Is Genesis real history? (new Common Questions page)

(Brad Kramer) #1

Thanks to @JohnWalton, @tremperlongman, @JRM, @Kathryn_Applegate, @Christy and myself for putting together this one. Looking forward to the discussion.

(Brad Kramer) #2

(RiderOnTheClouds) #3

consider Genesis 2:7, when God forms Adam from dust and breathes into his nostrils. This could not have happened exactly as described, because we know from other passages in the Bible that God is Spirit with neither hands nor lungs.

A very good point which I’ve never actually considered before. Of course, one could argue that an omnipotent being could do this, but an omnipotent being cannot do that which is logically impossible, like a spiritual being using physical actions.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #4

So my inference from reading this is that it doesn’t matter whether or not the flood was local or global, or whether or not Genesis 1 is the literal chronology of the cosmos, because when the ancients wrote history, scientific accuracy was not the aim of the game.

(George Brooks) #5


Are you saying that all the mentions of seeing the back of God… or the face of God… must have been delusions?

Or are we playing some sort of double-standard on what God can or can’t do for the sake of the limited powers of human perception?

(Peaceful Science) #6

Some people read Genesis 2 as the appearance of a theophany of Yahweh, some times called the Angel of the Lord. This theophany would, in fact, have hands and lungs, or at least the appearance of a human like form. This is also sometimes seen as an appearance of Jesus in a preincarnate form.

The article in general is good, but I’m not sure I follow the logic of this argument. It very well could be taken literally as B.B. Warfield and Tim Keller have done so. Is the intention to call it their reading as inappropriate?

(Brad Kramer) #7

Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm covers this in depth. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I found the book extremely interesting. He reveals in detail how in the ANE, they didn’t have the dichotomy between “spirit” and “material” that we do—at least not in the same way. For a divine being to be physically present on Earth (or even having sexual relations with human women, in Genesis 6) was not a strange thought. For them, heaven and earth were spatially connected; they didn’t think of them as different “dimensions” like we do. Beings could ascend and descend between the realms, in fact, that’s a major theme of Genesis (Nephilim, Babel, Jacob wrestling angel, Abraham having lunch with angels, Jacob’s Ladder, etc. etc.)

I wonder sometimes if we have the wrong ideas about what “incarnate” means. When God/Jesus appeared in OT in these theophanies, did God “take on bodies” temporarily or just become embodied in a different way?

What’s “it”? Genesis 1-11? If so, you’re using “literally” in an unusual sense if you put Keller in that group. When I went to Keller’s church in NYC, I attended a Sunday school class on Genesis and was taught that Genesis 1-11 needs to be understood in its original context, that its language is heavily figurative and poetic, that it should not just be taken in a flatly literal sense, etc. It was actually a very formative moment for me in my movement towards the BioLogos position. To me, Keller is trying to read the Bible “literally” in the sense John Walton promotes, i.e. according to the intent of the original author in their original context. But as you know, that’s different than the popular usage of the word. (As noted in the OP, John Walton was one of the main scholars who worked on this CQ.)

I don’t see anything in this CQ that is wildly out of step with what Keller thinks about Genesis (not as familiar with Warfield’s views)—at least according to Keller’s essay at BioLogos and what he has said elsewhere. My understanding is that Keller is a progressive creationist, so he’s OK with some concepts of evolution (and some level of figurative reading) but he has a more traditional view on Adam and Eve (as compared to BioLogos), and he also prefers to read Genesis 1 as describing a set of special creation events.

(Peaceful Science) #8

I totally agree with that, in terms of hermeneutics. However in terms of interpretation, you are disputing one of the 3 core doctrines of creation put forward by Tim Keller, for no clear reason, and without a good argument. I was specifically referring to (alone) the interpretation of God forming Adam with his hands from the dust and breathing life into him:

consider Genesis 2:7, when God forms Adam from dust and breathes into his nostrils. This could not have happened exactly as described, because we know from other passages in the Bible that God is Spirit with neither hands nor lungs.

The claim that God is spirit does not at all mean a theophany has no hands. It is just not a believable argument.

Moreover, It is that specific statement that is specifically at odds with Warfield’s and Keller’s interpretation. He lays it out in the TGC video that he is interpreting Genesis 2:7 literally. We could call him a selective literalist or a minimal literalist, but both Keller and Warfield felt it was important to read “formed from the dust” and “from a rib” in a precisely literal sense (not Walton’s sense).

Of course they could be wrong. I do not have a dog in that fight. However, one can agree with the near entirety of the hermeneutical principles laid out in that page (as Keller, I am sure, does), but still believe Scripture is literally teaching the de novo creation of Adam.

In fact, taking this literally is one of the 3 fundamentals of creation that the TGC puts forward and most important to them. It is not in conflict in science. I’m not sure why any one should go out of their way to dispute with a specious argument.

Not sure if I have a fixed idea, or if any one really does. It seems it would appear that these theophanies had “hands” and “breath,” without making any statement about what they really were. It very well could be a literal description.

Now, I would 100% agree with you that this is not the primary point of the passage. I do not place nearly as high importance on this as Keller or Warfield. Though it does not seems wise to pick a fight with them on a detail of the narrative they feel is important, and has precisely zero conflict with science and evidence.

Especially because as a Common Question page, it is becomes the official BL position. It would seem best to remove that argument. It does not really help the case to make a point that someone like Keller, who agrees with you 95%, would say is critical to disagree with you on. At the very least, it is just polite to focus on the 95% common ground, instead of making the case from the 5% disagreement.

(Peaceful Science) #9

I suppose the other possibility on the table is that this was not just an oversight. Maybe it really is a fundamentally important value of BioLogos oppose de novo creation. I’d would sincerely hope that is not the case, as this is neither here nor there in regards to science.

(Jennifer Thomas) #10

In the BioLogos post, I especially like the emphasis on Genesis as a literary construction and not a scientific tract.

I do have a bit of a problem with this point: “Or consider Genesis 2:7, when God forms Adam from dust and breathes into his nostrils. This could not have happened exactly as described, because we know from other passages in the Bible that God is Spirit with neither hands nor lungs.”

It can be tempting to start pointing out the “logical” fallacies of Genesis, but that leads to a long, slippery slope. If one is reading Genesis as a poem rather than as a scientific treatise, it’s kind of ouchy, don’t you think?, to say “this could not have happened exactly as described.” Poems, as you know, aren’t a form of communication that rely on cognitive logic. Poems are about using peripheral vision instead of foveal vision; intuition instead of scientific argument; differential calculus instead of algorithms; heart instead of mind. So I don’t think we can single out Genesis 2:7 for its lack of logical consistency with other poetic writings; rather, in Genesis 2:7 we’re reading a poetic verse that tries to convey something important and true about God’s true nature (even if the facts themselves aren’t “true.”) I think that in your essay you’ve applied this general reasoning (about Genesis’s literary nature, that is) to good effect, but in the case of the Genesis 2:7 argument, there may be some slippage into non-poetic approaches.

God bless.

(Antoine Suarez) #11

Thanks to you Brad and all the scholars who worked for putting together this valuable material. I would like to contribute to discussion with two comments:

In my view it may be convenient to stress that in interpreting Genesis our main authority is Jesus Christ. So for instance we should not try to explain the universal need for Redemption outgoing from “Adam and Eve” but the other way around interpret Genesis 1-11 outgoing from Jesus Christ.

This means in particular that we should distinguish between Episodes that play no important role (or are not even mentioned) in Jesus Christ’s teaching and other writings of the New Testament (as for instance the Tower of Babel’s in Genesis 11, or the duration of “6 days” for Creation in Genesis 1), and Episodes which are explicitly highlighted by Jesus Christ and his Apostles (as for instance Noah’s Flood and Genesis 1:27, 2: 24).

Regarding the section “Case study: the Flood of Genesis 6–9”.

I would like to suggest adding the option suggested by Jim Stump that Noah’s Flood could be explained as a miraculous historical fact.

This position seems to me quite fitting both with the teaching of Jesus Christ in Luke 17:26-29 and science.

(Paul Allen) #12

The view of God as personal is grounded in the image of God. He is a self-conscious being, who has will and purpose. The parallel creation narrative of Genesis 2:4b–25 further communicates this view of God as personal in anthromorphic terms as he forms man from the dust of the ground, breathes the breath of life into his nostrils, makes the birds and beasts of the field, fashions woman from the man, and finally plants a garden for their habitat in Eden. This initial portrait of God, therefore, invests the biblical story with a view of God who is personal. Regardless of whether the creation narrative is early or late in its composition, its canonical position in the Old Testament gives it anterior advantage, and the biblical reader proceeds through the Old Testament with this view of the Creator God who was personally involved in the world he created. So one is not surprised to find him walking in the garden, addressing Adam and Eve, laying out plans to save a morally debased world, covenanting with Abraham, intervening on Moriah to spare Isaac’s life, speaking to Jacob in a dream, and preserving Joseph in a foreign and hostile environment in order to procure his will for the people he had chosen to bear his name in the world.

(Paul Allen) #13

In Genesis 3:8 we have God walking. The term “walking” (hithpael participle of הלך) is subsequently used of God’s presence in the Israelite tent sanctuary (Lev 26:12; Deut 23:15 [14]; 2 Sam 7:6–7) again emphasizing the relationship between the garden and the later temple. That God walked is a common figure of speech (anthropomorphism). From the human standpoint, it is not possible to describe God’s interaction with people without attributing to Him some of the properties of a human body, such as back or face (Ex 33:11, 23), eyes or ears (1 Kg 8:29; Ps 34:15), arm or hands (Ex 3:20; 6:6; Dt 4:34; 33:3; Is 53:1; Heb 1:10; 10:31). God does not have a physical body, although He can manifest Himself in the form of a man (Gn 18:16–22; 32:30; Ezk 1:26) or even a burning bush (Ex 3:2–4) or a fiery pillar (Ex 13:21–22).

(Brad Kramer) #14

@AntoineSuarez you are misunderstanding what @jstump wrote in his post. He was wondering why YECs don’t appeal to the miraculous when trying to explain the “historicity” of the Flood event, given their background assumptions about faith and science. But he was not suggesting that the massive implausibilities of the Flood story should be reconciled with a simple appeal to miracles.

(Neal Heires) #15

Adding to this string of dialogue, I indeed personally have been perplexed to understand Genesis 2 and how it can be aligned with historical and scientific facts.
In praying about this I came to realize that if you understand the meaning of the message first, then the historical and scientific facts would follow.
So I began to ponder why the pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil is such a huge sin. Pondering it more deeply one begins to realize it is indeed the source of all sin, putting ourselves before God, and judging our neighbor rather than loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Now then going back to the passages, you realize that there is symbolism: Man is indeed created from water and dust, as when our body dies, this is what we become. Without God, we literally are nothing but water and dust. God created us from this dust of the universe, but for man we are “God Breathed” and have eternal life, if we pursue the “fruit from the tree of life” which is the Word of Jesus. God did do what Genesis says, but symbolically not literally. So, Adam and Eve existed and sinned, but the original sin is one we all commit as well, and need to give up and pursue the tree of life. Did they actually eat a fruit from a tree, or pursued a way of thinking contrary to God. Was Satan actually a serpent or a symbol for cunning crawling creature that deceitfully sneeks up on its prey and devours it whole leaving you with nothing. Indeed the most cunning of God’s creation and created BEFORE THE FALL! So Satan is part of God’s purpose in leading us to the tree of life even though he first leads us to sin! And indeed all of us are banned from the tree of life and the garden of Eden by the sword of an angel of the Lord - meaning you can’t get there on your own, you need to Jesus who is the way the truth and the life.
In summary, looking at the spiritual meaning first, the rest of the message makes more sense as you convert symbols in ways that are consistent with science and history. Revelation is loaded with symbolism, but for some reason we think Genesis cannot be symbolic. Both mention the tree of life - and I suggest both are symbolic.

(Antoine Suarez) #16

Thanks Brad for this clarification.

Precisely because YECs don’t appeal to the “miraculous”, I think Jim’s suggestion is worthy of being discussed more in depth.

Here three reasons:

  1. Jesus Christ himself (Luke 17:24-36, Matthew 24:27-39) and the Apostle Peter (2 Peter 2:5-6, 3:6) refer to Noah’s Flood both as a historical and miraculous event.

  2. BioLogos in [Read How should we interpret the Genesis flood account?] claims that “the Flood story is an interpretation of an actual historical event”.

  3. Miracles are by definition extraordinary events beyond human operational capabilities. Nonetheless in the light of today’s quantum physics it is clear that they do not conflict with science: Miracles do NOT violate any “laws of nature”.

(Brad Kramer) #17

They are quoting Genesis, which uses the Flood to make theological points. NT writers have access to the literary tradition of the Hebrews, not some sort of special access to “what really happened” in primeval times (beyond what Genesis says). Genesis is an ancient sort of stylized history which uses hyperbole and other rhetorical devices to make its point. It is not meant to give us some sort of special window into natural history. For more of this, check out the new book The Lost World of the Flood by @JohnWalton and @tremperlongman.

True, but this historical event is a catastrophic flood event in the ancient Near East, not a worldwide cataclysm. We need to be clear about what we are talking about. It is the interpretation of the Flood that is inspired, not the event itself.

(Marty) #18

Who is the intended audience for this article? “[Genesis] is silent on the scientific questions we might wish it to answer.” With this text being bolded early, I would argue that it is aimed at those who see historical significance in Genesis. The use of “plain sense” and “plain facts” certainly is targeted at YEC.

I’m not sure who puts this stuff together, but this is not a helpful column for at least two reasons:

  1. It fails to consider the audience. If a YEC reads this, they will immediately reject Biologos. They will think, “Anyone who puts man’s word above God’s word is hopeless.” Similarly if an OEC (like me) reads this, they would wonder if Biologos’ aggressive partisanship might make engaging with them hopeless.

  2. “scientific questions we might wish it to answer” is a straw man. I certainly have no “wish” that the Bible would answer scientific questions and I don’t know anyone who does.

There are many points in the article with which I agree, but I’m trying to understand why this was put out there with this tone. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. To everyone who does not already agree with you, this is vinegar. Why burn bridges?

I’ll argue one more point. Biologos treats Genesis in a black and white way around what we now know from science, that it must be completely silent on events that modern science has described to us. Since it isn’t perfect, it must be nothing. It seems reactionary to YEC, swinging the pendulum completely the other way. I find myself questioning the credibility of those who hold black and white views on non-essential matters.

If there were one trait on Biologos that I find most annoying, I think it is a lack of humility. I might call it “scholarly self-superiority.” It’s that ivory tower academia, patting others on the head for their quaint little views. Clearly not everyone here is like that, but enough are, and this article has too much of it.

I’m certainly not trying to pick a fight here, but I think you deserve to hear how this comes across to someone who doesn’t agree. And honestly, I’m hoping the feedback is helpful. You guys need to think about not only what you believe, but how this stuff comes across.

Your partner in Christ,

(George Brooks) #19


Are you suggesting that there is any kind of formulation that could build a bridge between YECs and Christians who endorse evolution?

How would that sentence sound? What would it include or exclude? You are the one pointing out the unworkable nature of the article as is.

So you might as well end the suspense … what sentence or paragraph would be better?

(Kathryn Applegate) #20

Marty, thank you for your feedback on our article, Is Genesis Real History?. I confess I’m taken aback by the strong negativity you express, but I’m nevertheless glad (truly!) to know how this article, and BioLogos itself, comes across to you.

You asked about the intended audience for the piece. All of the Common Questions are aimed at a general audience - they are meant to be accessible to a non-scientist / non-theologian, but should be nuanced enough to more or less appease the scholars among us (though obviously the brevity makes that challenging, and it’s anyway impossible to appease everyone!). In most of the biblical interpretation articles, we’re writing in response to the kinds of questions raised by conservative Protestant Christians. They will span the spectrum on origins. So yes, we had hoped this article would help YECs and OECs as well as help Evolutionary Creationists better understand the BioLogos approach to Scripture. The terms “plain facts” and “plain sense” were used because they seem better than “literal,” since “literal” means something different in a hermeneutical context than how we use it in everyday language. And yes, we were trying to communicate using words that people familiar with YEC rhetoric will understand.

You said, “I’m not sure who puts this stuff together.” In this case, I was the lead editor, but I worked closely with three noted biblical scholars (Tremper Longman @tremperlongman, Richard Middleton @JRM, and John Walton @JohnWalton). At least 3 BioLogos staff members besides myself were involved. This particular article took several months to bring to completion.

As for your point #1, many YECs will reject BioLogos a priori, without actually reading any of what we have published. They will do so because they believe Genesis 1 cannot be understood in any other sense than referring to 6 24-hr days. I would actually agree with them that there is no hope for anyone who puts man’s word above God’s word! But that is not what we are doing. I believe we are trying to take seriously all of God’s revelation to us.

As for your point #2., you quoted part of the bolded statement earlier in your comment, but the first bolded sentence is important for context. Here they are together.

We believe Genesis is a true account that, like other ancient narratives, uses vivid imagery to describe past events. It is silent on the scientific questions we might wish it to answer.

We do believe Genesis is talking about past events, and that it is in this sense true history. Maybe you don’t wish the Bible would answer scientific questions, but I do! I would so love to have a more accurate picture of reality. Right now we see through a glass so darkly! It would be fascinating and clear up so much conflict if God had decided to speak more clearly about the age of the earth and the extent to which he used regular processes like natural selection to create the diversity of life and about genetic inheritance and the nature of the soul and where exactly Jesus’ glorified body went when he ascended and so on. But he didn’t, and that’s ok. God’s word is still true and it’s what he in his divine wisdom wanted us to know. It is perfectly suited to its purpose, which is to reveal Himself to us and make us wise unto salvation.

You wrote, “Biologos treats Genesis in a black and white way around what we now know from science, that it must be completely silent on events that modern science has described to us.” This is certainly not how we view what we do. There are many areas of science that are not black and white and we try to indicate where there are competing hypotheses. But this is a question about the Bible, not science, and we have three respected Bible scholars telling us that Genesis doesn’t talk about science.

The thing I find most difficult in your comment is your assessment that we are lacking in humility and showing “scholarly superiority.” Ouch. Probably there is some truth in that, and I will pray for conviction about particular instances of this in my own heart. If there are particular phrases that you found especially irksome in the article, please send me a private message.

I don’t consider myself superior (intellectually or spiritually) to people who don’t share my perspective, but I DO trust that calling upon the expertise of Bible scholars leads to an infinitely more reliable article than I, as a cell biologist, could produce on my own. I’m so grateful for the wisdom and training of those who have spent their professional lives trying to understand the languages and cultures of Bible times. I know many feel this is “elitist” but to me this is a recognition that the Body has many parts. Of course all of us non-Bible scholars can still read the Bible profitably on our own, but our understanding is increased when we consult a commentary, study notes, talk to a pastor, etc.

Marty, again thank you for pointing out where you see areas of weakness. We don’t want to be stuck in an echo chamber and need people like you to help us understand when we’re not communicating as well as we might.