Four years ago I profiled Hugh Ross, founder and president of Reasons to Believe, in the pages of WORLD. I enjoyed writing this lead:
“When Hugh Ross took his first physics class at the University of British Columbia, the professor gave students a stern warning: If you have a girlfriend, you will fail this course. If you have a job, you will fail. If you have a hobby, you will fail. Ross, now 65, made sure he had none of the above: His sight was set on science from the time at age 7 he asked his parents, ‘Are stars hot?’—and then went to the library to find out.
“Later, a potential distraction entered: Kathy, the woman he married. Ross jokes that ‘I married my wife without any absolute proof that she exists.’ Examining the scientific evidence, though, he went ahead with the wedding on the high probability that she did exist, and after 33 years of marriage feels he has more evidence.”
In a way, all of us marry Christianity without any absolute, laboratory-level proof that it’s true, and the reason we can do that is that Christ, the church’s Bridegroom, first marries us. We also enter the creation-evolution struggle without absolute proof. Creation is far more probable (and desperate evolutionists have had to fall back on the idea that billions of universes exist, a belief that requires greater faith than anything in Genesis). Yet every year new books arise with new interpretations of Genesis, some of which are ingenious—but are they true?
Ross examines the work of the “new critics” in Chapter 22 of his latest book, Navigating Genesis: A Scientist’s Journey through Genesis 1–11 (RTB Press, 2014). He does so with a kind but firm tone, as evident in his conclusion:
“The new critics’ contribution to truth building by drawing out significant meanings from Genesis that others have missed deserves respect and attention. So does their warning to refrain from reading more into the biblical text than God intends to convey. However … eliminating scientific evidence for the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible’s message is tantamount to crippling Christians’ endeavor to advance Christ’s kingdom and fulfill the Great Commission. … Such restrictive interpretations raise the question of why God would want us to remain in the dark about such matters. Is He not a God who desires to make Himself known?”
Please read on and see for yourself. —Marvin Olasky
Chapter 22: New Criticism
Recognizing the damage caused by ongoing and often heated conflict over Genesis—not only among scientists and theologians, higher critics and conservatives, but also within Christian churches and schools—a growing coalition of evangelical leaders and scholars has stepped forward to offer new interpretive approaches. These approaches aim at the laudable goal of restoring peace. They encourage everyone involved in the battle over Genesis to back off from “overinterpreting” or “reading into” the text more than it was intended to communicate.
All the conflict and turmoil could end, they propose, if everyone would just acknowledge that the Genesis creation accounts are beautifully composed works of artistic prose. Some of these scholars argue that the Genesis creation texts communicate physical creation details but not a chronology. Others assert that the texts are limited to refuting the creation stories of the pagan nations surrounding the ancient Hebrews. Others claim physical creation activity is incidental to far more important themes in these passages. Some go so far as to say Genesis 1 and 2 are silent on matters pertaining to the physical aspects of creation. For this latter group, no need exists even to discuss Genesis 1 and 2 in light of established scientific findings. They view any attempt to do so as irrelevant and likely damaging to the Christian faith.
The appeal of these various approaches seems understandable, even laudable. Who, after all, would deny the beauty and artistry of Genesis 1 and 2? What’s more, examples certainly exist of today’s readers asking too much of the text by expecting it to match complex details of advanced and still advancing scientific knowledge. Letting the ancients speak to the ancients seems right and fair. But what do we relinquish if we embrace these limited interpretive approaches? That’s the question this chapter explores.
Among the first of the new critical approaches was introduced by such prominent theologians as Meredith Kline, Henri Blocher, and Bruce Waltke. It has been referred to by various designations, but the most familiar is simply the framework interpretation. This view treats the Genesis creation texts as a basic theology of creation, not as a literal or scientific description of origins. Lee Irons and Meredith Kline recently wrote, “We do not equate a nonliteral interpretation with a nonhistorical interpretation of the text. … We affirm a historical creation, a historical Adam, and a historical Fall.”
Framework interpreters see the seven days as a literary device, or framework, designed “to bring out certain themes and provide a theology of the sabbath,” but not “to supply us with a chronology of origins.” Their perspective invokes a “two-register” cosmology. The upper register is seen as heaven, the dwelling place of God and His angels, and the lower register as “earth,” meaning the entire physical universe. Each of the creation days is said to frame the description of some aspect(s) of the lower register as a way to communicate important truths about the upper register. Consequently, framework interpreters view the time indicators in Genesis 1 as nonlinear.
As another textual indication of the text’s nonchronological nature, the framework model notes a distinct parallelism between the first three and the subsequent three days of creation. The first triad they view as defining realms of habitation while the second triad describes the filling of these realms with inhabitants.
Additional themes of the Genesis story highlighted by framework proponents include God’s sovereignty, the power of God’s spoken word, the goodness of creation, humans as bearers of the image of God, and the importance of the Sabbath—themes on which anyone convinced of the Bible’s divine inspiration and authority would wholeheartedly agree. But the manner in which these themes are presented in the text would seem to me to suggest a more straightforward, less figurative (from a literary standpoint) intent.
To remove what appears an obvious chronology and literal intent from Genesis 1 is to strip away much of the apologetics power of the account. Would the Holy Spirit be unable to express both the creation chronology and creation theology in the same inspired words? Would the Holy Spirit overlook an opportunity to demonstrate how God’s two books of revelation—the book of Scripture and the book of nature—corroborate one another?
Two (or More) Adams
Another recent approach to reconciling the conflict between Genesis and science is the idea that the biblical creation story can and does accommodate biological evolutionary models. According to this approach, Genesis 1 addresses human history from about 6.5 million years ago until the Neolithic Revolution (circa 11,000 years ago), and Genesis 2 speaks of human history after the Neolithic Revolution. In this interpretive model the Adam of Genesis 1 is not the same individual as the Adam of Genesis 2.
In agreement with standard evolutionary theory, proponents of this model say the hominid species evolved first into Homo sapiens, including Homo sapiens idaltu and other late-appearing, human-like Homo species, and finally into Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans. Then, in the Garden of Eden, God selected a single pair of these creatures to receive the image of God, according to this interpretation. A subset of this evolutionary model proposes three Adams: the first Adam as the progenitor of the hominds; the second as the first Cro-Magnon (or Homo sapiens sapiens); and the third as the Neolithic individual to whom God imparted His image.
As intriguing as the two- and three-Adam models may be, they face some significant theological challenges. Genesis 1 seems explicit about God’s direct involvement in creating the first human pair and endowing them with the divine image. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul affirm that all humans descend from a pair of individuals named Adam and Eve. The doctrines of original sin and redemption are closely tied to the one Adam from whom all humanity descends.
On the science front, additional problems arise. Mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA analysis confirms that Homo sapiens sapiens is a species distinct from other hominids. The fossil record shows relative stasis, not change, within any of the hominid species during its time on Earth. According to recent studies in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, a marked discontinuity exists between the capabilities of the human mind and the intellectual capacities of all other animals. These findings, which present potent challenges to current evolutionary models, affirm the biblical description of Adam and Eve’s creation. The biblical timing of humanity’s arrival, several tens of thousands of years ago, receives further confirmation from the discoveries of a cluster of cultural “big bang” events roughly 50,000 years ago.
Only a Polemic
A valid emphasis on identifying and understanding literary genre as a significant part of the Bible interpreters’ task has been exploited by some theologians as a way around the debate over Genesis and science. Given the Israelites’ exposure to the creation myths of Egypt, Babylonia, and of other heathen nations surrounding them, their approach is to treat the Genesis creation texts primarily as a polemic against ancient Near Eastern cosmologies.
From this perspective, the scientific details and chronology of creation become largely irrelevant. What really counts is Moses’ presentation of the difference between God’s moral perfection and the foibles of the pagan gods. At the same time he contrasts God’s plan with the blatant political agendas of pagan myths (see chapter 8).
Most Bible readers would agree that Genesis does, indeed, convey such a message, but the idea that it says only this much and no more is more difficult to support. To say that the Genesis creation accounts’ purpose is essentially limited to a polemic against Near Eastern creation myths presumes that the ancient Israelites (not to mention the nations around them) cared little or nothing about how the world and they, themselves, came to be.
All humans, from children to the elderly, from those lacking in formal education to those with advanced degrees, throughout the ages have expressed intense curiosity about origins. The pervasiveness of this curiosity may be seen in the multiplicity of creation stories, legends, and myths across time and cultures. Attempts to explain natural history appear in the written record or oral tradition of virtually every people group on Earth.
Meanwhile, the Bible declares itself a revelation to all generations, not just the generation alive at the time it was written. Embedded in the inspired words of ancient prophets are additional messages bearing significance for later generations. As Peter says, “It was revealed to them [the prophets] that they were serving not themselves, but you.”
As a book for all generations, inspired by the One who knows the past as well as the future, the Scriptures would be expected to impart truth to each generation of humanity. We should anticipate that the Bible’s creation texts, Genesis and others, will include content that becomes progressively clearer to successive generations as knowledge of the book of nature increases. Thus, it serves as a polemic not only against the pagan creation myths of Moses’ generation but also against the distorted accounts of natural history promulgated by nonbelievers through all generations.
In his best-selling book, The Lost World of Genesis One, esteemed Wheaton College professor John Walton provides yet another inviting pathway around the Genesis-and-science controversy. This new approach says that “Genesis 1 was never intended to offer an account of material origins.” Simply stated, no real conflict exists because “the text does not offer scientific explanations.” In other words, “Science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins because there is no biblical view of material origins, aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it.” Walton bases this conclusion on his belief that “the material cosmos was of little significance to them [ancient Israelites] when it came to questions of origins.”
Recently, two more evangelical theologians, Johnny Miller and John Soden, joined Walton in promoting this view of Genesis 1. In their book, In the Beginning … We Misunderstood, Miller and Soden declare, “The assumption that Genesis 1 is science is what we hope to lay to rest with this book.” They go on to write, “Genesis 1 was not intended to teach a scientific view of creation. … Genesis 1 neither intends to answer nor speaks to scientific questions.”
What is the Genesis account all about in this view? Pure theology. According to Walton, it is “an account of functional origins, specifically focusing on the functioning of the cosmos as God’s temple.” That is, Genesis describes the spiritual functions of the universe, not its material reality. It “looks to the future … rather than to the past.”
Walton’s functional interpretation accepts the creation days as 24-hour days but sees in this interpretation no conflict with the scientifically established 13.8-billion-year age of the universe or the 4.5662-billion-year age of Earth. According to this view, the creation days have nothing to do with natural history. Rather these days represent “the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple” during which that inauguration is “accomplished by proclaiming its functions, installing its functionaries, and, most importantly, becoming the place of God’s residence.”
The motivation to uphold the authority of God’s Word and to eliminate conflict between the scientific record and the Bible I can and do fully appreciate. However, to do so by proposing that the Bible is totally silent on material origins seems a bridge too far. It also seems an unnecessary and false extreme to assert that science is powerless to address theological issues. On the basis of my own and other scientists’ personal experience (see sidebar, “Can Science Access God?”), I must disagree with assertions that “science is removed from the realm of divine activity”; and “science is not capable of exploring a designer or his purposes”; “neither ultimate cause nor purpose can be proven or falsified by empirical science;” “science cannot offer access to God and can neither establish his existence beyond reasonable doubt nor falsify his existence.”
In this functional origins approach I hear echoes of Stephen Jay Gould’s separate, nonoverlapping magisteria. By ruling out any overlap between nature’s record and the Bible, people can compartmentalize science as the realm of the physical and factual as contrasted with the Bible, the realm of the spiritual and subjective, often deemed by skeptics as the realm of wishful thinking. Christians thereby lose a critically important evidential foundation for their faith. What’s more, they risk conceding the origins debate to those who claim no need of a Creator.
The refusal to use scientific evidence as a way to verify that the Bible is wholly truthful and, thus, the divinely inspired Word of God can only weaken the church’s evangelistic efforts. Without objective support, how can a Christian obey Peter’s injunction to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”? Often the questions nonbelievers raise are questions about the material world and its origins. For the Christian to respond by saying the Bible is silent on such matters would be to suggest that the Bible is irrelevant.
Additional Response to the New Criticism
To say Genesis 1 “is not written to us” but only addresses Moses’ contemporaries closely parallels the assertion that the Genesis creation texts are merely a polemic against ancient creation myths. Just as God allowed Old Testament prophets to speak of future events in calling the Israelites to repentance, so, too, He is fully capable of inspiring scientifically accurate descriptions and predictions of future discoveries (unique statements about the material world that later prove correct) to demonstrate to later generations that the Bible is the divinely inspired and wholly trustworthy revelation from God.
The suggestion that the Israelites had neither interest in nor knowledge of the physical world, that they did not know “the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air,” seems unnecessarily demeaning and actually contradicts well-documented history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Babylonians invested more heavily (as a percentage of gross national product) in astronomy by far than any nation does today. The ancients built instruments capable of making astronomical measurements as precise as a fifteenth of the Moon’s diameter. By noting that the Big Dipper drops lower in the sky the farther south one travels, the ancients discerned that Earth must be a sphere floating free within a sky of stars. By measuring the angle of sunlight at locations of known distances apart, they determined the diameter of Earth to within one percent precision. Measurements of the Moon’s phases and the size and shape of Earth’s shadow relative to the Moon’s diameter during a lunar eclipse showed roughly how far away from Earth both the Sun and Moon must be and their sizes relative to Earth. Their inability to detect parallaxes for any of the stars told them that stars must be much more distant than the Sun.
Can Science Access God?
Astronomers can and do directly observe cosmic history, from a split second (10-34 seconds) after its beginning to its continual expansion ever since. Physicists have successfully produced a number of theorems confirming that space and time have not existed eternally but rather originated when the universe came into being.
Such discoveries prompted astrophysicist Fang Li Zhi and his physicist wife, Li Shu Xian, to write, “A question that has always been considered a topic of metaphysics or theology—the creation of the universe—has now become an area of active research in physics.” Physicist and Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias remarked, “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.” Cosmologist Edward Harrison acknowledged, “Here is the cosmological proof of the existence of God—the design argument of Paley—updated and refurbished. The fine-tuning of the universe provides prima facie evidence of deistic design.”
The scientific invasion of theological turf goes farther. Research in anthropology, astrobiology, biochemistry, genetics, geophysics, paleontology, and the origin of life yield an abundance of biblically relevant and theologically significant findings. When asked what evidence persuaded him to abandon his public advocacy of atheism and acknowledge God’s existence, philosopher Antony Flew responded that it was revelations from scientific research on the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe for life, and the origin of life.
The Bible likewise asserts that nature’s record provides unequivocal evidence for God’s existence and personal attributes. According to Psalm 97:6, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness and all peoples see his glory.” In Romans 1:20 we read, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Recently, a team of Finnish astronomers and world culture experts in their examination of Egyptian astronomical records dating back to the thirteenth century BC discovered that Egyptian astronomers at that time and earlier had measured the periodicity of Algol’s luminosity variability to a high degree of precision. (Algol is the second brightest star in the Perseus constellation. It was known as “the raging one” to ancient Egyptians and as “Satan’s head” to ancient Israelites.) By comparing Algol’s thirteenth century BC period of 2.850 days with the modern value of 2.867 days the Finnish astronomers were able to confirm the validity of a particular theoretical model of stellar burning and stellar mass transfer and, thus, advance the discipline of stellar physics.
At least some of this knowledge of astronomy would have been available to the Israelites. Moses, a prince in Pharaoh’s court, would have been well-educated in Egyptian science. Moreover, curiosity about the heavens and the natural realm is an innate human trait. This curiosity is evident in little children, in stone-age cultures, and in the historical records of the most ancient civilizations.
Another parallel between the functional interpretation and the polemic view lies in their perception of science. Both views characterize science as shifting sand in “a constant state of flux.” Because “what is accepted as true today, may not be accepted as true tomorrow,” divine intention should never be held hostage, they say, to transient scientific theories.
Such a view appears out of sync with the two-books doctrine of historic Christianity, derived from Article 2 of the Belgic Confession. Some portions of both revelatory “books” will be mysterious and unexplained while others will be perspicuous—crystal clear—to anyone who “reads” them with care in a spirit of humility.
Many scientific findings hold a level of certainty comparable to the findings of theology established as doctrine. For example, the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of decay or the law of entropy, is evident and unchanging throughout the natural realm. It is scientifically solid. It will not ebb and flow or change. It also is stated and affirmed in the pages of Scripture. An overlap does, then, clearly exist between the two kinds of revelation.
Pursuit of Truth
Science, like theology, is a truth-building enterprise. Obviously, not all the facts of nature may be discovered in the Bible any more than all the details of the Christian gospel may be discovered in the study of nature. However, the foundation of what is clear, evident, and undisputable helps guide research into that which is partially explored or partially understood. Thus, a disciplined application of appropriate interpretive methods can add to that foundation of understood truth and push back the curtain of ignorance and confusion (see appendix A).
On account of human limitations and biases, this truth-building enterprise has no end as long as humanity continues in its current state. There is always more truth to discover and always room to go deeper into the truth we know. For example, in astronomy, careful measurements of the motions of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury gave birth to calculus and Newtonian mechanics, which enabled more refined measurements of planetary motions, which led, in turn, to the discovery of Uranus and Neptune and, eventually, to tensor calculus analysis and special and general relativity. General relativity then pointed to big bang cosmology.
In the progress of knowledge relativity neither falsified nor replaced Newtonian mechanics. Relativity only refined it. In fact, the refinements are so small they can be safely ignored for the purposes of solar system space travel. Today, the reliability of special and general relativity in predicting cosmic dynamics has been confirmed to twenty-one and fifteen decimal places, respectively. As new discoveries occur and as measurements are made to even more places of the decimal, relativity may need to be refined but it will not be overturned, taking big bang cosmology with it.
In stating that general relativity confirmed big bang cosmology, I refer to the words of astronomer Robert Jastrow, who noted in his famous book, God and the Astronomers, that theologians beat astronomers to the big bang’s discovery by many centuries. This is not a case of a modern-day astronomer force-fitting “where the big bang fits into the biblical record.” At least seven centuries before any scientific evidence for a cosmic origin event came forth, Christian and Jewish theologians discerned from the Bible the central elements of big bang cosmology.
The new critics’ contribution to truth building by drawing out significant meanings from Genesis that others have missed deserves respect and attention. So does their warning to refrain from reading more into the biblical text than God intends to convey. However, to completely disconnect biblical revelation in Genesis from comment about the world of nature would be to overturn twenty centuries of biblical scholarship on Genesis. Eliminating scientific evidence for the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible’s message is tantamount to crippling Christians’ endeavor to advance Christ’s kingdom and fulfill the Great Commission.
Peacekeeping v. Peacemaking
Each of the new approaches I have encountered for ending the conflict over the meaning of Genesis 1 requires limiting the Bible’s revelatory power, nature’s revelatory power, or both. In each case, it seems humanity is meant to receive less knowledge and understanding about creation. Such restrictive interpretations raise the question of why God would want us to remain in the dark about such matters. Is He not a God who desires to make Himself known?
These various attempts to “keep peace” among Christians may help temporarily, but they fall short of God’s call to “make peace.” What is the difference? Peacekeeping seeks to avoid conflict. Peacemaking seeks to resolve conflict. Peacekeeping serves to separate warring parties from one another. Peacemaking means laboring to transform warring parties into full allies. Perhaps most people learn the difference from their experience of family life.
God knows each of us needs trusted allies to live and grow in obedience to Him as well as to complete the disciple-making assignment He placed in our hands. While serving as a minister of evangelism I first observed that for most adults outside the church to become followers of Christ, they need to see God’s handiwork, God’s character, and God’s plan revealed in both the words of Scripture and the record of nature, where the two join forces as allies to validate and reinforce each other. Most Christians will not even attempt to discuss their faith with educated non-Christians without being convinced that the two records convey a consistent message.
Admittedly, peacemaking demands much greater effort than peacekeeping. Diligent research is necessary to see possible pathways toward resolution and reconciliation. But, that is exactly the kind of research whereby we learn more about our Creator and our created realm, including our own life
In this endeavor we need not and must not fear being forced to honor one revelation and reject the other. The God who inspired the Bible is the same God who made the universe, Earth, and all Earth’s life. This God is the very definition of truth; therefore nature’s record will never contradict Scripture and vice versa. When a seeming contradiction confronts us, we can know with certainty we have either misunderstood (one, the other, or both revelations) or perhaps we have yet to dig deeply enough. Whatever the case, we can embrace the opportunity to gain greater knowledge and appreciation for the Bible, for nature, and for the God who is responsible for both.
From Navigating Genesis: A Scientist’s Journey through Genesis 1–11 by Hugh Ross. © 2014 Reasons to Believe. Reprinted with permission. A small group study for Navigating Genesis is available at the Reasons to Believe website.