Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives

I am always interested in theological discussion surrounding the intersection between the Christian faith and science. No scientist am I, for certain. Still, I find a deep desire to understand some of the issues at the forefront of the present-day dialogue (or debate), both for myself and to help the church faithfully think through some of the questions in the 21st century.

Therefore, I appreciate that the Jesus Creed Blog regularly posts articles on these issues. And, so, blogger-in-residence, RJS, has recently made us aware of what looks to be a very, very interesting book worth bringing to the table: Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives.

Not only has a non-literal reading of Genesis been advocated over the centuries of church history, but as the article also notes, author Peter Bouteneff ‘suggests that the linear account of creation – fall – redemption so popular today is a reading of the Pentateuch and the whole Bible that is difficult to trace before the 1700′s.’

Why is this important?

There are major challenges arising from those who have a difficult time considering evolution could be the means by which God brought about his good creation. But two principal [evangelical] beliefs that evolution seems to challenge are 1) a literal and specific first human, namely Adam, and 2) that there was no literal ‘fall’ into sin.

To challenge point 1 seems ‘unbiblical’ for many evangelicals mainly because they claim that Jesus and Paul unequivocally believed in a literal Adam (e.g. Matt 19:4-6 and Rom 5:12-21). Not only that, but without a literal Adam, you might as well conclude there was not literal ‘fall’ and no need of Christ’s death on the cross. This is challenging to the creation – fall – redemption reading. Of course, this leads into point 2, which causes problems because those who hold to evolution ascribe that death existed before humans (homosapiens) arrived onto the scene. But many Christians see death as only entering once Adam and Eve committed that first act of disobedient sin (Gen 3).

Yet Bouteneff’s book makes clear that these 2 points have not always been held by all Christian theologians and scholars over the centuries, nor by Jews living in the second temple period (200 BCE to 100 CE, which would have included the time when, what we call, the New Testament was being written). It is only reasonable that the New Testament writers would have held to the prevailing worldview of their own first century context, which did not necessarily demand a literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis.

One very interesting point brought up in the article at Jesus Creed is that salvation-redemption is actually a theme that begins ‘in the beginning’, not just with Gen 3. This is noted in Ps 74:12-14:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (Ps 74:12-14 NKJV)

This is important because, if this were a possible reading of the early origin accounts in Genesis, then we can see the plausibility of both death and sin existing from ‘in the beginning’. God’s salvation work was needed in Gen 1.

It’s challenging, but not a completely unwarranted reading of the Genesis text.

As to a literal Adam, RJS at Jesus Creed, reminds us:

The creation narrative in Psalm 74 gives a picture at odds with creation-fall-redemption. The logic of the narrative in Genesis, considered in the context of the Pentateuch and the OT as a whole, sees the story of Adam as a version of the story of Israel. (emphasis added by me)

These points are not unlike what Peter Enns argues in his most recent published work, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. And I’m sure many other works offer these thoughts, ones by Francis Collins and John Walton, two authors I plan to read in the future. We have a programmed reading of Genesis (not to mention passages like Romans 5) that does not, maybe will not, allow for the possibility of a non-literal reading of the text. But what many identify as a more ‘plain’ reading of Genesis is not the only plausible reading, both now and for some 2000+ years. Matter of fact, I would argue it’s not the most plausible interpretation given the history of the church and assistance of such fields as history, archaeology, the sciences, etc.

All to say is this: Those scientists and scholars who are also Christians, yes Christians, who give room for good, natural revelation in science to inform us about our origins, have not set out to denounce the faith, push a liberal agenda, disregard the authoritative role of Scripture in our lives, dishonour Christ, nor any other negative strategy that has been attributed to them. They actually find themselves approaching the text of Genesis in a way that, though maybe not ‘literal’, is still very much orthodox.

RJS concludes his article with a similar thought:

The early interpretation of the biblical text was not a straightforward literalism, something undermined only by modern science. Nor does early interpretation uniformly describe a man Adam as the origin of sin and death. The story of the Genesis, and indeed all of the OT, was shaped and interpreted as a story of the mission of God in creation. Salvation plays a key role, but not as some “plan B” necessitated by the act of the first couple. The story of creation is the story of God’s power and purpose.

I look forward with anticipation to following this series, and to one day read Bouteneff’s work.

11 thoughts on “Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives

  1. Really, the only way we “Christians” (and Jewish Christians also) can understand the Genesis chapters, 1-3, is with the NT Revelation! (1 Cor. 15: 22 ; 45-49, etc.) As here is the Salvation-History of God In Christ! (Gen. 3:15) This also includes the Covenant/covenants of God, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Gentile).” (Rom. 1: 16 ; 15: 8-9, etc.)

    • Robert –

      I’m fine with that assertion. But, when we learn new things from good and solid science, we cannot simply turn our nose up to it because “Genesis tells us otherwise”. The whole point of me posting this is that a) the interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis are varied in church history and, though not specifically said, I would argue b) that Genesis was not written to answer a lot of the questions we assert that it was written to answer – how long, the exact details of how, etc.

      • Scott: I too don’t believe for example that the Bible or Genesis tells us about the age of the earth or creation/universe, at least straight-up. However, I still give some respect to the Young Earth ideas, though I am personally more towards an Old Earth Creation. And we too must see the Ancient Hebrew Cosmology. But indeed the Bible is both historical and spiritual, but the former includes proper “genre”. And this is not always black and white! But, always, always.. we must have that place of Biblical mystery! 🙂

      • Robert –

        The eschaton started a very long time ago when Messiah arrived on the scene announcing the time was fulfilled and the rule of God had come to make all things right.

      • Robert –

        I’m not arguing for any kind of category called ‘full preterism’. The kingdom has been announced. It is here. The full new creation has yet to come.

        But I will by no means consider that newspaper articles are any pointing to the eschaton.

      • Scott: Indeed the “Kingdom” is here, but in the tension of the ‘already but not yet’. But, certainly the Modern Nation of Israel in its own land (since 1948), is not just “newspaper” stuff! Any Christian teacher-pastor that cannot see National Israel again in their land, misses biblical and covenantal reality! Indeed the Eschatogical-End will be centred around literal “Israel”, and the Holy Land!

      • Btw, just a point, but Paul’s Gospel and theology is not just a repetition of Jesus preaching of the coming of God’s kingdom! But moves right into the centre of Paul’s teaching of “Christ Jesus”, Risen & Ascended, with emphasis on the Death of Christ, as vicarious!

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