How can we faithfully read and understand Genesis 1-3? What are the implications related to divine authorship, historical background, genre and structure, and chronology?
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Vern Poythress (@vernpoythress) about his book, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3 (Crossway, 2019).
Why do you say that how a person interprets the first three chapters of Genesis “has massive implications” for understanding the rest of the Bible? What are those implications?
Dr. Vern Poythress: The record of creation and fall in Genesis sets the stage for understanding Christian redemption and the consummation. The redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ is central to the message of the Bible. But this redemption has a meaning tied to the nature of God, who is the holy creator, and the nature of man, who is created by God and now has fallen. If someone radically changes the framework of creation and fall, he changes or even dissolves the meaning of redemption. It no longer makes sense for Jesus to redeem us if there’s nothing to redeem us from, because there was no fall.
What are some of the controversies involving these chapters?
Dr. Vern Poythress: Many of the controversies have to deal with the relation of Genesis 1-3 to mainstream scientific claims. How do the six days of creation correlate with billions of years in mainstream cosmology? How does a unique first couple, Adam and Eve, correlate with a neo-Darwinian framework of purely gradualistic human origins? How does the focus on a personal God and personal human beings correlate with philosophical materialism, according to which everything derives by random impersonal processes in the motion of matter?
What are basic interpretive principles with which you begin the book?
Dr. Vern Poythress: The most important starting issue concerns God. Does God exist? And if he exists, what kind of God is he? Is he involved in ordinary events and is he in charge of them? Does he work miracles when he wishes? It’s crucial for sound interpretation to answer these questions correctly. A lot of modern interpretation has gotten off the track because the atmosphere of modern elite culture has told us that we can no longer believe in the God described in the Bible. If that’s conceded, then there has to be massive reinterpretation of the record in Genesis 1-3—as well as a lot of other things.
How do you explain the status of the Bible?
Dr. Vern Poythress: The Bible is the infallible word of God, the voice of the creator himself. Whole books—old and new—have been written to defend this truth. In my book I don’t take a lot of space to go over all the arguments, but I refer readers to some of the books, and I review a bit of the evidence, such as Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament in Matthew 19:4-5. The issue is significant because if God is speaking, we can trust the contents of Genesis. On the other hand, if Genesis were offering us a merely human voice from the ancient Near East, we’d want to sift what it says.
How does modern science fit with this ancient text?
Dr. Vern Poythress: It depends on which piece of science we’re talking about. A lot of the impressive achievements in modern science and technology derive from experimental science, which uses repeated experiments to probe the pattern of regularities that exist under God’s present providential rule. In their formulations scientists try to approximate how God rules over the world. Once we take into account that God is personal, one-time exceptions to presently formulated regularities are possible. We may call them miracles.
The apparent discrepancies between the Bible and modern claims concern one-time historical reconstructions of events. When people try to work out historical reconstructions within a framework of modern regularities, they often assume there are no exceptions. They’re treating the world as if it were a closed-in clockwork mechanism, and so they’re going to construct a narrative at odds with Genesis 1-3. As a result, if we believe in the God of the Bible, we have to analyze critically mainstream scientific claims about the far past.
On the other hand, we also have to re-analyze what the Bible actually says, as distinct from what people infer from it. There’s more than one plausible competing interpretation concerning the way in which Genesis 1 relates to scientifically extrapolated chronology of the past.
How should time be viewed in these chapters?
Dr. Vern Poythress: We have confidence about what we mean by time until we look at it more carefully. Then it becomes complicated. We’re actually dependent on an impressive array of God’s providential regularities, which provide the basis for correlations between different ways of looking at time and correlations between ways of measuring time. We have rhythms associated with clocks, movements of the heavenly bodies, our own heart beats, and our psychological sense of time, to name a few. Since the days of creation are unique, we cannot guarantee that all the rhythms from our own day were in place in the same way during the first six days.
What are your conclusions for Genesis 1-3?
Dr. Vern Poythress: Genesis 1-3 is a trustworthy nonfiction narrative that tells about God’s work of creation, including the creation of mankind, and about the subsequent fall. We can believe all that it says. But it’s a sparse account. It leaves out many details about which we’re curious. So more than one theory has sprung up among Bible-believing Christians about how best to correlate Genesis 1 with mainstream science. We should exercise appropriate caution about scientific claims, because claims about the far past involve key assumptions of continuity, which are unlike experimental science. We should also have caution as we attempt to go beyond the sparse account in Genesis 1-3, when we imagine how it would have looked in detail.
God created the world in six days of work. That forms the basis for our human cycle of work, as in Exodus 20:8-11. God’s creation of Adam and Eve were special events. The fall was an actual event in time and space, not just a product of a made-up or mythological morality story.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Vern Poythress: I’d like to mention two other issues that help with the interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
First, it’s important to reckon with the question of what genre of literature is represented by Genesis 1-3. In addition, what’s the genre of literature of Genesis as a whole? Interpretation gets off track if it doesn’t notice the obvious about Genesis, namely that it offers itself as nonfiction Hebrew prose narrative. The closest comparisons might be with Numbers and 1-2 Samuel. People have gone off track when they focus primarily on supposed similarities between Genesis 1 and ancient Near Eastern myths. Such myths do exist, but if we do a comparison according to subject matter, Genesis 1 is closer to Psalm 104, Psalm 8, Psalm 148, and Nehemiah 9:6 than to any of these polytheistic myths. If we do a comparison in form (genre), Genesis is comparable to other nonfiction prose narratives in the Old Testament.
Second, it helps to see that Genesis 1-2 uses correlations between the original acts of creation and the later events of providence, in order to enable ordinary Israelite recipients to understand what God was doing in the one-time events in Genesis 1. For example, the first creation of plants is a one-time act of God, recorded in Genesis 1:11-12. It has correlations with the later pattern according to which plants continue to spring up and continue to bear fruit according to their kinds (Psalm 104:14-17). The record in Genesis 1-2 makes sense when we note that its meaning connects two poles—an originating act that occurred once, and a later pattern of God’s providence, continuing today, which builds on the initial act. It’s a mistake to eliminate either one of these poles.
Bio: Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science, including Interpreting Eden.