The doctrine of inerrancy maintains that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. Some believe that this doctrine requires us to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis as literal history. However, affirming that the Bible is perfectly true and completely free from error does not entail affirming that every portion of the Bible is intended to be read literally. Consider, for example, Jesus' words in John 10:9: “I am the door.” We can of course affirm that these words are true without affirming that Jesus has hinges! Thus, when it comes to Genesis, the question dividing evangelical Christians is not, “Are the first eleven chapters of Genesis true?” The question is, “Was Genesis intended to be read as literal history?”
Furthermore, the answer to this second question is far from obvious. Here it is important to understand that the non-literal reading of Genesis is not a recent innovation to rescue the Bible from modern science. The non-literal reading of Genesis predates Darwin by at least eighteen hundred years and is among the oldest extant interpretations of the text. Long before anyone was concerned about reconciling the Bible with paleontology or evolutionary biology, many readers came to the conclusion that the creation narratives in Genesis were not intended to be read literally.
Some of the earliest commentary on Genesis that we possess comes from the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC – AD 50), an older contemporary of Jesus. Philo insisted that there were clear indications within the text of Genesis that certain aspects of the story were not intended to be read literally. For example, he argued that the wife of Cain (Gen 4:17) was a symbol and not a real person, since according to the narrative, there was no one else alive at that time except for Adam and Eve (Posterity 33-34; see also Planting 36; Creation 154). (For more on Philo's reading of Genesis, see my previous post here.)
Likewise, the early Christian theologian Origen (c. AD 185 – 254) insisted that the literal reading of Genesis was patently absurd:
Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? And that the first day, if we may so call it, was even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of good and evil by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name? And when God is said to walk in the paradise in the cool of the day, and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events. (De Principiis 4.3.1; Philocalia 1:17 [Butterworth])
Augustine (AD 354 – 430) also resists a rigid interpretation of the text:
In this book [i.e. Genesis] the account of the things that God made is broken down most conveniently as if in periods of time so that the very arrangement which weaker souls could not look upon with a firm gaze could be discerned as if by these eyes, when it is set forth through the order of such a discourse. (Literal Interpretation of Genesis 28 [Teske])
Of course, in addition to these ancient scholars, many modern scholars deny that the early chapters of Genesis must be read literally. One example is the great evangelical theologian J. I. Packer, who described Genesis 1 as a “narrative poem” (source). Packer’s view is particularly noteworthy, because Packer was one of the scholars who produced the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. In this definitive formulation of the doctrine, we find these words: “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching,” including “what it states about God's acts in creation.” Thus, if Genesis taught that all animal life (fish, bird, dinosaurs, humans, etc.) came into existence in the span of 48 hours, the Chicago Statement asserts that we must accept this teaching as true. However, it is far from certain that Genesis does in fact teach such a thing. In Packer’s view, “Genesis seems to have no interest in giving a scientific account as we know it.” (For more on Packer’s view of Genesis, see the recent discussion between Mike Licona and William Lane Craig.) One may of course disagree with Packer, but the fact remains that nothing in Packer's reading violates the Chicago Statement. The doctrine of inerrancy, even in its most robust and conservative expression, does not commit us to one particular interpretation of Genesis.
Now in discussing the history of interpretation, we must of course not overlook the interpretation of Genesis preserved in the New Testament. How did Jesus interpret Genesis? How did Paul interpret Genesis? However, while such questions are extremely important, the answers to these questions are not as obvious as some might imagine. For example, Paul apparently believes that Adam was a real person who was the progenitor of the entire human race (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15). However, Philo, Origen, and Augustine seem to hold this same view (e.g. Creation 136-142). Thus we cannot conclude that, because he viewed Adam as a historical person, Paul was committed to a strictly literal interpretation of the entire creation narrative.
In conclusion, here is a small sampling of the observations that have led readers over the centuries to regard the creation narratives in Genesis as belonging to a genre of literature that differs from the historical narratives found elsewhere in the Bible.
The text describes an “evening” and a “morning” (1:5-13) before the creation of the sun (1:14-19).
In 1:20-27, birds are created before man, but in 2:18-20, birds are created after man.
The behavior of the talking serpent is not attributed to satanic possession; rather, it is attributed to the craftiness of the serpent itself (3:1).
When he is condemned to be “a fugitive and wanderer,” Cain protests, “Whoever finds me will slay me” (4:14 RSV). However, the only other humans alive at this point are his parents. If he is afraid of his family, then why does he believe he will be safer at home?
Thus it is not merely modern science which creates problems for the literal interpretation of Genesis. A number of elements within the text itself seem to resist such a reading.
Did you enjoy this post?
Subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter to be notified of new content!
Looking for a fun way to keep up your Greek or Hebrew?
Join the hundreds of pastors and seminary students who use my multiple-choice quizzes to read one verse every day!