A question that comes up in the case of Genesis 1 is the following: what is its genre? In terms of what conventions and expectations are we to read it?
It is a question most people ask, so I might as well address it. I happen to be a pastor in a just-about-anything-goes denomination, so I can speak my mind without fear of someone challenging my call to preaching and teaching if I cross one of someone else’s red lines.
In general terms, it might first be observed that the narratives of Genesis 1-11, Genesis 12-50, and 2 Kings 11-25, for example, relate to history in diverse ways. The Primary History (Gen – 2 Kgs) reworks sources whose closest extra-biblical parallels, in terms of genre, range from myth to chronicle. It is not without interest that the myths the biblical text plays off of are demythologized in a variety of ways and recast in monotheistic terms.
For its part, Genesis 1 might be called a cosmological treatise. Traces of myth are detectable, but they have been thoroughly resignified. The result, it seems to me, is absolutely striking: the refining power of the affirmation of a single, all-powerful creation-affirming God was so great that Genesis 1, which derives from that matrix, succeeds as does no other text, ancient or modern, in describing an orderly, intelligible, and positively splendid creation in which humankind is given awesome responsibilities by the author of all. It is not too much to say that the text has a scientific cast. It also provides cogent grounds for pursuing science in every imaginable direction.
This is not to say that Gen 1 is meant as science as the term is usually understood. It aims far higher than that. It seeks to answer questions that are beyond the purview of science as conventionally defined.
Here Thomas Aquinas got it right: theology properly understood is the queen of the sciences. From its theological viewpoint, Gen 1 is able to address questions with a full reconnaissance of data, questions which other sciences can only address in a fragmentary way. The subject matter of theology is God, of course. According to Gen 1, God is the creator of heaven and earth, who saw what he made and liked it very much. These affirmations entail many things the importance of which is difficult to overestimate.
But if Gen 1 is a cosmological treatise which plays off of and reworks motifs whose origin lies in the realm of myth rather than in history as these terms are usually understood, it is confusing to describe Gen 1 as “fully historical.”
On this view of things, Genesis 1 is a scientific (=wissenschaftliche) text without having to be a historical (=historische) text.
Another way of seeing things goes back to e.g. John Calvin and before that to Jewish tradition. On this view, the biblical text does not recast and demythologize pre-existing myth but is based on independent oral tradition transmitted by an unbroken chain extending from Moses back to Abraham, Noah, and Adam.
On this view of things, the full historicity of the text in the sense of creation in seven days must be defended against all naysayers.
But, as far as I can see, the view that imagines the book of Genesis and Gen 1 in particular to be a product of an unbroken chain of oral tradition extending back to Adam is a case of pure supposition which tradition, not the biblical text, deemed necessary to make in the light of the dangers of affirming a view like the one I affirmed above.
Is it not rather the case that the fence which tradition builds around Scripture to preserve it from misunderstanding is, in this and other instances, a sign of little faith? Is it not true that apart from questions of genre and tradition history, the book of Genesis (and Gen 1 in particular) is a self-authenticating text? In theological terms, the text on its own, through the witness of the Holy Spirit, is sufficient to impress upon the one who reads it that she or he is in the presence of absolute truth.
That the well-wrought urn in which we find this truth turns out to be a cosmological treatise the motifs of which originate in part in the realm of myth, a sociologically unexceptionable but historically inaccurate genealogy, or a tribal legend recast and retold for a purpose dear to the heart of God, is beside the point.
Those who find such earthen vessels objectionable suffer, it seems to me, from a lack of spiritual and intellectual discernment. Like Peter of old, who saw all manner of unclean things spread out before him in a dream, and heard God say, to his amazement, “Eat!”, those with scruples about what literary genres God might use as a means of grace need to get over them.
Theologians have often been in love with history,. I for one am not an exception to this rule. But to assert that Genesis 1 is and must be “fully historical” is an inappropriate way of defending its truth.
It is wrong to prop Genesis 1 up with ill-fitting crutches. As a scientific treatise in the sense defined above, Genesis 1 stands on its own.