Tim Keller on Interpreting Genesis

New York City pastor, Tim Keller, offers a different approach than the one I put forward on how Genesis 1 relates to Genesis 2. Keller argues that Genesis 2 is actually historical narrative and that Genesis 1 fits more into a poetic genre, as opposed to a straight-forward historical narrative.

Keller may be right. The point I want to make is that different believers can look at some of the non-essential interpretation matters in Genesis differently, and they can still agree on the big picture, namely the essential doctrines concerning the knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the Creator, as well as who is humanity in relation to that Creator.

I call these the great “who” questions of faith: Who is God? Who is the Creator? Who is Man? These “who” questions are in contrast with the “how” questions: How did God create? How long did it take God to create? How does Genesis 1 relate to Genesis 2? The “how” questions are still important, but they pale in comparison to the great “who” questions that the Bible seeks to address.

The following short video by Keller demonstrates some of the challenges in determining the appropriate context and genre of this very ancient passage of the Bible in early Genesis. Keller and I both affirm that no one takes all of the Bible completely literally, and he gives his brief analysis as to what type of interpretive “grid” should be used when reading the Bible. We can still debate the smaller questions, but let us keep in the front of our minds the big picture.

I would highly recommend Tim Keller’s book Reason for God as a great book to give to a non-believer or believer who is struggling with these issues. Here is a quote from the book, around pages 93-94, that explains more in detail Keller’s approach to interpreting Genesis, and interpreting the Bible in general:

“Christians who accept the Bible’s authority agree that the primary goal of Biblical interpretation is to discover the Biblical author’s original meaning as he sought to be understood by his audience. It has always meant interpreting a text according to its literary genre. For example, when Christians read the Psalms they read it as poetry. When they read Luke, which claimes to be an an eyewitness account (see Luke 1;1-4), they take it as history. Any reader can see that the historical narrative should be read as history and the the poetic imagery is to be read as metaphorical.

The difficulty comes in the few places in the Bible where the genre is not easily identifiable, and we aren’t completely sure how the author expects to be read. Genesis 1 is a passage whose interpretation is up for debate among Christians, even those with a “high” view of inspired Scripture. I personally take the view that Genesis 1 and 2 relate to each other the way Judges 4 and 5 and Exodus 14 and 15 do. In each couplet one chapter describes a historical event and the other is a song or poem about the theological meaning of the event. When reading Judges 4 it is obvious that it is a sober recounting of what happened in the battle, but when we read Judges 5,  Deborah’s Song about the battle, the language is poetic and metaphorical. … I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a “song” about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation. Genesis 2 is an account of how it happened including Genesis 1. But it is false logic to argue that if one part of Scripture can’t be taken literally then none of it can be. That isn’t true of any human communication.

What can we conclude? Since Christian believers occupy different positions on both the meaning of Genesis 1 and on the nature of evolution, those who are considering Christianity as a whole should not allow themselves to be distracted by this intramural debate. The skeptical inquirer does not need to accept any one these positions in order to embrace the Christian faith. Rather, he or she should concentrate on and weigh the central claims of Christianity. Only after drawing conclusions about the person of Christ, the resurrection, and the central tenets of the Christian message should one think through the various options with regard to creation and evolution.

That last part shows some real wisdom that followers of Jesus should keep in mind at all times. Contrary to some well-intended yet misguided approaches, I do not need to debate the age of the earth or even the scientific theory of evolution with a non-believer. Instead, I should focus first on the central claims of the Gospel: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

6 responses to “Tim Keller on Interpreting Genesis

  • Does Genesis 1 and 2 Contradict One Another? | Veracity

    […] Perhaps another way of looking at the problem is to consider that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 serve different literary purposes. For example, it could be the case that Genesis 2 is not trying to give the reader an exact chronology that you might expect from a human eyewitness account. Instead, the purpose could be more of a theological rather than a strictly historical approach to a particular issue.  For example, Genesis 1 might actually be more chronological, whereas the Genesis 2 account is not concerned about exact chronology at all!  Instead, Genesis 2 could simply have the purpose of trying to explain why Adam needed another human helpmate, namely Eve. In order to demonstrate God’s purposes for marriage, the writer of Genesis pays no attention to chronology in order to show that the animals are not acceptable companions for man, but rather, that God created a different human creature to fulfill God’s intention for human intimate relationships (UPDATE: June 10, 2015. Jump to this blog post showing a completely different approach to this diffic…). […]

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  • danielcmalloy

    “The wisdom of God is foolish to man and the wisdom of man is foolishness to God.”

    At what point do we start believing the word of God is literally true and every jot and tittle is the truth. Adam was created by dirt and Eve was created from Adam? Noah took every living creature onto the Ark and only 8 people survived a worldwide flood? Abraham met God along the way. Moses parted the Red Sea? Joshua stopped the river Jordan, and made the sun stand still? God took Elijah to heaven in a Chariot of fire. Jesus rose from the dead? Science completely contradicts and denies the “miraculous” in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. We can be fools for Christ and we will not be ashamed.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Hi, Daniel. Thank you for commenting at Veracity.

      When you say that Joshua “made the sun stand still,” referring to Joshua 10:12-13, and that we should “start believing the word of God is literally true,” are you suggesting that we should reject heliocentrism, that says that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and go back to geocentrism, the view that says that the earth is fixed, and the sun revolves around the earth?

      Most Young Earth Creationists are willing to accept that the “sun standing still” is a metaphor that does not require us to discard heliocentrism.

      What exactly are you advocating, and why are you advocating for it?

      Thanks, and blessings to you.

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    • danielcmalloy

      I believe “all things are possible with God” I believe in Jesuscentrism, all things were made through Him, by Him, for Him. “Scientifically” I believe the Universe revolves around the earth but our pee brained knowledge of reality prevents us from knowing this truth. Frankly, anyone who says we come from monkeys I dont believe anything they say about anything. I do know on that day when the unbelievers bow the knee and confess Jesus as Lord they wont be mocking me or the Lord. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!

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  • Eric

    “ Science completely contradicts and denies the ‘miraculous’ in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.”

    Recent developments in quantum mechanics completely disagree. Keller discusses this here: https://gospelinlife.com/downloads/defeaters-4-evolution-and-science-4609/.

    As for the rest of your comment, in short, the hermeneutical principle Keller is driving at is to do your best to take the author as he intended to be taken, recognizing that e.g. historical prose, poetry and apocalyptic literature all have varying degrees of grandiose imagery and metaphor that must be taken into account. Some texts like Genesis 1 don’t fit so neatly into these categories, making them more difficult to find a consensus. Overall this makes sense to me. My only contention here relates to prophetic texts that the original author likely had no understanding of the full ramifications, such as Psalm 22 relating to Christ. But I’m sure Keller would agree that in such cases we lean on other hermeneutical principles such as using Scripture to interpret Scripture, in this example leaning on Christ himself to support interpretation.

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    • Eric

      This was intended as a reply to danielcmalloy. Not sure what happened considering I did hit the “reply” button…

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