In some recent discussions with someone I found that they believed that to interpret the Genesis creation narrative as literal history was “normative”, and this struck me as rather odd. Of course, he is right – it is normative to interpret Genesis as a literal history in many places in our modernist age, yes, but outside of our age? No, not at all, and normative doesn’t mean correct, but rather it is the popular default, normal for humans to do. In this case it is normative for humans to ignore the history of epistemology and to assume that the epistemological age they live within is the only one that existed: to suggest a ‘literal reading of Genesis as a book of history’ should be the default approach is to ignore the influence of Descartes upon how we, by default, think and to assume, wrongly, that people have always thought as we initially learn to do. To put it simply:
Whenever you read any text, not least scripture, in order to understand the intention of the author our first question must always be: “What *type* of literature is this?” Now, one of the primary effects of the domination of Cartesian epistemology since his time is that something is only considered to be true if it is either logically true or an historical fact – all forms of truth have only recently been squeezed into either “historically true/logically true” v “not true”. The effect on theology & doctrine of modernism over the past few hundred years since this way of thinking took ahold is to create budding theologians who rightly want to uphold the bible as true but then allow truth to be defined by Descarts because they know of no other way to process truth & knowledge. When they pick up Genesis they can, naturally, only interpret it as literal history because they have no other model.
The writers of Genesis certainly would not be bound by Cartesian epistemology, it would of course be anachronistic for them to be so. Of course they could speak through historical truth, but equally they could speak truth through story, just as Jesus did through parables – neither approach had a monopoly on truth. In answering the question “what type of literature is Genesis” we cannot default to a literal interpretation as we might for a fellow modernist writer.
Our starting point must instead be a neutral one, not “it is historical fact until you can prove otherwise” but rather we must look to the literary features (such as talking snakes), historic evidence (strikingly similar creation epics that pre-date Genesis) & scientific evidence (oh where to start!) in order to help us grasp the authors’ intentions and choice of genre – and in doing so we take scripture seriously.
When one begins from a neutral starting point looking at all these indicators, features and evidence we find that Genesis is a book of theological truth told through story, not a book of literal historical truth, thus we can hold that it is true and full of truth (and inspired!) in the fullest, non-Cartesian, sense of the word.