Further Interchange on ‘The Design of Genesis’

Below is a section of letters we received after publishing the Interchange Special on ‘The Design of Genesis’ in Briefing #339 (December 2006):

Like many of your readers, I found the October issue of The Briefing stimulating reading, and have enjoyed reading the responses in the December issue. One of the underlying themes in several of the letters was the assertion that “if we can explain the mechanism by which the world has developed to its current state, we then do not need God”. Now I think it is easy to fall into this assumption because our culture makes it all the time. It is also an assumption that science makes. But in the case of science, I think it is a legitimate use of Occam’s razor. Science is primarily interested in questions of how things work, and so it is legitimate to remove any assumption that is not necessary to answer the question. So science seeks for the minimalist patterns that explain the behaviour of the universe.

For example, scientists will look at the planets orbiting the sun and show that despite the various shapes and periods of their orbits, they fall into a pattern that is well-explained by our understanding of gravity. In doing this, they are neither proving nor disproving God but just giving us a clearer view of the wonder and consistency of our universe. Similarly many scientists find that the theories of cosmology and evolution provide great insight into the structure of our universe, and enhance our understanding of the variations of life on earth. This greater insight into the workings of nature does not diminish the wonder of our universe but, I think, enhances it and makes it more reasonable to believe that there is a good God who created and sustains it.

Our culture appears to have become overly focused on the ‘how’ question—possibly because of the impact of technology on our lives. This has led to us take on the above assumption and then look for unexplained phenomena, such as gaps in evolution, to justify our faith and catch the attention of our culture. We need to remember that the ‘explained’ phenomena also testify to God.

Some respondents reacted to the ‘randomness’ of evolution, and some assert that God would never work that way. I would offer a word of caution. I think that God often works quite differently than we could imagine as many of us can see from how he has acted in our own lives. He is not constrained by how we think a ‘good designer’ would work. Indeed, if we look carefully at most of the natural phenomena around us, we find that they are dominated by randomness. In the gas around you, the individual molecules will be moving in random ways. If you looked at any tree or bush in the garden, you would find that every leaf will differ slightly and, to some extent, randomly. Indeed, I think God has used randomness to enrich our world with endless variety.

I think we need to approach the world around us with humility, awe and an openness. It is this sense of awe at the consistency and scale of the creation that points us at the nature of God (rather than the unexplained bits), and that is what Paul was referring to in Romans 1:20. However, to point people to God we need to move beyond the created universe to the central focus of God’s work on earth, and call people to trust in Jesus, basing that trust primarily on his death and resurrection. This was the focus of the early church. It is the power of God, as Paul argues to the Corinthians. We need to need to stay focused on it as well.

Russell Creek
Camberwell, Vic, AUS

Many thanks for including (in your last issue) a number of the biblical arguments from those who believe God intended Genesis to be understood substantially more literally than the Briefing posited.

Sola Scriptura revisited

I was also glad that you highlighted in your response the issue of sola Scriptura. Further, that you honestly and openly admitted that your understanding is that Scripture while being the final authority for the interpretation of itself, is not the sola (only) authority. Likewise, your ‘modest goal’ showed your wisdom, for indeed that is the paramount question: “Is it possible to maintain and uphold sola Scriptura while coming to different conclusions about the best way to read Genesis 1-3?”

Below I hope to demonstrate that you have been unable to maintain and uphold sola Scriptura in coming to your conclusion, both by your own admission (that Scripture is not the only/sola authority to interpret Scripture), and by your own practice (by observing the practical methodology applied in the ‘Design of Genesis’ issue).

The doctrines that the reformers rediscovered, of sola Scriptura and perspicuity, are derived from the scriptures themselves. Verses like these might be used: “your word is truth” (John 17:17), “in your light we see light” (Ps 36:9), “learn … not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6), “add to, or take away from, the Bible and you will regret it big time” (paraphrase—c.f. Rev 22:18-19), “the Holy Spirit, whom my Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” (John 14:26), “and they will all be taught by God” (John 6:45), “for the Spirit searches everything even the deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:10) etc.

I do not find any verses except the well-known and equally well-refuted Catholic ones (Matt 16:18, 2 Thess 2:15) that support any other authority—I imagine you must have, please could you state the verses?

Calvin and Luther

Calvin and Luther used church fathers where they expressed truth brilliantly, heretics where they concisely demonstrated a relevant error, and pagans where they demonstrated useful contrasts or agreements. If you observe Calvin’s exegesis in the Institutes, it is dominated by Scripture, church fathers make an appearance later on, and then (and only more rarely) pagan philosophies—and these as a matter of interest. I have never seen ‘authority’ attributed to them.

An excerpt from a church father carries ‘authority’ because it harnesses the power of Scripture so well, by usage and explanation thereof. It is like a brilliant biblical preacher—the word of God powerfully applied under the influence of the Spirit can often have an effect like unto authority on a man. I would argue this is a different kind of authority. It is not interpretational authority. It is more encouragement that you are on the right track in your use of Scripture to interpret Scripture, and particularly encouraging when one church father after another across the centuries work together, pointing you in the same direction.

Certainly, compared with Scripture, the church fathers are nothing in authority terms; indeed, it is only their harnessing of and utilization of Scripture that gives them their authority. They will help you to understand a passage, rather like good Christian books by wise men. They are part of God’s gift of teaching to his church. This does not mean they have authority over Scriptures and its interpretation. For more well-researched, referenced and written stuff on Calvin’s exegesis and the above issues, check http://www.prca.org/prtj/nov2002.htm.

However, I noted a profound absence of church fathers in the original Briefing article. Was there one? Had you chosen to quote Luther and Calvin on ‘The Design of Genesis’, you would have heard them coming back against you—rejecting absolutely allegorist interpretations. Consider the following URLs (containing extensive quotations from their original works):

Also, when reading Calvin’s Institutes, you soon learn that you can’t do it without an open Bible next to you. You can’t help but love that about the Institutes! Calvin’s practice of exegesis and sola Scriptura thus profoundly differs from that exhibited in The Briefing Issue #337. At least three quarters of it was spent on looking at non-biblical or pagan philosophies and ideas—neo-darwinism, evolution, intelligent design, etc. The biblical analysis that was there was also heavily influenced by interaction with modern science, as opposed to the breadth and depth of Scriptures and the biblical context (i.e. the hallmarks of good biblical theology). The exegesis and hermeneutics were such a far cry from Calvin and Luther that it amazes me you have the boldness to drag their names into the argument as props for your methodology.

‘The Design of the Resurrection’

If you were to produce an issue on ‘The Design of the Resurrection’ using the same balance of articles and weighting given to science and pagan/non-bible philosophies as used in ‘The Design of Genesis’, what might be the conclusions? I imagine your subscriptions would drop sharply!!! I do not believe you ever would do such a thing, but can you not see that there is something very dangerous about the kind of Bible-handling that has gone on in your analysis of this subject?

I thought the reference to Zwingli and Luther was good—we certainly find it hard to understand how our brethren do not consider that millions of years of bloodshed and pain “flatly contradicts” the Bible’s “very good” creation account in Genesis 1, and the character of God!

It was a little disappointing to see you quoting once again from sections of undisputed poetry (Hannah’s song and Job), in order to challenge literal readings of Genesis (as with the Flat Earth mockery), while avoiding the issue we raised of the local context and literary type issues presented by the rest of Scriptures on Genesis 1-3 (and 4-11).

Tom Seidler
The Good Book Company, UK

Thank you again for the fantastic issue on Genesis and the follow-up Interchange. If you don’t mind, I’d like to offer some comments on a subject that pressed on my mind when I read the Interchange in Issue #339.

It seems that a major theological issue which needs addressing at some stage is that of how death can fit into a ‘good’ or ‘pre-fall’ world. No less than 6 responses out of the 14 which you published raised this as a problem. Given the statement that this was “as full and representative a sample as possible” of the correspondence received, it seems this issue is a tremendous stumbling block for Christians wishing to interact with the scientific world view—perhaps second only to the issue of sola scriptura.

Now it does seem that whenever this issue is raised by ‘young earth’ advocates, the suggestion is that those of us who have accepted the old earth/evolutionary explanation of origins have somehow neglected to consider this theological ‘problem’. It is further suggested that this ‘problem’ is destructive to the gospel of redemption, thus making the issue both emotive and urgent.

Two things need to be said. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that this is indeed an issue which needs careful consideration and thought, as it does represent a shift from what the church has historically taught and believed. It seems to me that ever since Augustine, the church has formulated the gospel in terms of “a perfect original world ruined by original sin, but then ultimately redeemed back to perfection by Christ”. This idea of a ‘perfect’ world has subsequently been conceived by generations of Christians as a utopian paradise where animals do not die, there are no earthquakes or cyclones or bushfires, and no one suffers physical pain. We must definitely acknowledge that this traditional conception of the ‘perfect’ world cannot co-exist with acceptance of an old earth/evolutionary viewpoint. A degree of cognitive dissonance is therefore inevitable.

Secondly, however, it also must be stressed that the majority of Christians who accept an old earth have not done so unthinkingly. We have thought these issues through, and have managed to adjust our thinking in order to relieve the dissonance. Furthermore, we have done this in a way that does justice to the biblical teaching. What it involves, at a basic level, is a careful consideration of what “very good” really means. Does a “very good” world necessarily exclude such things as animal death, earthquakes and pathogenic bacteria? Does the Bible force the picture of a pre-fall utopian paradise on us, or is that just something our minds have conjured up?

More importantly, we must assert that redemption is first and foremost from sin and its effects. That is the heart of the gospel, not the mechanics of the external universe. If Jesus’ death means we can look forward to a new creation without selfishness, murder, greed and idolatry, would it really be such a big deal if our pet animals were still mortal?

So in summary, yes, a shift in thinking is necessary, but no, the gospel is not threatened. What is needed is a careful exploration of what ideas about the pre-fall world are mandated by the Bible, and what ideas are based on tradition and therefore may be discarded. For anyone who is interested, I have summed up the various arguments at the following URL:


Jereth Kok
Melbourne, AUS

Thank you for the eclectic collection of responses to the ‘Design of Genesis’ Briefing you published in Issue #339. Your own comments on understanding Scripture were particularly important because most of the issues for Christians about evolution relate to the interpretation of the Bible. These surfaced in the first half of the 19th century over the scientific realization that the earth seemed to be much older than 6,000 years. The challenge then was not to the authority of Scripture but how to understand it, particularly the seven (not six)-day framework described in Genesis.

As David Livingstone1 has shown, Darwin’s ideas were accepted more readily by conservatives than by liberals because of the former’s strong Doctrine of Providence. We forget this heritage nowadays when we dispute about evolution. Notwithstanding, publication of The Origin of the Species and widespread acceptance of its subject matter raised new problems of exegesis: God repeatedly declares his work to be good, but what about all the volcanoes which were active before humans came on the scene, or the dinosaurs who suffered from arthritis? God gave the plants for food, yet plant death is no less biological death than animal death. God ‘finished’ his work on the sixth day, but we are explicitly told to cultivate the Garden, and the Israelites were given a complex raft of instructions about caring responsibly for the Promised Land. God ‘rested’ on the seventh day, but our God never rests nor sleeps. Adam and Eve were told they would ‘die’ the same day as they ate the forbidden fruit, but they lived on and had all their children after being evicted from the Garden.

These problems are exegetical, not scientific. We can avoid them by denying the fact of evolution, just as Luther denied that the earth goes round the sun because it was counter-intuitive—never mind “knowing” that God has fixed the Earth so firm that it cannot be moved (Ps 96:10). But pace Luther, virtually everyone nowadays would accept that the Psalmist was speaking of God’s sovereignty, not his cosmological activities (and pace Phillip Ninness in Briefing #339, the Bible nowhere says that “death and suffering … were the result of the Fall”). Extra-biblical data repeatedly require us to examine whether our understanding of the Bible ought to be amended. As Derek Kidner wrote in his Tyndale Commentary on Genesis, “It was Galileo’s telescope, not his church, that conclusively refuted the interpretation of Psalm 96:10 as a proof-text against the earth’s rotation”.

I have two concerns about our interminable arguments about evolution. Neither of them are trivial.

Firstly, the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation, but it does not tell us how to ride a bicycle or fix solar panels. We play the devil’s game if we treat the Bible as a scientific textbook. It has to be in language that can be understood through many centuries, and this would be impossible if it used 21st-century scientific concepts. How often do we sow doubts into the minds of young people by claiming a scientific authority we do not possess, and arguing against evolution when they have a coherent case made for it at school or college? I come across such doubts repeatedly—both in those from Christian families brought up to accept the authority of Scripture and those from a non-Christian background who are turned away from enquiring about faith because they perceive it as perversely unreasonable. In some Christian circles, rejecting evolution is almost a qualification for becoming a Christian. Many years ago, Galileo wrote that the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Darwin might have said the same thing about the history of life.

My second concern is even more serious. By spending time disputing about evolution, we lose sight of the clear teaching that God has put us into his creation to look after it as his shepherd-rulers (Gen 1:28) and nurture it as his gardeners (Gen 2:15); we are divinely appointed stewards to care for “the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that moves on the earth”.2 This is the first charge God gave to the first human beings. To ignore it must be sin. Christians should be leading the environmental movement, not tagging on belatedly; we have the task and opportunity of explaining to our non-Christian neighbours that creation care is a divine task and privilege, not just an increasingly utilitarian necessity.

Paul warns us against endless debating about genealogies (1 Tim 1:4). How the devil must relish our evangelical squabbling over evolution!

Professor R J Berry
University College London
London, UK

1 Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1987.

2 R.J. Berry (ed.). The Care of Creation, IVP, Leicester.

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