A response to J.P. Dickson

Twenty years ago a minister of a large evangelical/reformed congregation in Holland was preaching on Genesis 1: Of course Moses did not write it. The Israelites only had a Bible with stories about Abraham and after. The rest was invented during the Babylonian captivity when Jewish children asked their parents about the origins of the world. Please don’t ask whether Genesis 1 happened historically. It is just a religious way of saying that sometime, somehow, God stood at the beginning of everything. There is no conflict between evolutionistic science and the Bible.

Over the last few years this same approach is preached in Australia, also in circles with a strong reformed inheritance. John P. Dickson (a prominent spokesperson in the Anglican diocese of Sydney) has been encouraging a “symbolic reading” of Genesis 1 and the creation story. In this way, like many scholars in non- or formerly-evangelical churches before him, he tries to create a ‘safe haven’ for faith and Scripture in the onslaught of Neo-Darwinism and other secular scientific views on the origin of man. It doesn’t matter what scientific view you hold to, Genesis 1 always fits the bill. Or so Dickson claims.

This article considers Dickson’s views, their doctrinal implications and the patristic sources that he calls in to support his theory.1

The way Dickson deals with the Church fathers sheds light on his methodology, so this is a good starting point to evaluate his approach. He claims that his kind of symbolic reading of Genesis has existed for many centuries and found a place in Jewish and Christian tradition. Through Philo of Alexandria, Clement of the same city, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo a symbolic approach to Genesis 1 claims an accepted place among Judaism and Christianity alike. At least, that is the idea. Is this really so? Is there a possibility that Dickson’s claims rest on hearsay, rather than a careful consultation of the primary sources?

Philo Judæus (c. 20 BC – AD 50)

Dickson quotes from Colson and Whitaker’s introduction to the Loeb edition of Philo (dating back to 1929) to pave the way for his non-literalistic reading of the days in Genesis 1.

By ‘six days’ Moses does not indicate a space of time in which the world was made, but the principles of order and productivity which governed its making….

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