Bruce Waltke on the Genre of Genesis 1: A Critique

Comments by Richard Peachey on "Excursus: The Literary Genre of the Creation Account" from Bruce Waltke. 2001. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan. pp. 73-78.

In this excursus, Bruce Waltke makes many complimentary-sounding remarks about Genesis 1. He says that the term "myth," if it is "understood to represent things fanciful or untrue," "misrepresents the Genesis account and does an injustice to the integrity of the narrator and undermines sound theology" (p. 74). He acknowledges that "the creation account has a scientific dimension" (p. 74); also that it "certainly has historical elements" and is "factual" (p. 75). He notes "the narrator's concern with historicity" (p. 75). He states: "The narrator wishes clearly to establish that it is God who has created all and has dominion over all, including the seas, sun, and moon" (p. 76). He concludes that the genre of the Genesis creation account is "an artistic, literary representation of creation" and that it "represents truths about origins" (p. 78). All of this sounds very fine.

But when we take a closer look at the details of his analysis of the Bible's first chapter, it becomes plain that Waltke does not really think the creation account is historically "factual" at all. In his view, "The biblical narrator even feels license to dischronologize the events" (p. 76). Contradicting what he seemed to say earlier, Waltke proposes that "the narrator's concern is not scientific or historical" and that the narrator "is not concerned with presenting a strict historical account" (p. 76). The narrator is telling us "a story" (p. 78), using "metaphorical language" (p. 77). Genesis 1 is therefore "not straightforward . . . history" (p. 75) but is only "representational of the truth that God creates" (p. 77).

Why does Waltke speak with these two different voices? Not wishing to be too harsh, I'm wondering if he feels caught in a dilemma much like that faced by the chief priests, scribes, and elders in Luke 20:1-8. Those men were unable to give Jesus a straightforward answer to his probing "origins" question, "John's baptism — was it from heaven, or from men?" (Luke 20:4). Their hesitation arose, not because an answer was not possible, but because they felt every conceivable direct answer was politically unwise. So with Waltke, apparently: if he affirmed plainly that Genesis 1 is factually incorrect, his evangelical constituency would (or should!) be appalled. But if he were to state clearly that Genesis 1 is true in the sense that it really took place as described, he might lose standing among his academic peers. Therefore, like the Jewish leaders of Jesus' day, he perhaps feels he must equivocate on the question of genre.

Waltke's excursus begins well. I can readily endorse the key statement of the first paragraph: "Questions concerning the relationship of the Genesis creation account and science can only be addressed intelligently by determining the literary genre of Gen. 1:1-2:3" (p. 74). But his conclusion offers a non-answer to that key issue: "we can describe the creation account as an artistic, literary representation of creation" which "represents truths . . . in anthropomorphic language" (p. 78). Do such words or phrases specify a particular literary genre? No: I submit this kind of description could apply to any and every genre — excepting perhaps those that are either structured poorly or deliberately untruthful!

I find it interesting that Waltke repeatedly refers to a person he calls "the narrator," an "artistic" individual who has various "concerns" and "feels license" while composing his "story." On the other hand, he makes scant reference to Genesis 1 as the "Word of God." Indeed, on the one occasion where Scripture is referred to as "the voice of God" (p. 77), "general revelation" (here meaning observational data as interpreted by "contemporary scientists"!) is placed on the same level. If we are evangelicals, seriously committed to biblical authority, I do not see how we can avoid feeling distress over Waltke's approach to Genesis 1.

As he starts his discussion of "Creation and Science," Waltke says, sensibly, "The transcendent God is a subject that science cannot discuss" (p. 74). But he later contradicts himself: "Contemporary scientists almost unanimously discount the possibility of creation in one week, and we cannot summarily discount the evidence of the earth sciences. General revelation in creation, as well as the special revelation of Scripture, is also the voice of God. We live in a 'universe,' and all truth speaks with one voice" (p. 77). Which, translated, is: The opinion of sinful, finite humans must be allowed to override the authoritative statements of the omnipotent Creator, who accomplished the creation without any human witnesses!

Can the Bible be accepted as historically factual only when "contemporary scientists" agree? If so, then I agree, the creation account must certainly be jettisoned. And along with it must go the global flood, the Red Sea crossing, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the resurrection of Christ. "Contemporary scientists" reject all of these events. Indeed, the majority of top scientists are atheists (Nature 394:313, July 23, 1998). That being the case, why waste time discussing the supernatural at all?

It's noteworthy that Waltke introduces his excursus with three quotations, the first of which is from Augustine. The most famous of the early church writers, Augustine greatly influenced the Protestant reformers Luther and Calvin as well as the Roman Catholic tradition. The source for this first citation is not provided, so I can't consider the context in which Augustine wrote these words. I can agree, however, that a detailed study of the heavens is not given in Scripture, possibly because "it was of no use for salvation." Granted, the Bible does not purport to be a technical treatise on the subject of astronomy.

On the other hand, it's pretty clear that Augustine himself would never have endorsed Waltke's approach to Genesis! Rather, he would have affirmed that when the Bible speaks about origins, including the origins of various astronomical bodies, it must be taken seriously. I document this below; the references are to Augustine's City of God. (But for an article exposing Augustine's unreliability in these matters, see Louis Lavallee, "Augustine on the Creation Days," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32[4]:457-464, Dec. 1989.)

• Augustine declares, "The Bible says (and the Bible never lies): 'In the beginning God made heaven and earth.'" (XI.6).

• He notes that "those first three days passed without the sun" (XI.7).

• He objects to the atheistic evolutionary "fantasy" of the Epicureans, who assert that "innumerable worlds . . . come into being and then disintegrate through the fortuitous movement of atoms" (XI.5).

• Augustine labels the early chapters of Genesis as "prophetic narrative" (XI.8), and he rejects "some utterly spurious documents which, they say, give a historical record of many thousand years, whereas we reckon, from the evidence of the holy Scriptures, that fewer than 6,000 years have passed since man's first origin" (XII.11).

• He accepts, as historical reality, the lengthy lifespans of the antediluvians: "It must be remembered that the lives of men in that period were so long that of those mentioned in the narrative whose years are disclosed, the shortest-lived, before the Flood, attained the total of 753 years" (XV.8).

• He argues in detail against "those who maintain that the account of the Flood is not historical, but is simply a collection of symbols and allegories" (XV.27).

• In rebuking Origen concerning his views on creation, Augustine says: "I cannot express my astonishment that so learned and experienced a theologian should have failed to notice in the first place that such a theory is contrary to the meaning of the highly authoritative passage of Scripture [i.e., Genesis 1]" (XI.23).

Waltke's citation of the Roman Catholic Galileo is essentially to the same effect as his quote from Augustine. Once again, I concur that the Bible is not a modern science textbook: as Galileo correctly said, it does not furnish us with an in-depth study of "how the heavens go."

But what the Bible does tell us is that God created everything in six days, that he accomplished specific episodes of creation by his all-powerful fiat, and that he created in a certain sequence.

Now, when the revelation of God clearly asserts the truth of creation in its opening chapters, and affirms it again in words written by the finger of God on stone (Exodus 20:11), and reaffirms it through the Son of God (Matthew 19:4f.), God is surely saying something significant! The origins of the Earth, the universe, and life clearly belong within the category of what "the Bible tells us" (Galileo); these cannot be spiritually irrelevant issues about which "the Spirit of God . . . did not choose to teach" (Augustine).

Galileo's verb tense is significant: as he correctly states, the Bible does not tell us "how the heavens go [present]." Yes, the present operation of the heavens is a field for human study and observation rather than a topic of divine revelation. But the origin of the heavens, in the past, is a matter the Bible definitely does "tell us" about — and in my view, we ignore its teaching to our own detriment.

It is said that Bruce Waltke is an outstanding Hebrew scholar. That may well be true, but his arguments in this excursus seem hardly related to his area of expertise at all. He spends his energy deferring to the wisdom of "contemporary scientists" when he ought to be exegeting the text and doing biblical theology in relation to the issue of origins. (For instance, we could ask: Why doesn't Waltke discuss the implications of Exodus 20:11 or Matthew 19:4f. in this excursus?)

"Do not deceive yourselves. If anyone of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a 'fool' so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight." (1 Corinthians 3:18f.)

For further reading:

"Arguing from Augustine: Evolutionists Should Give It Up!" <>

Bruce Waltke's view of Genesis 1 is further described in his article "The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter One." Crux 27(4):2-10, Dec. 1991. <>