If you can read, you can understand Genesis, right?

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (public domain)

If you pay attention to the young-earth creationists (and who doesn’t?), then you know Genesis 1 is easy to understand. Ken Ham and his multimillion-dollar “educational” ministry Answers in Genesis remind us of this constantly.

As an example, check out this post by K-Ham back in December, responding to a series by American Scientific Affiliation member and political adviser Mike Beidler. In just this short piece alone, K-Ham describes his view of Genesis in the following ways: “taking God at His Word,” “taking Genesis at face value” and, simply, “what Genesis says.”

And he’s right, of course. Understanding the Genesis creation account is a cinch — all you have to do is read the thing. That’s why everyone who ever read it throughout all of history has always completely agreed on what it means (you know, until the scourges of humanity known as modern geology and biology began to rear their ugly heads).

In Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, K-Ham and Co. seem to think they’ve found an ally. As this extremely dated piece (it may be 30 years old, but it’s still hosted on AiG’s website) demonstrates, YECs believe Luther was staunchly opposed to evolution — a theory scientists wouldn’t even begin postulating on in any great detail until a couple centuries after the reformer’s death.

Like everything else in the brains of the AiGers, Luther’s views are (and must be) black and white. I wonder, then, what they would think of what he actually said when introducing his detailed lectures on Genesis in 1535 (emphases mine):

The first chapter is written in the simplest language; yet it contains matters of the utmost importance and very difficult to understand. It was for this reason, as St. Jerome asserts, that among the Hebrews it was forbidden for anyone under thirty to read the chapter or to expound it for others. They wanted one to have a good knowledge of the entire Scripture before getting to this chapter. [Antisemitic blather omitted.]

Until now, there has not been anyone in the church, either, who has explained everything in the chapter with adequate skill. The commentators, with their sundry, different and countless questions, have so confused everything in the chapter as to make it clear enough that God has reserved His exalted wisdom and the correct understanding of this chapter for Himself alone, although He has left with us this general knowledge that the world had a beginning and that it was created by God out of nothing. This general knowledge is clearly drawn from the text. As to particulars, however, there are differences of opinion about very many things, and countless questions are raised at one point or another.

There’s a common thread I’ve noticed in at least a few theologians, that the more they really study the book of Genesis, the less absolutely sure of its meaning they seem to be, and the more open they are to a variety of interpretations. I see this kind of attitude in Augustine, who was certainly no slouch in studying and writing about Genesis. In his “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis,” he advocated a view that was most certainly not a “face-value” kind of deal: that all of the first chapter of Genesis actually took place simultaneously, rather than in six literal, 24-hour days.

Now, I’m no unreserved fan of Martin Luther. The guy had more than a few loopy ideas. He believed that the Roman Catholic papacy was the Antichrist and wrote things about the Jewish people that make Pat Robertson look like a Care Bear (including calling them “poisonous envenomed worms” and straight-up advocating for their church-sanctioned murder).

But there is much in the above quote that I agree with. Whatever Luther’s eventual interpretation of Genesis 1 may have been, he clearly did not arrive at his view by simply reading through it once and “taking it as face value.” In fact, it appears he didn’t believe a complete understanding of the text was even possible.

The Bible is a complicated book, and it’s not a sin to say so. It was written thousands of years ago, by dozens of different authors (many of whom we know nothing or virtually nothing about), who lived in cultures that would be almost unrecognizable to most of us. Frankly, if you read the Bible and are never confused by anything you come across, I’d guess that you’re not paying very close attention.

I think it could do a world of good in the evangelical church if both sides of the evolution-creationism debate were to adopt a smidge more of this kind of humility.

Especially K-Ham.

Tyler Francke

  • Sam Haylor

    “Taking Genesis at face value” is just another way of saying the Bible means what it says, the same way the words of every author who has ever wanted to be understood have been written. Just like your blog post here. You meant to say something and I took your words to mean what they say. You weren’t secretly discussing the ability of pigs to sniff out truffles!

    However, just because we take somebody’s writing “at face value” it doesn’t mean their words are easy to understand. Challenging subjects take diligence and study to fully grasp. We’d all be quantum physicists if that were not true! Yep, the Bible is a complicated book, but not incomprehensible and its message is not veiled in pretentious lyricism.

    • you missed the point. Gen 1 is not the whole bible, it is jus gen 1. some passages are more difficult than others, just because it is so doesn’t mean the whole bible is pretentious lyricism.

      • Sam Haylor

        Sorry, my bad. I thought Tyler’s point was that Genesis 1 is more difficult to understand than Ken Ham would lead us to believe, quoting Martin Luther as a historical example of great Christian minds who thought otherwise.

        In any case, thank you at least for proving my points that 1) Tyler meant what he said and that his point SHOULD be clear and, 2) Even though he meant what he said not everyone will get his point.

  • Amy Mantravadi

    Ah, Brother Martin. What a mixed blessing he is to us all. We love the courage he had to stand up against corruption, but we’re not so keen on his feelings about women, Jews, peasants, transubstantiation, infant baptism…well, the list depends on one’s own personal views. It appears that Luther was able to show some humility when it came to interpreting Genesis. Humility is one of those traits that gets a lot of positive mentions in the Bible. In fact, while I’m not 100% sure about things being created in six literal days, I am 100% sure that we all ought to be embracing humility. Yet, I find that people often want to interpret the six days literally but find a loophole for themselves on the whole humility thing – not officially, of course, but in the reality of their actions. On an unrelated note, perhaps you can tell me if Luther also condemned nuclear weapons at the same time he condemned Darwinism? I mean, I know they weren’t invented until the 1940s, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

    • On an unrelated note, perhaps you can tell me if Luther also condemned nuclear weapons at the same time he condemned Darwinism? I mean, I know they weren’t invented until the 1940s, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

      Of course that’s not a problem! I’m not sure how he felt about nuclear weapons, but somehow we are sure that he opposed same-sex marriage and Roe v. Wade.

      • Amy Mantravadi

        I think it would be pretty hard to determine Luther’s views on same-sex marriage when his view on bigamy is still debated. Sorry, Mr. Luther – I know that was a low blow.