The Scientific Deformation and Reformation of Genesis: How “Science” Messed It Up, but Also Fixes It

The Scientific Deformation and Reformation of Genesis: How “Science” Messed It Up, but Also Fixes It April 20, 2018

Ben contemplating his words at Petra.

I was grateful for the invitation to speak at UVU’s Mormon Studies Conference on Mormonism and the Challenges of Science, Revelation, and Faith in February. I spoke about how and why we’ve come to understand the creation chapters of Genesis certain ways, and then participated in a panel on evolution with two BYU biologists. You can watch my presentation here, with subtitles.  My slides aren’t visible, but you can download them here (pdf) to follow along.

I won’t post my text, as it was messy and I went off-script a good bit. And as is often the case, I wish I had said a few things differently, or included X and left out Y, but it is what it is; an ambitious paper by a graduate student covering lots of territory in too little time with too many generalities. Nevertheless, whatever its flaws, I felt like this was an important paper in an LDS context.
Here’s my attempt at a short summary.

Part 1- Assumptions and Interpretation

  1. Interpretation of scripture is an unavoidable human process. Consciously or unconsciously, everyone interprets — young and old, male and female, nursery leader and President of the Church— whenever we read scripture.
  2. How we interpret — the way we derive the meaning we attribute to scripture— is partly a function of the assumptions we bring to it. We typically hold such assumptions unconsciously, having inherited them from our native cognitive environment.
  3. Therefore, the rhetoric of “the word of God” vs. “human intellect” fails, because human reasoning is involved in interpreting the meaning of both science and scripture. (I had a nice slide illustrating this.)
    • E.g. D&C 130:14-17 records how Joseph Smith heard the voice of the Lord, but then had to figure out what it meant. Revelation, even to Joseph Smith, is not self-interpreting.

Part 2- The Scientific Deformation of Genesis

  1. The massive intellectual shifts of the 1500-1800s— the Reformation, Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, and aftermath— did not invent but reshaped, elevated, and enthroned an assumption that the best and highest form of knowledge is factual, scientific, historical knowledge. 
    • Note that “science” as we think of it was really invented later in that period; the word “scientist” wasn’t even coined until 1834.
    • It’s often hard for people to imagine how anyone could have ever thought any differently than we do today; it’s important to recognize that knowledge, ideas, and assumptions we take for granted have not always been so, and sometimes they have been radically otherwise!
  2. As the conception and construction of “knowledge” shifted, the kind of “knowledge” the Bible was assumed to convey shifted right along with it.
  3. Within this new intellectual framework, believers came to assume that if the Bible was not speaking in accurate scientific and historical terms, it could not be inspired. This particularly affected the understanding of the creation chapters of Genesis.
  4. This idea— science and scripture must be providing the same kind of information— has come to be called “concordism.” The assumption that science and scripture were in concord became the pervasive governing interpretation of Genesis at that time and continues into the present.
    • This concordist assumption drives the “scientific deformation” of Genesis, twisting into something it never was: a quasi-scientific document providing a natural history of creation, even if in “poetic” or “metaphorical” terms.

Part 3- The Reformation of Genesis

  1. The rediscovery of the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis — contemporary creation accounts like the Babylonian Enuma Elish and others known to the original audience of Genesis — strongly undermines concordism. Such discoveries allowed oranges-to-oranges comparison of ancient creation accounts including Genesis.  This led to a rethinking of what “kind” of thing Genesis was intended to be (its genre) what kind of information it actually presented.
    • This is my “scientific reformation” of Genesis.
    • THIS is what has led believing religious scholars across the spectrum to reject the traditional and problematic concordist interpretations of Genesis. In other words, it is entirely possible to read Genesis as a faithful believer and NOT be a concordist.
    • I argue that a non-concordist reading is, in fact, the original “literal” meaning of Genesis. The rejection of Genesis as “scientific” in any sense is not a function of disbelief nor “capitulating” to science. It is reading scripture literally through its ancient Israelite contextual lens, something which was not possible for Augustine or anyone else before the 1900s, when that context was recovered through archaeology and philology.

Part 4- Where is Mormonism in this History?

  1. Mormonism inherited a strong 19th-century assumption of concordism. Although manifest most strongly in Joseph Fielding Smith, others like Roberts, Talmage, and Widtsoe were also concordists; their disagreements stemmed from other assumptions.
  2. For a variety of reasons — geographic, religious, educational, ecclesiological— Mormonism sidestepped both the initial debates about the meaning and relevance of the ancient Near Eastern material and also its later corrective to concordism.
  3. Consequently, most Mormons today remain strongly concordist. However, with the large increase in the number of LDS scholars of the ancient Near East, the relevance of that material to understanding Genesis is starting to enter into LDS thought and supplant concordist assumptions.
    • For example, from Deseret Book,

      the power and significance of these stories [of creation in Genesis] can be best appreciated when they are compared with the ancient creation stories that were known in cultures surrounding ancient Israel. In the last 150 years, archaeologists working in the Near East have uncovered hundreds of thousands of records from the ancient world.  Scholars have identified in these records many examples of creation stories from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan that give us insight and understanding of the ancient worldviews about creation.

    • The value of scholarly work on ancient scripture recently received a general ecclesiastical endorsement from Elder Ballard. He said that those trained in “ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields may be useful in answering” questions about “scriptures, history, and the Church,” which fall outside both the Apostolic calling to testify of Christ and their individual training and experience. He explained that he consults with such experts and students should as well, by quoting D&C.

      “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.


I think it will be very interesting to see how the Church and its faithful scholars navigate these waters in the future, as we reexamine our collective inherited assumptions.

Some of the quotes and sources I named explicitly

  • President Clark to Joseph Fielding Smith, source. (Looks like the excerpt isn’t online anymore.)
    • You seem to think I reject the scriptures, or some of them. I do not intend to do so, but obviously I am no more bound by your interpretation of them than you are by mine…. Now, as to what the earlier brethren have said–where they have declared themselves as speaking under inspiration and by the authority of the Lord, I bow to what they say. But where they express views based on their own understanding and interpretation, then none of us are foreclosed from exercising our own reasoning powers, inadequate though they may be; but the earlier views do not foreclose us from thinking. This is particularly true, where we come to interpreting their interpretations.

  • Augustine’s “literal” interpretation- See e.g. here, but also Peter Harrison, “Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing? Augustinian Reflections on Christianity and Evolution” in Evolution and the Fall, which I discuss here. More notes on “literal” below.
  • Lee, Erosion of Biblical Certainty (See my post here)

    Gradually the Bible’s apologists shifted the basis of belief from a personal faith empowered by the Holy Spirit to the more defensible and culturally respected position of empirical evidence.

  • Alan Kors, from the introduction to this lecture series

    One of the hardest things to convince students of in general is that ideas and ways of thinking and ways of understanding the world have a history. Although most generations and cultures view their own ways of thinking about the world as somehow “natural,” ideas, including our most fundamental ways of thinking, change over time and have a particular history. Revolutions in ways of thinking are in many ways the most influential and far-reaching of all revolutions.

  • Mark Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1
    • “ancient Israel never really knew a single version” of creation.
  • Lambert, “Mesopotamian Creation Stories,” in this book

    While creation in its ancient sense is a theme not infrequently alluded to in Sumerian and Babylonian texts, works specifically devoted to it are so far unknown. [Creation] appears incidentally to other interests.

  • Leonardo da Vinci  “understood the idea of [geological] strata; he knew that the gaps between layers of strata represented thousands of years of time and that this meant that the earth was incomprehensibly older than the Church proposed.” -Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
  • Wootton, Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution


A few things I didn’t use

Hyers, Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science, 3, 6.

It is not too much to see in all this a common preoccupation with the scientific method, scientific evidence, and scientific results, which descend upon these ancient pages like a cloud of termites eager to devour and digest the materials in terms of their own appetites. This is not to debunk science or historiography as such. Rather, the issue is one of appropriateness. Our contemporary preoccupations could hardly have been the preoccupations of ancient Israel…. It is quite doubtful that these texts have waited in obscurity through the millennia for their hidden meanings to be revealed by modern science. It is at least a good possibility that the “real meaning” was understood by the authors themselves…. Charles Darwin, in comparing his observations of nature with the biblical accounts of creation, assumed that they were the same sort of statement and declared that the Old Testament offers a “manifestly false history of the earth.” While religious objections have tended to focus on the word false, and many evolutionists—following Darwin—have been inclined to agree that it is false, the central issue is whether the biblical materials are being offered as a “history of the earth” in a sense comparable to the modern meaning of natural history. If they are not, then both the attempts at demonstrating their scientific falsity and the attempts at demonstrating their scientific truth are inappropriate and misleading.

Those are my italics. I have come to believe from my studies that Genesis is not at all trying to offer a “natural history” of the earth’s physical origins, not even in symbolic or veiled language. You can read my “conversion story” here.

Henry Eyring, Sr., Reflections of a Scientist

 In the long run, the truth is its own most powerful advocate. The Lord uses imperfect people. He often allows their errors to stand uncorrected. He may have a purpose in doing so, such as to teach us that religious truth comes forth ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ in a process of sifting and winnowing similar to the one I know so well in science.

Here Eyring Sr. loosely equates the process of revelation to the process of science.

This Far Side cartoon, and this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon almost made it in.

Some things I didn’t use about the meaning of “literal”

Note how this Dilbert cartoon illustrates a common assumption (in an extreme way, of course), that those who engage in “interpretation” do so to avoid the obvious and correct “literal” meaning.

As I argue, we all interpret, all the time.

As for “literal,” it has taken on odd meaning today when talking about scripture.

  • Does “literal” mean the “face value” or “obvious” meaning, like the Dilbert cartoon? If so, that’s problematic, because the “obvious” meaning changes based on our cultural context and knowledge. If your context is India and Hinduism, swastikas don’t mean “nazis.” Or this clip about the meaning of head-shaking from The Gods Must Be Crazy. Our “obvious” reading of Genesis will be very skewed unless we consciously try to put ourselves into the cultural shoes of the ancient Isralites.
  • Does “literal” mean “historical” instead of “non-historical”? That seems to be how a lot of people use it; scripture is either “literal or figurative.” But this dichotomy doesn’t work at all. (See below on Genesis and genre.)

For Augustine and many others, “literal” means “in the way the author intended.”

So a literal reading of a poem is a poem, a literal reading of fiction is fiction, a literal reading of parable is parable, a literal reading of history is history, but a reading of non-history as scientific/historical is… NOT a “literal” reading. It’s a face-value, context-free misreading.

A true “literal” reading requires understanding historical and cultural context.

Places I have developed these ideas

  • Genesis and genre “What kind of thing is Genesis?”
  • An exploration of the nature of scripture and revelation, and why we shouldn’t expect to find science in Genesis: My talk at the FAIR Conference.
  • For more on the history of concordism back to the 16th century and in LDS thought, see my 2017 MHA paper here.
  • On the rediscovery of ancient Near East and how it changed our understanding of the Old Testament, my screencast here.
  • On common Mormon concordism and assuming scripture is simply revealing facts from the divine wikipedia, this post “Mormon said it, I believe it, that settles it?” 
  • On Ugarit/Ugaritic, see my old post here on Ugaritic and the temple and an explainer (with video!) from Evangelical scholar Mike Heiser, here.
  • My recommendations for getting a handle on the early chapters of Genesis
  • Functional creation: This is John Walton‘s argument, which he has made in several books about Genesis. See my review of Walton here and the relevance of his ideas for LDS understanding of temples.

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