In the Beginning … We Misunderstood

September 05, 2012

Former CIU president Dr. Johnny Miller co-authors book on Genesis chapter 1

Former Columbia International University president Dr. Johnny Miller says debate about the age of the earth by Christians misses the point of Genesis chapter 1.  Miller, who is today a professor in CIU Seminary & School of Ministry, has joined with Dr. John Soden of Dallas Theological Seminary, to co-author the new book, “In the Beginning … We Misunderstood – Interpreting Genesis 1 in its Original Context.” 

Miller and Sodon explore the creation account in its historical and cultural context, and how the original audience would have understood its teaching.  They also address the significance that the creation account has for theology today.  The book is published by Kregel Publications.   

Miller responds to questions about the book:                

What is meant by the title, “In the Beginning … We Misunderstood.”  Who misunderstood what about Genesis chapter 1?

                Along with many well-meaning, Bible-believing Christians, we misunderstood the meaning of Genesis 1 in relation to its original recipients in their language, culture, and historical circumstances, and therefore we misunderstood the meaning in relation to us.  We read the passage through the filter of our modern western worldview, instead of through the filter of an ancient Near Eastern worldview. 

Is this book intended to quell debates among those in the church who hold to a young age of the earth (thousands of years old), and others who hold to an earth that is millions of years old?    

                If everyone were to agree with us as to the meaning and significance of Genesis 1, it would change the nature of the debate between young earth and old earth creationists.  No longer would someone believe that they have to support a young earth position because the Bible supposedly mandates it.  If our position is correct, then Genesis 1 does not say when the world was created, or how.

                But even if folks do not agree with us, we hope that our book will be a gracious argument that encourages respect and civility in furthering discussions on the meaning of the biblical text.  We also hope that it will engender new constructive conversations around evidence from the text and context of Scripture that is sometimes missing or misunderstood.

Since the original readers of Genesis 1 were the ancient Israelites, what was Moses’ purpose in writing it?

                We believe that Moses wrote Genesis for Israel about the time of the Exodus.  He was declaring that their God was the only true God, that He owned the Promised Land, that He could give it to whomever He wanted, and that He had promised it to Abraham's seed.  He was freeing them from the untruths that they had absorbed in Egypt and to which they would be exposed in Canaan.

Through Moses, God was also challenging their worldview and theology.  He was teaching them that He was dramatically different from what the nations around them accepted as “deity.”  God was showing them that He is truly sovereign.  He is transcendent over all creation (without being part of any of creation), and so also over all nations.  They have purpose as His image bearers and they have opportunity to worship Him in truth and imitate Him in living.

What other accounts of creation would Israel have been exposed to when Moses wrote Genesis 1?

                They would probably have been exposed to the Mesopotamian myths and to Canaanite myths. They undoubtedly knew the Egyptian creation accounts and theology.  Even a quick read of some of those accounts shows how radically distinct was Moses' teaching. Yet we also see the similarities, especially in the Egyptian accounts.

What do you hope readers take away with them after finishing “In the Beginning … We Misunderstood?” 

                We hope that readers will understand that Genesis 1 is not meant to be read as science but as theology.  We hope that they will apply the hermeneutical principles to their study of all of Scripture: That it must be understood in light of its meaning to the original author and recipients, and then by application to us.

                We also hope that students from Christian backgrounds who study in non-Christian universities will not be turned against the Bible or science when they discover that science challenges the belief that the world is only about 6,000-10,000 years old.  We want them to know that such a belief is not a necessary interpretation of Genesis 1, that such was not the intent of the original author, and that science does not undercut the authority of Scripture.  Christians are free to pursue the study of legitimate science wherever it leads, whether to a recent or ancient creation, without conflicting with the intent of Genesis 1.