04 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 1

When I arrived at seminary on the cusp of a new century, the conservative Reformed world seemed abuzz with discussions about cosmology. In my partial ignorance, I found this odd, that churches would formulate opinions on things about which they were clearly not experts. Coming as I did from a home not too terribly concerned with how God created but that he simply did (which was only reinforced at my conservative Christian college and an evolutionist professor of biology), I found this doubly odd. But I soon recognized my blind spot and saw that the main issue revolved around hermeneutics—the meaning, in this case, of the creation narrative in Genesis, which of course lies well within the purview of the church.1

John H. Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, spends its space on essentially this task—how to read the story of creation—and it should find a welcome home, though not without qualification, in the church. The book is short and accessible, and is arranged in eighteen brief propositions (which I will walk through in the coming days), followed by a summary conclusion and a helpful FAQ.

Walton starts in his Introduction laying down important hermeneutical groundwork. The book of Genesis was, obviously, written in a language that most do not understand, and therefore it is translated. But that’s not all that needs translation: “Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully” (p. 9). This is where other literature of the ancient world comes in, for it serves to help the reader enter into the culture of the biblical text by elucidating ancient categories, concepts, and perspectives. Walton is careful of course not to expect similarity at every point between Genesis and other ancient texts, but neither does he expect differences at every point (p. 12). In short, it ought not surprise us that Israel shared a common conceptual worldview with their neighbors. The point is decidedly not that they borrowed or copied from ancient, pagan myths, nor is it about discerning whether Israel was even influenced by them—“they were a part of that world” (p. 14), in much the same way we moderns are a part of our own (and thus take for granted a whole host of modern notions). Like many of the ancient myths (not unlike science for us today), which were deeply held beliefs in the cultures that gave rise to them, Genesis 1 offers explanations of Israel’s view of origins and the world’s operations. Most importantly, though, the beliefs represented in Genesis 1 are “not presented as [Israel’s] own ideas, but as revelation from God” (p. 15). And thus we who put our faith in the God revealed in Scripture today also receive this text as an explanation of origins and how the world operates.

1 Happily, the response from at least the PCA (of which I am not a member) did not choose the exclusionary path: “Since historically in Reformed theology there has been a diversity of views of the creation days among highly respected theologians, and, since the PCA has from its inception allowed a diversity, [the Creation Study Committee recommends] that the [28th] Assembly affirm that such diversity as covered in this report is acceptable as long as the full historicity of the creation account is accepted.” The report went on to discuss four (acceptable) views that the majority of folks in the PCA hold (it then lists six subsequent views “that are probably represented in the PCA”). See the full report.


steve said...

Well, at the end of the day (so to speak), and not at all to begrudge whatever your efforts may be in these posts, I am inclined to think your initial response upon commencing seminary was the favorable one. Sounds to me like you were raised right. And from what I can tell, Machen would've agreed.

Evan said...

I don't know how I missed the publication of this book, but thanks for posting on it.

The PCA study brings back memories of conversations with an ex-girlfriend and her family (who were 7-day creationists) about this whole matter. I think I pulled this study up to try and assure them that good, card-carrying conservative folks still differ on these things, but they weren't really buying it. Ah well.

Anonymous said...

I had a seminary prof who told us that all good reformed Christians go through 3 maturing stages: 1) Calvinists 2) Amillenialists 3) Old Earthers.
Someone asked him why most of the profs, then, were Young Earthers. He said they hadn't reached that final stage of maturity yet.

Did I mention that he now teaches at a Bible college in another state?

Chris Donato said...

@Steve: Rest assured my efforts will not seek to undo that initial, and all-important, point.

@Evan: You're welcome. Isn't Walton up there in your neck of the woods? I do think our generation of (theological) "conservatives" holds onto this subject considerably more loosely than previous ones. How that will shake out when we're the old-timers, I'm not sure.

@Brian: Sounds like my kind of prof!

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