This article was originally published on November 12, 2014.
In a now-famous moment from the comedy movie City Slickers, the grizzled cowboy Curly (played by Jack Palance) is riding his horse alongside the city slicker Mitch (Billy Crystal). Curly is sharing his wisdom with Mitch, who is searching for meaning in life as part of a midlife crisis. “The secret to life is just one thing,” Curly intones as he holds up a single leather-gloved finger in Mitch’s face.
“But what’s the ‘one thing?’” Mitch asks.
“That’s what you have to figure out,” Curly cryptically replies.
In recent years it has become clear to me that the debate between young earth creationists and those Christians who accept a more evolutionary view of cosmic history also finally comes down to just one thing. But unlike Mitch, I have figured out what that one thing is (and it’s hardly an earth-shattering discovery). The one thing on which the entire debate hinges is whether we acknowledge the role played by hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the branch of biblical theology that deals with the interpretation of the Bible. Every single passage in Scripture requires a hermeneutical approach to unlock its truth and meaning. This is true of every passage. There are no exceptions.
It should come as no surprise, however, that different passages require different hermeneutical approaches. Every seminarian or theology student is taught that hermeneutics is like a carpenter’s toolbox: there are flathead screwdrivers and Phillip’s head screwdrivers, pliers and wrenches, hammers and levels. The job at hand dictates what tool gets used. If you have ever tried to remove a star-headed screw with a flathead screwdriver, you know that it leads not only to frustration but usually to failure (and possibly to such a ruined screw that you may never get it out of the wall!).
Thus when we read a passage that tells us Jesus fell asleep in the back of a boat, we can interpret it easily enough as a report of something that happened one evening when Jesus was really weary—we take this report “literally” based on our understanding of the nature of that passage. But a little farther along when Jesus says “I am the gate,” we reach for a slightly different hermeneutical tool to understand what he is saying. We can read Jesus’ words and understand their truth without concluding that somewhere on Jesus’ body there was a hinge and a hasp.
When a psalm tells us that our God is greatly exalted and greatly to be praised, we know how to interpret that. But when another psalm says each of us was knitted together in our mother’s womb, we do not doubt the Bible’s accuracy when an ultrasound of a pregnant woman’s uterus fails to reveal any crochet needles. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, we should not conclude that we can actually hate our enemies and yet still accept Jesus’ command. But when Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a big tree, we do not assume that heaven consists of one giant mustard tree in which we will make our eternal dwelling somewhere up in the branches.
Every passage needs the correct hermeneutical tool before we can begin to understand its meaning. And in history we have now and then used the wrong tools on certain passages in ways most Christians later acknowledge. But even today, Christians who have equal respect for biblical authority still disagree on the nature of certain texts and thus on what tool is needed to understand that text. Some of our fellow Christians use the same tool to interpret the Book of Revelation as others of us use to interpret Jesus asleep in the stern of the boat. Others of us in the wider Body of Christ are very sure that apocalyptic literature such as we find in Revelation requires a very different tool from the hermeneutical toolbox, and the wielding of that tool leads to a very different view of history and of how things seem likely to go when Christ comes again. The good news is that across Christian history believers have agreed on the hermeneutical tools needed for the vast majority of the Bible. We still disagree on things like the end times, infant baptism versus believer-only baptism, and just what Jesus meant when he said the bread of the Lord’s Supper was “his body” but we generally acknowledge that these differing conclusions stem from hermeneutical decisions made about the passages in question.
But here is why hermeneutics really is the “one thing” that drives issues related to the interpretation of Genesis: A great many of the people on the young-earth side of things appear to be exceedingly sure that their view has nothing whatsoever to do with hermeneutical decisions—with interpretive choices that may or may not be correct but that are at the very least legitimate talking points among people who hold an equally high view of Scripture as God’s inspired Word.
After I preached a sermon in Iowa some years ago—a sermon that had nothing to do with cosmic origins or Genesis—a man came up to me to inquire what we at Calvin Seminary were thinking about Genesis 1-2. About four or five words into my reply I mentioned the word “interpretation” and this prompted the man to cut me off cold. “That is just your problem,” he snapped. “Stop interpreting it and just read it!”
Again and again we hear about the importance of a “natural reading” of the early chapters of Genesis. It’s clearly a literal narrative, we are assured—it was written as such and so requires no interpretation whatsoever to uncover its meaning. Just read it! But on this point some are self-deceived: the “natural” readers of the text are employing a hermeneutical tool—fueled by an upfront hermeneutical decision—no less than those who take the text in other ways. Even as you cannot properly understand any three-chapter chunk of Matthew’s Gospel without thoughtfully and carefully employing several different hermeneutical tools, so you cannot read Genesis or any part of the Bible without doing the same thing.
This really is the “one thing” on which all depends. It should be noted, of course, that even were we all to agree on the central role played by hermeneutical decisions, that by itself would not settle the issues between young-earth creationists and other believers. But it would count as a small triumph if people would just grant that even the young-earth reading of Genesis is an interpretation and therefore is subject to the same hermeneutical and exegetical scrutiny of any other interpretation of any other passage in the Bible. In the case of Genesis 1-2, those who reach for a hermeneutical tool that leads to a different, more poetic reading of the text do so based on textual and exegetical considerations that indicate to these interpreters that the text needs such an approach for the same reason “I am the gate” and “knitted together in the womb” texts do. Hermeneutically speaking, these are legitimate considerations that seek to honor, not violate, the text. At the very least those who disagree need to argue for this on hermeneutical grounds in ways that avoid slapping dismissive labels on their opponents.
Instead, however, too many of these conversations end with young-earth creationists throwing up their hands at those with a different view because they “just cannot take the Bible as it is written.” “It’s right there in front of you plain as day: just read it!” Worse, even thoughtful, well-intentioned attempts to interpret Genesis are labeled an undercutting of Scripture’s authority, as long as they disagree with the conclusions of young-earth creationism.
But Genesis 1-2 is no different from Mark 1 or Psalm 139 or Revelation 13: We need to muster all our learning and seek the leading of God’s Spirit to know how best to understand and interpret what the holy God of the universe is conveying to us in his revealed Word. Humanly speaking, we can make mistakes in all this. Also, we can disagree here and there on the right tool to grab out of the toolbox. We cannot all be correct: it’s ultimately either biblically right or wrong to baptize babies. The Bible either teaches that there will be a literal 1,000-year millennial reign of Christ on earth before judgment day or this is not taught. Genesis is either a literal historical record that must be interpreted as such or it is a form of biblical literature imbued with other functions in the wider biblical text. But when we talk about these matters, we do so as people doing their level best to make a hermeneutical case for the matter at hand based on the same Word of God to whose authority we all seek to submit ourselves.
But when some fellow believers cut themselves off from the entire interpretive tradition of both Jews and Christians alike by claiming that their view is so obviously true no interpretation is even involved, there is little hope for a common starting point. Worse, it is likely that those who wield a different hermeneutical tool than young earth creationists will, in increasingly shrill tones, be dismissed as enemies of God’s Word.