Creation and the flood

This article is from Trowel & Sword, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, May 1999.

The letters of your two correspondents in the last issue of T & S suggest they have not understood, assuming they have read, the Biblical arguments I have tried to develop in Foundations in Genesis. Lord’s Day 43 in the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that God’s will is that we never give false testimony against anyone or twist their words. We Christians must keep this in mind when we discuss our differences.

My two brothers seem to have such a narrow view of what is authentically Reformed that Herman Bavinck and B.B.Warfield, among many other giants in the Reformed tradition, would be in the dock with me. [In this case the privilege would be mine!]

Indeed, while Calvin accepts creation about 4000 BC in six ordinary days, as did just about every one in his time, he specifically rejects the notion that the Bible is a book of science; he affirms Moses wrote in a popular style for ordinary people. He recognises as legitimate the results of scientific investigation such as the greater size of Saturn relative to the moon. He was not a modern fundamentalist. Mind you, modern literalists are not consistently so, otherwise they would believe in a flat earth supported by pillars in the sea.

Expansion of a couple of topics not covered in my September T & S article may help your readers. I hope so, since the issues are important.

1. The nature of creation
Recent creationists usually suggest that creation was ‘perfect’, and that redemption involves a permanent return to pre-fall conditions. If this is true it supports the notion that all that is less than ideal in the present world is due to sin. The contention that animal ferocity and death comes from human sin could then seem plausible.

This approach is certainly flawed. Scripture teaches that creation was ‘very good’, that is, free of moral evil and as God intended, and in that sense perfect. However, creation had a greater destiny than simply to continue as God had made it. Eternal life was in prospect, the seventh day of God’s rest pointing to a glorious destiny. Accordingly, the body made of earth and earthy (1 Cor 15:44-49) was to undergo glorification following a history of obedience here.

Disobedience brings God’s judgment here and now (thorns and thistles), but it also means that the reward of obedience has been forfeited, and a dreadful end is in view if God does not mercifully intervene. Christ by his redeeming work gains the forfeited destiny and bestows it on his people. Redemption is not the abandonment of creation but its glorification as envisaged in the beginning and with a display of the Divine character that otherwise we would not have known.

Creation’s ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:19ff) arises from the decree of God who has subjected it to frustration in the setting of hope. Creation looks forward to its glorification but it cannot attain it apart from the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose with humanity. The new heavens and the new earth as the dwelling place of the redeemed will reach a new standard of perfection set by God.

While recognising the cosmic dimension of sin we need not attribute everything around us that would be inappropriate in the world of glory to its effects. The original ‘very good’ pre-fall creation had features which will not be needed in the world to come: the relatively weak and powerless human body depended on food intake (1 Cor 6:13), and it excreted wastes; humanity was capable of being invaded by death.

Is animal death another of these features? Paul’s argument in 1 Tim 4:3-4 is that God made everything ‘good’ and therefore everything is able to be eaten. The recent creationist argument, based on Genesis 1:29-31, is just about the reverse. It runs, ‘God made everything good and therefore humans were to confine themselves to plants and vegetables’. Surely this view proves too much: fish, eggs and milk products would also be off limits if the interpretive principle used is correct.

What is ‘good’ is defined by God, not by abstract notions of perfection arising from human thinking.

2. The Noahic Flood
Similar care is necessary in considering the Noahic Flood narrative. In the Flood the primary theological factor is that of decreation/recreation. God foreshadows the cosmic judgement of which Enoch had spoken earlier (cf. Jude 14,15) by a particular judgement on Noah’s contemporaries which will powerfully show both his righteousness and his redemptive purpose. The New Testament uses the account in the same way.

The earth is reduced to a watery waste like that described in Gen 1:2, and a new, cleansed world is formed with righteous Noah at its head, a picture of the ultimate new heavens and new earth at the end of history. Noah, like Adam, sins but in contrast to Adam he is not a sinner only because he rebelled; he sins because he is a sinner, a partner in the rebellion. Though a recipient of God’s mercy he is unable to carry the weight of the redemption which God has promised. So we are encouraged to look for a new development: the covenant of life with Abraham, from whom comes Jesus, the true Redeemer.

The universal language in the Flood account is not to be down-played by translating eretz as ‘land’ rather than ‘earth’. The universal language would be perfectly proper even if the Flood was limited geographically, since the intention of the narrative is to prefigure the final judgement of all who have ever lived. In the same way, the provisional fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham is behind the statement in Genesis 41:56-57 that the people of ‘all the earth’ came to buy grain from Joseph; the statement is not scientifically true, and wasn’t intended to be, but it highlights God’s faithful covenant purpose to be climaxed in a greater that Joseph.

God said that never again would all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, never again would there be a flood to destroy the earth (Gen 9:10-11). If the Flood was not geographically universal what do these words mean? They mean the Flood did reach to all places where humans had settled and destroyed them, and/or they mean that there will never again be a flood of such significance in God’s purposes, although there may be extensive flooding and even numerically greater loss of life in the future.

For a parallel, notice Jesus said that the overthrow of Jerusalem in AD 70 would be “unequalled from the beginning of the world [not ‘since the Flood’] until now – and never to be equalled again” (Matt 24:31). If we object that more Jewish lives were lost, and more hideously, in Nazi Europe, we may speak truly yet miss the point. We must not interpret the narrative by our benchmarks of significance but by God’s.

The eminent Puritan commentator Matthew Poole (1669) was one of the earliest Protestants to suggest the flood was not geographically universal; the Talmudic sages had argued similarly much earlier. For examples of universal statements not meant in a physical or scientific sense see Deut 2:25; 1 Kings 18:10; Dan 2:38-39; Luke 2:1; Mark 1:5; Acts 2:5; Col 1:23.

We cannot be sure when the Flood occurred or its mechanism. However, the Bible shows not the slightest interest in explaining how the fresh and salt water creatures survived; obviously they did not have to survive in a thick global soup of sediments in suspension.

Similarly, the Bible shows no interest in explaining how all the other creatures fitted in the ark; obviously they were necessarily limited by the ability of 8 people to feed and care for them for a year. I would suppose representatives of the creatures in the cultural region where Noah lived were on the ark, probably some hundreds of animals and birds. This would be sufficient for the purpose of conveying the significance of the Flood to all succeeding generations.

Giving the language a scientific sense means 35,000 vertebrate creatures converge on the ark, according to Whitcomb and Morris, recent creationist leaders. There are some difficulties of course: for example, loading them through the single door using 8 people in seven 24 hour days (10,080 minutes) allows 17 seconds per creature, assuming no time for meals or sleep.

I’m wanting to stress that the definition of the Bible’s universal terms, of creation’s goodness and of the creation days themselves, is not to be determined by our standards: the benchmarks are God’s. Scripture does not exclude an old universe and so I am open to it. In fact it seems as clearly established by science as was the greater size of Saturn compared to the moon in Calvin’s day, but that does not mean I accept macro-evolution of living creatures.

All Christians must reject naturalistic evolution as inherently atheistic, while theistic evolution using the present dominant neo-Darwinian understanding of change does not meet the requirements of an adequate explanation, scientifically or biblically, in my view. But whatever turns out to be the right explanation Christianity is not at risk. As Romans 11:36 reminds us: ‘All things are from God, through God and for God. To whom be glory for ever! Amen.’