In its original context Genesis 1:1 served as a polemic against the dominant belief system of the time: polytheism. Polytheism affirms the existence of many gods. According to this belief system matter had always existed. Even the gods were generated from uncreated matter, and the present universe was created by the gods out of preexisting matter. Since the gods are generated by an impersonal force, it implies that this force, better known as Fate, and not any of the gods, is in control of the universe. In contrast, Genesis 1:1 teaches that an uncreated personal God created, and hence owns and governs, this universe.
Today, Genesis 1:1 serves as a polemic against the dominant belief systems of our time: materialism and pantheism. Both these systems deny that God created the universe. Both affirm that the universe has always existed and hence had no beginning. Materialism, also known as naturalism, affirms that only the material exists; the spiritual does not exist. This rules out the existence of God and the human soul. Hence materialism implies atheism. Materialism is similar to polytheism in that both affirm that life (in the case of polytheism, divine life) is generated from uncreated matter. Materialism undergirds the theory of evolution.
Pantheism on the other hand affirms that only the spiritual exists; what we consider material is only an illusion. Everything in the universe, including human beings, is just different manifestations of one spiritual reality, one impersonal “God.” Hence everything is one, and everything is “God.” If our experience of reality seems to be otherwise it is because we have not learned to see reality as it really is. Pantheism is similar to polytheism in that both affirm that an impersonal force is the ultimate reality in the universe. Pantheism undergirds New Age phenomena.
The belief system introduced in Genesis 1:1 is known as theism. It affirms the existence of a God who is beyond and distinct from the universe (He created it) as well as present and active in the universe (He sustains and governs it). Theism, like both pantheism and materialism, is a dogmatic presupposition. The dogmatic statement of Genesis 1:1 undergirds everything else taught in the Bible. We have the freedom to reject this presupposition as sheer myth. And we have the freedom whether to read the Bible or not. But if we choose to read the Bible we need to recognize that what the Bible teaches can only be understood in light of this presupposition. So unless we read the Bible with Genesis 1:1 in mind, we will likely misunderstand what the Bible teaches, and thus abuse it.
Mortimer Adler (1972: 292), who was chairman of the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, warned about two mistakes often made when reading a book built on dogmatic assumptions:
The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that, because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based on them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way.
In other words, to understand what the Bible teaches we need to accept, at least temporarily, what Genesis 1:1 affirms. Having thus understood what the Bible teaches we can still reject it. We may do so because we do not accept the presupposition upon which the arguments and conclusions are based. Or, even accepting the presupposition as true, we may find the arguments not valid and hence the conclusions not acceptable. In this way we know what it is that we are really rejecting, and why we are doing so.
As a result of the pervasive influence of the theory of evolution, and hence the materialist presupposition that undergirds it, many people reading the Bible today have intellectual problems with the supernatural elements in the Bible. For to those with a materialist mindset the supernatural is simply impossible. It is ruled out even before hearing it out. So when they read the Bible they get so distracted by what their presupposition rejects that they fail to understand the Biblical message. They are actually struggling with the Biblical presupposition and not the Biblical teaching, for they never really pay attention to what the Bible is really saying.
If they would accept what is presupposed in Genesis 1:1, at least temporarily, the supernatural elements in the Bible pose no intellectual problem at all. For as Ronald Nash (1998: 16) argues, “A God powerful enough to create the universe and the laws by which it operates can hardly have problems controlling the universe in ways that make possible such extraordinary events as miracles, prophecy, and providence [and answers to prayers].” Let us be reminded by Adler’s warning that though Nash’s argument is based on a dogmatic presupposition (Genesis 1:1), the conclusions he makes about extraordinary events are not themselves dogmatic presuppositions but logical implications.
However, a person with a materialist mindset would think that accepting the dogmatic presupposition of Genesis 1:1, even temporarily, would be committing intellectual suicide. There is really no need to feel this way, especially in light of the Big Bang theory, currently the standard scientific theory on the origin of the universe. The following confession of astronomer Robert Jastrow (1991: 106-107), a self-professed agnostic, is self-explanatory:
Science has proven that the Universe exploded into being at a certain moment [the Big Bang theory]. It asks, What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? ... And science cannot answer these questions. ... The scientist's pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.
This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. ... For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Materialist scientists may not accept Jastrow’s straightforward interpretation of the Big Bang theory in terms of “the moment of creation.” They may prefer alternative interpretations that are consistent with their dogmatic presupposition that the universe had no beginning. Others who do, may come up with theories to explain how the universe could somehow be “created” without God. But even then they cannot now claim that accepting Genesis 1:1 as a working presupposition is intellectual suicide. For as supposed by Jastrow, Genesis 1:1 is logically the most sensible explanation for the Big Bang theory, even from the scientific point of view.
Furthermore theism is also intellectually defensible, and it has experienced a remarkable resurrection in academic philosophy. In an academic book on the history, defense and implications of atheism, theist William Lane Craig was given the space of a short chapter to present the theist case against atheism. In that chapter Craig (2006: 84) reports,
In 1980 Time marveled, "In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse" ("Modernizing the Case for God," Time April 7, 1980, 65-66). The article cites the late Roderick Chisholm to the effect that the reason atheism was so influential a generation ago is that the brightest philosophers were atheists; but today, in his opinion, many of the brightest philosophers are theists, using a tough-minded intellectualism in defense of their belief.
Quentin Smith is one of the philosophers who argue for atheism in this book. In a 2001 journal article he said, "God is not 'dead' in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments" (Smith 2001: 197; cited in Craig 2006: 70).
What then would it be like if we read the Bible consistently in the light of the dogmatic presupposition of Genesis 1:1? This in fact is what we plan to do in the exposition that follows. We will focus on the Old Testament, making occasional references to the New Testament when this enhances our understanding of the Old Testament.