Reading Genesis

reading genesis icon

This is the fourth of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of Reading Genesis.

For some the Bible-Science conflict starts with the opening chapter of Genesis. If one assumes that the account is straight-forward narrative depicting a strict chronological sequence then you end up with a fully formed Creation that was made in the space of six (twenty-four hour) days. If you tie such a view to a historical dating of the David/Solomonic kingdom around 1000 BC and an arithmetic (rather than symbolic) approach to the genealogies of the Bible, you end up with a recent Creation, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. This is how many evangelicals read Genesis today and is the origin of such young-earth creationist (YEC) organizations as the Institute for Creation Research, the Creation Research Society, Answers in Genesis, etc. In this view the Bible teaches a recent Creation. All other approaches to knowledge (science, history, etc.) must conform to this Biblical teaching.

This YEC viewpoint seems at odds with the conclusions of modern science. Modern cosmology teaches that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, that life originated on earth 3.85 billion years ago, that modern plants and animals developed through an evolutionary process around 500 million years ago, that dinosaurs lived on the earth 230 million to 70 million years ago, that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, and that worldwide migrations of humans occurred 60,000 to 15,000 years ago. This long history embodies cosmological, geological, and biological processes that occurred over time-scales in the thousands, millions, and billions of years, not six, twenty-four hour days.

There are others who embrace the scientific account and then conclude that the Bible and the religions that use the Bible as their authoritative text are hopelessly wrong. For them Biblical faith is akin to believing in fairies and leprechauns. While coming from totally opposite perspectives YEC and atheistic evolutionists have a fundamental agreement: Biblical faith and modern science are incompatible. Yet, there are some, represented by the American Scientific Affiliation and the BioLogos Foundation, the developers and hosts of the perspectives presented here, who disagree. By and large those who disagree do not reject the conclusions of modern science. Thus, the chronology of modern science stated above is accepted as well as the idea that naturally occurring processes can explain the historical development of the cosmos from Big Bang to present. Accepting the conclusions of modern science can be done from Christian theistic framework. God remains the Creator, Sustainer, Governor, and Provider of the universe.

Those who adopt this middle path claim that it is possible to understand the Bible in a way that does not result in a conflict with modern science. Many wonder whether this is being faithful to scripture. This question is addressed in all of the papers and presentations listed below. While it is certainly true that those who accept the authority of the Bible should not always adjust their interpretation of scripture to fit the results of the latest science, it must always be remembered that our traditional interpretations may be wrong. If a conflict with science arises, there is nothing wrong with using that occasion to revisit our traditional interpretation of scripture to see if we have it right. Most everyone would admit that if the traditional interpretation is not the correct interpretation then we should change our view, and that changing our view is being more faithful to scripture.

Listed below are key papers from the ASA journal (JASA, PSCF) or presentations given at ASA meetings or other works by individuals associated with the ASA that address the proper way of reading Genesis 1. Not all of the authors agree with each other. But there is somewhat a common theme that Genesis 1 must be understood in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context and that reading it in that context may mean that our 21st century questions may not be answered.


1. How were you brought up to understand Genesis 1? What did you learn at home, in Sunday School, in church, at school, in college? Is challenging the “traditional” reading of Genesis 1 troubling to you?

2. How does your current Christian community–your church, your Christian school, your Christian college–deal with these issues?

3. How well do you understand modern science and its claims about the origin of the universe, the earth, life on earth, and humanity?

4. Have you ever changed your understanding of scripture based on extra-Biblical information (archaeology, understanding Biblical customs, etc.)? Why did you change your view?

5. How might it be possible to reject Genesis as straight-forward narrative depicting a strict chronological sequence and not reject it being revelation from God and having some kind of authority?