Recently, a friend asked what I thought about the views of Ken Ham, the fundamentalist Bible teacher, who's made a name for himself arguing for a young earth and a mechanical-literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis. I wanted to post my response to her because I believe that, though Ham and many like him are likely well meaning, his approach to the Bible is not only a great disservice to Christians trying to study the Bible, but also makes it difficult for Christians to have serious, intelligent discussion with non-believers about the relationship between the discoveries of modern science and certain sections of the Bible.
One of Ham's Arguments
Ham says many of his opponents argue that the word "day" in the creation accounts in Genesis don't really mean a 24-hour period. But, the word "day" is used many times throughout the Bible and in every other biblical use of the word it does mean a 24-hour day, so why should we suddenly change the way we understand "day" when reading the beginning of Genesis just to make the Bible agree with the claims of modern science?
In making this argument, he does what many people do when they first read the Bible. A lot of people mistakenly think of the Bible as one book and try to read everything from Genesis to Revelation in the same way as if they were reading one long work with multiple chapter headings. This is an understandable mistake since the Bible is almost always referred to in singular form. But, according to James 3:1, since Ham poses himself as a Bible teacher, he should be held to a higher standard.
The Right Approach
The Bible is not a book; it is 66 different books bound together. It is a library; each of the books in the library is inspired and is the word of God, but all the books are not the same kind of literature. We should not think that the question of whether someone "takes the Bible literally" is what determines whether or not they take it seriously or whether they are a true Christian. Once it’s thought through, the question "Do you take the Bible literally?" turns out to be a nonsense question. It is no different than the question "Do you take the library literally?" It all depends on what section you're in. In many cases (and I think this applies to the first few chapters of Genesis) if we take it "literally" we are actually not taking it seriously.
In order to read the Bible well, there are few more important points to keep in mind than this: We must always take into account the kind (genre) of literature we are reading in order to properly understand it. We should never think that each book of the Bible should be read in exactly the same way.
When Ham says the use of "day" in every other part of the Bible should determine how we understand "day" in Genesis, he completely misses the fact that Genesis ch. 1-11 is a very different kind of literature than much of the rest of the Bible. His point is no different than if someone were to argue that God is a bird- (and not only argue this, but insist that anyone who disagrees is not a "Bible-believing" Christian) because Psalm 91:4 says, "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."
The right response to someone who insists that God is a bird because Psalm 91:4 says so and the Psalms are the word of God is, "Yes, the Psalms are the inspired word of God, but they are inspired poetry, and we don't read/understand poetry as a matter-of-fact, mechanical description. The writer in the Psalm doesn't mean that God actually has wings and feathers, but that he protects and cares for us as a mother bird."
The Ken Ham approach, if consistently applied, would counter by saying, "You can't pick and choose which parts of the Bible you want to take literally. The word 'wing' is used a hundred other places in the Bible, and in each of the other uses it means the appendage of a bird. So you can't just decide to change the interpretation when reading the Psalms."
Of course this would be nonsense. It would show that the person has a very simplistic (and consequently distorted) understanding of the Bible.
Although there is a lot in early Genesis that is hard to discern (like the historical nature and chronology of Adam), it is clear that it was not meant to be a text that conveys scientific, mechanical information about the way the physical world works.
We know this because there are two creation accounts in Genesis--one in ch. 1 and one in ch. 2--and the chronological (scientific) details do not match. In ch. 1 man is created last. In ch. 2 man is created first. In ch. 1, God creates plants and vegetation in vs.11-12 but man is not created until vs. 26. In contrast, ch. 2:4-6 shows man being created before or at the same time as plant life, and they are definitely both created before animals, which come before them in ch. 1.
This would only be a problem if Genesis were meant to be a scientific textbook account of the mechanical details of the beginning of the physical world. This is not the kind of literature it is, and when we try to make it something other than what it is, we are imposing our own modern way of thinking onto the kind of literature that God intentionally chose to reveal the truth about creation.
Remember, Genesis was written over 3000 years ago. Not only was this long before the degree of scientific development we know today, but it was before even the concept of science, as we think of it, was understood or embraced by most people. (On this point, see Peter Harrison’s book, The Territories of Science and Religion).
For example, consider the description in Genesis 1:6 "And God said, 'Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.' " This is exactly how ancient people understood the physical atmosphere; it was thought that there was water in the ocean and water above the sky. This makes a lot of sense in light of the context. With no such thing as a scientific instrument like a telescope or weather balloon, it would appear from plain observation that there is water above the air in the sky because the sky looks blue like water, and water comes out of the sky and falls to the ground.
God was revealing truth about himself and his actions to people within their context using concepts and language that made sense to them just as he did in the incarnation. This is the characteristic way God reveals himself to people throughout the Bible. He comes down and works in and through the language, customs, cultures and technologies people are already familiar with. The fact that Genesis 1:6 is scientifically inaccurate in no way means that it's not inspired or that Genesis doesn't tell us profound, essential truths about the reality of God and the origin of the physical world. But it does tell us that it was not meant to teach us science.
In contrast, consider these passages from the New Testament:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
1 Peter 1:16-18
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
1 John 1:1-3
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.
The kind of writing in these passages is very different than the kind in early Genesis. In these, there are historical-geographical descriptions which cite tangible, documented people, places, and times. There's also explicit references to "eyewitness" accounts. This is literature that is meant to be historical-biographical, and so it must be read that way. Genesis 1-11 is a very different kind of literature and--like all Bible books and letters--should only be read and understood according to the kind of literature it is. We don't read the manual for our computer in the same way we read a letter from our mother. If we do, we will not know how to use our computer and we will have a very strange relationship with our mother.
Check out the videos linked below. The first one includes comments from some of the most reputable, well-studied, and (most importantly) Jesus-loyal scholars in the world. In my view, they give a very sound perspective on how we should think about the relationship between early Genesis and modern science.
Science and Genesis
The second gives an even-handed explanation of five ways to think about the historical nature of Adam.
Human Origins and Adam and Eve