Reading Genesis 1

There is a ripple of disturbance running through the Christian Reformed Church. With some justification this ripple might perhaps be called a wave. On the crest of this wave there is carried, among other things, the question of a correct understanding of the meaning of Genesis 1 and subsequent chapters and the relevance of their revealed content for scientific inquiry today. Views concerning this question have found a rather frequent expression among us. This expression may be welcomed as a sign of a healthy concern for worthwhile theological subjects and of a willingness to discuss them, motivated by a common interest in the eternal truth of God.

A Challenging Subject

The treatment of a much discussed subject such as is now before us constitutes in the nature of the case a peculiar challenge. This challenge consists primarily in the magnitude of the subject matter, in the central position this subject occupies in the system of Christian truth, in the many learned volumes which have been written about it, and in the fact that most any reader will have some idea as to his own personal opinion concerning this matter. Surely, a magazine which, as I should judge this magazine does, draws for its subscriptions to quite some extent on the membership of the above mentioned denomination, ought to be commended for its initiative in inviting articles on this topic.

The title is deceptively simple but at the same time contains enough suggestions for a fruitful discussion to engage our attention for a while.

The simplicity of our title is deliberate. We are dealing with the contents of the Bible, It is one of the basic tenets of our belief concerning the Bible that no special academic training, no official ecclesiastical authority, no mystic initiation into hidden meanings are required for the understanding of its main message. It is also one of our assumptions that the intelligent use of the Bible is not reserved for only a certain class of believers in distinction from other classes. The exegete, the preacher, the man of exact science, the person in the pew, all of them may and do read the same Bible and are thus entitled to a hearing concerning that which they think they read therein.


Reading a Complicated Process

The deceptiveness of this simple title lies perhaps in the fact that reading itself, any reading, both of Biblical and non-Biblical literature is a highly complicated process, a process which confronts us with many of the major problems of understanding and interpretation.

To read, ideally speaking, means to read intelligently, meaningfully. It means to grasp some of the relevance of that which is read. It implies an understanding of the thought contained in the portion read, and that in itself involves the manifold processes of the mind. It also involves a measure of understanding of a larger frame of reference within which the reader may place the thoughts gained from his reading.

To read meaningfully requires a transfer of the material read to the contemporary scene. Yet the problem is becoming more complex at this paint. For it can hardly be denied that the question as to the exact degree of such transfer depends very really upon the correct reading of the passage in question.

In a certain sense, therefore, the question to what extent a certain piece of Biblical literature, such as Genesis 1, is relevant to our scientific inquiry today must be settled in immediate conjunction with that other question of the basic and primary meaning of the passage. The relevance of this passage is either “built-in,” if we may use this expression, or there is no relevance at all. Only that which is relevant can be shown to be relevant.

The Trend in Old Testament Scholarship

The trend in much of Old Testament scholarship today is to divest the Old Testament teachings of their supposedly antiquated thought patterns, in order thus to be able to speak of the Old Testament message for us today.

While on the one hand we may have appreciation for this renewed insistence on the contemporaneity of Old Testament teaching, we ought not to be blind to the fact that the way in which this modern type of contemporaneity has been arrived at is anything but satisfactory.

It is true, the Bible has in many ways become a distant book. Its distance, in terms of historical event and cultural milieu, has recently been made more apparent by the progress made in Biblical and related studies, which have helped to place the sacred Scriptures within the framework of the cultures and religions which existed at the time that God’s special revelation went forth to its first recipients. The presence of such a cultural and religious milieu can hardly be denied, and its value for a better understanding of the Scriptures may be granted up to a certain point.

Scripture’s Claim to Infallibility

On the other hand, it should be noted that those who in the past were not privileged to have the same intimate knowledge of the many interesting details which archaeology claims to have discovered, were thereby not by any means rendered ineffective in their correct understanding of the message of Scripture. In fact, the question may be raised in all serious· ness, whether the wholesale negation of one of Scripture’s most persistent claims, the claim to divine inspiration and infallibility, must not be regarded as one of the most severe indictments against the validity and usefulness of these modern discoveries concerning the Bible. However much one may welcome the renewed emphasis on the fact that the Scriptures contain a unified message, a message which is thought to be applicable also to the modem situation, the plain fact must be acknowledged that a message, arrived at by means of a consistent denial of the very force which motivates that message and makes it what it is, can hardly be said to be true to its own essence.

Dr. Lever on the Relation Between Science and Scripture

Our concern as Bible readers and as readers of Genesis 1 must be a two-fold one. Dr. Lever, professor of biology at the Free University, in a recent book of his, entitled “Creation and Evolution,” expresses one side of this concern. Though objections may be raised against t.he arguments used and the conclusions arrived at, the expression of this concern can hardly be subject to much criticism. Dr. Lever is concerned that we read Genesis 1 in such a way that our modern Darwins, Huxleys and Haeckels, i.e. the natural scientists and their kin, will not needlessly be estranged from the Christian faith by a faulty method of reading the Bible. As we see it, the purpose of Dr. Lever’s book is to suggest such principles of interpretation as set forth, better than has been done in the first, the precise relation between science and Scripture. An attempt is made to subordinate these principles to the consistent claims of Scripture and to make them agree with Scripture’s saving significance for all times.

The Weakness in Dr. Lever’s Book

The other side of this twofold concern which Bible readers ought to show, in view of the situation confronting us, is one which finds no recognition in Dr. Lever’s book. All he does is to develop arguments to keep the scientists from going astray from the fold of Christ. Scientists, however, are not and have never been the only people who have lost the faith in the process of their investigations.

Bible students are in danger of evolutionist thinking and methods no less than their brethren of the science confraternity. And if it should be so that people like Dr. Lever, in their legitimate zeal for the preservation of the faith of scientists, had suggested to us methods of interpretation which imperil the faith of the Bible student, very little gain would have been made.

Personally we feel that Dr. Lever’s book does indeed suffer from the weakness which was just mentioned. It is our opinion that this whole matter of the relation between Genesis 1 and science would come to stand in a different light if Dr. Lever and others like him were showing a greater awareness of that which makes the Bible truly the Bible and of that which has preserved that Bible in· tact for him and other scientists to appeal to. Only because a number of Bible scholars has persistently refused to adopt evolutionist principles of interpretation is there at the present a Bible whose relevance for science we may investigate.

Dr. Lever’s Approach to Genesis 1

Dr. Lever feels that we go quite wrong when we try to interpret and define the exact physical time-measure of the creation days. Neither must we view the succession of the creation days as a physical succession (op. cit. p. 11). Attempts made to give an exactly defined physical meaning to concepts such as “day,” “kind,” and “earth,” as these are used in the creation account, are, thus says the author, in reality the result of the mistake which fundamentalism has made hitherto. This mistake is to hold that Genesis offers us Scientifically exact knowledge as well as proclamation of creation and salvation (op. cit. p. 10).

Dr. Lever, while critical of this view as a whole, nevertheless wishes to underscore and endorse that which he thinks lies at the very heart of it. And that is, to hold fast, believingly and diligently, to the Bible as God’s Word for all of human life, consequently also for every branch of science.

In other words, the view that the Bible ought not to have any influence upon the thinking of the natural scientist is clearly rejected. Neither is it so that the first few chapters of Genesis do not refer to this reality of ours, a reality which can be measured and weighed by the scientist (op. cit. p.14).

The Value of Genesis is Non-Scientific

It is rather so, says the author, that! Genesis reveals to us the main motives of the being and becoming of this world and of this human existence. Genesis speaks of that reality which we can investigate scientifically and it imparts to us data concerning this reality which we cannot discover scientifically. However, the language used by Genesis is non-scientific. We cannot derive from the Bible exact physical, astronomical, and biological knowledge. This simply is not the Bible’s intention. Not even exact historical knowledge can be derived from it!

The realities which Genesis reveals must be gratefully received. They also must be placed as a norm at the basis of our thinking, also of our thinking in natural science. These realities do not concretely touch upon the investigations we conduct. Yet the author does seem to allow for the possibility of areas of contact between the two. But in this domain Genesis, he feels, is no longer normative for scientific inquiry, simply because it does not have the intention to furnish us data in a form which we ourselves are able to discover, and also because it does not mean to be a scientific book. If it were a scientific book the realities which it now contains could not have been revealed therein.

Does Lever Interpret Genesis 1 Correctly?

This is, very briefly, the basic approach which the writer takes to the question of the relation between Genesis and science. Does the Biblical account permit this sort of a construction? In order to answer this question the matter of the correct method in answering it must first be raised. It will be quite evident that the well worn phrase: “It means what it says” is not quite sufficient in and by itself to settle the meaning of disputed Bible passage one way or the other. Rightly understood, of course, the phrase just quoted is true. Yet much will depend on how we read.

The right of Dr. Lever to read Genesis 1 and to establish its meaning, i.e. its relevance, can hardly be denied. Neither can it be denied that the author did read Genesis 1. He now comes and tells us: this is what “it says,” and consequently this is what “it means.” But immediately the question arises: Does Genesis 1 actually say this?

This first chapter of Genesis, thus we fuel, speaks of an absolute creation reported in terms of fiat and fulfillment, and accomplished by the speaking of God who was in the beginning. The record employs words which can readily be understood by the reader, common words, pertaining to the phenomena of observation. It is almost unavoidable not to come away with the impression that here is a plain statement of the how as well as the that of creation.

Surely, the account as we have it is not exhaustive. It also is characterized by a certain orderliness and stately beauty which might tempt some interpreters to take the sequence of the events less literally than we are suggesting. But must we rule out the possibility that these features are themselves due to the actual orderliness and stateliness of the events described and of the sequence of the creative fiats mentioned? No amount of insistence upon the non-scientific nature of the creation account can prevent us from thinking that the possibility just mentioned is in fact a reality.

Neither is it at all clear whether we would be doing justice to the full meaning of the creation account by just speaking about certain “realities,” supposedly non-discoverable by science, which Genesis is thought to have “imparted” to us. Is this not speaking far too abstractly of God’s revelation to man?

This question may profitably be viewed in the light of the modern emphasis in Biblical scholarship upon the soteric*, redemptive themes which are supposed to form the real nucleus of the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, in its present form. The creation account is then also somehow subsumed under this soteric theme.

There are many serious defects in that view. The most serious of them is that the creation account is thus no longer permitted to convey a message which speaks of a pre-redemptive and therefore essentially non-soteric chapter in world history. This is done because creation-faith is confused with creation-fact. The former, thus we believe, is after the fall dated by the redemptive processes of God. The latter, although being the object of an essentially redemptive faith, is nevertheless itself not to be subsumed under redemption. It precedes redemption.

Yet, in spite of our objections to this view, we might be able to utilize some of its thoughts to good advantage. This could be done by recognizing as fully as is done by the view just criticized, that there exists a central theme which characterizes the entire description of God’s acts from creation and onward. Prof. Gispen has rightly called attention to such a theme in the Pentateuch (quoted by Prof. N. H. Ridderbos. Is There A Conflict, etc., p. 22). Gispen holds that Genesis 1 and 2 offer us a “necessary prologue to the history of the election of the people of Israel.” Ridderbos appears to agree with this but hastens to add that we must not forget that Genesis 1 also makes pronouncements which lie squarely within the field of the natural sciences (op. cit. p. 23).

It is not clear to the present writer whether this distinction between a supposedly redemptive theme in Genesis on the one hand and pronouncements concerning the field of the natural sciences on the other will help us in understanding more correctly the relationship between Genesis 1 and .science. Upon this formulation the two are virtually left side by side as two more or less distinct, not to say separate, elements. Ought not every attempt be made to show that the two are so completely interdependent that we cannot possibly have the one without at the same time immediately touching on the other?

That is why the solution suggested by Lever also leaves one dissatisfied. He appears to approach the problem of the relation between science and Bible from the point of view that these are two realms between which we must somehow seek to establish a liaison. This leads to terms such as “areas of contact” (raakvlakken), and the like. This also causes the expression “realities” and “data,” when God’s revelation to man is meant. We feel that this type of expression is rather far removed from the concreteness with which Genesis 1 confronts us. Can we explain this concreteness fully by calling attention to the fact that the Genesis account is non-scientific?

The relevance which Dr. Lever posits for Genesis 1 in regard to scientific inquiry is ultimately one that is less than completely and pervasively normative. Its normativity lies somewhere at the basis of our scientific thinking; it does not playa role within that scientific thinking itself.


The question of the relevance of Genesis for scientific inquiry is essentially one of the employment of sound canons of scriptural interpretation. To discover them, or to improve upon their present status, we shall have to enlist the help of all intelligent Christians. the scientist not excluded. Dr. Lever’s book could have been a contribution toward that goal. At the present, however, we fail to see in which way the solution offered by him is suited to bring us closer toward the scriptural solution of our problem.