I was recently asked my opinions of a lecture given by Tim Mackie of the well-known and loved Bible Project who’s videos deftly summarize books of the Bible and other biblical themes. This talk is summarized as follows (from the lecture link):
Genesis chapters 1 and 2 contain some of the most explosive ideas about God and human beings that history has ever known, but they’ve been sadly overlooked due to the creation-evolution controversies in American history. In this evening lecture, Tim Mackie will help us rediscover how ancient Israelites would have read and understood these stories, and explore how they contribute to the Biblical storyline as a whole.
This was a helpful lecture and raised some interesting issues that I realized I wanted to address more fully than I might otherwise have done. It also happened to intersect with a semester of systematic theology and a discussion in my current research seminar. On this topic, my thoughts happened to be more fully formed than they might sometimes be otherwise. Some of these thoughts I think might be useful to a broader audience and so I want to share my response to the friend who asked about this lecture here as well.
I’ve listened to the seminar recording and found it helpful in some ways, a bit concerning in others. I’ll go into detail on that in a second. But first, let me be open up front in recognizing that Mackie has his PhD in Semitic languages (such as Hebrew) whereas I am a humble MDiv student who has only two years of Hebrew under his belt. My language expertise is far outmatched by the abilities of someone like Dr. Mackie 😄 I would be hesitant to accept any claims of mine on the meaning of Hebrew semantics as being underwritten by the same depth of knowledge as Mackie.
With that caveats in mind, I’ll make some notes specifically related to what Mackie argues for. I’ll take the good first, then address some concerns.
First, I think this talk is not so much about the creation account as it is about the nature of Scripture in general and how we are to read it. Genesis just happens to be the text Mackie chooses to demonstrate his understanding of how we ought to read the Bible.
To that end, Mackie does a great job of reminding us the point of Scripture is not a scientific text book. He reminds us that it is a historical account, one based in real events and created in a specific time period by authors who drew from the imagery and culture of their times. This provides color and makes the Bible relatable and personal. God is speaking to and through humans. I love that he points out the “literary artistry” of the Bible, that it is a beautiful book fill with poetry, symbolism, and patterns. The Bible is such a rich, deep work of art, not in the sense that it is an untrue portrayal of reality, but that it is a stylized, creatively selective one. Master painters know not just what to paint, but what details to leave out in order to bring to the surface the subject matter the artist cares about. God is the greatest of all such artists and the Bible is one such way he demonstrates that to us.
He is also right to remind us that we shouldn’t impose our modern, hyper-precise terminology about the world (the atmosphere, a round earth, heliocentrism, etc.) on the biblical authors who simply weren’t thinking in those categories. They wrote about what they observed in the world and what God revealed to them about it. Even with our scientific knowledge in the modern age, we still sometimes speak these ways. For example, the weather report will still speak of the sun rising and setting even though we know that the sun isn’t doing that. It simply appears that way because of the earth’s rotation. Is it wrong to do that? If we were speaking as scientists about the movement of the sun or the earth, it would be. Yet as normal humans trying to communicate with one another using mutually understood expressions, we both know what we mean. God, through the biblical authors, does the same thing. Mackie is really helpful to remind us of this.
Finally, it is also helpful to hear how Israel’s accounts of creation are at war in some sense with the surrounding cultural narratives of the same story. The creation account is God’s authoritative stamp on “this is what actually happened” and to see how it elevates mankind and sets him in his proper relationship to God and the rest of the world. It gives us a great prototype for how we, as Christians, can do the same in our culture. We ought to take the biblical account of the world, the fall, redemption, and many other themes, and place them up against the culture's accounting for the world. If Christianity is true (and I certainly believe it is), then it will always provide a better answer than those systems for why the world is the way it is. Tim Keller and Francis Shaffer are masters at making this argument in a variety of ways over a myriad of issues.
As for the concerns, they really deal more with the way Mackie approaches the Bible itself rather than his conclusions about the creation account. As I said, I think this is really his main point in this talk. He has a tendency, always just below the surface, of calling the Bible a book just like any other, an essentially human book. He never completely severs the tie between divine and human authorship, but he comes awfully close. He is right to recognize the nature of communication and how it shapes the Bible, but he comes close to doing this at the cost of removing divine intention and limiting the Bible to be a book of strictly human origin that can only be understood in human ways.
Because of this, he borders on saying the Bible has errors when it speaks of how the world was made or how the fallible human authors spoke of the world and creation. The materials he provides as part of this seminar quote the following from Peter Enns, a theologian who has sadly gone far outside of evangelical orthodoxy because of this very belief:
The Bible belonged to the ancient world in which it was produced. It was not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped down out of heaven. It was connected to and therefore spoke to people in that ancient culture. The encultured qualities of the Bible, therefore, are not extra elements we can discard to get the real point, the timeless truths. Rather, precisely because Christianity is a historical religion, God’s word reflects the various historical moments in which it was written. As we learn more about this history, we should gladly address the implications of that history for how we view the Bible and what we should expect to hear from it. (Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament [Baker Books], 2005, 17-18).
There is truth to some of those statements. But, as evangelicals, we do believe the Bible is a different kind of book because it is a record of the very words of God given to the human authors by God. We could go down a long rabbit trail on the different theories of inspiration and Scripture, but suffice it to say that if Mackie follows Enns on this point (and it seems that he does to some extent), he is moving outside the evangelical fold on what Scripture is. If you want an in-depth review of the position Enns takes (and possibly Mackie), this review of Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation by John Frame is excellent.
Mackie can also make it sound as though if “normal” Christians (meaning Christians not versed in the biblical languages: Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) don't do the work of cultural-historical research, they can't actually understand the Bible! This is can be a huge discouragement for people who don’t have that knowledge and presents a danger in making us feel we need to rely on these “elevated teachers” to understand God’s words to us. And this again downplays the divine aspect of the Bible as God’s word. John Calvin has some great things to say, both generally in his systematic theology (The Institutes of Christian Religion) as well as his own commentary on Genesis 1 (which is very relevant for this discussion). First, Calvin says that God accommodates himself to us in language, speaking in ways the average human being can understand. This is especially true when God speaks to us about himself. The infinite God tells us about himself in a way that his finite creatures can understand, as a mother might speak in half-sentences or babyish talk to a child:
For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking [in the Bible], lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height. (Inst 1.13.1)
Calvin also, like Mackie, recognizes that this extends to how God speaks about the mind-bending miracle of his act of creating the world. And he does this by speaking through humans to other humans through the composition of Scripture.
I have said, that Moses [as the likely author of Genesis] does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.… [S]ince the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Commentary on Gen 1:16)
Unlike Mackie, with Calvin you can hear the blend of human and divine authorship. God wishes all to know who he is and what he has done, from the greatest to the least. And he makes this possible through the synthesis of divine words written by human authors. As Mackie notes, neither God nor Moses set out to write a definitive textbook on how the world was made, how long it took, etc. Rather, God intends to show us who it is, to show us how we ought to live in light of who he is, how we have failed as a human people to do so throughout history, and how God graciously chose to resolve that problem in the person of Jesus. Yet we must not say that God speaks untruthfully when he simplifies truth to be comprehendible by human minds. Enns does this. Mackie comes dangerously close to doing this.
Finally, Mackie’s explanation about Adam, the age of the earth, etc. are an explanation about how we can interpret Gen 1 and the origin of creation. His is not the only one nor would I assume it to be the most broadly accepted within evangelical academia. I would also say that I think he and others make far too hard a distinction between the theological message of the passage (what it tells us about God and things in relation to God) and what other information God may intend to communicate to us (such as the actual origin of the world). For example, John Walton (whom Mackie quotes in the talk) claims, "If the seven days refer to a cosmic temple inauguration, then Genesis 1 as a whole has nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not a conclusion designed to accommodate science––it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point is not that the biblical text therefore supports the view of an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth.” I would ask, Who are we to say? Could God have been doing both at the same time? Does the Genesis account and the fact that other creation narratives exist in the ancient near east cultures around Moses require that it can’t also contain details about the way and God created the earth? Mackie will occasionally say things like “God is not creating the space-time continuum” when speaking about God’s saying, “let there be light” or “God separated the expanse” as though “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” doesn’t also include those things. That seems like a false dichotomy to me. God may very well have been doing two different things in Gen 1:1 and 1:6, but Mackie seems to argue that because certain words are used (day = broad time period not 24hrs; expanse = some preexisting, undefined matter, not the atmosphere) and the culture used those words a certain way, we must exclude the possibility that God was also speaking literally as well as symbolically. The limitation seems artificial and unnecessary to me.
With all that said, I do think this is a useful seminar, I just strongly caution the other things Mackie imports into this discussion in order to try to reconcile the Bible with modern science. I do think there are reasonable efforts to do this necessary work of reconciling what seems like contradictions between the two. But we can’t undermine the truthfulness of Scripture and its divine Author in order to make science and the Bible “fit.” I’m not sure Mackie does that, but he comes awfully close. Otherwise, I appreciated this seminar and was enriched by listening to it.
I have also since recommended some of the following resources on this topic, either I have found helpful or that were recommended to me on the topic of creation, science and Scripture:
- The Zondervan Counterpoints series: Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Amazon link). It provides the following views from the following authors
– Young Earth Creationism - Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis)– Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism - Hugh Ross (Reasons to Believe)– Evolutionary Creation - Deborah B. Haarsma (BioLogos)– Intelligent Design - Stephen C. Meyer (The Discovery Institute)The helpful side of a series like this is each author gets to write an argument for their position and each of the other authors gets to write a response to it. It may not resolve anything for you, but it will certainly condense each of the arguments.
- Vern Poythress has written two or three different books on both the topic of how to read the Bible in light of Science as well as the issue of Gen 1, creation, and scientific discovery. He and John Frame provide a bunch of their books for free online. The three I would recommend in particular are
1. Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1 (PDF): it’s a short overview of the approaches to interpretation of Gen 1. It’s more of a summary of possible positions, methods and assumptions behind each. It’s short, only 29 pages.2. Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (PDF): This is a much more in-depth work (~350 pages) not just on creation but on how science and Scripture overlap, what the challenges to reconciling both are and an attempt to provide a framework for doing so across the sciences. This might be helpful for you in thinking through a broad scientific approach to your question. This is definitely a bit more philosophical, but Vern is still an incredibly approachable writer. 3. Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3 (PDF): This is basically an expanded version (~360 pages) of the first book, taking the principles provided in book two and applying them specifically to the issues of Genesis and the creation account. He takes on both the issues of science as well as the debate which Mackie and Enns raise about how to interpret in light of ANE similarities. Also interestingly, one of his appendices to the book addresses Calvin’s commentary of Gen 1 which I mentioned in the response above.
- I have read very positive reviews of and been recommended John Sailhammer’s book Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Amazon link). He addresses issues similar to what Poythress does in the third option I provide above. He is more specifically an Old Testament theologian along the lines of Mackie and Enns and so may have one of the better comparative views to contrast with theirs.
Cover image The Creation of Light by Gustave Doré