The creation story and the nature of truth

Ancient of Days / by William Blake

I have spent considerable time over the years studying the creation story and reading some of the various things that have been written about it.

From atheists to faculty at certain seminaries, a few criticisms of the Genesis account turn up constantly.

(A retired preacher friend of mine, who loves referring to preacher training schools as “cemeteries,” is among many who has trouble detecting much difference between atheists and cemetery professors.)

  • The account can’t be true because it’s full of contradictions
  • The account can’t be true because modern science has disproved it
  • The account can’t be true because it’s bad history

Whatever form or forms these comments take, they all either implicitly or explicitly state that people who take the Bible literally must be poorly educated, anti-intellectual, or otherwise people of defective minds. Perhaps they cite the writings of “young earth creationists” to bolster that point.

I’m sure many people have published out well-reasoned defenses of Biblical literacy that reject young earth creationists. Well reasoned writings always seem to get drowned out in a society that prefers shouting matches that simply toss slogans and catchphrases around like grenades. Nevertheless, I’d like to try my hand at adding to the literature of calm discourse.

Folk tales and truth

Creation of Adam / by Michelangelo

I learned from reading C.S. Lewis years ago that St. Jerome (ca. 347-420), perhaps the greatest scholar of his generation, wrote that the creation story in Genesis was told in the manner of a folk tale.

When I decided to look it up, I found that Lewis misattributed the quotation to Jerome not once, but five times.

The concept comes instead from John Colet, writing over a thousand years later.

Still, Colet died more than 100 years before the publication of the so-called Ussher chronology that young earth creationists rely on. I was prepared to agree with Jerome, but I’m quite content to agree with Colet.

We could say “myth” as easily as “folk tale,” but nowadays we take myth as the equivalent of an untruth. Folk tales are certainly not true either historically or scientifically, but they have to be true in their own way in order to survive from generation to generation.

Sigmund Freud famously used the Oedipus story to explain aspects of his theories. He did not ask if the story was historically verifiable. For his purposes, it was true. I can recall when newspaper and magazine articles would quote Freud as if he were the final word on the subject.

Nowadays, Freud is no longer recognized as so authoritative. It appears that many authors don’t even regard him as a particularly good scientist. I just don’t recall reading anyone who dismisses him on grounds of considering Greek myths to be true!

I taught a world music course for a while and used a book by Jeff Todd Titon called Worlds of Music. In the chapter on the blues, Titon claims that all good blues songs must be true and writes length about a song called “Po’ Boy Blues.”

He compares the words in the song with the life story of the man who sings it. They diverge at some key points. The singer, for example, grew up in a stable family and was not as deprived as the subject of the song. On the other hand, he had very poor eyesight and could personally identify with the subject’s struggles to read. There was enough emotional correspondence that Titon concluded that the song was true.

If all good blues songs have to be true, so does all good fiction. I once had time to read Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville and several critical essays on it in one sitting.

Each author attempted to explain the truth of the story according to a certain viewpoint. Bartleby was a case study in clinical psychology to one, a Christ figure to another, a victim of capitalist oppression to another, and so on. Not a one of those critics would have bothered to write about Bartleby if they didn’t find truth worth pointing out in Melville’s work of fiction.

The creation account in Genesis as it stands is an excellent piece of literature with intense spiritual significance. Attempting to interpret it according to the standards of evaluating historical or scientific research misses the point entirely.

Genesis and modern scholarship

Temptation of Adam and Eve / by Titian

Traditionally, the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, were written by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

As early as 1711, commentators have noticed that the first two chapters of Genesis appear to be two different accounts of creation, each using a different form of God’s name.

According to the earliest explanation of two creation accounts, Moses must have relied on two different documents as he compiled his own work.

By the 1870s, a documentary hypothesis had arisen to explain not only Genesis, but all the narrative writings of the Old Testament through 2 Chronicles. Instead of two source documents, there were supposedly four.

By that time, hardly any academic scholar still accepted Moses as the author. The source documents likewise did not represent the work of a single author, but four different traditions of authors. The final form of these Old Testament books came from various editors trying to make sense of all the supposed contradictions among the basic sources.

Now, universities have been the source of both great theological scholarship and new pseudo-intellectual heresies since the first ones were founded in the late Middle Ages. Too many academic Bible commentators of the last two centuries seem more intent on promoting their own credentials than in discovering Biblical truth.

I have read some books and articles (and read about others) that slice and dice these supposed documents (along with lost oral traditions that their authors think they have discerned) in great detail.

Each author measures Scripture against his or her own intellect and proclaims what parts they believe and what they dismiss as untrue. And if they can’t make any sense out of the text, they blame the early editors and supply the text that should have been there.

I am quite comfortable with the notion that the Old Testament developed over a long period of time. I am not at all convinced that it developed from either written or oral traditions that modern scholars can discern. isolate, or judge. I am persuaded that it reached its present form under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not because of the incompetence of unknown editors.

Besides, the observation that started the whole trend appears to be wrong. There are not two different and incompatible accounts of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis.

Genesis and truth

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise / by Francesco Curradi

The first chapter (plus the first three verses of the second) expresses the creation of the world as a whole. It is structured not only as a narrative over seven days, but with a careful correspondence of days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6.

From Genesis 2:4 through the description of the fall in the third chapter, the writer concentrates on the creation of man in a particular geographic location.

Whatever the first chapter said about the world as a whole serves as mere introduction to the main event, the telling of which has its own careful structure.

Clearly we are not dealing with a folk tale such as the Grimm brothers collected by transcribing stories as told to them by various story tellers. Anyone who has read the complete Grimm knows that it contains many duplicates, with some versions told by excellent story tellers and others by people with a more perfunctory approach.

The creation story, in the form we now have it, is a carefully constructed piece of literature. If the two parts of the story mention things in a slightly different order, they are not contradictions that have to be explained or reconciled. The key to understanding the passage is to take it on its own terms.

As is the case with the Bartleby criticism, it is possible to bring anything at all (other Bible passages, observations of contemporary people or historical figures, personal experience, etc.) to try to understand it, but it makes no sense to challenge the details of the story as we have it.

No critic with any hope of publication would alter or question the details of Melville’s story. None would protest that Bartleby did not actually exist. And no editor had better suggest that Melville originally intended the events, or even the words of the story to be in a different order.

If the story as it stands is not somehow true, there is no point in trying to explain it. It is the same with any other literature–including Scripture. It is at its strongest when it is taken for what it is and not forced to pretend to be something else.

Folk tales and fiction may be limited in their ability to convey truth. One cannot expect them to bear the weight that can be put on historical or scientific statements.

On the other hand, history and science are limited, too. They can only describe what is or was from a strictly factual viewpoint. Even what is factual changes with new discoveries and/or new intellectual fashions.

The account of creation in Genesis is true in every way that matters.

  • It demonstrates the human race and its individual representatives as being created from matter by a personal God.
  • It shows the love and generosity of God and how humans turned away from the relationship he offered through their distrust.
  • It shows the grace of God, who did not destroy his rebellious creation but promised ultimately to restore humanity and defeat the liar we decided to serve instead.

People who dismiss the Bible claim that they exercise critical thinking–after attending countless lectures in college where professors tell them what to think. So apply critical thinking to the dismissive ideas.

Read Bible yourself. Accept all the different parts for what they are, whether literature, history, or  other form. Let it speak to you.

Sources:
Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary / by Derek Kidner (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1967).
More Evidence that Demands a Verdict / by Josh McDowell (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1975)
Illustrations are public domain


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