How are we today as the Church meant to read the creation account as told in Genesis 1 and 2? Many Evangelical leaders today paint the picture that the only faithful interpretations of these chapters are an explicitly “literal” one, meaning that Christians must believe in a young earth, creationist science, etc. One only needs to briefly read and listen to the likes of Ken Ham and Ray Comfort to see how their teachings have permeated into many modern churches and pastors. Such leaders would have us believe this view of creation and our origins is not only the only choice a Christian has, but is also the historic view of the church.
But is this really the case? Is a literal 6-day young-earth reading of creation really the only way to read the text? Indeed, is it even the most historically and Biblically faithful? Many proponents of the Creation movement today would have us believe so. However, when we actually turn to the pages of church history itself, we actually find something quite different. Through a brief study of some of the giants of church history (from antiquity to today) is that a literal creationist reading has not always been the way the church has read the text. I want to briefly consider the works of 6 figures from church history, who I have selected because of their influence as well as their clarity on the subject at hand.
One of the great giants of the historic Christian faith, St. Augustine, has some very interesting things to say to us in regards to our interpretations of Genesis. In his work On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees he deals intently with an explicitly literal interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis. Carrying on in what could be regarded as an apologetical and polemical tone, he largely proves the impossibility of taking everything in Genesis as literally as possible. He also has quite a strong word towards those who would forsake reason and logic in our observations of the modern world in order to hold on rigidly to such a literal reading. In many ways, this makes Augustine’s comments as relevant today as it did 1600 years ago. Towards the end of his work, he has this to say for such people who hold to rigid readings of Genesis:
There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the natures of animals, fruits, stones and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be “toto caelo,” as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses.
Whenever, you see, they catch out some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and Christians defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment or by the surest of calculations? It is impossible to say what trouble and grief such rash, self-assured know-alls cause the more cautious and experienced brothers and sisters.[i]
This is a strong word from one of the great church Fathers! What is he getting at? In summary, he is arguing for how dangerous it is for Christians to argue for things from Scripture that simply do not exist, for the sake of their own pride and ignorance. This is so dangerous because, in effect, it is hardening the non-Christians who are experts in the physical observation of this world to the gospel of salvation. What is interesting is how he appears to value the observations of the physical world that come from non-Christians. Augustine does not have a militant view of outside scientific observation, but instead he welcomes it. This comes from Augustine’s confidence in God’s Word and his ability not to force it to say something that it does not say. We would be wise to heed his advice in this area.
Edward Grant is the Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. In his essay Science and Theology in the Middle Ages, he outlines Thomas Aquinas’ view on creation and Biblical interpretation. He quotes Aquinas, who followed in Augustine in his though, as saying the following: “First, the truth of Scripture must be held inviolable. Secondly, when there are different ways of explaining a Scriptural text, no particular explanation should be held so rigidly that, if convincing arguments show it to be false, anyone dare to insist that it still is the definitive sense of the text. Otherwise unbelievers will scorn Sacred Scripture, and the way to faith will be closed to them.”
Grant goes on to explain Aquinas further:
These two vital points constituted the basic medieval guidelines for the application of a continually changing body of scientific theory and observational data to the interpretation of physical phenomena described in the Bible, especially the creation account. The scriptural text must be assumed true. When God “made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament,” one could not doubt that waters of some kind must be above the firmament. The nature of that firmament and of the waters above it were, however, inevitably dependent on interpretations that were usually derived from contemporary science. It is here that Augustine and Aquinas cautioned against a rigid adherence to any one interpretation lest it be shown subsequently untenable and thus prove detrimental to the faith.[ii]
What is striking about both Augustine and Aquinas’ view is how they perceive rigid and literal interpretations of Scripture – contrary to scientific evidence – as being so harmful to our evangelism and witness. I wonder if the efforts of outspoken creationists today have similarly hurt our witness in the scientific community today because of their perceived hostility to the efforts of modern science?
Another giant of church history, John Calvin, reveals to us a very similar attitude. During the time of his writing of his commentary on Genesis, it appears that one of the biggest scientific discoveries of his day was that one of the moon’s of Saturn was far superior in size and brightness than that of Earth’s moon. Such a finding seemed to call into question the two lights the God placed into the sky in Genesis 1:16. Writing on this passage, Calvin says this:
Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God…Had he (Moses) spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity…Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage.[iii]
For Calvin, as we can see, the language of Genesis is in the language of “common usage.” It is no problem for Calvin that science – in this case, astronomy – tells us things that appear to not be in the Bible. There is no discrepancy here. As a matter of fact, the very use of science should lead us to praise. Calvin concludes this passage by saying that those who do not worship God on account of their scientific findings “are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.” The true tragedy then is not that science tells us things that the Bible does not, but instead that scientists could gather such great information about the creation that does not lead them to praise its Creator.
Another figure of church history who provides us great insight into an orthodox, historic Biblical interpretation of creation and Genesis is the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield. Warfield is often regarded as one of the great champions of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration, yet he referred to himself as an “evolutionist of the purest stripe.” Much of his writing of course was coming during the time when Darwinian Evolution was first exploding on to the scene. In the January 1911 edition of The Princeton Review, Warfield wrote an article called “On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race.” In this article, he wrote: “The question of the antiquity of man has of itself no theological significance. It is to theology, as such, a matter of entire indifference how long man has existed on earth.” [iv] What is of theological significance to Warfield then was that as fallen humans we find our unity in Adam, but as regenerate Christians we find our unity in a new federal head, Jesus Christ. Warfield saw no conflict in this doctrine with that of the age of the earth or the origins of humanity.
Mark Noll, writing for BioLogos, summarizes Warfield’s view of evolutionary theory when he writes, “[Warfield] devoted much effort in his later career to indicating how a conservative view of the Bible could accommodate some, or almost all, of contemporary evolutionary theory.”[v] If a reconciliation between scientific theory and Biblical inspiration and authority was of no issue for a giant like B.B. Warfield, then we should find no trouble ourselves in our attempts at reconciling the two.
In his fantastic article from the BioLogos website entitled Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople, Keller argues for a non-literal and potential evolutionary reading of Genesis 1 and 2. He does so by arguing that these chapters fit into a potential genre called “exalted prose narrative.”[vi] His argument does not stem from trying to fit science into the Bible, but instead comes from “trying to be true to the text, listening as carefully as we can to the meaning of the inspired author.”[vii] What is important for Keller, and he argues should be for us today, is how we view the historicity of Adam. The thrust of his argument is what it means to be “in” a covenantal relationship with someone as our federal head. Those of us who have placed our faith in Christ are united to him as our federal representative. Similarly, those of us who are not in Christ are explained in the Bible to still be “in Adam.” Losing the historicity of Adam begins to have serious problems for our understanding of the Bible (including such passages as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).
In his large systematic work The Christian Faith, he argues for an understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 that defies modern creationist movements. Horton understands the creation account as a preamble to a covenant treaty between God and his people. He writes: “The opening chapters of Genesis, therefore, are not intended as an independent account of origins but as the preamble and historical prologue to the treaty between Yahweh and his covenant people. The appropriate response is doxology.”[viii] He goes on to quote the Psalmist who writes:
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name! (Psalm 100:3-4)
Horton continues his thoughts on Genesis in the next chapter of his book when he writes:
The point of these two chapters (Genesis 1 and 2) is to establish the historical prologue for God’s covenant with humanity in Adam, leading through the fall and moral chaos of Cain to the godly line of Seth that leads to the patriarchs. If these chapters are not intended as a scientific report, it is just as true that they are not mythological. Rather, they are part of a polemic of “Yahweh versus the Idols” that forms the historical prologue for God’s covenant with Israel. Meredith Kline observes that “these chapters pillage the pagan cosmogonic myth – the slaying of the dragon by the hero-god, followed by celebration of his glory in a royal residence built as a sequel to his victory.” As usual, God is not borrowing from but subversively renarrating the pagan myths, exploiting their symbols for his own revelation of actual historical events.[ix]
Of ultimate importance for Horton then, as it should be for us, is that Yahweh is seen to be Lord over man and creation.
My goal in sharing these six examples from the pages of church history is not to influence anyone on a particular reading of Genesis. My goal instead is to show an alternative view of how Christians view Genesis 1 and 2 that is often not shown to us by the loudest voices in the debate or in popular media today. I hope this will allow all of us to see, no matter where we fall in this conversation, that there is great freedom and room for charity in how we interpret and read these passages in the Bible. May our conversations within the church reflect such charity and freedom as we partner together in sharing the gospel and showing the world how science and Christianity are not at all at odds with one another.
[i] Augustine, Works of Saint Augustine, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. 13, On Genesis: On Genesis: a Refutation of the Manichees, Unfinished Literal Commentary On Genesis, the Literal Meaning of Genesis (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, ©2002), 186-87.
[ii] Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature. Edward Grant, “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages,” pp. 63-64.
[iii] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 1: Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2005, pp. 86-87 (commentary on Genesis 1:16).
[iv] B.B Warfield, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” The Princeton Theological Review 9 (January 1911): 1.
[v] Mark Noll, “Evangelicals, Creation and Scripture,” BioLogos (November 2009): 9, accessed July 30, 2015, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Noll_scholarly_essay.pdf.
[vi] Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos (November 2009): 4, accessed July 30, 2015, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf.
[vii] Ibid., 5
[viii] Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2011), pp. 337.
[ix] Ibid., 382.
My Dad and Stepmom recently sent me a copy of the United Methodist Hymnal. I was immediately struck when I opened it up to the third page and read John Wesley’s seven directions for singing from his Select Hymns of 1761. I share these tips now because they had an impact on me and I hope they do for you as well. I’ve placed a few of my own comments as well (in italics).
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please
2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
These directions seem a little strict at first glance. I think the reason for Wesley’s first two directions here is that he takes seriously the necessity of congregational singing (Eph 5:19, Col. 3:16), and he wants to prevent as many barriers to that as possible. Think about it: how often do we fight over the version of an old hymn that we are singing, rather than just rejoice in singing the hymn together? Perhaps if we had stuck to only one way of singing “Be Thou My Vision” there would be less worship wars. I’m not saying Wesley is 100% right here, but there might be some wisdom in his advice.
3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
There are many days where I have not wanted to attend church due to some weariness or burden currently in my life. However, I have often found that the days I do not want to gather with the church the most are the ones in which I come away the most blessed by my time gathered with God’s people. There is wisdom in what the writer of the Hebrews instructs us with, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25).”
4. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
One thing I have found lacking in most churches I visit is the willingness of men (in particular) to sing loudly and clearly in worship. This should not be! We are not self-conscious of what our brothers and sisters think, we are gathered to praise the Lord. He as gifted us with voices, let us use them in one accord.
6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor say behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
I’m not against elaborate instrumentation in corporate worship. However, one side effect I have noticed in some congregations is that the time of worship is more like a performance rather than an opportunity for the congregation to be led in worship. Such performance cultures have a tendency to remove people from the act of what they’re actually doing and instead get caught up in the sound of the songs. Whatever our instrumentation and philosophy of worship may be, they must facilitate the act of congregational worship – not performance.
Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of Jonah. It is a story that entrenched itself into the culture around us. Even the widely popular movie The Avengers assumed the culture’s familiarity with this story in the classic showdown between Iron Man and one of the Leviathan monsters. Even the AI Jarvis knew of Jonah – and that he was not a model to be emulated.
Just to refresh your memories on the arc of the story, allow me to fill in the main points briefly. Jonah was a prophet who was called by God to go and preach to the Gentile city of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t like Gentiles, however, and he would have preferred to preach to his people – the Jews. So, he comes up with an elaborate plot to run from Nineveh by getting on a boat heading to Tarshish, the exact opposite direction of Nineveh! The Lord had other plans for Jonah, and so he sent a great storm upon his boat. The rest of the passengers on the boat realize that Jonah is the cause of the great storm descending upon their boat, and so they hurled Jonah into the sea where he was then eaten by a great fish. Jonah was kept alive in the belly of the fish for three days until he was repentant, at which point the fish spit him out and Jonah proceeded to go to Nineveh, just as God had always wanted.
You’ve probably heard various sermons and messages on this story, presumably about the will of God and his sovereignty over our lives. Yet, something very interesting happens very early on in this story that I think most of us overlook. While Jonah is on the boat with the mariners, they ask him of what people and country he comes from. Jonah’s response is striking. He says, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (Jonah 1:9).” In other words, Jonah is saying that he has a great reverence for God and worships him in everything that he does. Note the irony here – Jonah is in the midst of running from the explicit task God has given him over his life, yet is telling others that he has a reverent fear for the Lord!
What we can take away from this is that Jonah is not only an example of what it means to know that God is sovereign over our lives, but he is also a bad example of what it means to pursue our God-given vocations.
There is a common misconception in Christian circles that the goal of Christian vocation is primarily to evangelize and bring a gospel witness to the workplace. I have heard it said by pastors that our vocations are really just a mask and a cover for God’s true purpose in our workplace – evangelism. I understand what they’re trying to do with such arguments, but unfortunately this conveys an unbiblical and non-Christian view of a God-honoring work ethic.
Jonah was a prophet. God’s call for Jonah as a prophet was to go to Nineveh and preach to the Gentiles. God-honoring obedience and a proper sense of his vocation should have driven Jonah to go to Nineveh. Were Jonah to originally have done this, he would have been a good prophet and an obedient prophet. He would have fulfilled God’s purposes for his vocation.
In a similar way, we all have vocations. Some of us are nurses, others are software developers or business analysts. Some of us are lawyers, and others are students or janitors. Regardless of where you find yourself on this vocational spectrum, one thing should be clear to us from the story of Jonah: we are called to be good and obedient at what we do. Perhaps we could even say that the most important part of our vocation is not what we are doing but how we do it. To put it another way, perhaps instead of focusing so much on what God has called us to do, we should focus on how we are doing the vocations God has currently placed us in. The primary goal for you in your vocation is not to evangelize (although this is important), but it is to have a reverent sense of fear and worship for God in what you do. We are called to be faithful and excellent employees, regardless of our trade or our occupation. This brings God glory and honor for who he is, as we praise him in all areas of our lives – including our vocations.
We can draw this principle from the New Testament as well. The Apostle reminds us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24).” Our vocations are a means to work as if unto the Lord. Through the work we do with our minds and our hands, we bring God glory when it is work given over to him.
Christian, be encouraged today that God has called you to serve him in all walks of life, including your vocation. See your jobs and workplaces as a means by which you can serve God and worship him. You are free to strive for excellence at your vocation not to bring glory to yourself, but in order to worship God. Find joy in the fact that God has chosen you to work unto him with the gifts he has given you.