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A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

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March 8, 2011 Tags: Human Origins
A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

Today's entry was written by Arie Leegwater. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.


Today’s post is adapted from an editorial introducing the September 2010 volume of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), the peer-reviewed journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).1 The issue contains several articles of interest to the BioLogos Community, including one by BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis R. Venema on the evidence from genomics for common ancestry between apes and humans.

Two other papers in the volume, by Calvin College Theologians Daniel C. Harlow and John R. Schneider, examine the historicity of Adam and Eve and original sin. Both authors suggest that the traditional Augustinian understanding of these doctrines must be reexamined in light of the many strands of scientific evidence pointing to the gradual creation of human beings through an evolutionary process.

While there is much food for thought in these two papers, we caution against pronouncing judgment too quickly, either for or against the ideas they contain. Certainly BioLogos supports accepting scientific conclusions where the science is clear. It is clear, for example, that the whole human race did not come from a single ancestral pair. What is not clear, however, is whether acceptance of an evolutionary view of creation requires rejection or substantial revision of these doctrines. (Denis Alexander’s recent BioLogos paper, while not the final word on the matter, demonstrates that historicity may, in fact, be embraced within an evolutionary framework.)

Harlow and Schneider’s papers have caused no little stir in some Reformed circles. Importantly, the question is not whether their ideas are heretical or even whether these doctrines should be open for discussion in the first place. Rather the question is how a given Christian tradition, the Reformed faith in this case, may determine the range of views consistent with its own creeds and confessional statements. As BioLogos is not affiliated with any single Christian tradition, we do not have identical concerns. Our interest is two-fold: we want to protect the integrity of both science and Scripture and create a place for Christians to engage in healthy dialogue on these difficult issues.

Dr. Leegwater’s editorial is important in the conversation for several reasons. First, he humbly admits that in reviewing new data in genomics and evolutionary science, some of his most cherished beliefs were challenged. It is a good reminder that encountering facts that conflict with our deepest beliefs is painful and disorienting, if not downright frightening. We should thus be charitable with those who disagree with us. At the same time, wrestling together is good for the church—iron sharpens iron—and it should not be avoided, for failing to seriously consider new data is not a satisfactory option for truth-seeking Christians. Second, Leegwater recognizes that we tend to oversimplify the issue of interpretation. Too often, he notes, a false dichotomy is presented: “Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science?” Neither simple approach gives full integrity to the entirety of God’s Two-Book revelation. Finally, Leegwater observes that we are embedded in a rationalistic Western culture that elevates the methods of science in ways that invite unhelpful responses to Scripture. In reaction to the positivist edicts of science, he says, we tend to reduce Scripture to a collection of infallible intellectual assertions. In doing this we forget the richness of faith, for “faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.”

Introduction written by Kathryn Applegate

Dr. Leegwater's Editorial

On a late April 2010 visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, I viewed a diversity of exhibits, particularly those in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. To move from panel to panel describing and detailing the evolution of humans from primate forebears to modern humans, one is taken on a journey of over seven million years. This mind-boggling experience, coupled with a recent Science issue detailing the mapping of the Neanderthal genome and its genomic heritage in modern humans, and reading this issue of PSCF, devoted to the historicity of Adam and Eve, genomics, and evolutionary science, challenged some of my long-cherished positions. Such encounters call for a serious examination and reconsideration of certain crucial matters.

Speaking personally, it was a hard lesson to digest, as I suspect it may be for many readers of PSCF. What should we make of all the diverse anthropological evidence collected from several continents as well as the recently acquired detailed genomic data? Should we sweep it under the rug, considering it to be the result of a shameful misguided investigation, since it assumes a view that calls into question the “plain straightforward reading of Scripture”? Or should we dispute the science and suggest the data is open to multiple concordist interpretations? Neither of these positions would be fair to the nature of scientific practice. “Science in God’s world has its own proper task of giving joy, its own peculiar ministry of healing, its own God-given gift of serving up nuanced insight for one’s neighbor” (Calvin Seerveld). Nor would either position honor the role of hermeneutics in interpreting biblical literature.

Parenthetically, as an editor of PSCF, I have often hoped that I could keep these matters at a studied distance, because, in my opinion, there are many other pressing and important issues which the Christian community needs to address and which, due to the ferocity of the debates, frequently become emasculated. And secondly, and for perhaps far too long, a discussion of origins has functioned (for many) as the self-identity or touchstone of the ASA.

But, back to the matter at hand. If we accept the long-drawn-out saga of the evolution of living forms in creation, how must we then understand ourselves? Where and how do we humans “fit” in this development? That question is often the dominant theme in discussions about origins. As someone has perceptively remarked, “It is not the ‘fourth day,’ but rather the ‘sixth day’ that is in question.” To hold that the center and meaning of our life lies outside ourselves may be a posture that many persons and different religions share. But to honor this position as a Christian confession takes one on an eccentric and peculiar journey. In his Institutes, Calvin raised the classic question of human self-understanding, the question of how humans can know themselves. The answer that Calvin gives points us away from our desire to first examine ourselves: “Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (I.i.12). We, as humans, are essentially God-related creatures (Homo religionis).

While recognizing our human condition, we also need to tread carefully. The intense debates often assume the stage is set by positing “hard scientific data” to be in tension with our (systematic) theologies. In simple terms, the scene is portrayed as a battle between believing science and believing Scrip-ture. Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science? We desire simple satisfying answers. To a large extent, however, we have simplified the issues. Putting the matter in this way, I think, will cause us to lose sight of the integrity of both the Bible and of science. If the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God is wedded to its scientific reliability, the “scientific” battles for an infallible Word of God have been lost from the start. We have then placed both on the same (scientific) level, and in the process, we will lose the reliability of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not written as a historical research report, nor do they give a scientific account. Rather, they are a testimony of faith, albeit in the form of God-inspired literature. The Bible is part of creation which bears witness to the Word of God who was present at Creation. The Bible points us to Christ. The Bible is divinely inspired, but it is not divine. The Holy Scripture in its entirety is revelation, but it is not the whole of revelation. Reducing the Word of God to the Scriptures can be a form of bibliolatry. The revelatory Word of God for creation speaks to its reliability and trustworthiness.

Stating it differently, the Bible speaks in prescientific language and pictures. It employs the language of the day, reflecting the world-picture of the original audience. The language of the Bible is accommodated to the cosmological and historical awareness of the day. In our eyes, these cosmological world-pictures may seem hopelessly scientifically naive, but the Word and Spirit are able—the church confesses—to penetrate our hearts, regardless of our local customs and situations, or of the world-pictures we hold.

In addition, we often discount the philosophical and historical contexts that undergird many of our procedures of interpretation. We live in a westernized rationalist culture which probably reached its zenith in the Enlightenment, but is still clearly regnant in the practice of the natural sciences and the theological sciences. This historical context has shaped our view of the Bible and its interpretation: we like (or deem it necessary) to compare the scientific propositions of science with the propositional revelation (teachings) of Scripture. In an effort to counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, Christians respond with the rational infallibility of revealed propositions. Consequently, employing the term “inerrancy” to describe the character of the Scriptures seems inherently tied to a rationalistic and positivistic position and plays into the hands of higher criticism. Our intellectual instincts tend to treat faith as basically an intellectual matter. But faith is much richer in its purview. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, RSV). Faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.


1. ASA was established in 1941 as a fellowship of those in science and related disciplines who prize both faithfulness to the Word of God and integrity in science. ASA members benefit from a robust dialogue about wide-ranging and pressing issues in science and faith through multiple blogs, publications like PSCF and the new God and Nature e-zine, and both regional and national events such as the upcoming 66th Annual Meeting, “Science-Faith Synergy: Glorifying God and Serving Humanity.” Interested in connecting with fellow Christians in science? It’s easy to join online.

Arie Leegwater is a professor emeritus of chemistry at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. He received his doctorate in chemistry from The Ohio State University, where his thesis was on steric effects in organic chemistry.

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R Hampton - #53937

March 10th 2011

Martin Rizley,

Both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon fiercely defended Sola Scriptura, so it’s important to note their relationship with the (then) revolutionary astronomy presented by contemporary Nicolaus Copernicus. Luther was dismissive because it conflicted with his common sense understanding of the world (as relayed by his physical senses) and his interpretation of the Bible. Melanchthon, who looked after University of Wittenberg following Luther’s death, promoted the teaching of the Copernican model as a practical mathematical hypothesis whilst he denied it as a factual representation of reality (for much the same reasons as Luther). Ironically, “Luther was not primarily interested in science. But the Reformation created a climate of openness and acceptance of new ideas, which generally encouraged scientific development. With the development of printing, new scientific as well as religious ideas spread rapidly.”

So how do you correlate the doctrine of Sola Scripture given that Luther’s understood the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the Sun and the planets revolve around us? And why did future Lutherans allow the authority of Science via Nature to over rule the authority the Theology via Scripture?

Martin Rizley - #53947

March 11th 2011

R Hampton,
You may think it atrocious of Luther to question the science of  his day; but if he was firmly convinced that the Bible taught a geocentric cosmology, then he was right to hang onto that belief until the Lord led him out of it by enlightening him from the Word of God  to see things in a different light.  His refusal to let the declarations of science overrule the teaching of Scripture, and his deep distrust in human reason as an infallible authority, was fundamentally right-minded, and a testimony to his firm commitment to the principle of Sola Scriptura.  His one mistake may have been an unwillingness to ‘test’ his understanding of Scripture by re-examining the Bible’s teaching and asking the question, “Does the teaching of Scripture really contradict heliocentrism in science?”  Had he given more thought to that question,  perhaps in time he would have seen that a literal interpretation of Scripture by no means requires a geocentric cosmology.   Since the Hebrews conceived of the sun as a ‘light in the sky’ (Genesis 1:16), not as a spherical body in outer space, they quite rightly describe the sun, in its role as a light in the sky, as ‘going around’ the earth.   That says nothing at all about the sun’s relationship to the earth as a spherical body in outer space.   The language of Scripture is phenomenlogical; as a “light in the sky,” the sun does indeed move from one end of heaven to the other, then ‘hurry back’ to the place from which it started.  There is no error in that description; in fact, we use the same language today when we speak of the sun rising and setting, because we are not thinking about the cosmological relation of astral bodies to one another, but of the sun’s relation to us as a light bearer in the sky.  Later Lutherans came to see, as Luther did not, that the descriptive language of Scripture is fully compatible with either a geocentric or heliocentric cosmology in science.

conrad - #53955

March 11th 2011

”  Since the Hebrews conceived of the sun as a ‘light in the sky’ (Genesis 1:16), not as a spherical body in outer space, they quite rightly describe the sun, in its role as a light in the sky, as ‘going around’ the earth.”

This concept of the sun as a light also explains why the sun [as a light] could be added on day 4.
[Even though the sun is older than the earth.]
The actual event was a collision between earth and another planet which blew off the dense clouded atmosphere over earth which had blocked light.
That collision also created the moon.
conrad - #53965

March 11th 2011

Atrahasis Genesis 2–8 

Agriculture by irrigation 

Eden watered by irrigation 

I don’t know if anyone actually read the Harlow article or not but he tells of eden being a dry land watered by springs.

 This situation actually existed when sea levels were lower and the southern edge of Saudi Arabia had springs supplying abundant fresh water while no rain fell.

I cannot remember the researcher but that was published within the past 6 months.

 People leaving Africa skirting the seashore would have found such a benign environment about 11 thousand years ago.

Benoît Hébert - #53974

March 11th 2011

Hi Gregory,

I’m not a native english speaker, so it is sometimes hard for me to find the exact words to express myself. Of course, I consider Dennis vennema and Denis Alexander as geneticists who made it possible for guys like me to understand the genetic evidence for evolution and the existence of a human bottleneck in its very early population, but not the discoverer of this!

What do you mean by the consensus in paleontology in favor of monogenism? a recent one? a an ancient one?

Of course asking you if you were in favor of monogenism didn’t mean I believed that polygenism excluded the possibility of historical Adam and Eve, as I understood in Jon Garvey’s reaction.

Sin is for me the main example of something that is not an evolutionnary feature, as I already mentionned in this discussion.

I am not qualified to be the advocate of polygenism. I just note that there seem to be a consensus on this point among geneticists qualified in the field form different independant lines of evidence.

To Jon Garvey

I find it more and more difficult to hold to a strict augustinian vision of original sin. I come from an evangelical background where we don’t baptize children but adults only…

Your view of the flood seem to me very unlikely. As Paul Seely as remarkably showed on this blog (and I don’t make him the discoverer of this), the flood is probably based on an event dated -2900 BC  and was clearly universal for the biblical author, and killed every body except Noah and his family, which we today know is false.
Gregory - #53975

March 11th 2011

Buenos dias Benoît, Pas de problème avec les langues. I am interested in your ideas and arguments more than in the way you communicate them. (Said by a person living in a country with a different native tongue.)

“I am not qualified to be the advocate of polygenism. I just note that there seem to be a consensus on this point among geneticists qualified in the field form different independant lines of evidence.” - Benoît

Just so I can be sure, are you saying you think, perceive or know somehow that Dr. Dennis Venema is a polygenist, i.e. that he accepts/advocates polygenism? I don’t recall ever reading him say this and frankly do not know his position vis-a-vis mono- vs. poly-genism. Please direct me to any publication or recording he has made in this regard.

And are you suggesting there is a ‘consensus’ (among X scientists, e.g. palaeontologists) that supports polygenesis of human beings and not monogenesis? In other words, goodbye to the ‘out-of-Africa’ approach, hello multiple origins of human beings (races/species) around the world?

You may not yourself be ‘qualified to judge,’ but that does not mean you are not free to consider the ideological meaning of ‘geneticism’ and to establish your views safely against it. On this topic we are having, ‘geneticism’ means “trying to explain away Adam and Eve using genetics/genomics,” and is a brand of scientism. Such is this dehumanized ‘biological science,’ totally, intentionally & proudly ‘unreflexive,’ that is making claims about human beings, oftentimes with pretensions of self-certainty held by mathematical physicists.

Does D. Venema *anywhere* write that genetics/genomics has *proved* the non-real, historical (nature of) Adam and Eve?

Geneticists/genomicists speaking about “the existence of a human bottleneck in its very early population” is a far, far cry from *proving* there was not and could not have been a ‘real, historical Adam and Eve.’ That is the point at issue. I’m sure you see a difference between the two, Benoît?


p.s. Vatican.

Gregory - #53977

March 11th 2011

Also, Benoît, I am still curious and waiting for some examples of ‘non-evolving things,’ which you expressed with emphasis do actually exist. Could you please explain what you meant?


Benoît Hébert - #53993

March 11th 2011


I don’t like the tone our conversation is taking and I fear it might end like the one you had with George Murphy. 

I have said enough for you to understand my toughts…and it’s not my role to speak for others.  Dennis Venema has written articles about genetics are available on this blog
Jon Garvey - #54002

March 11th 2011

@Benoît Hébert - #53974

I’m not averse to the idea of the c2900BC flood being the basis of the Biblical Flood, especially in view of the strong evidence that such a flood in Mesopotamia was the basis for the Mesopotamian myths and indirectly the Biblical narrative.

Given the whole Mesopotamian background, despite the universalistic tone of the Adapa story, etc, I doubt the Sumerians and Babylonians had in mind so much a global flood. They did, according to Ashurbanipal, have access to records both before and after the event. However, they did consider Mesopotamia the only part of the “globe” that mattered (their greater leaders being termed “king of the world” or even of “the Universe”). It seems to me likely to me that the Biblical writers had a similar viewpoint, given that Mesopotamia is the stage for all the events in the early chapters of Genesis.

As has often been pointed out, there is plenty of translation bias towards a world-flood in Genesis when a regional-flood could equally be intended. The question, then, is the meaning of the “all flesh” it destroyed. It’s not easy, from our perspective, to see whether the Genesis writer considered “mankind” in terms of “all hominids everywhere” or “all the descendants of the first priest/viceroy of Yahweh.” He/they almost certainly had access to the Sumerian stories - did they consider them false, or their own story to be complementary to these?

Martin Rizley - #54008

March 11th 2011

conrad,  You write, “The actual event was a collision between earth and another planet which blew off the dense clouded atmosphere over earth which had blocked light.  That collision also created the moon.”  Of course, this statement is based on the assumption that the uniformitarian interpretation of the scientific data is indisputably correct and that the days of creation were long geological periods.   You believe that as strongly as you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead (apparently).   Quite frankly, I don’t put that much unqualified ‘faith’ in uniformitarian science when it comes to the subject of origins.   What I know to be true (as a Christian) is that the Bible is the truest source of information we have about the past—more sure than any writing based solely on the extrapolations of human reason from scientific data viewed through uniformitarian lenses.  I grant you the fact that the Bible nowhere speaks explicitly of a ‘twenty-four hour duration” of  the creation days in the way it speaks explicitly of an historical Adam, a literal fall and flood, etc.    Moreover, the first three days were obviously UNLIKE our days in that they were not “ruled by the sun;”   so theoretically, they could have differed in other ways, as well—including their precise duration.   Nevertheless, I personally believe that all six days of creation were “24-hour like” in that each day consisted of one complete rotational cycle of light and darkness, so that each day had a ‘day and a night’ with a morning and an evening.  Whether or not the initial period of darkness before God said “let there be light!” lasted for a very, very long period of time is an open question, in my opinion.    Whether or not the astral bodies were “there” in some sense from day one and became visible in earth’s sky on day four, when they formed and placed in earth’s sky as “light bearers,” is another open question, in my opinion.   What I am fairly sure about, however, is that the Bible is to be taken literally when it says that God made the universe in six days of light followed by darkness—six days with a ‘morning’ and an ‘evening.’   It is on that basis that He commands Israel to keep the Sabbath day—in order to imitate God’s own pattern in creating the world.   I believe that intellectuals, who are so easily ensnared by elaborate theories that can quickly move them away from the simplicity of the Bible’s teaching, do well to submit their intellects to the overruling judgment of God and that point, and to hold all scientific theories based on uniformitarian assumptions and human reason ALONE with a loose grasp.  

R Hampton - #54032

March 11th 2011

I am fairly sure about, however, is that the Bible is to be taken
literally when it says that God made the universe in six days of light
followed by darkness—six days with a ‘morning’ and an ‘evening.’

As sure as Luther was of the Sun and planets orbiting the Earth?

Martin Rizley - #54038

March 11th 2011

Luther’s insistence on a geocentric cosmology was based on a failure to grasp the phenomenlogical nature of the descriptions of nature found in the Bible.  In one sense, he was not wrong to insist that the sun and planets go around the earth, for from a phenomenlogical perspective, as lights in earth’s sky (not as astral bodies in outer space) they do just that.    In what sense, however, could the language of Genesis 1:4 and 5 be a phenomenological description of a geological period made up of countless rotational cycles of light and darkness?     In Genesis 1:8, the statement “And the evening and the morning were the first day.”  comes just after God has divided the light from the darkness and has named them both—“God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.”  The implication seems to be that the evening of the first day came as the light of the first day faded to darkness.  In other words, the first day of creation had one light period (day) which yielded to one dark period (night); the transition from the one to the other brought about the arrival of the evening, followed by the morning of the second day.   This seems to me to be the most natural reading of the text.   The first day appears to have been composed of one rotational period of light and darkness, followed by five other similar creative periods, before God rested on the seventh day.  I am open to altering my view, if I can be persuaded by good scriptural arguments to see things in a different light.   I refuse to conjecture, however, about how the world came into being based on the autonomous judgments of human reason alone, without any divine revelation to back it up.  I regard the testimony of God to creation as the most reliable source of information we have regarding that great event.       

Gregory - #54043

March 11th 2011

Benoît, with regard to the tone, I think you are mistaken. I fit well within BioLogos’s communicative mission & as a monotheist, you are not facing challenges of attack to your character for your beliefs from me, as you would by others here at your ‘unproved’ assertions. So what I am asking should be easier to hear in ‘tone’, though nonetheless challenging intellectually, which may still make it difficult.

I have respect for you as a dialogue partner, but say to you ‘en guarde!,’ in a friendly way

George & I have conversed many times & spoken, not just at BioLogos. We communicate respectfully of each other, even if we disagree about A&E. The point of FACT in this case is that George rejects the main teachings of the Christian world, as do you if you try to erase the ‘real, history’ of A&E, even if that history is difficult to find & piece together. It does exist. Both Orthodox & Catholic Churches accept ‘real, historical A&E’ (& there are some pretty good biologists & geneticists in those camps too!). It is amazingly ignorant & presumptive of scholars today imo to ‘put all their trust in genetics’ at this stage in the game, as if genetics has much if anything to say about ‘Adam’ & ‘Eve.’

Perhaps you distrust the ‘tone’ because I have asked you specific & challenging questions. You have avoided answering some things twice. So, the problem must of course be my tone, not your position or unwillingness to answer or even just to divert?

I take it that neither you nor Dennis will publically admit you are polygenists, if that is the case. So we are left to guess. & it must be our fault that you will not say?

S’il vous plait, at least address this, Benoît:
“Does D. Venema *anywhere* write that genetics/genomics has *proved* the non-real, historical (nature of) Adam and Eve?”

It should be a simple & painless answer. I’ve asked it twice because you seem to think ‘Yes’ by the way (including the ‘tone’) you argue. Yet I don’t think so & highly doubt Dennis has ever said such a thing. So perhaps you are elevating Dennis to say things he never did & thus distorting your own position based on what Dennis didn’t actually say. If not, then I am sorry for misrepresenting both you & Dennis. I’m genuinely curious about this & would like to know what is happening.


R Hampton - #54065

March 11th 2011

Martin Rizley,

Yes, Genesis tells us the God created light to illuminate the Earth before there was a Sun, and on the following day God created the firmament - which he called Heaven - when he separated the waters and placed it above and below.

I presume you believe this to be literally true and nothing more.

But as Martin Luther said, “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night” and later “We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.” (Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, 1958)

From your understanding of Sola Scriptura, how much of what Martin Luther said is true?

Martin Rizley - #54089

March 11th 2011

Insofar as Martin Luther echoes the language of Scripture, his words are true; but that doesn’t mean that his understanding of the Scripture’s words is without error.  For example, when he speaks of the stars ‘fastened’ to the firmament like globes of fire, he is going beyond the language of Scripture, for the Bible does not speak of God ‘fastening’ the sun, moon, and stars to anything; rather, it speaks of God ‘setting’ or ‘placing’ them in the firmament of the heavens.  There is a difference between ‘fastening’ and ‘setting;‘the word ‘fastening’ views the firmament is of a solid substance, but the word ‘set’ leaves the substance of the firmament ambigous.  People speak of ‘setting’ a toy sailboat on the surface of a pond, but they do not speak of ‘fastening’ it to the surface of the pond.   On the fourth day, God did indeed ‘set’ lights in earth’s sky that were not there before.  If the firmament were merely a solid dome, however, as some assert, then where in Genesis 1 does God created the air or the atmosphere in which the birds can fly?  I may sink a solid dome under the ocean, so that water is below it and above it?   Have I thereby created a space in which the birds may fly?   The creation of the firmament in Genesis 1 involved the creation of an atmosphere or separating expanse, as the result of which some waters remained below the expanse to be gathered in ocean basins and other waters were lifted above the  expanse to come down from there in the form of rain, as Job makes clear (Job 36:26-33).  Notice that Job speaks of God ‘drawing up’ drops of water ‘which the clouds drop down and pour abundantly on man.”  Moreover, this water drawn up from below goes  into God’s “canopy’ above (could this be a reference to the firmament of Genesis 1:6?)   So there is no error here in Genesis 1.  There is simply pre-scientific language to describe the fact that God did indeed separate waters below from waters above—and He did that by creating an ‘expanse’ of undetermined substance which resulted in a space of air between the atmospheric waters and the waters of the ocean basins. 

R Hampton - #54102

March 11th 2011

The Bible clearly states that there is water above the firmament (Heaven) and that lights (the stars, Sun and Moon) were set in the firmament (Heaven). So Genesis teaches that the clouds and rain do not belong the above waters but to those below (after all, rain is essentially evaporated ground & sea water as well as moisture condensed from respiration).

That’s a plain, literal reading, yet some reason you choose to invest the words with another meaning. Seems to me that your application of Sola Scriptura is inconsistent.

Rich - #54110

March 12th 2011

Martin (re 54102):

Now, Martin, perhaps you begin to perceive the problem with your way of reading Genesis.  I have already indicated to you that I have sympathy for your instinctive conservatism, for your sense that religious teaching matters, for your unwillingness to just drop religious teachings whenever modern, middle-class intellectuals start ridiculing them in the name of science and history.  And I’ve criticized R Hampton for his liberal interpretation of Catholicism, in which theology dances to the tune of natural science.

Nonetheless, you see here that I—a conservative—and R Hampton and UC—Catholic liberals—have noticed the same inconsistency in your version of Biblical inerrancy.  I pointed out the problem with your exegesis of the waters above the heavens long ago, on a thread by Pete Enns, but you never responded. 

In fact, the cosmology presupposed in the first chapter of Genesis is simply wrong.  There are no “waters above the firmament”—even if you implausibly interpret the firmament to mean a region of the atmosphere rather than a solid dome.  Since the cosmology is wrong, you have two choices:  (1) The writer gave a wrong cosmology because he accepted the erroneous cosmology of his era; (2) The writer knew that the cosmology was wrong, but thought his story wouldn’t be understood unless he employed that wrong cosmology for the sake of his ignorant audience.

Note that in *neither* case are the religious teachings of the creation and Flood stories endangered.  All you have to understand is that the religious teaching is independent of the views expressed or implied in the stories regarding cosmology and the causes of rain.  All you have to admit is that the Bible could be *flat wrong* about some facts of nature and still *entirely true* in its teaching about God and man’s relationship with God.  But you won’t bite that bullet.  You stick ferociously with your “everyman hermeneutics,” unaware that such a hermeneutics is a post-Enlightenment invention which shares the faulty Enlightenment conception of “truth” as “fact”.  Educated Jewish rabbis scratch their heads in puzzlement at Protestant fundamentalism; it has nothing to do with Genesis as they know it.  You are fighting the wrong battle.  The Bible’s literal description doesn’t need to be defended.  The Bible’s meaning does.

Martin Rizley - #54128

March 12th 2011

Rich and RHampton,
A “post-enlightenment” hermeneutic would insist that there be a scientific exactitude to the descriptions of nature in Genesis 1, which is not what I mean when I speak of a literal interpretation.  Phenomenological descriptions of nature are literal—that is, they describe things literally from the point of view of human observation—though they are by no means scientifically exact.   Calvin in his commentary on Genesis 1 spoke of how Moses was not speaking with the technical language of an astronomer when he described the ‘waters above’ the firmament and the ‘light bearers’ being placed ‘in the firmament,’ but he didn’t reject the literal, phenomenological meaning of the text.   (Read his commentary on this passage).  Nowhere will you find him attribute scientific  ‘error’ to Moses—since it was not Moses’ intention to write a scientifically exact description.  Calvin admits to a certain ‘accomodation’ of Moses’ language to the understanding of his readers, but he doesn’t say that accomodation leads him to teach things that are simply false, writing words that the God of truth cannot claim as His own  (and keep in mind that Calvin was ‘pre-enlightenement’).   Only a rationalistic, post-enlightenment mindset would insist that if Moses speaks of waters being ‘above the heavens,’ they cannot also be ‘in the heavens,’ that is, in an upper region of the atmosphere.  It is a fact that the heavens hold great quantities of water that are suspended above the earth in the clouds and that fall to the earth in the form of rain.  It seems perfectly plausible, therefore, that Genesis 1:6-7 is describing in simple, pre-scientific language, the creation of that vast atmospheric ‘expanse’ by which the waters below (those waters gathered in the ocean basins) were ‘separated’ from the ‘waters above’ (the great, figurative ‘reservoir’ of waters suspended in the heavens above.)  The language is not scientifically exact, but phenomenological and descriptive of a great truth—namely, that God has created a breathable atmosphere and an expanse in which the birds may fly that was not there before—and He dids so by divine fiat.  We see no problem with saying that a plane has risen ‘above the clouds’ when in fact in may be in a region ‘surrounded by clouds’ or even ‘under the (highest) clouds.’  So I see no problem in seeing the ‘waters above’ as being ‘above the firmament,’ yet in another sense, ‘in the firmament’ (in an upper region of the expanse).   Only if one is making an a priori assumption that firmament MUST mean ‘solid dome’ is that interpretation ‘impossible.’  I would also recommend G. K. Beale’s two chapters on Old Testament cosmology in his work “The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism” to see supporting research on this thesis, as well as another possible, theological interpretation of the firmament related to the image of creation as a ‘temple’ created by God. 

Martin Rizley - #54130

March 12th 2011

Rich and RHampton,
One problem with the firmament as solid dome view—apart from the fact that it was by no means universal in the ancient world (Egyptian pictures show the sky God Nut stretching out across the heavens to form the ‘element’ in which the stars are placed—and no one would regard Nut as a solid dome!)—is the fact that ancient astronomers were aware of five visible light sources that moved at different rates and sometimes in different directions.  To accomodate this complex motion, each light source would have to be embedded in its own solid dome, each with independent rates of rotation, if the ancients thought of celestials objects as fixed in a solid firmament.  The biblical text says nothing about the durability or permeability of the expanse God created, or the material out of which it was made, whether it was spongy, pourous, watery, airy, metallic, etc.  It simply says that God created a ‘spread out expanse’ to separate waters from waters—nothing more.  Anything else is ‘read into’ the text and ignores the simple, pre-scientific phenomenological nature of the language.    

Rich - #54148

March 12th 2011


Your reading of Genesis is just not tenable.  First of all, the Hebrew language is capable of distinguishing clearly between “in” and “above,” and there is no reason to assume that the distinction is not maintained in the Genesis story.  Second, the Flood story makes it clear that the firmament, whatever it is, is “solid” enough that the water has to come through “windows” which open, which blows away your “expanse of atmosphere” theory.  The literal picture of how rain occurs is simply wrong.  

And no, my complaint is not coming from a post-Enlightenment mentality.  I am not arguing that because Genesis offers a factually wrong picture of the cosmos and of how rain falls, that the teaching of Genesis is nonsense.  Quite the opposite; I’m arguing that even though “Moses” was completely deluded about how rain fell and what the cosmos really looked like, it makes no difference.  The point of the story is not to explain the mechanism of rain.  It is enough to understand the destructive potential of unlimited water.  Only someone who thought that the Bible had to be completely correct in its “facts” would panic at the thought that there might be errors, and try to rescue it from error by sophistries about “in” meaning the same as “above” and so on.

Once one is liberated from the modern presupposition that “true” means “factually correct” (an equation shared by atheists and fundamentalists), one can begin to appreciate the Bible’s teaching.  Until then, one is trapped in useless apologetics, defending things it isn’t important to defend.  90% of fundamentalist literature is a complete waste of human time and effort, because it is trying to defend things it isn’t important to defend.  Jesus didn’t waste his time trying to prove the historical or scientific accuracy of anything.  He drew out the teaching of the stories.  This is where both the atheists and the Ken Hams of the world entirely miss the point.  R Hampton is wrong about many things, but he’s bang-on about that.

Gregory - #54149

March 12th 2011

Martin, it’s been awhile since I commented on one of your discussions. In this case I agree with Rich and R Hampton. Have you ever thought of trying to ‘go orthodox’ for a change, which might cure you of some of these fundamentalist tendencies within your local variety of evangelical Christianity? It seems you need some kind of shake-up, to really help push yourself away from the YEC label, which you have said you do not hold, yet seemingly do not wish either to completely disavow. It must surely be the hardest while living in a fundamentalist social-church environment to one day finally turn the table & express + support for the overwhelming scientific evidence for an ‘old’ Earth.

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