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I recently stumbled upon a lengthy, passionate defense of a literal reading of the biblical creation story. This was posted by G. I. Williamson, a name likely not known outside of very conservative Presbyterian and Reformed circles, but within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church he is a revered and authoritative voice.

I am not posting this to pick holes in his arguments or to ridicule his views. I want to make a few observations on what lies below the surface of Williamson’s plea, because this same general posture is repeated in one way or another in virtually any such defense of biblical literalism, regardless of one’s denominational or ecclesiastical commitments.

  1. Williamson’s goal is to maintain “the” traditional view of  his denomination, rooted in a unquestioned adherence to its “standards”  (the work of the Westminster Assembly in the mid 17th century). This indicates the general tenor of  maintaining boundaries at all costs rather than a willingness to examine them.
  2. He laments that absolute unanimity regarding what the Bible teaches according to these standards is no longer the case. Discerning reasons why uniformity exists is not important, however. The mere presence of differences of opinion is condemnation enough. I see here the maintenance of insider-outsider distinctions as the top priority.
  3. He employs an emotionally manipulative tactic of rooting the cause of variety of views in the need for some to be “respected by intellectuals and scientific people” and “seduced by the cultural consensus which says modern scientific people now know better than our Reformation fathers.” This is a posture of anti-intellectualism. He supplies prooftexts from Job and Ecclesiastes toward that end to give the appearance of scriptural support.
  4. The doctrine of creation is simply declared a “fundamental of the faith.”
  5. He casts his own view as exhibiting courage, i.e., of being “not ashamed” to hold fast the traditional view. This is emotionally manipulative;  it implies others are ashamed of holding to the truth (see 4) rather than considering the possibility they may have reasons for thinking as they do.
  6. A literalist reading of Genesis is the default proper and godly way of reading Genesis, is required by divine inspiration, and is not remotely open to scrutiny or even dialogue. The premises behind this view are not open to question.
  7. He has a flat reading of Scripture, with little apparent genre sensitivity, where a denial of the literal reading of Genesis leads to a denial of any other portion of Scripture (such as Jesus’ miracles).
  8. Science should not be trusted over Scripture because (a) science changes and (b) it is a mark of Christian virtue to be thought a fool in the eyes of the world (as was Paul).
  9. Scripture speaks plainly for it is written to the common people. Hence, Genesis 1 is to understood literally, for this is how common people read things.
  10. Evolution destroys Christianity because the entire Christian faith hangs on a literal reading of Genesis 1-3.
  11. There are many fine, top thinkers who defend as literal reading of Genesis, so it is not really intellectually incredible to do so.
  12. An emotional appeal to “widespread intellectual as well as moral decadence, and the visible church has unfortunately not kept free from this decadence.”

Some may consider this a valiant stand by a faithful servant of God living in his twilight years. To each his own. I, however, am genuinely saddened at the thought of anyone feeling that this is the stand to take as the light of one’s life begins to dim.

Lifting our eyes up from our own navels, we are immediately confronted by many more pressing issues that Jesus was quite concerned with. And how we address these challenges, walking by faith and not by sight, most certainly does not depend on reading Genesis one particular way.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.