You are hereBeyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Genesis Debate – Part 8
Beyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Genesis Debate – Part 8
by Timothy P. Martin
How Preterism Impacts the Genesis Debate
If you are like me with a history of time, effort, money and emotion invested in Creation Science goals, then there are probably a few burning questions on your mind at this point. Maybe it’s disorienting to even consider the plausible failure of Creation Science. Perhaps this reality leads to profound confusion or even anger.How Preterism Impacts the Genesis Debate
If you are like me with a history of time, effort, money and emotion invested in Creation Science goals, then there are probably a few burning questions on your mind at this point. Maybe it’s disorienting to even consider the plausible failure of Creation Science. Perhaps this reality leads to profound confusion or even anger.It’s one thing to poke holes in Creation Science ideology. It’s quite another to offer an alternative view to take its place. Now that the Creation Science system is discredited by preterism there is really only one inescapable question. What do we do now? Where in the world does this leave us in the wider Creation-Evolution debate that rages around us?
My commitment to covenant thinking and its preterist eschatological implications has left me no choice but to look honestly and objectively at alternative creationist cosmogonies. What I want to offer to the thoughtful reader from this point forward is not a quick and easy solution. At this time, I do not believe it is possible to replace Creation Science ideology with any particular old-earth creationist view in some simplistic, cut and paste fashion. What I would like to offer the thoughtful reader is an introduction on how to pursue the mammoth origins issue in light of the paradigm shift to preterism.
This transition to preterism may very well be in the early dawn moments of a new day in Christian theology. Or we may be generations away from seeing the full implications of preterism worked out in cosmogony. Either way, I leave strong conclusions on cosmogony in the hands of others more capable than I. Hopefully they can build on any helpful ideas presented in the prior chapters.
The Nature of Biblical Language
Before we survey the wider Creation-Evolution debate we must first begin with some fundamental issues as Christians. Whenever the Genesis debate arises there is a tendency to think only in terms of conclusions rather than about the underlying methods used to arrive at those conclusions. So, arguments consist of whether the days of Genesis are literal 24 hour days as we know them or whether they are a figurative tool of communication in Hebrew poetry. Other issues revolve around whether a billions-of-years-old-earth is compatible with the Genesis account. Or sometimes the issue is how much room in the debate should be allowed for science and how much room must be reserved for Scripture alone. All these items in the Genesis debate are conclusions which flow from underlying presuppositions and philosophical methods.
Perhaps the greatest neglect among Christians, one that causes terrible results, is the absence of a serious inquiry into the nature of biblical language. We are back once again to the bedrock question of hermeneutics. How can we approach Scripture to understand what it teaches without first thinking deeply about its own mode and style of communication? This is where some of the most significant assumptions are made in the Genesis debate. Bernard Ramm puts it this way:
Genuine relevant thinking cannot be accomplished in the realm of Bible-and-Science until the nature of Biblical language has been deeply probed. Few books on Bible-and-Science treat this point. In those books that do touch on this subject the treatment is usually singularly superficial.
I am convinced this is precisely the point where preterism offers a tremendous gift in God’s Providence to the progress of the Genesis debate in the modern Church. Metaphorically speaking, preterism is a great toolbox that has yet to be opened by theological mechanics struggling with sophisticated exegetical problems. Preterism represents a profound advance in understanding the Hebraic nature and theological function of biblical language. Preterism also emphasizes the importance of examining original audience expectations and cultural mindset. We can see this very clearly in the way preterism interprets the apocalyptic genre of Scripture in terms of itself – particularly the book of Revelation. But it also applies to our overall understanding of Scripture as we compare and contrast parallel biblical language used throughout the Bible.
I believe this methodology, if when applied consistently to Genesis, willl carry the Genesis debate out from the very lengthy shadow of the 20th century Fundamentalism/Modernism controversy. The following quote is the statement to kick off discussions related to the Genesis debate. Pay very close attention. “Any satisfactory interpretation of Genesis must be preceded by a determination of the class of literature to which it belongs.”
Preterists should understand the importance of first determining the class of literature we find in early Genesis. They say the same thing in regard to other controversial portions of Scripture – texts dealing with eschatology. The Creation Science position radically simplifies the issue of the nature of biblical language. This is its Achilles heel. Virtually all biblical language is assumed to be intended in its plain-literal and direct sense from the standpoint of 20th century modernity. From this oversimplification a serious confusion arises. Truth is equated with literality. We will be told that if what the early chapter of Genesis record is true, then it must be literal. What is the net result? Interpretation and inspiration are fused into one seamless reality.
Another quote from Ramm explains the problem:
The psychological problem is that so many Christians fail to differentiate interpretation from inspiration. For example, if from childhood a student has heard only of a universal flood, he will consider a local flood as a heretical innovation. Or, if a Christian has known only the gap theory of Gen. I, having read it in The Scofield Reference Bible... such a person will feel that other interpretations are trifling with Sacred Scripture... First, one must realize that revelation is not interpretation, and conversely, interpretation is not revelation. Revelation is the communication of divine truth; interpretation is the effort to understand it. One cannot say: “I believe just exactly what Gen. I says and I don’t need any theory of reconciliation with science.” Such an assertion identifies revelation with interpretation. The problem still remains; what does Gen.1 say or mean or involve us in? Our mutual problem is not this: is Genesis inspired? On that we agree. Our problem is: what does Gen. I mean – how do we interpret it?
Not only do many approach the issue without thinking about the distinction between interpretation and inspiration, important questions about the nature of biblical language are slighted or ignored outright in popular Creation Scientist books. Conrad Hyers notes the deficiency:
Interestingly and revealingly, most of the religious books dealing with creation and evolution… consist in large part of the authors discussing the merits of evolutionary teaching, reviewing large amounts of scientific data and theory, drawing comparative charts and diagrams, and proposing ingenious ways for putting the Bible in harmony with science or science in harmony with the Bible. Far less time is spent on the biblical texts themselves, and very little time at all is spent in a careful consideration of the type of literature being interpreted, the historical setting of the texts, or the actual meaning of words for those originally using them. If the biblical meaning of creation is clarified, many of these tensions between science and religion disappear or become, at the least, productive rather than confrontational. (emphasis mine)
Many Preterists have experienced this same kind of problem in their dialogue with futurists at one time or another. When they present that the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation speaks of things which came to pass in the 1st century, a common response is that preterists reject what Scripture plainly says in those prophetic passages and undermine biblical authority on the matter. Of course, the objection is based on unexamined hermeneutic assumptions.
This error of blending inspiration and interpretation is prominently displayed by one Creation Science organization, Answers in Genesis. Their bold motto is: “Upholding the Authority of the Bible From the Very First Verse.” The implication is clear. Those who disagree with their approach to origins reject biblical authority from the very first verse. A crucial ingredient necessary to make progress in the Genesis debate is the humility to distinguish human interpretation from Divine inspiration.
To be fair it should be said that Creation Science authors do not consistently mesh inspiration and interpretation. When pressed on other parts of the Bible besides Genesis, they will make allowances for differing interpretations. Consider Henry Morris’ response to criticism of the predominance of premillenialism within the Creation Science movement:
Although John Whitcomb and I are convinced premillenialists, the publishers of our book, The Genesis Flood (which many say catalyzed modern creationism), normally publish only amillenial and postmillennial books. There are in fact quite a few [young-earth] creationists who are postmillennialists and probably even more who are amillenialists. The common ground of almost all Christian [young-earth] creationists is simply that they believe in God and the Bible, not a particular understanding of eschatology.
Do you see the inconsistency? They note how Christians can have different understandings of eschatology and still believe in God and the Bible. But woe to any Christian who parts with their understanding of Genesis! Those who do not believe Genesis references six 24-hour days of creation and a worldwide flood simply don’t believe what the Bible clearly teaches, according to them. But if interpretive issues lead to competing interpretation of biblical eschatology, does it not seem reasonable that these same issues would legitimately lead to competing interpretations in Genesis?
All who engage the Genesis debate should be aware of the hermeneutic options on the proverbial table. Like eschatology, it is not as simple as a divide between those who believe what the Bible says, and those who don’t. Those who study the history of Christian interpretation of Genesis will find the modern fixation on a plain-literal interpretation to be far from the common view throughout church history. The noted preterist theologian, Milton Terry, explains other methods have long and venerable traditions:
It has from ancient times been felt by the most devout and thoughtful interpreters that much in the earlier chapters of Genesis must be understood in some other than a literal sense. St. Augustine spoke of the "ineffable days" of creation, and all the common readers since his time have wondered that light should have been separately created three days before the sun.
F.W. Farrar, another noted preterist theologian of the 19th century, also warns against a simplistic, plain-literal approach to the early chapters of Genesis:
There is no other Eastern book which we should have dreamed of understanding literally if it introduced speaking serpents and magic trees. Even the rabbis, stupidly literal as were their frequent methods, were perfectly aware that the story of the fall was a philosopheme -- a vivid pictoral representation of the origin and growth of sin in the human heart.
One more hermeneutic option when it comes to the flood account, at least, is that the account uses phenomenological language. This term simply means that the author (or someone speaking on behalf of the subject of the account) describes what was witnessed from the human point of view in the common language of the day. So, the universal statements in Genesis 6-9 apply directly to Noah’s experience of the flood event as if he were giving an account. The flood was universal from Noah’s point of view; we might say that the waters covered the land from horizon to horizon, everything under heaven he could see. This is quite a different statement than the dogmatic assumption that the floodwaters covered all the dry land across planet earth.
Creation Scientists often acknowledge this principle when they are presented with a “scientific” reading of biblical texts they do not agree with. For example, the phenomenological language argument is invoked by Creation Scientists to rebut geocentrist arguments regarding Joshua 10. One Creation Science author says the language of the sun “standing still” is an example of how “the Bible uses the language of appearance and observation.” But if that is the case, why does that not apply to the flood account?
Even Augustus H. Strong, the historic Baptist theologian, was perfectly comfortable with this approach to Genesis 7. He says:
Scripture uses the phrases of common life rather than scientific terminology. Thus the language of appearance is probably used in Gen 7:19 – “all the high mountains that were under whole heaven were covered” – such would be the appearance, even if the deluge were local instead of universal.
We should think carefully about this method of biblical language. It becomes relevant to the universal statements in eschatological passages as well. Unfortunately, Strong does not apply the same principles to key eschatological texts in the New Testament. By literalizing the same type of global language we see in the flood account, Strong is forced to make an intriguing speculation:
The final coming of Christ is referred to in: Matthew 24:30 – “they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send forth his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other… We do not know how all men at one time can see a bodily Christ… The telephone has made it possible for men widely separated to hear the same voice, – it is equally possible that all men may see the same Christ coming in the clouds.
It is remarkable how Strong anticipated, in 1907, a practice that became popular decades later in premillenial literature. He uses technological advance as an evidence for premillenialism. Later writers would come to see special significance in the invention of such things as television, atomic weapons, attack helicopters, and other modern technological items. Premillenialists began to claim these were “really” what John saw in his vision of the Apocalypse. But these common examples only show how the language of the Bible has been ripped from its context and abused to justify fantastic nonsense.
The same error rears its ugly head when Christians fail to examine the nature of biblical language in Genesis and particularly the flood account. The account is quickly gerrymandered along geological and biological lines, and the covenant context is completely ignored. Creation Science dogma turns Genesis into a whipping boy in much the same way futurism discredits Jesus and the authors of the New Testament by nullifying their prophetic statements. The erroneous exposition on both ends of Scripture embarrasses modern Christians of all persuasions. The disaster all stems from the failure to think clearly of the nature of biblical language. It is inevitable from an inflexible plain-literal method of interpretation.
Those who look at the wider Creation-Evolution debate with this issue of the nature of biblical language in mind will see a stunning truth. When it comes to reading Genesis, contrary to popular thought, the atheistic Darwinist has a lot in common with the young-earth creationist. Conrad Hyers states the obvious, yet overlooked fact:
Thus, quite ironically, those who would dismiss the Bible as contradicting science and those who would defend it as the true science find themselves in agreement that these biblical texts are to be interpreted “literally”....
Both the Darwinist and Creation Scientist read Genesis the same way! They both evaluate it in plain-literal terms. The Creation Scientist does it because of theological habit. The Darwinist does it because of theological ignorance. Their agreement about what Genesis actually teaches in plain-literal, scientific terms is a good example of C.S. Lewis’ dictum, “The devil sends errors into the world in pairs of exact opposites.” The error is forcing Genesis into a plain-literal hermeneutic “box”; the result is the explosive conflict that rages around us today. Lewis explains the principle drive on both sides:
He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.
Proponents of Darwinism who declare the Genesis account false on scientific grounds and proponents of Creation Science who declare Genesis true as a scientific oriented text represent two opposing errors that in many ways need each other to propagate themselves year after year. Both extremes grow from the same soil and sustain each other:
The extremity of [young-earth] creationist charges and claims is, to a degree a reflection of corresponding extremities on the part of evolutionists themselves. Both extremes tend to fuel the fires of the other, and to find their worst fears realized.
Let there be no mistake at this crucial point. The nature of biblical language is a fundamental issue for everyone in the Creation-Evolution debate. Christians would do well to point out to Darwinists, who find it convenient to take Creation Scientist exposition of Genesis as representative of all Christianity, that there are other interpretive options. They should carefully point out to their own Christian brethren, who neglect the issue of the nature biblical language, of legitimate alternative interpretations. Once we understand the importance of this question of language, we’ll be ready to consider the next important issue to grapple with in the Creation-Evolution debate: the history of the Bible-Science conflict.
To be continued…
Copyright 2005 by Timothy P. Martin. All rights reserved. Reprinted by Permission
[Beyond Creation Science (2nd Edition) will be available at the Planetpreterist bookstore]
Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, p. 45.
Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker,  1988), p. 39.
Ibid., pp. 30-31.
 Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), p. 8.
See their webpage at www.answersingenesis.org (2005).
 Henry Morris, Acts and Facts, vol. 35, no. 2 (El Cajon, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 2006), p. b. Also available online at http://www.icr.org/index.php?module=articles&action=view&ID=2604.
 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker,  1988), p. 40.
 F.W. Farrar, The Bible: Its Meaning and Supremacy, 1897 p. 242. As quoted in Milton Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics, p. 50.
 It may very well be that Noah (or one of his sons) is the author of the account. A full discussion on the original authorship of Genesis will be presented in a future segment.
 Russel Grigg, “Joshua’s Long Day,” (http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v19/i3/longday.asp).
 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson Press , 1985), p. 223.
 Ibid., pp. 1004-1005.
Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984) p.26.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952) p. 145.
Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984) p.10.