In my previous three posts (see the column at right for the links), I outlined three distinctives of Calvin’s approach to biblical—especially Old Testament—interpretation. Those distinctives were highlighted by looking at three issues of Calvin’s day: (1) his reaction to Catholic and Anabaptist views; (2) literal vs. allegorical interpretation; and (3) accommodation and typology.
In this post, I want to bring those issues more deliberately into the science/faith conversation.
The Big Issue
The three distinctives mentioned above unite to point us toward a single hermeneutical dilemma that Christians still face and that is immediately relevant to the hermeneutical dimension of the science/faith discussion: How do the Old and New Testaments relate to each other, especially when we try to respect each in the historical context of their own revelatory moment?
To put it another way, Calvin operated under a hermeneutical tension: responsible biblical interpretation must respect the text’s historical context and the New Testament as God’s final revelatory, and therefore ultimately authoritative, word.
This same tension remains today. In fact, it is exacerbated due to one factor that is fundamental to the science/faith discussion and the source of much of its tensions: we know much more of the context of Scripture today than Calvin did. Sometimes that added understanding of ancient contexts can be in tension with familiar traditional views. Further, sometimes the differing historical context of the two testaments can suggest tensions within the Christian canon.
In other words, respecting the historical particularity of any part of the Bible (grammatical-historical exegesis) can bring to the surface true theological diversity within the Christian canon. As I said, this is a true tension in Calvin’s hermeneutic, and tensions are more pressing today because of our state of knowledge.
Ordering Chaos or Creation out of Nothing?
One example of these tensions is seen in Genesis 1:1-2. Biblical scholars today—including most evangelical scholars—understand the act of creation in Genesis 1:1-2 to be describing not creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) but the ordering of pre-existent chaotic material.
The primary reason for this conclusion is our increased knowledge of ancient views of creation, such as the well-known Babylonian story Enuma Elish. Although some demur, these verses in Genesis are now routinely read as describing a pre-existent chaotic state where there is a watery “deep” over which God’s spirit hovers. The heavens and earth are created (better “formed”) by God first shedding light on this chaotic mass in day one. Next, he separates the waters into waters above and below by means of a firmament—a solid dome structure of some sort (day two). Then, the waters below are gathered to one place allowing the dry land to appear (day three).
We see here the pre-existence of a watery mass that makes impossible the existence of any life. God forms the livable space by pushing the waters around in order to form sky (inhabited by birds in day five) and by revealing the earth that was hidden by the waters (inhabited by land creatures, including humans, in day six).
Reading Genesis 1:1-2 against its ancient backdrop (i.e., according to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic) has led to various re-translations. Conventionally, this passage has been translated as we see in the NIV:
v. 1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
v. 2: Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
Actually, if we understand v. 1 as a heading for the entire chapter, the conventional translation is perfectly consistent with the “order out of chaos” notion. Some, however, read verse 1 as the first creative act (of the waters and the earth)—out of nothing. Verse 2 then simply recounts what God does with this material that he had just created out of nothing.
But the creation accounts we know of in antiquity provide us with a fresh understanding of the historical contextin which Genesis 1 operated. This has led to different translations of Genesis 1:1-2 that emphasize the pre-existent nature of at least the watery chaos and the earth beneath it. These translations treat verses 1 and 2 as one sentence. For example, this is how the NRSV puts it:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
There are numerous differences between the NIV and NRSV, but the main difference is “when” in the latter. Hence, we read that the formless and void earth, along with the waters, were already in existence as God began his creative work.
There are two difficulties with this reading for many Christian interpreters. First, this suggests that at least two things—earth and water—are potentially uncreated. I think this can be addressed simply by appealing to grammatical-historical exegesis: Genesis 1:1-2 speaks in terms of ancient conventions and may, therefore, not be interested in this question of ultimate origins and earth and water. Israel’s questions are not ours.
A more pressing problem, however, is that the New Testament may speak of “creation out of nothing.” This may be the case in John 1:3 (“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”); Colossians 1:16 (“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”); and Hebrews 1:2 (through Christ, God “made the universe.”)
This is not the place to engage what these three New Testament passages are getting at, but from my point of view, they can be easily read as fully consistent with the preferred reading of Genesis 1:1-2 laid out above: Christ was present with the Father as he ordered chaos.
On the other hand, reading these passages as “creation out of nothing” is quite possible given the influence of Greek thought on the New Testament writers. This is far from a settled issue, but if we concede the point for the sake of discussion, we see the tension: should Genesis 1:1-2 be read as creation out of nothing because of the influence of the New Testament writers?
This is the dilemma we have already seen in Calvin’s hermeneutic. How do we allow the Testaments to speak to each other here, particularly in view of the fact that our increased understanding of the historical contexts (ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman) draws these passages further away from each other, not closer together?
This often raises the question of “how far” to take the historical context of Scripture in determining how Scripture should be understood. Do we stop applying a grammatical-historical hermeneutic when such intra-canonical tensions are produced? Does theological unity trump historical particularity (and therefore diversity)?
This was Calvin’s dilemma and our increased understanding of historical context exacerbates the tension. The question before us all is what to do about that tension.
What further increases the tension is the obvious point not yet mentioned. Well established scientific models of cosmic origins are very different, to say the least, than the biblical model. We now have a “scientific context” that has to be taken into account, not simply a literary one, when discussing origins.
As cited in a previous post, Calvin famously quips that we should not expect from Genesis a portrait of accurate scientific astronomical information. Calvin understood that Genesis 1 is not a book of science. But, here too, the tension is exacerbated for us today. We know much more about origins scientifically than Calvin did. Does this mean that Calvin’s principle here about the heavenly bodies should also be applied to other scientific areas Calvin did not himself know of: namely cosmic origins?
In my next post, we will look at how human origins represent another example of these kinds of tensions.