Editor’s note: This column presents another perspective on the topic raised by Bernard Van Ee in his article “Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?” (Reformed Matters, August 2012).
Is historical, factual interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis necessary? I believe the short answer is no. Nor is it feasible for many Christians today as they try to balance interpretations of Scripture with worldviews also developed through scientific and literary study.
According to Michel Shermer, a noted thinker on the subject of myth, “Myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. But because we live in an age of science, we have a preoccupation with corroborating our myths.”
Although Shermer is a professed agnostic, his definition requires some unpacking in the biblical context. Trying to unravel the story of creation in its original prose (that is, in the style of a myth) in a scientific age is simply unreasonable.
The biblical creation has some similarities to (and important differences from) Babylonian creation myths. It is written in a way that is culturally relatable. But rather than stating that the creation of the world was a byproduct of a conflict among the gods (as in the Babylonian story Enuma Elish), the Genesis account states that creation was a deliberate act—and it was good! Whether or not the biblical creation story is true in the strict factual sense, it remains a myth (by Shermer’s definition) and teaches something important about God’s character. This mythological writing differs from the firsthand and secondhand accounts of Christ’s resurrection recorded in the New Testament, which can be interpreted in the factual sense and require a different interpretive lens than the writings of the Torah.
It is very important to consider the entire biblical historical narrative when looking at Christian theology, but must we hold a strict factual and historical interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis? Is it possible, perhaps, to glean some truths and also live with some mystery? Let’s consider the plot of Genesis 1-11 in general terms:
- God created the world and it was good.
- God created humans who willfully chose (and continue to choose) to sin against him.
- God promised to send a Redeemer.
Without a literal “Adam,” I don’t have a well-defined idea of how the fall occurred. But for me the main idea is that sin is a choice, and that the world is fallen, and that the promised Redeemer of Genesis 3:15 is Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament. I take this general truth from the mythology without having to invoke a strict factual historical interpretation of the specific events.
Let’s also consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter 1 describes God’s revelation in three ways: through his creation, through his Word, and through his Spirit. I believe we must interpret revelation of all three in light of the others, and I believe that part of God’s revelation of himself is through our understanding of the physical world. If we consider the best well-accepted biological science of today (more specifically, the science of genetics), it is not possible to consider that all humans were descended from a two-person pair (a literal Adam and Eve). And if we insist on a dogmatic view of Genesis 1-11 as being historically factual, we will inevitably force those who hold a high regard for today’s science to either reject their science or reject Christianity. We need a middle ground.
The discussions surrounding interpretations of Genesis are important and very valuable. But ultimately some Christians will have to accept that they must agree to disagree. The most important thing is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ . . . [and to] ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37, 39).
- How would you answer Brunsting’s opening question: “Is historical, factual interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis really necessary?” Why or why not?
- What findings of science do not square well with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11?
- Brunsting argues that the creation story in Genesis, whether factually true or not, teaches us important things about God’s character. What would those things be? Would they be true even if the story itself is myth?
- Brunsting contends, “This mythological writing differs from the firsthand and secondhand accounts of Christ’s resurrection recorded in the New Testament, which can be interpreted in the factual sense and require a different interpretive lens than the writings of the Torah.” In this way Brunsting wants to allow for a mythological reading of Genesis 1-11 but a literal reading of the Easter accounts. Does that work? Is it indeed the case that some biblical texts can be taken figuratively while others need to be taken literally? Can you give examples of each?
- What are some of the truths Brunsting gleans from the Genesis account? Would these still be true even if the account itself is deemed to be mythological?
- Is it a sound practice to interpret Scripture in the light of creation revelation and creation revelation in the light of Scripture? Why or why not? What are some examples of how that would work?
- Brunsting admits that for now we may have to agree to disagree on such things as the historicity of Genesis 1-11. Can we and should we do that?
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Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Feature: Tending God’s Creation
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- Book Review: Something’s Not Right