R Evans, Genesis in Context - 12

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Index of Genesis in Context by Bro Roger Evans, 2021

12. Moving Forward

When it comes to more recent discoveries of science, particularly those regarding the age of the universe, the earth, and life thereon, how do we proceed? Regrettably, our approach is often subjective and defensive. As a geologist, I wince to hear scientific proofs, such as the testable and measureable evidences of radiometric dating, treated dismissively in defence of a “literalist” reading of Genesis, or fanciful speculations argued from plausibility offered up in lieu of objective discussion of the evidence. Those who follow this path appear to have ditched the fundamental principle of “proving all things” and “holding fast to what is true”, instead opposing, wresting or discarding the testimony of God’s handiwork when it conflicts with a preferred interpretation of Scripture.

For forty years I struggled with the “literal” interpretation of a six day creation of the heliocentric solar system, convinced that it was the foundation of faith: while also completely convinced of the ancient prehistory revealed in my studies of geology. These two truths seemed utterly irreconcilable. I managed to resist evolution, yet the recent discoveries of genomics provide convincing proof of common descent. What I did not realise, and what I realise now, is that it was my interpretation of Genesis that was wrong.

Throughout the Christian ages successive writers have endeavoured to reconcile the ancient text of Genesis with contemporary philosophy and science, in which a steady evolution of cosmological understanding is accompanied by progressively increasing dissonance.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew and a contemporary of Jesus, understood the six creative days not as literal days, but as indicating functional principles of order and of productivity. He understood the Light of the first three days to be an “intelligible” and intangible illumination, a primordial light, which was subsequently infused into the luminaries on the fourth day. The tangible creation began on the second day with God forming the heavens, which, Philo declares, “with strict truth He entitled firmament, as being corporeal, for the body is naturally solid.” However although he accepts the firmament as a solid, singular and cosmological reality (as does his contemporary Josephus), he sidesteps any mention of the upper waters.

Christian and Jewish views

See also →

The influence of Greek philosophy becomes increasingly apparent in commentaries on Genesis from the early centuries AD. The church fathers — Ambrose, Basil, Augustine and others — discussed Genesis philosophically in terms of Aristotelian/Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology, which deemed Creation to consist of four fundamental elements, and which set a spherical Earth at the centre of multiple planetary firmaments. While their principal concern was the allegorical and theological meaning of the text rather than a scientific literality, their commentaries speculate and speak in terms of contemporary cosmological thinking and its reconciliation with the Genesis text.


Augustine, for example, accepts the Ptolemaic view of the heavens and struggles to reconcile this with the Scriptural concept of a singular vault. In De genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber, he reasons as follows: (12.37)

“And God said, Let there be luminaries in the sky’s vault to bring illumination. Does this only refer to the fixed stars, or does it include the planets? The ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ luminary [the sun and moon] certainly do not count as fixed. The planets each have their own individual sphere and orbit, so how can they all have been made in the vault?
Or alternatively: we read in Scripture of sky in the singular and skies in the plural; here ‘sky’ and ‘vault’ are singular. So should we take this section as meaning the whole edifice of heaven which contains all the stars? Below it reigns a peaceful atmosphere, pure and calm; and below that again, on our level, rough stormy winds”.

Having accepted multiple spheres of the planetary orbits, Augustine is virtually forced to consider the firmament not as a singular solid body but as the whole heavenly edifice: and “firmament” begins to take on the meaning of “expanse”.


Augustine’s contemporary, Basil, held similar views[1]. Though accepting the planetary spheres as valid, he dismisses the concept of the “music of the spheres” on experiential grounds:

“As for myself, far from not believing in a second, I seek for the third whereon the blessed Paul was found worthy to gaze. And does not the Psalmist in saying "heaven of heavens" give us an idea of their plurality? Is the plurality of heaven stranger than the seven circles through which nearly all the philosophers agree that the seven planets pass, — circles which they represent to us as placed in connection with each other like casks fitting the one into the other? These circles, they say, carried away in a direction contrary to that of the world, and striking the aether, make sweet and harmonious sounds, unequalled by the sweetest melody. And if we ask them for the witness of the senses, what do they say? That we, accustomed to this noise from our birth, on account of hearing it always, have lost the sense of it; like then in smithies with their ears incessantly dinned. If I refuted this ingenious frivolity, the untruth of which is evident from the first word, it would seem as though I did not know the value of time, and mistrusted the intelligence of such an audience.”

If Basil dismisses the concept of heavenly music on experiential grounds (I cannot hear it therefore it is false) it is interesting to speculate how he would have regarded the suggestion that the earth is in revolution around the sun (I do not feel it move, but I see the heavens move). Experientialism is not always a good measure of truth.

Having considered the nature of the heavens in terms of the four elements and their relative specific gravities, Basil decides that the firmament must be insubstantial and its density a matter of relativity rather than solidity (3:7):

“Therefore we read: "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." I have said what the word firmament in Scripture means. It is not in reality a firm and solid substance which has weight and resistance; this name would otherwise have better suited the earth. But, as the substance of superincumbent bodies is light, without consistency, and cannot be grasped by any one of our senses, it is in comparison with these pure and imperceptible substances that the firmament has received its name. Imagine a place fit to divide the moisture, sending it, if pure and filtered, into higher regions, and making it fall, if it is dense and earthy; to the end that by the gradual withdrawal of the moist particles the same temperature may be preserved from the beginning to the end”.

Already the acceptance of philosophical thought (science) has begun to modify concepts of the firmament, and our understanding of the Genesis text.

Severian of Gabala

Severian of Gabala (circa 400AD) accepted the four elements of Greek philosophy but unlike many of his contemporaries, held firmly to the old cosmology. In his Homilies on Genesis he speaks of the firmament being ‘made from water to be solid like crystal’. The luminaries were made from primordial light on the third day. He speculates that the purpose of the heavenly oceans, whose existence is affirmed by Scripture, was to mitigate the heat of the luminaries and deflect light downward. Rejecting the ‘pagan’ concept of the firmament being a revolving sphere, with the sun and stars going around and under the earth, he upholds the earlier teaching of a dome set over a flat earth, beginning and ending at the horizon:[2] with the sun setting in the west, then circling round to the north of the firmament before emerging again in the east.


The Venerable Bede (673-735AD), an English monk, collating the understanding of the Church Fathers and coming to his own, compiled his own study “On Genesis”. He, like them, perceived the physical creation in terms of four fundamental Elements (earth, air, fire and water). Bede understood the world to be a globe, circled by a crystalline firmament of congealed waters, which held back the literal body of heavenly waters above. The sun moon and stars were contained within the firmament, while the planets described orbits through the ether, which lay above the air but below the firmament. Daylight was created before the sun, which when made on the third day, augmented the primordial light, adding heat and supplanting it.


A similar philosophical approach to Genesis 1 was taken by medieval Jewish rabbis. For example, Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak; 1160-1235 AD) discusses Creation in terms of Aristotelian cosmology, with nine planetary cycles and earth at the universal centre. He regards the firmament as being substantial rather than solid, congealed rather than rigid; formed from the atmosphere yet sufficiently competent to support the luminaries suspended from it. The waters above the heavens he perceives as condensation, which returns as rain. He regards both luminaries and planets as having been made on the first day, and “made to appear” on the fourth.


In 1578 John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, wrote a commentary on Genesis, which is a curious mixture of exposition and science. In his introduction he writes: “we indeed are not ignorant, that the circuit of the heavens is finite and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre”. Like his contemporaries and predecessors Calvin holds firmly to the concept of geocentrism.

Calvin sees the light on the first day as coming from God, speculating on whether it illuminated the whole globe at once or whether one half was light and one half dark. He regards the firmament as being a zone of “empty space” separating the earth from the heavens, and is abruptly dismissive of any prior claim of firmness, boldly asserting that “the word rakia comprehends not only the whole region of the air, but whatever is open above us . . .  I know not why the Greeks have chosen to render the word stereoma, which the Latins have imitated in the term firmamentum; for literally it means expanse”.

When it comes to the waters above the heavens, he is equally dismissive: “It appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven”. Faced with this rational conflict between the literal words of Scripture and “common sense”, he makes a startling observation: “to my mind this is a certain principle; that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception . . .  (Genesis) is the book of the unlearned”.

Faced with conflict between contemporary science and ancient Scripture, Calvin frankly admits that the Scripture speaks to simple and unlearned men in terms of experiential perception, and that it is not teaching Science at all. Yet immediately afterward, he infers that the waters above the heavens are clouds, held back only by the atmosphere. He asserts that on the fourth creative day the primordial light is condensed into the luminaries, which thereafter dispense light. While admitting scientific proofs that the moon borrows light from the sun, he also asserts on philosophical grounds that “since it is placed above the element of fire it most of necessity be a fiery body; hence it follows that it is also luminous”. How easy it is to read philosophical preconceptions into the text!


In 1545, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther also explained Genesis in terms of contemporary cosmology. His efforts — which concede daylight before sunlight, treat the firmament as a Divinely hardened layer of condensed moisture or air, place earth at the static centre of concentric heavens with stars affixed as “little globes” to the firmament, regard the sun as revolving daily round the earth, and affirm the continuing creation of minnows in ponds by spontaneous generation — are well summed up in the words of a blogger, Daniel Gordon[3]. After reading Luther’s treatise, he penned the following summary, adding perspicacious commentary on Luther’s unconscious worldview:

This is a geocentric world . . .  depicted here as a series of concentric spheres. In summary, Luther commits to literalism, to the plain sense of the words in Genesis 1. Commenting on these words, Luther says that the firmament is blue, made of water, firm, and spherical in shape and motion. It contains within it the sun, moon, stars, and planets. The waters below it are the clouds. The waters above it are unclear to Luther, but the language of Genesis 1 requires that they be there, and that they therefore be above the sun, moon, stars, and planets.

But if Luther is committed to literalism, where does he get the terms we saw above — “sphere,” “motion,” “ether,” and “planets”? In short, he gets these terms, not from the Bible, but from natural philosophers, the “scientists” who had studied and reasoned about the world (the word “scientist” was not used in Luther’s day, but centuries later). Luther was working with the view of the world that had been advocated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and then refined centuries later by the Alexandrian scholar Ptolemy. (It was the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology that would eventually be overturned after the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and others.)

So, what Luther was doing was blending the understanding of nature that dominated his day with the words that appear in the Bible. It is important to say here that I have no reason to imagine that Luther was blind to this, and that we have only later discovered that his literalism was actually a hybrid of Bible and philosophy. Luther was intelligent and well educated. Until I have reason to think otherwise, I am going to assume that Luther knew full well what he was doing. That is, I assume that Luther knew that his interpretation of the actual words in Genesis 1 was shaped by what he thought to be a factual understanding of the way the world really was.

In other words, it does not necessarily discount Luther’s claims to literalism to notice that he defines some words and concepts on the basis of facts believed to be known about the world.

Even so, it is still true that Luther could not have said what he did about the words of Genesis 1 without words and concepts borrowed from outside of the Bible. This brings up a question about any reader: Can anyone who is claiming to read Genesis 1 literally succeed in doing so without borrowing words and concepts from elsewhere? Moreover, if the reader is borrowing words and concepts from elsewhere, then how literal is the reading — if by “literal” we mean that a person is restricting himself or herself to the words that actually appear in the biblical text?

Modern fundamentalism

Just like Luther, Calvin, Bede, and the Church Fathers before them, who read Genesis in terms of how they perceived the world, today’s fundamentalists unconsciously overlook the fact that in the same manner, their “literal” interpretation of Genesis is not based upon Scripture alone. Just as the “literal” readings of their predecessors incorporated current cosmological wisdom, so also it is with modern exegesis.

Over fifteen centuries of exposition, the meaning understanding of raqia has evolved from solid to fluid to expanse. The heavenly oceans have turned to clouds or vapours, or vanished altogether; while the creation of the luminaries on the fourth day has acquired a speculative alternative, of their creation on the first day and a placement or unveiling on the fourth. The earth, whether flat or spherical, was universally regarded as being firmly fixed at the centre of the universe until the sixteenth century: then it lost its place to heliocentric cosmology, invalidating prior interpretation and adding to the exegetical chaos.

Today’s “literal” readings of Genesis, displacing all prior interpretations, are founded upon subconscious acceptance of this newer cosmology, unknown to those earlier generations and completely unknown to the inspired writers of Scripture. They are based on the heliocentric model established by Copernicus and Galileo, mathematically proven by Kepler, and modified by the scientific discoveries and gravitational theories of Newton; a model which supplants both the Aristotelian cosmology, and the older contextual cosmology woven into the text of “the original autographs”. These ancient and discredited cosmologies having been abandoned by Western science, the text of Genesis 1 is now wrested from those ancient contexts — particularly in terms of the heavenly waters, the firmament, and creation of light before sun moon and stars — and made to agree with currently accepted cosmological wisdom.

Having accepted these scientific discoveries, applied them to Genesis, bound them to a literal creative period of seven days, and declared the composite to be Original Truth, we[4] then baulk completely at admitting more recent scientific discoveries regarding the age of the earth and the nature of its ancient prehistory; because these new discoveries do not fit with our static, rigid, “infallible” blend of 18th Century science and ancient Scripture. Instead of objectively considering new information, we[5] set our hybrid wisdom as an inviolable benchmark, against which all new information is subjectively judged. Herein lies the downfall of modern fundamentalism. This aggressive rejection of much of modern physical, geological and biological science in defence of a rigidly held, scientifically informed “biblical” position — essentially a dogma derived from Seventh Day Adventist theology and popularised in the 1960s[6] — needs to be seen for what it is: an unconscious, pervasive and deceptive hypocrisy.

The magisterium of Scripture

Paul, in his letter to Timothy, tells us that “all scripture is inspired by God”. Does this mean it is literal in every aspect? Not at all. It is the context of this passage which correctly informs us as to the purpose and inspiration of Scripture:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, conviction, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be complete and fully equipped for every good work

Or to paraphrase that in a modern scholastic academic context:

“All course notes and lectures given from God
Are profitable for teaching, conviction, correction and training in Righteousness;
That the student may graduate Magna Cum Laude,

Fully qualified to practise in that discipline.”

What Paul is saying is that the Bible is a salvation textbook, concerned with righteousness and its practical outworking in our lives. In the same way he tells us in Romans 15:4 that “everything written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope”. Scripture is infallibly inspired to give us hope, and to teach us how to be citizens of the Kingdom. It was never intended as a course in science.

In the same way, the Road Code prepares us to get our licence. It is useful for teaching, conviction, training and correction in driving, so that we are fully prepared to graduate as qualified, competent and courteous drivers. It is not a vehicle repair manual, or a blueprint in road construction. While it makes passing reference to these topics, it is not intended to provide instruction therein; anyone wanting to build cars or construct roads is better advised to study mechanics or civil engineering. It is probable that much of our opposition to science arises from a fear of the unknown, relative to the security of a traditional position; and the fear that change is equal to compromise and corruption of the faith. This is not necessarily so, as the Bereans found — although the Thessalonians were otherwise convinced (Acts 17).

However, the critical point is that difference of opinion on such things should not cause dissent. Whether we accept one theory, or another, may be crucial in the secular world; however in terms of our spiritual salvation, whether we believe in the ancient vault cosmology of Scripture, in Greek astronomy, or in evolution, is irrelevant. That is, as long as we do not make these matters essential doctrines, bind spiritual truth to a particular scientific interpretation, or publicly pontificate on things that we know nothing about, bringing discredit on the Faith. Sufficient to declare that God has made all things; to believe in ‘the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’, to keep the Divine lifestyle, preach the unchanging message of Salvation, and to serve our Lord as one.

We should not fear modern learning as the enemy of Scripture. Several of God’s chosen and foremost leaders were educated men, taught in the secular courts and universities of their time. Moses received his education at the court of Pharaoh (Acts 7:22); and having learned to write, was able to record the Laws of God for the direction of the emerging nation of Israel. Daniel and his four friends received the best Babylonian education in the court of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 1:4).Conducting themselves in God’s ways as students, they graduated in Babylonian wisdom magna cum laude, above the achievements of all their peers (Daniel 1:17-21). Daniel subsequently became a great yet humble statesman in the service of God, and a great prophet. Paul, educated at the feet of Gamaliel, used His knowledge of Scripture to confute the Pharisees; likewise he used his Greek learning to preach Christ at Athens, being able to cite Aratus and Epimenides from memory in support of His declaration of the one true God (refer this footnote).

In today’s universities, modern learning exposes us to the wonders of Creation as revealed to us through Science. By learning from the Book of Creation, side by side with the Book of Salvation, we are enabled to gain an even greater understanding and appreciation of God’s Works and Plan. For us, He is not an anthropomorphic Being sitting on a firmament governing only the earth, but a Spiritual being responsible for the immensities of the universe and its development through countless ages, from the initiation of His plan to its projected culmination. He is a God who loves His creation, and whose plan included a race of beings who would relate to Him, love Him, and receive from Him eternal life. Such knowledge increases our understanding and our awe of our Creator.

In all of our learning about Him, the book of Genesis, in its context, is only the beginning.

  1. Hexameron: https://www.abbaziagreca.it/en/documents/collection/esameron_st_basil.pdf
  2. ”He did not create heaven as a sphere, as the idle talkers claim; he did not make it as a sphere moving on its axle. Rather, as the prophet asks, what course does the sun follow? ‘He arches the heaven like a curved roof and extends it like a tent.’…The biblical author says that heaven has a beginning and an end.”
  3. REFERENCE? too much to quote without a reference!!!
  4. Who?
  5. Who?
  6. For readers interested in the origin of modern evangelical creationism the following blog is instructive: Scott Buchanan, blog dated 9 July 2015 “Exposing the roots of young earth creationism” [1]
    A thorough assessment is given by Ronald Numbers in his book “The Creationists”