(Originally published on 5/12/10)
Tim Keller's article, "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Lay People" appears on the Biologos website. Biologos was started by Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is a Christian who believes in the compatibility of Biblical faith and belief in Evolution. His book, "The Language of God" was reviewed on this blog. (See here, here and here) The aim of Biologos is to convince the Christian public that Evolution and the Christian faith are compatible. Keller's article seeks to demonstrate how a pastor could reconcile the two while engaging in pastoral counsel. He identifies four questions that one must answer to affect this reconciliation. This article will examine Keller's answer to the first question which appears on p. 3-5 of his article.
The first question Keller seeks to answer is how to interpret Genesis 1. Keller correctly points out that for Evolution and Biblical faith to be seen to be compatible, Genesis 1 cannot be interpreted literally. And if Genesis 1 cannot be interpreted literally, why interpret any other part of the Bible literally? Keller's answer: "The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don't. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them." (Keller, p. 3) Keller expands upon this answer on p. 3-5.
In this answer, Keller identifies a key component of sound Biblical exegesis: what is the original intent of the author? How does the author wish to be understood? The answer, according to Keller, is to identify the genre the author employs to convey his message. Keller points to Judges 4 and 5 by way of illustration. Both chapters concern Israel's defeat of Sisera and his army. In chapter 4 the author employs historical prose narrative to chronicle this historical event. Chapter 5, Deborah's Song, contains verses such as this: "From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera." This is evidence that the author was employing Hebrew poetry to explain the theological significance of the historical events described in chapter 4. These choices of genre indicate that the author intended chapter 4 to be read literally while chapter 5 was not. Keller points to Exodus 14 and 15 as another example illustrating similiar intent by a Biblical author. Exodus 14 is a straight forward historical account of the Red Sea crossing and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptions. Chaper 15 contains poetical language to convey the meaning of what happened in chapter 14. From these examples, Keller correctly identifies an important principle of Biblical interpretation: "...to assert that one part of scripture shouldn't be taken literally does not mean that no other parts should be either."(Keller, p. 3)
Keller maintains that these two examples serve as evidence that the author of Genesis intended Genesis 2 to be interpreted literally, but not chapter 1. Keller quotes Hebrew scholar Edward J. Young (who believes Genesis 1 is an historical account) as writing that Genesis 1 is written in "exalted, semi-poetical language." It describes a sucession of historical events characteristic of prose and does not feature a key element of Hebrew poetry, parallelism. Keller points to the use of refrains within this prose style which repeat themselves as they do in songs. "And God saw that it was good" is repeated seven times, as is "and it was so." "God said" and "let there be" appear ten times each. The author also employs poetic phrases not repeated anywhere else in Scripture as well as the phrase "beast of the field," a term usually reserved for poetic discourse. Keller comments: "Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened." (Keller, p. 4) Keller quotes scholar C. John Collins in labeling Genesis 1 "exalted prose narrative" which Collin's defines as a narrative making truth claims but in being labeled exalted it is understood that it is not to be interpreted literally.
Keller believes the strongest evidence that Genesis 1 is not to be interpreted literally is the order of creative acts in the first two chapters of Genesis. Gen 2:5 is proof, according to Keller, that God followed the natural order of creation. Keller reads this verse to say that God did not create vegetation before there was an atmosphere or rain, while he reads Genesis 1 as saying God did. In Genesis 1 God created light on the first day before there were any sources of light which were not created until the fourth day. But in chapter 1 vegetation appears on the third day. According to Keller, this is impossible because on the third day the sun was not yet created. If there was no sun, there was no atmosphere. No rain was possible on the third day either. Keller concludes that we cannot interpret both chapters as literal historical accounts because their orders of creation are not compatible. Since Genesis 2 provides a natural order of creation events, according to Keller, then we must interpret Genesis 2 literally while Genesis 1 is to be read as a theological statement concerning the actual events presented in chapter 2.
Keller is correct that just because one portion of scripture is not to be interpreted literally does not mean that no portion is to be interpreted literally. But is he correct that the scriptual evidence is clear that Genesis 1 was never meant to be interpreted literally? NO! Lets us examine why his assertions do not stand up to scrutiny.
Lets begin by examining the above mentioned chapters in Judges and Exodus. Judges 4 is a straight forward historical account of Israel's defeat of Sisera and his army. Chapter 5 is Deborah's Song commemorating that defeat. The Song indeed contains poetic language not to be read literally. The stars did not literally fight against Sisera. (v. 20) Yet chapter 5's poetic language refers to actual historical events. The language in verse 20 may be written in poetic language, but it refers to God acting on Israel's behalf, bringing about Sisera's defeat even before the two armies met. We know this because the Lord told Deborah to tell Barak that the Lord Himself will lure Sisera to the Kishon river and give Sisera and his army into Barak's hands. We read this in Judges 4:7, the straight forward historical account of the battle. While chapter 5 may be poetry, it still narrates historical events. Verses 6-9 speak of the conditions in Israels' villages and on its highways while Israel was dominated by Sisera's king, Jabin. Verses 13-18 identify which tribes of Israel fought and which ones hesitated. Again, this describes a true historical episode. Verses 19-23 contains poetic language, but it describes an actual historical battle. Verses 24-27 describe Jael's killing of Sisera with a tent peg in straight forward language. The genre may be poetry, but almost all the verses refer to actual history. Since the language may be poetry, that does not mean the historical events it describes did not actually happen, did it? Of course not.
We can make the same observation concerning Exodus 14 and 15. Exodus 14 is the historical account of God's delivering Israel from Egypt by parting the Red Sea. Chapter 15 is a poetic retelling of the same historical event. Moses speaks of God's right hand shattering Pharoh's army. (Ex 15:6) He writes that the waters were piled up by a blast from the Lord's nostrils. (Ex. 15:8) We know that God does not possess physical traits as we do, so we know the language used here is poetical. Yet the poetry describes the actual historical events described in chapter 14. Ex 15: 13-18 may be poetry, but it is declaring future historical events about how Israel will enter the Promised Land.
What we see in these two pairs of chapters is the coupling of two chapters where the first chapter describes actual historical events while the second chapter describes the same true events in poetic language. In the poetic recapitulations, very few verses actually speak of events that literally did not happen. From these very few verses in Judges 5 and Exodus 15, Keller wants us to conclude that the ENTIRE first chapter of Genesis was not chronicling actual historical events. THE ENTIRE CHAPTER! This is bad Biblical exegesis. To infer that from a very few verses in the midst of a poetic retelling of actual events that the writer of Genesis 1 did not want us to interpret it literally is to make a sweeping conclusion from too little evidence.
What about Keller's statement that the language of Genesis 1 is not written in the language of one responding to a simple request to write an account of what happened? From what evidence does Keller conclude that Genesis was written in response to a simple request to write an account of what happened? There is no evidence in scripture that Genesis was written because of such a request. The only scripture concerning why Moses wrote any account of God and Israel that I can find is Ex. 17:14 where God commands Moses to write an account of the defeat of the Amalekites. Because there is no evidence of such a simple request, we cannot conclude that the poetic language employed in Genesis 1 is evidence that the events it describes did not actually occur. After all, in Judges 4, the writer employs poetic language to symbolize a historical event: "After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord. SO THE LORD SOLD THEM INTO THE HANDS OF JABIN..." (Judges 4: 1-2, caps mine). Are we justified in reading all of Judges 4 non-literally because of its use of poetic symbolism? No. Neither is Keller justified in concluding that the events of Genesis 1 are non-historical because of the use of certain poetic phrases. Perhaps it was the intention of the author of Genesis 1 (Moses) to use language to emphasize that radical difference between God and the idols? Perhaps the author wanted to demonstrate how only God could create, how God was so powerful that all He had to do to create was to speak the word? This message was so at odds with the religious thoughts of Man that perhaps Moses employed poetic language to drive the lessons of history home? Perhaps prose was not adequate to the task?
Keller's evidence concerning the order of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, which he states is the strongest evidence there is for a non-literal reading of Genesis 1, does not withstand critical examination. It appears that vegetation was created on day three before the sun on day four. But we need to examine Gen. 1:1 and the Hebrew word used for "light." "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The phrase "heavens and earth" most likely means universe or cosmos and must be taken with the same sense it is used throughout the Bible (Joel 3: 15-16) which would include the sun, the moon and the stars. The whole of the universe, including the sun, the moon and the stars, were created on the first day, not the fourth. On the fourth day, the Hebrew does not read "Let there be lights" but "Let the lights in the expanse of the sky seperate." The lights already existed in the expanse (created on the second day) and on the fourth day they were given purpose by God's command: to seperate the day from the night and mark the seasons and years. In v.6, we read of the creation of the expanse between the waters. In the Hebrew syntax, it speaks of God creating the expanse where there was nothing previously. The syntax in v.14 concerning the lights suggests that the lights already existed but had not yet been seperated. Also, Gen. 2:6 informs us of streams that came up from underground to water the Earth. The conditions for an atmosphere were already in place for the vegetation to be created on the third day in Gen1: 11-13. (The information for this paragraph comes from the commentary on Genesis by John H. Sailhamer in the Expositors Bible Commentary, which I have on CD ROM.)
If we look closely at Gen. 1:11-13 (the third day) and Gen. 2:4-7, we see that these two verses are not two different accounts of the same aspect of creation. Gen. 1:11-13 speaks of the creation of vegetation: "...seed bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with the seed in it..." Gen. 2:4-7 speaks not of the creation of vegetation but the beginning of agriculture, the human tilling of the ground. No shrub of the field or plant of the field appeared before man could cultivate the vegetation already existing.
Keller is correct when he identifies the discerning of an author's original intent as a major ingredient of biblical interpretation. Yet this is not the only principle of Biblical interpretation. Nor is it the most important. There is the principle of interpretation which demands that we let Scripture interpret Scripture. Reading a Biblical passage within the context of the entirety of Scripture sheds light on that passage we would never have just by reading that passage alone. It also guards against unbalanced interpretations of Scripture. Jesus said to His opponents, " You diligently study the Scriptures (The Old Testament) because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me..." (Jn. 5:39) The Old Testament writers had their reasons for writing what they did, but they were not aware that their writings were speaking of God's Son, Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers. Therefore, the original intent of the Old Testament writers is not always the controling factor in Biblical interpretation of the Old Testament.
The author of Hebrews states this concerning the seventh day of creation: "...And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: 'And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.' " (Heb. 4: 3-4) The author is quoting Gen 2:2, which speaks of God's rest on the seventh day. The author quotes Gen 2:2 in making the case that there will be a future Sabbath day of rest for the people of God. Without Gen. 2:2, his scriptural case for such a promise collapses. Gen. 2:2 is the evidence for a promise from God to his people. Obviously, the writer of Hebrews believed that Gen 2:2 chronicled a historical event, an event that actually happened. If the writer did not think so, he would be comforting God's people with a promise based on an event that did not happen. He would be giving a false comfort. Obviously the writer thought Gen 2:2 should be interpreted literally. And if a New Testament writer interprets Gen 2:2 literally, then according to the principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, so must we. If the verse chronicling the seventh day is to be literally interpreted, so are all the verses covering days one through six. After all, if the seventh day is an historical event, so are all the previous days.
Did Jesus have anything to say concerning a literal interpretation of Genesis 1? Yes. What did Jesus say? In Mark 10, in speaking of marriage, Jesus said, "But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female." AT THE BEGINNING OF CREATION. Jesus tells us that Man and Woman appeared at the very beginning of creation, not after a period of human evolution. This agrees with the account of creation in Genesis 1. To interpret it otherwise would be untrue to the text of Scripture.
Part III will be posted soon.
All Scripture quotations are from the NIV.