It has pleased God the Holy Spirit to give us his Word in the form in which men of an ancient time and of an ancient culture wrote history, giving us several accounts of the same event without bothering about the differences; employing citations which are not word-for-word (würtlich) according to our standards; numbers which do not want to be taken word-for-word in the sense of statistical historiography; events which lie beyond human experience like the protological (primeval, urgeschichtlich) and eschatological (end-time) statements of the Scripture, making its presentation in pictures rather than in rational statements. It is only by receiving the Bible from God’s hand as his Word, as it is, and not by trying to make it what our reason expects of a divine book that we will be in a position to believe and understand it as the book of eternal truth.
I’ve been given cause lately to (re)visit the interpretation of the Genesis account of creation and I realise that I have never in my writings ever given a proper exegetical argument for non-six day creationist reading of Genesis. I thought I would begin with some comments here before moving on to make a more general point of Protestant hermeneutics.
Now, I want to say outright that nobody, not even the most rabidly fundy Christian, does take the Genesis creation account completely literally. No one believes, for example, that God literally“breathed” (Genesis 2:7) into Adam’s nostrils by causing an air pressure difference and stirring the air molecules towards Adam’s nose, as if God actually does have a physical breath, inhaling and exhaling oxygen or gives life by moving air particles around by “breathing”. Nor does anyone really believe that God literally “walks” in the garden (Genesis 3:8), making a sound as he does so, as if God has legs and can “walk”, etc. (Unless one wants to postulate a proto-angelic like presence of the Son in the Garden “walking” around, which even then, requires quite a bit of reading into the text which isn’t there).
The point is simply that everyone does a bit of Bultmannian “demythologisation”. Everyone does “interpret” the bit about God breathing and “de-literise” it lest they commit blasphemy by implying that God has lungs and gives his spirit via air molecules.
Here’s another aspect of Genesis which requires “interpreting”. Suppose one wants to take the word “day” literally in that God create the world in six-days, how long is this day? The fact is that individual days have different length of time, and at various parts of the world, the “day” lengthens and shortens according to the seasons and orbit of the Earth around the sun. There simply isn’t any intelligible meaning to the concept of an “absolute” day of a definite precise length of time. Furthermore, the Einstein’s theory of relativity demonstrates that the “length” of time between two events is relative to the motion of the observer, further rendering unintelligible the concept of an “absolute” time period of a “day” between two events. (I think it was Newton who proposed an absolute, objective “flow of time” independent of any events or objects in the universe, “God’s sensorium” or field of experience as I think he called it. It was concept utterly denied by Leibniz, but that’s a discussion for another occasion).
Scripture Interpreting Scripture
But to even stray into a discussion as to specifying what “day” means precisely is already to violate one of the fundamental principles of Protestant hermeneutics: The principle that Scripture must interpret Scripture. This means that Scriptures itself must be the primary source of interpretation for other passages of the Scriptures and should by itself supply its meaning, and not any external sources and considerations.
In our present case, this means that no discussion on science, lengths of day as we observe in the empirical world, or socio-cultural considerations of how Jewish or ancient Near-Eastern culture understands “day” should decide the meaning of “day”. Lexicographical considerations and issues can at most supply us with a range of meanings for the text, but for which one it is can only be decided by interpretation, which is determined by other Scriptural passages. Thus to make a more general point, the meaning of the Genesis narrative, its interpretation, must solely be determined by how it is read and interpreted by the Scriptures itself.
And it is evident that the Scriptures does not say anywhere explicitly that the Creation narrative in Genesis implies that the world was created in literal days of a certain specific time length or that the world is 6000 years old, etc. It is created in “six-days”, and that’s it. What that “six-days” mean, is for the Scriptures to decide. Thus for example, Exodus 20:8-11 declares that the “six-days creation” means that there would be six days of work and one day of Sabbath rest for God rested on the seventh day. This is the meaning given by the Scriptures to the event of the six-days creation. But to emphasize once more, nowhere in the Scriptures does it say, “And lo God created all the world in six-days, each of precisely 24 hours from the observational point of view of the earth, yea, and this verily be so 200 scores and 20 years ago.” The meaning and interpretation supplied by the Scriptures about the “six days” creation is the Sabbath rest and no doubt others which can be found throughout the Scriptures, but of the creationist literal reading, nowhere is it mentioned, and we must stick to the Scriptures alone, not any other empirical sources or lexicographical considerations, as the normative interpreter and supplier of meaning of the Genesis passage.
Here’s another example to demonstrate the sense of “Scripture interpreting Scripture”. The idea that “God created man in his image” has inspired countless speculations and interpolations as to what it means, ideas range wildly from that means that God gave man freewill to man has human rights, etc. Once more, we must adhere to the discipline of the Scriptures, and let the Scriptures alone decide what this created in man’s image means, not our theological speculations (or projections!). According to the Scriptures, that man is created in God’s image implies, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6), namely the authorisation of retribution against bodily harm; and “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26), namely, the authorisation to own and have a share in creation, and finally “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:9-10) Namely, that we should bless, and not curse, what God has made in his image.
Thus, from these considerations, no doubt the view that being created in God’s image implies a sort of claim by God upon us to respect his creatures by punishing those who violate them bodily, by respecting their claim to own and share in the material world, and by blessing and not cursing them, is closer to the biblical view than the freewill reading which is quite frankly to be found nowhere. But this is simply a very vivid way for me to illustrate how “Scripture interpreting Scripture” works, by letting the Scriptures itself supply the meaning of biblical passages, and not external lexicographical or empirical details about the world.
Case Study: Are Adam and Eve Historical Figures?
Once more in order to consider this issue rightly, we have to adhere very strictly to our Protestant principle, letting the Scriptures interpret Scripture. Let’s see what the Scriptures speaks concerning Adam. First, in the passage of Romans 5, the person of Adam implies that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12) and “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Romans 5:14). Thus, narrative concerning Adam’s disobedience is reason for sin into the world and its universal spread throughout all mankind, and also that the person of Adam was a “type” or “foreshadowing” of sorts of Christ.
One final vital point; the narrative of Adam and Eve is also interpreted in the Scriptures by St Paul as forbidding woman teaching authority over man, (1 Timothy 2:12-14), and is also the ground for monogamous long-life marriage (Matthew 19:5-6). But nowhere in the Scriptures is there to be found a more reading of the Genesis passage concerning the state of the world at the time of creation or the emergence of mankind. The Genesis passage concerning Adam and Eve is interpreted by the Scriptures to teach the doctrine of original sin, the teaching authority of man over woman in the church, and finally the basis for monogamous life-long unions. But beyond these, we cannot and dare not postulate anything further about the implications or meaning of the Genesis creation passage of Adam and Eve. The meaning of the narrative must be determined solely by the Scriptures, by what meaning the Scriptures itself give the passage, not by additional empirical postulates or details supplied outside of the Scriptures.
Conclusion: The Discipline of the Text
To do a little shameless self-praise, when I did my literature modules in NUS, I was infamous for sticking strictly to the text itself and a distaste for extravagant literary theories which flies off the text and acquires a life of its own. When it comes to the Scriptures, we must likewise practice such a “discipline of the text” and stick solely to the text as the source of the meaning of Scripture, and not allow extraneous empirical details and meanings affect our reading of the text.
It is for this reason also that I’ve often haven’t much patience for “going back to the Greek” or intricate Greek grammatical or lexicographical arguments. I can tolerate and engage them, to a point. But it is my firm contention that when the debates over the Greek passes a certain threshold, the diminishing returns would rapidly set in. As I said before, things like philology, socio-cultural studies, lexicographical studies and various other empirical linguistic research can expand the range of meanings of the Scriptural text, suggests new angles and possibilities. But ultimately, the meaning of the text must itself be decided by the Scriptures, and not from external empirical research, for the Scriptures must interpret the Scriptures; this is the Protestant doctrine.