The Creator’s Authorized Realistic Account of Creation: Interpretation of Genesis 1–3 Is Neither Literal nor Figurative
Evangelicals who receive Genesis 1–11 as factually portraying God’s creative work should be commended. Yet, defending “literal interpretation” to counter “figurative interpretation” prolongs the misguided debate and tends to induce many Christians to suppress Scripture’s realistic portrayals of God’s creative actions and historical accounts throughout Genesis 1–11. Even so, far more egregious is the subjugation of God’s authorized realistic accounts in Genesis 1–3 to evolutionary interpretations of valid fields of study—geology, archaeology, cosmology, and biology. Thus, by demonstrating that the debate is properly located within the author’s domain and not the reader’s realm, this essay necessarily corrects both errors while concentrating on the flagrant one.
Would a reasonable Christian read John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress allegorically or figuratively? The answer is: Neither, because the adverbs “allegorically” and “figuratively” describe not how to read his similitude but how Bunyan wrote it. Thus, he requires us to read it for what it actually is, an allegory. Authors of literature, not readers, have authority over their texts to assign symbolic or figurative properties to settings, events, persons, and things they embed within their texts. Readers are obligated to comprehend how an author represents the world being portrayed textually, whether the realm portrayed is fictional or real. Thus, we are not at liberty to read The Pilgrim’s Progress according to our whims. We are not free to assign our own arbitrary meanings to the author’s text. Bunyan wrote it as an allegory. He assigned figurative representational significances to the settings, events, persons, and things. Readers do not have that role.
However, many Christians who honor the inviolability of what Bunyan wrote do not honor the creation-fall accounts of Genesis 1–3 with the same sanctity. Some seize authority over the biblical text by engaging in “figurative interpretation,” while others do essentially the same thing under the banner of “literal interpretation.” Both approaches are mistaken and misguided because interpretation is neither literal nor figurative. We do not have the authority to determine how we are to read the text; this authority is embedded into the text by the author. Thus, whether we are to interpret the passage “literally” or “figuratively” is a confusing, misleading, and mistaken debate. Interpretation of Genesis 1–3 is neither literal nor figurative. In this article, I will show that it is an error for us to dispute whether we should interpret Genesis 1–3 literally or figuratively. I will show that interpretation is neither literal nor figurative. Evangelicals who contend that the text of Genesis obligates us to read it literally misspeak. What they mean is that the biblical text portrays God’s creative acts literally, which is to say, factually. Creation really took place as Genesis portrays it. So, as you read this article, you will recognize that I more fully direct the needed corrective toward those who contend that Genesis 1-3 calls for a figurative interpretation.
But first, let’s consider some context.
Philo’s Platonic Influence on Ancient Christians
The debate is ancient, and Christians have been posing and debating this since the second century. Exegetes of the Alexandrian school were under varying degrees of pagan Platonic influence through Philo, who viewed the Creator too lofty to be fully accountable for the creation of Adam. Philo believed God distanced himself from the creation of Adam more so than the creation of all other things. Philo infers that when God said, “Let us make man,” the plural “us” includes “other beings to himself as assistants,” such that they bear the blame for Adam’s disobedient acts. Second-century Gnostics expanded on Philo’s inference by positing the presence and influence of demiurges, heavenly beings who shaped and control the material universe.
Some Ancient Christians—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine—accepted Philo’s teaching that God created everything in one simultaneous action. They explain the six days of Genesis 1 not as a chronological timespan but as a symbolic framework, featuring creation’s increasing worth, with humans ranked highest. Reflecting Philo’s Platonic influence, Origen regards the biblical account as not factually accurate. Mockingly, he inquires, “Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars—the first day even without a sky?” Again, with derision, he asks who could be “so ignorant as to suppose that” God planted trees in a garden with fruit sustaining life or bringing death, or that God walked in the garden and found Adam hiding under a tree? Origen is confident that this portrayal is too fantastic for anyone to fail to recognize that these are “related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.” For Origen, God’s authorized portrayal of his creative acts requires an allegorical interpretive grid to determine its proper meaning.
Candid Acknowledgements that the Writer of Genesis Portrays Reality
Geologists, archaeologists, cosmologists, and biologists pose a worldview that rivals the Bible’s account of creation. This prompts efforts by many Christians to harmonize scientists’ claims concerning the beginnings of all things and Scripture’s account of creation. Two conflicting approaches dominate and polarize debates over the origins of the universe and of life. Many evangelicals improperly insist on a “literal interpretation” of the creation accounts, while many others counter with a “figurative interpretation” concerning the biblical text. Both are missteps.
Even though he accepted the theory of evolution, Marcus Dods admits that every effort to harmonize Scripture’s account of creation with the modern theory of evolution is “futile and mischievous” because all such efforts fail to convince but “prolong the strife between Scripture and science.” He warns, “And above all, they are to be condemned because they do violence to Scripture, foster a style of interpretation by which the text is forced to say whatever the interpreter desires, and prevent us from recognising the real nature of these sacred writings.” He calls interpreters who adjust the Genesis account of creation to fit the modern scientists’ beliefs concerning origins are Scripture’s “worst friends who distort its words.” For example, if the word “day” in Genesis 1–2 does not refer to an earth-day, a period of twenty-four hours, “the interpretation of Scripture is hopeless.”
Likewise, much more recently, on April 23, 1984, James Barr, who rejects the historicity of the accounts in Genesis 1–11, wrote a letter to David C. C. Watson (Wheaton, IL) in which Barr affirms that, as a Hebrew scholar, his judgment is that the author of the ancient text meant for his portrayal to be believed as historical. He wrote,
[S]o far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be worldwide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.
Barr affirms the same in published books. For example, he contends,
From the genealogies of Genesis the reader could reckon the time down to the flood; from the flood he could reckon on to the exodus, and from there to the building of Solomon’s temple. The figures were meant to be exact and to be taken literally. They do not mean anything at all unless they mean actual numbers of years. Thus to say that Abraham was 75 years old when he migrated from Haran into Canaan (Gen. 12.4) means exactly that, namely that he was 75 years old at that point, and to say that Israel’s stay in Egypt lasted 430 years (Exodus 12.40) means exactly that, that there were 430 years from the time they went in until the time when they came out again. But we have to be aware of the difference between intention and historical truth.
Despite these honest concessions that Genesis 1–11 was written as history, with the expectation that readers should accept the accounts as truthful, many evangelicals have not hesitated to follow the beliefs of Dods and Barr rather than the beliefs of Scripture’s writer, Moses.