Friday, November 20, 2020

Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3 Vern S. Poythress

Crossway, 2019, 390pp 
Much ink has been spilt over how to interpret Genesis 1-3. In recent decades controversies have raged between those who see the opening chapters in the Bible as little more than ancient Near Eastern myth and those who accept the creation account as a foundational part of Holy Scripture.

Even among Evangelicals a number of different approaches have been adopted. Some see Genesis 1-2 as a literary framework which teaches that God made an orderly universe. As such, there is not necessarily a conflict between the Bible and modern scientific accounts of the origin and age universe. Others insist that Genesis 1 tells us that God made all things in 6 x 24-hour days. If that interpretation brings the Bible into conflict with modern science, so be it. Another view (held by Reformed theologians Herman Bavinck and Michael Horton, for example) is that the days of Genesis 1 are God’s workdays. They are analogous to our 24-hour days, but not identical in length.

In setting out his constructive proposals on how to interpret Genesis 1-3, Poythress doesn't tackle the issue of how to understand the days of creation head on. He takes a more indirect approach. The author insists that the Bible should be read theologically as the written word of God. Whatever the Bible teaches must therefore be received as truth. God is the Creator and sustainer of the universe. The order and regularity of the created realm that makes science possible is the result of his faithful providential care. Strictly speaking the Bible offers no scientific theories, instead it describes creation and providence in terms of everyday human experience of the world, which is a perfectly valid perspective.

In terms of its literary genre, Poythress sees Genesis 1-3 as historical narrative. He works through the creation account in some detail, offering a wealth of insight. One of his main points is the relationship between creation and providence. Genesis 2:1-4 tells us that God is now resting form his work in creation, but his providential rule continues. There was something unique about the work of creation described in Genesis 1-2, but we can understand the essential meaning of those chapters in the light of our everyday experience of the world around us. We must take care, however, not to confuse creation with providence. 

6 x 24-hour creationists argue that because in God's providential ordering days are now 24 hours in length, the same time scale must be applied to the days of the creation week. Poythress advances that such a view is in danger of applying the norms of providence to the singularity of creation. The sun does not make an appearance until day 4, so days 1-3 at least were not solar days. Also, there are other measurements of time besides solar days or modern clocks that count the passing of 24 hour periods to the second. Nature has its own ways of marking the passing of time. Ordinarily fruit trees take a number of years to grow from a seed to a fruit bearing maturity, while the trees planted by God in the Garden of Eden seemingly sprung up 'good for food' instantaneously. Similarly, God created Adam from the dust of the ground as a mature adult and Eve from his rib, while we are formed in our mothers' wombs and grow to maturity over many years. The regular rhythms of providence cannot simply be read back into God's unique work of creation. 

Some 6 x 24-hour creationists posit that God must have temporarily speeded up physical processes during the creation week. That explains how the light from distant stars is visible on earth, which at the current speed of light must have been travelling for billions of years before it reached our planet. "God supernaturally made all the processes of stars occur at near infinite speed so that the stars went through 'a long history of events' in an instant of time." (He made the stars also, Stuart Burgess, Day One, 2001, p. 24). Yet, as Poythress points out, if God did things so differently during the creation week, that makes it difficult to insists on maximal continuity between our 24-hour days and the six days of creation, p. 252-258.  

The author concludes that, "God really did create the world in six days" (p. 289). He affirms the special creation of the first human pair and the historical fall of man into sin, But, according to Poythress, we need not hold that the days of creation were 6 x 24-hour periods. He argues that in the Hebrew mind days were measured more as periods of work and rest rather than strict 24-hour units. Genesis 1 depicts God’s work of creation on each day, followed by rest until the whole was completed. God then ceased from his work of creation on the Sabbath day. The days of the creation week are analogous to ours, but not necessarily the same in length. With this scheme in mind Poythress holds that the Bible’s teaching is broadly compatible with the modern scientific account.

This book contains valuable reflection on the relationship between the Bible and science, Genesis and ancient Near Eastern mythology, and creation and providence. Numerous appendices give detailed attention to matters raised in the main body of the work, such as 'Genesis 1:1 Is the First Event, Not a Summary' and 'The Meaning of Accommodation' in theological discourse. Poythress avoids offering simplistic solutions, calling upon the reader to re-examine their views afresh in the light of God’s Word. 

* An edited copy of this review was published in the The Banner of TruthDecember 2020 

1 comment:

Ben said...

"...we were formed in our mother's wombs ..."

Only one mother with so many wombs?