Willing to be Wrong
What we know
Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I read through it probably once every few months and repeatedly grind my Hebrew language skills on its opening chapters. Unlike Leviticus (at least in the opinion of most people I know), the Genesis narrative is exciting and adventurous. Some of our favorite stories come out of the book: Noah and the Ark, The Tower of Babel, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors, and so on.
But no story is perhaps as infamous and well known as the creation account (or accounts) as presented in Genesis 1-2. Almost every Christian or Jew, even those less than devout, know the opening words to the tale: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” We know that God created the earth in six days. We know Eve was taken from Adam's rib for a companion. We know that God called the general creation “good”, the special creation of man “very good” and, at the very end of it all, took a day of rest (which I'm sure most of us would call “very good.”)
Of course, we know all of this. Yet we challenge it (and are challenged by it), continually, when we consider the variety of interpretations of how this story intersects the world as described by science. With Genesis, are we dealing with a literal scientific account, where “day” means 24-hours; are we dealing with metaphorical “days” in which epochs or periods of time or even processes are being described; or are we readers of a creation mythology from the Ancient Near East that doesn’t have anything directly to do with material origins? Interpretations go on and on, as anyone who has spent any time at all studying the creation debate knows. By and large, however, we can probably categorize Genesis interpreters into three camps: the Young Earth Creationists, the Old Earth Creationists, and the Theistic Evolutionists.
Now, I have the unique benefit of falling into all of these individual camps at one point or another in my life, sometimes even mixing them up. I have made a strong transition from being a die-hard Young Earth Creationist to being convinced that the evolutionary story is, in fact, the more substantiated and evidenced position. I say this with no pride, since my own transition involved many agonizing questions, a whole lot of reading, and a significant internal spiritual battle: what I believed about when and how the earth was created would not only change the way I read Scripture, it would also change certain aspects of how I viewed the Creator.
While I've certainly learned a lot of information on my journey, it was not an accumulation of facts that has kept me following Christ through all the ups and downs, but Jesus himself, and the knowledge that truth is not something which the Christian should find spiritually threatening. Nevertheless, those same ups and downs—and my internalization of each of these views on creation in turn—has provided me with one simple realization about the debate over scripture and evolution: most of us are not so committed to finding the truth about Genesis and creation as we are to sustaining and maintaining our own interpretive boundaries and the boundaries of the communities which influence us. In other words, the debate is often not so much over Genesis—or even over whether we can all follow the same God when we believe different things about how he created—it's over our own ability to be right. I know this because admitting that I was wrong was the most difficult part of my own transition.
While I am pretty convinced of the truth of an evolutionary portrait of reality and an ANE reading of Genesis similar to that espoused by scholars like Peter Enns or Bruce Waltke, I can still make this claim about interpretive communities because my intention is not to dissuade others from debating the issues involved, but to ask that we simply recognize our own limits and check them as often as possible. This is part of following Jesus, is it not? Unfortunately, vigorous debate often deteriorates quickly into screaming matches where proponents of one position or another simply are talking heads, speaking past each other and forgetting our fellowship in Christ. We play into the same interpretive competition that the Pharisee and Sadducee scribes were well known for, each claiming to have a proper interpretation of the Scriptures, but all the while forgetting that interpretive arguments matter exceptionally little if a genuine search for God is not at the forefront. This is certainly not to insist that the discussions cease, but rather, to insist that these discussions can only be propelled forward if individuals—of whatever stripe—step outside of their own interpretive boundaries and communities and humbly present themselves before God, seeking His truth alone. It is to insist that “system maintenance” must die along with the self, because only then can we allow Scripture to interpret itself. Unfortunately (and this is an issue that goes way beyond the Genesis text), too many of us are more committed to a specific model than we are committed to seeking God’s truth, whatever inconvenience to us that truth proves to be.
In 2006, for instance, I heard a popular and well-trained Young Earth paleontologist make the following statement: “If all the evidence turns against young earth creationism, I will still believe it because that's what the Bible says.” I followed up with him in a conversation a year later over lunch and quickly realized that I did not misunderstand his statement. For him, the parameters of his convictions were set in concrete and the truth of the overarching story of Christianity rested on these parameters not being crossed. In his view, the Bible absolutely and fundamentally teaches a universe which came into existence 6,000-10,000 years ago; to deny that is to deny Scripture, and if evidence turned up to the contrary one must not alter those parameters but, instead, search (perhaps in vain) for counter-evidence or be willing to live in blind faith. For this paleontologist, confident Christianity hinged on the stability of those borders of interpretation. Transition wasn't allowed.
But I have heard and read statements coming out of the two other camps of thought that share this kind of certainty over interpretation, too. There is a sense of doing injustice to scripture, thereby doing an injustice to Christianity, and, thereby again, doing an injustice to God if one strays from the preferred reading. One Old Earth Creationist remarked in a popular book that an interpretation of Genesis that allows for evolution is a “contradiction in terms” and it's an unfortunate thing to “blame God for it.” Genesis, in the mind of this thinker, specifically precludes any interpretation which leads to the sort of story evolution tells. To think otherwise is to “blame” God for something which he intentionally tells us is otherwise against his nature.
I have equally heard some theistic evolutionists deride—in a very spiritually shallow and personally offensive way—those who do not accept an evolutionary viewpoint. As one who went through an interpretive evolution on biological evolution, I can say confidently that I believe my own transition would have been much easier both intellectually and spiritually if not for feeling as if certain theistic evolutionists accused me of intentionally lying or being mentally ignorant. It seems that all three camps are at least sometimes plagued by the issue of pride—especially in the cases of a few strong advocates. But pride is nothing less than the cement by which interpretive barriers are built, helping them become unmovable walls that protect the interpretive communities within.1
On the other hand, one of the great benefits of the fall of positivism (or verificationism) and the rise of postmodernism was the realization that total objectivity among individuals is a false conception. And, since individuals make up communities, neither are camps of thought above error and immune from being wrong. Yet way too many Christians continue to approach Genesis as if we can interpret it on its own terms, completely and totally, without reference to our own location in history and culture. We're still functionally positivists. But it is an illusion that we’re above the interpretive fray, and we must realize time and again that we are subjective individuals, affected by a number of factors and people. We are deeply influenced by those that speak into us, those that we trust, and those that we find credible. As W. Randolph Tate writes,
Interpretations...must be consistent with the established interpretive framework of the interpretive community. The worldview of the interpretive community sets the parameters within which interpretations are accepted or rejected.2
The Bible takes a slightly different angle and puts it this way: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, we are not objective data-interpreting individuals but fallen men and women, even as followers of Jesus.
So it’s when groups of folks line up on either side of an issue and make their positions part of their identity that the debate over interpreting Genesis reaches a near stalemate. It's communities against communities, PhDs against PhDs, experts against experts, and—perhaps more internally—interpretive parameters against interpretive parameters. The truth is that as long as we are first and foremost committed to maintaining the community in which we are involved, there will be very little chance of us getting at the real issues and the best conclusions, much less giving an adequate witness to our God, both Creator and Redeemer.
New eyes, fresh air
I mentioned earlier that I spent time in all three major camps of thought on this issue. I was a hard-lined Young Earth Creationist, debating on forums and writing creationist papers in college. I argued for the existence of modern-day dinosaurs, major flood geology, and so on. I was convinced I was right, that defending the truth meant digging my heels deeper into the sand. But two questions plagued my thoughts: first, I asked whether Christianity fell to pieces if I was wrong. Second, I asked whether I was committed to Christ or, rather, to myself and my interpretations. With that as my first major paradigm shift, I eventually came to accept an Old Earth view. I sat comfortably within the Old Earth view for several years, but the Lord was still at work in me, and, once again, brought those two questions to my mind. Back to the books I went, back to the Bible I went, and back to prayer I went.
Through months of extremely difficult and heart-rending transition, I found myself considering a particular reading of Genesis that I would have regarded as unacceptable as a YEC. But then I was confronted with this even more important point about Christianity: often God finds what is unacceptable to us very acceptable to Him! That included me, personally, and I felt the warmth of God’s grace flow over me. In the wake of that change of heart, people accused me of rejecting my background, my Christian education, and my interpretive communities. And, yet—whether I was right or wrong—I knew God accepted my path towards this new reading of Creation as a genuine search for Him. My spiritual struggle—contrary to what I thought while it was happening—was not a struggle to reject bad data and exegesis, it was a struggle to reject myself.
While the “facts” were important, that spiritual struggle was even more so for me. What was God showing me in the midst of it all? Was thinking differently about the creation making me appreciate the Creator less, or more? Did reading Genesis differently mean only that I had been wrong, or that it was somehow less true? What did any of this have to do with my sense of calling to love and serve God and my fellow men? In a way, I’m still figuring this out. But I can absolutely testify that the struggle transformed every single one of these questions. Indeed, for the first time, I believe I saw God as much this-worldly as other-worldly. I saw nature as intimately intertwined with itself, still being woven together by God’s hand. I saw Scripture as a beautiful expression of God’s desire that man should participate in creation. I saw that my fellow men and my fellow Christians were all on a journey, much the way I was. And I saw myself as a flawed, stubborn, and prideful man, yet forgiven for the times I’ve pitted myself and my presuppositions about Scripture against God, its author.
As settled as I am now, I have not forgotten that the common ribbon which ties together all of these transitions is my commitment to keep asking questions within my own circle, too—realizing that God still has much to teach all of us. I have learned the continuing importance of stepping outside of my camp and making sure I haven’t become merely a product of or a willing prisoner to thinking a certain way, unwilling to consider that it and I might be incorrect. I came to realize that everyone (including myself, of course) has stories and life experiences that become the framework in which they read Genesis 1-2. And if I stopped pretending that I, myself, could be perfectly objective, then I also had to stop pretending that those in the community that I trusted were necessarily objective, themselves.
Ultimately, I had to be willing to be wrong and to see that my friends might be wrong, too. That’s not something that any of us are “naturally” very good at, but it is possible when we realize that the world does not depend on us being right, but upon Jesus being right. For me, seeking truth rather than presupposition requires that we all be able to approach the communities that have influenced us deeply, and ask not just “what” they say but “why” they say it. We all have to guard our hearts even more than our heads. Frequently reminding myself to walk back to the edge of my own camp—to follow Jesus’ example and withdraw to a solitary place—has shown me that there is room to breathe outside our familiar interpretive parameters. At certain times, I have found it to be the most refreshing air I've ever tasted.
1. Though, admittedly, the theistic evolutionists tend to have a greater sense of leeway when it comes to how the claims of Genesis 1-2 affect Christianity as a whole. It would be an odd thing to say that to not interpret Genesis 1-2 as an evolutionary metaphor is to reject Christianity. As far as I know, most Christian evolutionists are very much willing to acknowledge that Young and Old Earth Creationists are still within appropriate spiritual bounds, even if not scientific ones. It seems to me that if individual theistic evolutionists choose an issue about which to be rigid, it’s the Fall and the existence of Adam.
2. Tate, W. Randolpy. Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008, p 222.