Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Conversing on Genesis part 2

It occurred to me this morning that it might be really helpful if I just gave a brief overview of the recent Genesis symposium before launching into more detailed responses. So here goes:

The conference opened on Friday evening with 30 minute sessions from each of five speakers, wherein they were to present their own views of Genesis 1-2. We opened with Richard Averbeck from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His was the most unsettled and uncertain position. He emphasized that there really are good reasons for taking the text of Genesis 1 as a record of a real week, but there are also good reasons to suspect that there might be something more symbolic going on in the text. He affirmed that Genesis 1 speaks of the real creation of things that did not exist before," and he affirmed the physical consequences of the Fall.

Next was Todd Beall of Capital Bible Seminary. Beall emphasized his desire for a consistent hermeneutic to be applied to the entirety of Genesis. To Beall, the first chapters of Genesis serve as an introduction to the subsequent chapters and there is no clear division line between the early history and the history of Abraham and his descendants. He also emphasized that the New Testament writers refer to the early chapters of Genesis as if they were history. Beall emphasized the "literal" translation of Genesis 1-2, as opposed to a symbolic or figurative reading. He suggested that some - but definitely not all - nonliteral interpretations today are motivated by a desire to accommodate the Bible to evolutionary science, and he spent the last few minutes of his talk expressing his skepticism about evolution.

Jack Collins of Covenant Theological Seminary spoke next on his ... well, his view is hard to encapsulate in a simple descriptor. He emphasized that the days of Gen. 1 are definitely days. They're not symbols for long time periods, but Collins sees Gen. 1 not necessarily as the first days of everything but as the days wherein God made everything suitable for humans. He noted that God resting on the seventh day must be symbolic, and therefore(?) the previous six "work days" must also be symbolic (or "analogical"). I'm not sure that I strictly followed (or represented) his logic here, but that's what I have in my notes and in my personal recollection. To Collins, Gen. 1:1 describes the material creation of everything that predated the rest of Genesis 1.

Next was Tremper Longman from Westmont College. Longman affirmed that Genesis 1-2 are "obviously" not meant to be taken literally. The days must be symbolic, since there are three days with no sun or moon, and you can't have days without the sun and moon. Likewise, there is a lack of harmony between Genesis 1 and 2 that requires a symbolic reading to reconcile. He also emphasized the two sets of three days in Genesis 1 as another signal for a symbolic reading. (For those not familiar with this argument, the first three days appear to be concerned with creating realms, and the second three days occupy those realms in a corresponding order: [1] Light occupied by [4] sun to rule the light; [2] sea/sky occupied by [5] fish/birds; [3] land occupied by [6] animals/people.) The creation account of Genesis 1 is a polemic against Ancient Near Eastern mythology written in mythic terms. He also openly acknowledged his preference for theistic evolution, and he expressed concern for how to relate to Christian biologist colleagues who affirm evolution as true. Should we impose on them a particular reading of scripture and forbid them from studying the science of human origins? I should emphasize that Longman repeatedly affirmed that his view of Genesis was purely textual and would not be altered if evolution turned out to be incorrect.

The final presentation of the evening was from John Walton of Wheaton College. Walton's view is based on his reading of Ancient Near Eastern literature, since we must understand the text the way the ancients did. He spent some time discussing how the ancients viewed the world (i.e., their cosmology), and he noted that this cosmology was not peculiar to one culture but was found in many cultures. He also emphasized that the cultural setting of Genesis was not like a direct influence (as if the biblical authors were merely mimicking the cultures around them) but rather that we should see Genesis as a product of its time and setting. The main features of his view of Genesis 1 are his functional view of creation and his belief that Genesis 1 is a temple text. According to Walton, the Hebrew bara ("create") is a term of functional assignment not material origin. Thus, Genesis 1 is a text describing functional assignments rather than material origins. God's "rest" on the seventh day is a description that the Ancient Near Eastern peoples would understand as activity related to a temple. Gods rest in temples. Therefore, we ought to view Genesis 1 not as a record of material origins but as a text describing the functional meaning of the elements in God's cosmic temple.

These summaries are necessarily abbreviated, but I hope they accurately reflect the positions of each speaker. If you were there (or if you were one of the speakers) and you don't think I've represented the positions well, please let me know. I definitely want to make this summary as accurate as possible.

Since this post is already quite long, I'm going to stop, but I want to make one final comment. We creationists tend to hold onto old arguments far too long. Perfect example: the day-age theory and the gap theory. The day-age theory is an interpretation of Genesis 1 that was quite popular in the nineteenth century, wherein the creation days are viewed as corresponding to specific geological ages. The gap theory was somewhat popular at the turn of the twentieth century especially among the original Fundamentalists, and it ended up in the Scofield reference Bible. As you can see from the above discussion, these views are pretty much dead. (Yes, I know Hugh Ross and RTB won't let go of the day-age view, but they seem to be alone in that.) Modern interpretations of Genesis 1 are far more challenging and nuanced, and I suspect that the day-age and gap theories are lingering in our imagination because we creationists just won't let them die. This fall, when I gave my annual lecture on interpretations of Genesis 1, I asked the class if anyone had even heard of the gap theory. No one had. Anyone have a Scofield reference Bible? They just stared at me. I proceeded to skip quickly over the gap theory and instead focused on other forms of non-historical interpretations. Next year? I'm ditching the gap and day-age theories altogether. And good riddance to them.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.