Young-Earth Creationism vs. the Plain Meaning of the Creation Stories

Having recently addressed a number of points of incompatibility between young-earth creationism and Christianity as most Christians understand it and have understood it down the ages, I was asked if I could address the common young-earth creationist objection that  “No one simply reading what the words clearly say would EVER suppose God/Moses were describing a development over millions of years!”

The question of who is thought to be doing the describing is relevant. There is no human being who supposedly saw these events unfold. There is no human author to whom it could be attributed that could simply be describing what transpired. And that is interesting to think about. The text of Genesis 1 is not written as though it is God saying “Here is how I created: In the beginning, when I created the heavens and the Earth…” It is a human being writing about creation.  If one wishes to say that it was revealed to an ancient author in a dream, that doesn’t help make the case for a literalistic approach. From Joseph to Daniel to John, dreams and visions are precisely the sorts of place one encounters numbered lists and symbolic details. And so considering the origin of the information in the story is itself relevant. But at the end of the day, the Bible’s accounts of creation remain the writings of humans about the Creator and creation. The Bible consistently affirms creation as indicating God’s unmatched power, and from the Psalms to Romans 1, it is affirmed time and again that creation points faithfully to the creator. Young-earth creationism denies this teaching. It elevates these ancient human writings above that which those writings themselves say the Word of God brought into existence. It elevates what may be an anthropomorphic depiction of God creating in a working week above the rocks themselves crying out.

If we ask about the “plain meaning” of the creation stories, that has to be the plain meaning for ancient people in the time in which they were written. Genesis was written in Hebrew, in a different time and culture. Skipping the question of whether the “plain meaning” for an ancient person could have been different from what seems plain to us is asking for trouble. This is a point that is embraced by conservative Christians and not just liberals. Context matters – both the literary context and the historical context.

To an ancient Babylonian who was familiar with the Enuma Elish, the account in Genesis 1 would not have seemed to be about the natural world. The cosmos described is identical and nothing about its structure is challenged. The deity who creates splits water to make the sky and sea, and puts a dome or arch in place to hold up the waters above. What would have been significant would have been the idea of a single Creator who creates without rivals, and the demotion of the sun, moon, and stars compared to the importance ancient Mesopotamians attributed to those entities.

To an ancient Israelite steeped in the use of poetic parallelism and the symbolic use of numbers, the plain meaning of the ordering of content in Genesis 1 would clearly have to do with that, setting days 1-3 alongside days 4-6 in a manner that gets the reader to think of the correspondences between them.

To ancient readers who were familiar with the idea of spontaneous generation, they would have understood the text to be endorsing that view, emphasizing that it is God who commands the Earth and the seas to bring forth living things.

To a reader in any era who has not been steeped in the selective literalism that characterizes the modern-day young-earth creationists, the presence of a talking snake would make plain that the text is literally something other than a factual account of a historical event. Unless one is indoctrinated to suspend everything they know about literature and about snakes, then the plain meaning of the text will not seem to be what young-earth creationists insist that it is.

The “plain meaning” of the creation stories differs from reader to reader and culture to culture. No one reading today can simply read the text as its original intended audience would have. We cannot simply think ourselves back into an ancient culture not our own. But we can inform ourselves about the relevant ancient culture and context. And if we fail to do so, we must know that what we come up will more likely than not be something at odds with the meaning that would have been “plain” to its author and earliest readers.

And that, alas, is what young-earth creationists consistently do, resulting in much harm to people’s understanding of Genesis.

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    I once wrote a long diatribe about how terribly subjective it is to do a “plain reading.” What is “plain” absolutely depends on the knowledge of the interpreter. Very frustrating when someone claims both to apply a “plain reading” while also claiming an exclusive view on a particular subject.

  • plectrophenax

    One of the interesting aspects here, is that ancient societies very probably did not have a concept of naturalism, as we do. Hence, the contrast/conflict between naturalism and the supernatural, or whatever you call it, did not arise, as it does today. This makes a huge difference surely.

    I would think it almost impossible to think ourselves back into that mind-set.

    The other interesting point for me is the intentional fallacy, i.e. the idea that the intended meanings of a text are irrelevant, and actually, unknowable. I guess this presents a lot of problems with ‘sacred texts’, but it is still useful. Any attempt to discover the intended meaning probably just mirrors one’s own.

    • Nick Gotts

      Some of the early Greek philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus for example, appear to have been philosophical naturalists.

    • arcseconds

      It’s pretty difficult to deploy an intentional understanding of a text when it comes to material like Genesis, even if you want to.

      Whose intention do you want to work with? Genesis was cobbled together from at least two sources, so already we’ve got two separate authors and a redactor. In addition the similarities with other near east creation myths is obvious, so there are earlier authors still. A lot of the intention at each stage of the transmission was probably about preserving a traditional text, too, which doesn’t help us at all with meaning.

      A text can be preserved through a chain of transmissions with everyone involved in the transmission having completely different ideas about why they’re transmitting it and what it means. Or no idea whatsoever.

  • http://divinesalve.blogspot.com/ David Miller

    What do you think about my perspective here? http://divinesalve.blogspot.com/2012/09/simultaneously-embracing-magical.html

    Thank you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Excellent! Thanks for sharing that!

  • Stewart Felker

    Krüger (“Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Development of the Pentateuch”) writes “[There is a problem with] the six days containing eights works of works of creation in Gen 1 and the conspicuous introduction of the seventh day in Gen 2:2-3. This problem can be resolved easily by removing 2:2-3 and the statements “and there was evening and there was morning, day x” from Gen 1. That these parts of the text are later additions that intend to anchor the structure of the week with six working days and one day of rest in the creation of the world can be corroborated by observations in other parts of the Pentateuch.”

    So I think there’s an argument to be made that, in the (current) literary form of Genesis that’s been handed down to us, normal (human) days are indeed what was in mind. But this might not necessarily be the case for the pre-redacted form – if we were to follow Krüger (and others).

  • leigh copeland

    I’d like to comment on the graphic quote from Hebrews in the article: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.” It might shed powerful light on the topic of science and creation to consider whether the phrase ‘through faith’ has been put in the wrong place. I had a Stamford PhD teacher/pastor (Dr Gene Scott)who insisted that the verse should read: “We understand that through faith God framed the worlds by his word.” The faith was God’s, not ours. If that is correct is tells us a lot about the nature of faith and the nature of the universe AND it frees our God-given capacities of ‘understanding’ from the pious presuppositionalism that privileges belief without evidence over and against science conceived as worshipful exploration of the nature of the Creator through the study of his creation – that HE created out of nothing, that is, “by faith”. What do you think?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Since the Greek term translated as “faith” also overlaps with the meaning of the our word “faithfulness” perhaps that might be part of the point: not that we take our understanding of the cosmos “on faith” as some today might misunderstand it, but that faithfulness and trust, of which numerous human examples will be listed, is first and foremost a divine attribute, and one that is woven into the fabric of creation.

  • ncovington89

    I once had a conversation with a guy who brought up the fact that snakes develop legs inside their eggs before hatching, and he cited this as evidence that snakes used to have legs, which he thought supported the Genesis story (In Genesis God cursed the snake to crawl on the ground, which evidently means that it had legs before it was cursed). Now I thought this really funny, that someone would take evidence for evolution and claim it for biblical literalism. I also pointed out to him that his reasoning was partially correct (snakes do develop legs, and this does indicate descent from a legged reptile) but the same reasoning should lead him to think we’re descended from hairy primates, since human beings develop a fur coat in the womb (the lanugo).

  • http://www.dregstudios.com Brandt Hardin

    Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

  • http://twitter.com/cherrmann77 Christopher Herrmann

    I think we need to appreciate the whole counsel of God’s Word to inform our understanding of Genesis 1 & 2, especially in regard to days vs ages. For example, what do we make of Genesis 1-2 in light of Exodus 20:8-11 and even the Lord Jesus himself in Matthew 19:4?

  • arcseconds

    I wonder about this talking snake business. It’s far from clear to me that no-one takes stories of talking animals ‘seriously’.

    ‘m pretty conscious of the the fact that our ideas of ‘factual’ and ‘literal truth’ and ‘actual history’ are particular to out culture and I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that people in other cultures straightforwardly have those categories and just put different things into them from what we do.

    So, I don’t want to say that people in other cultures literally believe in talking animals as objective fact, necessarily.

    But on the other hand, our ideas of the natural world and what’s possible and impossible and what kinds have what properties (and that there are kinds at all, or at least, particularly rigid kinds) are also particular to our culture.

    So it seems to me that saying that they would immediately think talking animals puts it into the category of fable is questionable, to say the least. How do we know they would do this?

    Just the other day someone posted a link about aboriginal stories apparently accurately describing happenings from 10,000 years ago. The aborigines also have plenty of stories about animals and plants turning into humans and vice-versa. Granted, those stories are often set in the dreamtime, and we might say this puts them in a different category to non-dreamtime stories, but I’m not sure this settles the matter. Would a pre-European contact aborigine, if confronted by a talking animal, think that she was experiencing something impossible, or would she think that the dreamtime has come again?

    (if the dreamtime makes this implausible, think of a culture that doesn’t position things like this, maybe native american cultures?)

    And what attitude would she take to discovering that Port Phillip was actually once dry land, just like it was said in the stories? I imagine that she would be unsurprised by this, because this is what the stories tell her, so why would we think she would be surprised in the former case?

    I remember someone telling me about a book the aim of which is to show that our friends the greek philosophers were still very much living in a world where magic was taken for granted, and they also took it for granted, too. Apparently there’s a story, recounted by his disciples, of Porphyry giving a lecture once, then falling silent, then turning into a snake.

    I think there are reasonable arguments that Genesis is really well into the figurative camp, and you can make an argument from the serpent as part of that, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying ‘aha! a talking animal! clearly a fable’

  • ozytodd37

    its interesting that the word “day” in hebrew is yom and Every time the word yom is used with a number, or with the phrase “evening and morning’, anywhere in the Old Testament, it always means an ordinary day.
    In Genesis chapter 1, for each of the six days of creation, the Hebrew word yom is used with a number and the phrase, “evening and morning’. There is no doubt that the writer is being emphatic that these are ordinary days.
    as it was written back then, is different for us to comprehend fully now as we have no understanding of life in those times,but by what we read and “Imagine”
    man always seems to bring God down to his level of understanding,when in reality God is far beyond our comprehension

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Actually, the terminology corresponds to the way one refers to the days of the week in Hebrew, so that the depiction of God’s working week corresponds to that of humans: Sunday, Monday…

      It doesn’t sound like you disagree with my own view, although I confess your own stance is not entirely clear to me. The depiction in Genesis 1 is certainly of God creating in a series of literal days. But the very motion of God having a working week is not to be taken literally. It is – as you put it – a bringing of God’s creative activity down to the level of human comprehension.

    • TomS

      I don’t care to argue about the true meaning of any Scriptural passage, but I cannot let this comment about “yom” when used with a number pass without comment. The “Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament” (E. Jenni & C. Westermann, trans. M. E. Biddle, Hendrickson, 1997) on “yom”, volume 2 pages 526-539 says:
      ‘… contrast Isa 30:26 “the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of seven days”…’ (page 533) This does not mean an ordinary day.

  • theot58

    This article is total baloney. It torture both the scientific evidence and the scripture.

    I find it disgusting how some Christians are so keen to avoid conflict that they will sacrifice truth to achieve that end.

    Jesus said “and the truth shall set you free” John 8:32.

    The truth is that the SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE CONDEMNS DARWINIAN/MACRO EVOLUTION.

    First we have to get our definitions clear.
    “Evolution” is a vague word. The main definitions in the text books are:
    1) “change over time”, this is silly as it is stating the flaming obvious.
    2) Micro evolution is minor changes within a species, this is real and observable and uncontested.
    3) Darwinian/Macro evolution (where the conflict is) which asserts that:
    a) All living things had a common ancestor. This implies that your great….. great grandfather was a self replicating molecule.
    b) The observable world has come into existence by totally natural, unguided processes and specifically WITHOUT the involvement of an intelligent designer.
    Have a look at this link for details http://youtu.be/fQ_h-S7IuaM

    The evolution battle is often MISrepresented as science against religion – this is baloney!

    The real battle is between good science and Darwinism. When Darwinian/Macro evolution is scrutinised using the scientific method, it crumbles.
    The scientific method demands: observation, measurement, repeatability. Darwinian/Macro evolution has none of these, all it has is circumstantial evidence which is open to interpretation. Ask yourself: What evidence is there that our great …. Great grandfather was a self replicating molecule?

    • Nick Gotts

      When Darwinian/Macro evolution is scrutinised using the scientific method, it crumbles

      Invincibly ignorant people like you have been making that claim for 150 years, while the Darwinian theory of evolution, developed and corrected by normal scientific processes, has gone from strength to strength. As the Christian evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said:

      Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Given the willingness of scientists to adopt the view that the universe had a beginning when the evidence pointed to this, even though that sounded too much like Genesis for the taste of some, makes clear that this conspiracy theory approach to things, which claims that the vast majority of scientists are covering up the truth or unwilling to go where the evidence leads, is the baloney you were speaking of.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      you aren’t even close to a working definition, try:
      evolution is the change in allele frequencies in a population over time.

      • theot58

        That definition vague and does not convey the meaning associated with Evolution for the masses.

        The definitions contained in the high school text books is what I have stated above.

        I say again. The scientific evidence CONDEMNS Darwinian/Macro evolution.

        Dr John Sanford (Geneticist and inventor of the GeneGun) said .

        “The bottom line is that the primary axiom [of Darwinian/Macro evolution] is categorically false, you can’t create information with misspellings, not even if you use natural selection.”

        Dr Ben Carson; Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at one of the world’s greatest hospitals (Johns Hopkins), a groundbreaking surgeon, best-selling author, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom said”

        “I think one of the most damning pieces of evidence against evolution is the human genome.

        You can see that you have very complex, sophisticated coding mechanisms for different amino acids, and various sequences that give you millions of different genetic instructions — very much like computer programming, which uses a series of zeros and ones in different sequences, but gives you very specific information about what that computer is to do.”

        Malcom Muggeridge, Pascal Lectures, Ontario Canada, University of Waterloo said:

        “I, myself, am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially to the extent to which it’s been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books of the future. Posterity will marvel that so flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the credulity that it has.”

        • rmwilliamsjr

          so you reject the best scientific working definition for evolution because it isn’t suitable for the masses and continue to quote (supposedly) from high school textbooks for your information.

          • theot58

            On what basis do you reject the definitions found in the text books and declare that your definition is the “right one”.

            The definition you propose does not convey the key issues with Darwinian/Macro evolution. it is basically useless.
            Are you aware that Paul Lemoine (1878-1940) director of the Paris Natural History Museum said,

            “The theories of evolution, with which our studious youth have been deceived, constitute actually a dogma that all the world continues to teach:

            but each, in his specialty, the zoologist or the botanist, ascertains that none of the explanations furnished is adequate.”

            “The theory of evolution is impossible.

            At base, in spite of appearances, no one any longer believes in it . . . Evolution is a kind of dogma which the priests no longer believe, but which they maintain for their people.”

            • rmwilliamsjr

              you are quoting someone who died 70 years ago as an expert on evolutionary theory? really?

              what textbooks are your “definitions” from?

              google the definition i gave you. the results are my evidence of both it’s usefulness and it’s widespread use.

              you obviously don’t understand the field of ET at all.

              invincible ignorance.

              re:
              I say again. The scientific evidence CONDEMNS Darwinian/Macro evolution.
              -=-=-=-
              exactly what evidence do you have in mind?

    • Ian

      Every time James posts on anything regarding evolution, another new zealot arises to repeat the same old lies. Science contradicts Darwinism (but not scientific studies do, seemingly) – check. There are a selection of random scientists who are also zealots – check. It is possible to quote mine other scientists – check. Funny how none of the crazies showing up here can say anything that isn’t directly from the AiG / DI talking points.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      since it is almost a rule that YECists cut&paste, i thought i’d poke around these “definitions for a few minutes.

      re:

      b) The observable world has come into existence by totally natural, unguided processes and specifically WITHOUT the involvement of an intelligent designer.

      -=-=-=-

      this has nothing to do with ET. lets see how many times these exact words have been posted.

      84- http://preview.tinyurl.com/a4uglac

      including at least one with excellent response to this oft posted false claims

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-greenberg/creationism_b_1835873.html

      i find it odd that Christians engage in such dishonest behavior, given that the NT is so very explicit about how God feels about liars.

      he is simply an ignorant spammer who adds nothing to the conversation.

  • TomS

    No one simply reading what the words clearly say would EVER suppose…

    Let us compare what, as a matter of historical fact, people did suppose what Scripture meant, with respect to two concepts, (1) the age of life on Earth (2) the geocentric model of the universe. Let’s just confine this to the time before the rise of modern science, about AD1500.

    (1) Actually, there was quite a variety of opinions about things like the meaning of the “days” of Genesis 1. Augustine’s opinion was that they did not represent periods of time. The Epistle of Barnabas (perhaps as early as the first century) interpreted them as thousand-year intervals.

    (2) No one (before the rise of modern science) supposed that the Bible meant that the Earth was a planet of the Sun.

  • theot58

    There is much scientific evidence which indicate a young earth. It is foolhardy to just follow the crowd.

    Have a look at this video http://youtu.be/bGB-PfFSV2w for some serious scientific problems with the “proven” age of the earth as “billions” of years.
    There are many scientific indicators which point to a young earth. The “billions of years” is not observed, it is INFERRED and believed.

    As Christians we should be committed to truth rather than following popular opinions; they change with monotenous regularity.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thankfully most Christians understand that we are not to go against the flow simply for the sake of being different. We do not drive on the opposite side of the road from everyone else. Most of us do not reject the fact that Earth orbits the sun even though some in the past used the Bible to oppose that development in the natural sciences.

      You are repeating lies that you have heard online. I would encourage you to inform yourself from Christians who are actually professional scientists, such as Francis Collins.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      re:

      Have a look at this video http://youtu.be/bGB-PfFSV2w for some serious scientific

      -=-=-=-=-

      serious? scientific? he wears a pot on his head and doesn’t understand anything he is talking about. this is your “There is much scientific evidence which indicate a young earth.”

      sad that Christians fall for this garbage. read a decent website on science, stop watching rants from guys who wear pots.

    • Richard Wright

      Again, theot58 displays the foolishness that has been brought down on humanity by The World’s Seven Biggest Liars. On my website, http://theworldssevenbiggestliars.com, you can read excerpts from the book that describes in detail how it is that six billion believers still cling to the silly creationist stories and other theological nonsense.

      After you read the book, you will feel better about the way you feel, knowing that theot58 can’t help himself. He’s just another victim.

  • buzzdixon

    Christ almost never presented his parables and teachings as journalism but rather as stories that contained a core truth that remained consistent whether or not based on actual events. (In fact, in the Parable of the Talents he changes the details from one Gospel to another, the way most public speakers tend to make minor variances in their stories and speeches to keep ‘em fresh.)

    If Christ, who is God made flesh, taught the truth through stories that he didn’t present as necessarily 100% factual in the New Testament, wouldn’t it make sense for God to have done the same in the Old Testament?


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