Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Creation-Evolution Debate and the Genres of Genesis 1 & 2-3

A lot of people have been talking this week about the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate on Creationism vs. Evolution.  So I decided to weigh in with where I stand on this issue.

When I converted to Christianity at the age of 15, I was taught that one of the things I had to embrace if I was going to follow Jesus was young-earth creationism.  The Bible "clearly" taught that God had made the earth in six 24-hour days and that the earth is 6000 to 10,000 years old. So I read several books that supported creationism, and as far as I could tell with my not-particularly-scientific mind, it made sense.  I left what my parents and my teachers had taught me and became a creationist.

Something happened when I was nearly through my college years, though, that shook me up a little.

A public debate was scheduled on my college campus between a local biology professor and Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, who had flown in specially for the event.  Since most of my fellow church members were attending, I went along.  As I listened, I couldn't help but think Dr. Gish was winning the debate.  After all, he was a gifted debater and public speaker, while the biology professor was-- well, a scientist who taught classes now and then.  And the audience was clearly on Gish's side.  Whenever Gish spoke, he was applauded.  When the local professor spoke, he was booed and hissed at.  And most of my friends were gleefully joining in.  This clearly bothered and rattled the poor guy-- and that was where my cognitive dissonance started.  My sympathies have always lain with the underdog, and I simply couldn't understand why good Christian people who were supposed to be following Jesus' teachings on loving your neighbor, would treat this poor man with this abysmal rudeness.

I left the debate wondering how, if we were in fact so very right, we could be so totally wrong about it.  I knew that what really mattered, what Christ really cared about, wasn't whether we believed single-celled organisms could slowly become human beings.  It was how we treated actual human beings.

I walked away from that debate feeling ashamed. I couldn't bring myself to join in with my fellow church members as they rejoiced in how thoroughly the biology professor had been humiliated.  As far as I could see, the main thing he was going to take away from that debate was not the reasonableness of creationism.  It was how little Christians actually practiced what they preached.

Years later, when I began the process I've mentioned before of laying all my beliefs on the table and finding what held true for me, creationism was one of the things that I took another look at.  I bought a book called A New Look at an Old Earth by Don Stoner.  He discussed how early Christians had considered God to have "written" another "book" in addition to the Bible-- the "book of nature," and how the created universe itself was meant to testify alongside the Bible, just as Psalm 19:1 and Romans 10:18 said.

He also talked about how very un-Christian it was to mock and ridicule evolutionists in public debates.

I thought he made a lot of sense.

So for a while I became an old-earth creationist and stopped believing that the "days" in Genesis 1 referred to actual 24-hour periods.  But I had learned in the process of re-examining my faith to hold my view lightly.  What I believed about human origins wasn't essential to my faith in Christ, and I knew I wasn't a science expert.

I kept on reading, and I kept on examining.  And some of the books and articles I read actually made even more sense than Don Stoner's book.  One of them was The Language of God by Francis Collins. Dr. Collins is the founder of the Biologos Foundation, and his view is called "evolutionary creation" or "theistic evolution."  Collins believes in the same foundational Christian doctrines that I do: in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Christ as the Son of God, in the authority of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.  And the genetic evidence for theistic evolution presented in his book is hard to deny.

So the one obvious thing I have come to see is that it's quite possible for sincere Christians to believe any one of these positions.  So who is right?

I think the most compelling scientific view definitely lies with theistic evolution.  But I am an English graduate from the University of Oregon, and the best way for me to approach the topic is to look at it in terms of one thing I do really feel I have learned well-- how to read and understand a text.

So here's the thing.  Both young-earth and old-earth creationism approach the first two chapters of Genesis as if they are historical/scientific prose about the origins of the universe and of humanity. Young-earth creationism says that each detail should be read according to its most obvious, plain-sense reading, including the "days" as literal 24-hour periods.  Old-earth creationism says that the "days" actually represent periods of time lasting thousands and thousands of years. It says that the passage that says that God made the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day should be understood as God revealing the functions of the sun, moon and stars as they would exist for humankind.  It says the current Cenozoic period is the extended "seventh day" of the creation.  But it still approaches the text as a scientific, historical narrative.

And that is exactly what I can't, as an English graduate, view as the actual genre of these first chapters of Genesis.

I find, in fact, that I agree with Old Testament Theologian Bruce K. Waltke in his article The Literary Genre of Genesis Chapter 1, when in response to the identification of Genesis 1 as a "straightforward historical narrative"  he says, "The text, however, is begging us not to read it that way."

When I look at other portions of Genesis, this is the type of thing I read:
After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram's wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. (Genesis 16:3)
That's it.  Straightforward prose, recounting events more or less in chronological order.

When I read Chapter 1 of Genesis, however, here's what I see:
Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth; and it was so.  And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind, and God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
The italicized parts mark phrases that repeat themselves over and over throughout the text. The two phrases picked out in green mark text that repeats itself within the same section.  The entire chapter works this way.  Each section has a "Then God said," a statement what He is making, then a phrase "and it was so" noting what God has made, followed by a repetitive detail of what was made. Then, each time, God sees that what He has made is good, and we get a repetition of "there was evening and there was morning," denoting a day.

This is not quite poetry, but it is, as Dr. Waltke says, highly stylized, didactic prose, intended not to give a straightforward recounting of events so much as to show the power of God and the order and beauty of His work:
[W]e argue that [this text] cannot give a satisfying scientific account of origins, for it is not scientific literature. . . The Bible is concerned with Ultimate origins ("Where did it all come from?") not scientific questions of proximate origins ("How did A arise out of B, if it did?").  [Also] its language is non-scientific. The account reports the origins of the cosmos phenomenologically, not mathematically or theoretically. . . We come back to [this] genre identification: it is a literary-artistic representation of the creation. To this we add the purpose, namely, to ground the covenant people's worship and life in the Creator, who transformed chaos into cosmos, and their ethics in His created order. [Emphasis added.]  
I also note that as far as the specific things being made, there are three pairings, occurring in two groups.  On the first and fourth days God creates light and the orbs that convey the light. On the second and fifth days God sets apart the "expanses" of the sea and the air, and then makes creatures (birds and fish) that will live in them.  On the third and sixth days God makes the dry land and its vegetation, and then the animals (and finally humans) that will live there.  The whole pattern up to the seventh day goes as follows:
Creation of an element (light)
Creation of an element (air, separated from water)
Creation of an element (land) 
Creation of things for the light (sun, moon, stars)
Creation of things for the air and water
Creation of things for the land
I find this reminds me of the kind of stylized, didactic order shown in parts of the Proverbs, such as in Chapter 2, where the pattern is:
My son, receive my wisdom
Here are the results of my wisdom 
For the Lord gives wisdom
Here are the results of the Lord's wisdom 
They will keep you from the ways of evil
Here are the results of the ways of evil 
So you will walk in the way of the good
Here are the results of doing good
And here are the result of doing evil.
In short, I think the first chapter of Genesis is a kind of didactic prose, similar to but not identical to the opening chapters of Proverbs.  I think it was written for the purpose of revealing the nature of God as Creator, not for the purpose of detailing scientific facts about the processes of our origins.  Dr. Waltke says that "Genre identification depends on a text's contents and function."  By the context and function of Genesis 1, it simply is not in the genre of historical/scientific prose.

Similarly, when I read the second and third chapters of Genesis, here is what I see:
A garden at the source of four great rivers
Two highly symbolic trees: the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil"
A serpent that talks
God walking in the garden
A prophetic speech of God (the curse) spoken in the prose style of the Books of the Prophets
I don't actually know of any Christian group that takes all of this literally-- particularly not the talking snake. Based on other biblical texts such as Revelation 20:2, Christians identify the serpent with Satan-- that Satan appeared in the form of a serpent, not that Satan actually is a literal serpent. Similarly, when the text says God "walked" in the garden, most Christians don't take this to mean that God literally has legs like a man.  Christians believe, on the basis of texts like John 4:24, that God is a Spirit, not a big manlike being like the Greek god Zeus.  The walking of God in the cool of the day may mean that God appeared in the form of a man, or it simply may be a metaphor for the Presence and Voice of God moving through the garden.

Since no one knows what kind of fruit a "life" fruit is, or a "knowledge of good and evil" fruit is (it's only tradition that calls it an apple), these trees are meant to be symbols.  Were they also literal trees, somehow bearing these abstract concepts as actual fruit?  I'm not at all sure that we're meant to understand the text that way.

In fact, Genesis 2 and 3 are no more straightforward historical prose than Genesis 1 is.  This second part of the creation text is not stylized didactic prose, but bears more in common with the symbolism of the Book of Revelation, or with the metaphorical language of some of Jesus' teachings ("the tree is known by its fruit" in Matt. 12:33 is not a reference to actual trees) than it does with the straight prose of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob narratives.

Does this mean there was no actual, real Adam and Eve?  I don't know.  Since both Paul and Jesus speak of Adam and Eve, they may actually have been real people.  They may have been the first humanoid creatures that God chose to bear His image.  Or this may be a true story of the universal human condition, told metaphorically/symbolically (that from the beginning, when free to choose to believe God or believe the serpent, humanity, as one, has ended up choosing the serpent).  In this case Paul and Jesus, understanding that their audiences also understood it symbolically, may have felt free to speak of Adam and Eve according to the truths their story conveyed without needing to mention a shared understanding of the story as non-literal-- in the same way we might speak of Dorothy and the lure of "over the rainbow" today.

You may have a strong conviction one way or the other.  But this is not a primary, foundational doctrine of the faith, so I'm simply going to allow it to remain a mystery in my mind.  Either way, there is certainly a heavy metaphorical/symbolic emphasis in the Adam-and-Eve story. And the intent of the story is manifestly not to give a scientific account of how humanity came to exist on the earth.

I don't think the original audiences, either of the oral or written traditions, thought according to our post-Enlightenment emphasis on fact and procedure.  I think God accommodated His revelation to their mindset, not to ours.  In fact, to insist on reading these stories as scientific explanations of origins is, in a way, enslaving our minds to Enlightenment ways of thought.  Rather than examining the biblical texts according to what they themselves seem to be saying they are, we impose upon them what we believe they ought to be-- and what we think they ought to be is directly determined by the Enlightenment's emphasis on fact and historicity.

According to Dr. Waltke in the article above, "Natural theology and exegetical theology are both hindered by a continued adherence to the epistemic principle that valid scientific theories must be consistent with a woodenly literal reading of Genesis."  In other words, whether our theology focuses on understanding God through the "book of nature" or the "book of scripture," when we make it a rule that the only way we can know either book is according to a strict literal reading of these texts, we keep our thinking inside a very small box and try to drag the limitless God to fit in there with us. And it doesn't really work.

What it all comes down to is that I have come to embrace evolutionary creation, also known as theistic evolution, on the basis of the biblical texts themselves. I think young-earth creationism and old-earth creationism both show too much dependence on Enlightenment mentality to be true to the pre-Enlightenment revelation of God to the pre-Enlightenment original audiences.  The point of these texts is that God created, not how God created-- and this is also the main point of theistic evolution.

Since I also find the evidence for evolution more compelling than the evidence for either young-earth or old-earth creationism, the cognitive dissonance of my college years is resolved.  But my position is based more on how I understand the Bible than on how I understand science.

So to Ken Ham and Bill Nye, I would say this.  This science-faith schism is unfortunate and completely unnecessary.  I hope that in the future we can find the openness-- and the humility-- to move past it.

13 comments:

Don said...

If you like Waltke, you will love John Walton. He has a book on Genesis in general and Genesis One is particular and is working on a book on Adam and Eve in particular.

Some scholars say that the genre of the stories of early Genesis are unique, so they cannot be mapped to a known genre.

My take is that all of Genesis is an extended covenant preamble to the Sinai covenant found in Ex-Lev-Num. It might be other things also. But since many do not understand ancient covenants, let alone preambles to ancient covenants, they are not aware of the conventions used.

Anonymous said...

Ken Ham wants to believe in a young earth because he is afraid that if people do not believe in a literal account of Genesis, they will not believe in the Bible. His writings sound very scientific, but actually contain a lot of fallacies. As a last resort, he will ridicule scientists as evil secular humanists and atheists who are trying to suppress creationists.

It is very difficult for a lay person to sort out the truth from the lies because it requires extensive scientific knowledge. Ken Ham spends a lot of time trying to debunk dating methods such as carbon-14, because discrediting dating methods is necessary for him to advocate his young earth theory. Because I have a PhD in atmospheric science, I was able to figure out the inaccuracies in his discussion of dating methods.

He also writes extensively about astronomy because the presence of other galaxies millions of light years away discredits his young earth theory. I lack the scientific knowledge to tackle his astronomy discussions.

I have now reluctantly concluded that there is no place for me in Protestant Christianity because I am a scientist who believes in an old earth. I also cannot conform to gender role requirements because I am a childless widow.

I was raised Catholic, and I am much happier now that I have decided to return to the Catholic Church. Although Catholicism is very conservative, the culture is much more tolerant of differences.

It was easy for me to switch back to being Catholic because I was raised Catholic and have already been confirmed. But other Christians who believe in an old earth may not find Catholicism as a good option for them, and instead drop out altogether.

JBsptfn said...

Good post, Kristen. In the spirit of this post, there are some things I want to share with you that are related that make some good points.

1. Joe Hinman (Metacrock) deals with some of this in his Models of Revelation article. I think that you probably have read this before, so this is for the benefit of others:

Models of Revelation

On a site called Old Earth Ministries, there was an article that makes good points about Evolution and Genesis:

Evolution-The Bible Taught it first!

And, last but not least, here is a good blog from a theistic evolutionist:

Evolution By Design

Kristen said...

Everyone- thanks for the input! Don, I am roughly familiar with Walton's work but have not yet read any of this books other than excerpts-- but I certainly want to!

Anonymous, I'm glad you have found a place of peace in Catholicism, but I do disagree that there is no place in Protestant Christianity for theistic evolutionists or egalitarians-- since I'm both, and also still a Protestant. YEC and complementarianism are more entrenched in evangelicalism, but much of mainstream Protestantism (the Methodists and Lutherans, for instance) are both egalitarian and embrace theistic evolution. And I myself attend an evangelical Independent Church of Christ, whose official position is to take no official position on non-salvation matters, but to allow members to believe whatever they want about such things.

As far as Ken Ham is concerned, unless he has actually said what his motivations are, I prefer not to speculate about his inner life, which is between him and God.

JBsptfn, thanks for the links! I had not noticed that the phrases "let the water/earth bring forth" tend to support an evolutionary model. That's very interesting! But I still think that these texts were never intended to be read as scientific treatises on how life arose on earth, and to read them that way is to impose our own modern thinking on the texts. It is interesting, though, that the wording does support the idea of God letting the earth bring forth life itself, rather than directly making it Himself. This supports a theological idea I have had for some time about the nature of God-- that God is not controlling and chooses to give a certain self-determination to God's creation.

JBsptfn said...

You're welcome, Kristen. You should especially check out that last link I sent you (the Evolution by Design blog). Some good stuff there.

I also agree with what you said in the last paragraph about the schism between science and faith. The more I learn, the less sense it makes.

Anonymous said...

"Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes" by Kenneth Bailey also looks at the extensive use of poetic or lyrics construction in the Bible. Even portions we see As factual were written in a story - telling format. Very good read.

Also, considering everything we used to attribute to the supernatural that is now explained by science (eclipse, flood, conjoined twins, etc.), I believe we will eventually have scientific explanations for almost all spiritual phenomena that will in no way preclude the presence of God or a Creator.

Don said...

One thing Walton points out is that Gen 1 and Gen 2-3 are (ancient) temple texts and we might say what? Where does it say that? But Walton claims that there are many clues that an ancient reader/hearer would pick up.

Another aspect is that these are covenant texts and again the same question applies, where does it say that? But there are many clues again if one knows to look for them.

A third aspect is that these are creation/origins texts, many can see that, but use modern ideas of creation/origins when reading these ancient texts and so misread them.

A LOT is packed into these early chapters of Gen.

heather said...

Thank you for writing this! And for delineating which denominations to look into.

Kristen said...

Anon- you're right about Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I've read it. I want to read Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg.

Don- yes, I need to read more on Genesis.

Heather- as far as individual churches within those denominations are concerned, your mileage may vary. Also some synods of Lutheranism are more conservative.

Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Kristen - I tried to post this comment on BLT but it disappeared.

Hi Kristen - You write " In this case Paul and Jesus, understanding that their audiences also understood it symbolically, may have felt free to speak of Adam and Eve ", ... I was wondering where there are words attributed to Jesus that reference 'Adam or Eve'. If you were thinking about Mt 19, there is only a generic reference there to 'the one who made [them] in the beginning'. I don't know how I concur with your general argument, but I do, I think, generally, yet without thinking in terms like evolutionary creation. I still find myself paying close attention (or not) to every jot and tittle in the text. It's an odd thing, I think, to do such with a canon of written words. Perhaps I mistrust explanation at any level - and I look closely at words so that I do not make connections when they may not be there.

Kristen said...

Hi Bob,

You're right that Jesus doesn't call them by name. But He does quote the text: "He made them male and female" from Genesis 1 and "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother..." from Genesis 2-- basically, the beginning and the end of the section on "male and female" to a student of the Torah. Was He not referring to Adam and Eve? I think the Pharisees would have understood Him to be doing so.

Bob MacDonald said...

Kirsten - I think it is as certain as anything in intertextual evidence can be that he was referring to these two chapters from the beginning of Torah, but I doubt that this requires that he considered A and E to be anything more than archetypes.

Kristen said...

Bob, I agree. That is what I was trying to convey in my post-- that Jesus (and Paul) may have thought of Adam and Eve as real people-- or they may not have.