Six Books to Understand Genesis — Old-Earth Edition

6books

The web site of the young-Earth creationist documentary Is Genesis History has listed “Six Books to Understand Genesis,” all written from a young-Earth perspective. As a counterweight, here are six old-Earth books written by highly-qualified, Bible-believing, inerrancy-affirming, theologically-conservative scholars. As old-Earth Christians, these academics believe in the truthfulness of Scripture just as much as any young-Earth creationist. The issue of the age of the Earth is certainly one of biblical interpretation, not of biblical authority.

Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins. This mid-level introduction includes an outline of the analogical-days interpretation of Genesis 1.

Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science by John Lennox. This is the book on the interpretation of Genesis that I recommend most often, because it is very good, and because it is short.

Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, edited by J Daryl Charles. This gives a rather detailed introduction to various young-Earth and old-Earth interpretations. This is better and deeper than most of the “Three views on ______” books on the market.

The ESV Study Bible. If someone believes that only “liberals” accept an ancient Earth, point them to this scholarly masterpiece. The notes on Genesis don’t “take sides” on the age of the Earth or the extent of Noah’s flood, but it is clear that the scholars don’t believe that Christians must accept the young-Earth interpretation.

The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth by Davis Young and Ralph Stearley. This book gives a good summary of the historical development of the concept of an ancient Earth, and gives numerous reasons why young-Earth arguments about geologic time and flood geology simply do not work in the real world of geology.

The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? edited by Carol Hill and others. Most of the contributors to this volume are Christians; a few of them are not. Young-Earth creationists love to point to the Grand Canyon as something that only could have formed by catastrophism. The authors of this beautifully-illustrated book show why, once again, young-Earth flood geology simply does not work.

Four out of my six recommendations look more at the biblical and theological side of the debate rather than the scientific side. It is my conviction that the Bible is at the heart of the matter; most young-Earth creationists will not listen to what we have to say about science until they become at least a little bit open to the biblical case for an old Earth. The two remaining books, reflecting my own background in geology, provide devastating critiques of young-Earth geological arguments.

Young-Earth creationism is not biblically necessary, nor is it scientifically credible. To insist otherwise does harm in terms of Christian discipleship, apologetics, and evangelism.

Grace and Peace


P.S. More recommendations:

Friend of Science, Friend of Faith, by Gregg Davidson. Gregg is chair of the Geology department at the University of Mississippi. (link added 8/25/2020)

A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, by David Snoke. A great introduction to the day-age interpretation of Genesis. (link added 8/25/2020)

5 thoughts on “Six Books to Understand Genesis — Old-Earth Edition

  1. Pingback: Five biblical reasons I am not a young-Earth creationist – GeoChristian

  2. Dustin Burlet

    I would change out Collins book on the first four chapters for his more lengthy volume on the sum of primeval history. See below. I have used it as a text book in my classes and find it to be a superior volume. See the link to Amazon below and my review below

    C. John Collins. Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018. 336 pp. Pbk. ISBN 978-0-310-59857-2. $36.93.

    How does God’s revelation in the Word illuminate His created world? How do Christian faith and science relate? What does it mean to be a faithful reader of the Bible? How do we take seriously the Hebrew stories that are contained within Genesis 1–11? These are critical questions that are facing many Christians today. Esteemed Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar, C. John Collins, effectively answers these queries (and more) within Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11.

    Collins begins his volume by noting that one’s view of the biblical text wholly depends on one’s interpretive approach. Regrettably, however, this ‘hermeneutic,’ i.e. one’s interpretive position or stance, is often assumed rather than clearly demarcated. What’s more, Collins maintains that “it is even controversial whether any such warranting is itself warranted or simply ‘explaining away!’” (17). In light of this, Collins seeks to remedy the situation through developing a “reading strategy for Genesis 1–11 that draws its ideas from theories in linguistics, literary study, and rhetoric” (pg. 17).

    The author states that the goal for Reading Geneses Well is two-fold: “the first is to provide guidance to those who want to consider how these Bible passages relate to the findings of the sciences. The second is to establish patterns of good theological readings, patterns applicable for other texts” (32). To this end, Collins also asserts that “those who focus on one of these more than the other should understand that to me the two are intertwined, each playing a role in what it means to be a responsible audience” (32).

    Collins’ primary conversation partner in this endeavor is C. S. Lewis, a twentieth-century literary scholar and Christian writer who, according to Collins, has a intuitive grasp of the topic at hand that is not only unique with respect to its rigor and consistency but also its theological acumen. In brief, Collins maintains that C. S. Lewis, by means of his varied academic work and other writings, is able to “help us to formulate a critically rigorous reading strategy for Genesis 1–11” (18. Emphasis original).

    Reading Genesis Well is divided into eleven chapters of varying length. Chapter one is comprised of a short introduction, a concise history of nineteenth century literalism (with a special emphasis being placed upon the work of James Barr in dialogue with Benjamin Jowett), a few comments that explicate why Collins believes C. S. Lewis to be such an invaluable guide on these matters, and a final word about Collins’ own educational background, persons of influence, and particular interest in this subject.

    Chapter two delineates more clearly Collins’ special “Lewisian, critically intuitive approach to hermeneutics” and discusses ‘pragmatic linguistics’ alongside ‘rhetorical’ and ‘literary’ criticism (27). Chapter three elaborates on different types of language and the process of effective biblical interpretation through a systematic, in-depth engagement of an unfinished essay of Lewis’ entitled “The Language of Religion.” Chapter four details more precisely how communication takes place against a backdrop of shared experiences of the world. In this, Collins seeks to answer: “What makes an act of communication ‘true’? How do rhetorical and poetical features affect our answer—can we even apply a word like true to items with poetic and rhetorical devices? What do we mean by the word ‘true’? Is something like ‘trustworthy’ a better rubric?” (95).

    Chapters five and six, together, treat various aspects of how to read Gen 1–11 well; that is, considering the different kinds of context (chapter five) and the function (chapter six) of these specific portions of Scripture. In chapter seven, Collins offers what he calls an “integrated rhetorical-theological reading” of Gen 1–11 (158). Chapter eight relates what certain other readers (both ancient and modern, but especially canonical ones) have also seen in the text of Gen 1–11 on select topics and “what that tells us about how to read these passages well” (107). Chapters nine and ten examine various passages from Gen 1–11 using the specific method and tools that Collins developed within the preceding chapters. The final chapter specifies in greater detail how one is to undertake a “responsible appropriation for the ancient and the modern believer” (28). Within his conclusion, Collins states that Gen 1–11 “should not be pressed into a scientific theory, whether of the young-earth or old-earth or evolutionary kind; at the same time, I do see them as providing grounds for a proper critique—or at least pushback—for certain kinds of scientific theories, particularly those that overstep their empirical bounds and begin to make worldview assertions” (290).

    The volume also includes a robust nineteen page bibliography as well as three thorough indexes—subject, author, and ancient texts (including Bible, ancient near Eastern texts, deuterocanonical books, pseudepigrapha, ancient Jewish writers, rabbinic works, early Christian writings, and Greco-Roman literature). Scholars will note that most Patristic texts are cited from ANF, NPNF1 and NPNF2 editions (see page 218) and that most Greco-Roman texts are cited from the LCL editions (see page 78).

    With respect to some of the specifics that are relatively unique to Collins’ work (particularly as they relate to matters concerning Gen 1–11), Collins states that though the literary form of Gen 1:1—2:3 is, indeed, narrative, the “style or register is exalted prose . . . these factors indicate something about the language type that we may expect, namely, that it will lean toward the poetic side of the spectrum from ordinary language” (157. Emphasis original). Concerning the three enigmatic, first-person plurals by which God converses with “us” (Gen 1:26, 3:22 and 11:7), Collins takes them to be a “plural of self-address” and not a reference to the angelic council (111). It is also worth noting that Collins maintains that the seven days of creation should be understood “analogically,” that is, they work together to convey the idea that “God’s work and rest are like human rest and work in some ways and unlike it in other ways” (163. All emphases original). Alongside these things, Collins also asserts that the account of Gen 2:4–25 should not be understood as a second creation story altogether, a point of view that is in contrast to “the conventional reading in the modern era,” see page 168, but rather as something that is complimentary to Gen 1:1–2:4, i.e. an “expansion of the creation of humankind on the sixth day of Genesis 1” (225). Collins is also persuaded that the incident involving the so-called Nephilim (Gen 6:1–4), whom he takes to be the offspring of demonic, evil, angelic beings (see pp. 187–90), is best understood as being within the Noachic Deluge narrative proper along with the pericope of Gen 9:18–29 (see pp. 110, 185–94). In addition, though many recognize that there are a number of New Testament texts that relate directly to the Flood (such as Matt 24:37–39, Luke 17:26–27, Hebrews 11:7, 1 Pet 3:20, and 2 Peter 2:5, 3:6), Collins believes that Rom 8:21 should also “be added to the list” (235).

    On a slightly different note, Collins also perceives Enuma Elish, i.e. the “Babylonian Epic of Creation,” as having somewhat lesser value than the Mesopotamian story of Atrahasis for doing comparative analysis (see pp. 114). Finally, concerning John Walton’s view that the “interests of the creation story lie with the origins of the functions of the things described rather than with their material origin,” Collins denounces the idea that “material and function are really inseparable” (pg. 168. All emphases original).

    While some people may think the author to be ‘splitting hairs’ in his discussion of what constitutes the differences between “antiquarian history” and “rhetorical history,” Collins is prudent in insisting that “history is not a literary form; it is rather a way of referring to persons and events with a proper moral orientation . . . there is no reason to suppose that ancient Near Eastern writers and audiences required historical verisimilitude in literary compositions dealing with prehistory and protohistory in order for them to be credible” (141–42. Italics original).
    By way of critique, it should be noted that almost a third of the entire volume is an ‘orientation’ or ‘guide’ as to how to achieve an increased competency with respect to biblical interpretation and exegesis in general, i.e. how to be a better reader of Scripture as a whole (beyond the immediacy of Gen 1–11). Though this is something that some readers may begrudge, Collins states:
    Since I am contending for a way of reading biblical passages and also arguing that this way of reading has not received full attention in recent biblical scholarship, I offer what I take to be reasonable amounts of documentation on that score. I do not claim completeness nor do I claim to have written a critical commentary on the passages I address. I hope, however, that my readers will judge that I have given reasons for the positions I take (33).

    Some readers are also likely to take umbrage with the lack of any type of sustained discussion concerning evolutionary theory (in point of fact, the term ‘evolution’ does not even appear in the subject index of the volume!). Given that the sub-title of Reading Genesis Well is “navigating history, poetry, science, and truth in Genesis 1–11” this ‘oversight’ seems to be quite amiss. Surely it would have behooved the author to have made more than just a few, passing comments about a topic that plays such an integral role with the subject mater as a whole, especially when he explicitly states that “there may be reasons, scientific and philosophical (and even theological) to subject the various kind of evolutionary theory to critical review. After all, there are several versions of the theories out there, and the idea of an impersonal and pointless process does not suit the data, either of biology or of the Bible” (288). Such statements clearly require more detail and analysis than what Collins has provided within his work. In brief, it is deemed insufficient and inadequate to avert the matter by stating “my attention here is on what the faithful are supposed to be getting from Genesis; that is, on the perspective of faith, that all of this comes from God and reflects his purposes for humankind” (288).

    The above critiques notwithstanding, it is otherwise hard to find fault with this volume. The effective use of charts/tables, diagrams, and other images, alongside an ample amount of illustrations and poignant, clear examples (not to mention a high degree of pastoral awareness and sensitivity) make for a stimulating and engaging read. The author’s engagement with some of the more complex or challenging topics (such as the connection between a world picture and a worldview, for instance, and the charge ‘hasn’t explaining become explaining away?’) is lucid and cogent. In addition to this, Collins’ deftness and respect (without pomp or grandstanding) towards those with whom he disagrees or “wrangles” with (see pg. 96) is also commendable, as each of the comments made towards his detractors were fair and circumspect, free of ad hominem attacks, etc.

    To conclude, Reading Genesis Well is a welcome addition to the on-going discussion concerning the Bible’s earliest chapters. Its primary readers will likely be bible college/seminary and Christian university students, the invested layperson, and, one hopes, studious pastors/ministers. Superbly done. Highly recommended!

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  3. Dustin – Thanks for your comment. I wrote this blog post in 2018, and Reading Genesis Well has a copyright date of 2018. I have started Reading Genesis Well, and it is a broader book, but also a more difficult read. If anything, I would add Reading Genesis Well to the list rather than replacing Genesis 1-4. I think I would also add Interpreting Eden by Poythress. Perhaps my next iteration of this list will be something like “Eight Books to Understand Genesis.”

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