Genesis is foundational, but maybe not historical

To begin, I would like to thank Connor Sterchi for his respectful and gentle treatment of the topic of origins in his editorial “Historical Genesis is Foundational.” Far too often, discussions on this topic forget to recognize the dignity of the other and degrade into attacks upon the other position without any listening taking place. So thank you, Connor.

Having said that, I hope to respectfully disagree and continue this conversation in a way that can lead to greater understanding for both views.

I want to begin with some common ground. This is a crucial matter because as Connor says, “Genesis lays the groundwork of the entire Christian faith.” That does not mean it is the basis for salvation or exclusion from the kingdom of God, as Connor also says, but it does make it important. We then reach our first disagreement, and what I think is the largest of them which underlies all the others.

Connor asks of theistic evolutionists (I don’t particularly like that term, but it is how most people would likely identify me, so I will use it, even though I think it doesn’t capture the broader position of many Christians, including many at Calvin), “Why not also reinterpret other events of the Bible?” In answer, I would say that we (Christians who believe that evolution was the process God used in sustaining creation) have, just not in the manner in which Connor expects.

When I read the Bible, I think it is very important to consider the historical and cultural context in which the book was written; that is to say, each passage from Genesis through to Revelation. This is a difficult process, and will likely include at time some speculation and best guesses, but I believe that makes it no less necessary. This is further complicated by the fact that the Bible is a compilation of books by different authors, writing in different contexts, for different audiences, in different genres.

Thus, when I interpret Genesis not as a scientific account of the creation of the universe but as a theological account revealing the character of God and refuting the polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East, that does not mean that I must — in fact I should not — then read other portions of the Bible in the same way, because other portions are written in a different context and in a different genre. If, after considering the different evidences, one concludes that Genesis is, in fact, a historical and scientifically-accurate account, then I am content to amiably disagree; but my hope is that they also have an understanding of how the evidence could be interpreted differently in a rational and reasonable way.

This position does not, in any way, deny the truth of the Genesis account. Instead, it locates the truth in the theological purpose rather than in the historicity. As Connor points out, passages of poetry and parables still convey truth, even if what they say did literally take place. I do think Connor’s use of the word literally is misplaced. Parables, poetry and metaphor do convey truth but it is not at the literal level; that does not make it any less valuable, but it is by its nature not literal. I believe that the truth of the Genesis creation accounts lie in the beautiful portrayals of the character of God as both a sovereign, majestic creator and an immanent companion, rather than in a scientific description of the earth’s origins.

To another point from the former editorial, Connor asserts that, “Without the outside influence of evolutionary ideas, nobody would read Genesis and conclude that God used evolution over millions of years to create humans and animals.” That is a valid statement that I think is absolutely true. I would also say, however, that without the outside influence of astronomy, everybody would still regard the Bible as telling us that the sun revolves around the earth. Perhaps an overused analogy but one that holds a great deal of merit nonetheless.

As science and other fields progress, we learn more about the natural world, learn more of the truths that it can tell us, and learn more about the creator who made it. The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and so I believe that in light of that, it is our duty to reevaluate the primary purpose of the scriptures. As Galileo said, “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Simplistic, but he captures the essential idea that scripture is not at its core a history book or a science book, but a book describing the path to salvation and relationship with God. Yes, that includes some history and some science, but its primary message is a salvific one.

Connor points to both Luther and Calvin as advocates for a literal six day creation and uses that as an argument that we need to return to that. I do not find that to be a fair argument. Who can say what Luther and Calvin would believe if they were alive today and had access to the information with which we are now privileged? And beyond that, if we are looking at church fathers, I think it is important to include Augustine, the 4th century father, who — long before evolutionary theory had even been proposed — warned of being too confident of interpretations of Genesis and himself did not view the six days as literal. He further recognized the expertise of non-believers and cautioned Christians to be careful not to say things that their expertise would refute out of hand: “If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

In conclusion, I think that Connor’s diagnosis of the problem that the debate is “faith in the creator’s account of creation (Genesis) versus faith in humanistic, materialistic and naturalistic speculations about the past (evolutionism)” sets up a straw man and denies that I hold scripture in very high regard. Are there issues on which I still find no satisfactory answers when I accept many of the premises of evolutionary theory? Absolutely! I have no idea at this point how original sin fits in, or where the image of God first manifested itself in the human species, or what the role of death may have been before the fall, if such a thing existed. In that, I hold very tightly to the words God spoke to Job that Connor quotes at the end of his peace. I would suggest that advocates of young earth creation consider that verse has something to say to them as well. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding” (Job 38:4).

This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the views of Calvin Chimes, Calvin College or the Christian Reformed Church.