Revelation, History, Theodicy Aspects of Genesis 1
On June 6, 2009, a symposium was held in Nijkerk, The Netherlands, entitled “Darwin in de tuin van Eden” (‘Darwin in the Garden of Eden’). Bible-believing Christians engaged in a discussion about the relationship between faith and the natural sciences. Of course, the occasion for this was first of all the ‘Year of Darwin, 2009’, but also the current debate about ‘theistic evolution’, a view which by means of a range of publications and broadcasts has drawn a great deal of public attention.
For this symposium, I presented the opening lecture, dealing with the nature and significance of Genesis 1. Next, Dr G. van den Brink spoke about the nature and significance of Genesis 2 and 3. That is why I, in my lecture, paid hardly any attention to the story of Paradise and the Fall. Someone said to me: ‘you stopped too soon.’ And that’s entirely true. Fortunately, the symposium did not end when I finished my lecture.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Job 38:4
These words of God, directed to Job, still caution us to be humble. That counts for all of us: for natural scientists, for theologians, for all Christians who take an interest in this subject. It counts for creationists, for theistic evolutionists, and for all those others who haven’t yet got all the answers. None of us was there. When we think about creation and evolution, we come face to face with the eternal power and divinity of God, which far transcend our understanding. I believe that this is what Genesis 1, also, wants to teach us.
In my contribution, I may restrict myself to this chapter of the Bible. But even then, there is a need for further limitation. I will focus on three aspects: Genesis 1 as revelation, as history and as theodicy.
Genesis 1 as Revelation
The point of departure for this symposium is that the Bible has something to tell us about the questions surrounding creation and evolution, and that this is also true for Genesis 1.
Among many Christians, this point of departure is far from self-evident. There are reputable theologians who explicitly distance themselves from this part of Scripture. As one example, I mention the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. In his Systematic Theology he critiques the Old Testament recounts of creation, because they limit themselves to the beginning of the world, and in this way, he says, they betray their mythical origins (2, 49). Pannenberg has many worthwhile things to say, not only about creation, but also for orthodox, Biblically faithful theology. But if we were to follow him at this point, this symposium need not last long. For us, the problem is that we accept Genesis 1 as the Word of God, but that in doing so we are faced with numerous questions, especially in the light of contemporary scientific insights.
I’d like to delve a little more deeply into the character of Genesis 1 as revelation from God. The extent to which this chapter addresses us from a divine point of view is really striking. We seem to be present in God’s council chamber, to share in His deliberations, to hear divine words, which no-one else has ever heard. There is a great difference between the two creation narratives, the first in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and the second in Genesis 2:4-25. The latter has a much more earthly point-of-view, and it shows us much more of human experience, albeit that this human experience is given a very specific interpretation. Genesis 1 is quite different. Here, the Bible does not take an earthly, a human point of view, but a divine one.
Whatever this chapter has to say to us about God’s acts of creation, it can only do so because it comes to us as divine revelation. And I can find no better description of what ‘revelation’ is than the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 10: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. God reveals Himself by His Spirit, in His Word. He unveils secrets to us, which otherwise would always have remained unknowable. Revelation is not rooted in our subjectivity: it comes to us from the other side. And as I see it, this means that there can be no direct continuity between the knowledge of our experience – including our scientific knowledge – and the revelation of God in Genesis 1. In other words: a simple integration of science and faith in the Scriptures is not possible. I am not saying that they cannot be reconciled. But whenever there is a dialogue between the two, the distinctive nature of knowledge through revelation must receive its due. Revelation is not just a short cut for gaining knowledge that we could also obtain through experience. Revelation gives us knowledge from the other side.
Word of God’s Love
That also determines the nature of revelation. God has prepared it for those who love him. Revelation is never simply information, not even simply information obtained in some supernatural way. Revelation is the Word of God’s love. It is more a promise than a statement. God will not abandon the work of his hands. He will restore mankind after His image. In His promise, information is included. But if you were to search for information apart from the promise, you will be disappointed. This also has implications for the debate between theistic evolutionism and creationism. Are we asking the right questions of Genesis 1?
Genesis 1 as History
Genesis 1 is the beginning of the great Old Testament historical narrative, which continues up to and including 2 Kings. I elaborate on this statement by challenging a number of commonly-used demarcations.
The best known of these is of course the demarcation of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, also known as the Law, or the Torah. These books have their own place in the Hebrew canon, as distinct from the books of Joshua to Kings, which are regarded as the ‘early prophets’ (Ruth excepted). This is a very sensible distinction, but not as regards the historical character of these books. Deuteronomy requires a continuation of its narrative in Joshua, and Joshua makes no sense at all apart from Deuteronomy.
Within the book of Genesis, the ‘early history’ – chapters 1-11 – is often seen as a separate entity. There is a lot to be said for that, for the origin of Israel only really comes into sight with Abraham, in Genesis 12.
However, the book of Genesis itself does not make that distinction. On the contrary, the structure of Genesis is determined by its division into toledoth, a word variously translated as ‘account’, ‘descendants’ or ‘genealogy’. This toledoth structure simply ignores the break between chapters 11 and 12. Does Genesis 1 belong within this structure as well? Some would deny that, for the word ‘toledoth’ does not make its first appearance until Genesis 2:4. This is the account of the heavens and the earth ... However, the distinctive characteristic of the word ‘toledoth’ is that it makes connections. A toledoth describes what became of, or what or who came forth from, what is mentioned. Thus, Genesis 2:4 connects the first account of creation with the second, and in this way it includes Chapter 1 in the toledoth structure of the whole book. In short, Genesis 1 is integrated into the historical account of Genesis, which in its own turn is part of the great Old Testament narrative that runs from creation to the exile.
To me, this observation seems significant. It is characteristic of the Biblical view of reality, that history is important. The Bible does not present us with ideas, or general truths, or continuously repeating patterns. The Bible tells us about facts. The Bible recounts the story of the relationship between God and people, God and His people, a story that is marked by pivotal events: the Exodus, establishment of covenants, conquest, apostasy, judgement, deliverance, renewed apostasy, exile. This story continues through the remainder of the Old Testament – the return, a new temple – and carries on into the New: the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the history of the early church, looking towards the Lord’s return. Within this great narrative, the history of creation has its own legitimate place.
This is also consistent with the character of Genesis 1, which presents creation as a historical event, complete with a division into 7 days. That is why I cannot agree with the view that Genesis 1 is not about the ‘how’ of creation, but only about the ‘that’ and the ‘why’. In the Bible, the ‘how’ is always important, because the Bible is about history. Genesis can properly be viewed, as is done so often, as a polemic against other ancient near-eastern creation accounts. But then the polemic operates on this level: in Genesis 1 the creation account is not presented as a myth, but as history.
Still, there is more I need to say. For this is not just history. It is divine revelation about history. The Bible shows us the reverse side, or rather the top layer, of the story, things we ourselves would never have noticed. The Bible never presents us with facts per se. They are always facts that have been selected, interpreted, and placed within a certain framework. Evidently, the focus of Biblical historiography is not primarily on an exact representation of the facts or their chronology. This is illustrated by the fact that even the most pivotal events in the Biblical narrative – the Exodus, Christmas, Easter – cannot be dated as exactly as we, with our perspective on chronology, would expect.
Genesis 1, too, fits within this framework. That becomes clear, for instance, when you consider what Genesis 1:1 might be referring to: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Is that something that happened before the 7 days of creation? In that case, however, the chronology seriously falls apart. Besides, this view raises problems when we come to chapter 2:1:
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
Or is Genesis 1:1 some kind of summary at the beginning of the first creation account? This leaves you with the question where the uninhabited earth (ch. 1:2) came from.
Evidently, the intention of the creation account is not to provide an exact historical representation. This also becomes obvious from many other details. To mention just a few: the relationship between the first day (the creation of light) and the fourth day (the creation of the heavenly bodies). Then the question arises of just what happened on the second day (the creation of the heavenly expanse). Or: the relationship between the first and the second creation accounts. And we could go on. I know that for each of these problems solutions have been proposed, some more plausible that others. But the fact that we seem to have a need for solutions that the Bible itself does not offer, suggests that we may perhaps be asking the wrong questions.
In summary, to theistic evolutionists I’d like to say: please do not forget that Genesis 1 really is a historical account. And to creationists I’d like to say: please do not forget that we are dealing with God’s revelation about history, something which is quite different from a set of answers to our historical, biological or cosmological questions. From this perspective, a direct integration of faith-knowledge and scientific knowledge cannot be achieved.
Genesis 1 as Theodicy
Up till now, I’ve focused mainly on formal aspects of Genesis 1. But now I’d like to say something that relates to its content. What is the core of the history that Genesis 1 recounts? I characterize this core as ‘theodicy’.
Literally, theodicy means: ‘the justification of God’. A theodicy answers the charge that the presence of evil proves that God is not good and not all-powerful. Or even that He does not exist at all. Actually, a theodicy is always hazardous. For we are in no position at all to justify God. For us, the great question is much more how we can be justified by God, rather than how we can justify Him. So if I call Genesis 1 a ‘theodicy’, I do not mean that we use it to justify God; rather, that God justifies Himself in His revelation about creation. I see this in the recurring refrain: ‘And God saw that it was good’. We read this six times, and then v. 31 concludes:
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
What does it mean, that creation was good? I’m inclined to say: we will only understand that when we continue to read the story. Genesis 1 provides a contrast with what follows. The parts that follow tell us about disobedience, death, violence, and catastrophe. That’s true for so-called ‘early history’. It’s just as true about the accounts of the patriarchs and of the people of Israel. The Bible offers us an extraordinarily realistic view of the presence of evil in the world, in mankind, in believers.
And now Genesis 1 tells us: That doesn’t come from God. Here is a story that needs to be told, a story with many dark sides to it. But right at the beginning, the light shines. The light of the first day, which arose in radiance when God spoke. The light of God Himself, of the One who is light, and in whom is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). The God whom we have only come to know well in Jesus Christ, the Light of men (John 1:4), and the Light of the world (John 8:12).
In a very real sense, what does the goodness of creation mean? We, who stand on the other side of that account, can only describe it in the negative: a world without disobedience, without violence, without evil, without death. I cannot imagine what that world was like. All I know is the goodness of God, who desired and made such a world. All I know is the goodness of Jesus, who has made such a world possible again.
Genesis 1 does not give us precise scientific or historical information about that world. But the Word of God, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, makes it impossible for me to accept a view of the world in which evil, violence and death are the original and all-defining forces. I believe in God, the Father of Jesus Christ, the good Creator of heaven and earth, the One who made all things very good. I put my hope in Him.