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, becausethe 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.