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Maker of Heaven and Earth, Part 3

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October 21, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's sermon features David Swaim. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Previously in this series (see sidebar), Pastor Dave Swaim explained that certain passages of the Bible-- such as the parable of the prodigal son-- contain profound truths about God and humanity but are not meant to be taken as expressing literal historical events. Today, in part three of his sermon, Pastor Swaim discusses the overall structure of Genesis 1.

"Maker of Heaven and Earth" (transcript, part 3)

So what is the beginning of genesis about? It explains who God is and who we are and God’s relationship to the world and our relationship to the world and God’s relationship to us and our relationship to each other. It addresses sin and work, temptation and pride, and suffering, and the deepest longings of our souls. I’ve preached hundreds of sermons from Genesis 1-3, and I could preach a hundred more and still not cover all that’s in here. So, today I’m not going to examine any of the individual ideas, but I want to help you see the overall structure of Genesis 1.

The first thing to notice is that Genesis 1 is a poem. As evangelicals, we affirm that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. Therefore, we believe that the Bible is totally accurate. But that doesn’t mean that we take it all literally. Consider the following passage—Isaiah 55: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands.” If we take the Bible literally then we’re forced to contend with the problem that trees don’t even have hands. So is this passage untrue? No! We easily understand this passage is poetry. It’s expressing great truth in a genre that’s not literal.

I can appreciate the desire to interpret Genesis 1 like it’s a chapter from some history book. But the poetic, repetitive style suggests it’s not merely a list of facts. Let me show you how many Bible scholars read it: “Initially, the earth was formless and empty.” As this chart illustrates, the first three days correct the formlessness of creation, and the next three fill the emptiness of creation. In the first three days, God established the great domains of light, darkness, sea, sky, land, and plants. In the next three days he fills those domains with sun, moon, stars, fish and birds, land animals, and humans. If you look closely at the order of creation you see that the first three days and the last three days of creation correspond perfectly to each other. Many people turn to Genesis 1 to ask questions about the age of the earth or the order of creation. But maybe it’s not here. And those are the wrong questions that might even make us miss the main points. It would be like a modern lawyer looking to the prodigal son story to learn how to do estate distribution. The account of creation makes many points about God’s power, his ownership over creation, that he made us in his image and he invited us to live in his world, and then commanded us to take care of it. Things the other local cultures tended to worship, like the sun, moon, animals and birds: they’re all clearly depicted as God’s handiwork, not gods themselves. See, this is not intended to be a precise scientific description of the way God made the world, but a poetic hymn about who made the world and the relationships of everything in it. So it’s not necessary to also assume that the order of the events in this poem also match the historical events. And that’s why the writer of Genesis sees no contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Now some people think Genesis 2 is where actual history begins, and others see it as just another poem highlighting a different important truth about humanity. Does this mean that Genesis 1 is not true? No. It only means that it’s not literal.

I contend that there’s more truth—about theology, anthropology, and ecology, and spirituality, and human dignity, and human responsibility packed into this short chapter than a hundred normal books could describe on their own. Like the parable of the lost son, that’s why it’s so powerful. It’s truthful, it’s just not historical. But don’t get tricked into thinking that’s the only kind of truth. But if Genesis 1 is not literal history, then how do we know that the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24 is literal history? Is that just another poem? How can you tell the difference? Usually it’s pretty obvious from the context. If I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me to the store,” you understand I mean something very different than if I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me up a wall.” One is clearly literal and the other is clearly symbolic, but they both may be one hundred percent true. Jesus and the gospel writers poked fun at the ignorant literalism of the people who didn’t understand the obvious metaphors when Jesus said things like, “You must be born again” or, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally. They should have been able to distinguish between things that are symbolic and things that are scientific. One is not more true than the other. They’re just different ways of expressing truth. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take Genesis 1 seriously. To the contrary, I’m suggesting we fail to take it seriously when, like a parable, we insist on taking it literally instead. When we make it about six days, when we make it simply a recipe for baking a galaxy. In contrast, in Luke 1, Luke insists that he’s reporting historical events carefully checked against the testimony of eye witnesses. That’s an unmistakable sign that he expects to be taken literally.

The point I’m making is that we still may reject elements of evolution on scientific grounds. But a high view of scripture does not necessarily preclude accepting evolution as the way God created the cosmos. Many contemporary evangelical leaders have affirmed this view, including Tim Keller, and C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham, John Stott, and N.T. Wright, and John Polkinghorne. When we get to Genesis 2, things are less clear. Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence. But scholars are divided about chapters 2 to 10. Most evangelical Christians assume, insist, that God literally created the first man out of the mud and made the first woman from his rib. Others suggest this looks a lot like poetry again, and being too literal misses the main point. The great evangelical author John Stott suggested there may have been thousands of hominids already formed through an evolutionary process and Genesis 2 simply recounts the moment God breathed his spirit into them, giving them the uniquely human traits of self-reflection and moral reasoning. C.S. Lewis went much further, arguing that Adam and Eve weren’t intended to be thought of as real people at all, but archetypes who represent all of humanity. This story is not about an actual event, but about the sin nature in all of us that causes us to pull away from God because we want to be like God ourselves. So we disobey his commandments and we make ourselves miserable in the process. This explains why we all feel alienated from God and from one another, and it also explains why we all need Jesus to save us. The fact that Adam’s name means—literally in Hebrew—humanity, and Eve’s means life, lend themselves to an archetypal interpretation. This doesn’t mean the story never happened; it means it happens over and over again in every human who’s ever lived. So rather than just being a historical account of some ancient ancestor, this is a true story about you. Do you hear the difference? See, this solves the biblical riddles about who Cain might have married, and what city they moved to, and it leaves plenty of room for God to have created humans over any time scale he wanted.

Maybe you know the old joke about a scientist who told God that he’d figured out how to create life just like God did. So God asks to see it, and the scientist reaches down to grab some dirt. God says, “Hold it—get your own dirt!” See, in creation God packed the dirt with all the atoms and elements required to create life. And then, in Genesis 2:9 and 19, he used it to create all kinds of trees and animals and birds, and in verse 7 he used it to create humans. Did God create them directly or through a long evolutionary process he planned from the beginning and will write into that amazing dirt that he created? I can’t know which of these interpretations is correct. Many contemporary scientists use fossil records, and archaeology, and genetics, to insist that humanity is much older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow, and could not have come from a single human couple. Others disagree. I don’t know. No one knows. Maybe Genesis isn’t trying to answer that question.

David Swaim is Senior Pastor of Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington, Massachusetts. After attending graduate school, he served in numerous churches until he settled at Highrock.

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CF - #65658

October 21st 2011

One of your examples, John Polkinghorne, does not have a high view of Scripture as he sees the gospels as a mixture of truth and fiction, for instance. (One might suggest that others in your list—Lewis and Wright—also don’t have as high a view of Scripture as many evangelicals would require for leadership in their churches, but that’s more of a quibble by comparison to Polkinghorne’s view.) He also holds to an open theism or process theology with respect to God, which most evangelicals would consider outside the scope of biblical orthodoxy.

That’s not to say that Polkinghorne doesn’t have a lot of great insight. He does, and I’ve profited from his books and lectures. But we shouldn’t attribute a high view of Scripture to him, as he rejected that rather explicitly.

Merv - #65662

October 21st 2011

Pastor Swaim makes a lot of great points here, but I think a slight critique could be warranted for giving a slight caricature of young-earthers—or painting them with a broad brush, if I may continue in the celebration of symbolic language!

I too have pointed out parables & others obvious examples (trees clapping), but this fails to impress literalists because it assumes them to be extremely simple-minded (all-or-nothing) with regard to literalism.  Most highly intelligent YEC folks I fellowship with know full-well that much of the Bible has non-literal genres in it, and accept them as such.  They just disagree over the criteria that would lump early Genesis in with ‘non-literal’.  One can point to details of genealogies, how old specific people were, or references to things found in various places and ask, if this is a poem, what was the purpose of these details?   I think the question is legitimate, just as the (also Biblical) questions and problems raised by literal interpretation of early Genesis are also legitimate; and what God’s creation seems to be showing us as we study it helps us place our focus more properly among these interpretive options.


beaglelady - #65664

October 21st 2011

Another great segment!  btw, Polkinghorne does have a high view of Scripture by any reasonable measure.  Furthermore, Polkinghorne is not a proponent of process theology.

CF - #65693

October 23rd 2011

I suppose it depends what you mean by “reasonable.” For instance, he says, “The nativity narratives are very different in the two gospels ..., and they have features suggestive of legendary accretion (moving stars and angelic hosts)” (Faith of a Physicist, p. 144). Later he says, “The Old Testament (including all its primitive passages and unedifying stories) is scripture for me because it was scripture for Jesus and the first disciples” (p. 183). 

On the gospels, he says, “Nor can one deny that the early Christian communities sometimes felt able to create prophetic words which spoke to their circumstances and which were then incorporated into the tradition as if they had been uttered by the earthly Jesus. A passage like Matthew 18.15-17, which gives detailed instructions about how to deal with sinners in the ‘church’ (ecclesia only occurs here and in Matt. 16.18 in all the gospels) quite obviously arose in this way…. Sometimes one may suppose that development took place which drew out the implications of something Jesus had said, amplified in the light of further experience. He can scarcely have been as explicit about food regulations as Mark 7.14-23 par. suggest—for otherwise how could the disputes have arisen, to which Acts and the Pauline epistles testify?—and clearly Mark 7.19b (‘Thus he declared all foods clean’) is an editorial gloss underlining the message” (p. 92).

Granted that he also pushes back against hyper-skeptical scholarship, but he accepts far more of it as justified than would those I’d see as having a “reasonably” high view of scripture.

As for open God/process theology, he does explicitly decline to accept the title of process theologian, but he admits he is often accused of being one (p. 65). This is not surprising because his views on God’s knowledge and man’s freedom share some noteworthy similarities to it that most conservatives could not accept, even if these views wouldn’t put him squarely in the process camp. Open theism may be a better label?
beaglelady - #65725

October 25th 2011

A lot of scholars have problems with the very same things, e.g. the birth narratives. 

CF - #65727

October 25th 2011

Absolutely. I’m just saying that considering these narratives as being partly “legendary accretion,” that referring to parts of the OT as “primitive passages and unedifying stories,” and that seeing Jesus’s words as being manufactured and put into his mouth by later Christian communities—well, these are not typical of (and indeed are close to antithetical to) a “high view” of scripture in my experience.

Again, he’s not completely skeptical on the Bible’s historical veracity, as many secular scholars are, but that doesn’t mean he has a “high view” of scripture as that term is usually employed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t impute views to him that he does not hold.

beaglelady - #65760

October 26th 2011

So are both nativity stories historical? Might some parts be there for theological reasons as opposed to a simple recounting of events as in a newspaper article?

Some parts of the OT are indeed unedifying, e.g. the mutilation of corpses to collect foreskins.  At least I don’t find that quite so edifying. 

CF - #65762

October 26th 2011

I’m not debating the merits of the specific points. I’m simply saying that Polkinghorne’s views on these matters would not be classified as a “high view” of scripture by the usual meaning of that term.

Scott Jorgenson - #65772

October 26th 2011

This is only because “high view of scripture” is evangelical-ese - a phrase coined and used by American conservative evangelicals to basically mean people who think about scripture like they do (verbal plenary inspiration, perspicuity, inerrancy, etc).  Polkinghorne is a Christian but he certainly couldn’t be described as a conservative evangelical, at least by American standards.  And I doubt those who own the phrase would apply it to most of the other contributors to Biologos, either, who they would consider to be decidedly moderate or liberal in their outlook.  “High view of scripture” is, in short, a particular sectarian code word.

Ironically, those who think about scripture more along the lines of Polkinghorne often consider that they are the ones who are really taking scripture seriously - drawing from it inductively, rather than deductively imposing doctrinal thinking on it such as “if God is God then the only kind of scripture he would give us is that which is verbally inspired, plenary, and everywhere perspicuous and inerrant” which is what “high view of scripture” really means, in my experience.

CF - #65784

October 27th 2011

Again, my only point regarding Polkinhorne and scripture is that the Pastor Swaim used the code word “high view of scripture” to characterize Polkinhorne’s view, but I am suggesting that that phrase, which the author appears to be using in the evangelical-ese sense that you describe, is not in fact an accurate characterization of Polkinghorne’s view. He does not fit that mold.

I’m not at all addressing the merits or demerits of either side or the accuracy of the code phrase itself in describing the evangelical view.

beaglelady - #65809

October 27th 2011

So true, Scott.  I’m sure fundagelicals charge each other with not having a high view of scripture also.  My way or the highway!

Scott Jorgenson - #65665

October 21st 2011

Yes, a good sermon, except where book-ended by these remarks:

“Other Christians, including many renowned scientists, have fought back by pointing out the many flaws in evolutionary theory and proposing alternative theories of their own. These include Young Earth Creation…” (in part 1)


“Many contemporary scientists use fossil records, and archaeology, and genetics, to insist that humanity is much older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow, and could not have come from a single human couple. Others disagree. I don’t know. No one knows.” (in part 3, above)

There have been no ‘renowned’ scientists opposed to evolution since the nineteenth century, let alone ‘many’ of them, unless we count those known only for creationist apologetics rather than generally-recognized professional accomplishment (eg Duane Gish).  And the implication that many scientists agree with mainstream science, and others disagree, as if the profession is anywhere close to evenly divided, is simply false.  And yes, in a direct positivist sense, ‘no one knows’, but only in that same useless sense of the phrase in which ‘no one knows’ what earth’s core is like since, after all, no one’s ever been there.  In fact we do know, with the highest level of confidence that any scientific inference can obtain, and if we’re going to discount the worth of that kind of inferential knowing, there’s a lot more we need to toss out as well.

I guess I’m just a little disappointed to see otherwise excellent points by Swaime muted-down with these statements, even if they are meant merely as a sop to Cerberus.

Darrel Falk - #65668

October 22nd 2011


You raise important points.  We all need to keep in mind that this is a sermon given to a local congregation and was not intended for international exposure or scrutiny.  We really appreciate Pastor Swaim’s willingness to let us post it as a base for discussion.  

Like you I find this message to be very helpful; no one can speak to a general audience as effectively as a gifted pastor.  Personally, I agree with almost everything Pastor Swaim says in this message, which is pretty amazing…for me. However, there is every reason to be virtually certain that there was never a time when there were just two people on earth. Also, I am not aware of major flaws in evolutionary theory identified by scientists who are renowned for the high quality of their work within biology.  It will continue to be refined, but the theory itself is, for biology, as certain as the theory of gravity is for physics.
sy - #65670

October 22nd 2011

I found this sermon to be inspiring, and I salute Biologos for including the sound track with the text. The spoken word adds a great deal of the inner value of the presentation, and enriches the meaning of the word. Which leads me to the issue of how Genesis 1 was supposed to be taken. Pastor Swain makes a good case for it being a poem. I wonder if instead, it was a sermon.

Menno van Barneveld - #65710

October 24th 2011

Genesis 1 is not a poem in the first place, it is the first chapter of the Torah, the law. Jesus Christ did say: “Not every one who says to me Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heavens, but he who does do there the will of my Father Who is in heaven.” The commandments teach us how to do the will of God and in that way at the day of the last judgement to enter the kingdom of God and do there His will.
Life on Earth is a school of practice to learn doing the will of God and to keep doing that untill the end. So also Genesis 1 is part of the textbook for this school of practice. The facts in it have to be studied one by one. It should not be read as a continuous story that is either a true history or a poem.
For evolutionists who believe that evolution is without purpose this is alarming, for to them is told that they will end up in the pool of flames to burn there forever and ever, if they do not do the will of God.

beaglelady - #65822

October 27th 2011

We could use Pete Enns on this thread, since he is an O.T. scholar.

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