Editor’s note: How do Christians reconcile the creation story in Genesis with the findings of science? We asked Mary Vandenberg, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, to tell us what she teaches future Christian Reformed pastors on this issue.
Many people study the Bible as a piece of interesting ancient literature. But Christians believe that the Bible is an ancient book written by people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible is the Word of God for the people of God. It is the foundation of our understanding about God and God’s interactions with the world. Every other teaching must ultimately submit to this God-breathed Word.
But we cannot pick up this book and expect to understand everything in it without knowing some things about it.
Understanding the Text
The first thing we need to recognize is that the Bible is a literary work. In other words, it reflects the literary conventions of its day. So one of the things we need to do as we approach any text is to figure out what sort of text it is. Is it poetry or narrative or prophecy or a letter? We would not read a letter from our child in exactly the same way as we read a newspaper article or a novel or a poem. Each type of literature requires a certain kind of reading and understanding. And identifying the type of literature we are dealing with as we read the Bible will affect our interpretation.
The second thing worth noting is that the Bible was written in several ancient languages and in a particular historical context. Our English translations are generally good, but they reflect judgment calls made by the translators wherever ambiguous words or grammatical constructions occur. Sometimes we miss details if we are not reading the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.
More important, however, is acknowledging that the words and phrases of the Bible come out of a culture and context we are not familiar with. Many people in the ancient near East, for example, believed that humans were created to be slaves for the gods. How surprising it must have been for them to read the Israelite account in which humans were made not to be slaves but in the image of God, who intended humans to represent him on the earth like royalty! Clearly part of the purpose of this text was to contrast what the ancient world was saying about human persons with what God says about human persons. But in order to recognize that detail, we need to know something about the context of the ancient Near East.
Biblical scholar John Walton writes that good interpreters must enter the culture of the biblical text in order to read these culturally shaped texts properly. If we do not attempt to enter and understand these cultures, we run the risk of reading Scripture on our terms rather than its own terms.
This does not mean, however, that these texts are in some way bound by their cultures and not relevant to us today. Rather, this principle entails hearing the text within its culture in order to better understand the teaching of the text for the people of God today.
What about Genesis?
So how does this principle apply when reading the early chapters of Genesis? Taking into account the type of literature we are dealing with and the cultural context in which it is situated, including the other literature of that era, we find that the creation account has as its primary purpose to instruct God’s people that the God of Israel—not the sun, moon, or stars—is the only true God. And that this God created the heavenly bodies and everything else.
The poetic structure of Genesis 1:1-2:4 is more like a “drawing of the far-distant past,” as Henri Blocher suggests, than a detailed historical-scientific description of how the material world came to be. Although Genesis 2-11 has a narrative rather than poetic structure, a similar argument could be made about these unusual narrative chapters, particularly when noting the shift in the tone of the narrative at Genesis 12.
Using the metaphor of a book, the Belgic Confession teaches that God makes himself known to us in two ways. First, God reveals himself through the creation and providential care of the world. Second, God reveals himself through Scripture. In fact, it is through Scripture that God makes himself known “more clearly.”
‘Brighter Views of God’s Glory’
John Calvin writes that we first encounter God through creation. Drawing on Romans 1, Calvin writes that on each of God’s works “his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious” that there is no excuse for ignorance of God. Calvin goes on to describe the natural sciences and those who study them as having the opportunity “to obtain brighter views of God’s glory.” Nonetheless, also drawing on Romans 1, Calvin makes clear that, left to our own devices, we will stifle or distort this knowledge of God and his attributes that is all around us. Scripture, says Calvin, provides the “spectacles” needed to read nature and come to a correct understanding of God.
For Christians who may at times become anxious about the work of science, it might help to remember that God created humans with the expressed intention that they rule over the created world. Good and responsible rulers know their territory and subjects well. The work of thinking and wondering about God’s world through experimentation, exploring geological or paleoanthropological evidence, and other scientific means seems a fitting exercise for God’s vice-regents. Furthermore, Calvin suggests that through the work of discovering how the world works, “the Providence of God is more fully unfolded.”
The work of scientists has the potential to enhance our lives in many practical ways. For that we should all be thankful. But it also has the potential to help people delight in God and his attributes through the discovery of the intricacies of God’s world. Calvin suggests “it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric of creation without being overwhelmed by the weight of God’s glory.”
It would be good to end this brief discussion where we began. Sometimes theologians behave as though we have all the answers to the difficult questions regarding Genesis and its intersection with science. Likewise, sometime scientists behave as though they have all the answers, or someday will have all the answers, to the sorts of questions that arise from the early chapters of Genesis. In reality, although God has given us a magnificent world to explore and his marvelous Word to interpret, there is much here that we will likely never know.
Theologian Thomas Weinandy suggests that the best theological inquiry begins with the acknowledgment of mystery, takes time and effort to explore the mystery, and ends with an acknowledgment of mystery. I suggest the same sort of method should be employed in scientific inquiry.
Ultimately all conclusions from human experience must submit to the authority of Scripture. It is the first word and the last word. Very simply, that means that in many cases we won’t have all the answers to every question we have.
But we do have all we need for salvation.