Sunday, September 30, 2007

A postmodern take on historiography

I am very interested in the historical criticism of scripture. It is certainly relevant to the New Testament (the vexed question of the "historical" Jesus), and every bit as relevant with respect to the Hebrew scriptures.

For example, believers typically take David as a model for the Messiah. But then an archaeologist comes along to assert the following conclusions:
David and Solomon existed in the 10th century B.C. but as "little more than hill country chieftains." There was no golden age of a united kingdom, a magnificent capital and an extended empire.
Currently, Finkelstein's and Silberman's claim remains hotly contested. But what happens if the scholarly consensus moves in that direction? How does it affect exegesis? How does it affect faith?

Postmodern scepticism about historiography:

I am sympathetic to a postmodern view of historiography. The scholar's conclusions follow largely from his or her presuppositions.

I don't think it is entirely so. For example, I think we can conclude, on objective grounds, that the synoptic Gospels accurately capture the very "voice" of Jesus (his ipsissima vox), if not always his very words (ipsissima verba).

But over and over again, scholars' supposedly objective conclusions follow directly from their personal predilections. For example, did Jesus predict the arrival of the kingdom of God during his lifetime? Just about everyone resists that conclusion, although there are good biblical grounds for it.

Conservatives resist that conclusion because they can't admit that Jesus made a prediction that didn't come true. Liberals resist that conclusion because the image of Jesus as a wild-eyed, end-times prophet doesn't fit their preferred schema:  Jesus as a teacher of universal ethical truths.

Conservatives and liberals alike sift the data according to what is palatable to them.

Postmodernists conclude that there is no such thing as objective history. I agree that historiography is highly problematic. Some basic conclusions are objective, in my view; but you can't progress very far before scholars begin picking and choosing from the data in accordance with their personal preferences.

Ken Burns's perspective:

That was my long-winded introduction to a quote from the documentary film-maker, Ken Burns. He sat down with Jon Stewart to discuss his documentary, "The War", a fresh examination of World War II. The video is embedded below (at least, it will be until Comedy Central deletes it from their site). But here is my transcript of the excerpts that caught my interest:

The second world war has been so draped in bloodless, gallant myth. You know, it's the John Wayne war. And when you see colour [film footage], it's no longer at arm's length. It's right there, and it's the worst war ever, not the good war, cause it killed sixty million people. …

A handful of soldiers [are now] able to say, "This is what really happened. I saw bad things; I did bad things; I lost good friends. I was scared, I was bored, I was hot, I was cold."

All the things that are universal to war. A guy in Iraq today — experiencing the same thing. And two thousand years ago, in the Peloponnesian War — the same thing. …

We don't have a political bone in our bodies in this film. … But at the same time, history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. And so it's very much informed about our anxieties. …

We know that it takes some time from an event before you can really understand it:  that you can triangulate with the passage of time. So you're constantly aware as you're dealing with new stuff that [our perspective] is going to change.

You know, if you did something on Vietnam ten years after the fall of Saigon — when we're in a recession, when Japan's ascendant — it'd be a different film than twenty years out, when we just won the first Gulf war, that our economy was booming, Japan was stagnant. I mean, every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes. …

I think all of us are in a continuum. You know, somebody says, "Is this the definitive work?" Absolutely not! You know, our Civil War film, seventeen years ago, spawned hundreds of documentaries. It's just, you do what you can do in that time.

Allow me to object to one of Burns's statements: "We don't have a political bone in our bodies in this film."

In that statement, Burns momentarily falls back into the positivist trap. He speaks as if the historian floats in a heremetically sealed compartment, and is not influenced by the surrounding environment.


Presumably Burns meant only that he isn't trying to support either the Democrats or the Republicans in this documentary. It's clear from everything else he said in this segment that he understands the hard truth of historiography:  that all historians are biased. We are all captives to the era which shapes us, all editing the data to respond to our interests and defend our prior convictions. As Burns put it,
Every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes. … You [just] do what you can do in that time.
That's why historical conclusions, like those of Finkelstein and Silberman, must always be taken with a grain of salt. One must always ask, Where does this historian "come from"? What axe is s/he grinding — what polemical position is s/he setting out to prove?

I hasten to add, it's true of everything I write as well. In one post, I'm trying to make a case for same sex marriage. In another post, I'm resisting the biblical teaching on penal substitution.

If the posts are tendentious, does that make me a liberal? No, because this idea has nothing to do with the great liberal/conservative divide. Conservatives are playing the same game, they're just grinding a different set of axes. Hence the postmodern scepticism about all historiography.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Project completed after 80 years' labour

Here's an illustration of the painstaking labour that is invested in researching ancient history:
The last volume of the CAD (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary) has gone to press. Wow! This project, a comprehensive lexical study of the the Akkadian language, has been going on now for more than 80 years, making anyone's seemingly endless research project look like a drop in the bucket.
I also got a chuckle out of the blogger's postscript:
Apparently the Hittite Dictionary project is moving in [to the vacated office] soon. (That made me laugh. I'm not exactly sure why.)
It's like washing the blasted dishes. No sooner do you dry the last dish, one of the kids is dropping another dirty dish into the sink.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adam soteriology: a refinement

In a comment on the previous post, Jamie asked why Christ's death is important to Adam soteriology, the atonement theory I had proposed.

My immediate answer was (in part):
My response would be to bring Christ's death into relation with his act of obedience. Jesus had to obey to the furthest depths of his being. Where Adam sought to exalt himself, Christ had to abase himself to the ultimate extent. A willingness not merely to die, but to suffer torture and public humiliation — and even a season of alienation from God — to obey such a destiny is surely the ultimate act of obedience.
That was my immediate answer, but I confess to some ongoing ambivalence about it.

The challenge with any atonement theory, it seems to me, is to hold two principles in uneasy tension. On the one hand, we must accord real, salvific significance to Christ's death (this is what Jamie challenged me to do), and not reduce it to a mere accident of history. On the other hand, we don't want to depict God as some sort of vengeful monster who demands nothing less than brutal violence, bloodshed, and death as a satisfaction for sin.

In order to exonerate God of this charge of savage cruelty (sadism), we might blame the brutality of Christ's death on the human actors who executed him:  the Roman procurator, the Jewish high priest, or whomever we deem culpable. The problem is, this seems to reduce Jesus' death to a historical accident.

Jesus did not regard martyrdom that way. He regarded it as his destiny, his calling:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."

And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'" (Luke 13:31-33)1
Some scholars are sceptical about the three predictions of crucifixion attributed to Jesus (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). The more detailed the predictions become — note the specifics of the third prediction — the more likely it is that they were composed after the event.

Other scholars argue that Jesus easily could have foreseen a death of the sort described in Luke 13. The powers-that-be were hostile to Jesus' ministry, and prophets had been martyred in the past in a vain attempt to silence them. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that Jesus predicted his martyrdom in general terms, which were perhaps fleshed out in greater detail post eventu.

Jesus was fully aware that death awaited him in Jerusalem, but he made no attempt to evade it. He saw martyrdom as a divinely appointed destiny:  a divine "must" (Gk. dei)2 compelled him onward toward it:
And he [prayed], "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36)
Based on the above text, we could summarize the course of events as follows:  (1) God willed Jesus' death; (2) therefore Jesus voluntarily submitted to betrayal and execution. I propose, instead, a slightly more complex chain of cause-and-effect:
  1. God willed Jesus' obedience (in contradistinction to Adam's disobedience);
  2. Precisely because of his uncompromising obedience to God's will, Jesus made powerful enemies, who resolved that he must be silenced;
  3. Therefore it was inevitable that continued obedience would culminate in Jesus' martydom.
On this analysis, God didn't directly will Jesus' death, but merely Jesus' obedience.

The decision of the powers-that-be to murder Jesus was not a direct reflection of God's will; it merely expressed the hatred human beings harbour toward God, who was embodied perfectly in Christ. The crucifixion is a kind of train wreck, where the human "way" intersects and collides with the divine "way", giving rise to murderous passions on the part of the human actors.

When Paul depicts Jesus as an antitype of Adam in Romans 5, the typology turns on the contrast between Adam's disobedience and Jesus' obedience. It is the obedience that is salvific. And yet, because the crucifixion was an inevitable consequence of Christ's perfect obedience, Paul can assert:
… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php. 2:8)
My intent, obviously, is to step back from the ham-fisted formula, God tortured Jesus in order to effect our salvation.

Insofar as we speak of God's destructive wrath poured out against sin, I have no objection to the penal substitution atonement theory. 2Co. 5:21 is pertinent here:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
If Christ in some sense became sin, God's wrath is poured out on sin. But as soon as we begin to envision God's destructive wrath poured out upon Jesus, I suspect our analysis has gone off track. (Though admittedly, it is a fine distinction I'm making here!)

In any event, I propose that Adam soteriology is free of this potential defect. The right way to look at it is, God directly willed Christ's obedience, and it is this obedience which is salvific. The crucifixion was merely a by-product of the obedience, though it was inevitable because of the violent hatred fallen human beings harbour toward God.

The only way for Jesus to evade martyrdom was to cease to obey God. That option, obviously, wasn't open to him.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Mark 8:31 and Luke 13:33, both cited above; Luke 17:25, 22:37, 24:7.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Adam soteriology

Christ is an antitype of Adam — "the last Adam", according to St. Paul:
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. … Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1Co. 15:22,45)1
Theologians commonly speak of Adam christology. But I want to propose that this construct (Christ as a second Adam) should be regarded as an alternative atonement theory. Hence the title of the post, Adam soteriology.2

There are three classical theories of atonement. None of them is free of difficulties, although evangelical Christians tend to subscribe to third theory, penal substitution.

Here's the way I look at it. Each atonement theory begins by identifying a specific problem, then proposes that Christ's death is the solution to that problem.

theory assumed problem solution
(Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great; dominant theory in the 2nd-10th centuries)
Reflects a culture that was familiar with the institution of slavery. Proposes that we are Satan's property (his slaves, or perhaps his captives) because of our sins. Christ's death is God's payment to Satan to purchase our freedom. (Ultimately Satan is tricked because death cannot hold Christ, who rises from the dead.)
(Anselm; dominant theory in the 11th-15th centuries)
Reflects the honour/shame culture of feudal society. God is our Lord; by sinning, we insult God's honour; the insult must be requited or God would be shamed. Christ's death requites the insult of our sin, upholding God's honour.
Penal Substitution:
(Luther, Calvin; dominant from the 16th century onwards)
The model is judicial, reflecting a culture where legal justice is the preeminent value. As a just judge, God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Christ dies as our substitute to pay the lawful penalty (death) owed by us.

I am proposing the addition of a fourth model:

theory assumed problem solution
Adam soteriology: The problem is not a matter of our slavery, or of God's honour or his justice. It is a matter of history. Adam's historical act of disobedience corrupted the entire human race and, indeed, the whole of creation. Jesus recapitulated Adam’s history; except, where Adam was disobedient (resulting in death — not for Adam alone), Jesus was obedient (resulting in life — not for Jesus alone).

This theory proposes that humankind's problem is historical in nature:  and the solution is correspondingly historical.

How did Jesus' death set things right again? By reversing the history of Adam’s fall from grace. Jesus' obedience (unto death, even death on a cross) set creation on a new historical foundation. Adam blazed a trail to death; Jesus blazed a new trail through death to life.

I realize that this answer is only partially satisfactory. But one might just as well ask, How did Adam's sin result in the corruption of the whole of creation? If Adam's historic sin could have such far-reaching consequences, then Christ's historic act of ultimate obedience could, too.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

(Ro. 5:12-19)
None of these insights are original to me. It's just that the construct is usually described as a christological doctrine; whereas I think it makes equally good sense as soteriology.

The proposed theory appeals to me because it emphasizes historical deeds, and the notion of salvation history is common to both Judaism and Christianity.

The theory also appeals to me because penal substitution, the dominant model among evangelicals, has significant drawbacks:
  • The old theological term, propitiation, tends to represent God as savage or bloodthirsty; his wrath can only be turned aside by means of a blood sacrifice.
  • The traditional emphasis on legal justice tends to imply that God is subordinate to the law; that God is under an obligation to satisfy the requirements of the law.
  • The notion of God punishing Jesus tends to cast God in the role of the abusive father; the more graphically we depict Christ's suffering, the worse this problem becomes.
  • One must also ask whether the substitution of an innocent victim for the guilty party can be characterized as a "just" resolution of the problem:  is it not rather a miscarriage of justice when the innocent one suffers while the guilty one goes free?
This is not to deny that the New Testament teaches penal substitution, because I am persuaded that it does. However, particularly in our interactions with non-Christians (for the purposes of evangelism or apologetics), I think we would do better to emphasize Adam soteriology rather than the traditional alternatives.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2James Dunn occasionally uses the phrase "Adam soteriology" in Christology In the Making: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed., 1989. For example, he expounds one element of Paul's theology as follows:
Salvation consists in the believer being transformed into the image of God (2Co. 3:18), consists in a progressive renewal in knowledge according to the image of the Creator (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). So there is something of an Adam soteriology here — salvation as a restoration of man to that image in which Adam had been created. (p. 105)
3The ransom theory (or at least, a modified form of it) is sometimes referred to as Christus Victor.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Spoken word, sacred text

1. Spoken words:
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
(Jesus, John 6:63)1
The above verse from John's Gospel establishes a correlation between (1) words, (2) spirit, and (3) life. But note that the verse refers explicitly to spoken words.

Like many bloggers, I love books and texts in general. But in this post I wish to argue for the primacy of the spoken word in Christianity. (Perhaps in other religions also, but it is not my place to make such a judgement.)

The spoken word has a unique spiritual power — greater than the spiritual power of the written word. The spoken word is quasi-magical in its capacity to impart life to the hearer. These are the three elements brought together in John 6:63:  spoken words; spirit; life.

2. Sacred text:

This post was inspired by an essay by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, "The 'Sacred' Text and the Community".2 Ricoeur confesses that he is frightened by the notion of a sacred text (p. 72). In Ricoeur's view, any text that is closed (immutable) ceases to be revelatory.

Ricoeur comments, "The notion of sacred text may have been alien to the Hebraic and pre-Christian tradition" (p. 71). No doubt he is thinking of the fact that both communities were initially founded on oral tradition which was later reduced to a fixed, "sacred" text. He points out that Christians (in particular, Protestants) continually redirect us away from the written word back to the oral:
It is the function of preaching to reverse the relation from written to spoken. In that sense preaching is more fundamental to Hebrew and Christian tradition because of the nature of the text that has to be reconverted to word, in contrast with Scripture; and therefore it is a kind of desacralization of the written as such, by the return to the spoken word. (p. 71)
Thus Ricoeur depicts an arc, a movement from the spoken word to the sacred text and back to the spoken word again.

Ricoeur looks back, yearningly, to the early decades of the Church, when the community was highly creative in generating novel interpretations of the life of Christ:
The text was frozen and the process of interpretation stopped because of the fight against heresies; this was, I think, a very destructive activity. (p. 69)
Thus Ricoeur laments the closing of the New Testament canon.

3. Letter vs. spirit:

Having closed the canon, the Church then fixed its interpretation of scripture. Ricoeur doesn't note (at this point I move beyond Ricoeur and offer my response to his provocative essay) that this development constitutes a betrayal of the Protestant ideal. The Reformers had a motto, semper reformandaalways reforming:
A shortened form of a motto of the Protestant Reformation, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundu Verbum Dei ("the reformed Church must be always reforming according to the Word of God"), which refers to the Protestant position that the church must continually re-examine itself, reconsider its doctrines, and be prepared to accept change, in order to conform more closely to orthodox Christian belief as revealed in the Bible. The shortened form, semper reformanda, literally means "always about to be reformed", but the usual translation ["always reforming"] is taken from the full sentence.
First the text was fixed (the canon was closed) and then the interpretation of the text was fixed. The result, in many churches, is the preservation of a dead word. As St. Paul put it,
For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2Co. 3:6)
Here is an echo of the scripture with which I opened this post; Paul (like John) asserts a positive correlation between spirit and life. Moreover, Paul assigns the written text (the letter) to the "death" side of the ledger.

The written word correlates with death because it is fixed and therefore static. It cannot respond to the express needs of the community; a closed canon is, by definition, unresponsive. Here Ricoeur can claim a biblical ground for his observation that a closed, immutable text is incapable of revealing God.


My response to this problem is certainly not to repudiate the Bible. Rather, I would argue, with Brueggemann, that the biblical witness is multivocal; pluriform.

Let us begin by recognizing that the biblical authors do not all represent a single perspective. Then we can find the right biblical text, the right voice, to address the express needs of the community in any given instance. Thus we preserve the life-giving power of scripture; whereas those who would collapse the multivocal testimony of scripture into a single, harmonious system effectively neuter the text. In many instances, well-intentioned believers shut out the very voice of God.

I share Ricoeur's regret that the interpretation of scripture is essentially fixed. Certainly among evangelical Christians, it is, as we see (for example) in the backlash to the "new perspective" on Paul. Human knowledge advances, but the Church's first instinct is always to resist new insights. As Ricoeur puts it, "Revelation is a historical process, but the notion of sacred text is something antihistorical" (p. 72).

As a preacher, I have observed the life-giving power of the spoken word. Admittedly, there have been stages of my (rather convoluted) pilgrimage when I have not been very effective from the pulpit. But on numerous occasions, the response to my preaching has actually startled me:  my words were clearly "life" to the congregation to an extent that seemed to go beyond the content of anything I had said.

Those are humbling experiences, when the preacher realizes that s/he is not responsible for the spiritual dynamic. The preacher has been the conduit for a mysterious external force:  a power (ruach) that cannot be summoned at will, but comes and goes at the pleasure of Another. And then the preacher shares in the experience of Jesus, delivering spoken words which are spirit and life.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2In Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, Fortress Press, 1995, pp. 68-72.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Evolution is true; and Adam is historical

Scripture and science may well differ in the boundaries they would draw round early humanity.
So writes Derek Kidner in his pithy little commentary, Genesis (vol. 1 in the "Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries" series), p. 28. The observation is key to Kidner's speculation about human beginnings.

Kidner accepts the scientific evidence in support of evolution. On the other hand, he is a thoroughly evangelical scholar; accordingly, he maintains that Adam was a real, historical human being.
Palaeontology … depicts a species fashioned over perhaps a million years or more into the present human form, showing the outward characteristics of modern man upwards of twenty thousand years ago, not only in his bodily structure but in his practice of making tools, using fire, burying his dead, and, not least, creating works of art comparable with those of any period. Even at this remote time the apparent forerunners of our chief racial groups seem to be distinguishable, and the species had already spread widely over the world, displacing another type of hominid, "Neanderthal Man", whose own relics, rough as they are, indicate that tools, fire and burial had been in use for long ages before this. On the other hand, the first known signs of pastoral and agricultural life and, later, of metal working (e.g. by hammering copper or meteoric iron [Gen. 4:19-24]) are much more recent, appearing in the Near East, on present evidence, somewhere between the eighth and fifth millennia BC at earliest.

How the two pictures, biblical and scientific, are related to each other is not immediately clear. … The latter may need the whole range of literary genres to do it justice, and it is therefore important not to prejudge the method and intention of these chapters.

Other scriptures, however offer certain fixed points to the interpreter. For example, the human race is of a single stock ("from one", Acts 17:26); again, the offence of one man made sinners of the many, and subjected them to death (Rom. 5:12-19): and this man was as distinct an individual as were Moses and Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:14). Others too are counted as individuals in the New Testament: e.g., Cain, Abel, Enoch, Noah. These guidelines exclude the idea of myth … and assure us that we are reading of actual, pivotal events. (pp. 26-27)
As asserted in the title of this post, evolution is true and Adam is historical — those are Kidner's twin convictions.

Kidner points out that the vast age of the earth is only one of the difficulties we must tackle if we intend to reconcile Genesis with science. He emphasizes that we must also explain how the first farmer follows so soon (130 years is the upper limit) after the first man in Genesis.
To the present author [i.e., Kidner] various converging lines point to an Adam much nearer our own times than the early tool-makers and artists, let alone their remote forbears. On the face of it, the ways of life described in Genesis 4 are those of the neolithic and first metal-working cultures alluded to above, i.e., of perhaps eight or ten thousand years ago, less or more. The memory of names and genealogical details also suggests a fairly compact period between Adam and Noah rather than a span of tens or hundreds of millennia, an almost unimaginable stretch of time to chronicle. Yet this seems to widen the gap still further between Genesis and current chronologies.

The answer may lie in our definition of man.

Man in Scripture is much more than homo faber, the maker of tools: he is constituted man by God's image and breath, nothing less. It follows that Scripture and science may well differ in the boundaries they would draw round early humanity: the intelligent beings of a remote past, whose bodily and cultural remains give them the clear status of "modern man" to the anthropologist, may yet have been decisively below the plane of life which was established in the creation of Adam. If, as the text of Genesis would by no means disallow, God initially shaped man by a process of evolution, it would follow that a considerable stock of near-humans preceded the first true man, and it would be arbitrary to picture these as mindless brutes. Nothing requires that the creature into which God breathed human life should not have been of a species prepared in every way for humanity, with already a long history of practical intelligence, artistic sensibility and the capacity for awe and reflection.

On this view, Adam, the first true man, will have had as contemporaries many creatures of comparable intelligence, widely distributed over the world. One might conjecture that these were destined to die out, like the Neanderthalers (if indeed these did), or to perish in the Flood, leaving Adam's lineal descendants, through Noah, in sole possession. Against this, however, there must be borne in mind the apparent continuity between the main races of the present and those of the distant past, already mentioned, which seems to suggest either a stupendous antiquity for Adam … or the continued existence of "pre-Adamites" alongside "Adamites". …

It is at least conceivable that after the special creation of Eve, which established the first human pair as God's viceregents (Gn. 1:27,28) and clinched the fact that there is no natural bridge from animal to man, God may have now conferred His image on Adam's collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being. Adam's "federal" headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.

There may be a biblical hint of such a situation in the surprising impression of an already populous earth given by the words and deeds of Cain in 4:14,17. Even Augustine had to devote a chapter [of The City of God] to answering those who "find this a difficulty". … It may be significant that, with one possible exception [Gen. 3:20], the unity of mankind "in Adam" and our common status as sinners through his offence are expressed in Scripture not in terms of heredity but simply of solidarity. We nowhere find applied to us any argument from physical descent such as that of Hebrews 7:9,10 (where Levi shares in Abraham's act through being "still in the loins of his ancestor"). Rather, Adam's sin is shown to have implicated all men because he was the federal head of humanity, somewhat as in Christ's death "one died for all, therefore all died" (2 Cor. 5:14). Paternity plays no part in making Adam "the figure of him that was to come" (Rom. 5:14). (pp. 28-30)
I am not committed to Kidner's reconstruction of human beginnings. In fact, Kidner himself describes it as an exploratory suggestion and invites correction and a better synthesis (p. 30).

I have gone to the trouble of typing it out because I wish Kidner's proposal was in wider circulation. By daring to offer a bold and original interpretation, I think he shows up most evangelical interpreters, who demonstrate a lamentable paucity of imagination. Kidner shows that it may be possible to read the early chapters of Genesis as history without repudiating the theory of evolution, which has the weight of scientific evidence in support of it.

It seems to me that death was in the world long before Adam's sin. But consider:
  1. that human beings may not have had the moral capacity to sin until after God had breathed into Adam's lungs and reconstituted him in the image and likeness of God; and

  2. that the earlier deaths may have been physical only:  whereas spiritual death (estrangement from God) appeared for the first time as a consequence of Adam's act of disobedience.
In the end, I prefer a more mythological interpretation of Genesis 1-11 than the interpretation Kidner commends to us. I don't suppose that the events of creation necessarily occurred in the same order as in Genesis 1; or that Eve was formed literally of a rib from Adam's side; or that there was a literal tree with fruit that would impart eternal life; nor do I feel compelled to reconcile the variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Nonetheless, Kidner provides a reconstruction that is thoughtful, scholarly, and evangelical. It merits our consideration, if only to show us how blinkered our perspective on scripture usually is.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Church and state: four theses

Another tangent! In response to Dan's current post, Understandings of Power (why Christians should avoid being in the government).

Thesis 1:
There is no such thing as "the Church" in the abstract.

"The Church" consists of concrete entities (though these entities also have a spiritual dimension to them). Human beings, in all their fleshliness, make up the Church. Buildings, bank accounts, organizational hierarchies — these things also are inescapably a component of "the Church", however much we may deplore it.

Thesis 2:
A human being is a human being, whether inside or outside of the Church.

In my younger, more idealistic days, I took 2Co. 5:17 at face value:  "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."1

Bitter experience has taught me that St. Paul here articulates an ideal, rather than a reality. Christians do not cease to be human beings when they are converted. We are fundamentally the same as human beings outside of the Church, not fundamentally different from, pace Paul's bold assertion.

Thesis 3:
The line dividing good from evil runs through the midst of every human being:  Christian and non-Christian alike.

Here I am of course alluding to Solzhenitsyn's famous statement:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Christians are fully human beings. Though they are Spirit-filled, they remain fallen. From the same source comes both blessing and curse. It ought not to be so — but it is so.

Non-Christians are human beings fundamentally like us. Though they are depraved, non-Christians too are created in God's image.

Thus Solzhenitsyn is right:  the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Thesis 4:
Because the Church is a human institution, it commits acts both good and evil. The same is true of the secular state.

Dan asserts that it is intrinsic to government to crucify people. The Church also crucifies people, but crucifixion is extrinsic to the Church.

Dan asserts that it is intrinsic to the Church to benefit people. I hope Dan will concede that the secular state also benefits people — roads, hospitals, schools, donations of aid to other nations, etc. — but Dan dares to maintain that such benefits are extrinsic to the secular state.

Dan asserts that Christians ought not to work for the secular government. This cuts rather close to the bone for me, because I am in fact an employee of the Government of Canada.

Dan's (extreme, ideological) position leaves me rather breathless. I'm not offended by it, because I am unable to take it seriously. But I thought I would offer some theses to counter Dan's theses, to provide a rational foundation for my contrary convictions. Hence the four theses above.

Both the Church and the state crucify people; both the Church and the state benefit people. How can any Christian seriously maintain this intrinsic/extrinsic distinction, when both institutions serve up both good and evil in large proportions?

I use the word "institution" of the Church advisedly. The Church always establishes its own set of power relations, based on property, money, popularity, good looks, charisma, eloquence, musical talent, academic credentials, etc. Every social institution has its pecking order, based on considerations worthy and unworthy. The Church is no exception.

Such a pecking order exists at both the formal (organizational hierarchy) and informal (social hierarchy) levels, and the two pecking orders never correspond exactly.

Why isn't the Church an exception to the general rule? Because there is no "Church" in the abstract — spiritual and elevated above the things of this earth. The Church consists of concrete entities:  human beings plus buildings, cash, pianos, etc.

The state, as a human institution, is simultaneously both good and evil. So too, the Church, which is likewise a human institution.

Brothers and sisters, it ought not to be so. But it is:  and we must live in the real world. We must build our lives on a foundation of reality — not some abstraction that exists only in the pages of St. Paul's Spirit-fueled epistles.

In the eschaton, yes. Here and now? Regrettably — no.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The account of creation in Genesis 2

Chris Tilling is hosting an interesting discussion on evolution vs. creationism, and whether Genesis 1-2 should be interpreted literally or regarded as mythology.

(As usual, Chris provoked the discussion and then vanished into the cyber-ether. I'm beginning to wonder whether he really exists.)

I have a couple of posts on this topic that I've been meaning to publish. Actually, I've posted my first observation before, as a guest blogger on Jewish Atheist's blog. I'm referring to the middle section of that post, where I argued that there are two variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Both accounts insist that humankind is the focal point of creation. Genesis 1 makes the point by recounting that humans were created last — the crowning jewel of creation. Genesis 2 makes the point by recounting that humans were created first — thus taking precedence over everything else:
These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

When no bush of the field was yet in the earth1 and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground….

(Genesis 2:4-7a)2
There are at least two variant details in the accounts of creation.

Genesis 1 Genesis 2
"days" of creation 7 1 — "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens"
order of events humans created (day 6) after vegetation (day 3) humans created before vegetation, "when no bush of the field was yet in the earth"

Sceptics might suppose that the editor of Genesis was sloppy, and didn't notice the hopeless contradiction between the two accounts. This is a constant temptation:  to suppose that "primitive" peoples lacked intellectual sophistication.

More likely, the editor considered that he had two creation stories which approached the topic from two different vantage points, and he was loathe to lose either of them. The presence of variant details was simply immaterial.

Why was it immaterial? Because neither account of creation is a lab report:  they belong to the literary genre, myth. Myths are "metaphorical [nonliteral] narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred."3

Alternatively we could set out to describe the literary genre in more nuanced terms, as the evangelical scholar Gordon Wenham4 struggles to do:
Whereas the layman tends to see the issue in simple categories of myth or history, theologians have for various reasons tended to avoid this polarization. … Von Rad and Westermann call Gen 2-3 simply narrative (erzählung) and Coats calls it a tale.

Similarly, Otzen (Myths in the Old Testament, 25) states, "The narratives in the opening chapters of Genesis do not have the character of real myths." But the garden of Eden story does fulfill functions often associated with myths in other cultures. It explains man's present situation and obligations in terms of a primeval event which is of abiding significance. Marriage, work, pain, sin, and death are the subject matter of this great narrative. And this narrative is replete with powerful symbols — rivers, gold, cherubim, serpents and so on — which hint at its universal significance.

Yet for the author of Genesis it is clear "that here a factual report is meant to be given about facts which everyone knows and whose reality no one can question" (von Rad, 75). The introductory formula "This is the history of the heaven and the earth" (2:4) not only links this cycle of narratives with those which follow (e.g., 5:1 or 11:27), but implies that the characters who appear in Gen 2 and 3 are as real as the patriarchs.

But to affirm that Gen 2-3 is "a factual report" is not to say it is history, at least history in the normal meaning of the term. …

If earlier commentators tended to think in terms of the writer of Genesis putting into words a vision of the garden which was disclosed to him, or recording a primeval tradition for posterity, modern writers … prefer to think in terms of divine inspiration working through the author's creative imagination. …

Whereas a modern writer might have been happy to spell this out in abstract theological terminology — God created the world good, but man spoiled it by his disobedience — Genesis puts these truths in vivid and memorable form in an absorbing yet highly symbolic story. It is argued that such an understanding of the story's composition can account for its use of mythological motifs from neighboring peoples and its points of connection with other parts of the OT, particularly the covenant and wisdom traditions.
You can see Wenham struggling here. It's easier to say what the genre isn't than to say what the genre is:  it isn't myth, or history "in the normal meaning of the term", or abstract theology, or pure "revelation" as understood in previous generations, or mere tradition.

The opening chapters of Genesis borrow motifs from the myths of neighbouring peoples, and they fulfil the function of mythology, and they use archetypal symbols (e.g. the serpent) — yet Wenham still wants to deny that myth is the right literary category. He prefers to think in terms of "divine inspiration working through the author's creative imagination". This seems to bring us back to von Rad's label, narrative, albeit an inspired narrative.

In my view, Wenham's unease with the label myth is unnecessary. It's better to acknowledge that these chapters are Israel's myth, while carefully explaining what one means by the term. Wenham himself admits that the writer borrows motifs from the myths of neighbouring, pagan peoples:  not in agreement with their theology, but rather in a deliberate effort to subvert their accounts of creation:
The known links of the Hebrew patriarchs with Mesopotamia and the widespread diffusion of cuneiform literary texts throughout the Levant in the Amarna period (late 15th century) make it improbable that the writers of Genesis were completely ignorant of Babylonian and cognate mythology. Most likely they were conscious of a number of accounts of creation current in the Near East of their day, and Gen 1 is a deliberate statement of Hebrew view of creation over against rival views. It is not merely a demythologization of oriental creation myths, whether Babylonian or Egyptian; rather it is a polemical repudiation of such myths.5
Well-meaning believers thus miss the point when they get hung up over a literal seven days of creation. The point is, not Marduk (or Ra, or whomever) but YHWH.

Moreover, that YHWH is no tribal deity, but Lord of all the earth, which is his handiwork. And we might list other "points" as well. The opening chapters of Genesis are a fount of multiple, foundational doctrines. One of the characteristics of myth is its capacity to hold a "surplus of meaning":  more layers and depth of meaning than a merely literal use of language can sustain.

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1"Earth" is the alternative translation given in a footnote to the English Standard Version. In the main text, the ESV translation is, "When no bush of the field was yet in the land".

2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

3Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 71.

4Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 1, discussing the form/structure/setting of Genesis 2:4-3:24.

5Genesis 1-15, discussing the form/structure/setting of Genesis 1:1-2:3.