A Literary & Theological Reading of Genesis

imagesJust over a week ago, I posted an article about whether or not Paul’s theology of Christ requires a historical Adam. I was mainly interacting with Daniel Kirk’s article in Fuller Theological Seminary’s Spring 2013 issue of “Theology, News, and Notes”. His premise, as is mine, is that Adam might not be a factual, historical, literal person. However, this need not affect our theology of humanity, sin, and especially that of Christ!

Of course, much discussion arises from this topic today because of Christian engagement with some prevailing scientific views, mainly that of evolutionary biology and the hypotheses presented.

What I have found interesting in my interaction with some surrounding this topic is one particular argument that keeps surfacing. It goes something like this: Your view about what the text says or doesn’t say has already been concluded before engaging with the text.

Meaning that I and others have concluded Adam is not historical/does not have to be historical before actually exegeting what the biblical text communicates.

It’s a fair challenge.

However, I’d say this approach is not completely unbecoming to Christian theology.

Let me give you an example of how this unfolds in regards to other issues.

1) A spherical earth – We today believe that planet earth is in the shape of a sphere, rather than flat (and we also believe the earth is not the centre of our solar system). I confess that I actually arrive at this point of view without studying Scripture – mainly because I took science in elementary school. I’d say most folk in our world today believe the same. And, so, holding to the belief that the earth is not flat, one can enter Scripture using one of two approaches: 1) Though the Scripture speaks of the ‘four corners of the earth’ (Rev 7:1; 20:8) and that from the beginning the earth was set on a foundation of pillars (1 Sam 2:8; Job 9:6), this is merely poetic imagery. It’s not literally saying that the earth is flat. 2) It’s very likely that the ancients who wrote Scripture believed in a flat earth, one even lying on pillars. However, this ancient scientific view has no bearing on the intent of the God-breathed message set out in Scripture.

I’m happy either way. Still, there was a time and day when many people believed and argued for a non-spherical, flat earth, even believing the earth was at the centre of our solar system. This included church leaders. Therefore, to argue contrary to this prevailing, flat-earth view was to put oneself in harm’s way of being identified as a heretic. However, we’re all thankful for astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo, those scientists, that helped bring us all to a better understanding of the great cosmos which God created.

The point remains, at least as I understand it – Though the authors of Scripture touch on the cosmos, there was no detailed intent to communicate scientific cosmology. And I imagine that the ancients held to an ancient understanding of the cosmos. However, such statements, though technically ‘wrong’ (in a modern sense of the word), should not discredit the goal of Scripture.

2) Slavery – Modern folk believe that slavery is a horrific atrocity. Though it exists today in many secretive forms through various kinds of trafficking, no one holds it as an acceptable practice. However, turning to the pages of Scripture, we find ourselves with at least two possible options: 1) Scripture, at least bearing in mind the full text that includes the New Testament, does not teach that slavery is acceptable. 2) Scripture does not directly declare slavery as wrong, but we do find a theological trajectory, a path set in motion via the New Testament teaching, that leads us to reasonably conclude that God does not approve of slavery. Well, I suppose a third option is that slavery is sanctioned within Scripture and therefore we should allow for it (and this argument was put forth a couple of centuries ago).

Still, I believe option 2 is the better explanation. And this is why I think a socio-theological view on particular issues can be formed para-Scripture, or outside a sole reading of the text. I can’t quote a specific verse that says: Slavery is an atrocious sin. Nonetheless, when considering passages like Paul’s new creation thought (i.e. 2 Cor 5:16-17 and Gal 3:26-29), we can deduce that the practice of slavery does not fall in line with the design of God as seen in Christ.

This is why we have doctrinal development not only over the sweep of Scripture, but even following the closing of the Scripture canon. This stands true for much of our theology, including doctrinal stances on the Trinity and Christ. Many recognise that, though certain statements are not explicitly made in Scripture, we can deduce that they were implied in some manner. There was a course set within Scripture to lead us to formulate certain theological positions. I think this becomes clearer when we compare the Jewish narrative historical framework of the first century with later historical frameworks in the Roman empire, medieval world and modern western world. They don’t always line up so nice and neatly.

Interestingly enough, Scot McKnight has a post at the Jesus Creed blog about how orthodox theology developed over time. It took some centuries to really finely tune essential doctrine within the church, not to mention on settling for a canon of Scripture (which still varies across different branches of the church). None of this was instantaneous, able to be zapped in the microwave for a few minutes. And I might add that theology continues to develop even into the present as we humbly engage with Scripture, the church historic, and even current matters within our world context. This becomes relevant as we engage areas of science today.

And, so, though contrary to the belief of many evangelicals, the formation of healthy theology is not simply a matter of asking: ‘What does the text say?’ To claim such can be quite naive. There are a whole host of realities that help us understand Scripture, such as trying to understand the worldview, culture and life of ancient communities living long, long, long ago. Those are the ones who passed onto us holy Scripture. Nor can we forget how our own modern worldview can hamper understanding their framework as well.

Of course, problems can abound when already formulated opinions have settled without consideration of what the text of Scripture claims. But such is the consequence, a good one in many respects, when we champion the priesthood of all believers and that every person (Christian or not) should be allowed their own copy of Scripture. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

But back to Genesis.

To argue that Scripture is abundantly clear as to the literal-historical nature of Adam, 6-day creation and a few other elements within the Genesis account really puts us in a pickle. To claim such a lucidity about the Bible, no matter what science communicates about the age of the earth, evolution, etc, can build a wall of disillusionment.

Remember, science told us the earth was not at the centre of our planetary system. But such a belief was once deemed heretical. Every time you swallow some form of medicine, you are accepting the positive findings of science.

Yeah, but this is different, Scott. Science, at least in regards to origins and evolution, is still changing it’s opinion on a regular basis.

True, science adapts as more information becomes available. It adapted with regards to cosmology; it adapted as to how old our universe is; it adapted to flood geology; it adapted its perspective on biology; there are even changes in the science of medicine; and so much more. That’s the thing. Science adapts as new material is uncovered. It’s never perfect. And we don’t even have to make it top priority. I do not suggest we hold to sola scientia nor prima scientia. But we use it as one gift, one tool, to engage with God’s good world.

As I’ve said before, it’s funny how science is always a blessing when it supports us where we need support. But it’s an evil, conniving menace when it counters the theological babies we hold so dearly.

Bouteneff-ds3But let’s throw out the whole science question for now. Let’s simply engage with the ancients’ perspective on narrative, on storied accounts, especially in Scripture. This is why I’m finding Peter Bouteneff’s work quite intriguing. It’s entitled Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives.

In the book, Bouteneff communicates how the early church fathers had varying readings and perspectives on the creation narratives given us in Genesis. Not only that, but there are differing views on Paul’s own writings, especially those all-important ones in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15. These two passages are a bedrock for the claim that Adam is clearly a historical, factual person.

But what’s interesting to note is how the church fathers of old – ones like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, etc – held quite broad viewpoints on these portions of Scripture, even while remaining in a more ancient scientific worldview. And I think this gives space for a more literary-theological reading of the narrative of Scripture than literal-theological.

Now, I’m aware that current scholarship rejects the more allegorical readings of Genesis, as taken up especially by people like Philo of Alexandria (a Jew) and Origen. However, many of the fathers believe the creation narratives were not given as literal. They, instead, embraced the literary value and nature of the text. I believe Peter Enns explores this well in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation.

But back to Bouteneff’s work. Early on, he quotes from McCarthy and Riley’s text, The Old Testament Short Story:

Twentieth-century Western audiences are at a major disadvantage when approaching biblical narratives. Our philosophical presuppositions demand that a story produce its historical credentials before it is allowed to speak; we impose modern historical methods on traditional narrative and imagine that our questionable reconstruction of events is more meaningful than the value-laden form in which our community has enshrined its vision. In many of the sciences, we are geniuses when compared to the generations gone by; in the area of traditional narrative, however, we have become unappreciative philistines. (emphasis mine)

The point is that we moderns have our merit badges of science, not just with biology but also with regards to the rules for writing. However, we can greatly miss the beauty found within the literary narratives of the ancients, for both the authors and interpreters of Scripture. In many respects, they were shaping a narrative to teach rather than to give straightforward factual reporting. Hence why details between Gen 1 and Gen 2 differ. Hence why the gospels report details differently.

Bouteneff remarks himself: Ancient sensibilities about the relationship between “history” and “story” were different from ours.

So, if the narrative of Scripture contains elements of story, it shouldn’t cause offence. Every story of the biblical text is shaped to draw us in, to make us think, to call us to faith and action. I think the ancients knew this quite well. And I’m glad the Scripture doesn’t read as a history textbook.

So, yes, we do hold a calling to keep ourselves in check with both the church historic and current as we engage in biblical interpretation, as well as looking to take the text as is as best we can. But the text ‘as is’ might not come forth as we first imagined. And we must remember that reading and interpreting Scripture is never simply an act of asking ‘what does the text say?’. There are a whole host of factors to consider, not least our own modern expectations of what the text must say.

It’s the church historic that reminds us of the literary nature of Scripture and the space needed to engage with this God-breathed text. All the while we humbly commit to remember that no particular view has the corner market on biblical interpretation.

Let’s celebrate the text that God has actually given us through his providence, rather than the text we wish we had. The God-breathed text continues to draw us to the one we believe stands as the great author behind Scripture.

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