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How to Read Genesis Theologically

Reading Genesis theologically is essential if we are going to have sound theology in the church that enables rational worship and gospel preaching. Many interpreters focus on the question of how Genesis and science can be related, but I think this is an unhelpful place to begin. We first need to consider what Genesis has to teach us about the doctrines of God, creation, man and sin. Once we have done enough exegesis to see how these doctrines emerge out of the text, the next step is to contemplate the meaning of the text for our metaphysics, especially the relationship of God to the world. Only then are we ready to engage modern scientific theories.

Genesis and Creation

By far the most important doctrine in Genesis is that of the transcendent Creator who is before all things and who speaks all things into existence ex nihilo. As John Webster puts it: “Teaching about creation out of nothing is a function of the Christian confession of the identity of the creator. It is cosmological teaching, but only as a corollary of teaching about God’s triune perfection.”[1] The order is crucial; our doctrine of creation must flow out of the doctrine of God.

For premodern exegetes it was obvious that the Triune God is in control of history. The Father, having brought all things into existence by his powerful Word, continues to sustain all things in existence by his providential care and directs creation to its telos through the power of his Spirit. It was understood that creatures enjoy freedom to act according to their natures. Since God is the “cause of causes” and the creator of the natures of all creatures, however, God’s sovereignty is not in conflict with the limited free will of the creature. It operates on a higher plane as the author of a play operates on a different plane than a character within the play. There is no need to drag God down to the level of a “being among beings,” that is, an entity within the cosmos, in order for him to act in creation. The order is crucial; our doctrine of creation must flow out of the doctrine of God. Click To Tweet

God is not locked out of his creation but is integrally involved in it at every moment of every day. His transcendence is not a barrier to his immanence; rather, it is what makes his immanence possible. The God of Genesis acts through miracle and providence. He can act in miraculous ways and often does so. But when he is not acting directly on creation, he is not absent. His action is continuous; providence is the usual acts of God and miracles are his unusual ones. All acts of God are fundamentally the same kind of action whether they are providential or miraculous; they only appear different to us because we tend to take the former for granted and tend to be surprised by the latter.

Genesis and Mythology

Reading Genesis in its historical context is crucially important, but what it means to do so is highly contested in the modern period. Those who practice some version of the “historical critical method” derived from Enlightenment naturalism fail to read it as Divine revelation. They construct a hypothetical historical context for the text and then limit what the text is allowed say to that which was already known within that cultural context. So, John Walton, for example, thinks that Genesis 1:1 does not refer to the initial creation of matter out of nothing. Instead, he thinks it refers to the work of the six days in Genesis 1:3ff.[2] This interpretation is at odds with pretty well the entire premodern Christian tradition and represents a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy. Why does he do it? He surveys ancient Near Eastern texts concerning origins and notes that “nothing material is actually made in these accounts.”[3] He assumes that Genesis could not be saying something that the other texts in that historical context were saying. So, he denies that Genesis 1:1 teaches creation ex nihilo. If this is what it means to interpret the Bible historically, we must reject it completely. But actually this is the imposition of a grid of philosophical naturalism on the Bible in such a way as to make the Bible a natural, cultural artifact rather than Divine revelation.

A very different approach is taken by those who see Genesis as polemical and corrective, that is, as a means by which God corrects the false ideas about creation current in Israel’s ancient Near Eastern cultural context. Inspiration here is understood as a combination of providence and miracle that results in the readers of Genesis learning new truth about origins that no one knew before. John Currid, for example, argues that “Hebrew thought is not a mere mouthpiece of other ancient Near Eastern cultures”[4] and gives examples of how the Old Testament polemicizes against Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology. This approach also interprets Genesis historically, but sees it as more than a natural, cultural artifact because of Divine inspiration.

Ancient Near Eastern writings on the topic of origins are mythological in nature. What does this mean? The mythological conception of reality sees the divine, the human and nature as one continuous entity that can be called the cosmos. Since everything is interconnected, sympathetic magic is used in religion to manipulate the gods into doing what we need them to do in order to maintain the order and structure of nature that permits civilization to flourish, such as the constancy of the seasons, the fertility of the flocks, and so forth. Myths are stories of hero gods who battle the forces of chaos often personified as monsters, in order to establish order. This battle occurs in the context of eternal matter and constitutes the founding myth of the civilization. The gods are offered sacrifice in gratitude for establishing order and to encourage them to maintain it. The mythological mind has no conception of creation out of nothing. Therefore, Genesis 1:1 is the most revolutionary sentence in the history of world literature.

Genesis 1 tells of the establishment of order and structure just like the myths. But there is a complete absence of conflict from this story, which makes it unique in ANE literature. The absence of conflict is explained by the fact that Yahweh brings the original formless matter into existence in the first place and so, as his creature, it offers no resistance to his forming and shaping work. This is why the creation is pronounced “good.” Genesis 1 corrects the mythology of Israel’s neighbors by introducing the transcendent Creator God who brought the cosmos into being. The myths left that part out in order to obscure the true God and allow the “gods” of the nations to pretend to be worthy of worship. So, Genesis is a polemic against idolatry.

 Genesis and Science

Since the nineteenth century modern science has been abandoning the transcendent Creator of orthodox Christianity and embracing the concept of a cosmos in which “God” is either a being within the cosmos or identified with the cosmos itself in some way. The former approach can be called “theistic personalism”[5] and the latter is pantheism (or panentheism). The theory of evolution has been deployed as a new metaphysical framework in which to interpret the data observed in the realm of biology, geology and other areas. To read Genesis theologically we must read it as the revelation of the transcendent Creator. Click To Tweet

Christians have no quarrel with humble, empirical, fact-based science and the Bible has no problem with scientific facts. But the Bible does have a problem with pagan metaphysics that denies the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. A lot of what passes for “theology-science dialogue” today is really a pantheism–theism dialogue. And there is no chance whatsoever of reconciling Genesis to pantheism.

Any Christian doctrine of creation must utilize both miracle and providence and many forms of so-called “theistic evolution” would better be described as Deism. They naturalize the entire process including the coming into existence of life and the coming into being of man by placing the whole thing within the context of eternal matter in flux evolving by immanent laws the origin of which no one can explain. To call this “creation” is to stretch the meaning of the word to the breaking point. To read Genesis theologically we must read it as the revelation of the transcendent Creator.


Endnotes

[1] John Webster, “Creation Out of Nothing” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, ed. Michael Allen and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016): 137.

[2] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers’ Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009): 43-4.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] John Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013): 26.

[5] Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 9-16.

Craig A. Carter

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