Genesis 1 and theories of origin

Editor: CMI published a critique by Professor Benno Zuiddam of a paper by Dr John Dickson that argued that the Jewish scholar Philo and various Christian church fathers took a figurative view of the days of creation in Genesis 1. Dickson argued that this set a precedent for today’s interpreters who want to interpret Genesis in a ‘non-literalistic’ way that would leave the Bible open to accommodating modern secular hypotheses about the origin of everything (which of course would have to include evolution and its billions of years). Dr Dickson’s response follows here, and then Dr Zuiddam replies. We would encourage the reader who reads Dr Dickson’s response to read all of Dr Zuiddam’s original paper (as well as Prof. Zuiddam’s reply here) and see that Dr Dickson has not responded to the latter 2/3 of what Prof. Zuiddam wrote, which includes the most important ramifications of Dr Dickson’s ‘non-literalistic’ reading of Genesis for Christian theology.

Wikipedia.org John Dickson says that Clement of Alexandria, for example, viewed the days of creation Genesis 1 in a figurative manner, but Benno Zuiddam says this is not consistent with all the evidence.
John Dickson says that Clement of Alexandria, for example, viewed the days of creation Genesis 1 in a figurative manner, but Benno Zuiddam says this is not consistent with all the evidence.

Dickson in his own words

A response to Benno Zuiddam

I am grateful to be able to offer a response to Professor Benno Zuiddam’s critique1 of my ISCAST journal article about how I read the first chapter of Genesis.2 There are many commendable things about his piece—the clear and compelling writing style, his love of patristic writings and his obvious concern to contend for the truth of Scripture. My criticisms are substantial but they cannot take away from Zuiddam’s admirable intellect and intentions.

A blow-by-blow self-defence would be tedious and appear more wounded than I really am. And, in this case, it is quite unnecessary. Three broad observations will suffice to explain why I feel Prof Zuiddam has not been careful, accurate or fair-minded in his treatment of my essay.

1. Misrepresentations

Prof Zuiddam has misrepresented the article he criticizes in three striking ways.

1.1. A haven for evolution?

First, Zuiddam consistently portrays me as someone trying “to create a ‘safe haven’ for faith and Scripture in the onslaught of Neo-Darwinism and other secular scientific views on the origin of man.” This is far from true. I can only imagine he judged me insincere when I offered the following straightforward statement in my paper: “My rejection of the literalistic reading of Genesis 1 offers no direct support for old-earth, progressive creationism (or ‘theistic evolution’, as it is sometimes called), nor is it intended to do so.” This was no sleight of hand. In fact, given the intended readership (ISCAST is an organisation of professional scientists, most of whom readily accept evolution), it would have been to my advantage to affirm evolution. But I did not, as I wanted to stick to the area in which I am trained. In controversies like this it is surely better to confront what is actually said in an essay, not the imagined motives of the essayist.

1.2. The fathers’ views on Genesis 1

The second misrepresentation has to do with why I discussed the ancient Jewish and Christian fathers’ views of Genesis 1 (a side-issue in my paper but the heart of Prof Zuiddam’s response). Those who read only Zuiddam’s critique would imagine that my reason for citing ancient readings of Genesis 1 was to bolster my own case for interpreting the text in a less-than-literalistic way. The logic would be something like: because Philo, Clement and Augustine read Genesis 1 in a non-concrete manner, we should feel comfortable doing so as well. Some people no doubt argue this way, but I never have. I made it plain in the essay that my discussion of the fathers was “not intended as a proof or validation of my interpretation.” Rather, I explained that I was simply trying to counter the suggestion of atheists like Richard Dawkins that a non-concrete reading of Genesis 1 was Christians ‘running scared’ from the troubling conclusions of evolutionary theory. By citing several pre-scientific-era writers who also approached Genesis 1 in partly-symbolic ways I was endeavouring to demonstrate only “that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is not necessarily a nervous, modern reaction to the rise of contemporary science.” I am not sure how I could have made this point clearer.

The upshot of misrepresenting the function of this part of my essay is that Prof Zuiddam does not allow his readers to interact with the substance of my views. It would surprise many to know that, even if all of his counter-arguments about ‘what the fathers really thought’ were correct, this would not affect the thrust of my article at all. My case for reading Genesis 1 in a non-literalistic manner was based on internal exegetical issues which are left unaddressed in Zuiddam’s criticisms (though I am sure he would have lots to say about these as well).

1.3. Denying the historical Adam

The third misrepresentation truly surprised me. I apparently deny an historical Adam. Prof Zuiddam offers a long quotation from Augustine showing that the great Latin father, along with all the other fathers, believed in a real figure who disobeyed God in historical time. He then triumphantly declares:

It is as clear as the daylight of creation: Even Augustine leaves no room for Dickson’s theory. Alas, the Church fathers seem to suffer the same fate as the classics: often referred to, but not always read.

Leaving aside the miracle that I was able to earn a PhD in early Christianity in a university classics department without reading the fathers or the classics, what is astonishing to me about this section is that Prof Zuiddam has created a bogeyman ex nihilo. He then spent a thousand words slaying him. I never even touch on the subject of the creation and disobedience of Adam (and, for the record, I regard him to be historical).

I warmly urge readers to compare our two essays and wonder with me why someone of Zuiddam’s good standing would misrepresent an author so transparently.

2. Inappropriate tone

Before raising some technical responses to Prof Zuiddam’s critique, I should say how uncomfortable I am with the general tone of his criticisms. I welcome genuine scholarly interaction and disagreement over these and other issues. However, I was disheartened to find an article weighed down by condescending rhetoric and unnecessary back-handers.

2.1. The liberal type

At the beginning of the critique I am directly compared to a minister Zuiddam once heard in a Dutch church years ago who taught that the early chapters of Genesis were simply “invented”. That is a loaded word, and it is obvious which ‘type’ I am being cast into here. This is dog-whistling and is entirely inappropriate for someone who wishes to be heard outside his immediate circle.

Readers should know that I firmly believe that every word of Genesis was directly inspired by God. None of it is ‘invented’.

2.2. Dickson’s ignorance

Then there were the numerous embellishments designed to highlight my obvious ignorance of important matters: Dickson “does not seem to realize”, “doesn’t seem to be aware”, “is blissfully unaware”, and even “Had Dickson been more familiar with Philo’s writings … ” I don’t want to descend to an immature ‘Don’t-you-know-who-I-am? style argument, but Prof Zuiddam must know that my published doctorate focuses on Second Temple Jewish literature, including Philo. His are not the normal expressions of scholarly conversation, let alone Christian scholarly conversation.

2.3. Dickson’s claimed uniqueness

Strangely, in another section I am accused of fancying myself a trailblazer whose thoughts on Genesis are original answers to previously unsolved riddles: “As Dickson presents ‘his’ solution to the Genesis ‘problem’, the reader should realize that he is far from original;” and, “Dickson has not come up with an original theory. On critical issues his method does not include (or give credit to) contemporary scholarship on his subject;” one must, therefore, “suppose he is not familiar with” scholarship on Genesis.

It is true that my essay was not replete with references to other scholars—it was, after all, an introductory paper for professional scientists, not an entry in Vetus Testamentum. Even so, I can still count four specialists named in the footnotes as having thought these thoughts before me. More to the point, in one place I call the reading of Genesis 1 offered in my paper “the majority view”. Such a comment will be galling to some—and it may or may not be correct—but it does put a spotlight on how odd it is that Zuiddam would suggest I was putting myself forward as original. I was explicitly trying to be unoriginal. And when he finally chides me for apparently supposing that I had invented the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘literalistic’, I began to wonder whether his critique was directed at my character as much as my views about Genesis.

3. Technical errors

I have reflected on Prof Zuiddam’s forcefully articulated arguments and double-checked several of the key primary sources in dispute, and I remain unmoved. I am confident that my original claim is correct: the first-century Jewish writer Philo and several ancient Christian ‘greats’ read Genesis 1 in a non-literalistic manner. To repeat: none of this suggests that we should follow these ancient interpretations. My point was always only that such readings are not necessarily recent defensive moves in the face of modern science.

3.1. What Philo specialists think

Prof Zuiddam is mistaken from his very first argument. He insists that “recent scholarship” on the views of Philo of Alexandria is decidedly against my claim that the Jewish philosopher read Genesis 1 in a non-concrete fashion. I am reprimanded for relying on the 1929 standard English-Greek edition of Philo by Colson and Whitaker, which states in no uncertain terms that the Alexandrian held a non-literal view of the days of Genesis. Had I been more up-to-date, Zuiddam explains, I would have been “dissuaded from this course altogether.” Then follows a crucial quotation from one of the world’s “foremost Philo specialists”:

In actual fact, strange as it may seem, Philo scarcely allegorizes the account of Genesis 1 (it is excluded from his two series of allegorical commentaries).

The quotation comes from Professor David Runia, who is indeed a leading authority on Philo and Editor-in-chief of the scholarly journal dedicated to the subject, The Studia Philonica Annual. Zuiddam has certainly chosen a highly-regarded witness against me, but he could not have made a more conspicuous error of judgment. Not only does David Runia not say what Zuiddam hopes; he actually says the opposite. Let me explain.

Firstly, no one said anything about Philo allegorizing Genesis. ‘Allegory’ is a technical method of ancient interpretation in which a passage of Scripture is plumbed for its symbolic reference either to the life of the church or the life of the soul. For example, ‘light’ is allegorized as a reference to the knowledge of Christ and ‘dark’ a reference to spiritual ignorance. In the article from which Prof Zuiddam takes the quotation, Runia is simply observing that Philo’s detailed discussion of Genesis known as De Opificio Mundi (On the Creation) hardly engages in allegorical exegesis. I agree and never thought otherwise. But there is a world of difference between claiming that Philo allegorized Genesis 1 (which I never did) and pointing out, as I did, that for Philo “the reference to ‘six days’ in Genesis indicates not temporal sequence but divine orderliness.” The ancient Jewish philosopher certainly believed Genesis 1 teaches us stuff about a real creation—he rejected the allegorical approach—but, at the same time, he believed Moses used literary devices when describing the creative process.

In passing, I note that Prof Zuiddam repeats this misnomer when he insists that Augustine also rejected the allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1, as if this settles the matter. In fact, it has nothing to do with the question we are trying to resolve. Between allegory and literalism there are myriad interpretative options. And, as I think Zuiddam knows, Augustine certainly did not believe that God created the parts of the universe during six 24-hour days.

More significantly, if Prof Zuiddam thinks the renowned David Runia believes Philo interpreted Genesis 1 in a concrete fashion, he is badly mistaken. In the very review article from which Zuiddam takes his quotation—in fact, just two sentences later—Runia states plainly that Philo read the ‘days’ of Genesis as ‘literary devices’:

At Opif. 15 Philo writes: “To each of the days he distributed some of the sections of the universe.” I take this to mean that the writer [of Genesis] spread the creation of the various parts of the cosmos out over the five days of creation (excluding the first). Philo takes this to be a literary device.3

David Runia (here and elsewhere) confirms the ‘old’ opinion of Colson and Whitaker, which I too follow. While not allegorizing Genesis, Philo takes the six-day structure to be an example of the biblical author’s theological artistry rather than the Creator’s historical activity—it is a ‘literary device’. Prof Zuiddam has misrepresented his key scholarly citation and failed to note that this well known scholar actually holds the contrary view (and said so in the same paragraph). Zuiddam has more to do to establish that “recent scholarship on this subject would have dissuaded [Dickson] from this course altogether.”

3.2. What Philo really thought

But has Zuiddam himself overturned scholarly opinion by demonstrating that Philo did in fact read Genesis 1 as straightforward history? He certainly offers us quotations that sound as though Philo spoke of a literal six days. Careful readers will observe that in this part of his article Zuiddam stops discussing De Opificio Mundi, Philo’s dedicated treatise on the Genesis creation account, and instead offers a selection of statements from another Philonic work, De Decalogo (On the Decalogue). He calls this “a closer look at Philo’s writings on the subject.” For me, it is a revealing tactical move. In De Decalogo Philo’s interaction with Genesis 1 is secondary, and his references to the famous ‘six days’ are all in passing. It seems methodologically unsound to use such references as the lens through which to read what Philo says directly on the subject in his work dedicated to Genesis 1. There are plenty of places in Philo’s massive corpus (twelve volumes on my bookshelf) where he writes as though the ‘six days’ were concrete historical days but, in light of what he says in De Opificio Mundi, these are surely literary references.

Let me offer an imperfect analogy. If you looked back through my sermons over the years, I am sure you would find a number of passing references to the ‘good Samaritan’. For example, you would find that I once said, without any clarification, that “at the heart of Christian living is the love shown by the good Samaritan, a love that reaches across racial and religious boundaries.” On a superficial level this sounds like I believe the character in Jesus’ parable really lived and attended to the injuries of some travelling first-century Jew. But if you listened to my sermon expounding Luke 10:30-37 directly, you would learn that I regard the good Samaritan to be a fictional character within a parable. The concrete-sounding statements were just literary references, and it would be completely inappropriate to use them as the interpretative lens for understanding my actual sermon on the parable. Something like this holds for the selection of Philo quotations offered by Prof Zuiddam.

The reality is, Philo believed that the creation was fashioned in an instant and that the ‘six days’ of Genesis 1 are, as Runia says, ‘a literary device’ marking the order, perfection and fruitfulness of the creation. This is clear at De Opificio Mundi 13 (and extrapolated in detail as the treatise unfolds):

He [the writer of Genesis] says that in six days the world was created, not that its Maker required a length of time for His work, for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously, remembering that ‘all’ includes with the commands which He issues the thought behind them. Six days are mentioned because for the things coming into existence there was need of order. Order involves number, and among numbers by the laws of nature the most suitable to productivity is 6.

Philo does not say God could have made all things simultaneously, if he had wanted to. He says that is what God did. The numbers convey structure and productivity, according to the ancient Jewish philosopher. Philo may be wrong but that is what he taught. And I am far from old-fashioned and out-of-touch saying so. Any further doubt about this should be put to rest by the following quotation from Professor David Runia’s full-scale commentary on Philo’s De Opificio Mundi:

Philo is convinced that the scheme of the six days should not be read literally. It is philosophically quite improbable that God should need time in which to create. So another explanation for the striking scheme needs to be given. The solution is to tie the aspect of number to order, which in turn involves hierarchy and structure.4

I urge readers to get hold of a good translation of Philo’s treatise on the creation and make up their own minds. What is perfectly clear is that Prof Zuiddam’s claims run counter to his own preferred Philo specialist.

In this connection, I am genuinely puzzled why Prof Zuiddam would say, “the Alexandrian philosopher actually denies that God used periods of non-specified lengths of time. This is the very opposite of what Dickson alleges.” I cannot find anything in my article remotely resembling what Zuiddam says I ‘allege’. On the contrary, I made plain, as I have above, that Philo believed everything was made at once.

3.3. What Clement really thought

A similar belief was held by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria almost two centuries after Philo. But, again, I get a scolding from Prof Zuiddam in section 2 of his critique:

Dickson’s argument becomes confused when he tries to build a whole string of assumptions on his earlier inaccurate representation of Philo. Dickson says that Christian theologian and evangelist Clement of Alexandria followed Philo’s interpretation. This statement is rather puzzling, as Philo didn’t have the interpretation that Dickson alleges. But in a way it is true in the sense that Clement followed Philo’s interpretation: like Philo he was also some sort of a six day literalist like all his Jewish and Christian contemporaries.

Prof Zuiddam is as mistaken about Clement as he is about Philo. In Stromata 6.16 (not 16.6, as Zuiddam repeatedly cites it) Clement declares that we are “not to suppose that God made creation in time.” According to Clement, this is why Genesis 2:4 adds “in the day that God made heaven and earth.” He makes the exegetical judgment that Genesis 2:4 states the historical reality, that everything was created at once in an “indefinite and dateless production”, whereas the six-day structure of Genesis 1 is intended to convey perfection and productivity—the echo of Philo is strong.

Moses’ six-fold narrative tells us something about the deep structure of the world, says Clement. He offers comparisons between the ‘six days’ of creation and the ‘six months’ it takes to perfect an embryo and the ‘six months’ between the Summer Solstice and the Winter solstice. Prof Zuiddam thinks these real-world comparisons provide proof that Clement must have thought the world was made over six real-world days. Why else would Clement make the comparison! I can think of a range of alternatives, but the correct one is obvious when Stromata 6 is read on its own terms (as I urge readers to do themselves). Clement thinks that Moses’ narrative discloses a divine truth about 6—the number of order and productivity—which can be found everywhere in creation. Not for a second is Clement contradicting the Alexandrian doctrine, shared with Philo and stated plainly, that the world was made in an instant and that the six days of Genesis are theological and literary devices. Clement and Philo could be wrong—and what they believed has no real interpretative significance, anyway—but we cannot wave a wand and pretend they said something else.


I have only discussed in detail the first two sections of Prof Zuiddam’s rebuke. Readers should know, however, that I believe sections 3–9 contain all of the same ingredients. A full rebuttal, as I said at the outset, would be tedious and, in this case, is quite unnecessary. The number and degree of misrepresentations, misunderstandings and errors noted above stand as a caution against reading Zuiddam’s present article as a reliable guide either to my views or the views of contemporary experts like David Runia or even the views of ancient writers like Philo, Clement, Augustine and the rest. I think Prof Benno Zuiddam is mistaken at every substantial point of critique.

Despite the seriousness of my criticisms, in closing I want to stress that Evangelical Six-Day-Creationists and Evangelical Non-Six-Day-Creationists must not demonize each other. Firm debate is healthy; ghettoization and grandstanding, from either side, are not. I love what C. S. Lewis wrote about Christian disagreement in his masterpiece Mere Christianity. Comparing true Christendom to a great house with many rooms, he pleads:

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.5

Dr John Dickson is Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (www.publicchristianity.org). He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, and a lecturer in the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney.


  1. Benno Zuiddam’s article is online at: Does Genesis allow any scientific theory of origin? Return to text.
  2. The original article, ‘The Genesis of Everything: an historical account of the Bible’s opening chapter’ is available online at: http://www.iscast.org/journal/articlespage/Dickson_J_2008-03_Genesis_Of_Everything. Return to text.
  3. Review of Biblical Literature 01/15/1999. Online at: http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=2243&CodePage=922,2740,2160,2108,2753,611,916,62,2243,1658. Return to text.
  4. David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses: Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series). Leiden: Brill, 2001, 124. Return to text.
  5. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. London: HarperCollins, 1997, xii. Return to text.

Prof. Zuiddam replies to Dr Dickson

For the reader’s convenience I simply follow the layout and topical order of Dr Dickson’s reply to my article “Does Genesis allow any scientific theory of origin?”, which was a response to John P. Dickson, The Genesis of Everything, ISCAST Journal for Christians in Science and Technology 2008(4):1–18. However, Dr Dickson has side-stepped the weightier matters that I raised in the second half of my article; these I raise again briefly in my concluding section here.

1.1. A haven for evolution?

My criticism was not an evaluation of an author and his possible intentions, but of what his article is in fact doing. The abstract tells his readers what this is: “The paper seeks to plot a path through the controversy surrounding the Bible’s opening chapter by examining Genesis 1 in historical context. The author assumes and endorses no particular view of human origins but argues for a literal interpretation of the text, as opposed to what may be called ‘literalistic’.”

As the article unfolds ‘literal’ appears to fit virtually any scientific theory of origin, including Neo-Darwinism. The author emphatically states: “In fact, the case made below is consistent with virtually any scientific account of origins.” (2008:3)

I apologize if it was not Dickson’s intention to create such a haven, but given the above statement he made, and the arguments in support of it, it should hardly be surprising that I said he was effectively trying to create a safe haven. If his public was mostly evolutionists the message of “virtually any scientific account of origins” is even clearer: “my view of Genesis fits your scientific account of origins as well; you can embrace the Bible and Darwin as far as Genesis is concerned.” My article does not depend on Dickson personally embracing evolutionism, which I did not indicate at any point. However, the short of it is that his article tries to make out a case for a view of Genesis that is consistent also with Neo-Darwinism (evolutionism), effectively creating a haven for it (along with any other view of origins which denies the straightforward historicity of Genesis) in the bosom of the Church.

1.2. The fathers’ views on Genesis 1

Dickson introduces his treatment of Philo and the Church fathers as: “it is important to realize that the precedents for a non-literalistic reading of Genesis 1 can be found in the very distant past.” (2008:4) This sort of reading, (which, he has by then explained, can accommodate any theory of origin), is then traced back to the Church fathers. He concludes his treatment of the fathers with: “Be that as it may, the larger point I wish to make is that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is not necessarily a nervous, modern reaction to the rise of contemporary science. It is a viewpoint (even if a minority one) with a long and venerable history in both Jewish and Christian traditions.” (2008:6) Whatever Dickson’s intentions, these are his words, not mine. My response shows that Philo and the fathers do not prove the point Dickson tries to make, but the very opposite.

1.3. Denying the historical Adam

This point is rather surprising. Not at any point does my article accuse Dr Dickson of denying a historical Adam. For all that I knew, he believed in Adam, particularly as I was made aware that he resides in Anglican Sydney. My article calls attention to the problem that Dickson uses Augustine to support a view of Genesis that fits “virtually any scientific account of origins.” You cannot do this. It fails almost everywhere when you try it on Darwinism, but particularly where it concerns the historical Adam.

My remarks were no reflection on Dr Dickson’s ability to access the fathers or the classics in general, just a genuine conclusion in a situation where there are only two possibilities: either an author is deliberately misleading his readers and misrepresenting his sources or: he could have consulted his sources more carefully. Not for one moment had I considered the first possibility as likely, and as Dickson’s representation of them was so completely out of tune with what they are actually saying in context, the second had to be true. I am genuinely pleased to have John Dickson on board with the historical Adam. However, my article is a response to an essay that effectively (and effectually) conveys to its largely evolutionist audience that it is all right to continue with a theory of origin that rules out an historical Adam (who was not only instantly created with body and soul, but also the forefather of all mankind).

This should be a very clear indication to the author that his main thesis is flawed. You cannot embrace “virtually any scientific account of origins” and believe in an instantly created historical Adam as the father of all mankind at the same time. It is either, or. Even without reading your Bible, it should be clear from the treatment of this subject by the Church fathers that their interpretation of Genesis in fact rules out many of today’s scientific theories of origin, particularly because of what they held about Adam and the age of the earth.

I welcome the fact that Dr Dickson in his follow-up article, “for the record” now publicly states his belief in a historical Adam. He does this in a discussion of the Church fathers on the subject: an instantly created Adam, forefather of the entire human race, who lived in Paradise. We really seem to have come close in our personal views on at least these matters. Although his or my personal opinion is irrelevant to this debate, it is not without consequence. An instantly created Adam, who had children who are recorded in the Bible and a family tree that leads right down to Jesus and us, pretty much rules out several prominent scientific theories of origin. If Dr Dickson uses ‘historical Adam’ in the same sense as the Church fathers and the article he responds to, this may lead him to reconsider the main thesis of his ISCAST article, namely that Genesis fits any theory of origin.

2. Inappropriate tone

Tones and tastes tend to differ, but, if Dr Dickson’s response is any standard for scholarly and Christian conversation, the reader will most likely conclude that in comparison my article focuses on facts and avoids emotive words.

2.1. The liberal type

I can take Dr Dickson’s assessments of my character, but I have reason to object to his evaluation of the Dutch minister as a liberal. My article never characterises this servant of God as a liberal. On the contrary, I introduce him as “minister of a large evangelical/reformed congregation”. It may be his own perspective that leads John Dickson to classify him as a liberal, but those are Dr Dickson’s words, not mine. My article gives an accurate description of what this minister said. At no stage does it draw personal comparisons between Dickson and this Dutch minister of a previous generation. It only concludes that their main approach is the same, namely that Genesis allegedly fits an evolutionistic theory of origin. It does not even accuse the Dutch minister of saying that Jews invented Genesis 1–11; it just shares an historically accurate anecdote that opens up the theme, “Does Genesis allow any scientific theory of origin?” These opening lines don’t accuse Dickson of anything. They merely introduce the main topic of reconciling Genesis with any scientific theory of origin and some of the historical theological context associated with this debate.

That Dickson’s main thesis (about Genesis fitting virtually any scientific theory of origin) largely originates in circles that are generally referred to as “liberal” by evangelicals (my article doesn’t evaluate John Dickson or this minister as deserving that label) is a historical reality, whether we dislike it or not. The same applies to Dr Dickson’s view that Genesis was composed during the Babylonian captivity, nearly a thousand years after Moses. (2008:9) I don’t think Dickson’s evaluation of the Dutch minister as a “liberal” is right. I wouldn’t like to use that word. Not for him and not for Dickson. This man sincerely believed himself to be a Bible-believing reformed evangelical. Perhaps there are possibilities for comparison between him and Dickson. The fact of the matter is: my article doesn’t make any. Dr Dickson is welcome to draw any personal comparisons he likes, provided he does not ascribe them to me.

2.2. Dickson’s ignorance

I willingly profess my ignorance about Dr Dickson and his area of expertise. As a matter of fact I made it a point not to read up about him when I was requested to answer his article on Genesis allegedly fitting any theory of origin. At this level I do not respond to persons and their intentions, but to contents. However, my article does not accuse the author of ignorance, not in general nor in any of the particulars. What may have led Dr Dickson to infer that my article says so is that on three occasions I had sincere reason to believe that he did not consult his sources carefully. I still believe that to be the case. I had to specifically state that the author seemed not to be aware of certain data, otherwise I would have been giving the reader the impression that I believed that John Dickson was deliberately distorting the facts. Instead, I accepted that he must have been overlooking (or unaware of) them.

For example, Dickson’s treatment of Thomas Aquinas: this resulted in what could be construed as a misrepresentation so way off the mark that, in despair, I stated that the author must have been “blissfully unaware”. I grant that this could be taken emotively, but I took pains to avoid the word “misrepresentation” at all cost. I am sorry if this triggered offence, but the alternative was accusing Dickson of willing misrepresentation. When the article is published in printed journal format I will remove “blissfully” and replace “unaware” with “overlooks”. I must confess that I am genuinely bemused by this, because these words are really quite mild, both in incidence and force, when compared with Dr Dickson’s response and what he obviously deems suitable for scholarly and Christian conversation.

2.3. Dickson’s claimed uniqueness

My article makes no judgements on Dr Dickson’s character, but responds to Dickson’s own introduction of ‘literalistic’ as a label (2008:2): “I use the word ‘literalistic’ deliberately, as I want to distinguish between literalistic and literal.”

For the context of Dickson’s article, we are talking scholarly journal here, requiring proper references—my ‘surprise’ at his introduction of ‘literalistic’ is justified. Dr Dickson’s use of ‘I’ is potentially misleading in this context. Had he said the same things, but added a footnote to his statement with references to others who use literalistic, I would have not even paid attention. Such a footnote to modify the context and indicate a reflection of other scholarship, however, does not exist. He should have said, for example, “The term biblical scholars have invented for this is literalistic”, perhaps adding something to the effect that he thought the term appropriate and was utilizing it for his article, or similar.

Instead, he presents himself as the one who is suggesting the term to his readers, without references, writing as a scholar in a journal for scholars. I really think that I have been as gracious as I could be under the circumstances.

3. Technical errors

I readily agree with Dr Dickson that ‘non-literalistic’ tendencies are not necessarily a modern Christian reaction, but were present with Philo, and some of the Church fathers already (2008:6). However, we are not talking tendencies, or mere length of creation days here, but “a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1” (which includes the creation of man). Such a wholesale ‘non-literalistic’ interpretation of Genesis 1 is simply not found with Philo or the Church fathers. Although they have ‘non-literalistic’ tendencies in their exegesis, they have a very literalistic approach to Genesis 1 in crucial parts. One could even say that their particular form of non-literalism is largely irrelevant to this debate, because it is very different from the kind Dr Dickson seeks to prove in Genesis. Furthermore, it was the author who chose to precede his treatment of the Church fathers with an introduction. This introduction specifically states (2008:3): “In fact, the case made below is consistent with virtually any scientific account of origins.” My article makes a point of denying this consistency.

At the risk of excessive repetition of this vital point, it is important to realize that John Dickson’s article does not merely make out a case for any sort of non-literalistic approach, but for: a non-literalistic approach that supports an approach to Genesis that is consistent with virtually any scientific account of origins. It is this specific kind of non-literalistic interpretation that needs to be traced back to Philo and the Church fathers to be relevant for this debate. Dickson: “it is important to realize that the precedents for a non-literalistic reading of Genesis 1 can be found in the very distant past.” (2008:4) The point that my article makes is that these men cannot be regarded or used as precedents. Why not? Because even the Church fathers who are mentioned by Dickson have a profoundly ‘literalistic’ thrust in their interpretation of Genesis 1, which, for instance, led them to believe in an instantly created historical Adam and a young earth (compared to today’s long age fashion). It was their interpretation of Genesis that caused them to have these views. Augustine didn’t ‘leave science to the scientists’, but taught them they must be wrong because the world was only a few thousand years old. He could only say this because of his overall literalistic interpretation of Genesis. This is not the sort of ‘non-literalistic’ approach that modern secular theories of origins would feel relaxed about, and it is hardly a precedent for the non-literalistic approach that Dr Dickson seeks to prove in his article.

3.1. What Philo specialists think

My article uses the Runia quote to ‘call for caution’, not to prove anything. The fact that Philo didn’t use allegory for Genesis 1 should have made Dickson think twice, as allegory is closely related to the particular kind of non-literalistic approach that Dickson seeks to prove. From a scholarly perspective Dickson’s article would have gained in strength had he interacted with Runia in the first place, rather than basing himself on a quote that dates back considerably. Colson (1929) might be the standard edition for some; perhaps my standards are too high, but one would have expected Dr Dickson’s article to interact with contemporary scholarship and refer to the book I would have expected him to quote from in the first place (David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses: Translation and Commentary, Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series 1, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2001). I am glad Dr Dickson has chosen a more updated approach in his response, but this really should have been present in the original article.

3.2. What Philo really thought

It would have been even more preferable had Dickson interacted with the primary source, Philo, giving us a quote that unequivocally proves that this Jewish scholar had a non-literalistic understanding of Genesis that fits any scientific theory of origin. This is the real point. Dickson’s thesis does not work for Philo. It is insufficient to prove some non-literalist aspects in Philo. The context in which these surface makes it clear that Philo may not be used as a precedent in support of the overall thesis.

My article does not argue against an instant creation in the Alexandrine School and Augustine. Nor does it deny the great similarities between Philo and Augustine. Philo’s commentary on the Decalogue at the very least seriously contemplates that this instant creation was worked out with divine orderliness in six historic days. Be that as it may, Philo’s approach to Genesis is far too literalistic to fit Dickson’s theory. If this is not obvious from the way Philo treats the creation episode as history in his commentary on the Decalogue (not as a parable, but adding qualifications that ensure his readers don’t misunderstand him: “Account of events recorded in the history of the creation of the world”, “for the sacred historian” … ) then it should be abundantly clear from his commentary on Genesis, which affirms Adam as the first, instantly created, original man and the primeval founder of the human race. Philo’s approach rules out many scientific theories of origin, particularly Neo-Darwinism, the prevailing paradigm of contemporary science.

3.3. What Clement really thought

My article makes the point that Clement does not support Dickson’s theory that Genesis fits virtually any theory of origin. In terms of Neo-Darwinist science Clement and the others would be considered literalists, rather than non-literalists, whether they believed in twenty four-hour days of creation or not.

My article specifically states that in Scripture days do not necessarily equal exact 24-hour days and it refers to Joshua 10:12 and Isaiah 38:8 to make this point. The point it does make though, is that whatever the length of the ‘earth rotation’ days in Clement and Philo, they see the creation account too literally and place it historically too recently in time to allow for Darwinism, or even ‘progressive creationist’ views that accept secular dating of billions of years. They combine these views with a very recent origin of the earth and the human race, which, to their mind, descended from an instantly created Adam a few thousand years ago.

Thanks for pointing out the typo (Stromata 16.6 should have been 6.16; now corrected). Dr Dickson’s article specifically states that Clement of Alexandria said that the six days were symbolic with a reference to Stromata 6.16. This chapter might not be a reflection of Clement’s personal opinion, as he introduces it as a “specimen of Gnostic interpretation of the Ten Commandments” (Ὑπόδειγμα δ’ ἡμῖν κατὰ παραδρομὴν ἐκκείσθω εἰς σαφήνειαν γνωστικὴν ἡ δεκάλογος Hypodeigma d’ hēmin kata paradromēn ekkeisthō eis saphēneian gnōstikēn hē dekalogos). The point my article makes, however, is that Clement in Stromata 6.16 does not say that the six days are symbolic. He might have said it elsewhere, but not there. In this chapter he treats the six days (in which the instant creation outside time is worked out) in a literalistic historic fashion that is irreconcilable with Dickson’s main thesis. The days of creation function as a literalistic basis for number symbolism, which is also part of observable creation around us, as real as the time from solstice to solstice. The number six is special precisely because God’s real actions in creation gave it significance.


Let us concentrate on the main issue. The thesis of Dr Dickson’s article was that Genesis fits virtually any scientific theory of origin, including Darwinist evolution. His article alleges that the particular non-literalist approach that supports this viewpoint has a “long and venerable history in both Jewish and Christian traditions”. Although I readily grant that the exegesis of Philo and others has some non-literalistic elements, their approach definitely cannot be said to be a precedent for Dickson’s particular non-literalist theory that both Genesis and its exposition by Philo and some Church fathers is consistent with virtually any theory of origin.

I agree that a robust debate is healthy. It concerns God, his revelation, and saints of old who can no longer defend themselves. Sometimes, even when we don’t intend to, our views have logical consequences. The Dutch minister at the start of my story sincerely thought he was upholding the infallibility of Scripture. In his understanding he had at least shown to his congregation that the evolution theory had not proved the Bible wrong. Scripture still stood. But did it? The result was a different God, plus primitive mythology in the Bible.

This is the real point. Dr Dickson’s main thesis is not only ill founded, it has serious and multiple implications that shake the foundations of traditional Christian doctrine. In his response John Dickson prefers to ignore these apart from stating his personal affirmation of an historical Adam (whether instantly created or not, and whether the progenitor of all of humanity or not are separate questions). Whatever Dr Dickson’s personal views, his article argues that Genesis is consistent with Neo-Darwinism. The doctrinal implications of such a view are nearly endless. Was death a consequence of sin or were sickness and death the creation tools of a sinister god, who rejoiced in millions of years of suffering? Did mankind have a historical Fall as described in Genesis, or was there really never such a thing as a ‘very good’ creation? Can we trust the historical claims of the actual text of Genesis and other Scripture (e.g. Luke 3) or is it all right to treat these as myths with no historical bearing? Does the Gospel have any foundation in history or was Jesus the greatest torturer of all time who created by means of survival of the fittest? Can we trust him for the creation of a new heaven and earth, or will it be ‘purgatory’ reinvented?

In short, Dickson’s thesis has consequences. Not for one second do I accuse him personally of necessarily embracing any of these. I merely point out some of the consequences of a Neo-Darwinist approach as almost completely inconsistent with Genesis and the doctrinal framework which the historic Christian Church derived from Scripture.

Genesis 1 has serious implications for scientific theories of origin. Perhaps the most important one is that the world that we see around us with its mechanisms of sickness, death and survival of the fittest, is not the original version, but a corrupted one. This should caution against attempts to extrapolate theories of origin from a situation that is no longer consistent with the original state of affairs. However, we are not agnostics. We have God’s Word, which, if we may believe the Church fathers, reveals to us that we find ourselves in a fallen world and cursed creation, subject to the wrath of God. It used to be Paradise, but is no longer. Jesus Christ came into this fallen world to make all the difference, to give us a realistic hope for something better.

These things concern the God whom we both love. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, let’s join the Inklings one day and discuss what we can do together to promote the authority of New Testament Scripture. Perhaps Romans and the Gospel of Luke would be a place to good start, as these treat Genesis 1–11 as a reliable historic account that concerns us all.

Published: 16 February 2012

Helpful Resources

Creation, Fall, Restoration
by Andrew S Kulikovsky
US $24.00
Soft cover
Refuting Compromise
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $12.00
Soft cover
15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History
by Dr Don Batten, Dr Jonathan D Sarfati
US $4.00