Tim Keller—popular theologian and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City—is outspoken about his belief in evolution. He’s a featured speaker at BioLogos conferences,1 along with other Christian leaders such as Philip Yancy, Os Guinness, Dallas Willard, NT Wright, Joel Hunter, and Andy Crouch.1 The stated mission of BioLogos is to help the church come to grips with and accept the theory of evolution. In their own words,
BioLogos invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.2
In 2012, Dr. Keller wrote a series of articles featured on the BioLogos website where he cites a discrepancy in the book of Genesis. In his view, Genesis chapter 1 directly contradicts Genesis chapter 2 in regard to the order of plant creation. He concludes from this that Genesis 1 should not be taken literally and was never meant to be taken literally.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the view that the author of Genesis 1 did not want to be taken literally is a comparison of the order of creative acts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Genesis 1 shows us an order of creation that does not follow a ‘natural order’ at all. For example, there is light (Day 1) before there are any sources of light–the sun, moon, and stars (Day 4). There is vegetation (Day 3) before there was any atmosphere (Day 4 when the sun was made) and, therefore, there was vegetation before rain was possible. Of course, this is not a problem per se for an omnipotent God.
But Genesis 2:5 says: “When the Lord God made the earth and heavens–and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, because the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth, and there was no man to work the ground.”3 (underline and emphasis mine)
The argument is pretty straightforward. In chapter 1, plants are created on day 3, prior to the sun, atmosphere and rain. But, in chapter 2, plants don’t appear (ostensibly) until after the sun, atmosphere and rain are in existence. Since both can’t be literally true, we’re left with a terrible choice.
….we may read the order of events as literal in Genesis 2 but not in Genesis 1, or (much, much more unlikely) we may read them as literal in Genesis 1 but not in Genesis 2. But in any case, you can’t read them both as straightforward accounts of historical events. Indeed, if they are both to be read literalistically, why would the author have combined the accounts, since they are (on that reading) incompatible?3
Does Dr. Keller have a point? Is there a plant creation contradiction in Genesis?
Let me just say, first, what a sad day it would be if Christians really had to make choices like these. What a horrible message for our children. “Hey kids, read these two accounts in the Bible. They contradict a little, but when that happens, we just take one of them figuratively and it all works out.” That’s not defending Scripture, that’s making excuses for it. The only real message the world gets from this is that we Christians really don’t believe our Bibles.
The good news is, there are no contradictions in the early chapters of Genesis. Dr. Keller has merely committed an equivocation fallacy. Perhaps unaware, he has conflated two terms—”vegetation” (ch. 1) with “plants of the field” (ch. 2).
Chapter 1 speaks of the creation of vegetation—a general term for all the plants of the earth. (I’ll be quoting the ESV in this article)
Gen. 1:11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (emphasis and underline mine)
The Hebrew word here is desheh. Most modern translations render it “vegetation” (NIV, ESV, NASB). It’s a broad term which would encompass the examples the author gives, like seed-bearing plants and trees. It is very obvious from the context this refers to all the vegetation on the entire earth. All were created on day 3 and, yes, even before the sun was created or any rain had fallen on the earth. (His other arguments have no basis. The atmosphere was created on day 2, being part of the expanse, and light was created on day 1.)
Chapter 2, on the other hand, speaks of bushes of the field and plants of the field.
Gen. 2:5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground… (emphasis and underline mine)
Notice, first, that completely different words are used to identify these plants. Rather than a general term like vegetation, the author speaks of bushes and plants “of the field.”4 This is significant, as it conveys the idea of cultivated plants, or farmed plants. These are not references to plants in general, but to specific kinds of plants—field plants.
Fields, as the English term indicates, were relatively flat sections of land on which the original families of the earth planted their farms and orchards. They were ideal for cultivation. Thus, cultivated plants and trees became known as plants and trees of the field.
References to field cultivation in the Old Testament
Now, in case there is any doubt as to how the term “plant of the field” was intended by the author, a quick survey of similar terms in the Old Testament should remove it. All throughout the Old Testament we see the term sadeh (field) used in similar phrases to convey the idea of farm produce. Immediately after the Fall, God said to Adam,
Gen. 3:17 …“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (emphasis and underline mine)
God, here, is not telling Adam to go and gather wild berries from the rainforest or hillsides. Rather, with great patience and diligence, Adam was to grow crops in fields from which he would make bread. His livelihood was to come from the field.
You’ll recall Joseph’s dream, which offended his brothers, consisted of sheaves in a field bowing down to a single sheaf (Gen. 37:6-8). This is a very clear reference to crops grown in fields.
During the seven years of plenty in Egypt, Joseph was said to gather the food to the cities from the fields that surrounded them.
Gen. 41:48 and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. 49 And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured. (emphasis and underline mine)
You’ll recall, later, God sending hail and locust to devastate the plants and trees of these fields owned by the Egyptians.
Ex. 9:22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, so that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and beast and every plant of the field, in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. (emphasis and underline mine)
Exodus 22:5 speaks of paying restitution from the best of one’s field—an obvious reference to his cultivated produce. God commanded the Israelites to offer their sowings and gathers from their fields.
Ex. 23:15 “….None shall appear before me empty-handed. 16 You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. (emphasis and underline mine)
You’ll recall levitical laws prohibiting the mixing of seeds in the field (Lev. 19:19)—an obvious reference to cultivated plants. And there’s the story of Ruth gleaning ears of grain in the fields of Boaz (Ruth 2:2). Anyone who knows the story knows this is not a reference to some wild rainforest, but to farm groves.
And let’s not forget the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 who purchased a field for a vineyard.
Proverbs 31:16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. (emphasis and underline mine)
Missing the Point
To the contextual reader, the mention of field plants in chapter 2 makes perfect sense, as it is an account of the first cultivated garden-orchard—the Garden of Eden. The author is simply telling us that no manmade gardens preceded it.
But somehow, Dr. Keller misses this entire context. He even missed the point that the Garden of Eden itself preceded the first day of rain, which also would be a violation of the “natural order.” The text specifically says that God caused a mist (or perhaps streams) to come up from the ground and irrigate the ground (Gen. 2:6). So many wonderful details are missed when the text is approached with an agenda.
Perhaps the saddest commentary on all of this is that Dr. Keller and others have missed the point of both Genesis 1 and 2, and missed the blessing of hearing and believing God’s word. Chapter 1:1-2:4 is a wonderful account of the miraculous creation of the universe. There’s no reason to shy away from the miraculous aspects of the creation. It doesn’t make us anti-science, anymore than belief in the Resurrection makes us anti-medical science. Chapter 2, likewise is a wonderful account of the creation of Adam and Eve and the planting of their cultivated Garden home. It’s a closer look at the events that transpired on day 6. Both accounts are straightforward, historical and complementary. There is no plant creation contradiction in Genesis.
How do otherwise good theologians make such obvious errors in Genesis? Is it merely a case of poor exegesis? I doubt it. Since the birth of the church, Christians have incessantly desired acceptance from the majority scientists of their day. We saw this in Galileo’s day when geocentrism was the majority science, and most theologians read it into the text. Today, most theologians want to be in line with majority options about the age of the earth, and more and more, with evolutionary thinking, evidenced by organizations like BioLogos. Tim Keller makes it very clear why he desires this.
Many believers in western culture see the medical and technological advances achieved through science and are grateful for them. They have a very positive view of science. How, then, can they reconcile what science seems to tell them about evolution with their traditional theological beliefs? Seekers and inquirers about Christianity can be even more perplexed. They may be drawn to many things about the Christian faith, but, they say, “I don’t see how I can believe the Bible if that means I have to reject science.”3
There is no doubt in my mind, this is the true driving force behind his approach to Genesis. He sees the straightforward account as an attack on science. To embrace the origins story of the Bible, is to deny all the wonderful things science has accomplished. That’s a powerful emotional driver which is difficult to overcome.
The irony is, even Dr. Keller denies science when it suits his theological preferences. He would definitely admit there is no way to reconcile other miracles of the Bible with science. The Resurrection can never be reconciled with modern medical science. Men simply don’t rise again the 3rd day after being brutally murdered. Certainly, Dr. Keller would never be concerned about this violation of science. Yet, the miraculous Creation remains a stumbling block. Given his influence, I can only hope and pray for a change of heart.
A response to Timothy Keller’s ‘Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople’
Lita Cosner – Creation Ministries International
An Understanding of Genesis 2:5
Michael J. Kruger – Creation Ministries International
Further Reading on Biologos
Throwing the Bible Under the Bus
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Purpose-driven Drift: Francis Collins and the Doctrine of BioLogos
Lawrence E. Ford, Sr. – Institute for Creation Research
1. BioLogos “About Page—Our History” (http://biologos.org/about/history)
2. BioLogos “About Page—What We Believe” (http://biologos.org/about)
3. Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” BioLogos, February 23-March 30, 2012 (http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf)
4. The Hebrew nouns translated “bush” and “plant” are in the construct state of a Hebrew construct chain. The Hebrew word for field, sadeh, is in the absolute state. This indicates the genitive case and therefore the phrases are translated bushes of and plants of the field.