Why I Am An Old Earth Creationist
Part Two: The Genre of Genesis 1
By Erik Bennett, August 31, 2016
Over the last two years, stories of the wrongfully convicted have saddened and angered me as I learn about lives destroyed on account of someone being convicted of a crime they did not commit. I’ve learned that there are many factors that often play a part in a wrongful conviction such as false or coerced confessions, false identifications, and tunnel vision by the investigators or prosecutors. Tunnel vision is when focus is narrowed on one person or thing and everything else is ignored. In the case of a criminal investigation, any evidence that might implicate another person or that might exonerate the person of interest is passed over and not properly evaluated or investigated.
When I was a young earth creationist, I had tunnel vision when it came to the interpretation of Genesis 1. I only considered the evidence that confirmed my view, and I ignored any evidence that might bring my view into question. When I first started doubting the reliability of young earth creationism, I realized I was placing restrictions on the text of Genesis 1 that were not supported by the text itself. As I studied the passage further, I began to see that the Genesis 1 is much more flexible than I was willing to grant it as a young earth creationist.
Eventually, I came to conclusion that old earth creationism is the best explanation of both general and special revelation. In my last post, I described how general revelation helped begin my journey to old earth creationism, and in the next few posts, I will describe how Scripture (as a form of special revelation) guided me to the old earth view. This post will focus on the genre of the Genesis 1.
The Importance of Genre
Genre is the term used to describe different categories within an artistic expression. In the case of the Bible, we are dealing with literature, so genre in the Bible describes different categories of biblical literature. Different biblical genres are identified by similarities in style, format, and structure.
The two main types of biblical genre are prose (i.e. narrative) and poetry. Under these two categories, there are many subcategories. For example, under prose we have subcategories of historical narrative, law, genealogies, etc., and under poetry, we have subcategories of wisdom, psalms, prophecy, etc. There also can be subcategories of subcategories, such as different types of psalms (praise, lament, ascension, etc.). Sometimes there is a mixture of features of different genres within a passage.
The genre of Biblical literature is important because it helps us to understand how to approach different types of Scripture passages. Our approach to interpreting Scripture changes based on whether we are interpreting prophecy from Revelation or historical narrative in 1 Kings. Understanding the style, format, and structure of biblical literature aids greatly in understanding God’s message to us today.
The Genre of Genesis 1
Understanding the genre of Genesis 1 is important to the age of the earth question. Most young earth creationists claim the genre of Genesis 1 is historical narrative. They believe that if Genesis 1 is a historical narrative, then it means the days in Genesis 1 must be literal 24-hour days. Stephen Boyd says, “when this text is read as narrative, there is only one tenable view of its plain sense: these were six literal days of creation.”1 While for many young earth creationists this is convincing proof of their view, I do not believe it is an accurate evaluation of the text of Genesis 1.
Genesis 1 is a remarkable passage of Scripture that blends features of prose and poetry. There is really no other passage of Scripture like it. To properly evaluate the text, we must acknowledge its uniqueness and appreciate the difficulties surrounding all attempts to classify it. Charles Hummel explains:
The style of Genesis 1 is remarkable for its simplicity, its economy of language. Yet to ask whether it is prose or poetry is a serious oversimplification. Although we do not find here the synonymous parallelism and rhythms of Hebrew poetry, the passage has a number of alliterations. The prominence of repetition and of its corollary, silence, brings the writing close to poetry; its movement toward, a climax places it in the order of prose. Sometimes called a ‘hymn,’ it appears to be a unique blend of prose and poetry.2 (Emphasis added)
Daniel C. Harlow adds:
The literary genre of Genesis 1 may be classified broadly as prose narrative. (Even the label narrative is potentially misleading, though, since Genesis 1 has no plot and no character development.) It is not written in Hebrew poetry, since it lacks parallelism, but it is not composed in typical Hebrew prose, either. Its syntax or sentence construction is different in degree if not in kind from what we find in normal narrative prose. It is marked by formulaic repetitions, tight symmetries, and an elevated style. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, certainly not among Old Testament historical narratives. In its literary compactness, exalted tone and solemn contents, it most resembles passages such as Psalm 104, Job 38, and Proverbs 8––all of which are in Hebrew poetry.3 (Emphasis Added)
Kenneth Boa categorizes Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22 as a unique literary form. He calls it creation and consummation, and he describes it this way:
The stories of creation and consummation both stand at the transitional point between time and eternity. Enclosed between these two accounts is the stage of human history on which each person must make the choice between one of two destinies: endless separation from God or endless fellowship with God. Both of these narratives blend figurative with literal language since they deal with realms of existence that transcend our experience.4 (Emphasis Added)
Identifying the genre of Genesis 1 is difficult. Biblical scholars, as shown above, struggle with classifying it because of its distinctive blend of prose and poetic features. To simply call Gen. 1 historical narrative is to overgeneralize a complicated passage and to overlook its beautiful uniqueness.
Genre and Interpretation
To insist the genre of Genesis 1 demands a young earth interpretation oversteps the limits of what the genre of this passage can tell us. The uniqueness of the passage and the mixture of poetry and prose found in the text should give pause to dogmatism. It is reasonable to see either the old earth view or the young earth view fitting the text when seen as a unique blend of prose and poetry. Therefore, I believe the genre of Genesis 1 does not by itself give a definitive answer to the question of how to best interpret the passage.
As Kenneth Boa points out, Genesis 1 deals with “realms of existence that transcend our experience.”5 That is to say, there is mystery in the account of creation. Understanding the complexities surrounding the genre of Genesis 1 should lead to humility and appreciation of the mystery of God’s creative acts. Instead of dogmatism and division, we should focus on what unites young and old earth creationists, i.e. we are both creationists. We may disagree over the timeframe of creation, but we agree on the Author of creation.
Tunnel vision in our justice system can lead to people wrongfully convicted, and tunnel vision in our theology can lead to Christians unwilling to accept any view apart from their own. When it comes to the genre of Genesis 1, there is little room for tunnel vision. The unique features of the text and its mixture of prose and poetry gives the text a flexibility and a generosity that allows for either the old or the young earth view.
While this post may never convince anyone to change his or her position, I hope it will, in a small way, help to change the way we speak about and interact with each other. My desire is that young and old earth creationists will learn to accept each other’s views as valid interpretations of Scripture, to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to cooperate with each other as we share the same goal of reaching the world for Christ. We share more in common than many want to admit, and it is shame that we allow this question to divide us.