Why is it so important to interpret Genesis as reliable history?
Mei Ying T. from the United States received a letter from her pastor on how to interpret the Bible, where he states that how we interpret Genesis is a secondary issue. Mei Ying asked us for a response to her pastor’s letter, to which Dr Carl Wieland responds:
Thank you for the work you have done—it has strengthened my faith, and that of many seeking friends I’ve chatted with.
As I’m pursuing further studies, I attend a new church during school time. I respect the pastor and appreciate his teaching. However, he does not believe in the creationist perspective, nor does his wife, a committed Christian, who has a PHD in biology.
Recently, he sent me this explanation on how to interpret the bible (I’d shared with some of his bible study group members about the reality of Noah’s flood)—I’ve pasted it below and wonder what you think (no, I’m not going to confront my pastor. I just want to know for myself and the people who ask me.)
Thanks a lot!!
Bible: What is it and how do we interpret it
Most Christians agree on what the Bible is. Christians will sometimes disagree on how to interpret various parts of it.
1) What is the Bible?
It is God’s words through people whose purpose is to tell us the story of what is wrong with the world, what God has done to fix the world and what we need to do to be part of what God has done.
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3)
- Because it is God’s words (1) we can trust it, (2) we should believe it, and (3) it is its own best interpreter.
- Because it is the words of people, we will best begin to understand what God means by any given passage by first understanding what the human author meant by it.
2) How do we interpret the Bible?
A very important thing to note: To say that the Bible is trustworthy is not the same as to say that a person’s interpretation of the Bible is trustworthy.
People who love the Bible disagree on how to interpret Genesis 1. Implication: To try to prove the Bible can be trusted out of either interpretation
Four questions to ask:
- What does the passage say?
- What did the passage mean to the people who first read it?
- How does the passage fit into God’s big salvation story and prepare us for the arrival of the Messiah?
- What does the passage mean to me, now?
Answering question 1:
We read carefully, aware of our own prejudices, being sure that we are clear about the logic of the passage, the words that are used, etc.
Answering question 2:
- When was it written, and by whom?
- To whom was it written? What were the issues they were wrestling with? What was their view of the world?
- What literary form is this passage? Is it history, is it poetry, is it a love song, is it law, etc. And what does that literary form tell us about the intention of the author as he was writing to his audience?
Answering question 3:
- Where does this passage fit into God’s big story line:
- God’s initial creation
- The fall
- God’s creation of Israel as his special people
- God’s sending of Jesus to fulfill what Israel failed to accomplish.
- The great future—when God will bring all evil and suffering to an end.
- How does the passage help prepare us for the Messiah?
- How does it underscore or address a problem arising from the brokenness of things?
- How does the passage open the ways towards God’s final solution to the brokenness of things in the Messiah
Answering question 4:
- We pray as we read, asking for understanding, for faith, and for an attitude of obedience.
- We apply the meaning of the passage: if there is something to trust God about, we trust him; if there is something to praise him about, we praise him, if there is a commandment we need to keep we make a plan to keep it with God’s help.
3) Why do we trust the Bible?
The most fundamental answer:
Because God says it is his Word and God does not lie.
Because God proves it to us as we take it seriously in our lives.
Less important, and sometimes misleading, answers:
- Because, with enough instruction, everything in the Bible becomes clear to us.
The problem with this answer is that the Bible is not always clear. We cannot always find out too clearly precisely what the intention of the original human author was. And since the Bible reveals a God whose “ways are not our ways”, there are always bound to be things in it that we won’t like (the sack of Jericho) or understand (the Trinity, the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility).
15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3)
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11)
- Because certain Biblical prophecies are vindicated in history. This proof works, but only if we are sure that we have properly interpreted the prophecy in question. This brings us back to the all important distinction that needs to be made between the trustworthiness of God’s Word (which all Christians affirm) and the trustworthiness of our interpretation of God’s Word (which we cannot always be sure of).
Illustration: Some teachers have argued, based upon certain prophecies, that the world would end on a certain date. And again and again those teachers have been proven wrong—and when they have been proven wrong, they have caused many who trusted them to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible (because of the confusion that people often make between the Bible being true and a particular interpretation of it being true).
Another illustration: Some people have argued that the creation of national Israel in 1948 is a fulfillment of prophecy. Others, who love the Bible just has much, have argued that the creation of national Israel in 1948 is not a fulfillment of prophecy at all. If the argument for the trustworthiness of the Bible is based upon the creation of Israel and then Israel collapses, or Israel proves not to be very God-like in her dealings with some of the people who live within her boarders, then the trustworthiness of the Bible itself will be called into question.
4) What do we do, practically, with the distinction between the (infallible) Bible and the (fallible) interpretations of the Bible?
- We humbly assert our interpretations—always remaining open to correction.
- We note with encouragement that, where there is agreement on the notion that the Bible is God’s Word, there is substantial agreement on what it says (We see it in the great Creeds of the Church).
- We do not despair of ever knowing the truth, because God cares about us, and he promises to make himself clear to any who seek him (“Seek and you shall find”).
CMI’s Dr Carl Wieland replies:
Dear Mei Ying
Many thanks for your letter to us. Just a small point—our website has for some time now not been known as creationontheweb.com, but simply creation.com—our ministry name is still the same, Creation Ministries International.
Thank you for sending your pastor’s comment. In many respects, what he says is very good and important. However, somehow he manages to slide in there a way to evade the actual genre of Genesis, which is of straightforward history, by pointing (correctly) to the disagreements over prophetic interpretation, etc.
I’m sure that your pastor would agree with this statement: that agreeing with the basic tenets of this [document from him] you have sent, cannot mean that there is therefore ‘open slather’ to interpret things any which way one chooses to see fit.
The issues regarding Genesis are in a quite different league to those concerning prophecy, we would submit, because they are foundational to, and woven throughout the fabric of, the very Gospel of salvation itself. That does not mean that one can’t be terribly inconsistent and be saved in spite of disbelieving what Genesis teaches, but it has serious ramifications in church, culture, and society, and in the lives of many individuals—as well as for our effectiveness in evangelism, if the authority of the Word of God can be so cavalierly evaded in such a plain, straightforward matter. Most atheists (as I once was) have no difficulty understanding what the writers of Genesis meant to say.
I would suggest that in addition to thoroughly exploring our Q and A section under Genesis the booklet 15 Reasons Why Genesis is History is a gentle but powerful (and easy to read in one sitting) handout that you could ask your pastor for an opinion on.
In summary: There is no doubt that Genesis was
- written as a historical account
- believed to be such throughout most of church history (until people began looking for ‘ways out’ due to the revival of ancient pagan long-ages beliefs) and
- regarded as such by the Lord Jesus Christ and the NT authors.
Further, Genesis is all about the origin of the problems of sin and death; the Gospel is all about the solution to the problems of sin and death.
To accept a long-ages scenario means not only denying the obviously global Flood recorded in around three full chapters of God’s Word, it means accepting that billions of years of death, bloodshed and suffering occurred before sin could be blamed for it. I.e., death becomes God’s normality, not an intruder into a perfect world, and certainly not, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15, the “last enemy”.
These are serious matters indeed, and they can be explored in their fullness via the classic Refuting Compromise.
Richard L. from the United States writes:
Does asexual reproduction contradict my belief in the Bible?
CMI’s Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds:
I fail to see why. There would be a contradiction only if the Bible stated, “there is no such thing as asexual reproduction”. A mere absence of mention is not a contradiction, since by definition this is affirming and denying the same proposition. See also Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation.
Richard also wrote separately to ask:
Does the bible teach us the right age for marriage? As in right age I mean like an adult age man marrying an adult age woman. I asked this question because some skeptics say that the bible teaches pedophilia like a man marrying a child.
Dr Sarfati responds:
The Bible doesn’t teach any specific age, but since a major purpose is stated to be bearing children, it strongly implies an adult age. These skeptics might be confusing Christianity with Islam, since Muhammad really did have a child bride [named Aisha; after Muhammad’s death, her father became the first Muslim caliph].