How should we interpret Genesis 1-3?

One of the big questions we will have to consider is “How should we interpret Genesis 1-3. . Of course, whenever we think about interpreting and applying Genesis 1-3, the question of Creation and Evolution is never far from my minds. Or to put it another way, how do we interpret the Bible’s account of origins in the light of modern scientific understanding?

We can suggest 3 possible ways of interpreting Genesis 1-3.[1]

  1. It is a literal account that tells us about material creation over 7 (24 hour) day period. This account can be harmonised with what we know about science. However, it cannot and should not be harmonised with evolutionary accounts. If this is correct, then it is evolutionary theory itself that fails to stand up to the test of scientific evidence.  Usually, those who take this view assume a “Young Earth” creation whereby the Universe began around about 6000 years ago.
  2. The account is primarily a stylised and poetic attempt to tell the story of origins.  It may well be intended as a polemic account both drawing on and responding to the contemporary myths of its time. We should not necessarily attempt to match the account precisely to modern cosmology as the author accommodated his language to fit the cosmological understanding of his time rather than to challenge it. This view is likely to accept in principle evolutionary theory but argue that God must be involved providentially and intimately in the evolutionary process. It may be possible to harmonise the Evolutionary process with the structure of the creation account. For example, this might mean treating the 7 days as epochs lasting millions of years.
  3. The account never was intended to be harmonised with modern scientific theory. It serves a different purpose because its intention is to make theological points.  One example of this is Walton’s argument that the account describes functional creation not material creation. This approach is essentially neutral on the question of evolutionary theory arguing that the Bible does not tell us about material origins. The point of the account is that the author is describing how God names and assigns meaning and purpose to each aspect of creation. Essentially the account is about God ordering his creation for the purpose of worship and culminates with his enthronement in his Garden Temple. [2]

In order to consider this question properly and reach a conclusion between these three options, it is important to consider two vital questions.

  1. Have we read and understood the Biblical data properly. Are we exegeting what it says or reading in (eisegesis) our own ideas and opinions? Are we making it say more or less than what it really says.
  2. Have we understood the Scientific data correctly? This means have we made correct observations and have we distinguished accurate observations from the interpretations extrapolated from them which again may include eisegesis as philosophical assumptions shape theories and interpretations.

We will need to consider both questions although primarily our focus here will be on the first part of the question. In order to be best placed to do this, there are two specific things we need to do. First of all, we need to do the detailed text work and therefore, the next three chapters will focus on textual exegesis as we find out what Genesis 1-3 actually say. We also want to follow the maxim that Scripture should interpret Scripture and so following that, we will develop a biblical theology of Creation examining how the themes we find in Genesis 1-3 are drawn out and understood throughout the rest of the Bible.

This will then enable us to think more clearly about how Genesis 1-3 have been understood historically, and specifically how the book would have been heard and read by its first recipients long before the idea of evolution was on the table. Whilst Evolution has not always been around, there have long been rival creation accounts. Therefore, we will examine some of the rivals to Biblical Creation before coming to the main contemporary rival -atheistic evolution.

This then will provide a foundation to move from interpretation to application. We’ll examine the Doctrine of Creation as a Systematic Theology discipline thinking about what it teaches about God, us and the World. This will lead to application as we consider how what we know about Creation affects us pastorally.

[1] Note that each viewpoint may include variant sub-options within it.

[2] See John Walton, The Lost world of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 2009), 36-52.