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Monday, August 29, 2005

A Plain Reading of Genesis 1 

I am following up to my critics for this post, which took issue with what I believed, and still believe, to be a naturalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 by Joe Carter at the Evangelical Outpost. What I mean by a naturalistic interpretation is an interpretation that is guided more by empirical observation than by the text itself. That is to say, if the text appears to be saying one thing but our observation tells us something different, our observation wins.

Both Rusty (in the comments) and Joe (in the original article) claim that it is legitimate to use the scientific observations of the day to inform our reading of the text. But both also claim that their reading is a reading which is more faithful to the original. But if their reading of Genesis 1 (that is, a reading which does not support a particular chronological view of creation) is more faithful to the text, why should the scientific evidence be part of the discussion? If their reading is more faithful, they should be able to demonstrate that without reference to any scientific theory at all. But this they never do. Like all supporters of non-literal (that is to say, non- 6-day) understandings of Genesis 1, it always gets back to the science. It was true in the article by Roy Clouser which originally sparked this post; it was true in Joe's analysis of that article; and it's true of Rusty's response to me as well.

Exegesis means taking from the text. That means that we go to the text and we see what it says and concern ourselves only with that. If we allow outside influences to change our reading of the text, there is no end to interpretation and confusion. We need to be ruled by the text, not the text by us. It is one thing for my understanding from nature to tell me what a sheep is and what a shepherd does re: the sheep, so I can understand the passages that talk about that. But it's another all together whenwhat I think I know from nature changes what the text says; flatly contradicts what the text says.

Yes, given the science of the day, it's difficult to believe that the world is only six-ten thousand years old and was all created in six days. But it's always been difficult. It was difficult in the time of the Apostles, as we see from Hebrews 11:3 which tells us that it is by faith that we understand that things were made out of nothing by God, instead of coming from pre-existing eternal material as all the pagans believed. It's by faith.

What is faith? Faith is believing what God tells me. And it is frequently either not supported by or flatly contradicting what we think we know- Hebrews 11:1 tells me it is the evidence of things not seen. In John 20:29 Jesus tells Thomas that he believed because he saw, but blessed are those who believe when they have not seen. I am not saying that God's natural revelation and His special revelation contradict each other. I am saying that our understanding of that natural revelation and His special revelation contradict each other all the time. Faith teaches me to rely on God's special revelation, even and most especially, when my eyes or my reason tell me that God's special revelation is not true.

This is the whole problem with the two-book line of thinking- it assumes that natural and special revelation are equally clear and equally authoritative. But nowhere in Scripture can this be supported. Special revelation interprets natural revelation. This is true right from the garden, even before the fall. Natural revelation (what Eve could see and taste and reason out about the fruit) all told her one thing; God's revelation told her something else. Only God's word could tell her the truth about that tree. And that's why it was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So then if Rusty or Joe think the text can be shown to say something other than six-day creation about six thousand years ago, let them show it from the text, with no reference to modern science. For Genesis 1 is very plainly an account about what God did over a six-day period which resulted in the creation of all things around us. It's a plain reading because that's what the text says. It's almost ridiculous to have to make this point.

Genesis 1:
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. {the light from...:
Heb. between the light and between the darkness}

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were
the first day.

Those three verses tell me something that God did on the first day. He spoke words, and the result of this was the existence of light, as well as the ordering and structuring of that light. That's the plain reading of the text. That's what the text says.

Rusty and Joe, which words above in those three verses don't mean what they appear to mean? Does day not mean day, despite the fact that the word is not only usually taken to mean a chronological 24-hour period in Scripture, but always taken to mean a 24-hour period when connected with a number in that fashion (the first day, the second day, etc)? And if that weren't enough chronological reference for you, the writer adds more chronological reference with "the evening and the morning"? So if day means something other than the 24-hour period, what does it mean? And what does the "evening and morning" mean?

Rusty brings up the fact that in chapter 2 of Genesis, "day" is used differently. But words are used differently all the time. I might use the word "father" to refer to my father in one context, or to a Catholic priest in another. But this does not mean that every time I use the word, all possible meanings are present, or that it's necessarily unclear just because in some places it's used differently. The word is not the fundamental unit of meaning in any text; the phrase or the sentence or even the paragraph is. So what "day" means in Genesis 2:4 has nothing to do with what it means in 1:5. We need to look at the clause and the paragraph in which the word appears. Genesis 2:4 begins a new section (clear from the phrase "these are the generations", a phrase repeated throughout Genesis to denote a new section, a focusing on some aspect of the previous history). Another commenter brings up the fact that the first mention of day comes before the creation of the sun and moon which determine what a day is. But again, we see the naturalistic assumption. It's not the sun and moon which determine a day. It is the word of God. He put the sun, moon and stars in the sky to regulate days, weeks and years. But the days, weeks and years were not created by the heavenly bodies. They already existed in the mind of God. So that's no problem for us.

Their argument about Genesis 1 fundamentally rests on the idea that the text is not intending to answer scientific questions, but religious ones. And again I ask, on what basis do they separate the two kinds of truth? Clouser says that Genesis 1 (and all of Scripture as well) is about the creator, and man's relationship to that creator in covenant. I agree. But the fourth commandment seems to say that creation itself was provided as a model for one very important aspect of that relationship- Sabbath rest. Our week is based on the creation week, and the Sabbath was based on God's rest. And the commandment says, "... For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth." Again, if that doesn't mean that God created the world in six days, what exactly does it mean?

And that leads us to the big problem. If "For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth" doesn't mean what it says; if "the evening and the morning was the first day" doesn't mean what it says; what precisely in Scripture means what it says? What truth of Scripture can we definitely rely on, that won't be one day proved wrong by science?

In response to my statement about the resurrection of Christ, Rusty says that the resurrection can be falsified, but it hasn't. He says, "Christianity stands on the fact that it can be falsified and that it is not based on blind-faith." But Rusty, who became a Christian because they examined all the possible evidence about the resurrection and decided it was conclusive? Maybe a few, but the vast majority have not. And the Word tells us that it is the Spirit which teaches us these truths, and that they are impossible to understand by the natural man with his natural eyes (1 Cor 2:14). The resurrection is theoretically falsiable in the sense that it's an actual historical event, but there is no evidence that anyone could present me with that would prove that my God is not my God, and that my savior is not risen. If your faith rests on your ability to determine the truth of Scripture by external evidence, then your faith rests on quicksand. Because my understanding and the opinions of men can never be weighed against the word of God

And I know what you're saying- it's not the word of God you're questioning- it's one particular understanding of the word of God. But if "...in six days the Lord created the Heaven and the Earth" isn't clear, then nothing in Scripture is clear.

Comments:
Nice post. I've linked you.
 
Hi Matt,

I'm a bit perplexed that you seem to pit our interpretation of the natural world against our interpretation of the Bible. Why should the two be opposed? Does not the Bible say that the heavens declare the glory of God or that men are without excuse because God's eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen through what has been made?

What truth of Scripture can we definitely rely on, that won't be one day proved wrong by science?

In response to my statement about the resurrection of Christ, Rusty says that the resurrection can be falsified, but it hasn't. He says, "Christianity stands on the fact that it can be falsified and that it is not based on blind-faith." But Rusty, who became a Christian because they examined all the possible evidence about the resurrection and decided it was conclusive?


I'm not claiming, nor do I believe, that science has proved something of the Bible not true. Genesis 1 records a set of events in the past. All we can do, to test the veracity of the claims, is analyze the evidence. This is no different than attempting to verify whether or not Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford Theater. However, if the Bible were claiming that, in Los Angeles, California, water boils at 150 degrees Farenheit... that would be something we could verify by experiment.

In stating that Christianity is falsifiable I was not claiming that such a feature is necessarily a primary aspect of evangelism. You are well aware that the Bible states that no one comes to the Father that is not first drawn by the Spirit. But, again, I was not speaking of the falsifiability aspect in terms of evangelistic outreach. My point in addressing falsifiability is that Christianity is not built on a blind faith - it can withstand direct frontal attacks from secular sources.

As to the evangelism aspect, I believe that the evidence that backs up Christianity serves as "money in the bank" for someone who is sincerely searching for God. I heard Hugh Ross himself state that, after outreach events, he holds informal Q&A sessions and gets peppered with questions. He says that he knows the message is getting through when, after time, the questions move from scientific in scope to spiritual in scope. The people he runs into are searching, but they want some rational questions answered first.

The resurrection is theoretically falsiable in the sense that it's an actual historical event, but there is no evidence that anyone could present me with that would prove that my God is not my God, and that my savior is not risen. If your faith rests on your ability to determine the truth of Scripture by external evidence, then your faith rests on quicksand. Because my understanding and the opinions of men can never be weighed against the word of God

Matt, I fear you've painted yourself into a corner.

The very act of reading Genesis 1 forces you to rely on external evidence. You weren't born with the ability to read - you had to be taught. It is through external factors that you learn and are able to attach meaning to the words you read. For that matter, if you read Genesis 1 in English, then you're reading a translation - a translation made by other humans who not only used various hermeneutical techniques, but probably researched external historical sources as well. Thus, the very act of reading Genesis 1 in English means that you've acquiesed to the veracity of external methodologies.

To get the best rendition you need to read the original Hebrew - but even then the very act of attaching meaning to the words will be contaminated by external factors - voluntary and involuntary.

If someone claimed that you should include the Book of Thomas in the Bible, how would you refute such a claim, if not through external evidence?

But if I'm understanding your position correctly, the best thing that could happen to you is if science were to (conclusively*) produce the bones of Christ! That way you could categorically state that, despite what science has shown, you still believe that Christ rose from the dead.

That's not the kind of faith I read of in the New Testament. I read of a faith that declared a supernatural event occurred - the resurrection - and that, among other things, there was an empty tomb as evidence.

I'm concerned, though, at the passion you've displayed in your posts on this topic. A passion that, as Joe mentioned, seems a bit too angry. You've read my blog for some time now... have you not seen that I view scientific data as wonderfully supportive of the claims of the Bible? How important is this topic to you? I recall an interview that Reasons to Believe did with a YEC astronomer and, when asked if it were clearly demonstrated to him that the universe was billions of years old, would he renounce Christianity, he answered in the affirmative! I was shocked (as were the hosts at RTB).

Rusty

P.S. I'm glad to see that I still line up in your "Wheat" category.

*by conclusively I mean with the same authority that we can now say the Earth revolves around the Sun. Consider this not-so-far-fetched (but entirely fictional) scenario: dna sample of Shroud of Turin yields genetic signature J; dna sample of James' Ossuary yields genetic signature B; analysis demonstrates J and B had the same mother; archaelogical find yields human remains labeled as that of Jesus, dna sample indicates genetic signature equals J.
 
Rusty: "I'm a bit perplexed that you seem to pit our interpretation of the natural world against our interpretation of the Bible. Why should the two be opposed?"

They shouldn't be opposed, but they are. Go back and read the Clouser article that started all of this, and it talks explicitly of a conflict between what we thought Scripture said and what we now know science is telling us. It's not what nature is actually saying which is the problem. It's what sinful men think nature is saying which conflicts with Scripture.

And let me tell you why I'm angry about the topic, Rusty. It's because a lot of folks, under the name of Christianity, are the first to throw overboard the idea of inerrancy, carrying the atheists' water for them, and fundamentally undermining the reliability of Scripture for many believers. You're trying to rest Christianity on the epistemological foundation of naturalism, and it will not work.

You've created a false dichotomy between "blind faith" (would that mean believing without seeing?) and a belief that is supported by the natural world. Of course our belief is supported by the natural world. But it is not supported by the beliefs of God-hating scientists about the natural world, and you are bending the word of God in order to accomodate a belief system which was invented by deists and atheists in order to destroy Christianity.

"The very act of reading Genesis 1 forces you to rely on external evidence. You weren't born with the ability to read - you had to be taught. It is through external factors that you learn and are able to attach meaning to the words you read."

Being taught the meaning of linguistic symbols in order to understand a text is completely different than using external evidence to judge a text to be false. And I know you don't say that. But it's what you're doing. You're saying that "...In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth" is false, didn't really happen. You know better because you've studied the science. You can put whatever gloss you want on that, but that's what you're saying.

You might want to go read a book called _Kerygma and Myth_ by Rudolf Bultmann. He uses pretty much the same arguments you do, except he uses them to argue against the resurrection of Christ. What makes the resurrection immune from this kind of reasoning? What external evidence could convince you that it never happened? If there is no external evidence that could change your understanding of the resurrection, why that and not the creation? What renders one historical event recorded in Scripture epistemologically different than another?
 
Hi Matt,

Perhaps part of the problem is that you think that the YEC / OEC issue is relatively new? (like since the 1800s?)

Actually, the early church fathers debated the meaning of the Genesis 1 creation account. Certainly none of them posited a 13.7 billion year old universe, but there was disagreement about the exact timing of the account.

Do you think that I am throwing out inerrancy? Far from it. Is it so difficult to see that the issue is one of interpretation? Isn't it possible that a 6 24 hour day interpretation is incorrect (given the Hebrew idiosyncracies), and not the actual text itself?

However, let's clarify that the interpretation of the passage in question is not a creedal issue (at least, it shouldn't be). Now if we were discussing the interpretation of Christ's deity, or his resurrection, then the stakes would become much higher (and, accordingly, so would the evidence needed to overturn such interpretations).

I disagree that using scientific evidence (interpreting the data) is completely different than the methods you use to rely on your interpretation of the data with regards to scripture. You and I are chained to the fact that we must rely on external evidence of some sort in order to attach meaning to the words of any text.

I gave an example of how the resurrection could potentially be falsified. And I stand by my claim that the NT writers understood the power of empirical verification and made it an integral part of the NT.

Believing without seeing? Blind faith? I've got a friend at work who is a Hindu and we get into some religious and philosophical discussions sometimes. He firmly believes that all roads lead to some "god" or "force" and, as he puts it, if I would think about it long enough I would see that it's true as well. You see, for him there is no need for external evidence... in fact, he believes that the natural world is an illusion. He simply believes.

Is that the type of blind faith you want, Matt?
 
The proper undestanding of Genesis should be a creedal issue.

Scripture interprets the natural world, not the natural world the Scripture. You have it backwards Rusty.
 
"
However, let's clarify that the interpretation of the passage in question is not a creedal issue (at least, it shouldn't be). Now if we were discussing the interpretation of Christ's deity, or his resurrection, then the stakes would become much higher (and, accordingly, so would the evidence needed to overturn such interpretations)."

First, it is a creedal issue (depending on your denom), with it being mentioned explicitly in the Westminster standards and implicitly in the Three Forms of Unity.

Second, are you saying then that there is a certain level of scientific evidence that could be provided to you which could disprove the resurrection of Christ? You said the level of evidence would need to be much higher, but there is a level of evidence that could overturn that belief?

That is to say, there's a level of evidence which could overturn the witness of the Holy Spirit?
 
And Rusty, I'm perfectly aware that the disagreement was going on long before Darwin came along. There were Deists around before him. He just gave them a scientifically plausible framework to hang their philosophy on. But it's always been philosophy, and never science.
 
Sorry for the long delay... lots has been going on.

The proper undestanding of Genesis should be a creedal issue.

###

First, it is a creedal issue (depending on your denom), with it being mentioned explicitly in the Westminster standards and implicitly in the Three Forms of Unity.


Stuart,
You've still not explained why it is creedal.

Matt,
Explicitly in the Westminster standards? I'm not familiar... are you referring to the "span of 6 days" piece? If so, then I'd hardly call that explicit. The wording is vague and hardly clarifies that the span is 6 24 hour days (considering that it would be easily clarified, if the authors intended to do so). And you're qualifier of "depending on your denom" throws a wrench in the creedal claim as well.


Scripture interprets the natural world, not the natural world the Scripture. You have it backwards

I don't believe I've claimed that the natural world interprets scripture. What I've claimed is that we interpret both scripture and the natural world, and both our interpretations are imperfect. Regardless, you still ignore the fact that in order to interpret scripture you must submit to processes which are based on interpreting the natural world. It doesn't matter whether or not you are using scientific methods or hermeneutical methods.

That is to say, there's a level of evidence which could overturn the witness of the Holy Spirit?

You've incorrectly portrayed my position. I'm not claiming that there is evidence that could overturn the witness of the Spirit. I've claimed that Christianity is built on, among other things, the fact that it's claims are testable. In other words, it's comparing whether or not the Gospel is an account from the Spirit, or an account from man.

The debate I'm referring to is not between deists of old and Christians, but between Christians of old (e.g., the early Church Fathers). They were not in agreement as to the lengths of the days.

Why have you ignored other issues I've raised?... What about the "blind faith" issue I raised? Or what about the potential of declaring faith in a system that has conclusively been shown to be fabricated?
 
Rusty,
I'd say that the statement "in the span of six days" pretty obviously refers to a literal understanding of Genesis 1. It's certainly what the Westminster divines meant. Just because modern Presbyterians pretend it's vague so that they can believe other things doesn't mean it actually is.

And what do you mean by blind faith exactly? Sounds like you're using the attacks of the naturalists against a fellow Christian. Faith means believing the word of God. Faith means believing that God is true, even at the expense of believing that every man is a liar. I'd rather take the obvious interpretation of Genesis 1 over the word of every scientist in the world, and I have, and will. Your characterization of my position as "blind faith" shows a drastic misunderstanding of what faith is. Did you see Christ rise from the dead, Rusty? You can believe in what you see, but you can also believe in what you can't see, at least with the eyes of flesh.

As 1 Corinthians said, Spiritual things are discerned spiritually. That is to say, they are taught by the witness of the Holy Spirit, not with the understanding available to the natural man. And that means that the natural man has absolutely nothing to say about what God has revealed in His word. Remember, it's by faith that we know that the worlds were formed by the word of God. Not by science.

I've addressed all of these issues as well in a more recent post. And if you're going to accuse me of ignoring issues raised, I'll do the same. Why don't you answer my question regarding the resurrection? Why can one issue be falsified by science but not the other?

And by the way, in saying that the evidence has influenced your understanding of Genesis 1, you've ceded the point that a plain reading of Genesis 1 minus the science would produce a six-day, young-earth view.
 
Matt,

If I wanted to make it clear that I was talking about six days I would say six days, not "span of six days." It's a redundnat term that can only bring up the possibility that there is a vagueness in the understanding.

And as I've stated many times already, it isn't modern thinking that calls into question the 24 hour interpretation.

My blind faith comments have to do with how you appear to argue that empirical evidence is completely inconsequential to our understanding of reality. I'm not claiming that you have a blind faith... I'm asking for clarification on your position, because what you've written gives the appearance of classifying faith as grounded purely on the abstract. But it doesn't fly Matt. You can't begin to comprehend information (e.g., Biblical text) that enters your brain through sight, touch, or sound unless you acknowledge that empricial evidence counts for something. The Holy Spirit certainly illuminates the scriptures for us, but you and I have to do the reading and studying on our own. If it were solely the work of the Spirit then you should be able to take a Bible translated into Chinese and "read" it by letting the Spirit guide you. But you know that is absurd.

As C. S. Lewis argued, being told to walk by faith and not by sight does not pit faith against reason. It pits our faith (grounded in reason) against our feelings. Whilst our feelings may tell us one thing we know, because of our faith, something else.

I thought I had answered your question on the resurrection. It is a falsifiable event. But why have you ignored my question regarding how your faith would work out were the resurrection shown to be false? Would that simply cause you to claim that you believe despite what the evidence says?
 
Rusty,
I didn't ignore you at all. I answered your question. But I'll do it again: "Let God be true, and every man a liar." That is to say, there is no evidence that someone could present me with that would disprove the resurrection in my mind. Man's evidence only ever approximates certainty. The only 100% certain truth is that which comes from God's word. So there is no evidence that could ever falsify the resurrection, because if literally every person in the world said it didn't happen, if they showed me a videotape of the tomb that someone went back in time and made, showing the Apostles stealing the body, if they showed me the tomb that says "Here is buried Jesus of Nazareth" with a crucified skeleton inside, I would still not believe, because no level of evidence or witness of man is equal in authority to the Word of God. And if that's blind faith, then that's the only kind of faith there is. So I would choose to believe God's word, rather than any evidence, no matter how compelling you or some scientists or historians or archaeologists thought it was. We had a very popular book just come out which claimed to prove just what you're saying. Did you believe _The DaVinci Code_? Would you have even if the evidence of that book were something that was not answerable by you?

In Ephesians 6 we are told that faith is the shield which defends us from the darts of the enemy. You think you can go out into the world with scientific verifiability as your shield and survive? I choose to hold onto faith. Faith does not require evidence. Faith is the evidence.

So yes, I would believe whatever the evidence says. There is literally nothing that anyone could ever show me that would convince me that Jesus did not rise from the dead, unless they could prove it from the text. Just as there is nothing that anyone could ever show me to convince me that God did not create the world in six days a relatively short time ago (6-10 thousand years) unless they could show it from the text. You have never shown me how the text can mean what you say it does. Nobody ever has. And whenever you (anyone holding this position of a non-literal Genesis 1) are pressed about the difficulty of your hermeneutic, you retreat to this idea of external evidence, showing that your interpretation is based on the external evidence, not on the text itself. That's why I reject your position and will always reject your position- because your position destroys the authority of the Word of God.

If you take any other position than complete and un-moderated reliance on the word of God, then you're a humanist, and your faith is based on the passing whims and fancies of man's understanding.

All this talk of knowing a language has nothing to do with anything. I have to understand what the language says before I can believe it. That's a completely different thing than saying I have to decide from external evidence whether or not it's really true before I can believe it. The fact that you use such a ridiculous comparison to shore up your point shows the weakness of your position.
 
Matt,

I must have missed your earlier answer to my question regarding the resurrection. Thank you for clarifying it.

I fear that we are now going in circles and, due to the passion with which you have for the topic, I also fear that bad feelings are being generated. I don't want to risk what I consider to be a fine, on-line friendship over an issue which I don't consider to be as crucial as you apparently do.

Suffice it to say that we probably disagree on how faith and reason relate (I agree with Ron Nash' book "Faith & Reason") as well as how Biblical authors utilized both the spiritual and the physical in presenting the Gospel.

BTW, my point on the Chinese Bible had to do with whether or not we have to rely on any external sources in understanding a passage of text. Given the absurdity of the example, I was hoping that it would drive home the point.

My only concern is that you ease up in how you present your arguments regarding the YEC/OEC debate. One of the most gracious YEC proponents I know of is John Mark Reynolds. This may come as a surprise, but if anyone could persuade me into the YEC camp, it would be him (and, btw, he's a philosopher, not a scientist).

Rusty
 
Yes, I think you're probably right. We are talking in circles. I may not persuade you, but you weren't even my original target. This started because of an article Joe wrote, and the most disturbing thing about that article was that it adopted the line, as did the Clouser article, that they understood the text better than us simpleton YEC proponents, and then failed to provide any actual interpretation of the text to back it up.

Yes, it upsets me a good deal to see conservative Christians adopt an argument which exposes all of Scripture to their naturalistic interpretations. I think you're giving away far more than you realize, Rusty, and you're gaining nothing in return. I don't want to lose the friendship either, but this issue is far bigger than you or I.

One day, you're going to wake up and realize that the science all supports a young earth, and that you've been carrying water for deists and atheists all this time, and have added nothing to the actual understanding of Scripture on this point.

And no, I'm not taking you or Joe off the "Wheat" category. We agree about a great deal, and I'm confident we will continue to.
 
A sincere question: If you demand that "naturalistic" interpreters of Genesis 1 make their case from the text without reference to science, what's your reading of Joshua 10:13?
 
Anonymous,
I believe that what happened is what the text says happened, that the sun and moon did not move in the sky for a whole day.

This is expressed from the perspective of the person viewing the event, Joshua. Now you might say that we know this is false, since we know that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the other way around. However, movement is relative to the person viewing it, which is why to this day we say "the sun came up" and "the sun went down" and nobody thinks we are lying or scientifically ignorant by saying that.

How that all works with the intricate movements of all the planets and stars together is not something I understand, or need to. It's an event described from the perspective of the person viewing it, and from that perspective, perfectly accurate.
 
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