Why Genesis Matters
August 20, 2014

Creationism is debated widely in the US, especially when it comes to teaching creation as an alternative theory of origins in public schools. Every few months, there’s another poll showing that many Americans still believe Ussher’s claim  that the world was created around 4000 BC, which always elicits a contemptuous guffaw from pollsters and reporters. Genesis comes up in debates over same-sex marriage, one side summarized in Jerry Falwell’s quip that God didn’t create Adam and Steve. The story of the flood is whipped out in environmental debates, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah thinks the world can only be made safe if all the humans are dead.

People still know the Exodus story (from the Superman comics if nothing else), but the Exodus doesn’t enter into our cultural battles. Neither does David, or Paul, or even Jesus. Jesus is pretty universally admired, so long as he’s showered and shaved to fit our expectations. Insofar as they revolve around the Bible, our cultural battles revolve around the book of Genesis.

In the church too, Genesis is always the center of controversy. Critical scholarship has often dismissed the first eleven chapters as myth and legend, and raised questions about the accounts of the patriarchs. Evangelicals still debate the best interpretation of Genesis 1, but some have moved on to question even the existence of a particular male human being named Adam. Evangelicals have begun retreating from Genesis, bringing up the rear as usual.

This is hardly surprising. Genesis lays out the basics of the Bible’s portrait of the world. Genesis 1 gives us our first glimpse of God, the first anthropology, the first understanding of creation and man’s role in it. Origin points forward to destiny, so Genesis 1-2 anticipate the final end of all things.

Does Genesis matter? Much in every way, as Paul would put it.

For all its overlap with other ancient “creation” accounts, the Bible diverges sharply at a critical point. In ancient myths, the world is the product of conflict and rivalry, usually among the gods. The world emerges from the blood and mutilations of war. It is founded on violence.

Genesis offers something quite different. A single God speaks, and things happen. There is barely a hint of a battle with the “chaos” of the deep, but Yahweh ordered the empty void through his Spirit. The only sword he uses is the sword of his speech. Originating from a peaceful word and a fluttering breath, the world is originally at peace. When all is said and done, it is, as the Lord says, “very good.”

Genesis gives us a God interactive in time. He creates the recurring sequence of darkness and light that marks our time, and then subjects Himself to it. Though He created days, He works within days. He speaks and makes and does, and then at the end of a day of speaking and acting He evaluates what He’s done. The Father declares the work of Word and Spirit to be “good.” This God who interacts in the world, who responds in time, is radically different from the time-avoidant gods of mythology. And this important point of theology proper is the main thing that is lost if we delete temporality from Genesis 1.

Human beings are placed within this harmonious world to rule, as God’s living, mobile images in his cosmic temple. In some ancient myths, humans are created to be permanent menials in God’s house; in the Bible, God creates Adam to rule with Him. Raised from dust to the garden, and promised even greater glory, human beings are earth-creatures destined to be elevated above angels. Few texts so seamlessly knit together our humility and our mastery.

This vision of original harmony is linked, of course, to the biblical account of the origin of sin. Evil is not built into the world. God doesn’t negotiate or accommodate to evil as he forms the cosmos. Sin and death enter a world that was made good. Rivalry and violence occur because of a contingent event, the fall.

John Milbank puts it brilliantly. Christianity doesn’t refuse to look at the universal human tragedy, but does refuse to “ontologize” it. Christian faith “makes the extraordinary move of seeing the universal itself as but a contingent narrative upshot.” If we delete the fall from history, if we collapse the fall into the creation, the world begins “with an irreducible scarcity and egotism,” and this can only mean that “the ethical becomes that which reacts to a bad situation which it is secretly in love with, and needs ceaselessly to reinstate, despite the fact that this compromises the very character of the ethical.” We need to confess the fall “in order to think a genuine good, which to be non-reactive can only be an original plenitude.” Without Genesis, we are still, and ever, in our sins. Without Genesis, we are most to be pitied.

Conor Cunningham has called the first chapters of Genesis one of the most profound metaphysical texts ever written. Christian understanding of the world, of human nature, of human relationship to animals and the rest of creation, of evil are all rooted in Genesis 1-3. Genesis is likely to remain central to our culture and church wars for some time to come, and a great deal depends on which direction we go with it.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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