Debate over the creation time frame largely boils down to how one interprets Genesis 1. For those who interpret it as a literal description of physical events, the answer is clearly that creation occurred in a six day period. Others see it as figurative, describing spiritual things. For them, it says nothing about the natural timeframe, so we are left with science to provide the answer. But how do we choose an interpretation in the first place? Paul had some wise words that can be applied to interpreting Scripture with the proper mindset:
…so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:5, 10, 14–16 ESV)
Now, Paul isn’t necessarily talking about how to interpret Scripture, but I think the distinction he makes represents a general spiritual principle that can be applied to our context. Consider: since Paul is talking about discernment of spiritual truths, could that include God’s intentions in the manner of His revelation, in addition to the meaning? For example, if we try to discern between figurative and literal interpretations of Genesis 1, perhaps we should include spiritual awareness in the process.
The natural mind balks at figurative speech (ie, Ezekiel 20:45-49, John 16:29), so relying only on natural thinking may mislead us. Instead, like Paul, we must approach such questions with more than just a scientist-like perspective, which is the wisdom of men. We must also allow the power of God to reveal all things that point us to the truth. Perhaps by balancing natural wisdom with spiritual sensitivity, we can approach Scripture with the mind of Christ.
Actually, I think we can see just this balance when we pay attention to Christ’s words in the Gospels about recognizing figurative language. When Jesus taught with parables, it was generally clear that He was speaking figuratively. But there are a handful of cases where His use of figurative speech was not expected. Even in those cases though, Jesus expected those around Him (especially His followers) to recognize the nature of His speech. By studying Jesus’ reaction when they interpreted Him literally by mistake, we can learn about His perspective regarding figurative speech.
In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus commented about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, referring to their false teaching. Instead, the disciples hear Him as talking about the fact that they had run out of physical bread to eat. Jesus’ response shows this was clearly more than a simple misunderstanding, but actually revealed a lack of spiritual discernment on their parts. According to Jesus, they were showing a lack of faith and spiritual perception. Another passage, Mark 8:14-17, makes Jesus’ comments even more clear. There, He describes the disciples as having hard hearts, and lacking eyes that see and ears that hear. These are commonly used in Scripture to refer to spiritual perception. Clearly, the disciple’s error was not intellectual misunderstanding, but lack of spiritual discernment.
Similar to the disciple’s lack of faith in these passages, those who misunderstand Jesus’ metaphors about the need to eat His flesh in John 6 are described as unbelieving in verse 64. Again, Jesus points out that their error is spiritual, not intellectual.
In both these cases, Jesus made a figurative statement, but the disciples incorrectly took Him literally. These passages, coupled with Paul’s statements above, point to the need for a spiritual perspective when choosing whether to take a passage of Scripture literally or figuratively, when both are reasonable options.
Now, it’s tempting to excuse those around Jesus because He didn’t state that He was being figurative. However, He still obviously expected His listeners to recognize the nature of His words. Similarly, it’s tempting to reject a figurative interpretation for Genesis 1 because it’s not clearly stated. But could it be that we should be as spiritually discerning when reading the written Word, as the disciples should have been when listening to the incarnate Word?
Having discernment doesn’t mean rampant overspiritualizing, turning everything into a symbol. But at the very least, it does mean recognizing the presence of spiritual things when they are there. A lack of such discernment comes from reading with the mind of a scientist, only taking in account that which is apparent to natural thinking, instead of reading with the mind of Christ.
In the case of Genesis 1, for example, Scripture points out elsewhere that no human was present at creation. This means that any knowledge we have is the result of divine revelation, a truth explored in other posts here. Even just recognizing this fact requires acknowledging something spiritual. Doing so is a basic example of spiritual discernment even if one doesn’t have the same interpretation. However, completely ignoring the fact is an example of considering only the natural characteristics, reading Scripture with the mind of a scientist.
Perhaps we can say that reading with the mind of Christ means involving both the mind and the Spirit, considering both natural and supernatural, using both exegesis and prayer, etc. Indeed, we see this pattern throughout Scripture, not just in these examples. It’s echoed in Paul’s description of praying and singing with both the spirit and the mind (1 Corinthians 14:15), Paul’s instructions to Timothy to think about his metaphors and expect understanding to come from the Lord (2 Timothy 2:7), and the Jerusalem Council’s recommendations that seemed good to both the Holy Spirit and to the council (Acts 15:28).
This perspective seeks to avoid overspiritualizing the text, and also avoid being overly natural. It keeps the mind engaged, even while staying sensitive to the spiritual. Our minds accept the authority of His Word, and our spirits experience the reality of His voice.
Interpreting Genesis with only the natural mind makes it seem very straight-forward, but interpreting it with the mind of Christ makes us aware of all that the Spirit has made available in the text. When that happens, it becomes apparent that the text is more than literal historical narrative. This realization is the start of peeling back the veil that covers these passages, revealing the truth of what the text says, instead of what people say it says.