Why do we read the Bible? Ask yourself this question. What’s the point? “Do I read to understand history? Do genealogies, timelines, and charts sum up my reading habits?” If so, you probably read to understand history. “Do I read Genesis 1 to argue for evolutionary creationism?” If so, you probably read Genesis 1 to buffer a preferred scientific theory.
And while we can read the Bible and ask any question from it, we need to realize that Holy Scripture has a purpose, which directs how we ought to read Genesis 1 or any text for that matter.
Scripture Is Holy
One place we can begin to discern Holy Scripture’s purpose is through Paul’s words in 2 Timothy. He explains, “The sacred writings … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
According to Paul, Scripture is “sacred” or holy. It is Holy Scripture. And this only makes sense since God breathed out Scripture through the Holy Spirit. Hence, Scripture’s character derives from God’s Holy Spirit and so involves holiness.
Due to its inspired character, Scripture has a purpose: to make wise for salvation, to teach, and to form Christians into righteous people that do good works.
Put in other words, Scripture through faith in Christ Jesus makes us wise for salvation and teaches us everything we need to know to live godly lives.
Said more formally, Holy Scripture is holy and so makes us holy. God created Scripture to be holy, and its function flows from its character. In and through Holy Scripture, we come to know God, Christ, and everything we need to know to live a godly life (See John 17:3; 2 Pet 1:3).
So let’s return to Genesis 1 and consider what it means, given Holy Scripture’s character and function.
People Read Genesis 1 in Various Ways
Around 200 AD, Homogenes argued that God created the universe from pre-existing materials. He claimed this in order to show that God did not create evil; evil arose from eternal matter. In response, Tertullian (160–220 AD) maintained that God created everything ex nihilo.
History confirms that Tertullian won that debate. Many of us still claim that God created the universe ex nihilo, from nothing. I agree. And yet we have to admit that Holy Scripture does not use the phrase “God created from nothing.” I would argue that Scripture does communicate this truth. But it does not say the phrase “from nothing” word-for-word.
So why do we believe it? The answer, in part, lies in how we read the opening chapters of Genesis.
Most people today read Genesis 1 in the following ways:
- To trace the story or argument (literary reading)
- To track the world’s history (historical reading)
- To interpret it by comparing it to ANE creation accounts (comparative)
- To uncover historical sources lying behind the text (critical reading)
- To propose a scientific theory (flood canopies, young/old earth creationism, etc.)
- To understand theology/spirituality (theological reading)
Are one of these the right way to read Genesis 1? Certainly, none of them are wrong. Each has its place. Even Conservative Bible readers admit that Moses used tolodeth, that is, earlier documents when he wrote Genesis. In certain cases, historical-criticism may be used by conservative Christians.
But out of these options, which approach to the Bible best accords with its holy character and purpose? Put another way, how should we read Genesis 1 according to the Scriptures?
We Should Read Holy Scripture Theologically
God the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, thus making it a means of sanctification with specific goals: to make us wise through salvation in Jesus Christ, to instruct us, and to make us holy. So while any historical or scientific question we ask of the text may tend towards this goal, these questions do not directly accord with Scripture’s theological purpose.
They are not opposed, however. God calls us to use reason and nature, guided by revelation, to understand the world. So these are good goals.
Still, the primary goal of reading Scripture is knowing the triune God. Or, knowing God who is Holy. His Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is Love and Gift has gifted us Scripture as a creaturely means by which we can become godly.
Knowing God by which we grow into his holy image should be our goal. And this seems to be obvious from the New Testament whose writings focus on interpreting Scripture and presenting Christ for our knowledge of God and growth in godliness. The apostolic writings themselves warrant this conclusion.
A Short Illustration of Reading Genesis 1 Theologically
When it comes to Genesis 1, therefore, we need to first ask: what does the passage teach us about God. And how does Genesis 1 relate to the whole message of Scripture, the canon of Scripture?
This latter question is vital because the Holy Spirit inspired all 66 books of Scripture. So the divine author brings unity to Scripture through the human authors that penned Scripture. Due to the Spirit, Scripture is a united book. So we can and must interpret Scripture by Scripture. Genesis 1 must be read in the context of the whole Bible since we have the whole Bible in our possession as a gift of God for our salvation.
If we do so, we might conclude a number of things:
- God creates by his Word.
- God’s Spirit hovers over creation and so forms it.
- God orders creation through the six days of creation: days 1–3 create places while days 4–6 fill them in orderly ways.
- God creates humanity at the apex of creation in his Image, that is, in the Son who is the Image of God.
- God has absolute power over all matter. He gives it purpose and meaning. The heavens order the seasons. Humans rule creation. Trees reproduce through seed. And so on.
- God created everything good; nothing evil was created. Evil has no substance.
- And given who God is (eternal and simple as the Canon of Scripture notes), God could not but create everything from nothing; he created ex nihilo.
- God created in the beginning. While he remains eternal, everything created had a beginning.
While more could be said, these basic observations accord with the literal intent of Genesis, interpret Scripture by Scripture (canonically), and fit the apostolic pattern.
We know that God (here God has to refer to the Father) creates by the Word (“let there be light”) while the Spirit hovers over created matter bringing it to perfection. Poetically stated, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps 33:6).
Propositionally stated, “In the beginning was the Word” and “All things were made through him” (John 1:1, 3). And “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” (Ps 104:30).
And these theological observations entail certain demands on us. Since we were originally created in the Image of God, which is Christ (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), we know our purpose. Through the New Adam, we regain our Image (Col 3:10; Eph 4:24) by the new creation that Christ through the Holy Spirit perfects in us (2 Cor 5:17;1 Cor 6:17).
We imitate Christ. We become as close to God as creatures can become. And Christ reveals God to us, since he is the Word of God. So we become godly. We follow his pattern, his example, his teaching.
We rule creation as images of the Image (Son) from the Origin (Father). And we know that our work can happen because God has so ordered creation that it functions according to providential patterns, which we call laws of nature. We have purpose, goals, and the possibility of success due to Genesis 1’s teaching. We can discern this (and more) by theologically reading the text.
And this pattern of reading should guide how we read the entire Bible. Scripture is holy and so sanctifies. Scripture is of the Holy Spirit and so a unity. It teaches us about God and so he and his creation are the main subject matter of Scripture. And so we must read Scripture theologically—starting with Genesis 1.