I recently was part of a church event in which I was asked to speak about the conflict between science and the Bible, especially over the matter of creation (audio/text here). My argument, as ever, is that the big question concerns the genre of the creation stories. The biblical creation story can be read quite naturally as belonging to any of three or four genres, not all of which commit the reader to a specific view of how creation came about in space and time, and so there is no necessary conflict between the two.
The point about genre is easy enough to demonstrate, but still unsettles people (I suppose people generally prefer certainty over possibility), and sure enough, I received a letter that read as follows:
I am really sorry that you have had unfortunate experiences in trying to defend your faith when coming up against the “scientific community”. Please receive the enclosed newsletter I have just received this very week as a gift. May your confidence grow in our God’s word & the knowledge of His sovereignty daily.
In His love,
I was upset by the letter, because contrary to everything that I said, it implies that I disbelieve the Bible’s view on creation, rather than what I repeatedly said, which is that there are several genres into which the creation narratives can reasonably fit, and that a text can be figurative without being less true. (An example that I used was the book of Revelation, which talks of beasts rising from the sea etc.; though we take it figuratively, we do not believe it any less than the more literally historical texts in the Bible).
I was unable to discover who sent the letter, but in any event, I can’t really blame this person. Standing behind this view is one or more Creationist organisations that have made misunderstanding and vilifying dissenting Christian voices into an art-form. The enclosed newsletter to which the letter refers was produced by CMI, and it perfectly demonstrates their refusal to entertain any view that varies from their own, which in turn leads to faithful Christian people being defined as compromisers or doubters or in some other way defective.
I have scanned the document in full for you to read here, but I would like to respond to several of the points that it makes, because whatever you think about Creationism itself, an organisation that has been speaking to Christians for as long as CMI has no excuse for pretending that there is only one Christian view of Genesis 1-11. I have the highest regard for several friends and family members who hold Creationistic views, but this divisive CMI tactic is anti-gospel, and it’s about time that we all stop putting up with it.
1. Creationism denial is Creator denial
‘The crying need for the faithful proclamation of biblical creation should hardly need highlighting. Is the Church as a whole awake on this issue? The answer is a clear and categorical no! On the contrary, there is a widespread refusal, even on the part of many professed evangelical Christians, to emphasise (or even to acknowledge) Paul’s teaching. The Bible makes clear that Creation-denial (“the things that have been made”, Romans 1:20) is tantamount to Creator-denial (“For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God”, 1:21), and that idolatry directly follows (“because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator”, 1:25).’ —Philip Bell, CMI
The first thing that CMI refuses to understand is that non-Creationists are not denying creation or their Creator. This is a deeply ingrained error; so much so that I often find myself explaining to other Christians that ‘Creationist’ and ‘someone who believes that God is the Creator of all things’ are not the same thing.
Many of us non-Creationists are saying little more than that it is not the author’s intention in Genesis 1-3 to tell us how the universe was created (i.e. to describe the order of events, time period etc.), but rather, the clear purpose is theological—it lays out the biblical worldview (i.e. the place of man and woman within creation, and in relation to God). And in fact, even when Creationists talk about the theological meaning of Genesis 1-3, these are the same things they speak about. It is clearly the central purpose of the stories; the ‘how’ question is secondary in any responsible interpretation of the text (and is never given any importance elsewhere in scripture).
Us ‘professed evangelicals’ who deny that this secondary matter is within the text’s purview continue to affirm with the rest of scripture that God was the active agent in the creation of the world, no matter what mechanism was used to bring it about.
2. Creationism is essential to the gospel
‘The hope of the Gospel is the only answer to this sorry state of affairs. The message “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) is the Good News indeed… Without an understanding of the reliability and relevance of biblical creation, people will continue to languish in their ignorance, deceived and deceiving each other (2 Timothy 3:13)… By proclaiming Creation in a scientific age we expose the folly of worldly thinking, while simultaneously pointing people to the Creator-and-Saviour of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ…
‘We proclaim Creation, not only because it is true, but because effective evangelism requires it. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is founded on an historical Adam and Eve, the serpent tempter, the taking of the forbidden fruit, and the promise of the Victor over Satan (Genesis 3:15). History’s simple message—all are sinners; sin’s penalty is death, spiritual and physical; Christ came to deliver us from sin’s penalty and power, and from the sting and dominion of death—is founded on historical events recorded in Genesis.’ —Philip Bell, CMI
One could quibble with several details in these quotes—not least the idea that they ‘expose the folly of worldly thinking’, because while the gospel certainly exposes human sin and rebellion, Creationism tends to devolve into squabbles about the interpretation of cherry-picked scientific evidence.
The main issue, however, is that CMI thinks the proclamation of Creationism—not biblical creation—is essential to evangelism. The reason is again that they assume that there is no difference between the theology of Creation (which all evangelical Christians believe—see point 1) and their literal-historical hermeneutic that leads to creation science. So anyone who leaves room for non-literal elements in the text must disbelieve biblical creation.
I made a semi-serious quiz for my narrative-exegesis class that can help to illustrate the basic error that CMI makes here. The quiz takes the form of true/false questions such as:
History is: T/F
Metaphor is: T/F
These questions are obviously foolish; history and metaphor in general are neither true nor false—they are descriptions of reality that may be accurate or inaccurate. Our school textbooks in Apartheid South Africa taught skewed history that served our white racist ideology (it was a false explanation of real events); conversely, Jesus taught in parables, which are figurative, but Christians would argue are true descriptions of reality.
Nevertheless, I am proud of my T/F quiz, because it exposes the kind of bias that many of us carry, and which CMI smuggles into their argument about Creationism and the gospel: something must be fully history to be true; figurative language would mean it didn’t happen (metaphor is false).
What CMI refuses to hear is that evangelical non-Creationists also believe those key gospel ideas that are listed in the article: that God is Creator, that humankind fell into sin and are subject to death, and that Christ died and rose again to reunite us to God. The gospel depends on all of that being true. It does not depend on all of Genesis 1-11 being literally historical. Whether God made the world in 6 days or 6 billion years, it doesn’t change the truth that God is the Creator. The 6 days could be representative of any number of things (order, preparedness, 6 ages etc.) without changing the basic truth on which the gospel depends.
Ironically, the thing that finally made me not-a-Creationist was the realisation that Creationism does not help to proclaim the gospel. On the contrary, it makes a battleground out of the scientific mechanism by which God created—something that doesn’t actually matter all that much. Rather than teaching the gospel, it usually gets lost in trying to cure people of evolution, a distraction that offers no guarantees of also curing their rebellion against God.
3. Jesus was a Creationist
‘The Bible clearly teaches the creation of all things in six days a few thousand years ago (Genesis 1–2); the intrusion of sin and the Curse, blighting the originally perfect universe physically and morally (Genesis 3); the geographically global, devastating Flood (Genesis 6–9); and the historicity of Babel, with the confusion of human language (Genesis 10–11). Furthermore, Jesus and all the New Testament writers affirmed this view of Genesis 1–11.’ —Philip Bell, CMI
The view that Jesus and the apostles were Creationists makes regular appearances in Creationist arguments, but again it makes basic errors.
Firstly, it assumes that the only true presentations of history are literal presentations. What the NT says about Genesis 1-3 certainly depends on it being true history. However it is simplistic and mistaken to think that this requires it to be literal history. There are several ways of presenting history that are not literal. For example, the Bible often stylises history in poetic forms, and the book of Revelation presents the future history of the church age in a highly symbolic way, and yet we take it as true though it is not literal.
For example, Judges 5 says that the Lord marched down from Edom, and that the stars fought for Israel. This is not literal but it is true. And the NT could comfortably look back on that war and affirm that the stars contended against Canaan without implying that actual stars came and fought. The form of the original can be repeated without implying anything about its literalness or otherwise. In the same way, the NT can repeat elements of the creation narratives without implying anything about the literalness or figurativeness of the original.
The genre of Genesis 1-3 is the big question. It could be literal history, but it could be poetic, or like the prophetic literature, or a special genre used for worldview stories. In any of the latter three, whatever really happened in creation would be stylised in order to clearly communicate the significance of what happened, rather than the historical detail of it. It would no longer be the Creationist’s brand of literal history, though it would remain true. And crucially, none of these genres would necessitate any change to the way in which the NT refers to it. Jesus can still affirm the form of the original and its significance without implying anything about how literally it should be taken.
The second problem with the CMI argument is again the confusion of biblical creation and Creationism. The things in the creation story that the New Testament affirms are relatively few. The NT interest in creation overlaps with the Creationist interest in creation in a handful of small ways. To say on this basis that the NT teaches 6-day young-earth Creationism is presumptuous to say the least.
Take for example the one place in the NT in which I can find reference to the seven days—Hebrews 4:
3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”
Clearly the issue is the theology of rest not the mechanism of creation. This does not teach young-earth Creationism; it merely refers to the significance of the creation story, using the terms in which that story has been communicated in the canon. It would make no difference to Hebrews 4 if God finished founding the world in six minutes or six trillion light years, as long as that process reached a state of rest. So this passage fits into the creationist view, but it fits just as comfortably into mine.
Perhaps the more irksome issue in CMI’s line of argument here is the degree of arrogance that underlies it. Firstly, the starting line is that the Bible ‘clearly teaches’ young-earth Creationism. This might seem like an innocent statement, but consider that this is being written by the CEO of CMI in Europe. This is a person who is surely well aware of old-earth Creationists and evangelicals of various other convictions whose singular point is that the teaching of the Bible depends on the intended meaning of the text, not just on what it says on the surface. It is far from clear that the science of creation plays any role at all in the teaching of Genesis. To say that Creationism is clearly taught is incredibly disingenuous and represents a breath-taking dismissal of thousands of faithful Christians who study the Bible with complete devotion and yet have arrived at a different conclusion on a secondary matter.
Secondly, the argument he is making is not exegetical; he is not explaining how these texts must be understood in a Creationist way. He is merely citing NT references to Genesis 1-11 as though Christians such as me have either never read the NT or have had to tear those pages out of our Bibles so that we can hang onto our supposedly warped views of creation. To claim NT citations as evidence of Creationism is wrong. To merely point them out as though I couldn’t possibly have read that far in my Bible without having become a Creationist is insulting.
4. Non-Creationistic views dishonour God
‘Last, but not least, God is glorified when we uphold the Word of God and proclaim its teaching on Creation and the Creator. His name is honoured. The same cannot be said for teaching which undermines the same even if by well-meaning Christians. Christians seeking to live godly lives in this ungodly world should be at the forefront in repairing and restoring the breaches in the foundations and walls of Christendom (Isaiah 58:12). We need to hold fast to our confession of faith in Christ (Hebrews 10:23), making every effort to contend for the faith handed down to us by previous generations of faithful believers (Jude 3). Proclaiming Creation in a scientific age should be a staple part of every Christian’s engagement in the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:11–12).’ —Philip Bell, CMI
This final quote would be perfectly fine if it were not that we have already been made aware that CMI operates on different definitions of the gospel and what it means to uphold the Word of God. This quote sums up nicely the problem that organisations such as CMI perpetuate in the Christian world. There is nothing unusual in asking questions about the genre of a biblical text, nor in revising interpretation on the basis of new research—this is the basic stuff of exegesis that happens continually. But for some reason, asking these basic and necessary questions of Genesis is out of bounds.
And so, CMI has taken it upon itself to publicly define anyone who does not unquestioningly apply their literalist hermeneutic as in violation of the faith, as doubters of scripture, and as dishonouring to God. It doesn’t matter to them that they’ve been told repeatedly that other evangelicals do proclaim creation and the Creator; that we agree on the central theology of Genesis 1-11; that we are passionate about the careful, faithful exegesis of scripture; and that we contend daily for the gospel of Jesus Christ. None of these things actually matter to them. What matters is their fight against secular science, and anyone who doesn’t support them in that fight is an enemy. And so they have spent the last 40 years refusing to listen, and making it their public ‘ministry’ to condemn Christians who see things differently.
I am completely in favour of Christians holding to Creationist convictions if they are persuaded by the evidence that this is the best reading. I am totally happy for scientists and researchers to try and prove divine design or to overturn the evolutionary paradigm if it is incorrect. But it is about time that we stop supporting organisations such as CMI that maintain a studied refusal to listen to other Christians and who willfully breed division and judgement on a matter that is demonstrably secondary to the faith.