Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On taking Genesis seriously

I'm not sure why (the Platypus might know), but for some reason that's probably traceable back to some German philosopher a few hundred years ago, we have a habit of using the words "seriously" and "literally" as thought they were interchangeable. It's a bad habit, because we desperately need both words for their own separate and important purposes. It's annoying enough in sloppy casual conversation, but my head doesn't literally explode until we start talking about Biblical interpretation. That's where this problem can cause some serious confusion.

Sometimes we can get so worked up over whether or not to take the Bible literally, we forget to ask ourselves whether or not we're taking it seriously.

I like young-earth creationism. I think that would be pretty cool, and I'm firmly convinced that when God makes stuff, He does so with maximal awesomeness. As for the scientific evidence, I really haven't studied it enough to say one way or another. I admire those who inquire, but I have duties and vocations enough of my own, so for now I'm just going to have to withhold judgment. After all, "smart people say so" may be a sound basis for practical decision-making, but it certainly isn't a very scientific attitude.

But the whole debate feels a little bit like speculating about whether or not John is still sitting on the Island of Patmos, growing a very long beard while he awaits the second coming. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn't. The only thing we really know for sure is that the very question misses the point. 

Maybe creation unfolded in seven 24-hour days. That would be cool. But I'm utterly convinced that the Bible isn't trying to tell us one way or another.

Why? Because I believe that Genesis is the inspired Word of God. If these are the words that the Holy Spirit wanted to use to communicate with us, then it follows that these words must be exactly the right words to convey their intended meaning.

But if God wanted us to know the details of natural history, these are confusing words. If He wanted us to know the time-table on which he made the heavens and the earth, I'm not sure why He gives us the story twice, but with different sequences. Of course it's quite possible that some complicated scenario might account for both chronologies... but I just can't shake the sense that if that was the point, I probably could have come up with a better way of communicating it.

Whatever else it may or may not do, though, the Genesis creation account provides us with unimaginably rich and powerful insight into the nature of God and His creatures. It tells us what it means to be human, and it does so with better words than anyone else has ever come up with for the purpose.

And even just on a practical level, the (very clear and powerful) poetry matters a whole lot more than the (fuzzy and confusing) literal chronology. I don't really need to know when exactly it was that God created the sea monsters, or how long it took. But the fact that God made them changes everything. Every agent of chaos in my life is God's creature, and is under His sovereign control, possessing only as much power as He chooses to grant them. That's something that changes the way I live.

I don't need to know how many hours there were in the days of that first creation, but I desperately need to remember that there is evening and there is morning, and that God created them both. He separated them and named them and said that it was good. The dark night of the soul is not hidden from God. It is part of His distinctive workmanship, and even the blindness of my perplexity is for his glory, as the one who created me makes me anew.

God creates with the Word, effortless and instantaneous. The progressive stages of God's work are not the result of difficulty, but are rather an integral part of His revelation. Time itself and the fullness thereof was created to be an image of God's eternal rest. Man is the pinnacle of creation, but he is not the point. The whole poem revolves around the seventh day, around God's holiness and rest.

Over and over, God creates and separates, gathers and fulfills, and this beautiful and profound poem contains the template both for the grand sweep of salvation history, and for the unfolding of God's work in individual hearts. So law came through Moses, grace and truth through Jesus Christ. We see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face, in that day beyond time when we enter into rest.

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