Monday, February 25, 2013

Refuting a Figurative Genesis

In Six Days God Created: Refuting the Framework and Figurative Views of the Days of Creation by Paulin Bedard (Xulon Press: USA, 2013, 252 pages). Available here and here.

Did God really create everything in six days? Nowadays, many Reformed theologians question this, teaching that the creation days should be taken figuratively. Genesis 1 is said to tell us nothing about the length or sequence of the creation days. A figurative approach to Genesis conveniently avoids conflict with the supposed billions-of-years history taught by mainstream astronomy and geology.

But is this a viable option for Christians?

That is the question this book addresses. The author, Rev. Paulin Bedard, is the pastor of the Reformed Church of Quebec in Saint-Georges, Quebec. The central focus of his book is the Framework Interpretation, which takes Genesis 1 to be a literary structure with a mainly theological message. Other, closely related, figurative interpretations are also examined. For simplicity, I shall lump these all together under the general term the Figurative View.

The book is divided into three roughly equal parts. The first part defends the traditional view—the plain, literal interpretation--of Genesis. Proponents of the Figurative View contend that a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 leads to various contradictions and problems. For example, it is claimed that the chronological order in which plants, animals and man are created in Genesis 1 conflicts with Genesis 2. Rev. Bedard considers a number of these objections. He finds that a closer study of the text shows that all the alleged difficulties can easily be resolved within the traditional approach.

Thus, there is no need to postulate figurative days.

The second part discusses the weaknesses of the Figurative View. One problem is that a number of possible literary structures have been proposed. But none of these gives a good fit with the actual text. On the contrary, they seem more to be superimposed onto the text. In fact, the most obvious pattern is the simple “six days plus one” (Ex.20:8-11) of the traditional view.

Further, even if Genesis 1 were to display a highly stylized literary form, why should that rule out its historical accuracy? This is a false dilemma, because Genesis could be both well-written and factually correct.

Promoters of the Figurative View argue that the intent of the author of Genesis is not to tell us how God created. Rather, its supposed intent is to tell us merely that God made everything, and that we should serve God rather than idols. But how can we know the author's intent unless he tells us? A good Reformed hermeneutical principle is that the Bible should interpret itself. Only the Bible itself can clarify its actual intent. It is thus noteworthy that Genesis presents itself as historical, not poetic. Moreover, elsewhere in the Bible, whenever Genesis is referred to, it is always taken to be literally true.

Thus, the Figurative View raises more problems than it solves.

The third part of the book highlights the dangers of the Figurative View. First, the Figurative View attacks in an insidious manner what God has clearly revealed. It persistently raises doubts about what God actually said or did during the creation week. It rejects, not only the historical reality of the days, but also the historical reality of a number of events described on these days.

Further, it questions the clarity of Scripture. The Figurative View reinterprets a clear and simple passage of Scripture in a very complex and abstract manner. This entails that the Bible can no longer be understood by normal people, who must now rely on elite theologians.

Rev. Bedard contends that the driving force behind the Figurative View is the desire to accommodate the Bible to modern secular science. Christian scholars do not want to be thought of as “anti-intellectual”. However, this involves adopting a hermeneutic that makes modern scientific theory a guideline for interpreting the Bible. Once adopted, the new hermeneutic is a corrosive acid that eventually erodes all Biblical authority. Bedard gives examples of several adherents of the Figurative View, such as Reformed theologians Timothy Keller and Bruce Waltke, who have gone on to embrace theistic evolution. Others, such as Howard van Till, have gone so far as to completely reject the Reformed faith and belief in a personal God.

Thus, the Figurative View is a very dangerous error.

Finally, Rev. Bedard urges Christians to be discerning, to reject this false interpretation, and to remain faithful to His Word. We must not be ashamed to boldly confront secular science with what God has revealed in Genesis about His creative acts. Even if that may incur a loss of “academic respectability”.

This is a timely book. The matter of origins is presently a hot topic in many Reformed churches, also in the United Reformed Church and the Canadian Reformed Church.

Regretfully, the Framework Interpretation is taught by a number of URC ministers and theologians, particularly those associated with Westminster Seminary (California). Although the CanRC, in its unity talks with the URC, expressed some mild official concern regarding the URC's toleration of the Framework Interpretation, the CanRC does not seem to consider this a barrier to unity.

Even in the URC and CanRC, the discussion has moved beyond the creation days. Questions are now being raised about whether God created by means of evolution, whether Adam had animal ancestors, whether Adam and Eve were the only humans alive when they fell, whether all humans today stem from Adam, etc. This in turn raises theological questions about original sin, redemption, and Biblical inspiration, authority and interpretation.

Clearly, much is at stake. It is therefore crucial that our churches heed Rev. Bedard's advice and take a solid stand on Biblical truth--starting with Genesis 1.

In sum, Rev. Bédard has written an excellent refutation of figurative views of Genesis 1. He shows the necessity of maintaining the plain truth of God's Word, in face of current attacks on its credibility. It is very readable.

I heartily recommend this book, particularly for Reformed (and other) students, pastors and theologians.


G.I. Williamson said...

This is a fine book and I am encouraged by it.

john byl said...

Hello Rev. Williamson

Thanks for your endorsement of this worthy book.


Anonymous said...

Though I have only read your review of the book it is good to know there are those who also are willing to make a stand for the historicity of Genesis 1-11. I agree that setting aside the historical interpretation of Genesis involves a difficult and complex hermeneutic which leads to difficulties in interpreting the rest of Scripture.

Perhaps we need to take the first few chapters of the Bible into account more consistently than we do at present when we write about theological subjects. After all, if we leave the record of the Ceation and Fall out of our consideration it is easier for detractors to claim changing our approach to Genesis doesn't reallt affect much of the Bible's interpretation. Thank you to the reminder of the fact that the Bible is like a seamless robe - unravel one thread and the rest falls apart. Either it is the very Word of God and completely trustworthy in all it speaks about or it is untrustworthy in anything it says.

John Byl said...

Hello Kaitiaki

Thanks for your comment. Yes, you are quite right. If we cannot believe all that the Bible says, how can we believe any of it? Once we question one part of the Bible we have elevated human reason above the Bible. If human reason is to judge what parts of the Bible are authoritative, then the entire Bible has lost its intrinsic authority.

Tim Bayly said...

Thank you for this review, brother. Having a number of grad students over the years here next to IU, I have become increasingly firm in calling them not to forsake Scripture for science because it only creates more problems—even intellectually, not to mention theologically and spiritually. God bless your work. Love,

John Byl said...

Welcome, Rev. Bayly. Thanks for your kind words. Let me in turn express my appreciation for your own fine blog-- I read regularly. Keep up the good work.


MikeSnow said...

"Did God really create everything in six days?"

To state such is to ignore the first two verses of Genesis, as if they did not exist. "Day One" is not Genesis 1:1.

Anonymous said...

Again nothing new here in this book, just the same old literalist view point propogated by fundamentalist belief structure so prominent in US theology during the 20th century. Paulin Bedard states "We must not be ashamed to boldly confront secular science". What is "secular" science anyway? Science is neither secular nor spiritual. Science is about descerning truth from testable, repeatable and observable data. Paulin Bedard seems to support faith as opposed to science? Faith and Science are not in conflict. I believe because of the evidence not in spite of it!

Rick Smeding

john byl said...

Hi Rick

Thanks for your comment.

"Secular science" means "naturalist science", particularly "naturalist historical science". The problem with historical science is that distant history is neither repeatable nor currently observable. Hence conclusions about history can be made only via various assumptions about how the universe has behaved and what counts as historical fact.

Bedard opposes naturalist historical science, which bans supernatural causes and presumes that the Bible contains no relevant historical facts. However, Bedard is not opposed to historical science as such; he merely insists that historical science should be consistent with what the Bible tells us about history.

Anonymous said...

Hi John:

Appreciate your response. Although terminology at times can be dismissed as "mere symantics", I do think we need to be very careful. In this instance, inadvertently perhaps, we have fostered a false dichotomy between science and religion, leaving your readers to believe science is secular. I am sure that you as a scientist would not wish to be presumed to be secular as well!

"Historical Science" as you phrased it, does in fact provide testable, observable and repeatable evidence. Just peer into the night sky and view the light from distant stars showing you the "distant" history of the universe. Watch stars being formed and destroyed in real time. Examine the fossil evidence visible to all. Measure radioactive decay. Just to name a few measurable and testable data points.

What Bedard seems to actually opposes is any "non-literalist" Biblical interpretation. Science should be left entirely out of the discussion as it is obviously an area which Bedard does not value.

Rick Smeding

john byl said...

Hi Rick

Starlight, radioactive decay, and fossils are all observed now. To infer past historical events from these observations requires various assumptions about initial conditions, past light speeds, decay rates, fossil formation, etc.

Bedard is concerned that Biblical interpretation be done honestly, comparing Scripture with Scripture, to find the plain meaning. The Bible should not be twisted to conform to naturalist science.

Since the Bible is the word of God, what it says about history should have the status of indubitable eye-witness observations of past events. Hence, genuine historical science should take such observations into account (see my post "Science, history, and the Bible" ).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the dialogue John:

Pardon the pun but clearly I am not on the same "wavelength" as Bedard or most of your contributors.

We should not only should infer past behaviour on what we observe today, but we in fact we should expect it. Without this stability of process and order our universe would be "chaos". That is antithecal to what God has done - namely created order from chaos. Gen 1:2 says literally that the earth was "tohu wa-bohu" which means create order from disorder.

Since the created universe is the work of God, what it reveals about His creation should have the status of irrefutable truth. Hence genuine science continually reveals the greatness of our awesome Creator, much to the atheists chagrin.

His Word and His Creation are never in conflict, only man's understanding. Although I am sure Bedard is a solid man of faith, I do believe, the interpretation Bedard subscribes to is inaccurate, misleading and actually does a disservice to Christianity.

Rick Smeding

john byl said...

Hi Rick

On what hermeneutical grounds do you take Gen.1:2 literally, but not the rest of Gen.1-11?

You claim, without any justification, that "the interpretation Bedard subscribes to is inaccurate, misleading and actually does a disservice to Christianity".

This is not true. Bedard's interpretation is merely the plain sense of Genesis. This was the traditional view of Christianity, accepted by a vast majority of Christians until quite recently.

Anonymous said...

Thanks John I am enjoying the dialogue:

I employ the very same hermeneutic principles that most Christians use whenever scripture appears to be incongruous with known truths. For example we do not live in a “geocentric” universe (I presume Bedard believes that?), nor is the earth supported by pillars, nor does the earth have any corners, nor are there waters outside of our atmosphere that we need to separate from those below. Yet the “plain” simple reading would all support these interpretations. All these statements above where at one time the traditional view of christianity but were ultimately rejected when the truth became known through the scientists of previous centuries.

My statements regarding Bedard's position are justified and I had hoped it would be evident, but to be clear I believe, the position is inaccurate because it is inconsistent with the clear evidence, it is misleading because it infers that non-subscribers have compromised their belief in the infallibility of scripture, and it does a disservice to Christianity because it creates barriers to belief that are not necessary. I would grant that my statements may be misdirected, and perhaps should be directed to your (John’s)commentary more so than to Bedard’s books. If so I apologize. Please also note my concerns are directed not an individual but to their position. I am sure Bedard would never intentionally mislead people and have nothing but the advancement of the gospel at heart.

Rick Smeding

john byl said...


Our dialogue seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns.

Bottom line: your rejection of the traditional reading of Genesis is based on various "known truths" and "clear evidence" of naturalist historical science, whereas Bedard (and I) dismiss those scientific conclusions as unwarranted and mistaken speculation.

Anonymous said...

To Mr. Rick Smeding:

I just found your critique of my book. Here are my comments:

1. You do not quote me correcty. The exact sentence on page 191 says: "Christians must not be ashamed to confront secular scientific theories with what God has clearly revealed in Genesis 1 about the length and sequence of His creative acts." You have added the word "boldly", changed "secular scientific theories" for "secular science", and entirely cut the second part of the sentence, which qualifies at what level secular scientific theories should be confronted. The rest of your discussion on my views are based on assumptions stretching your incorrect quote to the limit.

2. I do not "support faith as opposed to science", as you suggest. Since the time I am a Christian, I have studied sciences at college and university and I love chemestry, physics, biology, astronomy, geology, etc. Ornithology is one of my favorite hobbies. I support faith as opposed to false scientific theories that are contrary to the clear teaching of God's Word. Scientific theories regularly need to be revised; the Word of God remains the same eternally. Like money, "science" is a good servant, but a bad master. It should never become an idol. Christians should submit wholeheartedly to the Word of God, but they should be cautious with fluctuating scientific theories. I do not propose that Christians should "boldly" confront science in general, as you suggest. I propose that Christians should humbly confront scientific theories when these theories contradict the Word of God, specifically on the length and sequence of God's creative acts, as clearly revealed in His infaillible Word.

3. If science is "left entirely out of the discussion", as you complain, it is not because "it is obviously an area which Bedard does not value". My book is a refutation of the Framework and Figurative Views of the Days of Creation. The proponents of these views usually claim that their interpretation is strictly based on exegetical grounds. I have simply examined their exegesis and I have shown that their interpretation of the first chapter of the Bible is wrong. My conclusion is that the Word of God really has something authoritative to say about the length and sequence of God's creative acts. It does not follow that I do not value science.

4. You say "Since the created universe is the work of God, what it reveals about His creation should have the status of irrefutable truth." What is exactly the "irrefutable truth" that you are talking about? The beauty of creation or man's fallible theories? Besides, what does God say in His Word about the created universe and about what this created universe reveals to us? The Bible does not say that the created universe reveals something specific about how God created or about how long it took Him to create everything. The Bible tells us that the created universe reveals God Himself, His glory (Ps. 19:1), His eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:19-21). The purpose of this revelation is not to give specific information about the process God used to create the world, but to condemn humankind for not honoring God ("they are without excuse"). In this context, we often forget what Paul says here about "their foolish hearts that were darkened". Even though the glory of God is clearly displayed in His created universe, man's thinking and heart have become blind to this revelation, to the point that "by their unrighteousness they suppress the truth" (Rom. 1:18). We are far from "irrefutable truth" explained by man! We must never forget that we live after the fall and that sin has completely darkened our capacity to grasp correctly God's revelation in nature. Scientific exploration of God's universe by sinful and corrupt man is nevel neutral!

Paulin Bédard

Anonymous said...

To Mr. Rick Smeding:

Here are some more comments:

5. The Bible does not present God's general revelation and God's special revelation as two revelations of equal value. God's revelation in nature is universal, but has not been given in words (Ps. 19:2-4). Its content and clarity are more limited. God's special revelation in Scripture has not been given to all, but is much clearer and much more developed. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, it has a redemptive and renewing effect on our hearts and minds, which the general revelation doesn't have (Ps. 19:7-8). So, when Christ says that "from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female" (Mark 10:6), it is clear that there were not millions or billions of years separating the beginning of creation from the creation of man and woman. This clear testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple, even though it seems foolish to many.

6. You say that "science is about discerning truth from testable, repeatable and observable data", but you also think that science has the capacity to tell us how God miraculously created the universe. But God's creative acts are non repeatable and supernatural, "what is seen was not made out of things that are visible" (Heb. 11:3). How can they be submitted to the investigation of naturalistic science, which bases its study on the assumption that the world was made naturally, out of things that are visible?

7. If we apply your approach to the work and ministry of Christ, what do you think would be the consequences for the Gospel and for our faith? I am afraid that not much would be left. What do naturalistic scientific theories say about water instantaneously changed into wine? Or the multiplication of bread and fish? Or the miraculous healings? Or the resurrection of dead bodies? We all know from "science" that the production of wine requires grapes and time, that a virgin girl cannot give birth to a child, and that a dead body does not come back to life. How can science discern the truth of these miracles, if they are not testable, repeatable and observable today? Does that mean that we live in a chaotic world, with no stability or order? According to modern naturalistic "science", the foolishness of the creation of the world in six days is nothing compared to the foolishness of the virgin birth, Christ's victory over death, His ascension and His future glorious return. If we let "science" dictate what we should believe about the great non repeatable miracle of creation, I don't see any compelling reason why we should not let "science" dictate what we should believe about all the other miracles revealed in the Bible. Can you imagine the devastating effects on our faith?

8. This confrontation between the church and the world is not new. When the apostle Paul preached this glorious Gospel to the wise Greeks of his time, he confronted their false worldview with the sword of God's Word. The Holy Spirit had to transform the mind and the heart of these blind people with the perfect light and powerful message of God's infaillible Word. What seemed foolish to the educated Greeks is the wisdom of God and this wisdom is our salvation! (1 Corint. 1-2). We have the same calling today to proclaim God's truth — all God's truth revealed in His Word — in the midst of a culture that rejects God's revealed truth concerning creation, the fall, and redemption. This does not mean that everything "science" says is wrong or has no value, not at all, but this means that Christians should not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of their mind (Rom. 12:2), and they should have the courage to stand for the truth in the midst of a corrupt generation.

Paulin Bédard