Saturday, February 11, 2023

Genesis Discussion with Ian MacKinnell

Genesis Discussion - with Ian MacKinnell · with Michael Healy

Are moderate Christians even dumber than creationists for pretending that Genesis is just allegory? Why admit the the first chapter is completely wrong and still take the Bible serious?

Ian MacKinnell
Former Principal Analyst at Multiple Government Agencies (1979–2022)
It seems like you really hate fiction. Perhaps you do not understand imagination and how it can communicate principles. An imaginative story can be true — teach correct principles — even though it consists of no true facts. Facts are not the only kind of truth. In fact, they are not the best kind of truth, because they are very limited, while principles are unlimited in extent. If I tell you “Fred is mortal” I have told you a fact, but it is limited to Fred. It tells you nothing about Jane. If I tell you “All humans are mortal”, then I have told you a principle about Fred, Jane, and all other human beings — including humans who have not yet been born. One way I might tell you this principle is by telling you a story about the (possibly mythical) first human being becoming mortal.

Principles are powerful; facts can be weak. Factual writing is only one type of truth. Imagination is a very useful way of teaching principles that are true.

Expand your imagination and get serious about it. You are missing out on a whole world of ideas.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
First. I very much like fiction. Before I went homeless in early 2004, I did yearly re-readings of Lord of the Rings and the Seven Chronicles of Narnia.

Second, there is a very important difference between fiction taken as fiction, and fiction mistaken as actual history. I have not done yearly or even any single reading of the Book of Mormon.

Third, the entirety of Genesis was taken as factual history, not as fiction, by Jesus and the early Christians, and by the Pharisees, and therefore also the Jews in most synagogues over two thousand years - you know the guys who allow two locks to grow down beside their beard and wear a fur hat. Less sure about some recent Jews in that respect. And by entirety, I don’t mean all the parts that start from chapter 12 only, but also the first 11 chapters.

Fourth, when it comes to a story about the first man becoming mortal being an allegory, it’s not just about the Bible and about taking it as the Church Fathers did, which is a duty according to Trent Session IV. It is also a question of …

Five. Session V on original sin. The three canons are worded so that they imply Adam being real and individual, not imagined and not a collective represented imaginatively as a single man.

Sixth, by imagining at least the first 11 chapters of Genesis as fictional, as you would put it “allegorical” (the words do not mean exactly the same, but in the case of historical Bible books, “allegorical” sounds more pious for some reason to some), you create scientific difficulties, which would either be resolved by abandoning the attempt altogether, or by pushing it further, like making Abraham a myth too.

Seventh, you are (to some unbearably) prideful in assuming someone who poses the question in those words (it was not me) is inferior to you in his imaginative and literary life. I didn’t want to put that first so as not to make it an ad hominem.

Ian MacKinnell
You raise many issues. I will try to touch on the most salient points.

Zeroth. I am glad that you are a Christian. I had assumed, from the wording and the tone of the question, that you were an anti-Christian, perhaps a “New Atheist”. Why? The question begins “are moderate Christians even dumber than creationists”. An anti-Christian could easily classify all Christians into creationists and non-creationists, calling the latter “moderate Christians.” And an anti-Christian would regard both the creationist and the moderate Christian as “dumb” because they believe in God, and might well suppose the “moderate Christian” to be “even dumber” because, after accepting the findings of science, they still unaccountably cling to Christianity and believing in God “without any evidence” (so the anti-Christian thinks). Nothing in the question suggested to me otherwise than this was an attack on Christians — specifically the ones who weren’t creationists. The tone of the question struck me as disparaging. If that wasn’t your intent, then you may need to word your questions differently to make that clearer.

First. Before his conversion to Christianity, CS Lewis had compartmentalised his love of fantasy, mythology, and imaginative writing from his notion of “truth”. Tolkien thought otherwise:

“But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.

No, said Tolkien, they are not.

...just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.” [A quote from J.R.R. Tolkien]

Tolkien rejected Lewis’s compartmentalising of myth and truth. I am glad for your love of Lewis and Tolkien, but that alone does not answer my point. You still seem to be taking CS Lewis’s old position, rather than Tolkien’s — but that is for you to determine.

Second. Robinson Crusoe was first taken to be actual history, and people bought and read it as such. There was a scandal when people realised that it was a made-up story — “not true”. Defoe had never been marooned. But then, people realised that Robinson Crusoe was actually a novel — and a good one at that — and so it became popular again, this time as fiction. Unfortunately, the Book of Mormon is probably not a good novel. But people read the Iliad for its mixture of history and myth. The relationship of fiction to truth is much more complex than Lewis’s “lies, even though lies breathed through silver”. And with Genesis, the choice is not “literally true or else completely false”.

Third. again, much more complex. St Paul, Origen, and many medieval writers (e.g. Bede) preferred allegorical interpretation. St Paul saw Sarah and Hagar — a plain historical text — as an allegory of the freedom of grace versus the slavery of the law. Bede (early C8th) is full of allegorical interpretations of biblical texts — e.g. of the two men on the road to Emmaus (who stand for two somethings that I cannot remember). By the way, this is the correct use of the term “allegory”. There is nothing “allegorical” about Genesis 1 — no symbolism where the sun stands for grace or the moon for forgiveness, etc. “Allegory” and “metaphor” are too much-abused terms. Apparently many people do not know any other figurative literary styles or interpretive approaches besides these two.

As Lewis pointed out, St Augustine warned Christians not to interpret Genesis literally against the findings of science. St Jerome said that Moses had described creation like a “poet” (Lewis glossed this as “mythically”).

Like Lewis, I am not a Catholic, though I use the Sarum breviary as my daily prayer book — where I encounter quite a few allegorical commentaries on scripture by Bede. I don’t feel beholden to any of the sessions of Trent (though interested), although I would suggest that — even if the divines argued for certain doctrines using the Old Testament text as history — it may well be possible to come to similar conclusions without using the same arguments. For example, as a student of Kant, I am aware that he argued for universal sinfulness based on his moral philosophy, without any allusion to a first human being or first sin. His claim that we all fall short of righteousness — and, he argued, we all stand in need of a divine miracle to change our moral nature — is an example of arguing for Christian doctrines without using Genesis 1–11 as history.

Genesis 1 is almost entirely naturalistic, not allegorical at all. The day and night, sun, moon and stars, sea and sky, birds and fish, dry land and plants, animals and man are not representing spiritual principles, but are meant simply as the objects we find around us in this world. They are not in the least bit allegorical. But the structure of the passage — and the allusions to God speaking and observing creation — are not naturalistic. The structure of Genesis 1 is highly artful — abstract and very clever. It is not, however, naturally practical (three “days” before the sun exists) — and I don’t think it is meant to be.

Genesis 1 is neither history (no one was there to observe it or record it until day 6) nor allegory. I see it as polemic — a polemic against the polytheistic creation stories of Babylon etc with their many bickering and philandering gods, who are created or born and can be killed, who create man to be a slave. Genesis opposes this view by retelling it as about one God, the creator (and later the righteous giver of the law), who is supreme and who made man in his image — a high calling to righteousness and holiness. How could such a polemic be described as “completely wrong”? It sets out the ethical monotheism of the Old Testament in stark contrast to the unethical polytheism of the surrounding “great” civilisations. It just isn’t trying to be history, it is polemical mythology — a counter-mythology if you will. For more on Genesis and the Babylonian myths it counters, see Yale professor Christine Hayes:

[The link to the video doesn't work for me. But I found it by some searching.]

Seventh. In Australian law there is a court called “equity” where you can seek redress for unfair treatment. The basic principle is that you must come into the court as plaintiff with “clean hands” — it is no good alleging something against another party if you yourself have also acted unfairly against them. Your question — right at the start of this conversation — begins by disparaging “moderate Christians” by referring to them as “even dumber” than creationists. You don’t come into this discussion with “clean hands”. The question was aggressive in tone — so much so that I thought it was probably written by an anti-Christian, such as a “New Atheist”. Please try to lower the aggressive tone against your fellow Christians.

Hans-Georg Lundahl

"The question begins “are moderate Christians even dumber than creationists”."

As said, I didn't word the question.


"Tolkien rejected Lewis’s compartmentalising of myth and truth."

So do I, for by now quite a different reason.

Myths as stories, even by pagans, are by and large true. In Cumae and in Delphi, sibyls were doing things and more importantly subject to things, which would get St. Paul's blood boiling against the demons possessing them. St. Thomas, while answering why the demons' oracles are sometimes successfully predictive, mentions self fulfilling prophecies that are totally in line with what happened to Oidipous.

Most myths are myths that really happened. Many pagan myths happened differently from how the pagans viewed them, for instance Hercules probably went to Hell, not Mount Olympus.

So, not just the Gospels, but also Genesis 1 to 11 are "myths that really happened" (as most), and moreover, myths that really happened and are told from the right perspective (Nimrod is not cast as judge of the dead, Noah is not cast as an immortal - unlike the case in the Gilgamesh epic).

"You still seem to be taking CS Lewis’s old position, rather than Tolkien’s"

I think both of them grant far too much non-factuality to pagan myth. For Hesiod's Theogony, yes, that's non-factual, a bad surrogate for Genesis 1, as is Big Bang, but Homer, Virgil, Germanic heroic legends, Attic Tragedy - it mostly happened (Alkestis mis-attributes Elijah's raising of a dead boy, with appropriate changes, to Hercules).


"There was a scandal when people realised that it was a made-up story — “not true”. Defoe had never been marooned."

Most of the first audience came to see that it was made-up. Or partly. Like those who had heard War of the Worlds survived and didn't die from heartattacks long enough to know it was fiction and Orson Welles a good actor.

Alexander Selkirk actually had been marooned.

"But people read the Iliad for its mixture of history and myth."

Where is the myth? There are mythological gods in it, like good ideas in Ulysses head are stylised as Minerva speaking to Ulysses (and that could have been how he was experiencing it, as an internal voice coming specifically from Minerva). But Troy's fall is not Coelus born from Tellus. Achilles very probably had some kind of weird luck of never getting wounded, leading to the superstition he was invulnerable. Heros speaking to goddess mothers ... it seems Paul McCartney had the habit of imaginary conversations with his mother, according to "Let it Be" ... though wiki says it was a single dream.


Quadriga Cassiani. Given in I, Q 1 A 10.

I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. i) "the New Law itself is a figure of future glory." Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.

The allegoric sense doesn't take away the literal.

Several (3 - 6 or 4 - 6) in one:

"As Lewis pointed out, St Augustine warned Christians not to interpret Genesis literally against the findings of science."

Except, St. Augustine didn't. I've checked that quote. Applying it to expert consensuses about Heliocentrism (St. Augustine was Geocentric) or Deep Time (St. Augustine rejected extended Egyptian chronologies) breaks down on this being obviously very different from knowing that the natural year is not 364 days, as a reader of dubiously genuine book of Henoch (in its then and now extant shape) might assume. And metaphors about the shape of heaven - St. Augustine's example - are not a good reason to deny the starry heavens englobe us. This is very different from denying literal historicity to actual Bible stories - most especially as dry ones as Genesis 5 and 11, when it comes to the genealogies.

"St Jerome said that Moses had described creation like a “poet” (Lewis glossed this as “mythically”)."

More like simplistically. Like Lord of the Dance portrays the Bible.

"For example, as a student of Kant, I am aware that he argued for universal sinfulness based on his moral philosophy, without any allusion to a first human being or first sin."

Thanks for reminding me Protestants aren't really Christians. I hope for CSL's sake that he had abandoned a certain ideas expressed in The Problem of Pain before he died.

Kant's universal sinfulness and Catholics' original sin are two different things. The Biblical and Catholic doctrine is, mankind had (if only in two individuals) a state before sin, and will also have, for the part who are redeemed, a state after sin.

"an example of arguing for Christian doctrines without using Genesis 1–11 as history."

One which the Council of Trent obviously condemned in Session V, canons 1, 2 and 3 - as an aside to our Catholic readers.

"Genesis 1 is neither history (no one was there to observe it or record it until day 6) nor allegory."

The parts of day 6 when man is there, and this further expanded in Genesis 2, are history in the normal sense. But the overall six days account only had God and angels to record them, and was given to Moses (unlike Hesiod, he didn't listen to Muses who had sung hymns to several gods, including "Kronos of the crooked mind").

"I see it as polemic — a polemic against the polytheistic creation stories of Babylon etc with their many bickering and philandering gods, who are created or born and can be killed, who create man to be a slave."

While Genesis certainly opposes the Babylonic account, and definitely very much in the account of Adam and Eve, the idea of it being a polemic presupposes an author who not just himself but also his audience was familiar with Enuma Elish.

On the issue of three days before the Sun - have you taken into account how St. Augustine solved that in book I of De Genesi ad Litteram Libri XII?


I do come to the issue with clean hands. I was as already said not the one posing the question in that term.

"Please try to lower the aggressive tone against your fellow Christians."

The one posing the question was probably a New Atheist. He doesn't have you as fellow Christian, and I did not pose the question in those terms.

But the question implied that compromising Christians are intellectually less consistent than Creationists, as a Creationist I agree with that assessment - which is why I answered you.

Even if he was a New Atheist, he could be perfectly familiar with the argument that allegory conveys truth in other ways than literal history. He could also enjoy fictions like Dark Materials on that plane. They, the New Atheists - and I - have other reasons to oppose Theistic Evolution. Hence, lack of reading is not a very certain assessment of someone opposing Evolution compromising Christianity.

Ian MacKinnell
“Thanks for reminding me Protestants aren't really Christians.”

No further comment.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Up to you.

I meant it in a half jocular manner … but there is truth to it.