Is that all?: Reflecting on a Christian Reading of Genesis
Some approach Genesis 1-3 as a treatise against evolution. In the literature opposing this approach a similar methodology is employed as a foil. Peter Enns calls it “genre calibration”—understanding Genesis in its own context by situating it with the creation narratives of other contemporary cultures. This allows the interpreter a clearer understanding of what he or she has the right to expect from the text.
“Genre calibration” is nothing new for Evangelicals. It is grounded in an approach to interpretation which owes a significant debt to historical-critical method. When applied to the biblical books, historical criticism (HC) is a term that designates several techniques used to discover the historical situation, the sources behind the writings, the literary style and relationships, the date, the authorship, approach to composition, destination, and recipients. HC seeks to answer a basic question—To what historical circumstances does this text refer and out of what historical circumstances did it emerge?
Evangelicals have had an uneasy relationship with HC because of the way it is employed to deny non-negotiable traditional Christian doctrine. It is well known, for example, that some (certainly not all) who employ the method have anti-supernatural presuppositions that rule out the miraculous from the get go. In this frame of mind, talk of a virgin birth or bodily resurrection must find explanation in something other than the miraculous. Yet many Evangelicals argue that the method can still be highly serviceable to uncover the past when it is freed from the arbitrary assumptions of some interpreters. So, it is believed that it is not necessarily the HC method that is bad, but rather, the alien presuppositions to which certain scholars subject it. The reason for this serviceability is the belief that the meaning of a text for us is in the original meaning of the author. The operative assumption is that the most primitive meaning is the only valid meaning and that HC is the only key that can unlock it.
I want to ask a question of this approach—Is that all? HC is important for biblical interpretation. What appears to be happening, however, is the elevation of this approach by some Evangelicals as almost an end in itself—that seeking the original context is the end which we Christians seek in our Bible reading and study of Genesis. Much of the literature to which I refer does a fine job of ushering the reader into the world of Genesis. But is that why we Christians consider Genesis Holy Scripture?
Evangelical writers Johnny Miller and John Soden illustrate what I mean in their book In the Beginning…We Misunderstood. The authors argue that the most important question the interpreter of Genesis asks is “What did Genesis mean to the original author and hearers?” This is equated with the meaning God intended and it is only after interpreters gain this understanding that they can move on to other, more modern, concerns. This is “genuine biblical faith.” Even though the Bible is God’s Word, the authors insist that God’s Word was not given directly to us. God did intend to speak to us through it, but “our understanding of God’s revelation must be understood through the original written and historical context. It cannot mean something different from what it meant to the original audience.” The method endorsed here is one which the authors believe anyone can pursue.
This leveling of the playing field to a method that anyone can successfully employ should engender some questions about what we are after in our study of Genesis. It is the same idea endorsed by a well-used textbook in many evangelical seminaries, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: “We do not arrogantly assert that the one who does not believe cannot understand the Bible.” In other words, non-Christians can use the method and get the meaning just as well as Christians. While there is a qualification that method alone cannot determine the truth of the Bible, the first step to meaning is always the application of proper “historical and grammatical methods.” It appears that the goal in the application of HC is to make the Bible into an object wherein truth is available to all through the application of a certain historical method. And that truth is determined by the meaning intended by the author to the original recipients.
If this really is the correct method for biblical interpretation, it seems to me that the Apostle Paul should be taken to task for how he interpreted the Old Testament. His applications of some of the Psalms, for example, really do not take the original context or hearers into account at all. He allowed later revelation (the incarnation of Christ!) to cloud his interpretation of the Old Testament texts he used. Further, the first interpreters of the Bible, the Church Fathers, followed Paul in his Christological interpretation.
While HC will yield important insights and clarifications about what we should and should not expect from the study of Genesis, these insights and clarifications are not necessarily Christian. I am not saying the authors of the evangelical books indicated above are not Christians, but rather that the HC approach employed only gets us to a certain point in our interpretation of Scripture. Is it enough merely to remove the issues of concern between evolution and the interpretation of Genesis? Or does the church have Scripture for other, more significant reasons?
It is important to know what we should not expect from the Bible. But my fear is that we leave it at that and neglect the role that the Bible plays in the lives of Christians here and now. Is God’s revelation in Scripture primarily given so that we may prove or disprove its compatibility with evolution? Or should we adjust our thinking and expect something more…spiritual?
It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to see that the ideal stance for a Christian is to approach Holy Scripture as one who is “reading someone else’s mail.” The earliest interpreters of the OT did not read the OT in this way. Foundational to early Christianity’s understanding of the OT is the idea summed up by John Chrysostom (347-407), “While the books are from them [the Jews], the treasure of the books now belongs to us; if the text is from them, both text and meaning belong to us.” The meaning of that text to the earliest Christian interpreters of our OT was found in the center of history, in God’s ultimate revelation to humanity—Jesus. He is the key to its interpretation. It is he to whom the OT points, and this is how it was interpreted by the Christian Church after his crucifixion and resurrection. Not all authors of this kind of literature end with HC.
I close with these important words from Peter Enns, “A proper Christian understanding of the creation narratives will follow the lead of the NT writers in seeing the gospel as the culmination of the ancient message. Christians should not search through the creation stories for scientific information they believe is important to see there. They should read it, as the NT writers did, as ancient stories transformed in Christ.”
- Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), 35-36. [back to body text]
- David Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 153. [back to body text]
- Richard E. Burnett, “Historical Criticism,” in The Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 290. [back to body text]
- Grant R. Osborne, “Historical Criticism and the Evangelical,” JETS 42 (June 1999): 209. See Also, Alan F. Johnson, “The Historical-Critical Method: Egyptian Gold or Pagan Precipice?” JETS 26 (1983): 3; William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, & Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993), 17. [back to body text]
- David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.” Page 27 in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Edited by Stephen E. Fowl (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997). [back to body text]
- Johnny V. Miller & John M. Soden, In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis in Its Original Context (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012). [back to body text]
- Miller & Soden, In the Beginning, 21. [back to body text]
- Miller & Soden, In the Beginning, 24. [back to body text]
- Miller & Soden, In the Beginning, 34. [back to body text]
- Miller & Soden, In the Beginning, 163. [back to body text]
- Klein, et. al., Biblical Interpretation, 82. Among the evangelical institutions using this text in 2013 were: Moody Bible Institute, Gordon Conwell, McMaster Divinity College, Taylor Seminary, and Tyndale Seminary. [back to body text]
- Klein, et. al., Biblical Interpretation, 12, 18. [back to body text]
- Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 99. [back to body text]
- Paul van Buren, “On Reading Someone Else’s Mail: The Church and Israel’s Scriptures,” Die Hebräische Bibel und ihre zweifache Nachgeschichte: Festschrift für Rolf Rendtorff zum 65 Geburtstag, ed. Erhard Blum, Christian Macholz, and Ekkehard W. Stegmann (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1990), 595-606. In this article, the author argues that the Church has a right to read the OT only in acknowledging that its message is first of all addressed to the Jewish People. [back to body text]
- From John Chrysostom’s second sermon on Genesis (Sources chrétiennes 433.188.1). Cited and translated in Robert C. Hill, Reading the Old Testament in Antioch (The Bible in Ancient Christianity; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 85. [back to body text]
- Enns, Evolution, 76-77. [back to body text]