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Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 2

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March 3, 2012 Tags: Pastoral Voices
Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 2

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

This is the second of a six-part series considering questions lay people raise with their pastors when introduced to the teaching that biological evolution and biblical orthodoxy can be compatible. In Part 1, Dr. Keller gave an overview of the tension between biblical and scientific accounts on origins from a pastoral perspective. In this post, he starts to explore the three kinds of questions he sees as the most important to evangelical laypeople, beginning with, “How can evolution and a literal reading of the Bible coexist?”

Three Questions of Christian Laypeople

Question #1: If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?

Answer: The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.

Genre and authorial intent.

The way to take the Biblical authors seriously is to ask ‘how does this author want to be understood?’ This is common courtesy as well as good reading. Indeed it is a way to practice the Golden Rule. We all want people to take time to consider whether we want to be taken literally or not. If you write a letter to someone saying, “I just wanted to strangle him!” you will hope your reader understands you to be speaking metaphorically. If she calls the police to arrest you, you can rightly complain that she should have made the effort to ascertain whether you meant to be taken literally or not.

The way to discern how an author wants to be read is to distinguish what genre the writer is using. In Judges 5:20, we are told that the stars in the heavens came down and fought against the Syrians on behalf of the Israelites, but in Judges 4, which recounts the battle, no such supernatural occurrence is mentioned. Is there a contradiction? No, because Judges 5 has all the signs of the genre of Hebrew poetry, while Judges 4 is historical prose narrative. Judges 4 is an account of what happened, while Judges 5 is Deborah’s Song about the theological meaning of what happened. When you get to Luke 1:1ff., we read the author insisting that everything in the text is an historical account checked against the testimony of eyewitnesses. That again is an unmistakable sign that the author wants to be taken ‘literally’ as describing actual events.

This does not mean that the Biblical author’s intent and the genre are always clear. Genesis 1 and the book of Ecclesiastes are two examples of places in the Bible where there will always be debate, because the signs are not crystal clear. But the principle is this--to assert that one part of Scripture shouldn’t be taken literally does not at all mean that no other parts should be either.

Genre and Genesis 1.

So what genre is Genesis 1? Is it prose or poetry? In this case, that is a false choice. Edward J. Young, the conservative Hebrew expert who reads the six-days of Genesis 1 as historical, admits that Genesis 1 is written in “exalted, semi-poetical language”.1 On the one hand, it is a narrative that describes a succession of events, using the wayyigtol expression characteristic of prose, and it does not have the key mark of Hebrew poetry, namely parallelism. So for example, in Miriam’s Song of Exodus 15 we clearly see the signs of poetic recapitulation or restatement that is poetic parallelism:

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea;
The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters covered them;
They sank to the depths like a stone.” (Exodus 15:4-5)

On the other hand, as many have noted, Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song. There are many examples, including the seven-time refrain, “and God saw that it was good” as well as ten repetitions of “God said”, ten of “let there be”, seven repetitions of “and it was so,” as well as others. Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened.2 In addition, the terms for the sun (“greater light”) and moon (“lesser light”) are highly unusual and poetic, never being used anywhere else in the Bible, and “beast of the field” is a term for animal that is ordinarily confined to poetic discourse.3 All this leads Collins to conclude that the genre is:

“...what we may call exalted prose narrative. This name for the genre will serve us in several ways. First, it acknowledges that we are dealing with prose narrative…which will include the making of truth claims about the world in which we live. Second, by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that… we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text.”4

Perhaps the strongest argument for the view that the author of Genesis 1 did not want to be taken literally is a comparison of the order of creative acts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Genesis 1 shows us an order of creation that does not follow a 'natural order' at all. For example, there is light (Day 1) before there are any sources of light--the sun, moon, and stars (Day 4). There is vegetation (Day 3) before there was any atmosphere (Day 4 when the sun was made) and therefore there was vegetation before rain was possible. Of course, this is not a problem per se for an omnipotent God. But Genesis 2:5 says: “When the Lord God made the earth and heavens--and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, because the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth, and there was no man to work the ground." Although God did not have to follow what we would call a ‘natural order’ in creation, Genesis 2:5 teaches that he did. It is stated categorically: God did not put vegetation on the earth before there was an atmosphere and rain. But in Genesis 1 we do have vegetation before there is any rain possible or any man to till the earth. In Genesis 1 natural order means nothing--there are three 'evenings and mornings' before there is a sun to set! But in Genesis 2 natural order is the norm.5

The conclusion—we may read the order of events as literal in Genesis 2 but not in Genesis 1, or (much, much more unlikely) we may read them as literal in Genesis 1 but not in Genesis 2. But in any case, you can’t read them both as straightforward accounts of historical events. Indeed, if they are both to be read literalistically, why would the author have combined the accounts, since they are (on that reading) incompatible? The best answer is that we are not supposed to understand them that way. In Exodus 14-15 (the Red Sea crossing) and Judges 4-5 (Israel’s defeat of Syria under Sisera) there is an historical account joined to a more poetical ‘song’ that proclaims the meaning of the event. Something like that may be what the author of Genesis has in mind here.

So what does this mean? It means Genesis 1 does not teach that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days. Of course, it doesn’t teach evolution either, because it doesn’t address the actual processes by which God created human life. However, it does not preclude the possibility of the earth being extremely old.6 We arrive at this conclusion not because we want to make room for any particular scientific view of things, but because we are trying to be true to the text, listening as carefully as we can to the meaning of the inspired author.

Next week, Dr. Keller continues to explore these most important questions, taking up the concern that an evolutionary account of origins diminishes human dignity.


1. Edward J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964) p.82
2. Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (IVP, 1984) p.33.
3. Blocher, p.32.
4. C.John Collins Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006.) p.44.
5. Meredith G. Kline, “Because it had not rained”, Westminster Theological Journal 20 (1957-58), pp. 146-157.
6. There have been numerous convincing arguments put forth by evangelical Biblical scholars to demonstrate that the genealogies of the Bible, leading back to Adam, are incomplete. The term ‘was the father of’ may mean ‘was the ancestor of’. For just one account of this, see K.A.Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp.439-443.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue of New York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of such New York Times bestselling books as The Reason for God and Prayer. He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which has helped start over 250 churches in global cities worldwide. He lives in New York City with his wife Kathy.

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hashavyahu - #68338

March 3rd 2012

Keller has argued that Gen 1 wasn’t intended to be taken historically, but what allows him to make the assumption that Gen 2 should be? He seems to suggest that the default non-poetic genre is history, but why? A historical reading of Gen 2 needs be argued and not merely assumed.

Also, Keller’s invocation of a “natural order” as a reason for excluding Gen 1 as non-historical is anachronistic. What allows him to claim that an ancient writer didn’t think it was more natural for light to be created before the heavenly luminaries? Baruch Halpern’s “The Assyrian Astronomy of Genesis 1 and the Birth of Milesian Philosophy” (EI 27, 2003) for real “scientific” cosmological speculation in Gen 1, citing Assyrian and Greek parallels, all of which suggests that Gen 1 does indeed want to be understood as describing the current universe and its genesis.

I appreciate Keller’s attempt to make room for evolution for evangelicals, but by trying to hold on to some version of inerrancy, he is forced to obscure, harmonize, or in some way explain away what the ancient biblical texts are saying.
liminal - #68405

March 7th 2012

hashavyahu and others

I think you have missunderstood what Keller was saying about Gen1 & Gen 2. I don’t think he is saying Gen2 should be taken historically, I suggest you look closer at what his pont is, read the second last paragraph. He is by argument pointing out the problems in “any” literal reading of those passages, implicitly debating with common views that take Gen 1 literally, that is all!!!

Merv - #68340

March 3rd 2012

I had the same reaction about Keller’s assumption that Genesis 2 is literal ... (to me there is something fairly poetic about using a rib to create another being.)   But I don’t think Pastor Keller’s main thrust was to insist specifically which parts of the Bible we need to take literally (beyond those that specifically ask for literal treatment as Keller mentions of Luke).  What I hear him saying is that we need to address to the best of our abilities how the author wanted us to take it, and set aside, to the extent that we can, our own preconceptions that we wish to impose on the text.  And the big hints of Genesis 1 & 2 that I think Keller did a good job of illuminating was to point out that reading both literally would force contradictions that would have been apparent to the author regardless of his cosmology. 

I think Keller makes a good argument, but I would have ended his essay differently by concluding that we may well find good reasons to read both accounts as non-literal, but we already have good reason not to take both literally, and furthermore, this is a conclusion apart from and prior to science.


KevinR - #68391

March 7th 2012

Why is anyone allowed to impose a poetic view on Genesis 1, given that no one is allowed to impose a literalistic view on it? Who gets to make that decision?

“So what does this mean? It means Genesis 1 does not teach that God made
the world in six twenty-four hour days. Of course, it doesn’t teach
evolution either, because it doesn’t address the actual processes by
which God created human life. However, it does not preclude the
possibility of the earth being extremely old.6 We arrive at
this conclusion not because we want to make room for any particular
scientific view of things, but because we are trying to be true to the
text, listening as carefully as we can to the meaning of the inspired

Does it really mean that Genesis 1 does NOT teach that God made the world in 6 - 24-hour days? Then what does Exodus 20:8-11 teach? Since we understand it was the same author, how does one  interpret Ex 20:8-11 - poetically or literally or somewhere in-between according to how someone feels at the moment?
According to Ex 20:8-11 the creation of the heavens and the earth does not allow for billions of years. Even if one slips in lots of gaps into the genealogies.
Perhaps Mr Keller would like to address how the two texts relate to each other before jumping to the conclusion(s) he appears to have made before even starting to read the text.

liminal - #68408

March 7th 2012

KevinR I share your annoyance with the avoidance of 6 day 24 hour readings of Genesis 1, other reading do smack of compromising the text to fit the data. The Day-age view of progressive creationists are a good example. Likewise the trick in gaps in genealogies is completely insufficient to account for the years needed. All that happens to this approach is a view that is unacceptable to both religion and science - a strange no man’s land of Hugh Ross and company. Also, poetic approaches are only a little better.But at the same time the scinetific evidence for evolution is overwelming and the historical evidence for the resurrection is overwelming.

Merv - #68419

March 8th 2012

Kevin, it seems to me that our interpretation of ‘keeping the Sabbath’ has suffered many other disturbances apart from these modern controversies.  First of all, we haven’t been keeping it as strictly as Hebrews back then were expected to, and rightly so.  As Roger has pointed out in other threads, Jesus clearly tells us that his Father in Heaven is always working (and he said this on the Sabbath ...when he was criticized for doing work.)  So right away we see something wrong with literal legalisms as Jesus teaches by his actions.  God does not ‘leave to world to its own devices’ every seventh day.  I’m not saying the Exodus passage has nothing to teach us—I agree we are still called to ‘remember the Sabbath and keep it holy’.  But to impose legalisms and literal interpretations of this on others would be like siding with the pharisees in Jesus’ day.  Christian theology had already long dispensed with that approach long before modern science was here.


Merv - #68420

March 8th 2012

I shouldn’t have said theology has ‘dispensed’ with it, as if it has been a settled issue for a long time now—what I meant is that “we have long been challenged with” these disturbances and corrections to our literal interpretations. 


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