Genesis: no room for theistic evolution

A review of In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2 by Cornelis Van Dam

reviewed by Martin Williams

Cornelis van Dam’s book, In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2

Cornelis Van Dam’s In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 21 is an exegetical tour de force of the opening chapters of Genesis that combines a careful listening to the text with a thorough examination of recent scholarly developments that would seek to reconcile the creation account with modern evolutionary theory (p. 9). The author notes that due to “the enormous prestige enjoyed by science and its championing the theory of evolution … the previous several decades have seen a remarkable momentum toward the acceptance of theistic evolution in theologically conservative circles” (p. 2).

The author mentions several distinguished Old Testament scholars who were respected for their generally conservative approach to the Scriptures, but have since embraced theistic evolution and consequently adjusted their interpretation of Genesis accordingly: Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman, and John Walton (2–4). They have been joined by well-known scholars such as Mark Noll, N. T. Wright, and Tim Keller (4–8). As a result, the historicity, veracity, and authority of Genesis 1 and 2 have become contentious issues.

A key question this book addresses is the recent widespread departure from the historic Reformed understanding of how to interpret Genesis 1 and 2—is it justified? (9). The author writes, “[a]fter considering the evidence, this book comes to the determination that we should accept the plain, straightforward reading of the Genesis text as a reliable account of the historical events resulting in the creation of the world we now live in. This study will also try to convince fellow Christians that such a conclusion is justified” (9).

Dr Cornelis van Dam

A “secondary purpose is therefore to ascertain the place of science in the study of Genesis 1 and 2 and the implications that the historicity of Genesis has for the credibility of the theory of evolution for explaining the origin of creation” (9). As emeritus professor of Old Testament at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario, Van Dam is eminently qualified for the task. The author’s handling of both evolutionary and creationist accounts of origins is judicious, fair, and balanced.

In chapter 1 Van Dam begins by setting out the basic presuppositions that inform his work:

  1. The need to read in faith: “We need to read and study the biblical text in faith, receiving it as fully authoritative and trustworthy” (11).
  2. The clarity of Scripture: “Another fundamental assumption is that when God speaks to us in scripture, his Word is clear.” Van Dam goes on to note that “[a]affirming the clarity of scripture does not mean that there are no difficult passages that require scholarly study … It does mean that the reader of Scripture is not dependent on scholars to understand the basic import and significance of the passage before them” (12).
  3. Take seriously the literal sense of the text: The biblical passage ought to be understood “in accordance with the obvious, plain meaning of the text while taking into consideration its context” (13).
  4. Finally, we need to consider genre of the text: “If the genre is determined to be historical narrative, then we must accept as historically true whatever scripture affirms to be so” (13). The author devotes 30 pages to a discussion of “the historicity of Genesis 1:1–2:3” (chapter 3).

Chapter 2 discusses “the place of extrabiblical evidence in interpreting Scripture.” As it has become fashionable in recent decades to read extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern views of creation and cosmology in Genesis 1 and 2, the discussion in the first part of the chapter on ancient Near Eastern literature is a very important one. The author asks: “How should this material be used in listening to and trying to understand Genesis 1 and 2?” (17) “As a general principle,” he rightly points out, “such material must always take a secondary place in the interpretation process.”

He goes on to note that “[o]ne should not say, as Old Testament scholar John Walton has asserted, that the key to understanding Scripture ‘is to be found in the literature from the rest of the ancient world’” (18). On the contrary, Van Dam asserts, “Genesis 1 and 2 do not contain the opinions of the ancient world as to how the world began. They are revelation from God” (21). The author then goes on to discuss both the challenges in using ancient Near Eastern literature as well as the similarities between it and the biblical account. So how do we account for the similarities between the Genesis account of creation and ancient myths? Answer: “It seems probable that where there are notable resemblances, the myths are drawing on corrupted memories of the original divine revelation about Earth’s and humanity’s beginnings as found in Genesis” (25–26).2

The second half of the chapter contains an excellent discussion on the relationship between science, general revelation, and special revelation. The discussion is too long (33 pages) to do it justice here, but here are a few important convictions I gleaned from this section of the chapter:

  1. While the Bible is “not a scientific textbook” and we should be wary about reading scientific data into the text, we should also reject any attempt to draw the opposite conclusion, namely, “that Scripture is less than accurate when it portrays historical events or that Scripture is irrelevant for science” (33).3 Rather, Christian scientists ought to “be encouraged when their research leads them to articulate theories that are consistent with Scripture. After all, the events that Genesis records are factually true” (33).
  2. “Scripture gives information that excludes some theories (such as evolution), and Scripture reminds us that creation is a great work of God and as such will never be fully comprehended. … scientists, especially those trying to reconstruct the past history of the earth, impoverish themselves if they do not reckon with the history the Bible narrates” (35).
  3. “If creation reveals God and if science studies the created world, then one of the first conclusions that science should arrive at is the reality and glory of God who reveals himself in the physical world that is studied” (36). (4) Van Dam then concludes the chapter with four important convictions when considering the relationship of science to God’s Word: (i) “Doing science is consistent with the creation mandate”; (ii) “Scripture provides relevant information for science”; (iii) “Science needs the guidance of God’s Word”; (iv) “If there is a true contradiction between what science theorises and Scripture clearly states, then scripture should be followed” (48–58).

This leads logically on to a consideration of the historicity of Genesis 1:1–2:3 in chapter 3. Van Dam rightly points out that “if we accept the account of Abraham or Joseph as historically true, then why not the account of Adam and Eve’s creation?” For every major section of the Book of Genesis (including the creation narrative of Genesis 2:4ff.) is introduced by the Hebrew tôlәdôt, “this is the history of,” or “these are the generations of,” or “the genealogy of” (61). He thus concludes that “[t]he book of Genesis is one beautifully constructed, unified narrative that intends to recount history. At no point is there any indication that we move from non-historical to the historical” (62).

This, he argues, is supported by the literary style of Genesis 1:1–2:3: “[I]t becomes evident that the literary style of the opening chapter of Scripture shows that its intent is to relate historical events. This is not fictitious mythology or legend but a sober historical account, a narrative with a plot and connected events. … The biblical text of Genesis 1 describes sequential action with one event following another over the span of six days. As such it is narrating historical events” (63–4).

Van Dam goes on to demonstrate how the historicity of the creation is supported elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments (helpful discussions can be found on the following passages: Exodus 20:8–11; Job 38:4–11; Psalm 33, 104; Proverbs 8:22–3; Isaiah 44–45; Matt 19:4; Mark 13:19; John 1:1–2; Acts 14:15; 17:24; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Colossians 1:16–17; Hebrews 1:2; 11:3; Revelation 4:11; 14:7 see [pp. 6–80]).

Chapter 4 begins with a discussion of the meaning and significance of the words “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1), concluding that they quite simply describe the very beginning of God’s creation work on the first day (89–94).

Van Dam then goes on to examine three theories that seek to undermine the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2: the classic (Lucifer’s flood) gap theory (e.g., the Scofield Reference Bible, 94–98), the precreation chaos theory (e.g., Bruce Waltke, 98–101); and a modified gap theory that there was an initial creation which was followed at a much later time by the seven days of creation as outlined in Genesis 1 (e.g., C. John Collins, John Sailhamer, Herman Bavinck, 101–5). Van Dam demonstrates through a careful analysis of the language and grammar of Genesis 1:1–2 why “[t]here is no convincing evidence of an indeterminate time gap within the first verses of Genesis 1. … no pre precreation chaos and no initial creation that preceded the six days of God’s work of creating” (105).

Chapter 5, “The Days of Creation,” sets out to make “the case for understanding the days of Genesis 1 as literal days” (107). On the basis of grammatical, textual, and contextual features, contends Van Dam, “these were days defined by evening and morning, days as we are accustomed to reckon days. There were not long periods of geologic time or allegorical days or a figure of speech” (112). Again he writes: “The text of Genesis 1 presents each of the six days of creation as we normally understand a day, with an evening and a morning—a day measured in hours, not millennia” (119).

The author then proceeds to examine three major alternatives which view the days of Genesis 1 as nonliteral days: the framework view (e.g., Meredith Kline, 122–28); the analogical day view (e.g., C. John Collins, 128–36); and the seven-day structure as an ancient literary device (e.g., John Stek, 136–38). The author rightly concludes that these views should be rejected on exegetical, contextual, and historical grounds.

Chapter 6 asks the question: “What do those words in the opening verse of scripture—‘God created’—mean?” (141). While that would seem to be a rather straightforward question, recent history of interpretation shows it to be anything but.

John Walton has argued that Genesis 1 must be viewed within the context of the ancient Near East where “to create something means to give it function.” According to Walton, Genesis 1 is “making no comment in material origins” (144). However, Van Dam argues:

  1. “Walton is overrating the importance of ancient Near Eastern materials for a proper understanding of Genesis and not fully factoring in the differences between the pagan and biblical worldviews”;
  2. Walton is creating a false dilemma (sometimes referred to as an “either-or fallacy”): Why can’t it be both material and functional? Why exclude one or the other?
  3. Walton is confusing in his use of language: “He writes that ‘it is still best to consider the verb bārā᾽ as meaning ‘to bring something into existence.’ But then he goes on to suggest that ‘it is highly unlikely that material existence is in view’” (145). This also excludes the second view examined in this chapter (that of Ellen van Wolde) which contends that bārā᾽ does not mean “to create,” but rather “to separate”. Creation, rather, is the work of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—by which this material universe was created out of nothing (149–51).

The chapter concludes with an important discussion on the relationship between creation and providence (it is important because theistic evolutionists tend to confuse/conflate the two; see p. 228): “Genesis 1 distinguishes between God’s works of creation and providence. At the same time, it is clear that one cannot separate creation from providence. … these works are closely related to each other. The moment after each work of creation was finished, his work of providence, of causing his work of creation to persist in its existence, took over” (153, 55).

Chapter 7 examines the expression “the heavens and earth” (Genesis 1:1) and asks whether Genesis 1 intends to “set forth a biblical cosmology, a definitive view of the structure of the universe” (163–64).

After a careful examination of the arguments in favour of the view that it does (163–78) the author states: “We can conclude that this passage [Genesis 1], and for that matter other passages often adduced, do not teach an authoritative cosmology. Rather, what we have is God’s work of creation being narrated using the language of observation in terms comprehensible to those who live on earth and who did not witness those enormous events at the beginning of time” (178). One consequence of this view is that “[t]he biblical text of Genesis 1 gives no support that the cosmos is pictured as a temple” (pace G.K. Beale, 179).

Chapter 8 contains an exegetically rich examination of “Days One through Six.” The discussion of each day in divided into two parts (181–225): “[T]he purpose of this chapter is [first] to listen to the text, especially respecting the historicity of God’s work of creation, and [secondly] to briefly explore the implications of what Scripture says for the scientific endeavour” (182).

This chapter provides an excellent model for bringing a careful listening to the text into conversation with the findings of modern science.

This discussion is then capped off by chapter 9 which focuses on “The Completed Creation and the Seventh Day” (227–248). Van Dam answered all my questions related to these events: What does the word “very good” signify in Genesis 1:1? (228–29); How old was the earth on the sixth day? (229–240); Was there any sort of death in the natural realm before the fall? (229); How could all the events of the sixth day fit into such a short time frame? (231); Was God being deceptive by creating everything to appear as though it had been around for many years? (233); What does Genesis 2:2-3 mean when it says that God “rested” on the seventh day? (241–48).

The focus of chapter 10 is “The Historicity of Genesis 2 and the Garden of Eden.” Again, the author provided solid answers to the many questions people have on Genesis 2:4–25 and the Garden of Eden: What does Genesis 2:4–7 mean when it says that there was no rain and no one to work the ground? (252–257); What was the significance of God bringing the animals to Adam? (257–258); When and where did God plant the garden of Eden? (258–67); What was the meaning and significance of the two special trees in the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life? (267–70)? And finally, was Eden a temple (as has been argued by scholars such as John Walton and G.K. Beale? (271–76)

Van Dam concludes: “There is no doubt that the tabernacle and temple contain clear allusions to the Edenic garden … It is, however, never called a sanctuary. Although we can find allusions to Eden later in the tabernacle and temple, that does not warrant calling the garden of Eden itself a sanctuary or temple” (276) (incidentally, to argue that the garden is a sanctuary or temple simply on the basis that we find allusions to Eden later in the tabernacle and temple would be to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent).

Finally, I arrived at chapter 11, the one that I was most looking forward to reading: “The Work of Creation and the Gospel”. In this chapter Van Dam does a very good job of demonstrating why “[d]enying the historicity [of Genesis 1 and 2] can ultimately call into question the reliability of the gospel. Scripture closely relates the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 with the historicity of God’s work of salvation” (280).

This chapter contains an excellent section on “the corrosive effects of the theory of evolution,” demonstrating how it undermines the Christian faith (187–92), undermines the church’s confidence in the reliability and authority of scripture (192–94), and erodes biblical morals in society (194–95).

My only criticism of this chapter is that Van Dam focuses most of his criticism on the theory of evolution in general rather than on theistic evolution in particular and how that undermines the gospel. For example, discussion is needed on how the presence of death and disease in human fossils before the Fall, according to the evolutionary timeline, undermines the Christian gospel and Christian theodicy.

Van Dam concludes the chapter with a call to educate the church on the importance of the doctrine of creation: “It is critically important that each new generation is taught the biblical view of creation and the place of science in relation to Scripture” (296). Therefore, he contends, “special attention should also be given to these issues in Sunday school, catechetical classes, young adult groups, or wherever an occasion for discussing these matters can be arranged” (297). “For,” he concludes, “it is at bottom a matter of faith either in the fallible human theory of evolution or in God’s inspired Word. And believers can be encouraged by the fact that the entire creation witnesses to God’s glory (Romans 1:20)!” (303).

Van Dam’s In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2 is an exegetical tour de force that is characterised by careful and thorough research (it contains over 60 pages of bibliography), a rigorous exegesis of the text (without being overly technical), a competent handling of scientific issues, and a warm pastoral tone. I found the book to be stimulating, readable, informative, as well as biblically, theologically, and scientifically sound. I would recommend this book to:

  • Pastors and church leaders who will be called upon to respond to evolutionary thought and/or preach through Genesis 1 and 2.
  • Theological or university students who are wondering how to respond to lecturers in theological colleges or secular universities who promote evolutionary thought and, in the process, undermine the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2.
  • Educated lay people, home-schoolers, and youth leaders. This is an excellent resource that will be highly effective in equipping God’s people to give an answer for the truth and authority of God’s Word.
Published: 17 January 2023

References and notes

  1. Van Dam, Cornelis, In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021, 371 pages. Review originally published in Vox Reformata 2022. Used with permission. Return to text.
  2. Van Dam goes on to quote Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament, p. 37: “The Genesis account is not only the purest, but everywhere bears the unmistakable impress of divine inspiration when compared with the extravagances and corruptions of the other accounts. The Biblical narrative, we may conclude, represents the original form these traditions must have assumed” (italics in the original). Return to text.
  3. Bavinck, H., Reformed Dogmatics, 1:444, 2008, Baker Academic. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History
by Dr Don Batten, Dr Jonathan D Sarfati
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The Genesis Account
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