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

February 9, 2014

Cross-posted from Wordgazer’s Words.

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 earthand 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 bold 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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. evidence2hope permalink
    February 9, 2014 4:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I will look up Bruce Waltke’s work. I have also found the work of John Walton to be extremely helpful

  2. February 9, 2014 8:04 pm

    A wonderful post. I resonate with so much of what you say here – my own questioning of YEC arose in similar fashion. Mr Ham himself set me on the path. The false science v religion dichotomy is a big barrier to many conversations, and I don’t think this debate would have helped! +1 for Walton’s material on ancient cosmology and ‘cognitive environment’. Thanks for sharing!

  3. February 9, 2014 8:18 pm

    I LOVE this article. I especially love the part about how Christ cares more about how we treat actual human beings than whether or not we accept the scientific evidence for evolution.

    I also love your analysis of the actual literal forms of Genesis, and how you compare the repetitive nature of the text to Proverbs.

    As for the repetition, it’s important to remember that both Genesis and Proverbs are probably based on earlier oral traditions that were later converted into text. When I read part of the Iliad (couldn’t bring myself to finish it) there was a tremendous amount of repetition in that text as well. I think it’s a fairly common feature of oral compositions.

  4. February 9, 2014 10:05 pm

    This was a great post, Kristen. I appreciated your literary analyses of the texts.

    Also this

    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.

    is such an important point, in other contexts as well. A question I find myself asking frequently is “Is this (or, why is this) a church-dividing issue?”

    I think the only reason that creationism is a church-dividing (and divisive) issue is that it’s a proxy for more fundamental issues: the range of acceptable scriptural hermeneutics, or the nature of authority in the church. Disagreements over authority intrinsically have the potential to be church-dividing; or, to say it another way, all church divisions ultimately rest on questions of authority. (Which does not always reduce to power.)

  5. Mark S. permalink
    February 10, 2014 10:53 am

    The science-faith schism is unavoidable whenever faith comes into conflict with science. Ken Ham has chosen his religion, it is completely incompatible with the real world, and he flat out stated that no amount of evidence can change his mind. As a scientist, there is no way I could avoid being in conflict with him, any more than Poland could have avoided conflict with Germany in 1939. (Oh no! Godwin’s law! It wasn’t intentional.)

    I have a much lesser conflict with the Author. I don’t have any evidence for any gods, so I am an atheist. But it looks like Author and I can live together without serious conflict. Don’t pick a fight with me, and I won’t pick a fight with you. I’m happy with that, and I would think that Christians in particular would sign up to avoiding fights. 🙂

    I don’t think there is a problem with the Enlightement emphasis on facts and history. The relevant fact here is that Author has decided that Genesis is not intended to present a scientific fact, thus removing the science-vs-faith aspect of that book. We may still have room for conflict over other issues (birth control, divorce, homosexuality), but in this area, there is no need for conflict between me and the Author.

  6. February 10, 2014 11:58 am

    Thanks to everyone for the nice comments!

    Mark, I think as far as birth control, divorce, homosexuality are concerned– you’d be surprised. Many Christians can and do take more nuanced attitudes towards these things. And I’m not finding fault with the Enlightenment emphasis on facts and history so much as saying that it’s an anachronistic lens through which to view the Bible. And of course the Enlightenment self-confidence that the white European viewpoint was synonymous with the “objective” viewpoint was in fact misplaced. But that’s going off topic. I have no quarrel with atheists as long as they don’t try to “evangelize” me. 😉 And you’re not attempting to do so.

  7. February 10, 2014 12:12 pm

    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. [First comment disappeared so I posted this again]

  8. krwordgazer permalink
    February 10, 2014 1:12 pm

    Hi Bob,

    Both your comments came through, but I deleted the first because it was a duplicate.

    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.

  9. Steve Bartholomew permalink
    February 10, 2014 6:52 pm

    By accepting theistic evolution, Kristen, as you claim to, you have ignored a critical piece of the puzzle: the Genesis Flood. All theistic evolutionists reject a worldwide flood, because they completely embrace the chronology of evolution (by definitiion … theistic EVOLUTIONISTS), and this chronology utterly precludes a worldwide flood. The problem with this belief is that there is overwhelming PHYSICAL evidence for such a flood. Once this evidence is acknowledged, the chronology of evolution is completely invalidated. Once this is done, the question then becomes: what now?

  10. krwordgazer permalink
    February 10, 2014 7:24 pm

    Mr. Bartholomew, the “what now” is not that important to my way of thinking. I am open to whatever scientists find in the “book of nature,” because I don’t think the book of scripture is, or was meant to be, a scientific text. I think there are sufficient textual clues regarding the Genesis flood to view it as comprising what they viewed as “the world,” but was actually a fairly localized major flood. Evolutionists have good reasons to disbelieve in a worldwide flood, and I see no reason to disagree with them. I’ll let the scientists be experts in their own field. If they unearth new evidence that changes their minds, it’s no threat to my Christianity.


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