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See also articles by Dennis Gordon in Christian Odyssey magazine:
J. Michael Feazell: Well, Dennis, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us. It’s been a long journey to get here from New Zealand through Orlando, through Germany, but we’re glad you’re here today. Would you mind beginning by telling us your story of how you became a Christian?
Dennis Gordon: I became a Christian at the age of 28 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was doing my doctorate there, and the year was 1973. In fact, I became a Christian in the same year that I got my doctorate. But what led up to that was that I caught the World Tomorrow broadcast on the local country-western radio station…not that I was interested in the music. In fact, one of the reasons that I listened to the program was so I didn’t have to listen to country-western music. The program was interesting. I was biblically illiterate, and the broadcast raised a number of interesting questions, among which was origins. The fact that the view espoused in the program was an old-earth one as opposed to a young-earth one caught my interest because the young-earth controversy was quite alive and well back in 1973.
JMF: Well, as a parenthetical, tell us what young-earth and old-earth is all about.
DG: The young-earth idea is that the universe and planet earth are not more than 6,000 to 10,000 years old. That idea is taken from Genesis 1 according to a particular interpretation of what Genesis 1 is saying.
An old-earth view would acknowledge that the universe is as old as scientists say it is, but at the time, what was also presented was the “gap theory,” that between Genesis 1:1 which is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and the second verse which says, “And then the earth was without form and void,” and the idea was that something happened between an original creation, which could be very old, and a re-creation, which might have happened only 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. So those were the two ideas. The fact that the program did not espouse a young-earth idea grabbed my attention. It had some credibility in my mind.
JMF: And so from there you became more involved with the church…
DG: Yes. I got listening to the broadcast on a regular basis over a period of a couple of years and then I started writing to the church, to the Personal Correspondence Department, and received some answers that were quite well thought out. There was a “hook,” you might say. It turned out that God was calling me, and I responded to that. It became so compelling at one point that I simply couldn’t deny this…when God really reveals himself to you, there comes a point in time where you can’t deny that, where you simply have to respond and make a choice, and that’s what I did. So I was baptized on March 11, 1973. Haven’t looked back since.
JMF: And at that time you were in your doctoral studies.
JMF: Can you tell us about that trajectory? How you got into marine biology and how things progressed?
DG: I’ve always, ever since a child, been interested in nature. There’s something about the living environment that is beautiful and interesting and attractive, and it just draws you in. Not everybody necessarily is wired that way, but I was. I didn’t necessarily think that that would be my vocation in life. In fact, I always wanted from a young age to be a schoolteacher. I always wanted to teach. I ended up teaching, but not the way that I expected.
So I was drawn into that, and I went to university and I studied botany and I studied zoology, and I eventually majored in zoology and then I focused narrowly again into marine zoology and looked around for a place where I could do a doctorate, and it turned out to be Dalhousie University in Halifax, which is a very good school. They have a fantastic school of oceanography there, and that’s where I enrolled. I did my doctorate looking at the anatomy and aging process in a marine fouling invertebrate.
JMF: As you were going through that whole process of getting up to the point of narrowing down, working on your doctorate and so on, and before you began to read the Bible…had you ever had any thoughts about creation versus evolution, or it just hadn’t come up, or?
DG: Yes. I had had to think about that because in university, one is presented with an evolutionary viewpoint. That seemed perfectly rational and reasonable at the time. When I became interested in the church, when I was receiving the church’s literature, it presented a different viewpoint. But because God was calling me, and there’s a certain compulsion of that, you approach the Bible then with a certain respect, and if people are saying that the Bible says such and such, you have to take that on board and say maybe the evolutionary viewpoint that I’ve been exposed to, maybe that wasn’t altogether correct.
So, over the course of my 42 years as a research scientist (My first published paper was in 1968, when I was a master’s student, so that was 42 years ago), I’ve been on both sides of this controversy. I went from believing in evolution, to being not really sure, to then disbelieving in evolution, to then reconsidering it again, because in the course of my career one of the things I started studying was fossils.
You can’t study fossils for very long without having to consider the very hard questions. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the difficult questions. So I had to confront the issue, well, what is the fossil record telling me? In terms of my own expertise, as I specialize in a particular group of marine invertebrates which has a fantastic fossil record, so, as a consequence of that I had to confront the question, and then I began gradually more and more to see that the evidence for evolution was really quite compelling, and indisputable.
So then I had to then think, all right, if that’s the case, what is then that telling me about God? And what then is that telling me about Genesis? I said, maybe people have been misreading Genesis. Of course, not everybody believes in a young-earth explanation. In fact, I find the minority believe in a young-earth explanation. The Roman Catholic Church, with nominally more than a billion members, officially believes in biological evolution. The same is true of the Anglican Church, officially. Young-earth creationism is currently very popular and has been for many decades now. So I really had to consider all of those issues. So, in fact, the world turned full circle, and I now fully believe in the reality of biological evolution. That does not one whit diminish God in my mind. As a matter of fact, it makes him bigger.
JMF: A lot of people, having to confront that question, are afraid to go there, as it were, because they’re worried that somehow that would be undermining the account in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and that that might somehow cause an avalanche of, “Well, if I read Genesis that way, then where does it stop? Am I going to eventually throw out the whole Bible? Is that what you people are trying to get me to do?”
When you began to see that your assumptions about evolution when you became a Christian might need to be reconsidered, how did you approach Genesis? How did that affect your faith and how did you work through those passages?
DG: It didn’t affect my faith at all, and it hasn’t affected my faith. My faith has grown over the years because in the end my faith is in Jesus Christ, and one’s faith and commitment to Jesus is a consequence of the action of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. That’s where that comes from.
In approaching Genesis, one has to ask the question, is there more than one way of reading Genesis? You know, maybe the young-earth creationists were not correct in this regard. It comes down to the point, why is it necessary to read Genesis 1 absolutely literally? Why can it not be read in some other kind of way?
There’s nothing new about that concept — it’s at least as old as Augustine, who said that we should be careful how we read the Bible lest we read into it, in fact, what is not there. He, at least, would say that an allegorical understanding is at least possible. So this is what people, I think, should at least consider — is an allegorical approach possible? Is there more than one way of reading Genesis 1, and …
JMF: Some might wonder, what is an allegorical approach to reading something?
DG: It’s a kind of figurative approach. In other words, is Genesis 1 written in such a way that it is communicating a spiritual truth in a non-literal way? In fact, that’s exactly what it is doing.
JMF: Many would feel that if you don’t read the Bible in a literal way, that you’re watering down the message and you’re not taking it seriously unless you read it literally. Can you comment on that?
DG: It really comes down to how we read the Bible in the first place. The Bible is a remarkable book written over more than a period of 1000 years by 40 different authors, and it constitutes many different forms of literature as well. When we read Genesis 1, we tend to read it superficially. We’re completely unaware of the structure that’s actually in the chapter. It really comes down to the whole issue of exegesis…
JMF: And exegesis is…
DG: Exegesis asks certain questions concerning the Bible. We want to know, for example, why a particular passage was written. What was the historical or cultural context? What was the setting? What were the issues? Who was the writer? Who was the audience? Why was it written? What was the point of it all? We really need to do our homework on that and address those questions. Once we see the context, it can shed a great deal of light on particular passages.
The same is true of Genesis 1. The context for the whole book of Genesis is the Exodus [of the Israelites out of Egypt]. If we really want to understand Genesis 1 or indeed the whole book of Genesis, we have to read it in the light of the Exodus. That’s the context. If we take Moses as the traditional author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and if he’s writing this at the time when a people who were formerly in bondage to slavery are now in the process of being redeemed and on their way to salvation and the promised land, that’s the context (much as our lives in terms of Christians are like that. We have been redeemed, and salvation for us is a process which will be fully realized at the return of Jesus Christ).
So the context for Genesis is the Exodus. We have a fledgling nation who are going into a land of promise, and God, thorough Moses, is giving them a future in relation to their present. He’s also giving them a past. How do they come to be where they are? Much of which may have been retained, but some of which may have been forgotten through part of that slave population during the years of slavery and captivity. So that’s the context.
Moses is connecting Israel with a past as well as giving them a future. If we ask, what is the context of Genesis in relation to their past… Genesis is divided into two major parts. The first 11 chapters deal with what we might call primeval history. A history that is largely based on oral traditions and things that Moses may have learned when he was taught in Egypt in an academic way, traditions that may have been communicated through the patriarchs. Remember, Abraham came out of Mesopotamia — that was his background, and there would have been traditions that came out of Mesopotamia that may have been transmitted down through his generations as well.
So what Moses does in relation to Genesis and connecting it to the Exodus is he gives them a past. He connects Israel with the ultimate origins — that the God whom they worship, the God of the Hebrews is the God who is the Creator. The reason for that is that the pagans worship all sorts of things in nature. In Egypt, there were gods of the sun and gods of darkness and gods for animals and vegetation and rivers and so on. The God of the Hebrews is the God who created all the things that the pagans worship. That’s the chief point of Genesis 1, is to show that — that there is one God, that there are not many gods.
You could take the Flood story for example. Why is the Flood story in Genesis? The Flood story is a story of redemption and salvation. What Moses is doing in the Flood story is, he is reinforcing in the mind of the Israelites that their God is a God of redemption and salvation. Through the patriarchs, he is also reminding them that God is a God who is faithful to his covenant relationships. The promise that God made to Noah is faithful to that.
The Flood story, and I’m sort of digressing a little here, but the Flood story is a very interesting story which is crafted very carefully and in a particular way. It’s called a chiasm, where the elements of the story going into the middle of the story are exactly balanced and reversed by the elements going out of the story. Even in terms of the numbers in the Flood account — 7, 40, 150, 40, and 7. There’s an exact balance.
When you look at the structure, you think, that’s very interesting. Maybe there’s an artificial structure in there which is being used to convey the story. In the middle of the Flood story, in the middle of that chiasm, is the line that says, “And God remembered Noah.” That’s the main point of the story. The hero of the Flood story is not Noah, it’s God. Because God is a God who is faithful to his promises, and he is a God of redemption and salvation. So all of this is important for Israel in transitioning from where they were, to where they’re going. Genesis has to be seen in that context.
JMF: So when we come to Genesis and begin to read the order day by day as things are being created, Genesis is not the only epic creation story from ancient times, and each of those have, as you said, multiple gods, multiple players who are involved, but this story in Genesis is unique in that there’s one God and he’s also the God of Israel, of course. And, each day the things that are listed that are created are the gods that you find in some of the other creation epics. That’s allegorical and figurative, as opposed to literal.
DG: Yes. Genesis 1 actually is a superb piece of literature. Some scholars consider it a literary masterpiece. When you look at the detailed structure of Genesis 1, you can see that it is very carefully crafted. If you compare it to the pagan cosmogonies, their creation stories, Genesis 1 stands out in relation to those. The pagan cosmogonies are very complex and convoluted, and they include stories of chaos (usually a watery chaos) and darkness and sea monsters.
Genesis 1 uses some of the language of the pagan cosmogonies, drawing upon a common pool that people were familiar with, but recasting it to tell a proper theology about the God of Israel. Genesis 1 has a structure that most people don’t even notice when they’re reading over it, but it’s one that Augustine noticed way back when he lived. Genesis 1 starts up, Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”And Genesis 2:1, at the end of that story says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were created.” And in between those two verses is the account of that actual creation.
What was created on days one through six is the heavens and the earth. Exactly how does that work out? Genesis 1:2 is very interesting, because then it says, “And the earth was without form and void” (in the Old King James Version of the Bible). Formless and empty – that’s the starting condition. It says, “And darkness was on the face of the deep.” Even before you have the creation of the six days, you have something that’s already existing, namely, a watery surface, and the Spirit of God is brooding over that. That’s your starting point.
It says specifically that it was formless and empty. Why is Moses writing that? He’s writing that because Moses wants to show that the God of the Hebrews, God of Israel, is able to structure the cosmos and then populate the cosmos. The first three days have to do with structuring. In fact, you can talk about the three separations. The word create, bara, which is something only God can do, is something used three times in Genesis 1. In the third time, it’s used three times in one verse.
On day one, God separates the light from the dark. On day two, he separates the waters above from the waters below, and on day three he separates the land from the waters. So we have the structuring. So what was formless, in Hebrew tohu va bohu, void and empty, so what was formless was now formed. So that solves that problem on the first three days.
What God then does in the second set of three days is solve the second problem, of emptiness, and then God populates each of the realms that he structured on the first three days. So on the first day we have the separation of day from night, and what do we populate that realm with, if not the sun and the moon and the stars? Then on day two we separate the waters above from the waters below, and what do we see populating those realms, but the birds in the upper atmosphere and the fish in the sea? Then on day six, the land animals and human beings populating that realm that was formed on day three, and that solves the problem of emptiness.
And so in that account, Moses is showing that the God of Israel is the God who is greater than all forces and life and everything. But incidentally, as you’ve pointed out, on each of those days Moses is taking elements that the pagans worship and showing that things that the pagans worship were, in fact, creations of the one true God. There’s a definite structure in there. We see that six plus one or, in fact, three plus three plus one framework, is just that, it’s a structural framework on which to hang that story.
JMF: So, in Genesis, the God of Israel is actually creating, structuring, and manipulating to his own pleasure everything that the pagan cosmogonies are holding up as gods — the still water, the canopy of the sky, down to the crocodiles and everything that Egyptians worshiped, the rivers, the sweet waters, and all those things that become the gods of the ancient cosmogonies. It’s really a very theological statement, a declaration, as opposed to some kind of scientific day-by-day “here’s how God created”…
DG: [A scientific description] is not at all the point of it. The issue is polytheism, many gods, versus monotheism or one God. That’s the issue. That was the issue for Israel, because when they were to come into the promised land and beyond. So many times we read in the Old Testament how the prophets lamented that the people of God kept whoring after other gods. It seems that they constantly had to be reminded that there was one God, the one true God of Israel, not a whole host of gods. It was an issue, a critical issue for them. In Genesis 1 God is establishing from the outset that the God of Israel is the Creator God. That’s the issue, that’s the context. Again, the Exodus is the context in which we read Genesis.
In the first 11 chapters and beyond, what else does Moses do? Well, there are lots of genealogies. The genealogies connect Israel with Adam, to show that they have an origination. And then Genesis 12-50, the larger part of the book of Genesis, deals with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then this fantastic story of Joseph and the 12 tribes of Israel, and that then takes you up to the Exodus story. That’s what Moses is doing – he is making that connection from the beginning to the end. But again, it’s set in the context of the Exodus. God is a God who is bringing about redemption and salvation, and he’s the Creator God, what is more.
JMF: So you’ve got a declaration of who God is, you’ve got then a declaration of who Israel is in light of who God is, and that is all leading, of course, to the matrix from which the Messiah would come, and we move into John 1:1 and we find that behind all this all along, the Son of God himself is this Messiah who emerges out of Israel, whom God formed from the beginning, and the whole story adheres together in a way that you really can’t see if you’re focused on trying to make Genesis 1 a science book.
DG: Precisely. It does a grave disservice to Genesis to do that, because we’re bringing in our own 21st-century issues and mindset and orientation, and imposing it in the Scripture or context where it doesn’t belong. So, in fact, a young earth and insistence on a literal day-by-day interpretation does violence both to Scripture and to science. But in any case, going back to this whole issue of addressing monotheism versus polytheism in Genesis 1, in many ways it’s actually quite amusing.
The Mesopotamian cosmogonies held the stars, or the deities associated with the stars, to be the highest of all deities. Next, the moon, and next, the sun. On day four in Genesis 1:16 we have this line, “And God created the greater light to rule by day and the lesser light to rule by night, and he made the stars too.” When you understand what’s going on, that’s actually a very amusing verse, because it deliberately reverses the importance of those divinities that’s in the pagan gods’ cosmologies. Instead of the stars being the most important deities in this pantheon, they’re presented in a throw-away line, oh and God made the stars, too. That’s fantastic — a deliberate insult…
JMF: An afterthought (both laughing).
DG: But we may also ask, why does Moses use this curious expression, the greater light and the lesser light?
JMF: Well, let’s hold that thought and we’ll be back with part two, and we’ll carry on from there.
DG: You’re welcome.