In this first of a three-part series, pastors Derek and Cliff discuss how views of the historicity of Genesis have changed over the past few centuries.
Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I’m here today with Cliff McManis. We are both pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California and professors of theology at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And today we want to talk about the historicity of Genesis. But before we get to our topic, I want to encourage you to check out WithAllWisdom.org, where you’ll find a large and growing collection of resources that are all rooted in God’s Word and aimed to help you grow in your walk with the Lord Jesus. All right, so now to our topic. We want to talk about the historicity of Genesis. We want to look at the text of Scripture. We want to examine how it’s written. We want to determine how the author intended it to be read and understood. But we also want to step back and examine how it came to be that so many today don’t believe in the historicity of Genesis. This is almost taken for granted—that someone you meet on the street would not believe that Genesis is history or that the way it’s written is accurate. In fact, if you were to just Google right now, “where did the Earth come from?” or “how old is the Earth?” you would find responses to that question that are at odds with what Genesis teaches. And so we want to discuss the historicity of Genesis. Can it be defended? Can we believe that Genesis is true history? The scientific consensus, by and large, would say no—that it’s not a reliable, accurate record, but instead perhaps, maybe, has some mythological significance. Then you even have Christians, and even some evangelicals, who would say that it’s not reliable history and we need to read it in a different way because the scientific consensus as it pertains to evolution is true. The age of the earth is true. And so we need to read Genesis differently. In fact, just to give an example of one professing evangelical (I don’t think he professes to be an evangelical anymore), but he was a former professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, years ago. Peter Enns. He’s written several books, and he wrote a book a few years ago on the historicity of Adam. And he began that book by stating very clearly that evolution is true. It’s just a fact; it’s a reality. And therefore, for that reason, Genesis cannot be true—at least not in a historic sense. It’s maybe describing some other kinds of things with mythological significance, but it’s not true in the historic sense. Why is that? Well, because he’s embraced the scientific consensus as being true and, therefore, that collides with Genesis. And, therefore, Genesis cannot be true historically. There’s just one example of where someone has embraced a particular view of the origin of the earth, the origin of the universe, and for that reason cannot accept Genesis. And so we want to discuss these things. We want to discuss the underlying worldview issues at stake. And I’m going to hand it over to Cliff. He’s going to begin with an introduction and take us through several factors related to why it is that people have a rejection, by and large, of the historicity of Genesis. Cliff, why don’t you take it away for us?
Cliff: Yeah, thanks, Derek. I think you suggested this topic—that we talk about [whether] Genesis is history, and I think you brought it up because you thought the topic was important.
Derek: Correct. Yeah, absolutely.
Cliff: It is very important for Christians, which leads to my first point. Sadly, a lot of Christians don’t think that question is important anymore. You can be a Christian, and really what matters is just salvation and the gospel. Are you saved? Everything else is secondary and not a big deal, including the historicity of Genesis. And I would say, no, that’s not true. All Scriptures is God-breathed and came from God, which would include the book of Genesis. So this is a vitally important question: is the book of Genesis history? This is near and dear to my heart, as you know, Derek, because I’ve been teaching the exposition of the book of Genesis at our seminary, Cornerstone Seminary, for over ten years. We spent an entire quarter on it, so I’ve taught through it I don’t know how many times.
Derek: That’s one of the reasons I wanted you to do this podcast.
Cliff: Oh, well, thank you. It makes sense. So I’ve taught through Genesis at least ten plus times probably at the seminary for over fifteen years. I’ve taught it as a pastor over the years, over a couple of decades. I’ve preached on it in church. I’ve been studying it for over thirty-five years as a student, reading it, studying it, and also teaching and preaching on it. I teach on it pretty regularly these days in the last decade, plus, as I study it, whatever chapter I’m in, I’m usually in the Hebrew text of Genesis. And so I think it’s an absolute priority. And so that’s kind of my background, having been formally studying and teaching Genesis for many decades now and at the highest level at seminary to our pastors. And I think your view of Genesis is foundational to how you view the rest of the Bible for a lot of reasons. Number one, it’s the first book in the Bible after all. And I think how you approach Genesis is going to probably dictate how you approach the rest of the Bible.
Derek: I’d agree with that.
Cliff: And that’s why it’s so foundational in terms of your hermeneutic, or your approach to the Bible. But also just the content of it is foundational. Literally, the first verse is “In the beginning.” I mean, this is how it all began. Revelation is how it ends. So God does give his Scripture, at least the way we have our Bible today, in chronological [order] from God’s point of view, from beginning to end. So you have to have a right perspective of Genesis, otherwise you’re going to be derailed and have a wrong view of Deuteronomy and Psalms and Daniel and several books in the New Testament, if not all of it. So this is vital. This is actually a priority for anybody that says they’re a Bible-believing Christian. Your view of Genesis and understanding of it. I think it’s a good idea you brought this up, because, like I said, there are so many Christians today who either believe it’s not history (at least not all of it), or they’ve heard from some influential Bible teacher that not all of Genesis is history. And since they’ve been told that by a so-called scholar or an authoritative source, they just readily believe it usually, right? And then they try to squeeze that view into their Christian paradigm or Christian worldview that, “Yeah, I’m a Christian. I believe in Jesus; I believe in miracles. But I don’t think all of Genesis is history.” So we are here today to say categorically, dogmatically, with great confidence that the book of Genesis was given by God, and it is indeed a book of history.
So I want to start with a little historical background, Derek, to maybe give a big picture of how we got into this mess. By mess, I mean the fact that the church abroad, the church around the world, the church today, even in America and even in the evangelical Christian church of America—I don’t know what the percentages are, but I would imagine that a majority of evangelical Christians would probably say that not all of Genesis is to be taken as literal history. And I want to take issue with that, but that hasn’t always been the case. Here’s just a few points I’ll outline. For most of church history, the church, whether it was the Roman Catholic Church or Protestants or whatever, but those who just professed to believe in Christ and the Bible, for the majority of church history has taken Genesis at face value and as history. But in the days of John Calvin, who wrote his Institutes culminating in around 1550 before he died, he makes it clear in his commentary on Genesis and the Torah that he took Genesis at face value. He just read it in the normal language. He believed that Moses wrote in the language of the people, and we were to believe it at face value, including its miracles as well as its history. And so that was John Calvin’s view. He was a fantastic, amazing scholar. He studied Genesis in Hebrew, so that was in his day. It was unthinkable that a mainstream believing Christian would reject Genesis at face value. And so I just want to read one sentence from Calvin in his day. This is from the Institutes, and it’s quite refreshing. He was a smart guy, by the way. He embraced mosaic authorship and he embraced that Moses wrote Genesis as true, God-inspired history. So he says this early on in his Institutes. Remember this is about 1550, right in the middle of the Reformation: “I am aware of what is muttered in corners by certain miscreants when they display their acuteness in assailing divine truth.” When they attack the Bible. Calvin goes on: “They ask, ‘How do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names?’” So my point here is that even in 1550 before the onslaught and the byproducts of secular enlightenment times that came just a little later in liberal theology, there were already people criticizing and questioning mosaic authorship of the book of Genesis. Calvin goes on: “No, they even dared to question whether there was even a Moses. Now were anyone to question whether there ever was a Plato or an Aristotle or a Cicero, would not the rod or the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly? The law of Moses has been wonderfully preserved,” says Calvin, “more by divine providence than by human care.”
So that gives us a historical context. So when did the historicity of Genesis begin to get questioned? We can’t exactly nail it down, but it’s definitely not the direct byproduct of the enlightenment because there were hints of it that Calvin was even aware of going on in his day as the enlightenment was just beginning. So that’s an important historical remark or marker. And these people at that time that were questioning mosaic authorship, Calvin thought it was so absurd that it was the minority opinion. These were extremists. That’s why he is called them “miscreants.” And he just kind of blows them off and doesn’t give them a whole lot of attention because they were in the minority camp, they didn’t dominate, and they were skeptics. There were people who didn’t believe in the Bible. So in Calvin’s day, who rejected the historicity of Genesis? It was people who didn’t believe in the Bible, right? Today, fast forward from 1550 to now 2023, it’s probably the majority of people calling themselves Christians who don’t believe Genesis is history. So there’s been a huge change. And that change wasn’t overnight; it was subtle. So we see the beginnings of it in the days of Calvin. Fast forward from the days of Calvin to, I mean, I can point to a lot of other names, but these are significant names who either wrote a very significant book that it advanced these ideas by attacking the Bible. And Baruch Spinoza was one of them. So in 1670, Baruch Spinoza, who grew up as a Jew, he studied Hebrew, which basically was his native language as a Jew. I mean, he was a Dutch Portuguese Jew, but he knew Hebrew inside and out and grew up in the synagogue and with a Jewish family studying Hebrew Scriptures. But he was basically booted out of his Jewish family and religion in his early twenties for being a heretic and an apostate. And that kind of set the course for the rest of his life. But he was incredibly smart. He became a philosopher as well as a theologian—not a professional philosopher, but he wrote on philosophy and theology and was a tutor and a teacher, and was very highly respected. But he was very critical of the Bible. He was religious. He didn’t abandon the faith completely. He said he believed in God, but we think he was more of a pantheist. But he wrote this significant book in 1670 where he does an assessment of the Bible, and it’s an academic assessment and critique of the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures. And in there, he assesses the idea of mosaic authorship and the miracles of the Bible and takes a naturalistic approach to the Bible at an academic level in a way that had never been done in history. So that’s why he is so significant.
And then many followed in his path that he had laid down in terms of academics. And the key there is that, here’s Baruch Spinoza, who was Jewish, who was basically saying that Genesis is not history, and yet he wasn’t an atheist. He was religious, right? He said he believed in God. He even said he believed in the Bible, but he just completely twisted its interpretation. So then you move from Spinoza a couple centuries, and then you go through the enlightenment stage and the age of reason. And people grab onto Spinoza and other critics and atheists and how they view the Bible, and they are emboldened by Spinoza. It’s like, “Oh, Spinoza could attack the Bible so well, so we’ll take it one step further.” Because, prior to Spinoza, during the days of Calvin, people were hesitant to overtly and openly attack the Bible. As a matter of fact, Spinoza was afraid to openly attack the Bible. He did it in a backhanded manner because he knew that the majority of the population believed in the Bible. So he was conniving and insidious in that way. And then a couple centuries later during the enlightenment, you’ve got the rise of the German rationalists in Europe. And these were academics. These were not philosophers, but they were theologians. They were professional theologians. They weren’t pastors, they weren’t Bible teachers at the pulpit, but they studied the Bible for a living from basically a critical point of view. And they were considered smart and prestigious, and they were respected and they were highly intelligent, and they had all this training and they knew nine different languages. And yet their approach was they studied the Bible as literature, not as God’s Word. And they were naturalistic, and they did their presuppositions. They denied its miracles. Moses didn’t write this book, as we’ve been told or we’ve been misled to believe, in 1400 BC. It was written much later, and it was compiled over time by many different people who had their hand on it. And it’s not the work of God, it’s a work of men. And so these were the German rationalist theologians, and then they actually taught in the seminaries in Europe. And they were presidents of the seminaries, and they were highly esteemed and greatly respected.
And then pastors in America began to hear about these amazing, highly respected theologians who were creating new works and pioneering in Old Testament studies. New works that were being done, new perspectives about how to study Genesis and the Old Testament that they were intrigued by. They were getting caught up on the latest stuff of what’s going on in academia regarding the Bible. And so I’d say innocent, naive, legitimate Bible-believing Christians were beginning to be swayed and compelled to want to study under these German rationalists with their naturalistic views of the Bible, not always knowing that they had a naturalistic, anti-supernatural view of the Bible. So then some American pastor with good intent says, I want to go study and get a degree in theology over in Europe and then come back and pastor in this church. And then he’d go there for five years, he’d be indoctrinated with the wrong view of Genesis, and then he’d come back having changed his view. He used to believe in Genesis. Now he doesn’t. Now he’s the pastor of the church and he’s teaching his congregation things like Moses didn’t write Genesis, and Genesis is not history. So that was from the period of the 1700s to the 1900s, where the German rationalists had an influence on the world starting in Europe, but then it trickled over into America. Another key figure was Charles Darwin, when he wrote two influential books in the 1850s and following. And that’s where we get Darwinian evolution. He grew up in a so-called Christian home, at least professing to believe the Bible. He thought he wanted to go into ministry. I think he even attended seminary for a while before he quit. And then we have his writings, letters, journals today that have been preserved, and you can go back and read that he professed openly to believe in the Bible, but privately he rejected it. And one of his goals in life was to overcome this idea or this myth that Moses wrote Genesis. That was one of his lifelong works. That’s why he wrote the two books that he did trying to undermine the stranglehold that the traditional Christian Church had and that Moses had on Genesis. He wanted to release Genesis from Moses. So Darwin was very influential and evolution is one of the most dominant worldviews in America today in every area, including theology.
Derek: And an important point that you mentioned about Darwin is sometimes people view Darwin as some sort of objective scientist. But in fact, he had an agenda; he had an aim. He wanted to, like you said, undermine the authenticity of the Genesis record and the authorship of Moses. And he wanted to find a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life here on earth. That’s not objective. That’s worldview bleeding into your studies and your observations of the earth. So I appreciate what you just mentioned because you’re indicating that Darwin was not just providing objective facts that can be embraced, but in fact had an agenda. And that’s what framed his view towards the development of the origin of life here on earth.
Cliff: He wanted you speak of his agenda, and part of his agenda was basically kind of unhitched the Bible from the God of the universe, right? Because he didn’t want to be accountable to God, because he loved his sin. That was the bottom line. So then you go from Darwin to the 1850s, and then that was this trickle down influence finally into America, because a lot of Americans went to these liberal European seminaries and then came back to America and brought that liberal theology with them and began to infiltrate American society with this new view of the Bible. And it was a critical view, a liberal view, and a naturalistic view rejecting the miracles, rejecting traditional views about the authorship of books of the Bible, including Genesis. So what we’re talking about—is Genesis history?—a corollary question that can’t be separated from it is, did Moses write Genesis? Right? They go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, it’s a kind of a litmus test when you’re looking at a commentary or a Bible teacher’s view of Genesis is to ask, what does this guy think about who authored Genesis? Because if you’re looking at a commentary on Genesis and under “author” it doesn’t say Moses, then you’ve got a liberal theologian on your hands. You’ve got a compromiser. His thinking has been compromised. His hermeneutic has been compromised because mosaic authorship is absolutely fundamental to the book of Genesis. So then you got the rise of American liberal theology from the 1900s to the 1950s, and they’re going against and budding heads with the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in America. Fundamentalism rose, and one of its main reasons it did rise is because it wanted to stem the tide of liberal theology that was coming in from Europe. Liberal theology, meaning rejecting the miracles of the Bible and the historicity of the Bible. And the fundamentalists—they had their problems. But one good thing is they believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, the inspiration of Scripture, and they were trying to fight against liberal theology. So from 1900 to about 1950, it was pretty much only liberal Christians in America who rejected the historicity of Genesis. Whereas mainstream Christianity across the board embraced the historicity of Genesis. And everybody pretty much believed that Moses wrote Genesis, but it probably wasn’t until, for whatever reason, between the fifties and the seventies that the tide changed and the scales were tipped, where now the majority opinion was becoming that Moses probably didn’t write Genesis. And there were a lot of contributing factors to that. But that’s where when we go back and look at the history books, it is clearly evident that’s where the change was happening. And then from the 1970s to the present, that view has just continued to grow among American Christians and become popularized—that Genesis is not literal history. Moses probably didn’t write Genesis. And that’s probably the mainstream view in American Christianity today, which puts, Derek—me and you—in the minority and our church in a very small minority.
Derek: And to the point where you’ll actually have some pretty significant Christian leaders and figures who will say that, actually, our position about the historicity of Genesis is actually ridiculous. It’s stupid. We’re actually an embarrassment to Christianity because it’s so obscure and bad science and all these other things. And that’s coming from an evangelical Christian who says that about our particular view, which actually is historically what the church has held.
Cliff: So the tables have completely turned. In the days of Calvin, it was the extremist minority view among skeptics who are publicly denying mosaic authorship and the historicity of Genesis. Today, it’s the majority of believers, right? Professing believers saying that no, Moses probably didn’t write Genesis and Genesis probably isn’t history. So you can’t have much of a greater radical turnaround than that. Well, at this point, I wanted to ask you, Derek, why do you think today that so many Christians don’t believe that Genesis is history, particularly Genesis one through three or Genesis one through eleven? Maybe you’ve had encounters when you’ve talked to legitimate Christians, whether they’re just a lay person and they love Jesus, or maybe you even know a pastor or somebody else, and you’re pretty convinced they’re Christians and they say they believe in the Bible, and yet at the same time they don’t want to take Genesis literally. What has been your experience of maybe reasons why they hold that position?
Derek: Probably the biggest reason, at least in my experience, and it makes sense and I’ve already kind of mentioned it with this one gentleman I mentioned at the beginning—but they simply embrace and believe that the scientific consensus about the age of the earth and the issues related to that are true. They’re real, right? They’re fact. So with that being the case, then you must have to do something different with Genesis because the scientific consensus doesn’t fit with what Genesis is teaching. So I think that’s the number one thing. Once you view the scientific community’s belief about the origin of the earth and the age of the earth and the age of the universe and these kinds of things in evolution, then you have a really hard time. You have to do something different with the text, which is what Christians have done. They’ve tried to propose different ways of interpreting the text of Genesis. But anyways, that’s been my experience—that people just believe what they hear on the news and hear on popular scientific news outlets and articles and so on. That’s the way it is.
Cliff: Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s been my experience as well. And that’s true historically, that probably the dominant reason that well-meaning Christians who say they believe in the Bible and they embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, but at the same time are hesitant to take a historical view of Genesis, is because they are intimidated by so-called secular science. And, actually, that started in the 1800s with the rise of geology as a science. Geology, as a science, hasn’t been around for very long. It’s kind of same thing with psychology. Geology really began to gain ground in the 1800s early on, even before Darwin. He was influenced by the rise of the so-called study of geology. And a lot of these geologists, they professed to be Christians, they were influenced by the Bible, but at the same, they’re looking at the so-called archeological records saying the world’s got to be hundreds of thousands of years old. They didn’t say billions. It was hundreds of thousands of years old. And so then they were trying to synthesize their views of so-called secular geology—a long earth—with the Bible. And then that’s when they started coming up with these different kinds of views of how to approach the Bible. And so that just got entrenched, and then Darwin added fuel to the fire by his book and his thesis. So more and more people embraced that idea. God used evolution. And it became the overwhelming view from the scientific community. And Christians basically were intimidated by it. They were intimidated by science. So men like Charles Spurgeon, who was a faithful teacher of the Bible, made reference to it in one of his sermons or maybe more than one. And he hinted that maybe the geologists are right. So he was hinting that maybe they are, in other words, worth looking into. But later on he said, no, they’re not right.
Cliff: We just need to trust God in his work. But in our day, there are respected Bible teachers like B.B. Warfield, a great theologian whom we respect, but he was influenced by this as well. He was influenced by a Darwinian evolution even before he became a Christian. But even after he couldn’t shed that. And so even as this great evangelical scholar, B.B. Warfield was influenced and his whole view was tainted from the secular geologists, right? And then you fast forward to modern day, you get great guys like James Montgomery Boice, a faithful man of God and preacher out of Philadelphia for decades. And he has written some good commentaries. But in his Genesis commentary, he just kind of throws up his hands, waves the white flag and says, well, we need to defer to the geologists on the age of the earth. He literally says that, and I would say that your average lay person, or average Christian on the street, who doesn’t believe in the literal historicity of Genesis, many times they believe that just because they don’t know better. They think science is authoritative in this area. In other words, the Bible isn’t sufficient in all areas. We have to defer science to the scientists, and I’m not as smart as they are. So their opinion rules the day.
Derek: And the assumption that the scientists and the geologists are doing worldview neutral, objective work, when that’s not the case at all. They’re bringing their worldview to bear on the so-called evidence and it’s shaping the way that they propose the evidence and interpret the evidence.
Cliff: And the most authoritative voices who come from that camp that you’re talking about, these so-called scientists, their presuppositions are number one—I don’t believe in God. Number two—I don’t believe in miracles. Right? Okay, now I’m going to start studying the Bible. Right? We’re looking at it, right? So it literally flows from their preset positions in their worldview, like you said. Now as far as the average layperson, there’s the scholarly community or the seminary community or the Christian college community where you’ve got a lot of professing Christian Bible teachers, even some that are highly respected—whether they’re seminary professors or high-profile pastors who have bought into the idea that Genesis is not literal history. A lot of times the reason they do that is because they’re intimidated by the academic community and they want to be accepted by the academic community. Especially the higher you go in scholarship in academia, you want to be accepted by your peers. And today, if you want to be in prestigious journals and be recognized as a theologian by Duke University or Harvard and all these others, you can’t hold to a literal, traditional view of mosaic authorship and that Genesis is history. You won’t even get a hearing.
Derek: No, it’s unscholarly.
Cliff: Yeah. From the get-go. So there’s a lot of factors playing into it, but people are not coming to the conclusion that Genesis is not history and that Moses didn’t write Genesis based on the facts. They clearly aren’t. So that’s one of the things we want to do. Well then, what are the facts? Right now we’re just kind of saying, here’s the history and here are presuppositions driving this debate. But there are facts and we need to look at those.
Derek: Well, why don’t we come back and do that very thing in second part of our series on the historicity of Genesis? That was a great introduction, Cliff. I think that history is very helpful to see why we are thinking the way we are—by and large—why Christians are thinking the way they are about the book of Genesis. So thank you for that history. That helps set the stage. And we’ll come back and we’ll talk about some facts and we’ll talk about the text of Scripture. And so we thank you for listening in, and until next time, keep seeking the Lord in his Word.