Thursday, February 11, 2010

Genesis versus Dr. Tim Keller

Dr. Timothy Keller, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), is the influential pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City. As a minister of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), Keller confesses belief in the Bible as God's inerrant word. It is thus disappointing that Keller has recently posted an article “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” at biologos, a science/Christianity blog heavily slanted towards theistic evolution.

Can Christians believe in evolution, particularly human evolution? Yes, says Dr. Keller. He concludes,
Even though in this paper I argue for the importance of belief in a literal Adam and Eve, I have shown here that there are several ways to hold that and still believe in God using evolutionary biological processes.”

Although he mentions various schemes for reconciling an evolutionary Adam with an authoritative Bible, none seem very plausible—either scientifically or biblically. Various difficulties with such a compromise were addressed in my article “Evolution and the fall”.

In this post I want to concentrate only on Keller's treatment of Genesis 1 and 2. As Keller notes, reconciling the Bible with evolution involves a non-literal view of at least Genesis 1.

So how does Keller establish that Genesis 1should not be taken literally? His prime argument is that the order of Genesis 1 contradicts that of Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, Keller claims, “there is vegetation (Day 3) before there was any atmosphere (Day 4, when the sun was made) and therefore vegetation before rain was possible.” On the other hand, Keller argues, Gen.2:5 states categorically that God did not put vegetation in the earth before there was an atmosphere and rain. Since Genesis 1 and 2 contradict, they can't both be taken literally. According to Keller, the natural order is the norm in Genesis 2. Hence, he concludes, it is much more likely that we should read the order of events as literal in Genesis 2, rather than in Genesis 1.

Keller sums up this section:
“It means Genesis 1 does not teach that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days. …it does not preclude the possibility of the earth being extremely old. We arrive at this conclusion not because we want to make room for any particular scientific view of things, but because we are trying to be true to the text, listening as carefully as we can to the meaning of the inspired author.”

What are we to make of this?

Suppose, for the moment, that Keller is right: Genesis 1 and 2 do conflict, with Genesis 2 having the historically reliable order of events.

On Keller's own reading of Gen.2:5, there are two reasons for lack of vegetation: no rain and no man. This entails that Adam was created before vegetation. Following the account of Genesis 2, we would then have to conclude that also animals were created after Adam (indeed, how could animals exist without vegetation?).

Yet this, if anything, makes things much worse for anyone trying to reconcile Genesis with evolution. Not only is the order worse but also the timescale is even more condensed than that of Genesis 1: now all living things are created in just one day, rather than in four. Keller, perhaps prudently, says nothing about such embarrassing consequences of his exegetical logic.

But, do Genesis 1 and 2 in fact conflict? Most commentators think not. Let's take a closer look.

Note, first, that Keller claims Genesis 1 has vegetation (Day 3) created before the atmosphere on Day 4. Yet Day 4 relates only the creation of the Sun, moon and stars, placed in an already existing sky. Surely the creation of the atmosphere occurs on Day 2, when God created heaven (sky or atmosphere) to separate the waters. Further, there is no specific mention of rain--or its absence-- in Genesis 1. In Genesis 2 we are told there was no rain but, rather, the earth was watered by an edh, an obscure Hebrew word which is usually translated as mist, spring, waters of the deep, or flood. Umberto Cassuto (Commentary on Genesis, 1961, p.104) argues it refers to springs.

Note, also, that Gen.1 and Gen.2:5 do not refer to vegetation in the same terms. Genesis 1 refers to the creation (Day 3) of "plants (eseb) yielding seeds" and fruit trees. Gen.2:5, presumably referring to Day 6, states, "when no bush (siah) of the field was yet in the earth and no small plant (eseb) of the field had yet sprung up."

As Cassuto (1961:100-102) remarks, Gen.2:5 does not say all vegetation was absent. It refers only to two special types of plants. The siah of the field refers to thorns and thistles, which require rain to propagate, and which did not exist until after Adam sinned; the eseb of the field refers to grain, which requires human cultivation (it occurs again in Gen.3:18), and which had not yet sprung up or sprouted. James Jordan (Creation in Six Days, 53-54) takes a similar position. We note, en passant, that the fact that the eseb created on Day 3 had not yet sprung up or sprouted on Day 6 speaks against a day-age view.

In sum, there is no contradiction between Genesis 1 and 2. The fact that Dr Keller goes out of his way to invent such contradiction belies his professed commitment to remain true to the text. It undercuts his denial that he is motivated by scientific pressures. Dr. Keller seems more concerned to deconstruct Genesis--to leave room for secular science-- than to honestly exegete it. Given such a cavalier approach to Scripture, it is not surprizing that Keller sees no problem reconciling Adam with human evolution.


Anonymous said...

It is thus disappointing that Keller has recently posted an article “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” at biologos,

Maybe he wanted to post it at bylogos, but had a typo?

Anonymous said...

More seriously...

Keller didn't "invent" this view. His analysis of Gen 2:5 is (footnotedly) based on Kline's "Because it had not rained", and possibly also on an article by Mark Futato (a Kline student, I believe) called "Because it had rained". Blogspot won't let me link them in the combox, but both articles can be found among the top links by googling "kline because it had not rained"

john byl said...

Hi Ruberad

Thanks for your comment. Yes, Kline & Futato argue along very similar lines. James Jordan (Creation in Six Days) gives a good rebuttal to both.

However, Keller cites Kline only with reference to Genesis 2 having the more natural order. As I recall, not even Kline goes so far as to assert that, according to Genesis 1, there was no atmosphere before Day 4.

Anonymous said...

For Kline, Day 4 is a recapitulation (days 4-6 recapitulate and superimpose and parallel days 1-3), so there is no "before day 4"

Anonymous said...

Scientific pressures are not a huge factor here, The first rule of interpretation is how it (Genesis) looks forward and points to the Gospel ... protology looks forward to eschatology. this pinciple seems to be overpassed in every critique of the framework view. This question needs to be answered before the literal 24 hour question, ir else every side is being pressured by scientific factors , both 24 hour and non 24 hour.

Rory Roybal said...

We are told evolution is science and creation is religion, but this is false. Neither are science, since both views can't be observed, tested, repeated or falsified as as required for proof by the scientific method. Since both views require faith to believe, they are both philosophies or religions, but do not meet the qualifications for true science. See the real story here.

john byl said...

Hi Rory

Thanks for your comment and your link, where you make some excellent observations regarding miracles of God versus evolutionary claims.

Regarding the qualifications for "true" science, these will no doubt depend on one's prior worldview. No science can be done without making some philosophical assumptions about epistemology, metaphysics, values, etc. Such assumptions will inevitably reflect one's worldview, particularly when it comes to interpreting the data.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this thread is still being read, but here goes... in Keller's book Reason for God, he even goes so far as to describe Genesis 1 as poetry. I too am surprised at this, given the rest of his theology. It seems really strange that a Westminster graduate can support many passages of Scripture as literal, just not Genesis 1. Jesus really did rise from the grave, but something else happened in time past, different than the normal reading of Genesis 1? Its inconsistent in the least, and it denies the message of Genesis in the worst.

Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

Thank you for directing me here Dr. Byl!

defectivebit said...

I was pointed to your blog this evening and have enjoyed perusing your posts. I look forward to reading more from you Dr. Byl. I will be putting you in my RSS reader.

I appreciate your post here a great deal.

Kevin said...

There does seem to be a contradiction in the order in most modern translations because they start v5 as a new sentence whereas in the KJV v5 is a continuation of verse 4. If the KJV is correct and verse 5 does not begin a new sentence, there is no contradiction in the order because there is no implication that man is created before vegetation. The KJV text simply of chapter 2 says God created man and he created vegetation but does not state an order. I have no idea of what the Hebrew text says and whether the KJV text is more accurate here than the ESV text. Can anyone shed any light on this?