Volume 4 - Issue 1

Arguing about origins

By Paul Helm

Dr Weeks argues that on a certain hermeneutical approach to Scripture it must be concluded that Genesis 1–11 is to be understood literally. It seems to me, however, that a lot more needs doing before this general thesis ought to convince. I want to try and show the sort of thing that needs to be done by setting out as clearly as I can some of the options that are open to the would-be interpreter of Genesis. I shall not attempt to argue either that a position such as Dr Weeks’ must fail, or that it may succeed, though in the final section I shall comment on certain aspects of Dr Weeks’ paper that seem to me to be definitely unsatisfactory.

  1. The Christian’s twin commitment

The Christian typically has a basic commitment both to the general reliability of his reason and his senses, and to the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Neither of these commitments depends logically upon the other in the sense that neither of them entails the other. Commitment to the trustworthiness of the Scriptures does not entail that one’s senses are generally reliable, though it does entail that they are at least sometimes reliable, namely on those occasions when they have to do with the understanding of the Scriptures, for it would be incoherent to suppose that one could regard the Scriptures as trustworthy while no-one knew what they meant. On the other hand commitment to the trustworthiness of one’s senses does not entail commitment to the trustworthiness of the Scriptures, as post-Enlightenment culture has shown. Of course it may be that no-one would commit himself to the reliability of his reason and senses unless some of the things stated in Scripture are true, but that is a rather different matter.

Further, it is hard to see how these commitments to the reliability of one’s senses and reason, and to Scripture, could be rationally justified. They are basic commitments. Though it is perfectly possible not to commit oneself to the basic reliability of one’s senses or reason, and instead to commit oneself to the latest irrationalist fad, it is hard to see how anyone who did commit himself to the reliability of his reason and senses could justify that commitment rationally, either to himself, or to others, since presumably any argument used to justify the commitment, or evidence adduced, would itself presuppose the commitment that it was aiming to justify. Similarly with the Scriptures, at least if they are regarded as part of a Christian’s basic commitment (and not just typical of a Christian, or desirable, or even essential, for a person’s being a Christian). As is notorious, any attempt to prove the rationality of a commitment to the Scriptures is either going to fail—history is littered with such attempts—or to be question-begging, which is to fail in another way. Someone might say that he believes Scripture because of what Jesus teaches. But we know what Jesus teaches only from Scripture, and hence the reliability of what Jesus teaches presupposes the basic reliability of Scripture. But perhaps we can treat Jesus, for these purposes, as purely a ‘historical figure’. But which ‘Jesus of history’? Whose canons of historical enquiry are we to accept, and why? And are the probabilities of history—even if the claims about Jesus, viewed merely historically, can be shown to be more probable than not—going to be sufficient for the certainties of faith?

  1. Options in the approach to early Genesis

So the Christian has, typically, this twin commitment. But what if there is conflict, or apparent conflict, between the deliverances of Scripture and the deliverances of the senses and the reason? What, that is, if there is the following situation?

(1)  Scripture is reliable

(2)  Scripture teaches p

(3)  The senses and reason are reliable

(4)  The senses and reason teach q

(5)  It is not possible that both p and q are true.

It will be worth considering some of the various possibilities open to anyone caught in this unfortunate position.

As a first alternative, someone in this position could opt for denying (1), allowing that Scripture taught a certain proposition but that that proposition is not true. A flat-earther who believed that the Bible taught that the earth was round would be in that position so long as he was unprepared to give up his flat-earth views.

As a second alternative, instead of denying (1), (2) could be denied. (2) can be taken in a wider or a narrower sense. It might be held that whatever is learnt from the Bible is taught by the Bible. This would be an unacceptable view, I think. For instance someone could learn Hebrew and Greek from the Bible, but it would be unrealistic to suppose that the Bible teaches Hebrew and Greek. In taking (2) in the narrower sense one has to make reference to the intentions of the writer of the document. And in denying that the Bible intends to teach p one is presumably committed either to saying that it is not clear what the Bible intends to teach at this point, or to providing an alternative account, another proposition or set of propositions as the meaning of the sentences being considered. The first alternative is not silly. As Augustine put it, ‘Rather had I answer “I know not” what I know not, than so answer as to raise a laugh at him who asketh deep things, and gain praise as one who answereth false things.’

But suppose an alternative meaning is offered. What sorts of issues are involved in this? Let us now more particularly think of early Genesis.1 Suppose that someone says that early Genesis ought not to be interpreted literally, i.e. as journalism or history, but that it has some other meaning. Let us glance briefly at three.

(a) It might be thought that early Genesis is a scientific theory, a divinely sanctioned scientific theory about galactic and human origins. Some of the questions would then be: Does early Genesis have the form of a scientific explanation? Does it cite certain laws, for example? Is there one scientific explanation here, or many? Does it matter that the proper names of certain individuals, names such as Adam, Eve and Seth, appear in these explanations? The paradigm case of a scientific explanation is one that is purely naturalistic, that makes essential reference to naturally occurring laws and initial conditions. But in early Genesis the Lord is mentioned. Does that matter?

(b) Another alternative is to say that early Genesis is giving a timeless—in the sense of ‘timelessly appealing’—pictorial account of some metaphysical state of affairs, the creation of the universe by God. In this connection it seems to me to be worth stressing that when we are asking questions about the origin of the universe, and of God’s relationship to the universe, we are in fact asking metaphysical questions. It often seems to me that the beginning of the universe is treated as the deists used to treat it, as we would treat the beginning of some event in time, like the start of a football match, rather than as the origin of time (and space) as such, and all that time and space contain. In his profound meditations on the creation in his ConfessionsAugustine insists that the creation took place nowhere, and at no time. Nowhere:

Verily, neither in the heaven, nor in the earth, didst Thou make heaven and earth: nor in the air, or waters, seeing these also belong to the heaven and the earth; nor in the whole world didst Thou make the whole world; because there was no place where to make it, before it was made, that it might be.

And at no time:

For whence could innumerable ages pass by, which Thou madest not, Thou the Author and Creator of all ages? or what times should there be, which were not made by Thee? Seeing, then, Thou art the Creator of all times, if any time was before Thou madest heaven and earth, why say they that Thou didst forego working? For that very time didst Thou make, nor could times pass by, before Thou madest those times.2

So if there is what appears to be a narrative of the (metaphysical) origin of the universe, that narrative is necessarily going to be symbolic and conventional in character. This is one reason why it is hard to make sense of the exhortation to take all the language of early Genesis literally, if what early Genesis is about is metaphysics, and this is also one important respect in which certain attitudes to early Genesis must differ from Bultmann’s programme of demythologizing.

If we take the view that early Genesis is a pictorial account of metaphysical origins our questions are not over. There follows the problem, which perhaps only the biblical theologian can answer, of why the symbolism takes the precise form that it does, and at what point early Genesis moves from a ‘symbolism of metaphysical origins’ to historical narrative.

(c) A further alternative is to say that early Genesis is theological in intent, not concerned to teach or portray certain scientific or metaphysical truths, but to indicate certain theological truths about cosmic origins. (This might, in effect, be an answer to the question in the last paragraph, in which case we would be treating early Genesis as both metaphysical and theological in character.) J. I. Packer takes this position in a recent book.

It was to show us the Creator rather than the creation, and to teach us knowledge of God rather than physical science, that Genesis 1 and 2, along with such celebrations of creation as Psalm 104 and Job 38–41, were written.3

Rather than criticize these chapters for not feeding our secular interest, we should take from them a needed rebuke of our perverse passion for knowing Nature without regard to what matters most; namely, knowing Nature’s Creator.4

But then again, if this line is taken it is necessary to ask: if this is the correct approach to Genesis 1 and 2, what about Genesis 3? What about the theological use of Genesis 3 by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15? And what about the relation of early Genesis to the covenantal history of Israel in the remainder of the Old Testament? Is early Genesis the ‘framework’ of that history?

So far we have looked briefly at some of the alternative ways of handling (2), in the face of a possible conflict between the findings of Scripture and the findings of reason and the senses. We have by no means looked at all of them, in particular we have entirely neglected detailed exegetical theories about the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 and the possibility of a ‘gap’ between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2.

But let us turn to the other side of the question. Given the conflict we have supposed, it is theoretically possible to ease it by reconsidering (3) and (4). How might this proceed?

Doubting the general reliability of sense or of reason is not going to be very wise, since this would have implications in all sorts of areas, though one might doubt the competence of sense and reason to investigate particular matters, such as human origins. This would amount to saying that any theory whatever about human origins is untrustworthy. But why should this be, if the theory in question is a geological or cosmological or anthropological theory which the evidence available does not falsify?

It might be more promising to question (4). Take a theory such as the theory of evolution of species by natural selection which to many (including Dr Weeks) seems to be logically incompatible with a non-frivolous interpretation of early Genesis, and even, in some cases, logically incompatible with theism in general. (Why this should be is a complete mystery; it suggests a confusion of evolution with evolutionism, the view that any naturalistic explanation of an evolutionary kind ipso facto rules out a theistic account.) But suppose that one held that early Genesis taught p, and that the theory of evolution by natural selection taught q, and suppose that one was more inclined to hold p than q, how could q be critically assessed? There are, once again, a number of alternative possibilities.

(a) One could argue that the theory of evolution is not a well-formed scientific theory because it is, say, unfalsifiable. Any evidence seems compatible with it. This raises two further questions: Is the theory of evolution unfalsifiable? And does any scientific theory, to be a scientific theory, have to be falsifiable?

(b) One could argue that the form of explanation adopted by the theory of evolution is wrong-headed, and so unacceptable as an explanation. Many philosophers have wanted to distinguish between two forms of explanation—in terms of efficient causes, and in terms of purposes or final causes. What the theory of evolution attempts to do is to account for ostensibly purposive, teleological processes, e.g. animal reproduction, by providing an account in terms of efficient causality, the processes of natural selection. It is thus necessary to ask: Are there these two forms of explanation? Is the Darwinian elimination of apparently teleological processes plausible?

(c) It is possible, thirdly, to raise questions about the probability or likelihood of the Darwinian account being the correct one on the evidence available, in the face of the apparently teleological nature of many natural processes. The onus is on the Darwinian here, and the evidence to which he might appeal—the existence of random variation, the elimination of species—needs to be weighed.

(d) One could make a distinction between the language of appearances and the language of scientific theory. The sun appears to set, but scientific accounts of the movement of the heavenly bodies suggest otherwise. It might be argued that q, though it apparently conflicts with p, does not really do so.

(e) One could argue, finally, along the lines hinted at earlier. To suppose that any scientific theory about origins conflicts with early Genesis is to confuse science with metaphysics. So q cannot conflict with p however much it might appear to do so.

Even if one or other of these lines of argument about q can be taken up and developed convincingly, in showing that q is false one has not shown, of course, that no scientific account is acceptable, and the possibility that some other account is the correct one has to be allowed. And if it is allowed that there is some correct scientific account of cosmic origins (if only we knew it), and one also holds that some non-scientific account of early Genesis is correct, then one must allow that it is possible in principle to display the complementarity of the two accounts.

  1. Interpreting Scripture by Scripture

Above I have tried to set out some—only some—of the alternative lines of response that are possible given the dilemma of (1)–(5). In this respect arguing about early Genesis is like arguing about anything else of comparable complexity. The moves open to one are formally similar to those when findings from diverse sources conflict or appear to conflict. One of the reasons why Dr Weeks’ argument is not convincing is that he fails to indicate how he would meet objections from these various quarters; to show what, precisely, he means by a literal account of early Genesis; to answer such basic questions as: ‘If Genesis 1 is literally true is there also a scientific theory (unknown to us at present) which is true?’ Is Genesis 1 literally true as cosmology or metaphysics?’ ‘What is the relationship between science and metaphysics?’ But in this final section I want to comment briefly on what seems to me to be defects in what Dr Weeks does say.

Throughout his paper Weeks dubs the notion of complementary descriptions ‘Kantian’. ‘The distinction (viz.religious/scientific) looks suspiciously like Kant’s noumena/phenomena distinction,’ he says. I am afraid that it looks like nothing of the kind. Crucial to Kant’s distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves is the thought that the only things of which the human mind can be sensible are appearances. The things-in-themselves, while regulative of human thought, are unknowable. Thus while the table before me appears shaped and coloured in a particular way the table as it is in itself never appears to me. However, I need to think of the table as a substantial thing, in that sense is made of my various sensory awarenesses only by the thought that there is something that these appearances are appearances of.

What has this to do with the distinction between two levels of description? The contrast drawn by two complementary descriptions is not that between the known and the unknowable, but between levels of knowledge, levels determined by human interests and purposes (and perhaps divine interests and purposes as well), hierarchically ordered, and complementary because (i) neither rules out the other and (ii) the available data require both descriptions.

So the connection with Kantianism is pure fiction. However, if I have got the gist of Dr Weeks’ paper, such an observation would be unlikely to move him because what he really fears is not Kantianism as such, or Darwinianism as such, but the importing into the exegesis of Scripture of principles of interpretation drawn from outside Scripture itself. According to Dr Weeks our principles must be ‘determined by the Bible itself’. Insofar as this position represents a warning against the importing into Scripture of a priori patterns of interpretation, of saying, in advance of actually looking to see, what it is that Scripture must mean, then Dr Weeks’ words are wise, and to be heeded, though (once again) they are not words of advice that concern only the interpretation of Scripture, but they concern the interpretation of any document, and indeed the pursuit of any rational activity whatever. It is folly, in advance of actual investigation, to say what must be the case.

But what are these principles that must be determined by the Bible itself? Dr Weeks himself makes the important distinction between infallible Scripture and fallible later theologies. Do we not also need to distinguish between the infallible Scripture and fallible later principles of interpretation? How can we best do this? Not, clearly, by pre-empting discussion by assuming that our (perhaps temporary and local) principles are the principles, but by adopting a method of working that will reduce the possibility of error to a minimum. And what is that method? The best suggestion that I have seen (in J. I. Packer’s ‘Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority’, Themelios 1/1, Autumn 1975) is of a method that involves checking any allegedly biblical doctrine by Scripture itself. Secular findings may be the occasion for such re-thinking, and they may even show previous errors to be errors, without actually dictating the positive principles of interpretation. Such principles must come from Scripture itself. There is, by this method, no infallible way of blinker-removing but it does hold out the best chance of minimizing error, which is what we want.

Let me try to show, briefly and finally (and tentatively), how such a methodological principle might work in the case of some of the biblical data referred to by Dr Weeks. He raises the question of whether there is any explicit teaching in Scripture itself that its details are not to be pressed in matters of the physical creation. He claims, by reference to such texts as 2 Peter 3:5–7, Exodus 20:11, Matthew 19:4 etc. that the creation narrative is treated by the biblical authors as fact without any reservations. But granted that the texts ‘press’ the details, the question is, how do they press them? Does it follow that if one biblical writer quotes another biblical writer without gloss or interpretative comment that what the quoted writer wrote is being taken by the quoter to be literally true? Perhaps such a treatment shows that the words of the quoted writer are, in the mind of the quoter, normative, but that is quite a different matter. It is not a question of whether the details—as opposed to the ‘general teaching’—of Scripture ought to be pressed, but a question of in what way the details ought to be pressed. It is this sort of question that must constantly—though not neurotically—be asked of any alleged biblical teaching, lest we get hung up on a priori (i.e. extra-biblical) theories of interpretation, either from the liberal left or from the fundamentalist right.

1 I shall use the phrase ‘early Genesis’ to cover Genesis 1–11. Whether and to what extent early Genesis teaches both metaphysical and scientific and historical truths is, of course, part of the problem.

2 Both quotations are from the eleventh book of the Confessions.

3 I want to be a Christian, p. 33.

4 Ibid., p. 32.

Paul Helm

Paul Helm
University of London
London, UK