The Difficulties of Genesis 1 (Part 2 of 2)

In my previous article, I tried to show why the first chapter of the Bible is an exceedingly difficult passage for Bible students. The complexity of this chapter is reflected in the vast diversity of interpretations. One could write volumes on how Christians have dealt with Genesis 1 over the course of church history. Here I would like to give you four interpretations by well known preachers of our time. Three of these four men are active pastors ministering to great churches. I am particularly interested in how church pastors deal with the difficulties of Genesis 1, because my concern is not only about the theological debates but also about their practical implications for the church.

The historical eye-witness account

My first example is John MacArthur, pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church. MacArthur is considered by many to be one of the greatest expository preachers of our time, and I agree. His approach to Genesis 1 is quite literal. He treats the chapter as an eyewitness account of creation and reads it as one would read a history text. In MacArthur’s interpretation, each day of Genesis 1 is a 24-hour period, and the universe is no older than a few thousand years. Following this approach, God created physical light on day one and sun, moon and stars on day four. Needless to say, at least half of his sermon on Genesis 1 is an argument against evolution and its implications. Against the possibility of theistic evolution he argues that evolution itself is impossible. The historical elements of Genesis 1 are, according to him, so overwhelmingly obvious that he dismisses every other approach as turning science into a hermeneutic.

Although I absolutely admire MacArthur’s seriousness toward the word of God and his zeal to defend God’s truth, I find his approach too one-sided. As I mentioned, he approaches Genesis 1 as historical account, but not as an ancient historical document. Modern historians write chronologically, but ancient historians often did not (see, for example, the synoptic gospels). MacArthur doesn’t provide much explanation for why he believes that Genesis 1 is historical narrative. And, unfortunately, he doesn’t give much attention to the putative intentions of the original author. No consideration is given to the putative first hearers and readers of Genesis 1 (the Israelites wandering between Egypt and Canaan) and how they would have understood it.

God, the prophet of creation

A less literal approach can be seen in the interpretation of Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is a relatively young pastor of Mars Hill, a thriving and growing megachurch in Seattle. For him, the entire creation of the universe, including sun, moon and stars, is completed in the sentence, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” He sees evidence for this interpretation in the fact that the word for “made” in verse 1 is bara,’whereas for the following days, the author uses the word asa. He explains these two Hebrew words with a simple illustration. To “make” a bed can have two meanings. It can mean to construct and build a bed from scratch with wood, nails, etc. Or it can mean to tidy it up in the morning. Thus, when the Bible says that God made light, expanse, plants, land, etc. it does not necessarily mean that God created something that did not exist before. For instance, Driscoll interprets the appearance of light on day one simply as sunrise. When God separates the land from the sea, he is thinking of the Israelites in the desert and interprets this as God bringing forth the Promised Land as his own special ‘real estate.’ He also doesn’t see the making of sun, moon and stars on Day 4 as creating something new, but as God narrating and prophesying that he did create sun, moon and stars as mentioned in verse 1. So God doesn’t create something new every day, but he speaks and prophesies in his creation every day. Driscoll sees God as a prophet who is lovingly involved with his creation and speaking to it. In Driscoll’s sermon, he argues against macroevolution but he personally believes in an old earth.

Purely functional creation

The next interpretation I would like to discuss is that of John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Walton recently published a book called The Lost World of Genesis 1. His conclusions are radical and provocative, significantly different from what has traditionally been taught about Genesis 1. He begins with the observation that Genesis 1 is a piece of Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) literature. This implies that Genesis 1 is not a modern scientific text and should never be read as such. Furthermore, he identifies a number of parallels and similarities between the Genesis account and ANE worldviews. He attempts to understand Genesis 1 in light of ANE cosmology.

Analyzing the meaning of the Hebrew word bara, he concludes that Genesis 1 is not intended to describe the material origins of the universe. Walton is not saying that he doesn’t believe that God is the creator of matter. But he contends that Genesis 1 is not that story. Instead, he sees the chapter depicting God as a functional creator. The first three days are about the installment of basic functions. The light in the first day refers to the function of time; the expanse in day two refers to the function of weather; and day three deals with the function of food. Days four to six are about assignment of roles and spheres to those cosmic functionaries. In Walton’s interpretation, the account reaches its climax on the seventh day when God rests. His rest means that he enters his creation to rule over it. To illustrate, he compares God’s activity to the establishment of a new company or business. The functions of the company are first established (Days 1-3) and then the functionaries are assigned (Days 4-6). Then the only thing that remains is for the CEO to enter his office and begin running the company (Day 7). In Genesis 1, God is not creating a company; he is making the earth into a temple for himself. All of creation is God’s temple, and the days of creation are the inauguration of the temple, climaxing in God’s rest in his temple to rule over the earth.

Walton’s conclusions may seem too extreme. Many would disagree with his claim that Genesis 1 doesn’t have anything to say about material origins. Like MacArthur, he doesn’t seem open to accepting the possibility that there may be multiple valid interpretations and approaches to the text. Nevertheless, Walton’s analysis did give plausible answers to a couple of questions I had about Genesis 1. His desire to do excellent exegesis is unmistakable.

The song of creation

Last, but not least, I will mention Tim Keller’s take on this passage. Keller is founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Keller wrote an excellent and easily readable white paper on the debate over creation versus evolution. On the question of literary genre, Keller points out that Genesis 1 does not make use of parallelism, the predominant feature of Hebrew poetry. Nevertheless, the many repetitions in the passage sound to him like refrains. Thus, Keller sees Genesis 1 as a creation song. He finds evidence for his view in the fact that there are some contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. This he resolves by explaining that Genesis 1 and 2 share a ‘partnership’ similar to that seen in Exodus 14 and 15. One is the actual historical account, the other is a song paraphrasing the historical events utilizing metaphors and lyricism. In the case of Exodus 14-15, the event is the crossing of the Red Sea. That story is first told through the historical narrative, and then it is celebrated through the songs of Miriam and Moses. A similar thing is happening in Genesis 1-2, but the order is reversed; first comes the song, then somes the narrative.

In contrast to those who favor literal approaches to Genesis 1, Keller doesn’t think that Genesis 1 intends to say much about how God created the universe. Rather, he thinks that Genesis 1 is explaining why and for what. Keller does not argue at all against evolution. He does, however, strongly argue against a naturalistic view of the beginnings of the universe which claims that life came into existence only by impersonal, random and natural forces. He beautifully illustrates how Genesis 1 explains our longing for perfection and beauty and enjoyment. Most of all, he points to Jesus, the Word of God and the agent by which God created heaven and earth. Keller shows that on the cross, the opposite of creation occurs: Jesus was deconstructed, destroyed and unmade. All of this happened so that we, his fallen creation, could be remade and recreated for eternal joy.

I have presented four thoughtful and divergent views on Genesis 1 by contemporary Bible teachers. Which of these views sounds most plausible to you? What is your take on Genesis 1?

Let me finish with a few simple suggestions on how to deal with the difficulties of Genesis 1.

Suggestion 1: Before attempting to interpret this difficult first chapter of the Bible, invest some thought in how to do solid exegesis. Otherwise you may fall into the trap of arbitrarily of reading your own cultural biases into an Ancient Near-Eastern text.

Suggestion 2: Don’t treat Genesis 1 as a scientific or pseudo-scientific text. Genesis 1 was never meant to be a scientific treatise. (Example: When the author speaks about the creation of light, do not imagine he is talking about the phenomenon of electromagnetic waves or photons.) Because Genesis 1 deals with the origins of all things, and because the origin of the universe is a scientific pursuit, many people approach Genesis 1 with a desire to answer scientific questions. Well, don’t.

Suggestion 3: If you want to approach Genesis 1 more literally, consider the fact that the chapter does have a number of poetic elements, and one should be very cautious about applying literal interpretations to poetry. And vice versa: if you favor a less literal approach, consider the fact that Genesis 1 also contains elements of Hebrew narrative.

Suggestion 4: Don’t hesitate to consult the opinions of experts and scholars. So much is hidden to the untrained eye. For better or for worse, abundant resources are available.

Suggestion 5: Don’t be too quick to reach conclusions, and don’t be content with easy answers. Augustine of Hippo, the great bishop and philosopher, struggled extensively with Genesis 1 for many years. These honest struggles produced remarkable insights that are well worth reading even today.

Suggestion 6: Think hard, stay humble. All of us might be wrong and we should always be open to correction.

Alister McGrath put it well: “Evangelicals, after all, believe in the infallibility of Scripture, not the infallibility of its interpreters.”


  1. Henoch, this is your best article yet. The information you present is extremely valuable. Even more valuable is the attitude that you display: a willingness to be open and learn from everyone without ever assuming that anyone (including yourself) is 100% correct.

    I suspect that some readers will find this bewildering. They may have heard good things about MacArthur, Walton, Driscoll and/or Keller. These are all good men. And then to see that four intelligent, devout, reputable, effective  Bible teachers present the text in such divergent ways, the question becomes, “Which one is right? Whom should I follow?” And the even more vexing question, “When I study this passage with Bible students, what should I teach?”

    I believe that in today’s world, one of the qualities that you need to be an effective Bible teacher is the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Bible teaching is not about imparting a body of information to someone. It is creating an environment where the Bible student can learn how to approach the text with respect and learn from it by himself or herself and, in the process, grow in a relationship with God. It’s all  about learning how to learn. I’ve had the opportunity to study with some very good Bible teachers over the years: Tiger Lee, Daniel and Suzy Hong, Sarah Barry, James H Kim, Jacob Lee, etc.   These people are different. The  important things that I learned from each one, the things that stuck with me over the years, are not specific doctrines or interpretations of the text. What influenced me was to see how each of these people personally  interacted with the Scripture and with God.  Each one of my  Bible teachers  transmitted to me elements of their character. Same can be said of my Bible students. I have learned immensely from each of my Bible students. Bible study is a way for us to have holy fellowship with one another in the presence of God, sharing our character, personality and selves. To characterize the purpose of Bible study as to find the right answer and teach it to others is to lose the beauty and magnificence of what the Bible was meant to be: the living, breathing word that serves as the continual source of inspiration, renewal and strength in the community of saints.

    What I’m trying to say is this: The value of Henoch’s article is that he is modeling for all of us how a thoughtful sincere Christian can joyfully interact with the Bible and with other members of the Christian community to grow in faith and enjoy fellowship with God, growing in knowledge and maturity, without having to suppose that he  must get the right answer. It’s good to get the right answer, but it’s far more important to be in right relationships with God and with others. And to understand that what we  transmit most to others is not our informational knowledge but the less tangible but more powerful qualities of character.

    Here is a another shameless plug. (Yes, Wes, shameless plugs are always welcome at UBFriends, so plug away shamelessly whenever you like.) At the upcoming North American UBF staff conference in Chicago, there will be a track session on “Next Generation Education.” At that session, we are going to discuss how to create an environment where today’s disciples can learn how to learn. We will discuss educational models that work and ones that do not work. And we will discuss the all-important issues of character that  everyone inevitably passes on to the next generation whether they intend to or not. If you are coming to the staff conference, wed love to  see you there!

    • Oh wow, I’d really like to attend that session at the Staff Conference. I’ll do my best to attend at least that session. We are also going to be preparing our new Bible house dedication service that same weekend at Hyde Park (another shameless plug, haha).

    • Thanks, Joe, for your kind words and also for cleaning up the article before publishing it. I absolutely agree with you that the ultimate goal of studying God’s word is to foster and mature in our relationship with him and in our relationships with people. This demands me to always be open-minded to opinions of other Christians.

      But to avoid any misunderstandings: this does not mean that we follow the post-modern notion that texts are basically meaningless and that we can interpret it any way we want. (i’m not implying here that you said anything close to that).
      In contrary, i am arguing for a more thoughtful and careful approach to Scripture by abiding to certain exegetical rules… rules, which at times are more like rules of the thumb… =)

  2. I try to take a trinitarian approach to creation, since the Trinity was fully present in Genesis 1.  Elohim is trinitarian, a social being of interrelated persons made up of Father, Son, and Spirit.  Edwards says that the end for which God created the universe was “the communication of happiness” to his creatures.  Elohim made this world full love and beauty, and we, his creatures, are witnesses to God’s wonderful creation.  Evangelicals might be a little shy about a theology of creation and beauty since they may not want to align themselves with environmentalists.  However, the beauty of creation points to the Creator and to the Cross, as Keller pointed out.  This gives us endless opportunities to witness to nonbelievers.
    Thank God for the variegated ways in which we can approach the Bible.  We need to listen to godly men and women who have wrestled with the issues you presented, Henoch.  There aren’t any easy answers–if they weren’t easy for Augustine, they aren’t going to be easy for us.  But that shouldn’t stop us from sitting down with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and trying to understand what God is communicating to us through his word.

    • “However, the beauty of creation points to the Creator and to the Cross, as Keller pointed out. This gives us endless opportunities to witness to nonbelievers.”

      I absolutely agree with your statement. This should be the ultimate end of the creation story in Genesis.

    • Darren Gruett

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. All of Scripture bears witness to Christ, not just the Gospels proper.

  3. Henoch, this was truly a great read. However, I feel that the title of these two articles should be “The challenges of Genesis 1” to emphasize the need to overcome challenges in studying Gen 1 rather than the difficulty in accepting it.

    On a lighter side, I get the subtle hint that your suggestions are every-so-slightly hinting at a particular interpretation of Genesis 1. But I’m just poking fun.

  4. @Ben: this is very interesting. I once heard that the early church fathers had a much more Christ-centered way of interpreting Scriptures. i would very much interested to hear more about that. Keller also focused much on how the Trinity worked together during creation. I didn’t mention it in the article, but Keller pointed out that God’s agent of creation is his Word. God speaks. And he interprets this as Jesus being the Word of God who created. This is mind-boggling.

    @Wes: Ha, ha… of course i have my own preferences concerning Genesis 1! At least sort of…
    i accept your suggestion concerning the title. Every difficulty is growth opportunity.

    • Darren Gruett

      Having a Christ-centered interpretation of the Bible is vital to our understanding all of Scripture. And what you said about God speaking and Christ being the agent of creation is certainly in line with Colossians 1:16. It is mind boggling indeed!

  5. Darren Gruett

    The creation account certainly raises a lot of questions, some of which may never be fully answered this side of heaven. Still, the variances in interpretation are not just an honest difference of opinion; it is the result of different hermeneutical principles being applied to the text. Unfortunately, there is not a consensus among Bible scholars as to what those principles are or should be.

    Having said that, the only consistent and satisfactory way to interpret Scripture is to do so using a historical-literal approach. Those who interpret Genesis 1 as less than literal run the danger of interpreting all of Scripture as less than literal. Imagine what could happen if we did that? We might say that Jesus was not really dead for three days, because none of us would know what a day was. Or worse, we might say that “death” was really a euphemism for being asleep.

    To apply one hermeneutic to one part of the Bible and another hermeneutic to another part does not make any sense at all. Incidentally, that is one of my big problems with Covenant Theology, but that is for another discussion.

    I am curious to know how most orthodox and Messianic Jews interpret Genesis 1. I would imagine that most of them interpret it literally, considering all the literal promises contained in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah. And from what we know of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, their approach to Scripture was certainly a literal approach.

    Now, concerning the differences in the Hebrew words bara and asa, it is true that there are nuances in meaning. Still, most word-for-word English translations render the word asa as “make” in Genesis 1. And while it can be translated otherwise, that is the most common rendering of that word throughout the entire Old Testament. If the context suggests that it should be rendered differently in Genesis 1 then I ask, “Why isn’t it?”

    I have one final thought about this as it relates to Scripture in general. Either the days of creation are literal days or they are not; but they cannot be both! This must lead us to the conclusion that despite any differences of opinion about Genesis 1 or any other part of the Bible, Scripture has only one, true interpretation. While we all should study the Bible for ourselves and do our own interpretation, I simply cannot accept the notion that each of us gets to interpret it in our own way. If we apply a common, logical hermeneutical principle when doing so, then we should all get to the same conclusion.

  6. Hi Darren. Thank you for participating in this lively discussion. I have a question for you. You said, “Scripture has only one true interpretation.” How then can you explain the fact that the authors of the NT use verses from the OT in ways that appear to be far from the original context, ways that would never have occurred to the original target audience?

    For example, last night we were studying Hebrews 2. We were wondering how and why the author of Hebrews, in Heb 2:12, quotes a line from Isaiah 8:18: “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” In the original OT text, it is quite clear that “I” is Isaiah, and “the children” are his own children, the ones with hysterically funny names. But the author of Hebrews uses it in a very different way, equating “I” with Jesus and “the children” with us. Same text, multiple meanings, no?

    To say that a text can have multiple meanings is not the same thing as saying that all interpretations are equally acceptable.

  7. Darren Gruett

    Joe, I am glad to be able to weigh-in on the discussion. This is one my favorite sites, and I hope to post some articles here soon myself.

    You do raise a very good point about Hebrews 2:13. At the risk of sounding overly technical, we could say that the difference is not one of interpretation, but application. In other words, when Isaiah made that statement, he was speaking of his own physical children, that being the correct interpretation. But when the author of Hebrews looked back he saw a wider application than just that of Isaiah’s children, and thus he applies it to Christ as well. This is one of the more common problems with prophetic literature. The same issue also comes up in Isaiah 7:14, in reference to the virgin birth of the Messiah.

    Also, when it comes to interpreting the text correctly, and saying that there is but one, true interpretation, I do not think that precludes multiple meanings within the text, as long as those multiple meanings were the original intent of the author. Using Isaiah 7:14 as an example, it would be an incorrect interpretation to say that the text only refers to Isaiah’s son, and not the Messiah. The correct interpretation is that it means both.

    Going back to Genesis 1, speaking about “a day,” for example, it cannot refer to both a 24 hour period of time and a 24 million year period of time (I am being facetious). And there is no place else later on in Scripture that reapplies the days of creation to mean something else or to refer to something other than a typical day.

    Now, I do agree with you that when it comes to discrepancies in interpretation, certainly they are not all equally acceptable. This is one reason why I think that an agreed-upon hermeneutic is so important. If the rules of interpretation are applied equally and consistently, I think that we would find many less instances of disagreement about difficult passages.

    • Darren, thank you very much for your interesting posts and for participating in this discussion.
      i know that some people are more flexible in their interpretation of the term “day” in Genesis 1. Just one thing i would like to point out, (you probably might have heard about this before) is that the Hebrew word for day is “yom”. And this word can mean “day” as in 24-hour day but it can also mean “age”. I am not advocating for the latter use in Genesis 1 but i am just saying here that there is a level of sophistication, which requires us to be careful with over-simplifications.
      By the way, John Walton was asked why he doesn’t interpret Genesis 1 literally. And Walton replied that he interprets it very literally. He totally believes that the seven days of creation are referring to seven 24-hour days. However, his conclusions radically differ from every other Genesis 1 interpretation i have heard so far.
      I was wondering: what exactly do you mean by saying ‘historical-literal’ approach?

  8. Darren, thanks for your gracious reply. Are you saying that the multiple meanings of Isaiah 8:18 were in the mind of the author? (I think they were in the mind of the Spirit, but not necessarily in the mind of Isaiah.) From what I know about Jewish culture, especially at the time of Christ (which was about the time of the Talmud), the hermeneutics in common use departed substantially from the historical-literal model. That hermeneutic being used by the author of Hebrews, for example. The historical-literal one is more a child of modernism (post 18th century).

    • Darren Gruett

      You make a very good point, and yes, I would agree that it was in the mind of the Spirit, but not necessarily in the mind of the one who wrote it down. Again, that is the nature and problem of prophetic literature. Perhaps it is better to say that the author is the Spirit, and that the writer is simply the agent. That certainly satisfies the notion that the author intended what was written, both in an immediate as well as a far off sense.

    • Darren Gruett

      One more thing, I am not familiar with the hermeneutic approach that was commonly employed at the time of Christ. Perhaps I should look into that more closely.

    • Hi Darren. Once again, your replies are gracious and helpful. Last year, I attended a workshop on how the writers of the NT (e.g., Matthew) read and understood the OT. It was fascinating. It made me realize that they had a unique way of viewing the OT that was in some ways similar to, and in some ways very different from, the approaches of the Jews of that time. And it was a very different hermeneutic from those that are commonly practiced and taught in seminaries today (both conservative and liberal ones). Wouldn’t it be awesome to read the Bible the way the apostles did? It would greatly help us in our understanding of both the OT and NT.

  9. Great post Henoch, and comments, as well.

    D.A. Carson, in his lecture and book–The God Who Is There–addressed many aspects of Genesis 1 and 2 in chapter 1 with the title “The God Who Made Everything.” (

    Regardless of the position or interpretation or genre or hermaneutical approach that one takes, Carson mentions 7 things about God and 3 things about man that Genesis 1-2 is telling us:

    Some Things about God

    1) God simply is.
    2) God made everything that is non-God.
    3) There is only one of him.
    4) God is a talking God.
    5) Everything God makes is good–very good.
    6) God comes to an end of his creative work, and he rests.
    7) The creation proclaims his greatness and glory.

    Some Things about Human Beings

    1) We are made in the image of God.
    2) We human beings were made male and female.
    3) The man and his wife were innocent.

    As much as Christians and scientists can’t agree on how exactly to interpret (or refute) Genesis, it is remarkable that it still stands as a towering document about God and creation and the world, even though it was written ~3,500 years ago!

    • Ben, i can absolutely agree with what you wrote.
      Thank you so much for posting D.A. Carson’s resources here. i saw on the website you posted that his resources (mp3-files) are for free. It’s definitely on my to-do-list. :)

  10. Darren Gruett

    Henoch, it is true that the word for day can be rendered as “age” instead of “day.” Actually, it can be rendered in a number of different ways. However, it is only rendered as “age” about nine times, whereas it is rendered as “day” or “days” 1750 times. So that is the common understanding of that word.

    However, the text does not just say that it there was a first day, and a second day, etc. Rather, it predicates each of those with the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning”; and those words are much less ambiguous in Hebrew.

    When I say historical-literal approach, I mean that we always take Scripture at face value, assuming that it literally means what it says within the given historical context. That is just the most natural way to read and understand anything. Nobody reading this would assume that I mean anything less or more that what I am saying. So why would we read about a day in Genesis and start thinking that it means something else?

    • Darren, i appreciate your response. Please forgive me asking stupid questions but i really try to get you right: what do you mean by historical context? And would you mind giving an example?
      My general approach to the bible (as a first step) is to try to understand what the original authors had in mind. And i believe that sometimes, the biblical authors wanted to be understood literally (my classical example are the introducing words of Luke’s gospel). In other circumstances, the authors did not want to be understood literally, which is reflected in their writing style or literary genre. (For instance, some biblical authors used sarcasm. To take that literally would obviously be absurd. Another example would be poetry, wisdom literature etc.)
      So my first step in trying to understand a given passage would be to ask basic questions, such as: who is the author? who is his audience? which are the circumstances? what kind of literary style did he choose to communicate his message? what kind of world view did they have?
      In the next step, (hermeneutics), i would ask such questions as, how the passage relates to the gospel, if and how it points to Christ, and its applications for the here and now.

  11. I just cant resist posting a paragraph that I read this morning from C.H. Spurgeon’s “John Ploughman’s Talks.” Here he is talking about “Religious Grumblers” who think they know all mysteries in the Bible…God forbid any of us would become one of these!

    “Every clock, and even the sundial, must be set according to their watches and the slightest difference from their opinion proves a man to be rotten at heart. Venture to argue with them, and their little pots boil over in quick style; ask them for reason, and you might as well go to a sand pit for sugar. They have bottled up the sea of truth, and carry it in their waist coat pockets; they have measured heaven’s line of grace and have tied a knot in a string at the exact length of electing love; and as for the things which angels long to know, they have seen them all as boys see sights in a peep-show at our fair. Having sold their modesty and become wiser than their teachers,they ride a very high horse and jump over all five barred gates of Bible texts which teach doctrines contrary to their notions…”

    • David, i love your quote from Spurgeon. He is right. I do have tendencies to be that kind of person, which Spurgeon so artistically caricatures.
      Another funny Spurgeon anecdote… He once had an argument with a person concerning a crucial doctrine. And his debater would tell Spurgeon in a somewhat proud way that he had read the entire bible on his knees and that he didn’t find any passage that mentions the particular doctrine they were arguing about.
      Spurgeon replied by saying that reading the bible on his knees is a fairly uncomfortable position. And Spurgeon recommended him to read the bible once more in a proper posture to get his doctrines right.
      I just love this man.

  12. Oh,and my post above was not directed at anyone in particular (except maybe myself!)

  13. This discussion seems to have taken a sharp hermeneutical turn. If we look at what God is communicating in his word, of course we have to look at genre, historical context etc. However, getting those categories correct, or simply agreeing on them can be problematic.

    I’m reminded of the story of NT scholar Robert Gundry. Through his exhaustive study of the book of Matthew, he came to the conclusion that Matthew was using the genre of Midrash in writing the Gospel of Matthew. This meant that some of the events in the book didn’t necessarily have to take place in a historical sense. The events just had to make a theological point. For Gundry it didn’t matter whether or not the Magi came and actually visited Jesus–Matthew may have included that story to make a theological point (emphasizing the inclusion of the Gentiles in Christ’s ministry), and not a historical one (i.e., the shepherds in Luke’s birth narrative). Now Gundry can still hold to the inerrancy of the Bible since Matthew isn’t doing anything wrong according to the genre in which he is writing.

    Other scholars couldn’t handle Gundry’s take. They felt that his reading of Matthew was a slippery slope. Gundry was kicked out of ETS and other evangelical societies. It was controversial at the time (in the 80’s), and still is today. You can read about it here:
    and if you have access to scholarly journal databases, you can search for some more in depth articles there.

    I’ll close with one of my favorite William Blake poems:

    Both read the Bible day and night,
    But thou read’st black where I read white.

  14. After reading about Gundry, his membership or lack thereof in ETS, doesn’t seem to me to be the issue. Rather, his views are lambasted as unorthodox, when in fact they offer an ahistorical way of interpreting the gospel. Modern ‘conservative’ scholars are like a salt flat, offering no interesting points that might blossom into debate. An arch rightist like Geisler, (though raising thoroughbreds like Ravi Zacharias) squelch the life of a vigorous debate with platitudes and low blows. The Gundry episode is a travesty of modern evangelicalism in my opinion.

    That’s another issue altogether from the interpretation of Genesis, which is the remainder in the long-division equation. Can anyone have an 100 % accurate hermeneutical approach towards the Genesis Record? Take the table of nations in Genesis 10. Can anyone honestly admit that any table of conservative scholars can tell from this record where the political lines of the nations are? This is ridiculous, ludicrous even. Dealing with the ambiguity of Scripture is just as important, if not more so, as dealing with the ambiguity of the Bible teacher.

    Debate, is and has always been the method by which we avoid the autodafe that happened during the Spanish Inquisition. Where ETS is right is that Scripture is and has been infallible, but also we know that interpreters are faulty, as McGrath reminds us. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this debate.

  15. Andrew, I would not paint with such a large brush about “modern conservative scholars.” I personally know many conservative scholars at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, that are far from being “salt flats.” But here is something, Charles Hodge, professor at Princeton, and widely considered to be the greatest Christian mind of the 19th century said, “I have never advanced a new idea”, and he also remarked of Princeton Seminary, “I am not afraid to say that a new idea never originated in this Seminary.” Not that things cant be challenged, but Gundry is on very dangerous theological ground there…

    I think that it is a slippery slope to say that Matthew is a Midrash. If the Magi never existed as Gundry asserts, than the slaughter of the innocents never took place, then the baby Christ had no reason to flee to Egypt, then Joseph had no reason to “withdraw to the district of Galilee,” then Christ would not have grown up there, and met the disciples there etc. etc.

  16. Darren Gruett

    That is not a stupid question at all, Henoch, and I am more than happy to clarify what I mean. When I speak of historical context, I simply mean that the events recorded in the Bible take place within history at a certain time and place, involving certain people and events. For instance, when Jesus spoke to the woman from Samaria (Jn 4) the modern reader may not think much about that; but by understanding the historical context of how men and women at the time related to one another as well as their differing social statuses, it helps us to better grasp what was going on there. So it would be important to ask, “What would that have meant to the people of that time?” rather than, “What does it mean to me?” That is the difference between interpretation and application.

    I think that when you say that you try to find out what the original authors had in mind, the circumstances surrounding the writing, etc., you are trying to determine the historical context of the passage. Maybe we are just using different words to describe the same thing. However, I think that asking those questions is part of hermeneutics, not something separate from it or something that is done before moving on to hermeneutics.

    As for figures of speech, you are right that it would be absurd to take them literally. When the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, we do not think that he literally made it like stone. However, that figure of speech is conveying a literal truth, namely, that he was being stubborn. So reading the Bible literally does not preclude the use of sarcasm or euphemisms or other metaphors. The same is true of English. When I ask someone, “What’s up?” I do not mean literally, “What is above you?” But I am wanting to know literally how he is feeling and what events are taking place in his life.

    Since others have included some of their favorite quotes, I will close with one of mine, from the 19th century revivalist Samuel P. Jones: “I believe the Bible just as it was written, and I believe that the whale swallowed Jonah.   I would have believed it just the same if it had said that Jonah swallowed the whale.”

    • Darren Gruett

      Also, just in case someone says something about reading the Bible literally, I know, the text does not say it was a whale. :)

    • Thank you, Darren, for your kind response.

      As for the terms “exegesis” and “hermeneutics”: i generally stick to the definitions, which were suggested in the book “How to read the bible for all its worth”. In this book, the authors define exegesis as understanding what the Word meant back then to the original hearer. Hermeneutics is defined as translating these findings to the ‘Here and Now’.

      May i ask: what is your take on Genesis 1?

  17. Although Darren, King James says that Jesus says it was a whale (and there are those who say that good old King James is always right)! “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:40

  18. Birgit (Heidelberg)

    I`m neither a scientist nor did I know Theologians approaches to Genesis 1. I’m just a simple Bible student. But it was always obvious for me that Genesis 1 is like a very, very deep well. I will never come to an end, when digging out all its treasures.
    Whenever I read Genesis 1 (especially when I read it out loud), it is powerful and heart-moving like a poem revealing God’s infinite glory. And indeed, I imagined that God first created all things and then arranged everything. It was so fascinating for me to imagine God separating the waters with mighty hand. Our God is a God of order and harmony. (Applied to myself – he also wants to create order and harmony within my inner being.) And he’s a God of provision because he first prepared the environment and then put living beings into their specific areas. (Again an application to myself – he put me into the church and into the professional environment he had prepared according to his good will. Now it’s my turn to make good use of it.)
    I feel sorry, if somebody wants to analyse Genesis 1 with “scientific” methods, because “ana-lyse” has to do with dissolution. It destroys the wonderful proclamation of our Creator.

    • Hi Birgit, thank you very much for your comment.

      The four interpretations presented in this article are from renowned and famous bible teachers of our time. All of them believe in the deity and bodily resurrection of Christ and hold on to “crunchy” orthodox, christian beliefs as we do. All of them believe that God is the creator. And yet, their interpretations differ substantially. Furthermore, they contradict each other. This implies that one of them must be right and others must be wrong. Maybe they are all wrong. But either way, they cannot be all right at the same time.

      In light of this, i decided for myself to appreciate these difficulties by trying to do better exegesis and trying to maintain a respectful and humble spirit, especially towards those who have struggled more extensively with Genesis 1 than i did.

      As for the theological implications: i learned from Genesis 1 that God was in the beginning, that he is the prima causa and the Creator of everything and that he created me for a purpose, that is, to enjoy Him and to one day be able to hear from himself the joyous words: “very good”.

    • Birgit (Heidelberg)

      Hi, Henoch,

      I think, each of the four Theologians is kind of right. I mean, their different approaches don’t imply that one of them must be right and the others must be wrong. It’s enriching for us to see their different approaches, each of them has its own value. Maybe you didn’t realize, but my former comment was combined by “Nr. 2” and “Nr. 3”.

      BUT: For me – it must not be the case for everybody – it’s not really helpful to study  Bible scholar’s interpretations. My basic personal problem is that Bible knowledge remains in my head, but doesn’t go down to my heart. In the case of Genesis 1 it is preferable for me, just to read the Bible – and I end up with being amazed by God’s magnificence.

      As for other Bible passages, I think it’s most necessary to have some background information: What does a certain expression mean? How was the political or economical situation? Geographical setting? How was people’s way of life at that time? How was their mindset? I prefer to use Bible encyclopedies instead of commentaries.

      I feel sorry that I am not able to express myself perfectly in English, but I hope, readers can grasp what I mean.

    • Thanks, Birgit. Your English is wonderful. If I did not know you, I could think that English is your primary language. BTW your testimony of the grace of God to you from Genesis 1 is refreshing and uplifting to hear.
      Our world has exploded in knowledge and access to information. Yet, the basic truths of Genesis 1 can fully transform a sinner’s heart. It is always fascinating to me that so many Korean college students were converted when they studied Genesis 1, as they were overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit through the realization that God is their Creator. I am a little “inferior” to that, because my conversion did not occur in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 2, specifically Genesis 2:17, which is nothing but the marvelous grace of Jesus to me.
      I’m thinking that knowing and understanding many different perspectives and angles of Genesis 1 is important, as our stewardship for all kinds of people. Many won’t need to know the complexity of information to be touched or changed, yet if one knows it, it shows that our faith is not blind, but reasoned and rationally thought out, despite all the information out there.
      If you are interested, this 50 min lecture on Genesis 1-2 by a Trinity seminary professor is quite good:

    • Birgit (Heidelberg)

      Dear Dr. Ben,
      thank you for the link. I will soon take time to listen to the lecture.