Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Genesis, Creation, & contemporary science

Steve and I recently had an e-mail exchange on some issues related to interpreting Genesis, the days of creation, and their relationship to contemporary science. We thought others might benefit from this interaction.

Evan May

Hey Steve,

I thought your post on the creation days and God's labor during the daylight was insightful. I appreciate the way that you have an eye to how the original audience would conceptualize a text given their world and setting; we're often hampered by the fact that we interpret these texts from behind a desk in the AC!

I was curious if your position related to the days of creation and the age of the earth question had developed any. I've not come across anything you've written recently that wouldn't complement what you've written in the past, but it has seemed to gesture toward some possible change in thought. But maybe I'm misreading that.

Just was curious as to where you find yourself currently in your study of these things. You've always been a helpful guide to me.

Steve Hays

Ah, always so tactful! Complicated question to answer:

i) I'm probably more open to/sympathetic to OEC than I was as a young man. If we range OEC on the left of YEC, perhaps that means I'm going soft in my dotage. However, I don't think it's that simple.

ii) For one thing, I'm open to a version of Omphalism, which is to the right of YEC.

As I've discussed before, for all we know, the universe may well be like a period movie set. To all appearances, it began as if history was already in progress.

Take directors of historical movies like Tombstone. They build movie sets with period architecture, period technology, period attire, &c. Instant past. In the opening scene of Tombstone, the Earp brothers step off the train. That's where the story begins. There is, of course, an implicit backstory. But that doesn't really "exist" within the world of the film.

Critics complain that if mature creation is true, then we see the aftereffect of supernovas that never existed. True, but so what? It's like asking where the RR tracks at the Tombstone station really begin.

I don't have any antecedent ethical or theological objection to the possibility that we are living on the movie set of a cosmic historical fiction (in that sense). In that respect, my position is more radical than YEC.

iii) That said, for several years I've taken in interest in the neglected significance of light and darkness in Gen 1. For instance:

"Fiat lux"

"Light shade"

Is the emphasis on units of time or units of light? Of course, that could be a false dichotomy. Obviously, it can be both. But it's a question of what the narrator is accentuating.

iv) I began to observe the frequency of septunarian patterns in OT narratives:

"Sacred time & sacred space"

That raises questions about numerology: round numbers, symbolic numbers.

Likewise, the relationship between the first day and the fourth day has always been provocative:

"The significance of the fourth day"

v) In addition, when I read Biblical narratives I think it's good for the reader to cast himself in the role of a movie director. If I had to film this, what should I see in my mind's eye? For instance, as I recently said:
There's also the enigmatic relationship between light on day 1 and lights on day 4. Part of the explanation is that you can't put lights in the sky before you make the sky. In that respect, day 2 must precede day 4. Likewise, it's the sky as seen in relation to the land, from the perspective of a ground-based observer. In that respect, day 2 must precede day 3, while day 3 must precede day 4–inasmuch as you can't see lights in the sky from earth until the earth (i.e. dry land) is made.

Put another way, there's a distinction between light without land supplying the frame of reference (day 1), and light with land supplying a frame of reference (day 3). If the land is submerged, an observer can't see light overhead, because he has nowhere to stand. And that analysis of day 4 is true whether or not we endorse the temple interpretation.
Likewise, I think it's important that we put ourselves in the situation of the original audience, as best we can (from this far out).

vi) I think there's undoubtedly a fair amount of truth to mature creation. And once you make allowance for mature creation, it's hard to draw a bright line. Likewise, once you make allowance for an omnipotent, interventionist God–or even creatures with paranormal abilities–it's much harder to exclude various possibilities.

vii) I think it's a good exercise to develop some competing paradigms (YEC, OEC, Omphalism) in detail; to take each one as far as they can. By working them out as fully as possible, that facilitates comparing and contrasting them, assessing their respective stronger and weaker points.

viii) Because I think YEC might well be right, we should be prepared to defend it. We should develop supporting arguments. And that's something I continue to do. But OEC might be right. So the same strategy applies to OEC. Same thing with Omphalism.

One reason I so often defend YEC is because I think most objections to YEC are ill-conceived. Also, atheists typically ignore OEC. They attack YEC or Intelligent design theory. Those are their primary targets.

ix) Here's an example of a Christian who was too invested in a particular interpretation. Notice, it wasn't disproving Genesis that generated a crisis of faith, but merely disproving (or challenging) a particular interpretation of two verses. It wasn't the truth of Genesis that was it stake, but the truth of his interpretation. And a fairly narrow exegetical point at that. It's dangerous to have such a brittle faith.
The only point of difference I’d have with Justin in the article would be with his view of Gen 1:1; 2:4. I do believe that the two verses are summary statements. Gen 1:1 — this is what God did, let me tell you about what happened. Gen 2:4 — that’s what God did, what I told you is what happened. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then Gen 1:1 does not describe the creation activity of Day 1. It means the heavens and the earth were there when God began his work week and said, “Let there be light.” One word of caution here, please be gentle with how you deliver this exegesis. I was 39 yrs old and 39 years a young Earther when this was explained to me. It sent me into a tailspin for the better part of a year. Honestly, it was one of the most frightening seasons of my life.
BTW, my recent post on "Evangelicalism and OEC" isn't a statement of support for OEC. It's more of a warning to Christians whose knowledge is so insular and uninformed that they "shocked" when exposed, for the first time, to a conservative Christian (like Justin Taylor) who questions or rejects YEC. It catches them off-guard, and that's a dangerous condition. They at least need to be aware of this.


Hey Steve,

Thanks for your detailed reply! Very helpful.

As you've pointed out before, I think the doctrine of creation ex nihilo commits everyone to some form of "story begun in progress." At the moment of creation, something exists which does not have preexisting naturalistic causes and operations. It's just a question of at what point in the narrative God decides to press the play button, and how long the creative process takes to set the stage. And given God's continued supernatural operation in the world, what science is able to detect with it's blinding-goggles of methodological naturalism will be limited.

A benefit of Omphalism is that it's unfalsifiable. That's a faux pas for scientific theories, but of course it isn't a scientific theory but a philosophical and theological position. And it isn't ad hoc to the Christian storyline and it's theology of miracle.

My layman's assessment of the scientific data is that the evidence for the old age of the earth and universe is relatively strong (although not without it's own paradigm assumptions), that the evidence for universal common descent is mixed (and mostly weak), and that the evidence for the Darwinian processes being able to account for biological life and diversity is nonexistent.

So my primary concern is more with interpreting the Genesis text. If Genesis commits me to YEC, then I don't find that to be existentially problematic. If Genesis permits OEC, then there's even less tension to manage. And obviously there is a variety of textual interpretations that support these and other views. As you've also pointed out, there is a collection of distinct claims that tend to be lumped together unnecessarily (the age of the cosmos, the nature of the days of creation, the presence or absence of animal predation outside the garden before the Fall, the extent of the flood, etc.). By the way, what are some of the more reliable resources that you've drawn from when it comes to reading Gen. 1-3? Are you developing someone else's insight for the theme of light and darkness, or are these your own "enlightened" thoughts? :-)

Now there's the question of the age of the earth, and then there's the distinct question of the age of humanity. Even if Genesis allows for an ancient earth, it would seem to commit us to a relatively young humanity. While the genealogies may contain gaps, they do list the years at which the generations were sired, which would seem to provide a seamless history between Adam and Noah (Gen. 5) and then from Noah to Abraham (Gen. 11). Of course, the putative evidence for a 100,000+ year old humanity seems to be predicated on Darwinian assumptions to begin with. Now, theistic evolutionists who hold to an historical Adam tend to select him from a pre-existing population of homo sapiens, or non-imago-dei-bearing hominids. But that's problematic for both the Darwinian story and the Genesis text. On the other hand are progressive creationists who hold to common descent but also a genuine historical pair of first humans from which all of humanity have descended. But if you are willing to sift through the genetic data used to argue for the limited bottleneck, why not do the same for the genetic data used to support common descent?

These are some rambling thoughts on my end. Feel free to respond to anything here with your own impressions.


i) One problem is that, to my knowledge, OEC proponents don't generally expound a detailed narrative for their position in the way that YEC, naturalistic evolutionary, and theistic evolutionary proponents do. They are less clear on how they correlate or intercalate their position with Genesis in terms of an overarching narrative.

ii) Let's consider a theologically acceptable version of OEC. This version denies macroevolution and universal common descent, whether for animals or man.

Like YEC, it involves the fiat creation or special creation of natural kinds. Like contemporary YEC, it allows for considerable variation via adaptation.

God introduces natural kinds into the biosphere at different times. It's staggered. He creates a natural kind. He allows the natural kind to diversify. So different natural kinds are phased in over time. Dinosaurs might preexist mammals and go extinct before mammals are brought into existence. Some natural kind are phased out over time. Something along those lines.

On that construction, God introduced humans, via special/fiat creation, fairly late in the historical sequence of events.

iii) One issue regarding Genesis is the old question of the narrator's source of information. There were no human observers for most of Gen 1 and much of Gen 2. Adam didn't observe his own creation. Adam didn't observe the creation of Eve. Eve didn't observe her own creation. And Adam and Eve didn't observe the prior fiats.

One possibility, which I've touched on elsewhere, is visionary revelation.

If that's the case, then in one respect, Gen 1-2 (or Gen 1-9) is analogous to Revelation. Both Genesis (up to point) and Revelation would be visionary narratives. There's a difference: Genesis uses prosaic descriptions whereas Revelation uses symbolic descriptions. So Genesis would be more representational than Revelation.

However, it raises the same "chronological" questions as Revelation. If the narrator (i.e. Moses) is simply recording what he saw God saying and doing in a vision, then that isn't necessarily continuous action.

iv) There's the issue of how to date the appearance of man. What makes man recognizably human–especially when all we have to go by are fossil remains?

v) Darwinians presume that encephalization is a mark of incipient humanity. That, however, goes to the perennial mind/body problem. The irreducibility of consciousness.

The relation between mind and brain is baffling. To take an extreme example.

Here's one possible way of looking at the issue: suppose you could transfer the human soul to the brain of a lab rat. The result might be the world's smartest lab rat.

Yet I doubt it would be nearly as smart as a human being. That's because I think a ratty brain would severely limit the ability of the human soul to express itself. It's like the difference between using a 1965 computer and a 2015 computer. The operator of a 1965 computer might seem to be a lot dumber than the operator of a 2015 computer because there's so much less that he can do with (or through) that antiquated technology.

Claims about when man first appears on the scene are based largely, if almost entirely, on morphology or comparative anatomy. At least, that's my understanding. And my point (or one point) is that anatomy by itself doesn't tell you what's going on behind the eyes (as it were).

vi) A related problem is the question of what counts as evidence of human intelligence. Let's take artifacts like pottery or arrowheads.

Now, I don't doubt that these are human artifacts. I don't doubt that these are the product of human intelligence. But why is that? We assume that or infer that in large part because we're directly acquainted with humans who make arrowheads or pottery. That's an extrapolation from the present, or recorded history, to prehistoric times. And that's perfectly reasonable.

But as a matter of principle, is that a reliable deduction? Is an arrowhead or clay pot more sophisticated than a spiderweb, termite mound, or burrow of a trapdoor spider? For instance.

Suppose we found a "termite mound" or trapdoor burrow on a human scale, containing fossil remains of Australopithecus. Darwinians would chalk that up to simian brainpower. In a sense, it takes intelligence to make a spiderweb, termite mound, or trapdoor spider borrow. But that's not because spiders and terminates are intelligent. Rather, that reflects intelligent programming, like robotics.

Another example is beaver dams. Why do they build dams? Well, we can't ask them, and even if we were able to, they couldn't tell us since they don't know why they build dams. It's instinctual. But the usual explanation is the beavers build dams to protect themselves from land predators. The dam creates a pond. They build their lodge in the pond. So it's like a moat. I've even read that they let the dam leak when the water-level is high upstream to prevent the dam from giving way due to too much water pressure behind the dam.

If chimpanzees were aquatic like beavers, and did the same thing, Darwinians would tout this as evidence of their proto-human intelligence. But that explanation won't work for beavers. Beavers rank low on the mammalian bell curve.

Point is: inferring intelligence from artifacts isn't straightforward. By the same token, dating the advent of humans from artifacts isn't straightforward.

Some artifacts like cave paintings or ancient flutes seem to be unmistakably human. Likewise, there are debates over the significance of the Ishango Bone.
By the way, what are some of the more reliable resources that you've drawn from when it comes to reading Gen. 1-3? Are you developing someone else's insight for the theme of light and darkness, or are these your own "enlightened" thoughts?
It's mostly my own idiosyncratic musings. I think that Walton, in his commentary, has a useful interpretation on the cursing of the snake. Other than that, I don't think he's especially reliable. Very hit and miss.

I think there's some merit to the cosmic temple interpretation, championed by some interpreters. But that's been overextended.

Some studies on ANE ophiolatry/ophiomancy are germane to Gen 3, but most commentators miss the significance.

Some of my reflections have been stimulated by responding to the oft-repeated allegation that Scripture teaches a triple-decker universe.


Hey Steve,

Much helpful information here. Thanks in particular for the useful counter-examples to the assumption that comparative anatomy indicates comparative intelligence.

Picking up on your thoughts about the creation narrative as visionary revelation, I think that brings an important angle to the linguistic debates. OEC advocates point out the semantic range of "day," while YEC proponents draw attention to other syntactic features that they take as indicating a less figurative use. But if the days of creation are days in a vision, then what is significant is not primarily the sense of the term but the extravisionary referent. So the word "day" may connote (in modern terms) a 24 hour period but may denote either that or something else.


  1. Steve, how does Omphalism affect one's approach to something like transubstantiation? Every possible way we can examine the substance indicates that it is not Jewish flesh. I had always considered that a good reason to doubt transubstantiation.

    1. Well, among other things, that would pose a dilemma for Catholics. Most of them espouse theistic evolution. If, to defend transubstantiation, they must shift to the metaphysics of Omphalism, that would force them to make a very painful choice.

    2. Mature creation doesn't necessarily deny that things in the present or observable past are as they seem. If we see the afteraffect of a supernova, the afteraffect is not an illusion.

      And it has a cause: just not the usual cause.

      Likewise, an instantaneous beach is still a real beach. Real sand. Even though that would normally be the long-term result of erosion and deposition.

  2. Good discussion. Regarding the source of information of at least Genesis 1 and parts of 2, I've often wondered at what point God let us in on this. We could say that it was a response to a question we could imagine Adam asking, "Where did I come from?" Adam versified it to be passed on relatively error free to future generations. On the other hand, God could have simply told Moses at the time he was planning on writing it. It's possible it could have been both. Moses received what was passed down to him and he asked God. The fact is that we don't know, but there are enough possibilities.

    For the non-Christian textual critics who like to point out that it's just a poem and doesn't represent anything that actually happened, I have to observe that the poetic style is different than that of the songs Moses records later. On the other hand, that may prove too much for a YECist like myself who relies on the exegesis of Genesis 1 as giving at least enough information to discount an old earth. That would be a possible weakness, but I'll defer to the scholars of Hebrew on that one.

  3. Very helpful dialogue. When I think about creation debates my mind always turns the new heavens and new earth. Will God evolve it over long epochs? Will He take His time? It feels like the new creation and original creation are very similar processes. This is one reason I favor YEC.

    Another is that I don't think people get other versions from the text of Scripture.