Keller: Can we take Genesis 1 literally, if we hold that God used evolution to create?

As I explained in the last blog entry, Keller entertains the real questions Christians ask when they are told that biological evolution is compatible with the Bible. The first “layperson” question considered by Keller is, “If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?” Keller’s short answer is, “The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking or agenda on them.”

At first glance this is a solid answer—the Bible has authority! But I’ll have more to say about that below.

Genre and intent

Keller expands upon his answer first by delving into the genre of Genesis 1 because “the way to discern how an author wants to be read is to distinguish what genre the writer is using” (3). “How an author wants to be read” is a bit ambiguous, but I’ll take it to refer to authorial intent (Keller’s point is going to be whether or not the author wants us to read Genesis 1 literally and chronologically). The link he proposes between genre and authorial intent, however, is not straightforward. Consider this example: If I use poetry to communicate to my wife how much I love her, my intentions are just the same as if I had written it out prosaically. Even if I used a syllogism, “All my life I have loved you; today is a day of my life; therefore I love you today,” my intentions would still be the same (though she’d call it a silly-gism). It’s true that in poetry I’m more likely to use figures of speech but those as such don’t remove historicity from the poetry. See Psalm 78 for a good example of poetry replete with historical truth.

Genre of Genesis 1

Keller next asks what genre Genesis 1 is and starts his answer with the conservative Presbyterian theologian Edward J. Young (1907–1968) who, he says, “admits that Genesis 1 is written in ‘exalted, semi-poetical language.’” Keller correctly notes the absence of the telltale signs of Hebrew poetry. Yet he also points out the refrains in Genesis 1 such as, “and God saw that it was good,” “God said,” “let there be,” and “and it was so,” and then adds, “Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened” (4). He completes this part of the arguments with a quotation from John Collins that the genre of Genesis 1 is “what we may call exalted prose narrative . . . by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text” (4). Thus this argument is now complete: the genre of Genesis 1 prohibits us from reading it literally.

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Misleading appeal to E. J. Young

However, if we follow the trail via Keller’s footnote to E. J. Young’s, Studies in Genesis One, we discover that Keller sidestepped Young’s real point. Here’s the fuller quote, “Genesis one is written in exalted, semi-poetical language; nevertheless, it is not poetry” (italics added). Young continued by pointing out what elements of Hebrew poetry are lacking and by urging the reader to compare Job 38:8–11 and Psalm 104:5–9 to Genesis 1 in order to see the obvious differences between a poetic and non-poetic account of the creation. Prior to this paragraph Young had written,

Genesis one is a document sui generis [entirely of its own kind]; its like or equal is not to be found anywhere in the literature of antiquity. And the reason for this is obvious. Genesis one is divine revelation to man concerning the creation of heaven and earth. It does not contain the cosmology of the Hebrews or of Moses. Whatever that cosmology may have been, we do not know . . . Israel, however, was favoured of God in that he gave to her a revelation concerning the creation of heaven and earth, and Genesis one is that revelation (82).

 In note 80 of the same page Young elaborates further,

For this reason we cannot properly speak of the literary genre of Genesis one. It is not a cosmogony, as though it were simply one among many. In the nature of the case a true cosmogony must be a divine revelation. The so-called cosmogonies of the various peoples of antiquity are in reality deformations of the originally revealed truth of creation. There is only one genuine cosmogony, namely, Genesis one, and this account alone gives reliable information as to the origin of the earth (82n80).

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With these words of Young guiding our hearts, we turn back to Keller’s statement that it is “obvious” that someone would not compose an account in the exalted style of Genesis 1 “in response to a simple request to tell what happened.” But what if the things therein described happened exactly in that exalted way? Of course we are reading “exalted prose”—precisely because the things described are so wonderful! The literary style not only fits but even reflects the miraculous events. God is glorified repeatedly, all the more because it is literally true.

An old canard: Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2

Keller’s second reason—and strongest, he says—why he thinks the author of Genesis 1 didn’t want to be taken literally is based on “a comparison of the order of creative acts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2” (4). This argument is a bit more complicated and deserves closer scrutiny than I will give it here. But the basic point is that Genesis 2:5 apparently speaks about God not putting any vegetation on the earth before there was an atmosphere or rain or a man to till the ground. This, says Keller, is the natural order. Genesis 1 is the unnatural order, so it’s not literal. His argument is an old canard, but really it is a lame duck.

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Let’s examine it: Keller says that Genesis 1 has an unnatural order because light (day 1) came before light sources (day 4) and vegetation (day 3) came before an atmosphere and rain (day 4). However, he reads the text too quickly here, for the separation of waters above and below occurs on day 2, allowing rain before vegetation. On day 4 God set the light sources in the firmament that was already there on day 2. Further, the old light vs light bearers problem is far from sufficient to jettison the chronological order of the creation events in Genesis 1. And, finally, a normal day without light or water wouldn’t kill these plants anyway.

To continue: the order of events in Genesis 2, especially verse 5, is not in the least contrary to Genesis 1. Rather, whereas Genesis 1:1–2:3 refers only to “God” and focuses on the awesome Creator preparing and adorning the earth for man, Genesis 2:4–25 focus on this God as “Yahweh” who lovingly and tenderly creates the man and the woman, prepares a beautiful garden for them, and who thereupon enters into a loving relationship with them. Each chapter makes its own contribution to the story, with chapter 2 doubling back in order to more fully explain the events of the sixth day. This is a common occurrence in Hebrew prose. Further, we can easily fit 2:4–25 chronologically in between 1:26, “Let us make man in our image” and 1:27, “So God created man in his image . . . male [Adam] and female [Eve] he created them.”

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Finally, Genesis 2:4 begins the first “toledoth” or “generations of” statement, which after this becomes a structural divider in Genesis, occurring nine more times. Young argues that we should translate “toledoth” as “those things which are begotten” (59). If we follow this suggestion, we see that Genesis 2:4ff tell us about the things begotten of the heavens and the earth, such as the man, who is both earthly (his body) and heavenly (his spirit), or the garden, which is earthly, yet planted by God. When Genesis 2:5 states that “no shrub of the field” had yet grown and “no plant of the field” had yet sprouted, it portrays a barrenness which sets the stage for the fruitful garden (2:8–14) and the fruitful wife (2:18–25). Further, the “shrubs” and “plants” of the field likely point to cultivated plants that require human tending. Adam will be a farmer. If so, the point of 2:5 is not the lack of vegetation altogether, but the lack of certain man-tended kinds, such as those Yahweh God would plant in the Garden of Eden.

Therefore, we ought to conclude the very opposite of Keller. Whereas he argues that we cannot read both chapter 1 and chapter 2 as “straightforward accounts of historical events” and that chapter 2 rather than chapter 1 provides the “natural order” (5), we most certainly can read both as historical and literal.

Keller pulls together both the genre and the chronology arguments and concludes,

So what does this mean? It means Genesis 1 does not teach us that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days. Of course, it doesn’t teach evolution either . . . However, it does not preclude the possibility of the earth being extremely old (5).

However, both of Keller’s grounds for not taking Genesis 1 literally have been exposed as weak at best.[1] In contrast, E. J. Young’s strong arguments for the literal, historical reading of Genesis 1, a few of which we reviewed here, remain firmly in place. Exalted prose indeed, and true!

Whose authority?

Finally, a word about the authority of the text: Keller states that we must “respect the authority of the Biblical writers.” His wording is similar to John Walton’s in his speeches at a conference I attended in September 2015.[2] Walton frequently spoke of “the authority of the text” and stated that it rested in the original meaning “as understood by the people who first received it.” But missing from both Keller and Walton is the recognition that all Scripture is breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16) and that therefore the primary author is the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). We are not called just to respect the authority of human writers or of the text, but of God himself! There are passages of Scripture for which the first intention of the human writer—as far as we can discern it—does not reach as far as the divine intention (for example, certain Messianic Psalms such as 2 & 110, or the injunction about the ox not wearing a muzzle as it treads out the grain (Deut 25:4; cf. 1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18). In fact, Peter tells us that the Old Testament prophets searched with great care to find out the time and circumstances of the things they prophesied about Christ—implying that the prophecies went beyond the knowledge of the prophets themselves. He adds that these are things into which even angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10–12). Thus, it’s clear that the primary author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit and that the authority of the text resides in his intentions first of all. This is why one of the primary rules of interpretation is to compare Scripture with Scripture. This book alone is God’s Word!

Let us take great care in handling the Word of God, greater care than Keller does on this point. And let us conclude that the text of Genesis 1 itself clearly indicates it is to be read literally, historically, and chronologically (Keller, at least, has not proven otherwise).

[1] In addition, Keller’s note 17 on page 14, linked to a different section of his paper, asserts that prose can use figurative speech and poetry can use literal speech. It appears, then, that he undercuts his own argument.

[2] See my blog entry at

The “Problem” of Cain

Who did Cain marry? And who exactly was he afraid of?

In an article published on the Logos Bible Software blog in March 2014, Tremper Longman (Biblical studies professor at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA), lists several views on how Adam and Eve are to be understood. One of the views he cites is that of the British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Longman writes:

“Now Wright’s view, as I understand it from conversations with him, is that… Adam and Eve are a kind of a representative couple within that breeding population. They’re not alone. And actually, that helps explain certain features of Genesis 1-11, like who Cain married, who Cain was afraid of, and those kind of things. So that’s his view: they were an actual representative couple, like the queen and the king. Or we could conceive of them as the priest and the priestess, since Genesis 1 and 2 also talk about the cosmos using a kind of temple language.”

Longman goes on to state that he would “allow for the possibility” that Adam and Eve weren’t that original couple (one pair of many), but that they were “representative of that original couple.”

There are many things that could be said about Longman’s view on the subject of the historicity of Adam and Eve, but I want to focus on only one aspect of what he says in this article. Namely, his statement that N.T. Wright’s view of Adam and Eve “helps explain certain features of Genesis 1-11, like who Cain married, who Cain was afraid of, and those kind of things.” He has in view Wright’s ideas that Adam and Eve were representatives of a larger population of human beings, and not the only two human beings alive in the beginning.

My question about this statement is this: Why is it necessary to go in search of another explanation for these features of the text, when the answer is actually clear, simply working with the account of Genesis itself?

First of all, who was Cain afraid of? Cain and Abel are the first two sons of Adam and Eve mentioned in Scripture. In Genesis 4:25, we’re told that Eve bore a son and named him Seth, “for she said, ‘God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.’” In Genesis 5:3, we’re told that Seth was born “when Adam had lived 130 years,” and that birth, presumably, occurred relatively soon after Abel’s death, not too long after the time when Cain said, “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me shall kill me” (Gen. 4:14), and within the same period in which “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen. 4:17).

Cain and Abel were Seth’s older brothers. They may have been the first two sons born to Adam and Eve, but that is not necessarily the case. But even if we assume that they were, it is entirely possible that Eve could have given birth to sixty-five children before Seth was born (and that’s a conservative guess on my part, assuming single births happening every two years – the numbers could have been much higher). I’m not a mathematician nor the son of a mathematician, and I never took statistics. Therefore, my personal attempt at making some calculations on the population growth possibilities “in the beginning” ended up being, to say the very least, a little rough. But assuming the same rate of reproduction (one child every two years born to adult women), the population of the world by the time Seth was born would have already been in the thousands.

So that answers one question – of whom was Cain afraid? He was afraid of his siblings and their children, his nephews and nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces, and so on. Remember the long lifespans that Scripture records about the people who lived before the flood – many generations of one family would have been alive at the same time, and population would grow exponentially. If we take the information given to us in Scripture seriously, and work with that information, it all seems fairly straightforward.

But what about the second question – whom did Cain marry? And again, the answer to that question is straightforward, and, dare I say, obvious. He married his sister. Or perhaps he married his niece, in which case, one of his brothers must have married his sister. Remember, the proscriptions against incest were not given until the time of Moses (Leviticus 20:17, etc). In fact, we’re told that Abraham and Sarah were half-siblings (Genesis 20:12). Given the fact that the population began with a perfect, error-free genetic stock, this needn’t have been a problem until generations had passed, with the resultant genetic deterioration. For these first generations of the human population, consanguinity would have been a complete non-issue.

So, there’s no need, on the basis of these supposedly problematic questions, to go in search of explanations elsewhere. There’s no need to posit the existence of another branch of humanity apart from Adam and Eve and those descended from Adam and Eve. There’s no need to imagine that Adam and Eve were merely the representative leaders of a much larger population group, whether they were their king and queen, or their priest and priestess. And there’s no need to imagine that they stand even further removed from actual history, as representatives of those representatives (whatever that might mean). Adam and Eve had children, and they probably had a whole lot of them. Those children married each other and had (a whole lot of) children, who married each other, and so on.

It seems to me that bringing these issues into the discussion, as Tremper Longman does, only serves to muddy the waters. I’m far from the first person to have addressed these issues, and there are many others who have addressed them in far greater detail than I have in this short blog post. I’m certain that Longman, as an Old Testament scholar, is well aware of those explanations. Tremper Longman and others who deny the actual historical existence of Adam and Eve must admit that their denial is, in reality, not based in any “problem” in the Biblical account.

The “problem” of Cain, when it comes right down to it, turns out not to be a problem at all.

ANSWERING OBJECTIONS: There wasn’t enough time on the sixth day

QUESTION: In Genesis 1:27 it says God made Eve on the same day as Adam (“… male and female He created them”) but in the next chapter in Genesis 2:18-22 it says that God created Eve only after Adam first named all the wild animals and bird (don’t fish need names too?). So, are we really supposed to imagine that in just one ordinary day God created Adam, had all the animals pass by him, Adam named them, realized he was lonely, and then he had a women created from his rib? How could all of this happen in just 24 hours?

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ANSWER: It is sometimes argued that we shouldn’t believe the creation days were literal days, because there wasn’t enough time on the sixth day to get everything done in just a 24-hour period. But if we take a close look at the events, we’ll find there was more than enough time.

Consider first that God brings the animals to Adam to highlight that Adam has no match to be found in the animal kingdom. In other words, Adam’s loneliness isn’t the separate event some make it out to be – his loneliness is brought to his attention by the very act of seeing all the animals.

Second, he wasn’t required to name the insects, or the sea animals – as these could never have been companions to Man, Adam doesn’t need to see (or name) them at this point. This eliminates more than 98% of all the living species out there.

Third, whereas we have many a dog type now, there would likely have been far fewer then, and Adam might have handled the whole kit and ca”poodle” by calling the whole grouping “dog.” You can work through a lot of animals quickly if the naming involves only the overall kinds.

So… there was lots of time to name animals, lots of time to notice how none of them was a good match for Adam, and then lots of time for God (who needs no time at all to get things done) to make a suitable better half for Adam. This objection is one that has been made many a time, and by some big names (Dr. Norman Geisler would be one of the biggest), but it has also been answered many times. There is no reason to think that all the events described as taking place on day 6 couldn’t have taken place in a normal day.

Dr. C. Van Dam: What did the days of the “creation week” consist of?

diagdIt’s common to hear Christians argue that God’s creative work should not be thought of in terms of six normal days.  Instead, we’re told that we should open to the possibility that these days were much longer periods of time, perhaps even billions of years.  These arguments have been around for a while.  In today’s featured article (which first appeared in 1989), Dr. C. Van Dam addresses these arguments and demonstrates how Scripture can and must be taken at face value on this matter.  You can find the article here.

Readers interested in a more detailed treatment of this topic should check out Rev. Paulin Bédard’s book In Six Days God Created.  The book can be purchased at this link and a review of it can be found here.  Highly recommended!