Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1–2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #4

Welcome back to the nearly everlasting series where I respond to each of the five main contributors’ essays in:
Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2

My last post in this series offered my opinions on Chapter Three: “Reading Genesis 1–2 with the Grain: Analogical Days,” by C. John Collins. Now, none too soon, are my thoughts on:

Chapter Four: What Genesis 1–2 Teaches (And What It Doesn’t), by Tremper Longman III, along with the other writers’ responses. Tremper Longman is one of the most prolific writers in the world of evangelical Christian scholarship, one of those guys who must stay up working all night every night, or has a dozen graduate students working for him, or both. He is also involved in the ongoing maelstrom that surrounds Westminster Theological Seminary in the US, which is spitting out professors on a regular basis; I’ll let you google that one. His profile means that his opinions on hot topics are well noticed, and in recent years his negotiability on evolutionary human origins and a literal Adam have come to attention. If you’ll forgive the spellos, one insight is available at: Longman’s chapter here in Reading Genesis 1-2, as for the other contributors, is a great short-scope synopsis of his thinking on early Genesis matters.

Early on, Longman makes a statement that as an Old Testament teacher I heartily agree with:

It is crucial in proper interpretation of the Bible to know the genre of a passage,” and “genre triggers reading strategy. A genre communicates the intention of the biblical author; it is a code that tells the reader “how to take” the words of the author.

He’s exactly right. A step prior to trying to prove, for instance, that Jonah was really swallowed by a whale, or that Job really lost all of his children and eventually got a replacement set, is to establish what the genre of these books is. It is after we establish to our satisfaction that these books offer themselves as history that we are in a position to defend what therefore would be historical claims. For clearly historical books, as, for instance, 1 Kings dominantly is, it makes sense to test and defend the historicity of the events portrayed therein. So I’m supportive of Longman so far.

The next sentence of Longman’s is telling for the tone of the entire book:

Since inerrancy concerns what God intends to teach in a passage, it becomes critically important to recognize the genre of a text.

This too is logical, and taps into a nearly unspoken assumption of this book and of much evangelical writing: inerrancy is a non-negotiable presupposition of the discussion. We might not want to dispute that, but it is good for these sometimes invisible factors to be out in the open and recognised, because they shape the discussion in various ways. This stance implies, when it comes to Genesis, that while we may debate interpretation of what we find there, we cannot talk about any fact of the text as erroneous, redundant or culturally relative to any great degree.

Some of Longman’s other points, in briefer compass, are:
  • The account of the days is pictorial or figurative (104–05), and we are tipped off by the fact that light is created at the beginning, but the sun only appears on Day 4. This is such a famous observation that you, dear reader, have no doubt already though through what you would do with this fact. It doesn’t enter very heavily into my own thinking either way, though I do, with Collins, understand the week of creation as an anthropomorphism of sorts, and this is essentially figurative. Longman cites Origen in support. Origen was certainly a brainy guy, and a sincere Christian, but his reception in subsequent Christian thought is decidedly ambiguous; not every leading light since has admired his example, though I personally don’t mind him.
  • In a statement not every Christian would accept, Longman says, “Genesis 1–2 contains two different accounts of creation” (108), and therefore it is artificial to try to harmonize them, e.g. to try to insert the garden events of Genesis 2–3 into Day 6 of creation. The sequence of creation events in the two accounts is different, he says, and in reading the Hebrew, I think this is correct, though English translations often smooth out the difference. Though I don’t use the language of ‘two different accounts’, I agree with Longman that there are two different perspectives on creation here, one global and one ‘on the ground’, and that we get into trouble when we try to interleave their details.
  • Longman is happy to use the term ‘history’ for all of Genesis (109), including chapters 1–11, though he wouldn’t be using the term in the same, strict sense that Todd Beall does in his essay.
  • He denies that Genesis 1–2 defines how humans were created, specifically whether “evolution versus special creation” (111). My comment would be that we aren’t compelled to take the description of God forming a man from clay and puffing breath into his nostrils to bring him to life as a blow-by-blow (boom boom) historical account of how humans appeared. If you’ve read Milton’s Paradise Lost, where (from memory) animals crawl out of the ground fully-formed, you’ll know how difficult it is to actually picture special creation realistically in the mind. I suppose I remain somewhat non-committal on the mechanisms involved. But it is in this area in particular that Longman has found himself in hot water with some evangelicals.
  • Re the historical Adam debate, then, Longman confesses, “it is my opinion that the genealogies do not insist on Adam as a historical individual” (123).

Longman seeks to answer the suspicion from some hearers that his exegesis of Genesis is “driven by science” (119). He raises the old Copernican chestnut about the Church’s reception of Galileo, saying, “Galileo was a Christian scientist working consciously with the idea that the Bible is authoritative, but the church was wedded to one particular viewpoint on the subject,” a geocentric one. I find that Galileo is read with rose-coloured glasses in these situations. His Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, the writing usually at the centre of such discussions, comes across to me as a bit cynical about what the Bible and the Church have to offer in the area of truth about nature, and I think Galileo would like to have seen ecclesiastical voices kept out of the zone of natural philosophy (i.e. natural science).

But Longman adds (perhaps proving the accusation in part), “The mapping of the human genome…has produced, according to my Christian friends who are research biologists, overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution” (121). I think this is the nub of the issue in the creation-evolution debate today. I won’t try to cite the various literature; a lot of it is out there in the public domain online. But if overlaps in gene sequences between humans and other life forms increase with those forms’ relative proximity to us in terms of animal characteristics, it becomes much more difficult to deny any genetic relationship. If forced to be graphically honest, I don’t identify personally with the label ‘evolutionist’, and maybe never will. But this kind of evidence is particularly pressing for those who would like to dismiss evolution hook, line and sinker.


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