What Do Christians Actually Need to Take Away From the Genesis Creation Account?

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NB: This article is an expanded argument based on a comment I made on Kyle’s blog post “The Trouble With ‘Pop-Christian apologetics’,” if you want more context.

What I’m going to attempt to do in this article is to present a minimalist account, from a position of epistemological conservatism, of what I believe all Christians must maintain from the Genesis account of the origin of the world.  But before I do that, I want to explain why I adopt this as my interpretive framework

Obviously, I do not have the space to defend each of my interpretive assumptions and claims, but in the interest of productive discourse it seems prudent to at least name them.  It must be understood that the Biblical text is literature, not a simple list of propositional truth-claims.  This does not at all mean that the Bible does not contain propositional truth-claims, only that reading the Bible the way one would read a bullet-point list will lead to great confusion and error.  It is indeed part of my claim that every piece of literature written contains truth claims, and the challenge for the reader is to try to engage with the author’s understanding of the world around him.

I believe that Christians (especially modern evangelical Protestants) make a fundamental error in conflating the argument that the Bible is true or inerrant with their own tendency to hyper-literal interpretation.  Because the Bible was written by a variety of human authors, in different historical contexts, in different literary styles, it is important to exercise caution and restraint in our interpretation. Literary interpretation is an exceedingly difficult task; and I cannot help but think that for any significant literary work one can name, there is at least one controversy or unsettled question behind its interpretation.  I am a Christian, and that means that I have accepted the proposition that every truth-claim that God makes in the Bible, is in fact true.  But that does not excuse me from asking the question, ‘what IS the truth-claim that God is making in this passage,’ or from using every historical, philosophical, linguistic, theological, and (yes) scientific tool at my disposal in order to properly answer that question.

Furthermore, (and this is my final point before moving on to consider the question at hand) I would at least like to think that my arguments are based not on hubris, or some sort of syncretistic attempt to dilute Scripture because I am afraid to stand against ‘the world’ and for God.  Indeed, I have been accused of both of those things, and I am not likely to incur fewer accusations for my belief on this subject.  However, it is my genuine belief that the virtues of prudence and intellectual humility require us to take care that we never make a truth-claim that is not fully supported, nor accuse others of heresy for holding an opinion the falsehood of which is anything less that demonstrably certain.

With this I turn to the Genesis account, and the question that I believe ought to guide us here, as in Biblical interpretation in general, is, “What propositions am I compelled to hold based on the text itself, understood through sound logic, historical context, literary and linguistic considerations, and the asking of the right philosophical and theological questions?”  I am a firm believe in the centrality of true, sound doctrine to the Christian life; I do not ask the preceding question because I want to avoid divisive doctrine in favor of contentless, feel-good Christianity.  I ask that question because I do not want to obscure true doctrine with my own interpretive prejudices, and the best way to ensure that you are maintaining only those things which are true is by adopting a rigorous set of epistemological criterion for discerning belief.

It is my contention that there are three main propositional truth-claims that Christians must draw from a proper reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, and that in all likelihood any further propositional truth-claims are not fully justified (or epistemologically necessary, to put it another way), and that to hold them is a matter of opinion, not doctrine essential for the faith.

The first claim is this: that God is essentially and necessarily involved in the existence of all contingent beings, both at the moment of the initial ex nihilo creation of matter itself, and at every moment thereafter.  I hold, both from an external understanding of metaphysics and from Biblical passages like the Genesis account in question, Acts 17:28, John 1:1-5, and Colossians 1:15-17.  God is the only necessary Being, and all other beings are contingent, or possible, beings that depend on the necessary Being for the continual extension of being to them.  Matter itself must have been created out of nothing, but we are not here logically forced to maintain anything beyond this point.  God may have created matter as a fully-formed world, as young-earth creationists maintain; or he may have created mere matter and allowed natural processes (which he also established) to work.  The important point is that the existence of everything other than God Himself is entirely dependent on God.

The second claim is: that a historical Adam and Eve existed, that they were the first beings which can properly be called human according to the human nature/form/universal, and that through their actions sin entered the world.  (I should say that this is the point on which I am most likely, and therefore most willing, to be found wrong.)  I do not hold that a historical Adam is theologically or logically necessary, in the sense that proper soteriology would be impossible if a historical Adam had not existed.  However I do believe that the literal-ness of Adam is at the very least strongly suggested, not by anything in the Genesis account, but in Paul’s treatment of the account in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  It is a great aid in the interpretation of a passage which is believed to be infallible in what it contains, if another passage which is also believed to be infallible suggests that that specific account be taken literally.  It seems to be that in order to properly interpret Adam as an allegorical figure, we would also have to interpret Paul’s use of him in both New Testament passages as allegorical; and whereas such an interpretation is plausible within the context of Genesis itself, it is much less so in the NT accounts.

The third claim is: that human beings are fundamentally distinct from the rest of the earthly created order insofar as the essential attributes of human nature (an immortal soul, and speculative rationality) are almost certainly impossible to attribute to natural processes alone, and insofar as human beings alone are credited as existing in the image of God; and that therefore some special act of God was required, either to create human beings ex nihilo or at the very least, to elevate a primate according to the idea of human nature.  It is not particularly important to our understanding of man whether this action occurred on the sixth day of creation roughly 10,000 years ago, or in whatever geological age is the currently-preferred origin point of ‘modern man.’  The important point is establishing the unique and supernatural origin of human beings, and therefore the unique and supernatural goods and ends of human beings properly understood: the only beings whose proper perfection is not only preservation of life but is knowledge of the highest good (God) and eternal communion with Him.

Around those necessary points, it is my contention, Christians are free to construct a coherent account of the world which, in their opinion, adequately accounts for the variety of historical, philosophical, theological, literary, linguistic, and scientific considerations.  It is important to remember the basic principle of reason that truth does not contradict itself: therefore if something seems to be true in science it cannot be false in Scripture, or in philosophy; and if something seems to be true in philosophy or in Scripture, it cannot be false in science.  Therefore we have a dual responsibility in this matter: if we believe that the arguments for the prevalent scientific view are in any degree compelling, we must provide an account of how this view is true in Scripture without compromising the main doctrinal points of Genesis, and of how it is true in philosophy (especially metaphysics); if we believe that the arguments for a literal interpretation of Genesis are compelling, then we must either provide an account of how this makes sense with scientific observations or explain why the common interpretation of those observations is inaccurate or unsatisfying.  Neither of those tasks is likely to be easy to fully accomplish, which is why I believe that the imperative doctrinal points I have named provide a large degree of latitude of belief regarding the origin of the world as we see it today, without compromising on the essentials of the faith.  Further, division on this issue beyond those absolutely essential points is incredibly unproductive and not epistemologically justifiable.

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