Peter Enns | God is Not a Helicopter Parent
Exploring the potential behind reading the Bible creatively, the dangers of our modernist sense of truth, and the growing desire for spiritual authenticity.
How do we live when we don’t have all the answers? How do we find answers amidst biblical contradictions? Theologian Peter Enns refuses to shy away from asking the larger questions about Christian faith. He brings these questions to his conversation with Jim, wrestling with how the Bible relates to our lives today. They explore the potential behind reading the Bible creatively, the dangers of our modernist sense of truth, and the growing desire for spiritual authenticity.
If God is responsible for the infinitely large and the infinitely small, who am I? The best that I think I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s goodness and that doesn’t always involve having firm answers on all the hard questions of life but just communing with God’s presence. And then just trying to be as human as I can. And as good as I can. I don’t mind saying that, a good person, which is what I think the Gospel calls us to be, just good kind loving people to others. And it sort of simplifies life a lot for me. You know, it’s like I don’t have to figure it all out. I just have to take care of my own house here and watch how I treat the people around me.
Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. In this episode I talk to Bible scholar Pete Enns. On the podcast we aim to talk to a wide variety of people, people who come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives on the issues we care about. In our previous episode we talked to evangelical theologian Rich Mouw, who understands and explains biblical authority one way; I think it is fair to say that Pete Enns has a different perspective on this. We hope this shows something about the range of views we think are worth discussing. You can find articles by both of them on our website, BioLogos.org.
We recorded this interview last fall before Pete’s latest book came out, which is titled, How the Bible Actually Works, but much of what we talk about here are topics straight from that book: What is the Bible? What does it mean that the Bible has authority for us today? How might science affect our reading of Scripture, and how do we sort out original authorial intent in Scripture in the context in which it was written, versus our own re-reading of Scripture today in our context?
Pete is the author of scholarly books and articles about the Bible, but also of provocative books aimed at a more general audience, like The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More than our Correct Beliefs, and The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture has made us Unable to Defend it. Pete is a professor at Eastern University, and he has his own podcast, The Bible for Normal People, which is worth listening to. But we’re glad he’s on our podcast today.
Let’s get to the conversation
Interview Part One
So let’s start with a little background. How did you get interested in studying the Bible academically?
I went to a Christian college and I majored in psychology. But it was after college that I had this experience, a very specific experience where I went to my high school football homecoming football game with a friend of mine who went to a very conservative Christian college and we met another friend of ours there who was not religious at all who was a philosophy major from another university and we just met each other in the parking lot. And these two guys were really debating in a friendly way, but really going at it, and I couldn’t follow them. Just because I played baseball in college, that’s all I cared about. So it sort of sparked in me the desire to understand this faith that I had. And so I just began reading the Bible and reading a lot of other things. And that just sort of evolved, if I can use the phrase here and evolved into wanting to actually have an education and trying to understand the Bible.
And so in seminary you know that just opened up a lot of worlds for me and I began thinking I might want to go to graduate school and one of my professors Tremper Longman who I know is known to the BioLogos people, he said, “well, Pete, think about it this way–the Old Testament is like four times the size of the new and there are probably more jobs in Old Testament, so why don’t you go there.” But that was only part of it is actually the teaching that I had that is like this is a very interesting text, this Bible. And it is so worthy of adult attention. And I really wanted to do that. I want to be part of it. So for me it was both sort of an intellectual and spiritual quest to understand this book better. And the rest is history, as they say.
What was your Christian tradition growing up? You said the faith that you inherited that this was not really equipped you to have this conversation in the parking lot at least. What was that tradition and…
It was not really my family or faith traditions the fact that I was lazy and just dialed out you know. But my parents were immigrants and Germans and I was raised Lutheran. I was confirmed Lutheran but after that I didn’t go to church much and then in high school I had a conversion experience in a Nazarene church which was a wonderful place but not the place for the curious who wants to investigate intellectual things.
And I never thought of myself as an intellectual academic but I kept having questions and I sort of wanted to keep going so I didn’t really have a faith environment at home that encouraged questioning. But it wasn’t fundamentalist by any means. You know I just sort of happened to me. I just got to a point where almost like a light went off inside my head. And you know if you could do this Jesus thing you might want to know what you’re actually doing. And that’s how I’m wired. Other people wouldn’t be wired that way. They’d say You know if I’m going to follow Jesus I need to go on a mission field or I need to work in a soup kitchen. But for me it was different, like, “what is this Bible anyway?” What do I do with it? What is this faith all about? And that sort of just drove me into it you know but I wasn’t raised evangelical in any sense by not by parents.
So there wasn’t like a shift for you in how you understood the Bible from a devotional sense to an academic sense.
Exactly right. Yeah I know some people did have that kind of a I guess a shift or a paradigm shift. But I mean I didn’t grow up reading the Bible and in my communion classes at the Lutheran church Bible reading wasn’t what you do. But that more happened to me when I had this conversion experience. But I hadn’t been schooled about you know here’s the right way good people read the Bible. I just, well this is interesting, and I keep reading it but it raised some questions for me too. And not disastrous kinds of questions but more like what are Pharisees you know for you know what is all this stuff, all these stories about the King that sound the same and I just wanted to sort of dig into it and just figure some things out.
So it’s fair to say then that you came to this academic study of the Bible without huge preconceptions of what this is. So what is the Bible?
When I was in graduate school I had lunch with one of my professors John Levinson who’s a wonderful person and a great scholar and I felt it dawned on me and said you know the question I’m interested in is what is the Bible and what do you do with it.
And he said “Well I’m glad you’re thinking small.” But you know that is exactly the question that I think more of us should be thinking about. So it is something that I’ve thought about and my answer changes depending on how the wind shifts and I nuance things differently. But for me I can only say this that the Bible is an expression of the legitimate journeys of faith that people have had in the past and how they’ve communed with God within their own contextual moments. And that’s why things sometimes look odd for us in the Old Testament or even the New Testament.
It’s a record of the people’s faith in God and how they express that in writing and how they record it for posterity. And I’m leaving out things like it’s God talking to people and making them write things down. Some of those conventional ways of thinking about the nature of let’s say revelation or inspiration. I use the terms, but for me it is a much more messy thing about God pervading the earth and the universe and our lives and how God actually likes our humanity and celebrates our humanity and allows us to sort of like rise up and look up and and write about what we’re sensing and what we’re experiencing.
The difficulty I have with more traditional notions of revelation is that it is really a very intellectualized way of thinking about the presence of God with people and I’d rather think that God is okay letting us explore and figure things out. And I think the Bible is really a record of those kinds of things.
But then what do you do with say, authority of scripture? Because there are lots of other people who said and wrote things about their encounters with God that we don’t hang on to and use and liturgies and so on.
Well in a way I think you know the canon is really what we’re talking about here. You could say this is an accident of history too because of who was influential at the time. But I do think it’s the impact of Jesus for the Christian church that gave rise to this need to collect these books and adding it to the Hebrew Scriptures to tell the story. So I think it is an authority that was born out of the experience of the early church and the decisions that were made about, listen this is the way to perpetuate this faith that we have for future generations is really to have some collection of books.
And it is authoritative, I think, in the end the story that it tells, because it is ultimately again for Christians about Jesus crucified and risen and that’s there is an authority there that it is not the same kind of authority that I think people often think of that well these words are always valid and never shifting and that’s where every word is authoritative. The Bible itself does not allow that because there is an internal debate going on of the Bible so we’re seeing this movement of faith that we continue today but within that we have the story of Jesus and who he is and we want to listen to that.
You know it’s authoritative because we don’t make a move without engaging the text but there’s more to it than simply doing what it says, so to speak, because sometimes the Bible is confusing, sometimes it is not clear what we are to do but we’re still always engaging it and it’s part of the structure of our faith
So do you think part of the issue with the emphasis on the Bible in today’s Christianity, particularly American evangelical Christianity, and the kind of a biblicism sometimes that’s used to describe it is that those events you were just talking about of Jesus life, death, resurrection that are the foundation of our faith, happened two thousand years ago. And the only access we have to them is through this book now. So the book itself has risen in our estimation, our church’s estimation or the sola scriptura way of what else are we gonna use to talk about this event that was so long ago or how do we understand it’s the Bible that stands between us now and that event that happened that’s supposed to be the foundation of our faith.
Yeah. And again that is a very Protestant Reformation or post-reformational way of putting it which is understandable but you know we have this Bible this is how we have access to God, sola scriptura. You know the rise of the Reformation coincided with the rise of science and the rise of the Enlightenment and you have this analytical logical way of looking at things. So the Bible becomes an authority in a different kind of way in that context because here it is, this is God’s word. And if we analyze it we’ll figure it out, we’ll know exactly what it says. That’s why you have got thousands of Protestant denominations running around the world because they simply can’t agree on what this authoritative book says.
And I think what was lost there is, you know, like the dimension of the pre-Reformation Church of medieval Christianity where experience and how scripture had multiple levels of meaning and you access God, different people access God so to speak through this text in different ways. The text was more a means of grace so to speak as a way of communing with God and there were so many different ways of doing it but it’s really we’re heirs of the Reformation which of course had wonderful points to it. But in terms of like the Bible and how the Bible works and what the Bible is, it sort of did set us on a trajectory that got increasingly more complicated the more we learned about the world around us and of course science comes into play or archaeology comes into play and things like that. Like all of a sudden this book that really is informative for every aspect of faith and life alone, not outside information. This is what causes problems for people. I think it’s a bad theology of what the Bible is, frankly. Not always bad but for questions like this like science and faith it’s not helpful. I think it can be damaging.
Could you say something perhaps in this same vein about authorial intent or that the original message of scripture sometimes I think there’s this evangelical impulse to say if we can just figure out what Paul or Moses or Isaiah meant then that’s what the Bible really says and what we ought to take as the authoritative word. And the reason I ask that is reading your Evolution of Adam was a very important book journey after getting over the shock from my own evangelical sensibilities of seeing, well Paul thought there was a historical Adam but he was probably just wrong about that, and understanding authorial intent then as something different then these were the words that God gave Paul to say specifically for us in the 21st century or something like that.
Well again the Bible deconstructs that and that one example you just gave is how Paul understands Adam, which is not in harmony with how Genesis describes Adam. So you already have in Paul a history of tradition of thinking of movement on and on something like that. Jehu’s coup in second kings I guess it is, and how destructive that was of the House of Omri and what is the original message? Well, the original message is that Jehu’s coup of the House of Omri of the Northern Kingdom was by God’s design and ordained by God. So what’s the original message, with that said? And so you go to the book of Hosea and you get to Chapter Verse 4, it says God condemns that, that was the wrong thing to do. So we have two different messages on the level of authorial intention right?
So you have this dynamic quality in the Bible that resists the simple let’s say rule-book mentality where if I just have the author’s meaning then I know what this says and I know how to apply to my life. The Bible I think really resists that by having such diversity in it and having such an internal dialogue between… You know, Deuteronomy: “if you obey you’ll be blessed if you disobey you’ll be cursed” and then Job and Ecclesiastes and lament Psalms calling into question that very theology. So it’s almost as if authorial intention is important to understand that dynamic. Not for what I do today with this text.
It’s almost encouraging us to say ‘Okay now what about you. What do you think about God right? How do you imagine God to be? Is God vindictive. Is God ready to punish you for the slightest misstep or does God not do that? Are you more with Job or are you more with Deuteronomy on that particular issue?
So one of the push backs we might give to that is the notion of progressive revelation and maybe this doesn’t work in all of those examples you’re giving but say Paul’s example of reading the Genesis story in a very different way than the original intent of the author of Genesis would have done. But now Paul has been given this further revelation and it’s his that is definitive now. So rather than seeing that as an example for us of taking these stories and rereading them in our own context it might be claimed that no Paul now has given the definitive interpretation of that Genesis story.
I think that’s not an invalid argument. That’s the kind of thing that I think is worth putting on the table. But I guess my counterpoint would be the entire history of the Christian church, which has not stopped doing what Paul did. Especially in the medieval period. And this is why Protestants tend not to like the medieval period very much. It’s like a big mis-it’s a fifteen hundred year mistake until Luther and other his precursors came along and sort of narrowed it down.
I mean John Calvin referred to allegory as basically a tool of Satan, literally. And now we have the right way of doing it but the church has been engaged in various kinds of readings including allegory for a long time because the power of scripture ironically is not limited to the intention of a human author. If this is God’s word, it can’t be limited that way. There has to be a depth to it and like a multivalence to it. I think there is a lot of wisdom there.
Of course it raises a question of like how do you know if you have the right interpretation. Welcome to Christian theology. This is Christianity 101 this is why we have seminaries and this is why people talk about things, hopefully not killing each other but just talking about how are you perceiving God now by engaging this text or these texts.
You know it’s really interesting to me that the rise of science has brought Christians to have to think differently about how they perceive God or scripture or just the world around them. And they’re finding a lot of answers in a pre-modern kind of theology which was not locked into the modernism of having absolute certainty because you can analyze things. They’re actually appreciating more the fact of the great tradition of the great Christian tradition which has not…it’s been diverse and and you know maybe this modernity that we’re a part of, which birthed evangelicalism and fundamentalism, maybe that is a phase of the church and not the culmination of it.
But we all make mistakes and think that the age we live in is the end. You know that this is the way it always was and always was meant to be. And here we are. But maybe you know, maybe God’s out ahead of us again and who knows where we’ll be in 100 years or 200 years.
Interview Part Two
So is it fair to say then that re-reading scripture not just reading scripture but now re-reading scripture for our time for our day is a legitimate and even commended practice commended from Scripture itself that it is shown us that this is the way we ought to be approaching scripture reading it for our time and our age and what would God’s word to us today be?
I would say that it’s not just legitimate or commended I think it’s our sacred responsibility to do that. And the model is the entire Bible.
This is my favorite example, how does God feel about Nineveh and the Assyrians. Well it depends if you’re reading Nahum or Jonah. They have opposite views of what God thinks of them and Nahum they’re destroyed and everybody’s happy. In Jonah, preach repentance to the Ninavites. Well do you like him or don’t you make up your mind. Well it’s there’s this internal dialogue again that’s going on that I think is very very important that already shows within scripture, within scripture, you have in Jonah a post, probably a post exilic community, reimagining God in their time and place. You know, maybe God isn’t tribalistic, maybe God actually cares about the whole world. Where would they have learned that? Maybe sitting in Babylon and befriending people who were always the enemy and realizing this world’s a big place.
It’s like anybody who’s left home and gone someplace to college or graduate school and they say these people who I’ve never been in their country, they’re actually nice. God can’t possibly want to throw them into hell or something like that you know. And I think the Bible bears witness to that.
Ezekiel 18 there is a proverb, the parents have eaten sour grapes but the children’s teeth are set on edge, which means why are the children’s teeth getting tight when it’s their parents who ate the sour grapes. Why are children being punished for something the parents did? And this is not the context of the exile because you can imagine people saying I was like 4 when this happened like I’m not responsible for being here. I wasn’t even born yet or actually I didn’t do anything. I was just standing on the street corner. I got swept up in all this stuff. Why is God punishing me for something I didn’t do
And in Ezekiel, God says, “there you know you’re right, I will punish only you for the sins you actually do. And if your parents sinned you don’t get blamed for it. And likewise if your parents are righteous you don’t get a free ride.” OK, So what? Well so what is it you go back to the Pentateuch like to the Ten Commandments in other places you have multigenerational effects of righteousness and of sinning. You know if you obey the covenant you’ll be blessed for thousands of generations. If you disobey, you’ll be punished to the third and fourth generation. Which is it? Well both in a sense because maybe people are just beginning to see differently. They see this is God speaking in both places and maybe we’re seeing God being reimagined for that time and place.
I think God wants us to recycle. I think God wants us to care for the earth. You know, pollution everything like that. I think I think God is fully for gender equality and racial equality and God hates slavery. Some of that stuff is not really strictly speaking a Biblical concept of God but I don’t have a choice. I live right now and I have to decide what does it look like to be a Christian right here and right now and there is no script that’s telling me oh here’s the position we take on politics, here’s a position you take on global warming, or anything like that you just have to figure it out. Just like the biblical writers did.
And then to me that’s a tremendous comfort. I am so relieved almost that it is not about reproducing the past for today but you always want to pay attention to it. You know we’re not traditionalist people. Scripture is part of the tradition. But it is not about us entering back into the past and reproducing it. We can’t do that. We have to live right here and right now. And if we don’t do that I think we’re actually abdicating our responsibility as Christians.
So at BioLogos we’re sometimes criticized for allowing science to uh influence and confuse us in our interpretations of Scripture. But it sounds like you can get there pretty easily just from Scripture itself?
Yeah I think that’s the point. But behind it is a certain view of the nature of the Christian faith and the role that scripture plays in it that I honestly think and further on further examination it is very difficult to maintain those just by watching how the Bible actually behaves.
Here’s something that is really relevant to what you just said, a different kind of example but… When when the Judahites came back from exile, this is 539 B.C., and then you move to the Greek period and the fourth century Alexander the Great conquered the world, conquered Judea and Greek influence became tremendous with Jews so much so that a lot of things changed for Judaism so they translated their Bible into Greek. It’s called the Septuigent.
It wasn’t just translated. There was a lot of interpretation going on there. Like for example in the flood story God was grieved that he made humanity and repented. He was sorry for it. Well that doesn’t fit a Greek mindset very well. So that’s changed in the Septuigent to say God pondered and he reflected. He’s like a philosophically sophisticated God. Well how…hey Jews, how dare you let the outside world influence how you think about God. There is no other way because you have to live in that world. Maybe God is bigger than what your conceptions have been about what God is.
Now we all claim biblical authority of course. But what if your view of what the Bible says is actually influenced by your place and time, your setting, and you’re not even aware of it. And God is always sort of pushing the boundaries. You know we think of God today as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. That is not Old Testament language. It is Greek language and it is what Jews adopted to talk about their God and that is good. That’s a move in the right direction but it was influenced by the outside.
You know the Exodus story is all about being influenced by the outside because you have a battle of gods happening in the plague narratives. It’s not just a story of bad things happening. Yahweh is greater than all the other gods. That is a recurring theme in Psalms and it’s the substructure of the Book of Exodus. Let us make man our own image. It’s not the Trinity, it’s the divine counsel right.
This is…talk about being influenced by pagan culture, right? But that’s how the Bible talks, it’s always talking in the language of the people. Who do we think we are that we can stop that process today, that we can be isolated from the world we live in and somehow think of it as honoring God? I don’t think that’s honoring God and God’s creation. I think it’s using our reason, our ability, or our experience, our communion of faith to grab anything we can to make sense of this world we live in and ask how does the gospel speak into that. But that’s a lot harder than proof texting.
So one of those things in our day and age is science and particularly evolutionary science and how it has changed some of our understandings of scripture, some of our understandings of God in these ways. Has that played any role in your own thinking about God in your own thinking about Scripture?
I think yeah. I mean I do have to say that it’s probably studying ancient history and religions and how Israelite religion fits into that that had already that sort of first effect on me but definitely science. I remember when I started seriously thinking about evolution and Christian faith.
When was that?
Probably around 2008 or 2009. Because I never allowed myself to go there because I couldn’t. The social world that I was in just as you know. It isn’t like I didn’t even make a decision not to talk about it. I just, a wall went up immediately. But when I had a little bit more freedom I started thinking about it.
And the first thing that hit me was that okay if there is no first human being who screwed up, why is God, what does God have to be so angry about? So that changed, that little thing sort of changed how I started thinking about how the Bible talks about God, why it talks about God the way it talks about God in certain places, And it sort of made me sort of almost come from the outside looking in and and looking at this model of faith that I had always had and saying if this science stuff is true we have some thinking to do. We have some theological thinking to do and it’s like okay well that’s the way it is.
Or looking at what I do not understand but the size of the universe and the distance between stars and galaxies and you know the infinite spaces, as Pascal called them, he says frightens him. And I get that. You know David, you know, “the heavens declare the glory of God”, which is great if your heavens are dome and the sun and the stars and all that are sort of hanging up there. But we live in, for all intensive purposes, an infinite universe that is expanding. Who am I? How do I think I have the right to speak authoritatively about what God is doing and what the right answer is for all these complex questions? Where it made me realize how much of a journeyer I am and this little world I live on and take a few laps around the sun and you’re dead.
I have to think differently about a whole lot of things. And it’s understanding even like elementary things about science, because I’m not a scientist, that just made me think, if God exists, I know I’m not sure what I have to add to the conversation, you know? Because if God is responsible for the infinitely large and the infinitely small, who am I?
The best that I think I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s goodness and that doesn’t always involve having firm answers on all the hard questions of life but just communing with God’s presence. And then just trying to be as human as I can. And as good as I can. I don’t mind saying that, a good person, which is I think what the Gospel calls us to be, just good, kind, loving people to others. And it sort of simplifies life a lot for me. You know it’s like I don’t have to figure it all out. I just have to take care of my own house here and watch how I treat the people around me.
Interview Part Three
Given what we know about natural history now, you mentioned the size of the universe, when we get into evolutionary science, the development of species over a long period of time, human beings included, homo sapiens included, how does that enter into conversation with you with biblical theology perhaps or theology of creation? Of the created world being very good? Of God entering into a relationship with these human beings and saying, “you are going to be my image bearers”? Are there points of contact for you between this theological story and this scientific story?
I’m not sure if they’re points of contact or points of tension. The universe is a pretty violent place. Things move because things die usually violently whether it’s stars or animals or human beings and that’s one of the things I think about a lot. I don’t really have an answer at this point in my own mind even like a paradigm for thinking about it other than I do think the Bible and some scientific areas of inquiry are really talking different languages and they’re addressing different things.
I don’t expect the Bible to take into account the kinds of things we have to take into account because of the scientifically literate world that we live in. So when it talks about creation is good, yeah, in a very non-philosophically oriented society like the ancient Israelites, that is that is a statement of faith about what God is like,
But they’re not looking at okay, if God is all good why are we at war with each other all the time. Well that is also a part of their ancient world. God is a warrior and that’s what gods do and that’s what we do, right? So I do think we’re talking at a you know non-overlapping magistrate maybe it’s something like that but again that’s above my pay grade, but different languages.
And I just don’t expect the Bible to address the question of why is violence such a good thing to bring about human beings over the course of many many many years in the evolutionary process? You know why is violence so necessary? Why is it good that most species have died out never to be heard from again? You know what all the waste as people so the Bible will not answer that question for us because it’s not asking that question it’s looking at different things. And that’s why I think it is sometimes hard work to have a conversation between the Bible’s view of creation let’s say and what we know today I guess of just history in general.
So I guess I’m not asking for you to somehow read these scientific truths out of the Bible or harmonize them even necessarily with what scripture is saying or go the concordist route which sometimes becomes a dirty word for people when they don’t like what you’re doing. But if there are these two voices which I’m very sympathetic to that approach, I think that’s very helpful and understanding science and theology as different languages. But in some sense I hope they’re talking about the same thing. And I can hear these different voices and in my own mind then I’m trying to figure out what do I do with them.
How do I combine them in my own mind into one coherent story where if I hear the scriptural tradition talking about creation as good and I see this natural history that yes has this death and suffering and violence and waste but I wonder if there’s another side to that coin that even in the evolutionary story we see these processes as developing capacities in us for moral responsibility for spiritual awareness that maybe God couldn’t have just snapped his fingers and made us that way in one fell swoop that there’s there’s something to the journey of homo sapiens that it had to go through in order to be able to be Image Bearers. Does talking like that start to blend those two categories too much for you? Do you want to keep them more separate than that?
No I don’t think it blends it too much. I think it’s actually a good point. It’s a way of bringing together what we know about the history of humanity from a scientific point of view and let’s say the ultimate goodness of where this creation is going.
Maybe we’re becoming more, not just moral, but the evolution of the human species becoming more godlike, if I can put it that way, you know that…
Peter seemed to think that we ought to move in that direction right?
Yeah and that’s, that is a new way of thinking about this stuff for a lot of people you know but it’s science that can actually push us towards that. And so yeah I mean I’m quite comfortable with that way of talking but I guess
So that’s what I mean when I say I was looking for points of contact. Definitely there are tensions but ways, constructive ways of hearing these two voices of trying to make sense of both.
I would still say that the creation goodness in scripture, I think that is still a theological construct of like looking at the sweep of scripture as a whole. I don’t think we could just touch down in Genesis chapter one and everything was good and say, well therefore creation is good. I think you know the Book of Revelation comes into play too at the end when it’s almost a recreation of the cosmos. And that to me that those two things combined suggests something about okay, it is not, the goal is not the disembodied spirits playing a harp someplace. This is actually a good thing that is worth holding onto.
And God loves the world and God loves people so despite the horrible things that happen, this is a good thing that God is doing and God cares about us and cares about our earth. So yeah in that sense you know the goodness of creation I think is more subtley woven into places in scripture. But I shudder to put anything into Genesis chapter one because I think it’s one of the more difficult chapters to understand.
So let me try out one more thing from Genesis chapter one on you. So I want to be careful here and I will criticize people sometimes for doing things like seeing “let us make man in our image” and thinking that’s the Trinity. Or “let the earth bring forth these creatures” and thinking that’s evolution or something like that.
But there is one part of Genesis one that I’ve always found really fruitful in thinking of how it at least resonates with the natural history as we understand it now when it’s God creating and then the first thing he tells these humans is be fruitful and multiply fill the earth and subdue it. And that it’s at least suggestive of God didn’t create things in the way he ultimately intended them to be. Or why didn’t he just create it filled and subdued to begin with. So is there some way of us at least finding resonance. I don’t like harmonizing or concordance or somehow reading science in the scripture but finding a touchpoint there with natural history that we see things weren’t created from the outset the way ultimately God has wanted them to be or designed them to be. That he’s willing to create things with potential for them to grow into instead of creating them fully formed. Am I reaching?
I see I think I’ve come across that idea by theologians in the past that the intention of creation was to evolve and even not necessarily in the sense of human evolution but including that it is it is intended to become more and more like what the creation is to be, not because there was a mistake at the beginning, but this just has to happen, it takes time.
I am a little cautious about the passage you cited because subduing, it might mean more ruling and the part of the issue of image bearing in Genesis 1 it is not God made us in our image that makes us rational or creative or things like that. Not in Genesis. Those may be true. I think they are true actually. But it’s… the image in Genesis 1 is all about humans are images that are in the place of the Creator who is up there and out there someplace and they are now the highest form of creation and it is their job to function authoritatively and rule over the creation that God made.
So it is God, people, everything else. And that is an ancient Near-Eastern idea that was fulfilled by kings for example like that’s why I had images of kings. And to make sure the people understood that you’re living in the king’s territory, images were made of the King statues and put there to remind you you’re living on this person’s turf.
So humanity has that role in Genesis 1. Humanity as a whole is in the image of God which is why you don’t make images of God because you’re it, you’re already that image. And that is very important I think. But I don’t think from there we can move to, creation isn’t as it should be, there’s something that has to happen and humans have to subdue it.
You know, Paul “creation is groaning” waiting for the, you know, the revelation of the sons of man and the revealing of the sons of men. I think there is something there for example and there is a telos. There is a goal. There is a purpose to which creation is moving and it is not simply as it always was. It’s that but a plus, there’s something more to it.
So you know at the end of the book of Revelation you have a new heaven and earth and at the last chapter you have a new Garden of Eden with the Tree of Life which is now so big its roots are on either side of the river. It’s not just a little tree it’s this big thing. And it is available to all. So it’s the same tree we meet in Genesis 2 but it’s that and more and I think to me that’s a theological indication within Scripture itself that we are this whole thing is going to something bigger that we don’t quite understand.
And in the Bible we have that described in ways that make sense to ancient people. Through the language of myth for example and the language of co-opted stories from other cultures and bring them into your own world. But we don’t have that language anymore. You see that that’s the thing we’re not mythic in that sense in our contemporary world.
We have other myths, they’re called science. There are ways we understand the world. And that is not a bad, that is not a bad word to say myths. It’s like we have ways of understanding.
They’re explanations. That can God honor both the mythic language of biblical writers and people of the time and honor our mythic language today of science. And my answer to that is 100 percent yes, of course God can do that. I think that’s what God wants us to do. That is not denying biblical authority, it just actually realized in the Bible is not there to do what you want it to do and give it that name authority.
So you undermined my use of subduing earlier. What about the other part filling the earth though in Genesis 1. Is there some sense there of this was created with just these people but you’re supposed to become something more it’s ultimately what God wants is for the flourishing in a way that it wasn’t created originally that way?
I’ll take that.
Yeah well okay. We let me have the conversation, let me push back a little bit. This is riffing but in antiquity, one of the main one of the blessings of the Old Testament is having lots of kids. Why? Because he got to survive you gotta farm and you need this for survival. So if you read “Be fruitful and multiply”, in the context of the importance of having children in the ancient world, it could be just a reflection of that reality for them. It could be.
I’m not convinced that’s what I just said was right. But I think there are other contexts within which to try to understand some of those phrases. Or it could be an etiology, it could be a story that explains why things are the way they are. There are people all around us. This place is flooded with human beings just like us. And well maybe it goes back to the beginning where God gave the command to be fruitful multiply. That explains why there is such a great population of human beings in the world as an explanation for why things are the way they are. That would be probably a more typical biblical scholarly kind of answer but I’m not just pandering. That may not be the only way or the best way to think about.
Now is there some tension here though in your methodology of [probably] undermining the importance of original intent authorial intent versus rereading these texts for today. Am I okay in rereading the text in Genesis 1?
Oh as long as you know you’re doing that. That’s just it. Seriously I think yes. But here’s the problem that I see not with what you’re doing, but with what I typically see, is that you would be claiming authorial intention for what you just did. So you’re still trying to anchor authorial intention. What I want to say is this has nothing to do with authorial intention, but that’s a really interesting reading that has tremendous theological and spiritual potential to speak to us today. But that is not an evangelical or reformational way of reading the Bible, it has one meaning. Well then you can say whatever we want. It is all subjective. Of course my answer to that is not helpful. My answer is yeah it’s subjective, life is subjective!
We’re human beings, we don’t have this anchor that will give us this complete certainty with all these questions we have. It is about jumping in trying to trust God, moving forward, doing the best that we can and not thinking of the book as sort of a field guide to life where it’s gonna give us the answer to all these questions we’re asking.
And the thing is that for me that’s not a concession. I think that’s, if I can speak this way, I think that is by design. I think this is how it’s intended to be for us so we can be fully human. Because God’s not a helicopter parent. God is not making, or as somebody once said a lawn mower parent, like mowing everything down before the path so you have a nice smooth path to walk on. I think God is more about wisdom. I think God is more about equipping us to reflect God in the world around us which is something we have to learn through experience and through gaining of wisdom and not simply going to like a teacher’s edition book, going into the back to find the answer.
I think the Bible’s set up that way and I think that’s inevitable. So yeah I mean it doesn’t matter to me if that is not the original intention as long as you understand that what you’re saying is not the original intention but a creative reading of a text. Well you can’t do that. People have been doing that since before Christianity, that is what it means to read the Bible well, is to wait to read creatively and contemporize it, actualize it, as I say, make it part of your world.
What if that’s the great gift of the Bible and not sort of being co-opted by our modernist sense of what is truth and what it means to be right and have logic and analysis and all that kind of stuff.
What are you optimistic about when you look at the Christian landscape in the U.S. today?
I am sensing, again this is just my limited experience, but I’m sensing that people are really craving spiritual authenticity and are not as drawn to a life as simply having to maintain certain doctrinal boundaries. And to me that is very encouraging because they’re asking all the right questions.
I am encouraged by people who are really putting, at the front of their lives, experiencing God and how does that affect how I live? And I think the fact that evangelicalism has not done a good job of explaining people’s reality, that they’re seeing that that paradigm isn’t really helpful to them and they’re moving forward. I find that encouraging it’s not about destroying a movement but anytime a movement gets sort of ossified and this is the thing we’re protecting.
I think the Bible has plenty of examples of why that’s bad. Like the Kingdom of Israel or you know, what James thought about works and faith and what Paul thought about works and faith. You know they had different points of view and the system is always gonna be protected. But I think people are less interested in systems, maybe that’s the way to put it. That’s what I find encouraging because they do tend to be the controlling factor in people’s lives. And I don’t think that’s what all this God business is about.
Thanks for talking to me.
Anything else you’d like to say while the recorder is still going.
No. Not off the top of my head but this fun. It is good connecting with BioLogos. I enjoy that.
Good. All right.
Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. With additional production assistance by Truth Works Media. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website BioLogos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science.
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