Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 1): Hermeneutical Principles and Concordism

December 11, 2018     Time: 20:10

Lecture 1
Hermeneutical Principles and Concordism

When most people think of the doctrine of creation, they think exclusively of the creation-evolution debate. But I hope that our study of the doctrine of creation over the last several months has helped you to see how much richer the doctrine of creation is. Still, the question of how God created life and the biological diversity around us is an important and interesting aspect of the doctrine of creation. So I want to now take an excursus from our survey of Christian doctrine to discuss this specific issue.

Let's begin with the interpretation of Genesis chapter 1. As we saw, Genesis 1:1 is a statement of God's creation of the entire universe ex nihilo. Beginning with verse 2, the first chapter of Genesis then goes on to describe God's creation of a wonderful environment for human beings to live in – a habitable Earth where man might live. We want, first of all then, to take up the interpretation of the remainder of Genesis 1 after verse 1, particularly in conversation with what modern science and the biological theory of evolution has to say about the origins of biological complexity. So let's begin by reading the first chapter of Genesis beginning with verse 2.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In order to interpret this passage correctly we have to follow some fundamental hermeneutical principles, or principles of interpretation. A fundamental hermeneutical principle that is important in this regard is interpreting a writing according to the literary genre or type in which it belongs. Considerations of genre are absolutely critical to the interpretation of a literary text because if the genre of that literary text is of the sort that isn't intended to be taken literally then you will misinterpret it if you do interpret it in a literal fashion. For example, when the psalmist says, Let the trees of the wood clap their hands before the Lord, he's not trying to teach botany. This is of the genre of poetry, and it would be a disastrous misinterpretation of the Psalms to apply a literalistic interpretation to what the psalmist says. Or, again, think how inappropriate it would be to apply a literalistic hermeneutic to the book of Revelation where the monsters and other figures represent nation-states or alliances of nation-states. They are symbolic. When I first became a Christian as a teenager, I thought that the book of Revelation was describing literal seven-headed monsters that were going to come out of the ocean and attack mankind. But, as you begin to understand the type of literature that the book of Revelation is, then you understand that Jewish apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic, and it is figurative, and that therefore it would be a mistake to take it literally. If you interpreted the book of Revelation literally you would fundamentally misunderstand it. So when we come to Genesis chapter 1, considerations of genre will be important in deciding how to interpret it correctly.

Another hermeneutical principle that we should observe here is to try to determine how the original author and audience would have understood the text. We should examine the account on its own basis as the author and original audience would have understood it. A great many Christians today follow a hermeneutic that has been called concordism which involves reading modern science into the text of Scripture. For example, some Christians have claimed that the Bible predicts the invention of television because it says that when Christ returns every eye will see him, and that's impossible on a spherical Earth and therefore the Bible must be predicting the invention of television which will televise the second coming of Christ so that everyone will be able to see him. They're reading modern science into the biblical text. Or, again, more relevant to Genesis 1 and the creation account, some Christians read texts like the Lord stretched out the heavens to be a reference to the expansion of space predicted by the contemporary Big Bang model according to which space is expanding as time goes on. It seems to me that it is absolutely wrong-headed to think that this is what the original author had in mind. When he said that the Lord stretched out the heavens, he's probably thinking of a tent which is spread out, and in the same way that the tent has been erected so God is responsible for creating the heavens overhead.

The obvious danger of concordism, apart from misunderstanding the text, is that it runs into the danger of reading obsolete science into the text. You can imagine some 17th or 18th century Newtonian physicist reading the Scripture in light of Newtonian physics which are now out of date so that that understanding of Scripture would be obsolete. Every generation would be reading its science into the text. Rather, we need to understand the original text as its author and his audience would have understood it.

Now, I'm obviously not saying that we should not engage in the product of seeking an integrative understanding of science and the teaching of Scripture. On the contrary, such a project is vital, I think, if we're to have an informed and relevant theological worldview. We need to have a synoptic worldview which takes account of the findings of modern science as well as theology. But that's a later project. The first project is the task of interpreting the text itself, and rather than trying to impose modern science onto the Genesis account (or to read it in light of modern science), we want to bracket as it were what we know of modern science – set that aside – and try to read the account as it would have been understood by the original people who read it. I think when we do that, a number of different competing interpretations of the Genesis account emerge. What I'd like to do beginning this morning is to go through some of these competing interpretations with you.

A helpful website that will expand on what I say here is to be found at http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/studies/creation/report.pdf. This is a website that is put up by the Presbyterian Church in America which reviews the history of interpretation of the creation account in Genesis and provides a very nice survey of the history of interpretation and the various alternative interpretations that have been offered down through the years, as well as an assessment of each interpretation’s strengths and weaknesses. So if you're interested in the subject that we're going to briefly survey in class, I think this is a nice website to go to if you want to read more.


Student: Who is the author of Genesis 1?

Dr. Craig: I'm leaving that indeterminate. Traditionally, it has been ascribed to Moses, but the conviction of modern scholars is that the account uses sources, whether written or oral. I'll say something about that in a moment. So we're not to think that Moses simply sat down and wrote this freehand without any sort of sources. He was the heir of either oral or written traditions, and nobody knows how far back those really go. Most scholars today would date the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, which include the Genesis account) to be compiled after Israel returned from exile in Babylon which would be then in the 5th century BC which is pretty late. But, as I say, if it incorporates these traditions that go back, they could go back for hundreds of years previously. There is a sizable number of scholars who think that the primeval history in Genesis 1-11 so-called isn't as late as being a post-exilic writing – that it could have been from around the time of David or Solomon. So it's all very, very uncertain in terms of authorship and date, but fortunately I don't think that that's going to affect fundamentally our interpretation of the text as we have received it.

Student: I think you said that the most important thing is to understand what the original author had in mind, and no matter how far back it goes, it does go back to the beginning of time. So either this was made up by Moses or there was some revelation and God is the author of Genesis.

Dr. Craig: In saying that God is the author of Genesis as well as the rest of the Scripture, we shouldn't think of divine inspiration of Scripture on a dictation model. That's the way Muslims understand the Qur’an, for example – that it was literally dictated to Muhammad and Muhammad simply wrote down what God said. But Christian theologians unanimously reject the understanding of inspiration as dictation. Look again back at the very beginning of Defenders class when we talked about doctrine of inspiration. The idea there is that the Scriptures are also the product of human beings, and as such they reflect the idiosyncrasies, the education, the vocabulary, the traditions of the individual human authors. How that works out is a really good question that we discussed when we did doctrine of revelation. Let me just recap that because I do think it's relevant. What I argued there is that via his middle knowledge God knew what these different authors would write if they were in certain circumstances. So by selecting particular people and having them in those circumstances he guarantees that they wrote what he wanted them to write and it becomes his word to us. But it is fully a human product in that sense reflecting all of the personal peculiarities of the person. I think the only relevant question that you'd really be raising would be this: if it is, say, post-exilic, would that have a fundamentally different worldview than if it were pre-exilic? That I doubt very much. I think for these ancient peoples, the difference between being written in 1000 BC and being written in, say, 450 BC is just not going to be significant.

Student: Let me try to explain what was passed down to me from some very old people when I was very young. You had touched on something they used, too, to explain Genesis. They used the example in Revelation saying that in Revelation the seven-headed monster and anything coming out of the sea was coming out of peoples. Water represents life. They use that in several places. So my question is: in accordance to . . . do you see it as they did which is that Genesis 1 is teaching of this creation and not the angelic creation? That the waters you see initially or from that prior creation, the life of that angelic creation, and this is describing the new creation – what he's going to do and how he's using it. This is like every creation – God paints a pattern of what has gone before, because he loses nothing and he keeps everything reconciled and whole within himself.

Dr. Craig: Help me to understand the view you're describing. It sounded to me like the gap theory of the old Scofield Reference Bible – that verse 1 describes a prior creation which then, through a Satanic fall, fell into degradation and decay. So when verse 2 begins –  the world was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep – this is describing, as it were, the aftermath of this terrible fall of this prior creation and now is God's recreation anew of this cosmos. Is that the interpretation you are referring to?

Student: It is very close to that, I guess. I'm not sure how I’d differentiate it other than it's like saying God's creating this creation (the Big Bang, space and everything) and the waters that are immediately . . . it’s not really H2O waters that he's talking about in verse 2. He's talking about the prior life. It's just like the beast comes out of the ocean in Revelation. Water represents life and the firmament . . .

Dr. Craig: OK. We'll talk about this interpretation later on when we look at our various possible interpretations. But I do want to warn against, again, not only scientific concordism, but I also want to advise against what one might call theological concordism – that is to say, trying to interpret Genesis 1 in light of Revelation. You can't impose the symbols and categories of the book of Revelation with its apocalyptic imagery on the book of Genesis, unless Genesis is apocalyptic literature, too, perhaps, which it's not. I don't think anybody would hold that. So we need to be careful to let the text stand on its own – have its own integrity – rather than imposing these interpretations from the outside.

Student: When we're talking about authorship and when Genesis was written, it seems to me there's not a whole lot of debate that the Ten Commandments were written by Moses and that he got those from Mount Sinai. Correct?

Dr. Craig: Well, everything is up for grabs in Old Testament studies. Some people (minimalists) today deny that there ever even existed a monarchy of David and Solomon, and that the legends of Exodus are not historically reliable either. So everything is up for debate among these Old Testament scholars.

Student: Sure, especially on a secular level, but as we understand Scripture, most Christians believe that the law of Moses was written by Moses. What I'm referring to is Exodus 20:8-11. It says, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant, or your cattle, or your sojourner who stays with you, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. So it seems like by the time Moses wrote this, or he got the law, and if that's based on the six days of creation . . . they had to have had that story by then. Correct?

Dr. Craig: Clearly. Yes, that's right. But, again, we don't know the final date at which the Pentateuch was assembled. But you're quite right in saying that in the book of Exodus the author clearly knows this prior story and refers to it. We'll talk about that, because the verses that you quoted, I think, are some of the best evidence in favor of the literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 because, as you say, this is the Pentateuchal author’s own comment on the Genesis creation narrative, and he says God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. So that would be, I think, a proof text that could be used for the literalist interpretation because there you have the Pentateuchal author's own reflections upon this narrative in Genesis 1, whoever that author might have been. Good point. We'll talk about that later on.

Student: When we talk about the creation days, you mentioned when he created the sixth and rested on the seventh, one of the things that I've actually been discussing Genesis these past couple of weeks with my friends is I've never understood what the light was supposed to be in the first verse. He said, Let there be light. The reason why I ask this is because everyone, when they discuss Genesis, it's always a debate between young Earth and old Earth. One of the most, I think, common argument you're ever going to hear from an old Earther is it can't be literal because the sun and the moon is created on the fourth day which is supposed to represent a twenty-four hour cycle. A lot of times I hear . . . God already had the light when he said, Let there be light. So you don't need that. To me, that always puzzles me because that doesn't make any sense. I just want to know when, in the first verse when he says, Let there be light, what is that supposed to represent? Is that like an actual time cycle when it starts?

Dr. Craig: We'll talk about this because the question you're raising is a very important one in understanding it. He’s pointing out that the first creative act of God in Genesis 1 is the creation of light. Now, you could have light created that would be not the result of the sun. That's conceivable. But it says that, God called the light day, and there was evening and there was morning, one day. There it doesn't seem to make good sense to say that there could be evening and morning – day and night – if there was no sun at that time because day and night is caused by the Earth's revolution on its axis. So this is, I think, a real problem for understanding Genesis in a literal way as we'll see, and we'll talk about that later.

Student: One of the things about creation . . . it almost seems like the flood is never really taken into consideration. That was a major event for the planet, and nobody knows because – what? – there were eight human beings on the Earth at the time when it happened or whatever floating in a boat because everybody else died. We have no idea of what kind of effect that could have had on the Earth geologically or even biologically because, remember, if everything was killed except for seven of the clean animals and two of the unclean animals. If God had an idea about how to repopulate the Earth, he was the one that could have selected which one of those animals got on the ark also. Are you following what I’m saying? I’m saying the flood might have a major effect on what we see now. So when we look at something, are we looking at what was pre-flood or what is post-flood? I mean when we’re looking at something biologically or geologically or anything like that.

Dr. Craig: If I understand the question right, it would seem to me that the question you're raising is a question of paleontology. Isn't it? When we discover these fossilized remains or early strata in the Earth's surface, are these post-flood or pre-flood if there was a universal flood? This is one of the most significant scientific challenges to understanding the flood story literally. I think what you are highlighting – and I do want to emphasize this – is that the account in Genesis 1 of the creation of Earth and also the creation of humanity in chapter 2 is really piece of the same cloth that goes all the way to chapter 11. Genesis 1 to 11 is typically called the primeval history because it sweeps across the whole of human history from the creation of the universe until the call of Abraham. Then all of a sudden it's as though someone stomps on the brakes and the narrative screeches to a halt almost and then you have the call of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and their progeny and the call and creation of the nation of Israel. Then you're really on historical footing there, whereas this other material in chapters 1 to 11 is prehistoric. Not in the sense that there's no record of it in Genesis, but in the sense that it records ages of time that was before historical writing ever originated. These accounts are describing events that are that old. So the same question about “Should we interpret Genesis 1 literally?” arises with respect to this flood narrative, as well. And the Tower of Babel narrative, as well. Are these to be understood as literal historical accounts? So the question begins to balloon up to a proportion that we're not going to be able to deal with in this class. But you're quite right in saying that it is all interconnected, I think. The same scientific challenge that exists to understanding Genesis 1 literally is going to exist with respect to understanding the universal flood literally, as well. That will be difficult.


That brings us to the end of the class. We're out of time. What we'll do next week is to take up the first of several rival interpretations of Genesis 1, and this will be the literal interpretation of the passage.[1]


                  [1]Total Running Time: 35:04 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)