6 uncomfortable Facts for both sides in the Genesis debate

Levi Nunnink
Oct 30, 2018 · 8 min read

I’ve been engaging in this debate for a while. I’ve been persecuted for my views, o! how I’ve been persecuted: Angry face emojis, sad face emojis, mocking GIFs, I’ve been through it all! (But fear not, I’m authoring a resolution for our next synodical convention that hopefully will give me some justice.)

I’m not actually all that pro-evolution. I’m just passionately against the idea that the age of the earth should be taught as a dogma or that Young Earth Creationism is a standard of orthodoxy. You better believe, it’s hard to suffer so for my proud ambivalence but I’m soldiering on. Oh, farther along…. we’ll know all about it…

That’s where I stand and as I survey the debate, here’s six uncomfortable facts that jump out at me. Make of them what you will.

1. Day means day

Advocates of a plain reading of scripture are right to point out that “Day means day”. There’s some elasticity in the meaning (just look at how the meaning changes in Gen 2:4) but the original authors of scripture would probably scratch their heads in confusion at idea that billions of years were coded in, just waiting for modern cosmology to come along and discover the correct interpretation. It’s a safe bet to think that most saints have always understood “day” to correlate to “day”. This word, however flexible it may be in the scriptural text, is extremely unlikely to be shorthand for deep time according to the original author’s intent. This is borne out by the ancient witness of church fathers, unencumbered by our modern cosmology, who never arrived at a “day=billions of years” interpretation for the creation account. In short, the idea that Genesis secretly held an evolutionary creation story, sleeping for thousands of years, waiting for BioLogos to unearth it, sounds about as plausible as a lousy Halloween TV special.

2. Day can’t literally mean day

If the text refuses an easy accommodation of billions of years, it also doesn’t easily accomodate modern astronomy. Period. For example — if we take a strict literal interpretation of “Day” as in 24-hour, solar days, defined by the Earth’s rotation — the Earth is formless and the sun doesn’t exist until the fourth day. What sort of evening and morning are possible with a formless earth and no sun? These are not normal days in any sense of our understanding. Insisting that they are “normal 24-hour days” ironically ignores the text, importing a modern viewpoint as our hermeneutic. If we can assume that the original authors didn’t have billions of years in mind, they also didn’t seem to think about days as necessarily defined by the earth’s rotation in relation to the sun. In short, this “day” doesn’t accommodate a strict 24-hour model any more than it accommodates a billion-year model. This is also borne out by the ancient witnesses of church fathers who were very loose with how they understood “day” in relation to our strict 24-hour definition.

Think of it this way: What if Genesis told us that God created Hydrogen and Oxygen on Day 4? We’d have to modify our understanding of water in “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” because essential elements of water would not exist yet. Whatever sort of water Genesis was talking about would have to be radically different than water as we know it, at least on a scientific level. It’s the same thing with a day. The rotation of the earth in relation to the sun is an essential component of a 24-hour day. If those components don’t exist, the definition of day must mean something that doesn’t include those components, which means — not a day in the way we scientifically or even commonly understand it.

3. This slope looks slippery

One objection that opponents of a new interpretation of Genesis often raise is that this is a slippery slope: compromise on Genesis is a one way ticket to compromise on everything. This isn’t a hollow argument. Once we start changing long-held understandings of scripture to accommodate external authorities, it’s hard to know where that stops. If we can be so accommodating to modern biology in understanding origins, why not modern psychology in understanding sexuality? What about modern higher criticism, which would radically undermine much more than just Genesis? One only needs to cast a sideways glance at dying denominations who have made so many such accommodations that they are no longer recognizably Christian. Frankly, there is good reason to be scared. It’s better to be wrong on Genesis and save our souls than be right and lose everything else.

It would be helpful if we could step back a little and actually agree on when it’s appropriate to change our interpretation of scripture. When does science become so settled and the evidence so empirical that an adjustment should occur? There’s certainly more at stake in this debate then merely the age of rocks. It might help if there was more assurance from the “compromise team” that this wasn’t just the tip of the iceberg. I.E. If your goal is to make the LCMS look like the ELCA, please just join the ELCA. Heavens knows they need the membership.

4. This isn’t a slippery slope

One only needs to look into the recent past of the Missouri Synod to find a prime example of changing our interpretation of text to accommodate modern science that didn’t result any doctrinal slides towards liberalism: Geocentrism.

Confessional Lutheran theologians and pastors, beginning with Luther extending from Walther to Pieper and others even into the second half of the twentieth century, rejected the Copernican model on scriptural grounds. Additionally they issued a number of familiar warnings of what would happen if we allowed the Copernican model to overrule the clear word of God. Yet today, and for the about last sixty years, the LCMS has thoroughly embraced Copernicus without any liberalizing impact to our theology. Simply put, the slope isn’t necessarily slippery. One also can cast sideways glances at a number of denominations who have looser views of Genesis but still have resisted the liberalizing stampede of the Protestant Mainlines.

Clearly there are times when the science becomes so settled that we change our interpretations of supposedly clear scripture. It would be helpful if we could acknowledge this and talk more about when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. And if the answer is really NEVER! then shouldn’t we put geocentricism back on the table?

5. The universe looks old

This point may raise the loudest denials but here it is: Evolution may still be a theory in flux with some serious gaps but today the old age of the universe is about as settled as Copernicus. By looking at distant objects in the night sky, we can literally look millions of years into the past with our naked eye. That’s about as empirical a proof as one could ask for that the universe looks older than six thousand years. If one honestly examines the evidence, it is almost impossible to say that the universe is scientifically only six thousand years old. There’s no other way to understand the data without invoking a miracle or rejecting all of modern cosmology and physics. Invoking a miracle is not necessarily wrong but there’s no such miracle explicitly mentioned in scripture and we can hardly blame skeptics if they don’t join us. It would seem that if we want to maintain a universal creation date of approximately six-thousand years ago we should at least examine new ideas such as the Omphalos Hypothesis, instead of insisting that the science isn’t conclusive.

6. The brief statement is too brief

Often those seeking to end discussion on this issue, will point to the LCMS’ 1932 “Brief Statement” as the final standard for what is an acceptable interpretation of Genesis. I gotta say, the Brief Statement is an odd duck. It seems like it was mostly written to respond to the Unitarians and the Reformed. The bit on creation comes as almost an afterthought.

When we do get to creation, unfortunately, the Brief Statement is less helpful than either side would like. It explicitly denounces evolution, so it’s no ally to the theistic evolutionist. But it’s also notably silent on the length of days, making no insistence on 24-hours or even “normal” day-length. Merely it says “in the manner and space of time recorded in the scriptures” — that manner and space of time, the nature of those days is the key question. Therefore as the recent controversial Concordia Journal article pointed out, the brief statement simply provides no clear guidance for the age of the earth.

The brief statement namely rejects evolution as an orthodox option — but once you read the definition of evolution, even there it’s less sweeping: “…a process of evolution; that is, that it has, in immense periods of time, developed more or less of itself.” The words “developed more or less of itself” would seem to be much more a rejection of purely naturalistic origins and not an explicit rejection of someone who would assert that God used evolutionary processes to create the world. Moreover, there’s not even any categorization of the textual genre of Genesis 1, only that it must be understood as “reliable”. But reliable what? Poetry? Liturgy? Science? History? The statement doesn’t say.

It’s very notable that the brief statement is so silent on all of these issues when it is so much more exhaustive in other sections. Why would the authors not reject the “day age theory”, for example? It was popular at the time. Why not be explicit about the age of the earth as ten to six thousand years? Why not say that Genesis is scientifically accurate? One could certainly respond that it is implied in the language but one could also respond that implications are not sufficient for confessional documents, specific denials and affirmations are essential. Just read the Athanasian Creed. The fact that the brief statement leaves these nagging details unaddressed is an indication that they should remain unaddressed, at least in the minds of the authors.

Whatever the case, the statement is much less a rejection of popular scientific/hermeneutical theories and rather a call that we allow the text of Genesis to be our final authority so that we may confess the words of the catechism in good faith. Good faith seems to be the key obligation of those who would affirm the brief statement. However we interpret Genesis, we may not regard it as an unreliable witness. But those seeking to use the Brief Statement to invalidate all who don’t hold to YEC may find that it’s far too brief, perhaps deliberately so.

And finally, most-importantly…

7. Peter Gabriel is better than Phil Collins

Just compare their solo discography: Peter Gabriel has made some of the most transcendent albums of the last century. Collins made some b-rate Disney soundtracks.

Now that that’s all cleared up, I hope things will calm down a bit.

Levi Nunnink

Written by

I’m a Lutheran layman currently living in California. I occasionally write about theology here. Try to contain your excitement.

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