It was what I fielded about the biblical acceptability of an old earth view that got me “censored” in the original series of articles for a Christian magazine in 2008 (see previous column) that put me on to the science-faith trail.
In my piece on the doctrine of creation, first drafted in 2005, here’s what I wrote:
It’s important to distinguish the doctrine of Creation from Creationism. Undoubtedly progress in science has brought challenges to the truth of the Bible account, but even when everyone believed Genesis, interpretations as to what should be taken literally, and what figuratively, varied widely. Many ancient Jewish scholars took each day of creation as a thousand years, whereas Augustine found it hard to see why God should have taken as long as a week to make the Universe.
This is still significant, and the multiplicity of historical interpretations of Genesis 1 probably sowed the seed for the historical study in God’s Good Earth, which I’ll say more on next time. I was even then acutely aware of Augustine’s adage:
Let each one, then, take [the creation account] as he pleases; for it is so profound a passage, that it may well suggest, for the exercise of the reader’s tact, many opinions, and none of them widely departing from the rule of faith (City of God XI.32).
I knew even then that genre is crucial:
We mustn’t discount the possibility of metaphor in the account, since we can’t be sure just how literally the original readers would interpret the detail in their ancient culture. We must also take into consideration its original purpose…
One early insight on this came from this illustration, heading up a BioLogos article. It’s a “scientific” picture of the world, but almost entirely a metaphorical representation of the interests of the illustrator, in this case the age of the earth and evolutionary history. It depends on the viewer’s knowledge of cultural conventions, for example that a spiral represents a long climb (up a spiral staircase, presumably) rather than the physical shape of the earth.
All descriptions of our near-infinite reality are partial (another key insight when considering the nature of science). So the writer of Genesis 1 (in my considered opinion Moses, as he wrote a creational preface to his telling of the ancient proto-history of Genesis 2-10 for Israel) wanted to bring out particular lessons. The question which must be reasoned out, rather than assumed from modern presuppositions, is what those lessons were. One specific intention of the Genesis account is obvious. As I wrote in my rejected article:
To force correlations between the days of creation and earth’s physical history is to miss the point, which is that God’s week of work is one Person’s planned activity, executed with a clear goal: a peopled universe . If it is earth-centred, that is mainly because it is written for human worshippers, not scientists; but also because the highest result of God’s progressive creation is a rational consciousness that mirrors his.
But the work of John H Walton, pointing out the temple imagery in the creation account, was eye-opening to me. And it was not just him saying so: scholars like Richard Middleton, Greg Beale, N. T. Wright and Walton were working with discoveries in the text going back several decades. In fact, as time went on I discovered that a sixth century monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes, had made the same links and built a rather esoteric cosmology on it. Beale, in turn, finds some ancient Jewish sources linking Genesis 1 to the Jerusalem temple.
The arguments for Genesis 1 as a temple account require book-length treatment, rather than a blog post. But three important elements are temple vocabulary within the account, close literary parallels with the account of the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus, and the over-arching three-level sacral structure of the Genesis 1 world (high heaven, mid heaven and earth), with “unsanctified” ground outside the temple represented by the sea’s chaos. More or less uniquely in ANE cosmology, Genesis 1 omits the mention of Sheol or the underworld, a fact easily explained once the centrality of temple imagery is understood: the tabernacle had no crypt!
And so I discovered that the features of Genesis 1 that seemed to contradict both the ancient earth of the historical sciences and the actual physical structure of the universe were neither a canonical refutation of that scientific knowledge, nor a result of ancient ignorance, but the purposeful authorial intent of a writer inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I argue the case for this in some detail in God’s Good Earth, but far more in The Generations of Heaven and Earth. My net conclusion is that what Moses, under God, positively wanted to achieve with Genesis 1 was a setting, or preface, for the story of the new creation that is the Bible’s theme.
This new work of bringing mankind into co-regency of the whole creation through eternal fellowship with God was initiated and for a time aborted through Adam and Eve. But Moses wants us to know that it came to a good creation made entirely by and for the same unique God, Yahweh – a world that like the temple brought glory and worship to him, but also like the temple, that maintained a strict barrier between the physical world of nature represented by the earth, and the spiritual realm of God represented by the heavens above the “veil” of the “firmament.”
Moses brilliantly employs a universal phenomenological experience of the world , and the metaphor of the seven-day consecration of the tabernacle, to paint this picture. It is no less true to science than the spiral world illustrated above – and no more physically literal. Why were we expecting science anyway?
That veil between God and creation was, briefly, drawn aside in the garden of Eden, and abortively for Israel on Mount Sinai when they disobediently insisted that Moses be their mediator, but finally (and consistently with the whole purpose of Genesis 1) by Jesus Christ on the cross.
That’s the message of my Generations book, and it frankly makes arguments about a recent creation of the physical universe seem rather trivial to me. Not to mention that they pay scant attention to the depth and richness of biblical theology.