Genesis and Objections to Old-Earth Cosmology

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Dory at Wittenberg Gate takes on old-earthers in one of the best presentations of the difficulties with old earth interpretations of Genesis that I've ever seen. I respect Dory greatly, and I think she's got one of the best Christian blogs out there. I have to disagree extremely strongly with her on this issue, though. It seems to me that her normally careful argumentation just isn't present in this post. She argues that the Bible seems to present death as a consequence of the fall, and the old-earth view seems to require death before the fall. I'm not 100% sure of either of those claims, but it's the hardest argument for the old-earth view to deal with. She also presents problems with two of the common views of making Genesis 1:1-2:3 fit a long time frame, but those two views don't seem to me to be the primary views Genesis scholars have. They view those strategies to be just as out of touch with the literary structure of the passage as the 24-hour day view is. Finally, she says an old-earth view threatens the foundations of the gospel, and it's here that I'm really worried about what she's saying, though it's consistent with what she says that she isn't accusing anyone of denying the gospel.

Some Quick Responses

There are many possibilities that this death argument seems to me to rule out in principle, wrongly I think. Commenters on her post have already mentioned the possibility that death refers just to spiritual death. Since it at least primarily refers to that, and doesn't clearly refer also to physical death, we have to consider that as a possibility. Another possibility is that human death entered the world because of the human fall, but death in general entered the world because of the angelic fall (or as The Bloke suggested in a comment, in foreknowledge of the human fall).

As for interpreting Gen 1:1-2:3 as taking place over a long time, Dory has assumed two things that I wouldn't assume. One is that this means Adam and Eve were never two real people who were the ancestors of all human beings. I'm just not sure why anyone would think that. How does an old-earth view require that there weren't two actual people who were the ancestors of every single human being? It simply doesn't. It doesn't even come close to requiring believing in one species descending from another, and even those who do accept the evolutionary picture whole-hog can still believe in two ancestors of humans who were the first human beings, with all others descended from them. Believing Gen 1:1-2:3 is not a chronological scientific diary doesn't at all require doing the same with the rest of Genesis 2-11 anyway. It's consistent with that, but it doesn't require it. The rest of the primordial history doesn't have the poetic features of this unit, so the primary literary reason for not taking the days in the passage to refer to time periods is not present in the rest of the book. For that reason, many old-earthers don't take Gen 2:4 to the end of the book to be anything other than a historical account of what happened, as it happened.

Poetic Features in Genesis 1:1-2:3

Additionally, I just don't see how accepting long time periods for the period discussed in the account of Genesis 1:1-2:3 requires a Day Age view or a Gap View. The Gap View, as it's sometimes presented, tries to insert a long time period in addition to a bunch of time periods the days of that passage correspond to, which assumes that each day corresponds to a real time period. As commenters pointed out, Bruce Waltke says this gap is the fall of angels before Genesis 1:1. A more popularly known but less scholarlyly held view is that it's between Gen 1:1 and 1:2. The Day-Age view does the same sort of thing with time periods but doesn't assume a gap.

Many of the best Genesis scholars don't think the passage requires a time period corresponding to each day at all, though. The commentaries by the above-mentioned Bruce Waltke and Gordon Wenham, whose commentaries are at least among the very best of evangelical commentaries on this book (and Wenham's is probably the best commentary on Genesis from any perspective), do not take such a view. They point out the obviously poetic features of the passage, and their understanding of what it's saying derives from that. Here are some of the poetic elements:

1. A chiastic structure frames the whole account. In the Hebrew original, the word order is different and gives a frame of ABC at the outset and then CBA at the end, with "he created", "God", and "heavens and earth" as the A, B, and C.

2. The number of Hebrew words in 1:1-2 is a 14, a multiple of seven, and the number of Hebrew words in 2:1-3 35, also a multiple of seven.

3. The word for God is used 35 times, a multiple of seven. The word for earth is used 21 times, the word for heaven/firmament is used 21 times, and the phrases "and it was so" and "God saw that it was good" appear 7 times each. Other expressions appear at numbers other than multiples of seven, but this is an extremely high number of times for multiples of seven to be appearing if it's not intended for poetic effect.

4. Lots of formulae recur in poetic fashion. This includes the already-mentioned expressions that occur seven times but also "and God said", "let there be", "and God made". It also includes actions or descriptions that aren't repeated verbatim but that get at a repeated idea, e.g. the naming of things, the blessing of things, and the mention of the days. These don't all appear in sevens, but each regular verbatim formula does.

5. There's a two-part structure, with days 1-3 and days 4-6 running in parallel. Days 3 and 6 each have unique features not found in the other days. Each has "and God said" twice. That tells us to look for a correspondence between them, according to standard Hebrew poetic conventions. One correspondence is in what is created, the land and plants in day 3 and animals and humans that live on the land in day 6. We see similar correspondences in what's created with days 1 and 4 (light and then things that give off light in the heavens) and days 2 and 5 (the sky and seas and then birds and sea creatures).

6. There's an AABABB structure with respect to where the action is. The As are the heavens, and the Bs are the earth.

7. The structure of the middle day is extremely carefully constructed. It's a chiasm of the form ABCDDCBA. The As are dividing day from night and then light from darkness. The Bs are signs, fixed times, and days and years on the one hand and then ruling the day and night on the other. The Cs are about giving light on the earth. The Ds are the sun's ruling of the day and the moon's ruling of the night. Basically, God commands a bunch of things that are listed, and then their fulfillment takes place in the reverse order.

There are also strong similarities with psalms that praise God's work in creation and with Proverbs 8:22-31 and Job 38, which reflect on the mystery of God's wisdom with respect to creation. These similarities might lead one to consider the passage as something in the direction of a hymn about God's power. However, it's not poetry per se but just elevated prose, with many strongly poetic features. It's an extremely careful literary composition as an introduction to the primeval history of Genesis 1-11, which itself serves as the introduction to the book as a whole and then more generally to the entire Torah.

The primary point of this passage is theological. Theological points don't negate historical reliability, but poetic elements don't necessarily require exactitude in details, chronological precision, or application to history in exactly the way that those who are wrongly called literalists take them to be. This is a side issue, but being a literalist about Gen 1:1-2:3 means taking the days to be referring to days. The view I'm proposing takes them to be days. It just the overall hermeneutics of the account not to be taking those days as chronological days in history but as a literary structuring device to make theological statements about God, creation, particularly with respect to the difference between the Hebrew view of God and creation and the views of surrounding peoples. The style of the account is similar to such accounts, and the main emphases of this passage stand out when read in conjunction with those passages.

This is why I don't see the text as it stands requiring the interpretation that this is some journal of what God did in each 24-hour period or that it's even a journal of what God did in each age-long period. There are even signs within the passage that it's not chronological, since days are taking place before there are signs of days with the sun and moon. So at the very least, there are a lot of assumptions in Dory's argument that she needs to argue for. This is the most common view among the best scholars of Genesis, and her arguments don't show anything problematic about it.

Hermeneutics and the Gospel

I'm really worried that Dory thinks this issue has any bearing on the gospel. That strikes me as taking an issue about hermeneutics and about evaluating scientific arguments and then raising it to the level of the gospel. (See Jollyblogger for more on that.) Two things need to be said. It may be that I'm wrong, and certain views on this issue will imply denials of the gospel if taken to their logical conclusion. If so, anyone pointing this out needs to make it clear that most people who hold those views do not understand this and therefore haven't themselves denied the gospel. I assume you believe this, but I think it's worth saying to make it clear that you believe it.

At the same time, I think it's important to trace out which views really do imply a denial of the gospel. I think open theism has implications that make it hard to believe the gospel given that the gospel includes Jesus' death as something planned long in advance by God, even though it requires Judas' free action of betrayal (or at least Satan's free action of possessing Judas) and the decisions of the Jewish and Roman leaders. That requires at least God's foreknowledge of what Judas (or Satan) and the authorities would do. I don't think anything like that is going on in this case, as I've explained. There are ways to say what old-earthers say and fully retain everything crucial to the gospel, and I think the resulting view is even a more natural reading of Genesis 1:1-2:3.

I think we need to be very careful and precise in what we're saying when we say the gospel is threatened by a certain view. We need to be sure there isn't a way to hold that view consistent with the gospel, as I think there are many such ways in this case. We also need to be clear about whether it's the view itself, or some implication of it that the people holding the view don't see, that conflicts with the gospel. That makes a huge difference when it comes to a moral evaluation of those who hold the view, and ultimately the individual Christian is not in a position to evaluate that sort of thing about another person (as opposed to discussing the implications of theological views, which we certainly can discuss). So I want to be extremely careful about theological shibboleths, not just in open theism and the hermeneutics of Gen 1:1-2:3 but also on many other things, including universalism, annihilationism, denials of penal substitution, and a number of other issues that have been discussed on this blog in the past, not to mention those that haven't.

Addendum: For more on some of the shibboleths I just mentioned, here are some posts by me and Wink that have raised the questions I hint at here in more detail. There's my earlier Shibboleth post about Genesis. I've expressed my disagreement with open theism, but I have at best mixed feelings about those who say open theists deny the gospel. See the update at the bottom of this post and some of the excellent comments on that post get to the issues related to the gospel. On universalism, see my interactions with Keith DeRose and also his own work on that, which I link to in that post. Wink's post on annihilationism begins to get at how that issue doesn't deny the gospel, but that issue goes beyond anything so far discussed on this blog. The work of John Stott is the best defense of that doctrine from a solid evangelical perspective. Wink's challenge to penal substitution shows that an orthodox view of the atonement as forensic and penal need not require substitution. I've collected links to the three most important of his posts in his series on that in this Prosblogion post.

6 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Genesis and Objections to Old-Earth Cosmology.

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://movabletype.ektopos.com/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/304

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4 Comments

Jeremy:

In re-reading Dory's post, I noticed that she specifically states that "The Bible does not record the death of any animals until immediately after the Fall." This is a curious (at least to me) distinction that she makes: it is clear that, prior to the fall, plants died. Adam and Eve ate vegetables and fruit; in order to eat them, the plants had to die or "be killed." So death of some sort had to be present prior to the Fall.

Paul is clear in Rom 5.12 that sin (and death) entered the kosmos by Adam's sin, and that death spread to all mankind. Paul seems to be limiting his discussion to death for people, not making a blanket statement about death for plants or animals.

It is true that the Bible does not record the death of any animals, but it also doesn't record the birth of any other children to Adam and Eve other than Cain, Abel, and Seth. So in 930 years of marriage, they only had three children? I don't think so, and an argument from silence is dubious at best.

To say that there was no death prior to the Fall is eisogetic: there was no death for humans, but there was death (certainly of plants and possibly of animals).

At least, that's what comes off the top of my head as I read your post - which, by the way, is very good and thought-provoking. (I had entirely forgotten my OT classes and the discussion of the chiastic structure of Gen 1ff.) You are quite a scholar.

Thanks for the post.

BTW, in addition to commenting at The Gate, I also posted on this a day or so ago.

It's an argument from silence to insist that there was no death because the Bible doesn't report it.

You don't have to kill plants to eat their fruit. The only kind of food mentioned is fruit. This doesn't prove that they didn't kill plants, but it's consistent with the accounts that they didn't kill any plants.

I didn't have to do much scholarship for this. I just got out a couple Genesis commentaries and regurgitated the information.

Good post. I think you want to fix "chronological days in histand ory." Presumably you meant "chronological days in history."

It is true that the Bible does not record the death of any animals, but it also doesn't record the birth of any other children to Adam and Eve other than Cain, Abel, and Seth. So in 930 years of marriage, they only had three children? I don't think so, and an argument from silence is dubious at best.

Huh?

Gen 5:4

And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:

Great read Jeremy, as always.

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