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Let’s Come at this From a Different Angle

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December 4, 2009 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Let’s Come at this From a Different Angle

This is the fourth of Enns' multi-part series on an incarnational model of Scripture.

Much of the concern surrounding the Christian faith and the acceptance of evolution and modern cosmology and geology centers on how to read the opening chapters of Genesis. Very often, and rightly so, that discussion turns to such issues as how modern data, such as extra biblical texts and scientific developments affect how we read Genesis.

That is all fine and well, but let's come at this from a different angle.

There is a factor that rarely enters the discussion among conservative readers of Scripture. It is only one factor, but it is very important.

If we want a clue as to how to read the opening chapters of the Christian Bible, we should go to the closing chapters.

At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, in the very last chapter of the last book, we read the following:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5, NIV).

 

The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means it is a figurative, symbolic description of what the "end" will look like. Much of Revelation is concerned with showing God's ultimate rule over history, and how he is bringing that history to its consummation in Christ.

 

And note how history will end: in a garden, with a river, a tree of life, and the removal of the curse. I hope bells are going off right about now.

In a manner of speaking, the point of the entire story of redemption laid out in the Christian Bible is to get us "back into the garden," to regain what was lost, for the obedient Second Adam to undo the disobedience of the first Adam.

The book of Revelation, however, is not a literal description of events in time and space. To be sure, God will bring history to its consummation, but the description of that consummation in Revelation is figurative or symbolic. That is the nature of apocalyptic literature in the ancient world, and Revelation participates in that literary convention.

Although it has occasionally been tried, a "literal" (meaning time-space, historical) reading of Revelation does not work at all. The message behind Revelation is something God will do in history, but the description of those events are figurative. This is especially clear beginning in Chapter 21, where we read of a "New Jerusalem" descending from the sky. Its description is a symbolic amalgamation of Jerusalem, temple, and Garden of Eden imagery. It is not a literal city crashing down on the Earth, but a theologically potent, concrete, ancient description of what God will eventually do in time and space.

The use of such imagery was a powerful communicator of theological truth to ancient peoples--and it should be to us, as well. And here is my point to ponder: the symbolic, non-literal nature of the renewed Garden in Revelation 22 should suggest to us, quite strongly in fact, that the Garden of Genesis 2-4 likewise, although communicating theological truth, is also symbolic and non-literal. Both are "true," deeply so, but neither are literal, historical, or physical.

Discuss amongst yourselves, but try to keep it nice.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Jeffrey L Vaughn - #1080

December 21st 2009

Peter,

Baker shafted my friend Don Stoner.  They never marketed his book because of pressure from YECs.

IVP will not publish books that express views contrary to their Our Faith Commitments/Doctrinal Basis specifically, “The victorious reign and future personal return of Jesus Christ.”

Every Christian publisher has a similar statement.  Any book that proposes that Christ returned in the judgment of Jerusalem is unpublishable.

Wiseman was one of the archeologists in Mesopotamia in the 1920’s and ‘30’s.  He personally inspected thousands of tablets, probably more tablets than any other person.  His son, who republished his fathers work has a PhD in Semitic languages.

I have no credentials in this area beyond a lot of hard work.  My coauthor has 3 years at one of the toughest conservative Bible Colleges in the country.

Blessings.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #1081

December 21st 2009

Peter,

I am no stranger to the professional/peer review process, having written reviewed papers and having reviewed papers.  My field is technical.

My experience to date is no professional will touch my work on Genesis because it is so closely tied to preterist eschatology.  If you are willing, I’d be delighted to send you a review copy.

Blessings.


beaglelady - #1082

December 21st 2009

But does Wiseman himself have any credentials?  Was he a professional archeologist?  Did he publish in peer-reviewed journals? 

The amazon reviews of his book are here.  He really thinks Adam wrote part of Genesis?  I see no reason to believe this stuff.


David Graham - #1505

December 31st 2009

I find myself confused by Peter Enns’ original thesis about life beginning in a garden and ending in a garden: does not the passage cited from Revelation 22 clearly refer to a city?  It says that the River of Life flows down “the middle of the great street of the city.”

Yet Enns writes, “And note how history will end: in a garden, with a river, a tree of life, and the removal of the curse. I hope bells are going off right about now.

In a manner of speaking, the point of the entire story of redemption laid out in the Christian Bible is to get us “back into the garden,” to regain what was lost, for the obedient Second Adam to undo the disobedience of the first Adam.”

How can it be claimed that history will end “in a garden” when the text being referred to clearly calls this the “street” of a “city”?


Norm Voss - #1582

January 2nd 2010

Peter,

Just wanted to say I really appreciated your book.  I wish more people could read your book and understand the importance of what you are presenting. I had already come to many of the same conclusions as you are presenting but it was good to see that scholars are actually delving seriously into the influence of the 2TP literature upon the NT writers and recognize that influence.

Peter I would draw a few distinctions with you on some of your applications even though I basically agree with your overall premise. I think I would tend to be a little more open to the idea that the canonical OT were possibly not as literally understood by their authors that you seem to imply. Your premise is that the NT writers manipulated OT scriptures to fit the theological realization of Christ and the eschaton at the expense of a natural literal reading of some quoted scriptures. What I would quibble with is the premise that the OT authors weren’t already writing in an apocalyptic 2TP mentality more than you may be giving them credit for. This could mean their intended context may have implied more than a literal reading would suggest.
continued if allowed

Blessings

Norm Voss


Norm Voss - #1583

January 2nd 2010

You used Hosea 11:1 as an example yet it seems one would be hard pressed to classify Hosea as non allegorical literature as it relies on allegory much as the 2TP writings often do by pointing continually to the messianic eschaton of Israel. Allegory and symbolism in my studies is a theme found permeating much of the OT including Genesis which opens the door to a non literal and spiritual application more than is often realized.  The line is very blurry in these respects and often the only distinguishing separation seems to be a suspect canonization process by Jews and early Christians in which neither really appreciated the 2TP literature which you bring to light. Genesis, Ezekiel and Daniel IMO have very similar apocalyptic attributes that are common to some later 2TP writings and may not be that far removed. It seems problematic to me for Genesis to have been written or redacted much earlier than Hosea (due to the complexity of its meticulous blueprint) and this puts it in close proximity to the flower of the Hebrew literature period including first or second Temple literature.

continued


Norm Voss - #1584

January 2nd 2010

If these earlier 1TP pieces of literature were within 500 years of the later 2TP then their influence upon the later literary construction would have been a continuity that binds both Temple eras together more than we might imagine and may render them inseparable when all is said and done.

The question becomes would the NT writers themselves place their stamp of approval on the post AD70 Jews and later Christian church fathers selection of what we call the biblical canon. If we hold ourselves bound to men that seemed to have already lost the insight that you present then this point becomes significant and problematic to hold to this strict canon for traditional reasons. 
In my studies (I’m an amateur and not a trained scholar) I like to concentrate upon three pieces of literature from these periods. They are Enoch, Jubilees and the Epistle of Barnabas and the reason I like them is they provide what I call a sort of commentary or a retelling of the OT and in the case of Barnabas it provides a commentary upon the specific interpretive process of the first century Christians that is IMO the most illuminating of this period that one can find.


Norm Voss - #1585

January 2nd 2010

Scholars attempt to date it as late as 135AD but IMO it seems much more consistent with timing closer to 70AD and if so it is indeed valuable.

What I really find interesting is that Barnabas defines how one was to interpret the OT scriptures especially as an example Moses on clean and unclean foods as symbolically intended and not to be taken literally. Barnabas flat out states this was the original intent of Moses implications and is in no way a misuse of his original thinking. This idea goes to the point of discussion in your book on why the NT authors chose to interpret the OT the way they did as it seems obvious they took the OT much more symbolically as a natural reading. 

Another revelation one can possibly glean from Barnabas is how he chooses to interpret Genesis and especially Genesis chapter one.  Barnabas clearly does not see Genesis One as a material creation but sees it as an age defining outline of sorts if you will and the age defined is all about the Old Covenant world of the Jews from Adam’s inception until the Messiah and the age ending eschaton.


Norm Voss - #1586

January 2nd 2010

I think we see remnants of Barnabas Genesis approach in some of the early church fathers such as Augustine in which he divides the age from Adam to the Messiah into the six day ages related to Israel’s history. Augustine though appears to have already incorporated some of the modern literal tendency by inserting some Hellenized concepts along beside the 2TP views of Barnabas. This process just continues to get more problematic through the ages and is manifested today with the Last day’s fascination books circulating in evangelical circles. IMO the last days as understood through a 2TP view would have been the end of Israel’s old covenant world of Judaism being replaced with the coming Messiah and bearing the new covenant age and would have ended the matter with this transition of the ages.

Peter this brings me to probably one of my prime variances with your example of scripture interpretation in the NT. It stems from your analysis of Heb 3 and 4 and the 40 year application. I don’t disagree with portions of your conclusion but I believe you overlooked a significant 2TP understanding of the 40 years wandering.


Norm Voss - #1587

January 2nd 2010

On page 141 you make this statement.

“To be consistent, this analogy must account for the forty-year desert period; if Israel had a forty-year wilderness journey before entering their rest, the church has one as well.” 

It seems obvious to me that the Generation that Christ spoke of from Pentecost to the destruction of the Temple represents this 40 year sojourn effectively (30AD? to 70AD) and it seems that the NT writers seem to equate this period as a time of trial and persecution and the saints needed to remain faithful to enter into the promised land deliverance post Judaism’s demise as foretold prophetically by Christ in the Olivet discourse. This is the thrust of the Heb 3 & 4 exhortation to the believers to be faithful through this 40 year wilderness wandering. In no way does it appear that these 40 years is transcribed into a 2000 year wandering. Instead it is simply a prime part of the 2TP theological understanding of the end of the eschaton as it relates to Old Judaism which is the focus entirely of the Hebrew letter. IMO a 2TP understanding expected this all to happen during the Messianic coming culminating with His prophetic declaration of the end of the Old Covenant worship system relating to the Temple.


Norm Voss - #1588

January 2nd 2010

This seems to be very clear in Enoch’s writings at the end of the Dream visions and the Ten weeks. 

Heb 4:1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.


There is a lot that roused my interest in your book and no less were your wise words of wisdom in your concluding sections in how to deal with these issues within our present church culture. This is a problem that those who delve deeper into these subjects must face practically within the confines of what appears to be some major misunderstandings within the body of Christ His church.


Blessings


Norm Voss

Sorry about having to break this post up like this but I had already written it before attempting to post it and ran into the character limitation. You will have to follow through to get the flow of my response.


Peter Migner - #6702

March 12th 2010

Why do so many try to complicate the simplicity of God’s Word. It so simple a child can get it.

I would love to see how you folks would write and teach kindergarten curriculum to children. What would you do to explain the first few chapters of Genesis?  Maybe something like this: “Well Johnny, in the Beginning God created, but he used a special method called the “Big Bang” and it actually took 4.5 million years before life started to walk out of the water. Eventually a monkey turned into what we call man. God called Him Adam and Eve, but that was God’s way of helping us understand a very complicated process called evolution.”  There really was no man and women hiding from God and God really did not walk in the cool of the day, but that is best way to tell a very old and complicated process.” 

The Problem with the Old Testament is people’s lack of simplicity of faith.  I must ask how much time do folks spend in prayer with the author of the Word of God.  KEEP IT SIMPLE!  God He did it, God sustains it and He is coming back for those who extend faith in Him.


Trent - #25027

August 7th 2010

@ Peter

I have been reading, actual read the entire forum thing at least for this particular post and have found it interesting and a bit faith shaking and I asked in my heart for God to guide me to the real conclusion and I came upon your post. Praise God!
Yes, all these non Biblical texts aren’t worthless, but to a degree unnecessary. God preserved His Word, how could he not??!?!?!!? We are to believe like Children and I am not suggesting start being overly submissive and don’t question. Scripture interprets scripture! The NT refers to the OT all the time, Jesus always quoted it. And the OT predicts the coming of the NT. If we stop reading the Bible then we are lost. It’s so huge it has the answers you are looking for. By that I don’t mean, “Hmm…I wonder if there is a thing smaller than a quark? , lets look at Habakkuk!” But if you let the Holy Ghost guide you, you have nothing to worry. I was reading Revelation unveiled, and I fail to see how we come up with it as a allegory, when theologians from 200-1000 AD took it literally because they understood meanings in that also from like Daniel. God will deal with Israel still, he still has a plan Romans 11.


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