Should the Genesis Account of Creation Be Taken Literally Or Figuratively?

Ever since the dawn of Darwinism and the subsequent rise of Evolutionism, theologians have tried to wrestle with objections posed by science to the Creation account. The enormous amount of fossil records and proven accuracy of dating methods that try to figure out dates of each fossil along with other scientific researches are seen as a real issue that intellectual Christianity cannot be blind to. Many of the modern theologians and apologists have given in to some form of accommodation of evolutionary thinking, though trying to keep God in picture as the Prime Cause of all things. Most of them prefer a mythical or figurative interpretation of the Genesis account.

The Catholic Church doesn't ignore the possibility of biological evolution; however, it makes it clear that the theory of biological evolution cannot explain the creation of the human spirit that distinguishes humans from beasts. In his Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Oct 22, 1996, Pope John Paul II said:

...the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person. explains the position:
Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.

Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul.

British New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, has no interest in the literal interpretation of either Genesis 1-2 or a literal historical Adam. In his Surprise by Scripture (2014), he writes:
...just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God's purpose to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, was to be taken forward.

Notable apologist William Lane Craig opts for Progressive Creationism. In his words:
It seems to me that so-called progressive creationism would provide a nice model that would fit both the scientific evidence as well as the biblical data. Progressive creationism suggests that God intervenes periodically to bring about miraculously new forms of life and then allows evolutionary change to take place with respect to those life forms. As for grand evolutionary change, this would not take place by the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection if undirected by God. Rather, we would need miraculous creationist acts of God to intervene in the process of biological evolution to bring about grand evolutionary change. So we would have a kind of progressive creationism whereby God creates biological complexity over time.

...some sort of a progressive creationist view, I think, would explain the evidence quite well. It would allow you to affirm or deny if you wish the thesis of common ancestry and it would supplement the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection with divine intervention. I find some sort of progressive creationism to be an attractive view.

However, Craig is not dogmatic on this stance which he qualifies by saying, "I want to reiterate that on these issues I am like many of you a scientific layperson.... So these opinions are held tentatively and lightly and are subject to revision."

Irish theologian Alister McGrath also favors the non-literal interpretation, not just because of the scientific challenge but because he finds that the literal interpretation was not so popular in early church history. He finds, especially, Augustine's view quite liberating:

What I noticed in the earlier period of the Christian church is that people didn’t read Genesis in that way. I think we have more freedom about how we interpret these passages than some might think. There is no doubt [the Scriptures] teach God made all things. I don’t think they necessarily teach that God made all things instantaneously at one moment in time so that what we now see is the way things always have been. I think it’s more complex than that. Augustine of Hippo gives us a useful theological framework, which means we can begin to engage questions of evolution. You can’t simply say, “It’s the Bible or evolution.” Certainly, I would challenge certain interpretations of evolution—above all, Richard Dawkins’ idea, which is atheistic. I think we need to understand both evolution and Scripture rightly. (An Interview With Alister McGrath, DTS, Dec 2012)

Unsurprisingly, Augustine approaches the text with the culturally prevalent presupposition of the fixity of species and finds nothing in it to challenge his thinking on this point. Yet the ways in which he critiques contemporary authorities and his own experience suggest that, on this point at least, he would be open to correction in light of prevailing scientific opinion. ("Augustine's Origin of Species," CT, May 2009)

My Responses

The literal view of Genesis 1 and 2 may look quite embarrassing to theologians who wish to be or appear intellectually honest in face of surmounting scientific evidences that seem to favor anything but the literal biblical account of creation in Genesis. Some would better prefer to look at the two accounts as more poetic or figurative rather than factual narratives. Of course, the way the narrative is given does not give any hint of it being just a clever poem or illustrative myth.

I think the message of the cross is more foolish and scientifically impossible to the secular intellectual mind than the literal take of Genesis 1 and 2. What scientific mind can find the message of a Man (God Incarnate) being crucified for religious and political reasons on the cross as being the Sacrificial Atonement for the sins of all mankind?

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1Co 1:18)
...we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, (1Co 1:23)

But, the scientific understanding based on whatever dating technology (as accurate as these may be), and other discoveries, is not "necessarily" conclusive, given its inductive nature and the open possibilities of exceptions. We may laugh at Young Earth Creationists for trying to find evidences for a young earth, but do we know what we are actually doing by questioning the literal historicity of the Genesis account? You cannot sit on the outward end of a branch that you are actually sawing off.

We come to the question of Authority now. The enamor with intellectualism is somehow tied up with universities, professor quotes, appeal to authority fallacies, and various other forms of "authorities" that seem to stand against the authority of Scripture. It is not surprising that such enamor may lead to either seminaries becoming engulfed by universities (through affiliation or absorption) or becoming emptied by universities because they cannot any more retain students who they have educated to favor the universities. But, when it comes to intellectual honesty with faith, I do not think it is really honest to favor some parts of scripture as literal and others as probably figurative based on contemporary scientific understandings on the same theme. If you allow the camel to put his feet inside the tent, obviously, he is going to kick you out of the tent before dawn.

The literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 may look foolish and dumb to many. To many it does not. It makes better sense than the all the various theories of evolution put together. And the latter are certainly not unintelligent and dumb believers. They find it more consistent to believe in Scripture as inerrant and absolutely authoritative for all deductive interpretation and understanding of faith than allow the unstable darts of human wisdom to trouble them with ideas that are perpetually in a flux.

1. If Scriptural inerrancy is superfluous, then biblical faith has lost its basis. The same Scripture that gives an account of creation in six days states the event as the historical basis for the law of the sabbath or rest for the Israelites:
For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exo 20:11)
2. If it is scientifically unacceptable that God created Adam out of the dust literally, it should also be scientifically unacceptable that God incarnated as Man in Jesus.
The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. (1Co 15:47)
3. If Genesis 1-2 is taken figuratively only, it would follow that most of the book, if not at least till Genesis 11, cannot be taken literally anymore.

4. The non-literal view challenges the New Testament Gospel of Christ as our Saviour:
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. (1Co 15:22)

For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:17-19)
5. If the authority of Scriptures is subjected to the authority of "science" or intellectual elitism, God becomes subject to the imagination and formulations of the human mind; in short, idolatry.
6. Jesus didn't talk of the Genesis account as merely figurative but as historical and foundational to human values:
"But from the beginning of the creation, God`made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh'; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.' "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." (Mar 10:6-9)

See Also
Evolutionism & Living Reality
Problems of Evolutionism
A. E. Wildersmith - Media Library on Science & Bible
Australopithecus Deyiremeda: Strong Argument for Evolutionism?
Chesterton on Darwin's Missing Link
On Church and On Evolution - G K Chesterton
Creation & Evolution
The Anthropic Principle and Epistemic Issues