How Should We Interpret Genesis 1-3?

Martin Luther once wrote the following about Genesis, “The first chapter is written in the simplest language; yet it contains matters of the utmost importance and very difficult to understand. It was for this reason, as St. Jerome asserts, that among the Hebrews it was forbidden for anyone under thirty to read the chapter or to expound it to others.”

Dr. Steven Lawson once said, “Tell me what you believe about Genesis 1-3 and I will tell you what you believe about the rest of the Bible.”

These two quotes have been proven true again and again simply because throughout Church history there have been many interpretations of Genesis, especially of the first three chapters. Drawing the attention of both Christians and non-Christians alike, and the peculiar thing about Genesis is that most everyone thinks they know what Genesis teaches. Ask anyone in the western world what the book of Genesis teaches and you’ll probably hear something like, “Genesis teaches how God made the world,” “Genesis is about what Christians believe about the planet’s origin,” “Genesis shows how God created everything.” To a degree these answers are correct. But, though Genesis does speak of God’s creative action in making all things I think there is much more to Genesis than merely how God created the world. In fact, I would say the rest of the Bible gives us a framework as to how we should not only think about Genesis, but interpret Genesis as well.

But before we can dig into the text of Genesis itself, we must do some groundwork first not only to see what the controversies are, but also to see the Christ-centered approach we’re to take today. Much of the controversy surrounding Genesis as a whole and Genesis 1-3 is directly related to two things: science and the length of the creation days. These two things are obviously related. If one believes in evolution you’ll be prone to see the days of creation as long periods of time if you see creation as a work of God at all. So too, if one rejects the theory of evolution you’ll most likely be prone to see the days of creation shorter periods of time detailing the acts of God in creating the world. There has been and still is today two main viewpoints the Church takes on the Genesis account.

1) Old Princeton:

B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge were and perhaps still are the largest voices of this viewpoint. They taught the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Moses’ account in Genesis 1-3 were in harmony with one another. They believed God created everything ex nihilo (out of nothing), but once all was made in that initial creation everything else, including man’s body, developed in an evolutionary fashion. Or you could say it like this: God was the first cause while evolution was the secondary cause. Many people believe the reason they believed and taught these things was the apparent contradiction between the Genesis account of creation in 6 days and the evidence of geology, which tries to show that the earth is much older. In an effort to reconcile these two positions Warfield and Hodge believed the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 refers to indefinite periods of time rather than 6 24-hour periods. Others in more modern times (i.e. Hugh Ross) have rehashed this view labeling it the ‘Day-Age view’ which you can probably deduce from the name, refers to the idea that a day could have lasted an entire age in Genesis 1.

2) Creation Science:

Opposed to that first view is the view called ‘Creation Science’ put forth by Henry Morris. Morris says ‘the only way to interpret Genesis 1 is to not interpret it at all, but rather, simply accept it as it is.’ 6 literal 24-hour days in which God made all things. He goes further. Morris also believes Genesis 1 stands alone as credible scientific data, giving us everything that constitutes our physical universe. I want you to see that what Morris is doing is far more subtle than simply trying to reconcile science and the Bible. Morris is teaching that the most prominent purpose of Genesis is to be the science book of the Bible, giving us all the scientific data we need to know about the creation of the world. Morris once said, “The Bible believing Christian goes to the Bible for his basic orientation in all departments of truth. The Bible is his textbook of science as well as his guide to spiritual truth.”

Now, you should know that I disagree with both of these views, and I think you should reject them also because at root of both is the belief that Scripture must be either reconciled with science or Scripture must be saying something scientific in order to have relevant meaning for us today.

We ought to reject as error any view of the Bible that makes the Bible bow to another agenda other than its own, even if the entire world seems to be going the other direction. Warfield and Hodge saw the evolutionary and geological evidence in nature and were pushed to redefine Biblical terms in Genesis 1. Henry Morris saw the evolutionary and geological evidence in nature and was pushed to see the Bible as his own science book. The world around these men drastically impacted how they interpreted Scripture.

We need to be reminded that Scripture and Scripture alone interprets Scripture. Or as the Westminster Confession 1.9 says, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, it must be searched and known by other places in Scripture that speak more clearly.” This is our goal as Bible readers: interpreting the text as Jesus intends us to. Doing this does not mean we try to make Jesus appear in every verse, but to show where every verse properly fits into redemptive history. Jesus is the Chief and culminating figure on this stage. This stage is set for Him, and all that transpires on the stage relates to Him.

Therefore we do not fully understand any passage of Scripture until we’ve identified its relation to Him.

…more tomorrow.

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