Creation: Literary or Literal Interpretations

Karl Giberson, executive vice president of The BioLogos Foundation, teaches a Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. Today he writes about the tension between the ways that we can interpret creation using two different perspectives. Here is a true story that he tells to illustrate his point:
"Wilson, ranked by Time magazine as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, grew up in a Southern Baptist home. He had a conversion experience as a child, read the Bible cover to cover more than once and worshiped with his family in a local Alabama congregation throughout his childhood. He believed in and worshiped a traditional biblical God. He affirmed creation and denied evolution.

After studying biology at The University of Alabama, however, Wilson was convinced evolution was true. He rejected his creationism and the Baptist faith of his childhood, became agnostic and even began to crusade against traditional religion. At first glance, his story seems to support the Answers in Genesis argument.

But what if Wilson had not been primed to believe that evolution was incompatible with his faith? What if he had been raised believing there are two ways to approach Genesis: an ultraliteral interpretation that assumes the text is teaching science, and a literary interpretation that assumes the text is teaching theology? The ultraliteral reading is incompatible with evolution, but the literary reading is not. Wilson could have embraced evolution and simply altered the way he read Genesis, rather than rejecting his Christianity.

Wilson's Christian faith was not destroyed because it was incompatible with evolution; it was destroyed because it was attached to a narrow ultraliteral interpretation of Genesis that made it so rigid it could not adapt."
I found the story to be an interesting one.. one that I was confronted with in my youth. I think that the problem with many on both sides of this issue is rigidity. When I think about creation I think about this verse in Hebrews:
"By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible."
I think that the issue is not so much the "how" of creation but the "Who" of creation. By faith we can understand that God created all things but dogmatic faith does not dictate the science of creation.. and neither does dogmatic evolutionism. I think that there is a mystery to the creation story.. we only understand in part.. we see it in glimpses through that proverbial cloudy glass.

I guess the main thing that I am trying to communicate here is that there is a unity of faith in both interpretations of Genesis.. both views agree that God is the creator.

I realize that many might hold tightly to one of these views and may want to enter into a debate on the "how" of creation.. feel free to comment but please do not expect me to debate for either interpretation.. I am not all that smart :)


  1. Bob,

    I agree with you. Let's focus on what's important, the who of creation, not the how. The Bible is not a scientfic textbook, it's about the relationship between God and God's creation.

    I tell literalists who are concerned that I don't read the Bible literally that they need not be concerned because I believe the deeper truths are still there whether one takes the stories literally or not. I can no longer read it literally but, I don't begrudge anyone who can.


  2. The facts of evolution are irrefutable... and i may be odd but i see no conflict between evolution and Genisis, whether you take a literal or literary view.

    The degree to which people take the one-vs-the other arguements is fascinating, given these two simple truths:

    1. The history of science has demonstrated that today's truth and explanations will be replaced once future discovery is made. Each generation of scientist knows all that can be known -- until the next generation comes along.

    2. His understanding no one can fathom.

    Does seem interesting that the "un-enlighted" writers of Genisis knew enough "science" to relate how the sun came before the earth came before plants came before fish came before animals came before man.

  3. Ed,

    I see no conflict between Genesis and evolution either, as long as Genesis is not taken literally (24 hour "days", G-d creating man from dust and blowing in His nose). When taken figuratively, Genesis does remarkably line up with science. I read a fascinating book called "The Origins Solution" years ago that tried to make sense of Genesis from a scientific POV.

    But, while that's all well and good, I don' think it's important to line up Genesis with science. To do so I think can cause us to miss the point. Missing the forest for the trees so to speak.

  4. A few comments:

    -- The "how" of creation does matter, because it is included in God's Word and because it is inexorably intertwined with the "Who."

    -- What Mr. Giberson suggests is employing an interpretation of Genesis that is contrary to its actual text.

    -- What Mr. Giberson suggests is unnecessary. The Genesis text is completely compatible with observable and testable science.

  5. Thx all for the comments.

    I may be a bit dull today but your points seemed a bit cryptic Jason. Maybe you could expand a bit on them.. ie.. how is it "inexorably intertwined" and why is it "contrary to its actual text".

  6. Jason,

    There are parables included in the text, also that we don't take literally. There are idioms included that we don't take literally. A literal interpretation of the text is certainly not necessary to understand the deep meaning.

  7. AMEN!! In the beginning, whenever that was!, good enough for me.

  8. I suppose in a sense all of us have certain assumptions about what is fundamentally true. As you say, Williams' understanding of faith was inextricably linked to creationism. After Wilson came to believe that evolution was true, he couldn't move past the notion that evolution and creationism are mutually exclusive.

    In my case, I accept that God exists, and that He created the world and all that is, was, or will be. He could, of course, do this in a literal 6-day time span, or he could do it over the course of many years following scientific principles that he set in motion.

  9. Just a short note of correction: Gordon College is located in Wenham, MA rather than MS. Great post!

  10. I'm with Brian. Genesis comports just fine with evolutionary models. You can't use it as a science textbook, but who are we to say what the writer heard when he wrote that God created man from the "mud" of the earth? Was that "mud" the lesser creatures into whom God infused his natural law?

    I have a degree in biology and it was during those studies that I really came to begin to know the truth of the Lord, so I'm comfy with reason and science hand in hand.

    At the same time, we can't use evolutionary THEORY to explain the soul or God or even morality. That's where society makes its mistake.

  11. Thx Anon.. I made the change.

    I liked what Susan said.. in the beginning God.. it is the Who and not the how :)

  12. I agree that there is too much in-fighting over this issue. We need to be most focused on the Who when engaging the world. One reason I'm thrilled with the stuff coming out of the Intelligent Design community.

    We can, and should, embrace micro-evolution. I do have a problem with macro-evolution as it just has a ton of problems.

    I used to be an old-earth person, but have since embraced a young earth position for a couple of reasons.

    1. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1 translated "day," is not translated "era" anywhere else. And then there is the structure of the passage... there was night, there was morning.. the first day, etc. and then

    2. How do you explain disease and death theologically pre-fall?

  13. Thx for commenting Shane. A few thoughts about your thoughts:

    1. The "there was night, there was morning.. the first day" precedes "And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day."
    It seems that the light of the first day may not have been the sun.. hence maybe the first day was not a literal one?

    2) I think that you do not need to embrace a literal reading of Genesis to understand that man fell.. original sin is not dependent on literalism.

  14. Shane,

    If you know anything at all about cell biology, you will realize that death prior to the fall did exist. Consumption of food implies the death of what is being eaten, even if it is plants. That Adam and Eve needed food (or even had the ability to eat food) means they already lived in a world where living things were dying.

  15. Great thoughts Bob,
    It does seem to me that The two aren't incompatible. I was raised as a SB as well and I had heard the creation story over and over all of my life. But when I was introduced to evolution it made a lot of sense to me and I never had any issue reconciling the two. I also believe there are huge holes in a purely evolution creation theory.
    I have never seen any reasonable example of one species becoming another. We have created hybrids many times over (my favorite example is a mule) but they are never a new species. Mules can't reproduce. for a new species to form there would have to be 2 of the same biological adaptations occur at the same time that made them a different species than their parents. To me that seems pretty far fetched.
    But hey I'm no scientist.
    I do love this movie that Ben Stein just came out with called EXPELLED:No Intelligence Allowed.
    It's interesting the fundamentalist views on both sides of this issue. Scientist being ostracized for believing (after many years of research) that Intelligent Design is a realistic theory.
    I think we spend way too much time fighting over the whole thing personally. But I do have a tiny remnant of a SB down inside me somewhere that likes a good scrap :)
    Peace Yall

  16. "It's interesting the fundamentalist views on both sides of this issue."
    Great observation Shaun.. fundamentalists on either end of the debate will never agree.

  17. I struggle with this...I struggled with evolution as a student in anthropology. (I was not a christian) I just couldn't see how they got where they were with the information they had.

    I also have difficulty with no death...can it be spiritual death. How would Adam and Eve understand death if there was no such thing?

    I think that, like the church in the middle ages that felt it was heretical to believe that the sun was at the center of the universe...current fundamentalists (on both sides) will be proven wrong in a way that illuminates scripture. (oh! THAT's what that meant!!)

  18. Bob, this post reminded me of a quote from Tim Keller I recently read:

    "Keller begins by saying that authorial intention is a key to interpreting any ancient text, and by that criterion, Genesis 1 is obviously not about evolution. Keller explains the literary principles scholars use to argue whether Genesis 1 is poetry or historical narrative. If poetry, then its six "days" may be poetically long; if historical narrative, it speaks of a young earth. Keller says he believes Genesis 1 is Hebrew poetry (though Genesis 2 is not), but pleads for mutual forbearance. "Christians used to agree to disagree on this," he urges.

    (emphasis mine)

  19. Agree to disagree? A novel approach Cameron :)

  20. "I think that, like the church in the middle ages that felt it was heretical to believe that the sun was at the center of the universe..."

    No they didn't, no they didn't, no they didn't. Can't people read a little history? Here is a great littl summary written by an Evangelical (so you don't think it's a bunch of Catholics spinning the truth):

    Gosh, I get tired of my church being labelled and libelled with stupid untruths. Criticize if you want, but get it right!!!!!!!!


I love to get comments and usually respond. So come back to see my reply.
You can click here to see my comment policy.