Seeking Answers to the Question of Origins

Vittore_Carpaccio_-_praying_manHave you ever been asked a hard question about the faith? This happens all the time, both privately and publicly. These times are opportunities for us to check our beliefs, to seek to strengthen our foundation. However, it’s vital to understand the importance of how we seek answers, because while there are many ways to do that, they do not all lead to the truth. One of the biggest questions being asked today has to do with the nature of origins — whether evolution and an old universe conflict with a Christian world view. People have attempted to answer this question in different ways, so rather than look at the different answers that have resulted, I’ve been pondering some of the approaches that can be used. Some examples from Scripture paint an interesting picture of the importance of keeping our focus in the right place when seeking answers. Considering them in the context of the origins question may shed light on how and why people approach it the way they do.

In the Garden of Eden, Satan challenged Eve with a question, misstating God’s command in the process. Eve answered Satan, but included her own variation. Some commentators have noted that her error may have made it easier for Satan to fool her, for she was overstating God’s commandment, making it easier to doubt. It seems that Eve answered based on some imperfect understanding, on what she thought she knew, and because of her imperfect understanding, got it wrong.

What’s really interesting is to reflect on what Eve didn’t do: She did not ask God for the answer to Satan’s question. Instead, she relied on purely human resources, whether her own understanding or Adam’s recollection. Imagine how differently things would have gone if Eve had sought out the Lord for His perspective, asking in effect, for God Himself to answer Satan’s question!

Turning to the New Testament, there is another useful example. During Jesus’ ministry, there were several occasions when people desired to make Him a physical ruler. Even in Acts 1, the disciples wondered if He was finally going to get around to establishing a physical kingdom (Acts 1:6). This common misconception might well have applied when Paul presented Jesus as messiah to the Bereans. But in that case, rather than rely on their previous understanding, they opened their hearts and dove into the Word. In effect, when faced with the question of whether Jesus could have been the messiah, they took the question to God. In the process, they discovered that Paul was right, that if they were waiting for a physical kingdom to come first, that that was a mistake, and that Jesus really was the long-sought Messiah.

I find the contrast between these examples to be interesting. In the first, Eve relied on her own understanding, while in the second, the Bereans relied on the Word of God. Eve’s error was echoed with the Pharisees, who insisted on tradition over God’s true laws. Tradition isn’t bad, but is not a replacement for the Word. The Berean’s wisdom is illustrated by the fact that they did not rely on the previous, popular understanding, but opened their hearts to test what they heard.

The Berean’s approach is further illustrated by the Jerusalem Council, where traditions were lined up against a new understanding of God. Christian leaders were being asked a question about the inclusion of Gentiles, so they sought an answer by noting how He was acting spiritually and in the world, and then lined that up with the Word. In essence, they took the question to God. Not everyone accepted their conclusion, of course, and the dissenters continued to insist that the tradition of circumcision was central to the faith.

It seems like young earth creationism (YEC) is based on the same errors that Eve made, repeated today just as they were by the Pharisees. Insisting that one’s interpretation is so correct that it’s not necessary to humbly seek the Lord. Valuing tradition so highly that hearts become hardened.

In this case the result is similar. By focusing on human tradition and natural understanding, people miss a spiritual aspect of the text that reveals its figurative nature.

Centuries ago, a long history of tradition that included support by church fathers led many to believe that the sun circled the earth. Often, hearts were hardened even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Eventually, the church came to recognize how God was speaking differently through figurative passages, but the error of depending on previous human understanding was difficult to correct.

To me, the error of YEC is similar, in that it attempts to answer the origins question from a flawed, human understanding. This is why claiming the authority of tradition (ie, such as highlighting the church fathers) is so important and common in YEC arguments. But this is Eve’s and the Pharisee’s error, all over again. By focusing on the natural perspective, it ignores the spiritual.

I believe this will change in time, and we will see the error of a natural perspective. We will see that Genesis 1 is not mere historical narrative, but something much more profound: a figurative picture of spiritual truth. Just like the passing of geocentrism helped us better recognize and apply figurative language in Scripture, I pray that the passing of YEC will help us better recognize and focus on the voice of God.

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11 Responses to Seeking Answers to the Question of Origins

  1. EvolCrea says:

    Speaking as a former young-earth creationist, it seems to me they have two primary reasons for their opposition to reading Genesis as figurative, two fundamental concerns which, if taken seriously and protected, could finally allow them to read Genesis that way. The first and perhaps most obvious is their genuine concern that it allows for seeing Adam and Eve as figurative, such that they were never real people occupying a place in history. In a significant number of scriptures, including statements made by Jesus himself, Adam and Eve are treated as real, historical people, so it does not seem permissible to fictionalize them. Their second concern is for the supreme authority of scripture as the written Word of God, such that young-earth creationists are trying to emulate the Bereans in their regard for the authority of what God has said. Just as the Bereans subjected what Paul said to the test of scripture, so likewise do young-earth creationists treat what scientists are saying.

    Granted, far too many young-earth creationists turn the Bible into an idol—being Genesis-centered instead of Christ-centered—revering it as the Word of God at the expense of Christ who alone is the Word of God (i.e., scripture is not the Word of God but the record thereof, testifying of Christ from beginning to end who revealed God specially to us). And far too many of them elevate the young-earth interpretation of scripture to a position of authority belonging only to scripture, confusing God’s revelation with their interpretation. But these are separate issues. Important ones, surely, but separate.

    • jim0211 says:

      Thanks, those are good points. The issue about Adam and Eve is a reasonable concern, but seems easily separated from at least the question of age, because that is primarily tied up with Genesis 1, which is a rather separate section. Although effort is generally made to tie the narratives together, it seems one could take Genesis 1 figuratively without necessarily threatening any particular interpretation of the rest of Genesis. It seems like there is a concern that taking one step naturally leads to many others, but that is an easily answered concern. Why is it so much more common to force that issue than accept the many ways it’s easy to keep the narratives separate?

      Regarding respect for the Bible, what you say makes sense, except that so many young-earth creationists focus on evidence beyond Scripture. Often, arguments center around the number of church fathers that held a certain view, or supposed science that supports their claims. Why would those be significant at all, if one’s primary focus is Scripture? This is why I prefer to focus on the Word here. Also, I find a very simple test to be the comparative focus of Exodus 21:10 and 31:17. The former is very often quoted by YEC, but the latter, which contains a strong pointer to figurative interpretation, is rarely referenced. Virtually never with any treatment of the strong anthropomorphism. To ignore half of the direct references to the six day period hardly seems to be respectful of the text.

      But on balance, you’re right to compare them to the Bereans, of course. We really don’t know what process the Bereans went through. I was merely trying to draw the distinction between being Scripture-focused and being (human) tradition-focused.

      • EvolCrea says:

        My ongoing concern is that even when young-earth creationists are ostensibly scripture-focused they are nevertheless still tradition-focused, evident most clearly in their insistence upon a “plain reading of the text” which inexorably involves understanding the text in contemporary English and modern categories of thought—which does not allow the text to speak for itself. A different sort of tradition in this case, but tradition all the same.

      • jim0211 says:

        Absolutely, that’s a great point! Tradition, especially as you’ve described, is one of the big problems. Actually, I think there are several problems with a “plain reading” of the text. Your observation is one of the key issues — our plain interpretation is no where near the same as that of the original readers’. But in my opinion, there is also a spiritual error: belief that the natural mind is sufficient for discerning such things. It obviously is in some cases, but in cases such as this filled with subtlety, it seems one should at least consider spiritual perspectives, don’t you think?

        Consider the cases where Jesus’ listeners were confused by what He said, even taking His figurative statements literally when they should not have. Whenever Jesus responded to them, He always chided them for lack of spiritual discernment, not any kind of intellectual error (hard hearts, lack of faith, blind eyes and deaf ears). If such discernment were necessary when listening to the incarnate Word, why should we not at least consider that when interpreting the written Word? When reading the end of 1 Cor. 2, it’s hard to imagine that plain thinking is what’s meant by the “mind of Christ”.

      • EvolCrea says:

        I would not be comfortable supposing or even implying that the young-earth creationist was reading with “the natural mind.” Now, I think discernment is important—that is, error should be identified as error—but I am firmly opposed to judging, especially unfairly. (I am not very good with this, however.) Since the young-earth creationist is ostensibly my brother or sister in Christ, and I deeply love the family of God, I always want to treat them accordingly, engaging the issue with the assumption that they’re reading the text with the spiritual mind—until they demonstrate otherwise. After all, the children of God are all indwelt by the one Spirit of Christ.

        So I will assume that, like me, they are reading the text convinced the spiritual mind is necessary for discerning what the Spirit has to say in the text. But they can still err, of course, and if they are young-earth creationists then I believe they’re making a mistake somewhere (because scripture does not support a young-earth interpretation). It’s a matter of walking them through their beliefs, scripture in hand, requiring them to account for the conclusions they hold, which invariably results in them discovering that their conclusions were brought to the text, not drawn from it. That is when the questions begin, and now we’re having a spiritual, meaningful discussion about scripture and theology.

        (And when you discover what Genesis is actually saying, suddenly all the subtlety vanishes and you realize it’s practically shouting, and you’re left bewildered how you could have missed it all along. The answer, of course, is because we had never ventured beyond “a plain reading.”)

        Which reminds me of the reason I logged in to respond today. Another thought occurred to me today while at work. Young-earth creationists make a very big deal about the authority of scripture. And I do mean a very, very big deal. That is just about their primary argument, that the Bible is divine revelation, breathed-out by God (theopneustos), and therefore of supreme authority on everything it addresses. Obviously I agree with them, immersed as I am in Reformed covenant theology. However, I don’t think they realize how they have once again shot themselves in the foot, with this “plain reading” emphasis they have. Scripture speaks authoritatively only when scripture is speaking. But if you are reading the text in modern English and Western categories, then you are not letting scripture speak for itself; therefore, scripture is not speaking and your emphasis on the authority of scripture is naught.

        I wonder if this has been pointed out to young-earth creationists before.

      • jim0211 says:

        Of course, we can never know the mindset of somebody else, especially when they read Scripture, and I didn’t mean to imply that that was necessarily the case. But I don’t understand why you would necessarily want to assume that they are reading the text with the spiritual mind. Not doing so is an easy mistake to make, and if there are indications that such is happening, then would the correct act of love ever be to point that out (with the right heart, of course)? Guess I hadn’t thought of that as judging (which to me implies a moral element) as much as detecting an error — an honest mistake.

        Consider: In this age of challenges to the working of the Spirit from within the church, if someone states that they are taking the natural reading of a text (the term sometimes used instead of “plain”), then proceeds to make the same mistake as those in Scripture that our Lord chided for lacking spiritual discernment, it seems reasonable to question whether they are making the mistake of reading naturally.

        Perhaps I have a biased perspective because I used to read the text in exactly that manner, and had to learn myself about the error of reading with the natural mind, without spiritual discernment. Listening to the Spirit does not come automatically for some of us. 🙂 Also, I believe this is a area of spiritual warfare, in which the enemy is working to create barriers to the Gospel and even to pull people away from the faith. So perhaps the stakes are high enough to push the envelope a little.

        Certainly the best approach is a careful, reasoned look at the text. But I was reflecting recently that every encounter I’ve had with YECs so far, in which I’ve walked through the errors as God has shown me, has resulted in them simply walking away. So I’ve been deliberately wondering whether a spiritual challenge is needed, in addition to an intellectual one.

        You are absolutely right about the emphasis that young-earth creationists place on the authority of Scripture. And you make a very good point about the fact that the text may not be speaking for itself. But are you talking about context, or translations, or something else? Perhaps such an argument needs to be further developed for YECs.

  2. EvolCrea says:

    Hrm. There was no “Reply” button.

    The reason I’d want to assume that they’re reading the text with the spiritual mind is because, again, as Christians they belong to the family of God and are indwelt by the one Spirit of Christ, the same Spirit who moves me with grace and love for the family of God. I just want to assume the best about them, not because they deserve it but utterly irrespective of merit altogether (grace); there’s also the fact that I’d want them to assume the best about me.

    But don’t forget too easily that I also said “until they demonstrate otherwise.” And they certainly could prove otherwise, as many have in my experience. A creationist with an unregenerate mind is not an impossibility (cultural Christianity is crowded with unbelievers); such a person would indeed be reading with the natural mind, having the spirit of the world. But as Christians we are regenerate, spiritual people who have the mind of Christ. Together we stand firm in one spirit with a singular mind to contend side by side for the faith of the gospel—and by “we” I include my young-earth creationist siblings.

    As a former young-earth creationist, the following point should have a ring of truth for you. I try to keep in mind that a lot of creationists are victims—authentic and well-meaning Christians, but nevertheless victims of not only powerful rhetoric and propaganda but also a real and genuine fear of being ostracized at best or disfellowshipped at worst. (I probably don’t need to explain that this actually happens, as it has to me.) The strength of their conviction comes more from fear of the consequences of abandoning the young-earth view, being victims of repugnant bullying techniques that dishonor the name of Christ. This is yet another reason why I make every effort to engage them with love in the spirit of grace.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “natural” reading. To my mind, a natural reading is one that receives the text as its original author and audience would have. And I always thought that’s what creationists meant by the term, which I would argue they have failed to do. But maybe I have misunderstood all along what that term means?

    By the way, don’t be too disheartened by those young-earth creationists who simply walked away from the dialogue. You have no idea what seeds God planted through your efforts, nor how they might take root and start growing through dialogue with others later on. As Paul said, in the context of disciple-making, one person plants and someone else waters but it’s God who causes it to grow.

    P.S. As for scripture speaking for itself, I am talking about interpretation through historical and grammatical exegesis in a redemptive-historical hermeneutic, allowing scripture to interpret scripture.

    • jim0211 says:

      Hmmm, I tend to lump those reading the text with the spiritual mind but getting it wrong, with those who do not read with the spiritual mind. Perhaps that’s not right. But what does it mean to read the text with a spiritual mind? To me, evidence of that would be properly recognizing its nature. So not recognizing its nature is evidence of either reading with the natural mind, or reading spiritually but without discernment. However, it would probably be good to be more careful about distinguishing those in order to not seem to attack people.

      In fact, some time ago I made the deliberate effort to stop speaking of “creationists”, and focus on “creationism”. In other words, finding fault with the doctrine, rather than the people. The intention was to avoid slipping into personal attacks upon other believers. Upon reflection, it seems I’ve slipped back into talking about people instead of ideas. I need to keep a closer watch on this; thank you for helping me think through this.

      Not sure that there is a real definition of “natural” reading; I highlight that in order to force people to deliberately consider whether they are reading the text spiritually. Just being indwelt by the Spirit is no guarantee of that.

      Regarding your point about Scripture speaking for itself, I don’t know to what extent this has been pointed out to young-earth creationists. It would be good to carefully describe that in some way, but not sure how to get it to a forum where such believers would take notice.

      (Not sure what happened to the Reply buttons, but will look into it.)

    • jim0211 says:

      The reply button disappeared because we were each replying to each other’s reply, which nested another level. Instead, we should have been replying to the original post over and over (as I have done here). The reply button disappears after a certain number of nesting levels have been reached. Note that, on the thread, each response was indented more and more.

    • EvolCrea says:

      In fact, some time ago I made the deliberate effort to stop speaking of “creationists”, and focus on “creationism”. In other words, finding fault with the doctrine, rather than the people. The intention was to avoid slipping into personal attacks upon other believers. Upon reflection, it seems I’ve slipped back into talking about people instead of ideas. I need to keep a closer watch on this; thank you for helping me think through this.

      This paragraph was awesome.

      And thank you for the really great conversation. It has been rewarding for me spiritually.

    • jim0211 says:

      Well you know, iron sharpens iron. 🙂 God bless!

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