Creation Chronology in 1 Corinthians 11

Over the past week, a large percentage of my time was spent poring over the first sixteen verses of 1 Corinthians 11, and writing what wound up being two sermons on this passage. It’s a tough passage – “one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible,” according to Thomas Schreiner, and a passage which “continues to vex modern interpreters,” as David Garland writes. The passage deals with the issue of head-coverings for women, and over the centuries, even interpreters who work within the same theological framework have argued strongly in favour of contradictory conclusions.

Given the focus of our website, the topic of this post will not be whether or not the Apostle Paul’s instruction concerning head-coverings is still applicable today, or, if so, how it is to be applied. I’ll save that stuff for the sermons. Instead, I’m going to focus on one aspect of Paul’s argument in support of his teaching, found in verses 7 through 12:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (ESV).

Richard Hays, in his commentary on this passage, writes that Paul’s “reasoning is notoriously obscure – partly because we don’t know precisely how to interpret some of the key terms in the argument, and partly because the line of argument is – by any standard – laboured and convoluted.” I beg to differ (strongly) with Hays’ conclusion, but regardless of the difficulties we may have with Paul’s argument as modern interpreters, one thing is absolutely clear: Paul grounds his argument in the Genesis creation account.

It has been argued that the Genesis account of creation was not meant to be a chronological account of God’s work of creating the universe. Rather, some will argue, we are not to read into the text an insistence on a specific chronology – a definite order of events that must be understood as historical narrative, in the way that we generally understand historical narrative to work. Instead, it is argued, we should accept that the Genesis creation account is poetic in nature, and that it was meant to teach us important lessons about who God is, about his power, majesty and glory, about our humble origins, without insisting that the account’s chronology must be taken at face value.

So when we do insist that there is a specific order to creation, a certain chronology of events, with light being created before the light-bearers, with the birds and sea creatures being created one day prior to the land animals and human beings, we’re told by some that we are imposing a modern view of history on the account. This, it is said, is something that earlier interpreters of the text, working within a different cultural and intellectual framework, would not have done.

But my question is this: is that really an accurate assessment? How does Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but within his own historical, cultural, and intellectual context, understand the story of creation recorded in Genesis 1 and 2? As people who believe in the unity of Scripture, and that the ultimate source of Scripture is God himself, we should strive to interpret Scripture with Scripture. So, if we want to learn how to rightly interpret Genesis 1 and 2, one of the most important tasks at hand is to see what it says about these chapters elsewhere in Scripture.

And Paul makes several statements that rely on the chronological accuracy of the Genesis account:

1. Man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
2. Man was not created for woman, but woman for man.
3. As woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.

Because of these facts, Paul writes, “woman is the glory of man.” Why? Because woman was made from man, and created for man. His argument rests on the order of events as outlined in the creation account in Genesis 2, which focuses on the creation of human beings:

Genesis 2:7 – “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

Genesis 2:18 – “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”

Genesis 2:21-23 – “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’”

It seems clear that Paul accepted the historical reality of all of these events. Adam was created first. Adam was charged with the job of naming the animals, but in the course of that activity, it became apparent that none of these creatures was a suitable helper for him. So God subsequently created a helper who was suited to him: the woman. He caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep, removed one of his ribs, and from that rib he formed the woman.

Now, it could be claimed (as some do) that Paul was a product of his times. He came to his patriarchal and misogynistic conclusion because he was a man firmly rooted in First Century Judaism, living in the Roman Empire. He believed this account of creation, and took it literally, because his understanding on these matters was limited. We have more information available to us, so we must read the creation story, as well as Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, in a way that takes that new information into account.

But as people who believe in the inspiration, authority, and perfection of Holy Scripture, these options are simply not open to us. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is God’s Word, a part of that Scripture. There are indeed, as Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:16, “some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures,” but that only means we may have to work harder to understand them, because they are Scripture. Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 is not an interpretation that we can reject if we want to continue to submit ourselves to all of God’s Word. It is, simply put, absolutely authoritative.

And that leads us to these conclusions:

1. If Paul reads the Genesis creation account as an actual chronology of events, so should we.
2. If Paul says that the first woman was created out of the first man, we should accept that fact.
3. If Paul says that the woman was created for the man, that must be true.

At the same time, we must also categorically reject the belief that Adam and Eve were descended from other hominids, and may have been the first creatures endowed with the “image of God,” but were not immediately created by God, using, in the first place, the dust of the earth, and in the second place, a rib from the man. If the first man were born of a woman, either human or hominid, and if the first woman were physically born as the result of human or hominid procreation, Paul’s argument is invalid. It simply does not hold water. If Paul’s argument is invalid, Scripture does not stand. If Scripture does not stand, our faith collapses with it. That is how serious this discussion is.

Note well: this line of reasoning does not depend on an individual’s understanding of the actual genre of the Genesis creation account. It may be argued (incorrectly, I believe) that Genesis 1-3 are poetic in nature, and thus should not be understood as an account of consecutively occurring events. But it simply cannot be argued that Paul’s use of the Genesis creation account (along with several other passages in Scripture) is meant to be taken in that way.

In subsequent posts, I hope to examine other passages, in the Old and New Testaments, that use the Genesis creation account in similar ways. My goal is that we take the complete message of Scripture as a unity. It is the Word of truth, God’s perfect revelation. That’s where our starting point must be.