by Frederick Schmidt
From the vantage point of exegetical scholarship, one of the most troubling phrases in the debate with creationists is the phrase, “biblical creation.” It appears over and over again in the literature on the subject, as the articles here at “Righting America” attest, and if you Google “biblical creation” in just .57 seconds the internet coughs up 20,900,000 results.
The phrase, of course, is shorthand for an approach to Genesis 1 that reads the poetry of the book as a “creation account” and offers up a schema for the way in which that creative act was accomplished. More subtly, but powerfully, the phrase also ties the schema to the authority of Scripture, making an implicit appeal to that authority, thereby pitting Scripture against science. The power of the appeal to “biblical creation” is such that it has drawn the parties in the debate over creationism into debates about the inspiration of Scripture. Worse yet, it has forced younger churchgoers into an implied choice between fidelity to the Bible (if not God) and ostensibly God-less alternatives.
The power of such appeals is difficult to over-estimate, particularly in Protestant circles where Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura (or “Scripture alone”) holds sway. Having chipped away at this issue some years ago in working with undergraduates, the world-ending weight of such choices is nothing short of an existential and spiritual crisis of the first order for young adults who have been raised in homes where this approach to both the Bible and the Christian faith hold sway. On the face of it, conversations about the subject appear to be all about interpreting Scripture, but for adolescents and young adults such conversations end up being about the very possibility of believing in God.
The frustrating thing about all this is that there is no such thing as “biblical creation,” not if one wants to argue that the writer of Genesis is offering a description of the way in which God brought creation into existence. While Christians and even Jews have interpreted it as such, it is far more likely that Genesis 1 is an affirmation of the exclusive claims made by the God of Judaism in the context of a polytheistic environment. Read as such, what the writer of Genesis is saying is, “On the first day, my God created your god and your god” and on the second day, “My God created your god and your god,” etc.…i.e., “your gods are not God.”
In other words, the writer of Genesis is offering what we might call a “confession of faith” in the primacy of the God of Israel. He is not writing a history of creation, never mind anything that might qualify as a scientific account of how God created the universe. This reading of Genesis also accords with the rest of the first three chapters, which is really the writer’s way of saying, “Here is how the world and our lives are,” not “Here is how the world and our lives came into being.”
Convincing creationists of this is, of course, nearly impossible. The religious authorization for their views is circular and creates the world-ending conundrum that the undergraduates in my classroom faced and others still do. If you don’t believe in the historical-scientific-literalist reading of Scripture you are, by definition, lost to both God and the church. But getting clear about the meaning of Genesis is the key to setting aside a range of topics associated with biblical interpretation with creationists is a non-starter and can lead to nowhere good for those who want to engage both the scientific and exegetical questions.