly for the souls that are rejecting the Bible as fiction because of their foolish teaching.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in. There are several quick-fire points that can be made in response. One, that the Roman Catholic church interpreted Genesis 1–11 the way we do is no argument against our interpretation. Two, the Reformers also interpreted Genesis 1–11 the way we do (What the Reformers believed about Genesis). Three, if our view is “academically indefensible”, what is your alternative? See Creation compromises for pretty much all the alternatives that have been offered, and why we reject them. Four, Christ himself said that “from the beginning of creation he made them male and female” (Mark 10:6). And there’s no legitimate way to avoid the young-age implications of Jesus’ words (‘From the beginning of creation’—what did Jesus mean?). So, if we place Christ at the centre, as we of course should, we should respect His teaching on the order and history of creation.
And of course, you’re concerned with the credibility of the church. But does your method really help? We’re not the ones bending the Bible backwards to try to make it compatible with the secular academy. Of course, they think we’re bending the physical evidence backwards to fit the Bible. So, to them we look crazy, but you look like you’re unwittingly undermining your own cause. So, what looks better: crazy people or ‘useful idiots’? You overestimate how credible a ‘deep time friendly’ church looks to the world. They can read Genesis, too.
And, in all honesty, if someone could show me a legitimate way to make the Bible compatible with deep time, I’d embrace it. But I can’t see it. I simply can’t. The Bible doesn’t bend that way. I’ve seen all the different methods to try and make it bend that way, from the simplistic to the sophisticated, and none of them work.
You haven’t held back about why our perspective troubles you. Allow me to expand on why yours troubles us. Jesus came to die for sinners, and through his death and resurrection to reconcile all of creation to God (Colossians 1:20). This meant fixing the problem Adam caused; i.e. his sin bringing death and suffering into the world (Romans 5:12, Romans 8:19–23, 1 Corinthians 15:20–22). Take away the proper reading of Genesis 1–3 as a world made very good (i.e. full of fertility and life, and lacking suffering and evil) bound to decay in death and suffering as a judgment for Adam’s sin, and you take away the biblical reason for Jesus’ redemptive work (The good news without the bad news is no news at all!).
Why? If the world was originally made in the condition we find it in today, there is nothing to redeem or restore. You could say that God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, will transform the world into a perfect world, but that’s not the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative of Scripture. That’s not the story Jesus claimed to be the climax and fulfilment of. It’s a different story (see Redemptive history and evolution don’t mix and Remembering God’s mighty acts: The Bible calls us to read its narrative in ways that contradict ‘deep time’.
So, fossils before any biblically defensible date for the Fall is a problem for evangelicals like yourself who believe in deep time. Fossils are a record of death and suffering. Death and suffering were the result of Adam’s sin, both for us and for the world at large. Fossils (including human fossils) before the Fall implies that death and suffering were not the result of Adam’s sin. Therefore, fossils before the Fall denies the truth of the biblical historical-redemptive narrative Jesus claimed to be the fulfilment of (Drawing power: People get the point when they see these two pictures).
Genesis 1–11 speaks not just to the real world of history and science, but about the real world of history and science. That doesn’t make it a scientific textbook, or any such nonsense. But it does mean that its truths are about the same real world we use science to understand. There’s no shutting off Genesis 1–11 into a realm of myth, fable, and mystery; it’s a text that tells us about the real past (Genesis as ancient historical narrative). And there’s no way to make it compatible with the deep time evolutionary narrative.
But that doesn’t really bother me. Why? The assumptions secularists use to read the physical evidence to reconstruct the past also conflict with what we should use when starting from Scripture (Historical science and miracles). And reconstructing the deep past is trickier and more tendentious business than people often think (CSI and evolution). So, the secularist’s empirical objection is merely the creationist’s research opportunity (Unsolved mysteries). And we see fruit in our labours more than you might expect (see Age of the Earth for some examples). Not that we expect to invincibly convince the greater portion of secular scholarship. Again, the presuppositional abyss between us and them is too great to bridge, at least at present.
We, too, want to keep Christ at the centre. But He’s the fulfilment of the biblical narrative as it is, not as long-agers might want it to be. So, we submit to Scripture, and let the chips fall where they may. If that means rejecting deep time, then so be it. And it certainly looks like that’s what we should do, and there’s no good exegetical reason to reject that seeming picture.