Understanding Genesis 1–3: An Interview with Dr. Vern Poythress

May 21, 2019

by Vern Poythress

How can we faithfully read and understand Genesis 1–3? What are the implications related to divine authorship, historical background, genre and structure, and chronology?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Vern Poythress about his book, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3 (Crossway, 2019).

 

Q. Why do you say that how a person interprets the first three chapters of Genesis “has massive implications” for understanding the rest of the Bible? What are those implications?

Dr. Vern Poythress: The record of creation and fall in Genesis sets the stage for understanding Christian redemption and the consummation. The redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ is central to the message of the Bible. But this redemption has a meaning tied to the nature of God, who is the holy creator, and the nature of man, who is created by God and now has fallen. If someone radically changes the framework of creation and fall, he changes or even dissolves the meaning of redemption. It no longer makes sense for Jesus to redeem us if there’s nothing to redeem us from, because there was no fall.

The record of creation and fall in Genesis sets the stage for understanding Christian redemption and the consummation.

 

Q. What are some of the controversies involving these chapters?

Dr. Vern Poythress: Many of the controversies have to deal with the relation of Genesis 1–3 to mainstream scientific claims. How do the six days of creation correlate with billions of years in mainstream cosmology? How does a unique first couple, Adam and Eve, correlate with a neo-Darwinian framework of purely gradualistic human origins? How does the focus on a personal God and personal human beings correlate with philosophical materialism, according to which everything derives by random impersonal processes in the motion of matter?

 

Q. What are basic interpretive principles with which you begin the book?

Dr. Vern Poythress: The most important starting issue concerns God. Does God exist? And if he exists, what kind of God is he? Is he involved in ordinary events and is he in charge of them? Does he work miracles when he wishes? It’s crucial for sound interpretation to answer these questions correctly. A lot of modern interpretation has gotten off the track because the atmosphere of modern elite culture has told us that we can no longer believe in the God described in the Bible. If that’s conceded, then there has to be massive reinterpretation of the record in Genesis 1–3—as well as a lot of other things.

 

Q. How do you explain the status of the Bible?

Dr. Vern Poythress: The Bible is the infallible word of God, the voice of the creator himself. Whole books—old and new—have been written to defend this truth. In my book I don’t take a lot of space to go over all the arguments, but I refer readers to some of the books, and I review a bit of the evidence, such as Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament in Matthew 19:4–5. The issue is significant because if God is speaking, we can trust the contents of Genesis. On the other hand, if Genesis were offering us a merely human voice from the ancient Near East, we’d want to sift what it says.

If God is speaking [in Scripture], we can trust the contents of Genesis.

 

Q. How does modern science fit with this ancient text?

Dr. Vern Poythress: It depends on which piece of science we’re talking about. A lot of the impressive achievements in modern science and technology derive from experimental science, which uses repeated experiments to probe the pattern of regularities that exist under God’s present providential rule. In their formulations scientists try to approximate how God rules over the world. Once we take into account that God is personal, one-time exceptions to presently formulated regularities are possible. We may call them miracles.

The apparent discrepancies between the Bible and modern claims concern one-time historical reconstructions of events. When people try to work out historical reconstructions within a framework of modern regularities, they often assume there are no exceptions. They’re treating the world as if it were a closed-in clockwork mechanism, and so they’re going to construct a narrative at odds with Genesis 1–3. As a result, if we believe in the God of the Bible, we have to analyze critically mainstream scientific claims about the far past.

On the other hand, we also have to re-analyze what the Bible actually says, as distinct from what people infer from it. There’s more than one plausible competing interpretation concerning the way in which Genesis 1 relates to scientifically extrapolated chronology of the past.

. . . continue reading at Bible Gateway.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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