Today's blog follows Darrel Falk's and Karl Giberson's previous posts (here and here) about Albert Mohler's recent critique of the BioLogos Foundation. Dr. Mohler's speech is available here, and a transcript is also available.
Dear Dr. Mohler,
I watched your articulate presentation “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” and along with Dr. Giberson, I have some questions. For me, those questions concern how you approach biblical interpretation.
Along with Giberson, my main question is why make “a theological mountain out of an exegetical molehill.” Although I disagree with a literal reading of Genesis 1, I have no personal qualms with those who think differently; indeed there are a number of variant readings I am fine with. But you attach great significance to this issue in ways that most Christians do not, and along the way, I think you miss some important aspects of Genesis 1. I, and perhaps others, would appreciate some clarification to help us see where you are coming from.
I focus my questions by citing a small portion of your presentation. The parts that raised questions for me are in bold type.
“I want to invite you to turn with me to Genesis chapter one. We dare not seek to answer this question without first looking to the Word of God.… What we have here in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 is a sequential pattern of creation, a straightforward plan. A direct reading of the text would indicate to us seven 24-hour days, six 24-hour days of creative activity and a final day of divine rest. This was the untroubled consensus of the Christian church until early in the 19th century. It was not absolutely unanimous. It was not always without controversy. But it was the overwhelming, untroubled consensus of the church, until the dawn of the 19th century.”
“A direct reading of the text"
You seem to say here that a “direct reading” of Genesis 1:1-2:3 leads naturally to a literal reading. It is not clear to me what you mean by “direct reading.” As you know, there are many places in the Bible where a “direct” reading actually requires a non-literal interpretation. For example, God is spirit and does not have hands or lungs, yet in Genesis 2 God “forms” Adam from the dust (like a potter) and “breathes” into him.
I understand that a literal reading of Genesis 1 is driven by a desire to read Scripture with respect. We have no disagreement on the motive. But I am suggesting that we show the most respect for Scripture by listening closely to what it is saying, how it is said, and how an ancient audience would have understood it.
This is the hard work of biblical interpretation, and once we have done that work we will be in a better position to make some decisions about what is literal (e.g., the cross and resurrection), what is clearly symbolic (e.g., parables), and what is not entirely clear either way and requires more work to think through. Discernment and patience have always been part of a healthy approach to biblical interpretation. It is not an indication of wavering commitment, but precisely the opposite: an indication that the Bible is worthy of such careful attention.
One reason I and others do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is that the text itself points us in a symbolic direction. In fact, insisting on “total literalism” can cause big problems for readers of Genesis.
Here are three examples from Genesis 1 and then one related issue from elsewhere in the Old Testament.
- Verses 1-2 assume the pre-existence of a watery chaos.1 The spirit of God (v. 2) hovers over this pre-existent “deep” and the first day of creation begins the process where God brings order to this chaos.
Many faithful Christians understand verses 1-2 this way, and they feel that they are honoring God’s Word by doing so. Lying behind this conviction is the principle of grammatical-historical exegesis, where the historical context of a text frames the kinds of questions one asks of it.
Taming chaos is not the way modern readers think of creation, but it is one way that ancients thought of it. We know this from other creation texts from the ancient world, one of which you mention in your presentation (the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish). I feel I am honoring the Bible as God’s Word by learning as much as I can about the ancient context in which Genesis was written. Then I can begin to listen to how Genesis 1 would have been understood by these ancient Israelites, the very people to whom it was written. I do not think I am honoring Scripture by expecting it to reflect modern questions that were simply not on the mind of ancient Israelites.
It seems to me that you may be expecting Genesis 1 to do something it was not intended to do, namely reflect factual information that would answer the sorts of questions we have today. I, and many others, feel that expecting the Bible to reflect the world in which it was written is the proper way to account for why Genesis 1 looks the way it does.
It is a big problem not only scientifically but theologically to insist on a literal “watery chaos” that was just “there” when God began creating. Reading Genesis 1 with ancient eyes helps us past this. Do you see a problem with reading the Bible the way I have outlined here? Do you think there is value in allowing the original context in which the Bible was written help guide your interpretation?
- A related issue is the “firmament” mentioned in vv. 6-8. This was understood by Israelites and throughout much of Christian history as some sort of solid dome.2 As Genesis 1:7 tells us, the function of the firmament was to hold back the “water above.” Along with the “watery chaos,” this is part of the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern worldview. Indeed, some of the better modern translations of the Bible use the English word “dome” or “vault” here.
It seems to me that insisting on a literal reading of Genesis 1 would require one to accept that a firmament of some sort holds back a body of water. But here, too, reading Genesis 1 with ancient eyes helps us to see things differently. Picturing the heavens the way we see in Genesis 1 is also reflected in other ancient creation stories. Allowing those extra-biblical texts to help us understand what “firmament” means is not to devalue Scripture or place it “under” non-biblical texts, which seems to be your concern. It is merely information to help us make informed decisions about what to expect from the Bible. It is no different than when the NIV Study Bible provides notes on historical context to help us understand what a passage means to say. Extra-biblical information is not the “authority” but an important partner in interpretation.
God speaks to his people in ways they are able to understand. He “comes down to their level,” or as John Calvin put it, God “lisps” so that humans can understand. This, it seems to me, is the best way to show respect for Scripture. So, again, what objection do you have to reading Genesis 1 this way? Does it not show respect for God while also avoiding the unnecessary conflict between science and the Bible that a literal reading creates?
- A lot of interpreters throughout Christian history have taken Genesis 1 figuratively because of days 1-3. These are called “days” with “evening and morning,” yet the sun was not created until day 4. Many have concluded that a truly “literal” day, with evening and morning, requires a sun, and so these days are not meant to be understood literally.
I realize you may disagree here, and maybe you have a way of seeing literal days where there is no sun. I disagree strongly but that would not lead me to question your commitment to the Gospel. Reading the days figuratively is not an act of spiritual rebellion, which you seem to suggest. It is a result of taking the text very seriously and faithfully, trying to discern from the text itself how best to read it.
- Outside of Genesis 1 there are several passages in the Old Testament where creation involves God defeating a primordial sea monster of some sort: Job 26:12-13; Psalm 74:13-14; 89:10; 104:26; Isaiah 51:9. Do you feel that these passages require the same literal reading as Genesis? Or would you suggest that we should make reasonable distinctions in the Bible about what can be taken literally and when? This seems to be the very thing you are warning us against in your presentation.
If you are able to argue that these passages should be read figuratively, would you also be willing to hear the same kinds of arguments from your brothers and sisters about Genesis 1?
The Bible is made up of all sorts of ways of communicating truth, and literalness is one of them and should not be brushed aside. We are not suggesting such a thing. But the Bible also speaks in metaphors and symbols. Often times those metaphors and symbols reflect the worldview of the ancient context of the Bible. I strongly believe that taking all of this into account is more faithful to the Bible than insisting on a literal interpretation.
Many committed Christians, past and present, do not find a literal reading of Genesis 1 persuasive. I hope that at least you would agree that their point of view is worthy of respect, not warning.
"The overwhelming untroubled consensus of the church"
Dr. Mohler, you state that a strictly literal reading of Genesis finds overwhelming support in the history of the church. On one level, I agree with you. Until the rise of modern science, Christian interpreters did not have the options before them that we do today: literal, day-age, framework view, etc., all things you are well aware of. There was more unanimity because there were fewer choices.
But you assume that this diversity is a problem that must be resisted. You seem to expect the church today to maintain vigorously a position on Genesis 1 that was formulated before the evidence for an old earth came to light, as far back as the 17th century (not the 19th century as you say in your presentation). Are you suggesting it is always wrong to adjust how we read portions of the Bible in view of scientific evidence?
Many scholars have noted the similarity between the discussion over the age of the earth and heliocentricity in Galileo’s day. See, for example, Karl Giberson’s recent post. As scientific evidence became clear, it led the church to accept that the biblical geocentric model of the cosmos simply reflected their ancient point of view. This did not lead to an abandonment of the Bible as God’s Word, but only readjusting expectations of what we have the right to find there. I know you accept heliocentricity, but it is not clear to me what your reasoning process is. The biblical authors, along with all ancient peoples, assumed the earth was stationary and that the sun moved. Would that not require us to do likewise?
I would be interested in hearing more about why you wouldn’t feel the same way about a Young Earth as you do about geocentricism. You do not accept the scientific data that points to an actual old earth but only an apparently old earth. But from what I can tell, you don’t argue for a solar system where the sun only appears to be at the center. Why do you allow some scientific evidence to adjust our understanding of the Bible and not others?
I also do not agree with you that before the 17th century there was as much of an “overwhelming untroubled consensus” as you suggest. For example, in the first few centuries of the Christian era we see a lot of very informed discussion about how to handle Genesis 1 (as well as Genesis 2-3).3 I appreciate your qualifier: you acknowledge that there was some diversity on how to handle Genesis. Still, you leave the impression that the history of the church has essentially interpreted Genesis as literally as you do.
But my main concern here is not to point out the church’s diversity on interpreting Genesis 1. Rather, I am concerned that you make it such a matter of orthodoxy. As you know, St. Augustine did not hold to a literal six-day creation, but an instantaneous creation. Oddly enough, this fits much better with the modern notion of a Big Bang, but that was not on his radar screen. He was actually influenced by Greek philosophy, and so his view did not gain a lot of acceptance thereafter. Christians have disagreed with Augustine, but it is hard to find someone who would warn others about him because of his views on Genesis 1. It was not a theological hill to die on.
Also, although you are a Southern Baptist, I know you have great respect for the Reformed tradition. It is true that from Calvin, to the Westminster Assembly, to 19th century Princeton, and the Dutch Reformed tradition, many (not all) Reformed theologians understood the days of Genesis 1 to be “natural” days. But even then, they did not make it a point of Christian orthodoxy, as you seem to do. A present-day example is the Presbyterian Church of America, a denomination you know well. This conservative denomination follows the Reformed tradition in not making the days of creation a matter of orthodoxy but leaving the matter open to individual conscience.
Flexibility of views and generosity of spirit concerning Genesis 1 are hardly unusual among committed Christians. It is not a slippery slope to unbelief but a humble way forward to discern what it means to read God’s Word faithfully. I do not think such flexibility or generosity are a mistake, as you seem to argue. Would you not, along with many thoughtful Christian thinkers of the past, allow diverse points of view to sit side-by-side for the benefit of Christian unity?
- In his excellent commentary on Genesis, John Walton of Wheaton College lays out this entire issue very clearly and accessibly (Genesis [NIVAC, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), pp. 67-78.
- Walton, Genesis, 110-13.
- Recently, Greek Orthodox theologian Peter C. Bounteneff has outlined this diversity among the second century apologists, Origen, and the Cappadocians in Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Baker, 2008).