How Should We Read Genesis 1?

On this coming Thursday, February 8, at 8:00 pm, I’ll be giving a talk in Buffalo, NY on how best to read Genesis 1 in a contested cultural context.

The full title of the talk is: “In the Beginning God Created the Heavens and the Earth: Responsible Interpretation of Genesis 1 in Ancient and Contemporary Contexts.”

Many Christians today try to make this ancient text, which describes God’s creation of the cosmos, fit with modern assumptions. The main assumption that modern people bring to Genesis 1, which distorts what it is actually saying, is that this creation account must be coordinated with what we think science teaches us about the world.

For some, this means rejecting any aspects of modern science that don’t seem to match the text (the typical view of young earth creationists). For others, it means rejecting Genesis 1 because it clearly doesn’t match modern science (the view of many skeptics).

The trouble is that Genesis 1 is an ancient text that has no interest in addressing modern science at all. It has an entirely different focus.

In my talk, I will be taking participants on a journey of understanding, to see what this ancient text was saying to its original audience, and how its amazing message can impact us today (even in a modern scientific world).

The talk is being held as part of the Nickel City Forum, sponsored by Anglicans of Western New York. which hosts various events, including a series of talks typically given in pubs and open to the public.

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This talk will be held at The Place, on 229 Lexington Ave, Buffalo, New York 14222. For more information about the event, including how to register and get tickets, click here.

My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl F. H. Henry (Heading to the Dabar Conference on Genesis and Science)

I’m about to head off to a four-day conference (June 8-11, 2016) that will address the topic of “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science.” This is the kick-off conference of a three-year “Creation Project,” sponsored by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

The Dabar Conference

The conference is known as the Dabar Conference (this is the Hebrew term for “word,” pronounced davar). The name evokes Scripture as God’s Word and the biblical theme that God creates by the word (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6-9; Psalm 119:89-91; John 1:1-3).

Although the Creation Project involves more than the annual Dabar Conference (it involves research fellowships and smaller meetings throughout the year), the Conference is meant to gather “evangelicals together from different disciplines, denominations, and institutions with the goal of orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and promote scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.”

The Creation Project’s topics for the next two years are “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (2017) and “Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science” (2018).

This Year’s Conference Topic

This year’s emphasis on “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science” is meant to address a number of questions, the core of which is the following:

“How are the opening chapters of Genesis and other origin texts throughout the Christian Scriptures related to the claims of modern scientific advance?”

Although it is not stated explicitly, evolution (of the cosmos and of humanity) is an important aspect of the science that will be addressed.

You can see the full 2016 Dabar Conference schedule here.

My Contribution to the Conference

The Dabar Conference is billed as a “working” conference, where position papers are presented, followed by respondents (of which I am one), and then open discussion.

I was invited to participate likely because of my work in Old Testament (especially Genesis) and also because of my connection to BioLogos.

I’ve been asked to bring my philosophical and biblical studies backgrounds to bear as a respondent to C. John (“Jack”) Collins’s paper, entitled “Reading Genesis 1-11 in Biblical and Social Context.” Although I’m mostly on board with his reading, I’ll be exploring some of the implications of Collins’s framing of matters, wondering out loud about how we might better articulate some of his points in light of important issues in contemporary science.

Charitable Disagreement among Christians

There is no guarantee that everyone at the conference will agree (in fact, we are likely to disagree), but we are coming together as Christian sisters and brothers to explore the questions in an atmosphere of critical and charitable inquiry.

I’m glad that the stated intent for the conference is to cultivate “clarity, humility, and mere orthodoxy, all of which are important for developing innovative future research projects and in providing public guidance to the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry vis-a-vis Middleton and Walsh

I’m particularly glad for this stated intent since, paradoxically, my own work on postmodernity and biblical faith back in the mid-nineties was summarily dismissed by none other than Carl F. H. Henry (after whom the Henry Center is named).

Carl Henry heard a paper that Brian Walsh and I delivered at the Wheaton Theology Conference back in 1994 (based on our book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, which was published by IVP the following year). He wrote a single-page scathing critique (in World magazine) of the conference and of our book, which he had not actually read. Instead, he based his critique on lines he quoted from a phone interview that IVP did with us about the book .

While there were undoubtedly legitimate differences of opinion between Henry’s point of view and our own position, the tragedy is that his critique (in the article) was based primarily on out-of-context quotations from the phone interview, which omitted important clarifications of what we meant.

For example, Henry quoted me as saying: “Even the truth of the gospel . . . is a human construction.” And he took this to mean that I denied the reality of revelation from God (something no-one who knows me would ever think).

Here it is important to note that something crucial was left out of the quote (signified by the ellipsis dots).

Brian had just commented about truth as both given from God (revelation) and our responsibility to formulate it in human language in order to communicate it.

Then comes the full sentence in which I followed up on Brian’s comment: “Yes, because even the truth of the gospel—which we constantly articulate in the church, in liturgy and proclamation and evangelism—is a human construction. I mean, the Four Spiritual Laws is a human construction in response to the truth of Jesus.”

I first read Carl Henry’s works when I was an undergraduate theology student in Jamaica and found that he was someone I could respect. So I was quite disappointed by this dismissive misreading.

Even though Carl Henry is no longer alive (he passed away in 2003), perhaps my participation in this conference (sponsored by the Henry Center) will serve to bring a certain reconciliation.


The Problem of Relating Human Evolution to the Biblical Account of Origins, Part 1—The Warfare Model and Concordism

Although there are divergences of opinion on details (since the science is always being refined), most paleo-anthropologists date the first hominin remains (the australopithecines) to some five million years ago and think that the first examples of the genus Homo appeared about two million years ago (Homo habilis). The most likely hypothesis for the evolution of anatomically modern Homo sapiens places their origin some 200,000 years ago, with an original population of perhaps 10,000.

Many religious skeptics and committed Christians alike have judged this scientific account incompatible with the biblical version of the origin of the humanity recounted in the early chapters of Genesis.

The Warfare or Conflict Model of the Bible and Science

From the skeptical side, the Bible has often been dismissed because its mythical or prescientific account of origins (both cosmic and human) is thought to contradict what we know from modern science. This skeptical approach is most evident in the “warfare” model of science and religion made famous by John W. Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the nineteenth century, and perpetuated by the new atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Many Christians (especially evangelicals and fundamentalists in North America) have bought into the warfare model, with the difference that they assume the “literal” truth of the biblical account—taking “literal” in the sense of necessitating a one-to-one correspondence between details of this account and events and actualities in the empirical world. This approach, which often goes by the name “scientific creationism” or “creation science” (or, more recently, “origin science”) assumes that the Bible intends to teach a true scientific account of cosmic origins—including a young earth and the discontinuity of species (particularly the discontinuity of humans from other primates).

Christian Attempts to Harmonize the Bible and Science Deriving from the Warfare Model

Since this way of reading biblical creation accounts clearly contradicts the understanding of origins provided by modern science (both in cosmology and in evolutionary biology), proponents of “creation science” typically dismiss the putative claims of modern science (at least in the case of cosmic and biological origins) as ideologically tainted. The result is a concordist attempt to force science to fit what the Bible (on a superficial reading) is thought to say about these topics.

A more recent, equally problematic, concordist approach works in the opposite direction, attempting to harmonize the Bible with the conclusions of modern science. This approach, spearheaded by Hugh Ross and the organization called “Reasons to Believe,” attempts to make the Bible agree with major scientific findings, at least at the level of cosmology. Thus, the Bible’s cosmological and cosmogonic statements (about the nature and origin of creation) are not understood in their ancient conceptual context, but interpreted so as to make them harmonize (anachronistically) with modern scientific claims (including a universe of galaxies billions of years old).

Yet at one point this alternative concordist project agrees with that of “creation science”—biological evolution (especially human evolution) is beyond the pale.

Despite what many Christians think, there isn’t at present any genuine scientific debate about the reality of evolution, including the descent of humans from previous life forms. The only debate is about certain details (as is to be expected in any empirical discipline). I myself have become convinced (by both genetics and paleontology) that biological evolution is the best scientific account of the development of life on earth—human evolution included. I have come to believe that the evolutionary process is simply the menchanism through which God has been creating life over the eons.

The Problem of Relating Evolution to the Bible’s Account of the Origin of Evil

Nevertheless, simple honesty requires me to admit that there are ongoing problems concerning how we are to relate human evolutionary history with the biblical teaching concerning origins.

One of the most problematic dimensions of affirming both biblical origins and biological evolution is the doctrine of the “Fall,” since the Bible seems to teach (in Genesis 3) a punctiliar, one-time event in which an original couple transgressed God’s commandment after an initial paradisiacal period.

I don’t believe that the classical, Augustinian doctrine of “original sin” is required (in all its specificity) for creedal orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the Bible itself certainly seems (at first blush) to tie the origin of evil to an understanding of human beginnings that is quite different from what we find in evolutionary biology.

Given the putative contradiction between biblical-theological claims and evolutionary science, what’s an honest Christian to do?

In my next post, I’ll examine some alternatives to the warfare model (and the resulting Christian attempt to make science harmonize with the Bible).