In my last post, I shared about a blogging series at Jesus Creed, which has gone live with part 2 this week, and a book on the varying readings of the creation narrative that have existed throughout church history. That book is entitled Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, by Peter Bouteneff.
Of course, while throughout church history, there have been various proposals of how we should understand and interpret the early chapters of Genesis, it is in the past century and a half that Christians have had to deal much more in the ever-developing fields of the sciences. The church has always had to engage science, no doubt. It’s just that there is quite a bit more to engage with today, with some pointers towards the ever-condemned E-word, evolution.
Now, though I’ve not yet had the opportunity to read Bouteneff’s books, what he seems to be offering is varying interpretations for the early chapters of Genesis within church history even before discussion is brought up around modern-day science. Therefore, when Christians today, that also hold to evolution, approach Genesis 1-3 within the genre of non-factual/non-historical literature, it does not mean they are out to diminish the God-breathed and authoritative nature of Scripture. Some might be, true. But this is not the framework of all. Some of them are simply trying to faithfully deal with the findings of good science as well as understand what Genesis was originally communicating.
I mentioned in my last article that there are two major problems evangelicals have when discussing the possibility of evolution being the means by which God brought about the good creation: 1) We must believe in a literal and specific first human, namely Adam, and 2) We must hold to a literal ‘fall’ into sin.
I want to address these 2 points over 2 articles, but start with the second one here and then point one in the next post.
A usual approach to Genesis 3 is that, from this point and this point alone, sin enters into the picture and, as a result, death also enters the picture. Both sin and death were nowhere in Genesis 1 and 2. But evolutionary biology would argue that death existed even before the first homosapiens/humans. Or to say it ‘theologically’ – some Christians who hold to evolution say that death was present before the reading of ‘the fall’ in Genesis 3.
So, does Genesis 1 and 2 present the pristine picture typically seen?
First off, I would refer you to a short video – 6 mins and 45 secs. I would embed it here in my article, but the owner of the video will not allow it to be embedded in other websites. The video is simply a snippet from a longer production by Highway Media called From the Dust. It is a 66-minute film interviewing a wide selection of Christian theologians and scientists on the issues related to Genesis and science.
This short video selection that I have left a link for deals with discussion around the fall. I particularly appreciated the brief thoughts of Dr Michael Lloyd from St Paul’s Theological Centre in the UK. His input comes in minutes 1:23 to 2:32.
He offers 3 thoughts as to why many Christians see disharmony (and, therefore, possibly sin and death) even before Genesis 3. I summarise below:
- The serpent is already present and actively working against God. Now, many would explain this as the devil, the Satan, who is a fallen angel. But even this is to recognise that we already have a problem within the created order.
- The command to fill the earth and subdue it. Something must be out of order if something needs subduing.
- There is a garden. God is offering a bit of order within a disordered world. (My extra thought – This is not unlike what God was offering to Israel with the promised land in the midst of a broken world, a microcosm of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Hence why many theologians see the early chapters of Genesis as being finalised in later times, mainly to speak to the exiled community of Hebrews that had also been expelled from their land, like Adam.)
Not only that, but one thing Lloyd did not mention is the idea that Gen 1:2 tells us the earth (which somehow is already spoken of as existing though God has not created it yet in the layout of Gen 1) is formless and void. The Hebrew words tohuw (formless) and bohuw (void) – a nice rhyme there – are interesting to consider. Particularly, this word for formless speaks even more of desolation. Again, why is there desolation in the earth when, according to a literal timetable, the earth hasn’t been created and, according to one reading, sin and death don’t enter in until a couple of chapters later?
I think it is quite possible that the author is telling us that things are not actually perfect, and this only from the second verse of Gen 1. Order needs to be brought in to the creation. This also relates to the point brought out in my last article about Ps 72:12-14, mainly that salvation was already needed in Gen 1.
Thus, Gen 1 is not so much about creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), but more about brining order into the disjointed creation.
I know this is hard for many Christians to comprehend, possibly because we’ve only ever considered a ‘literal’ Gen 1-3 and that things were perfect prior to the narrative found in Gen 3. Yet, while some points might come forth as more valid, I think there is definitely room to consider that we possibly need to rethink our approach to the early chapters of Genesis. It’s a rethinking for some of us, but it’s not a rethinking for all. Nor is it completely removed from readings that have been acceptable throughout church history, as Bouteneff points out in his work.
The whole point is not to say that evolutionary science has the answers. I still have much to grapple with in this area. But my whole point in engaging this area is 3-fold. I believe we need to 1) give space for a non-literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis, since that’s been acceptable for 2000+ years, 2) give space for Christians to faithfully engage in evolutionary science and 3) if evolution is the way by which God brought about his creation, then some of us will need to rethink things theologically – about Adam, the fall, etc. And that is mainly what I am doing myself and want to help other Christians do as well.
I’m convinced Genesis 1-3 wasn’t given to answer all the origins questions, nor was it given as a straightforward, literally historical account of how things happened in the beginning. And I am convinced that God is a God of process (think about how long it took for Christ to arrive, think about sanctification over our entire life, think about a pregnant woman’s gestation period, think about the writing of Scripture and forming into a canon, etc). None of these prove evolution. Of course not. It simply shows that our God revels in processes, long processes, and that, if the process of evolution was the way God actually chose to do things, then his creation is no less magnificent because of it.
Were things out of order prior to Gen 3? It’s probable. And it’s likely that Genesis carries a very ‘non-literal’ perspective, in that it isn’t a factual-historical accounting of the creative process (which oddly enough still continues today each time a baby is conceived or a seed is planted). And knowing these things, it allows us the space to engage with the arena of science…even today’s scientific developments.