Monday, September 13, 2010

Is there an "Abraham Line"?

Everyone places the 'boundary of historicity', where you decide to go with the biblical text as opposed to possible evidence to the contrary, at one of these five locations:

      1. Genesis 1
      2. Genesis 12
      3. Gradually after Genesis 12
      4. After the Exile (Ezra/Nehemiah)
      5. OT = Pure fiction
    I think this is a different question as to what to then do with the text.  


    Anonymous said...

    The other question is whether we can speak of a dichotomy between 'historicity' and 'non-historicity' -- especially because we probably think of history in not-quite-post-Rankean terms...

    Alex Smith said...

    That's a very interesting diagram. I didn't realize there was such a variety of views on it. e.g. Is there seriously anyone who holds 5?

    I'd lean towards 2, or maybe 3, but think there's probably elements of historicity before than e.g. there probably was a large, albeit local, flood.

    Mind you I strongly think that there can be great value and Truth in things even if they aren't historical. e.g. parables, story of king midas.

    Which do you hold?

    Andrew Bowles said...

    I remember this discussion!
    It's an interesting thought experiment, but I think Arthur is right that it raises more questions that it answers - even the question as to why we find this issue so important and divisive.

    I think there are two separate issues in the diagram as well, not just the one as to where you place the line. The 'Abraham line' is about at what point the Bible moves from myth to chronicle. The question of post-Exilic writing is about the place of editing and redaction in the OT, and whether the historical material has been theologically shaped in a way that compromises its plain factuality.

    Jon said...

    I think I'm with Arthur and Andrew on this - it's not so much which bits are historical and which not, as what is the historical content in each story as opposed to its mythic content. Or perhaps that division would not make sense to the biblical authors. Likewise for "pure fiction" - there's not much fiction in the Bible (perhaps Jonah and Job?) but there's probably not much modern "scientific history" either.

    Marion said...

    After listening to archeologists in Israel and helping on digs I would go with #3.

    Luke said...

    Thanks for the feedback folks.

    Sorry Arthur I disagree, I think a clear dichotomy exists, and its actually a tense and uneasy truce between Empiricism and post-modernism. On the one hand I wonder if the universe should have an edge and on the other hand I file my tax return.

    Although I agree Andrew that paradigms change over time, but we also have to allow for consistency across time. Augustine would have assumed Jesus is a real person in the same way he assumed Adam was a real person. As I alluded to in the post, assuming historicity doesn't mean we can then make assumptions that go beyond the text. (Diff Qs) Which is what I think Bp Usher and his counting of the generations does.

    Alex, number five is included so I can say everyone has a position. But it would be a strange one! I imagine four would be the most common in the secular world.

    Like I said to Andrew, Jon, I think we have to some some continuity between us and the ancients. It may be (and I think likely) that the category of condensed history existed but we have to assume some sort of consistency. That when they said God, they didn't mean a flying spaghetti monster. Although of course the trick is identifying the differences and similarities, no easy task!

    Mum, Again, Blocher is convincing on this one. Adam has to be historical for the whole system of original sin to work. (Tim Keller, concedes this in a recent paper on BioLogos.) I've been thinking that while Gen 1 may be historical we don't need to and shouldn't go beyond what is presented.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    I'm putting forward that there are different kinds of 'history'. History, in the sense of a written account of events, is done in many ways. Myth is one of them, and there is no pejorative connotation to that, or there shouldn't be, it is a weakness of our culture that it is seen that way. Gen 1-11 appears to me to be a mythical backstory to introduce Abraham, and that means that 'historicity' in the sense you mean is less important. So I don't think it's adequate to say that issues of historical accuracy are separate from hermeneutics.

    Your diagram assumes that all the OT is the same kind of historical writing, which is too simple. The histories of Israel (Kings, Chronicles) that were written during or after the Exile were written for a different purpose and with a different method to the Pentateuch. It's okay for us to take the different authors of the OT books into account and not just read it as a completely unified text.

    Luke said...

    True Andrew, we lack the modern category of capital M myth that contains, true people doing true things but condensing details in a manner to similar to the way the gospel accounts sometimes condense or truncate details.

    Your right both steps, the assigning historicity and then interacting with the final product are both parts of the larger field of hermeneutics. (Although you betray your NT Wright sympathies when you say it's the backstory of Abraham! It's the backstory of the cosmos, including Abraham!)

    I do think though that everyone assigns historicity contra-Arthur, given it's still a category we think in and use in the world around us. (Although as you've rightly pointed out it doesn't answer the question of can genre be both historical and mythical?)

    Readers? Can genre be both historical and mythical? Biblical examples, non-biblical examples?

    Anonymous said...

    I know some guys who would probably would alter the scale as follows:
    1. Genesis 1
    1.5 Genesis 3
    2. Genesis 12

    and they would sit in the Genesis camp while probably holding to 1 tentatively and call it proto-history or something similar.

    I go with no.1. Moses did, as did Jesus and the Apostles. Though the details of Gen 1 and 2, I find very humbling.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    Here's some Biblical examples:

    Col 2:15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

    Heb 9:11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

    Or, for future-oriented myth:

    1 Cor 15:24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he "has put everything under his feet."

    These things happened or will happen, but the 'historical' event from our point of view was the crucifixion. What the parousia of Jesus will appear like in 'history' is not yet known. The symbolic history that Paul and the writer to the Hebrews have written is a mythical construction that shows the theological meaning of historical events.

    p.s. Thirty-nine chapters in Genesis deal with Abraham and his family. Eleven chapters deal with the entire history of the universe up until that point. It's about Abraham. :)

    Anonymous said...

    Sorry Luke, my first comment was a bit obtuse. I think we've (plus Andrew) been talking past each other. The question is, What do we actually mean by 'history'?

    As a history student, I don't use 'history' as a code-word for 'the past' or 'what actually happened'. Instead, like Andrew was getting at, the study of history is the study of perspectives. You could sort of call it 'real-life fiction'. (Fiction as in story.) Events come and go, after which they cannot be repeated or replicated but can be retold: macro history, micro history, social history, big-man history, feminist history, intellectual history...

    So this conversation may not necessarily have so much to do with what's true or false, which is what you seem to be hitting at. (Btw, I'm not talking about postmodernism etc.) Everyone here so far thinks that Genesis is emphatically true!

    But true how? True in what sense? So, coming back to your post, I think this is exactly the question of what to do with the text. We can't divorce meaning from reading...

    Gotta go


    Jon said...

    Modern historical myth (at least as we were taught at school, these things change, you could take your pick from any one of a number of stories about Aboriginal/British relations. I like the one about John Batman buying Melbourne from the local Aboriginal people for a few trinkets, and then getting overridden by the colonial authorities. The message of the story was that the Aboriginal people didn't mind their land being overrun all that much, and that good solid private enterprise was frustrated by government intervention. It's true in the sense that it happened, but its meaning changes depending on your point of view, and the story omits other details like the subsequent running battles between Europeans and the local Aboriginal people.

    I reckon a good biblical example is the ten plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7-11). Assuming the Exodus really did happen it has an historical dimension, but the use of the number 10 which comes up at various times in Exodus, and the link of each plague with an Egyptian god is surely a "mythologising" element designed to show Yahweh's superiority.

    ish said...

    I've been reading A Biblical History of Israel (Provan, Long, Longman)and finding it very helpful. It spends considerable pages on addressing those with lesser degrees of agreement with OT historistity as well as advancing their case with external and internal evidence.

    One quoted example of history stylized is the extensive chiasm for the whole book of Judges. The symmetry is striking. 7 elements advancing into the core of the book (and Gideon) and 7 counterpart elements retreating to the bleak
    ending. Does contrivance of this sort lessen the historisity. The authors do not think so.

    Jon said...

    Thought of another modern example as I was out riding this morning - riding always makes my brain work. It's the "36 faceless men" story. Jounalist Alan Reid wrote the story in 1963, with accompanying pictures of the "faceless men" (not sure if he got the irony), about how Calwell and Whitlam were left outside the room while the Labor Party executive discussed party policy. It's history, it really happened, but the use of the story, and the subsequent recycling of the phrase every time something happens in the Labor Party (like a leader getting deposed) is powerful mythmaking for propaganda purposes.

    Jereth said...

    Luke buddy, it's been a while since we've discussed this topic!

    Once one accepts the doctrine of the total inerrancy of Scripture, it is inevitable that one will take an increasingly creationist position.

    Like you, I (tentatively) hold to the framework view of Genesis 1 as being the interpretation most likely to be correct, but I'm open to having my mind changed by my more "literalist" brothers and sisters. No one can deny that the literal 6-day view is the most natural reading of the text.

    In my opinion Genesis 2 and 3 are entirely literal and historical passages and there was a universal flood which killed everyone living on Earth at the time. Not only was Adam a historical person, he is the universal ancestor of the human race and did not descend from animals. The New Testament does not permit any other theory.

    The idea that real history starts at Abraham is highly fanciful. There are no literary markers in the book of Genesis to suggest that some kind of change occurs at chapter 12.

    Jereth said...

    Luke, I'm just curious why you didn't allow an option for my view. (Literal history starting at Genesis 2.) Some Christians also hold Genesis 4 as the dividing line. So there should be:

    1. Genesis 1
    2. Genesis 2
    3. Genesis 4
    4. Genesis 12

    Incidentally, I think that the fact that so many possible dividing lines exist shows that this sort of approach to the text is hazardous. The safest approach would certainly be to just say that it is ALL historical and literal. Once you give interpreters the option of drawing a myth/history line somewhere, you're basically declaring open season on discarding bits of Scripture as junk myth. "OT = pure fiction" has pretty much the same legitimacy as any of the other options!

    I would justify my Genesis 2 boundary on the grounds that there is a fairly clear literary marker which allows me to do so. (The fact that Genesis 1 stands outside the recurring "generations" formula.) None of the other proposed boundaries can claim such a marker. Nevertheless, as I said, I remain open to the 6-day literalist view as one which is entirely reasonable, defensible and faithful to the text.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    Yes, I'd have to agree with Arthur. I'm still not convinced that your original assertion that historicity is a priori to hermeneutics is correct. Frank Turk was using that as a polemical strategy to secure his own interpretation, and that is what it remains. I could just as easily say that a literal reading of Rev 13 secures at least the historicity of a 'real' beast from the sea and that we shouldn't go beyond that to explain what it might mean. Interpretation comes before questions of historicity.

    Jon said...

    @ Jareth

    "Once one accepts the doctrine of the total inerrancy of Scripture, it is inevitable that one will take an increasingly creationist position."

    I agree with your premise but not your conclusion. It's not "safe" to view it all as historical and literal (and those two words are not synonymous and Arthur and Andrew have pointed out). In my view the clear symbolic elements in Genesis 3 (the talking snake, the trees which bear knowledge and life instead of fruit, the angel barring the gate to the garden with a flaming sword, etc) make a literalist interpretation very much "unsafe". But unsafe only in a metaphorical way, you won't actually get hurt!

    Jereth said...

    Hi Jon,

    I'm curious why you think that a talking snake and a sword bearing angel are "clearly" symbolic.

    By what criterion do you judge that something is "clearly" symbolic? Is it simply anything that lies outside your ordinary, everyday experience?

    If that were the case, then the miracles of Jesus, his virgin birth and his resurrection would be "clearly" symbolic events, yes? No?

    But perhaps you have other criteria upon which you make these judgments?

    Do you think that Balaam's donkey (another talking animal) is an unhistorical story? What about all the instances in both the Old and New Testaments where people encounter angels?

    Andrew Bowles said...

    The problem here is the assumption that 'symbol' and 'myth' are synonymous with falsehood or lack of historical reality. A symbol is something that points to a reality that is greater and deeper than itself. So yes, the incarnation and resurrection, the miracles of Jesus etc. are symbolic. That is why we can do theology on the basis of these events. If they had no symbolic significance they would have no deeper meaning, they would be merely arbitrary occurrences. Adam is a symbolic figure, as the use that Paul makes of him in Rom 5 attests. As we have been saying, this is different to the question of whether he was a 'real' person whose existence could be empirically attested by archaeology of some kind.

    We need to think more carefully about what the meaning of history is, or else we talk in circles.

    jereth said...

    Ok. I used the word "symbolic" because that is the word Jon used. And seeing as this discussion as a whole concerns historicity I assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that when Jon said x,y,z is symbolic (rather than literal) he meant by this that x,y,z is non-historical.

    So to clear the air...

    I believe that the Bible teaches a historical Adam who historically was the first human being, who historically was created ex nihilo from inanimate dust (rather than having evolved from living apes), who historically was the universal ancestor of all races, who historically committed the first ever sin, and who historically brought physical death upon the human race.

    Further more I believe that Eve was historically created from Adam's historical body. And I think that the first transgression transpired essentially as described in chapter 3 of Genesis -- Satan historically convinced Eve to sin, and she historically convinced her husband to sin with her; God historically pronounced curses on them and drove them historically out from his presence and placed a historical angel to guard the way back in.

    Can anyone show me why this should not be the case? Apart from the so-called "science" of evolution, that is :-)

    Andrew Bowles said...

    That's a defensible interpretation of Genesis 1. The point being that it is based on an interpretation of Genesis (a hermeneutical principle) rather than a prior decision about where a 'line' of historicity should be placed in order to protect against or accommodate to science. What Luke's thought experiment uncovers is that the deeper issue is not how we view science but how we interpret historical texts in a sensitively and theologically fruitful way. This should be a liberating experience and direct us back to the Bible instead of worrying overly much about science, whether mainstream or creationist.

    Jon said...

    I think the question of whether these people existed or not is fascinating but one of the least interesting or important questions about these stories. The point is, what do they mean? And how does this affect how we should live now? What do they have to teach us?

    However, since you ask.

    1. I think there probably was not a literal Adam and Eve although I'd be happy to be proved wrong. That's just my personal opinion though.

    2. The symbolism of the stories comes because so much lies behind those images. For instance, the serpent appears in a lot of ancient literature as a tempter/trickster/god of darkness. Most "literalist" interpretations of this passage recognise this by associating the snake with Satan, although Satan is not overtly mentioned. Similarly with the trees - knowledge is not the kind of thing that grows on trees. It's not just that it's outside our experience, it's that it's a whole different category of thing. However, if you see the tree as symbolic of an area of knowledge and experience, an area of investigation that is reserved for God and into which it is dangerous for humans to venture, then the story makes sense and it leads us to ask - what "trees" should we avoid? The point of the angel barring the way is that there is no going back - that time and state are gone forever and we now have to make the best of our fallen reality.

    3. I think the science (without inverted commas) of evolution is something we should definitely take into account in reading these passages, in just the same way that we take other pieces of extra-biblical knowledge into account in interpreting the bible, like knowledge of history, culture and literary form. All knowledge is God's knowledge, even if some of it is dangerous to us.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    Incidentally Jereth, I note that in your description of your view you say that God 'drove them historically out from his presence and placed a historical angel to guard the way back in'. Actually, under a literal reading Adam and Eve were driven out of the physical area of the Garden of Eden. The fact that you can so easily and even perhaps unconsciously substitute an abstract concept like the 'presence of God', for a concrete geographical reference, which is commonly done, indicates that the boundary between history and symbol is not so tight after all (not patrolled by an angel and a flaming sword, anyway!).

    Jereth said...

    I think the question of whether these people existed or not is fascinating but one of the least interesting or important questions about these stories. The point is, what do they mean? And how does this affect how we should live now? What do they have to teach us?


    I believe that the historicity of the Genesis account is important because the inerrancy of the Bible hangs on this question, and upon the inerrancy of the Bible hangs the authority of the Bible.

    There is not the slightest indication given in Scripture that the account of Adam is to be taken in any way other than as a record of history. Therefore, if we take the account of Adam non-historically, we are saying that the Bible may err in its claims and therefore cannot be fully trusted. We are also undermining the doctrine of special revelation, saying that God cannot communicate clearly.

    If we dispense with the historicity of Genesis, we have no reason to trust anything that the Bible says on any matter, including doctrinal and moral matters. So this question is vitally relevant to how we should live now.

    The historicity of Adam is also relevant to us because if the story of Adam's creation and Fall is fictitious, the whole message of the Gospel becomes rather meaningless.

    jereth said...

    I think there probably was not a literal Adam and Eve although I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

    On what grounds (other than evolutionary "science") do you doubt the literal existence of Adam?

    Acts 17:26 and Romans 5:12 blow apart any attempt to re-interpret Genesis 2-3 in light of evolution. Paul teaches that Adam is the ancestor of all humans, and that he introduced sin and consequently physical death into the human race. (echoing Gen 3:19). There is no legitimate way to read a non-literal Adam into Romans 5 (and 1 Cor 15:21-22, and Luke 3:38).

    Evolution, on the other hand, claims that there was no single universal ancestor, but rather a population of humans that arose gradually from a population of apes. Evolution furthermore teaches that physical death has always been a property of humanity, just as it is a property of animals and plants.

    Most "literalist" interpretations of this passage recognise this by associating the snake with Satan, although Satan is not overtly mentioned.

    Satan is overtly identified with the serpent of Gen 3 in Rev 12:9.

    I think the science (without inverted commas) of evolution is something we should definitely take into account in reading these passages, in just the same way that we take other pieces of extra-biblical knowledge into account in interpreting the bible

    I agree with you that extra-biblical knowledge has a place in understanding Scripture. However, evolutionary theory outright contradicts Scripture at numerous points so it cannot be used to shed light on Genesis. In addition, putting the Bible completely aside, evolution fails dismally as science. It's "scientific" basis is so atrociously shoddy that it is frankly embarassing that some people can regard it as good science!


    Jereth said...


    I'm not denying that there may be some symbolism in these texts. Indeed, I would argue that symbolism is wholly meaningless unless there is a concrete, space-time referent.

    So for example, you cannot partake in the Lord's body at Communion by chewing on an imaginary piece of bread.

    Similarly, Genesis 2-3 cannot teach us any meaninful doctrine about humanity, creation, sin and judgment unless the events described therein actually took place concretely in space and time.


    Jon said...

    Jareth, since I'm not a scientist I won't go into the science of evolution. However, I'd like to respond carefully to your point on the inerrancy of scripture, hoping to not be misinterpreted.

    The first problem I have with the idea of inerrancy as you describe it is that it has no regard for what is actually in the bible. It's possible to argue that the "historical" books are inerrant although I don't think even that stands up to much scrutiny. However, in what sense can a song or poem (like the Psalms and much of the prophetic writigs) be said to be inerrant? In what sense are Jesus' parables inerrant? The term "inspired" makes a lot more sense to me. God is speaking to us through these texts. What is he saying?

    Which brings me to the second point - that the lesson of the stories is only valid if they actually took place. I'm sure you wouldn't say this about Jesus' parables. It doesn't matter whether or not there was a Good Samaritan, that's still what loving your neighbour means. I think the same can be said of the story of Adam and Eve. We disobey God. It wasn't meant to be like this. We can't recapture perfection, we have to live with our imperfection. God still loves us. These and other things are the message of the story, whether it actually happened or not. You can accept the literal truth of the story by faith, or you can accept its message by faith (or of course you can do both).

    Jon said...

    Apologies Jereth, just noticed I've been spelling your name wrong.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    'I'm not denying that there may be some symbolism in these texts.'

    It's good to see we're getting somewhere. If, as we've established, it is possible that the Garden of Eden functions in Genesis as a symbol for 'the presence of God', it is perhaps also possible that the 'concrete referent' in space-time history to which it refers might be something else than Adam and Eve being located in a garden somewhere in the Middle East. Your example of communion is interesting (not only because it repudiates Zwinglian memorialism, which I'm not sure you meant to do!), but because the physical elements of the bread and wine refer concretely to the (historical) body and blood of Jesus, and symbolically to our communion with him. It's not the particular loaf of bread that you use on a given Sunday that is important, but its symbolic value. Could the Garden not have a similar mediating function in Genesis - a geographical location which you could in theory travel to, which is associated with fertility and abundance, is being used as a concrete reference to the historical event of the Fall and also as a symbol of its meaning?

    Once you can see this possibility, a lot of the angst can be drawn out of this issue, which is good because it is sad to see Christians tearing at each other over who is the most 'faithful' to the Bible.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    p.s. I'm not saying that you should or 'have to' endorse that kind of interpretation of Genesis 1-3, and I'm not interested in debating whether or not it is correct. My aim is to open up the possibility that such an interpretation is legitimate and why it might be so. That creates space for discussion instead of denunciation. Again, to reference the initial post, the issue is Biblical hermeneutics.

    jereth said...

    Jon - no worries. Everyone spells my name wrong. I often get called Jared, Gerard, Jeremy, and even Stuart.

    Bowlesy - I'm not a Zwinglian :-)

    Jon said...

    My sympathies, at least I only have to suffer a superfluous "h".

    Jereth said...


    I think that symbolism may exist in Genesis 2-3 in the sense that historical space-time realities are invested with abstract, intangible or spiritual meanings. So, for example, the serpent may represent Satan, the forbidden fruit may represent rebellion, and the Garden of Eden may represent the presence of God.

    But for this symbolism to work, in my opinion, the historical realities need to be concrete, as this is a historical text. I cannot see how a spiritual concept (the presence of God) can be meaningfully symbolised by a fictitious, non-existent Garden. Having something abstract represented by something non-existent seems absurd to me. The same goes for the idea that the tabernacle didn't really exist, or that Solomon's temple didn't really exist.

    Okay, perhaps the Garden was not necessarily located geographically in the Middle East as we know it today, but that is beside the point. The point is that there had to be a real, historical, garden somewhere on Earth where the events described in Gen 2-3 took place within space and time.

    To use the analogy of communion again -- yes, the particular loaf of bread, its precise composition, whether it is wholemeal or multigrain etc. do not matter because the bread is pointing to an intangible reality, namely, the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. But the bread has to be real -- you can't just imagine yourself to be eating a piece of imaginary bread and call that communion.

    Jon said...

    "as this is a historical text"

    I think you're at the heart of the matter there, Jereth. Is it or isn't it? You think it is, I think it isn't. I'll tell you some reasons I think it isn't, and then if you want to you could tell me why you think it is.

    1. I think the symbolic and mythic content makes its historicity doubtful - I've talked about this already.

    2. The geography of the Garden of Eden doesn't match the historic places it talks about - the Tigris and Euphrates don't start out as the same stream and their beginnings are quite far apart. The other two rivers arising from the same stream can't be identified.

    3. Biologically, a species can't survive from two specimens. Later Cain goes off to a distant country and takes a wife there - where did she come from? And who was he afraid would kill him?

    4. After the story finishes the garden and the angel with his flaming sword disappear from the tale - surely this would be a notable landmark if it existed in history.

    Jereth said...

    Dear Jon,

    On historicity of Genesis 2-3

    The fact that the rivers do not fit modern geography does not (in my mind) detract from the historicity of the account. Firstly, I have already remarked to Andrew that I do not think it is important that we locate the garden of Eden in the middle east. Secondly, I believe that geography before the universal flood may have been substantially different from what it is today.

    The Cain's wife question is a complex one which (if that's ok with you) we can go into another time.

    Re the disappearance of the garden from history: that is not quite correct because in Gen 4:16 Eden remains as a geographical landmark. And again, I take it that the universal flood (or some other mechanism, unrecorded in Scripture) may have removed the garden and its contents.

    The principal reason I hold this account to be historical is that I can see no clear literary marker in the book of Genesis indicating the transition from mythic/legendary to historical. Centuries of Jewish and Christian expositors (prior to Darwin) agreed with me. The supposed myth/history boundary at Genesis 11/12 is completely invisible and (in my mind) imaginary. The genealogies of Gen 5, 10; 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 link the pre-Gen 12 individuals to the post-Gen 12 individuals with no hint of a transition between mythic people and real people. Finally, and significantly, the New Testament consistently regards people like Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah as historical figures.

    About 6-7 years ago, I believed (as you do now) that Adam may not have been a real person. But after reading Genesis over and over, the text simply got the better of me and I had to revert to the "literalistic" convictions that I have now.

    BTW, I've noticed that you still haven't responded to my comments about Romans 5:12. This verse above all is an enormous barrier preventing me from accepting your exegesis of Genesis 2-3, and I would like to know how you deal with it.

    Cheers, Jereth

    jereth said...

    Backtracking to the inerrancy issue...

    My definition of biblical inerrancy is this: "Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching"
    (see The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy)

    This definition of inerrancy permits the presence of non-historical stories in Scripture such as the parables of Jesus. The key thing is that the parables are not intended as historical accounts. However, the historical books -- Kings, Samuel, Joshua, Genesis -- are clearly intended as history and therefore I believe we must take them as such. Otherwise, we are saying that the Bible authors (divine and human) intended to teach us something and got it wrong.

    Is the lesson of the stories valid only if they actually took place?

    With the parables, I agree that the answer is no. With Gen 2-3, however, I believe the answer is yes. The reason is that Gen 2-3 is doing more than giving a general lesson about human disobedience and imperfection. Gen 2-3 is there to give an account of the heavens and the earth in the day they were created (Gen 2:4); to teach us what the world was originally like and how it has become infected with sin and death. (Again I point to Rom 5:12)

    Without a historical account of the entrance of sin and death into a perfect world, the over-arching biblical story of redemption loses its starting point. Why did God have to send his Son to defeat sin and death if sin and death did not enter the human race at a concrete place and time in history?

    Jon said...

    Hey Jereth, good thing Luke is such a hospitable person and lets us talk away. I understand you've just been enjoying his and Amy's real life hospitality which is way nicer than the mere electronic version. A few points here.

    1. I went in the other direction to you - in my 20s I was convinced by Creation Science and believed it was all literal, but as I looked closer and learned more I gradually changed to where I am now.

    2. If you have a literal Garden of Eden you need to locate it in the Middle East because the Tigris and Euphrates flow through it.

    3. I agree that there is no "Abraham line" but don't think that makes the book historical in the sense you mean. I'm no historian so some reader who is might correct me, but I believe the concept of history you are using (an objective, evidence-based investigation into what happened in the past) is a very modern concept of which the writers of the Biblical books had no inkling. They were passing on the stories of their origins.

    3. This would also be my response to your point about Romans 5. Paul is making a rhetorical point using the story of Adam as a counterpoint to Jesus. You can see his use of it is rhetorical because he counterpoints one man's sin (Adam) bringing death with one man's sacrifice (Christ's) bringing life - despite the fact that Genesis 3 records two people's sin, with Eve as the instigator. The point is that Jesus brings us life and saves us from sin. It doesn't rely on Adam being a literal person, just on his readers knowing who Adam was.

    Now let me remind you what I said earlier.

    "I think the question of whether these people existed or not is fascinating but one of the least interesting or important questions about these stories. The point is, what do they mean? And how does this affect how we should live now? What do they have to teach us?"

    You notice how our argument about whether the story is literally true or not (which I am greatly enjoying) has taken precedence over any consideration of how we should live our lives as a result of this story? So while we may be closer to an intellectual understanding and have our brains stimulated in the process, I'm guessing neither of us will be any godlier as a result.

    Andrew Bowles said...

    I'm with Jon in finding it a bit of a stretch that one can maintain a criterion of strict historicity alongside the idea that the specific geography attributed to the Garden of Eden is not important. A sacred garden which no-one knows where it is, that is not to be found on this earth, is a myth, pure and simple.

    I made a mistake in describing the presence of God as an abstract concept. It is in fact a spiritual experience. Describing spiritual realities is difficult, because we have only inadequate metaphors from the natural world. In Isaiah 6 he sees a vision of God, and the 'hem of his robe' fills the Temple. Does this mean that we should inquire theologically as to what fabric God's robe is made out of? Of course not. And think of the visions of Ezekiel, or Moses, or in the Revelation to John. Visions of a bright shining being who has the appearance that is something like the form of a man, or emerald rainbows surrounding a figure on a throne, a chariot with wheels full of eyes. No-one has ever seen God (1 Tim 6:16), these are just images, symbols, of his reality that can be transmitted by those who have seen something of his glory.

    What is it like to have full and intimate communion with God on this earth? We cannot comprehend it. But the vision of a beautiful garden watered by four rivers, where there is no pain and struggle and you are naked and unashamed, and the Lord walks with you in the cool of the day, that comes close. Particularly if you are a nomad wandering in the desert, perhaps? How did we get thrown out of the garden? By disobediently eating the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If this is supposed to be a real piece of fruit, then at what greengrocer can I buy the fruits of the Spirit? Come on. What did that look like in empirical terms? A mystery, but the historical reality of it is very stark and unavoidable. Maybe a single couple in a garden eating a piece of fruit, maybe some other event of an unimaginable kind for us who live on the other side of this loss of divine knowledge. Who knows, but praise God that the 'Second Adam' has undone this curse.

    In chapel we sometimes sing a song with a line that says that Jesus has brought us 'back to the Garden'. Now we laugh at the bad biblical theology (Revelation has a city, the New Jerusalem), but no-one disputes the reality of that phrase just because we have not returned to a physical garden somewhere on the earth. We all know that it means that our communion with God is restored. Really, actually, and historically restored. We have returned to the garden. This is a concrete event, many of us can name the day it happened. And a lovely symbol as well.

    jereth said...

    Yes Jon, we had the pleasure of staying with Luke, Amy and Eva last week and seeing Hobart and surrounds. My wife and I are from Melbourne --we got to know Lamy while they were stuyding here.

    So while we may be closer to an intellectual understanding and have our brains stimulated in the process, I'm guessing neither of us will be any godlier as a result.

    That may be the case in the short term and looking at the "small picture", but my opinion is that this has implications for the godliness of the Church on a larger scale. Hence my mention of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. When the Bible's ability to communicate a clear message is called into question, its authority (as a moral and doctrinal teacher) is undermined.

    Accordingly, you will find as a general rule that most folk who discount the Bible's moral teachings (say, on divorce, sexuality, family) would regard Genesis as non-historical; conversely, most folk who regard Genesis as a historical account would be extremely solid on the Bible's moral teachings.

    Similarly, most people who attend theologically liberal churches (which would deny teachings such as the virgin birth and bodily resurection) would hold Genesis as non-historical; conversely, most people who hold Genesis as historical would almost certainly attend theologically conservative churches and be solid on those doctrinal matters.

    In between these 2 groups are those (presumably like yourself) who are "liberal" in their Genesis reading and "conservative" in the rest of their moral and theological convictions. My concern is that over the course of generations, this is actually a waypoint between A and B. So I do think that how we read Genesis has real-life godliness implications, even if they are not immediately apparent.

    I went in the other direction to you

    Actually, I was a young earth creationist initially (as a child and teenager) before swinging to the liberal end of the spectrum in my early 20s (though I never fully embraced theistic evolution), and then coming back to where I sit now.

    I'll get to the rest of it later -- it's time for bed now!

    jereth said...

    Re: the location of the garden

    Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the garden of Eden was probably located in the vicinity of the modern Tigris and Euprhates rivers and that the geography of the rivers has altered since then (probably during Noah’s flood, which no doubt caused a fair amount of damage to the Earth’s terrain). But I’m not going to be dogmatic about this. What matters, I think, is that there was a real garden somewhere on Earth where the events of Gen 2-3 took place. (I do not see why there couldn’t have been another set of rivers somewhere else with the same names – this was thousands of years ago mind you, and before the flood).

    Re: symbolism

    Andrew, I agree with you about the difficulties of describing spiritual realities, and that the Bible does use metaphors to describe the glory of God. But I think there is a big difference between Genesis 2-3 and the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Revelation – namely the latter are clearly presented as theophanies while the former is not. There is no hint of Gen 2-3 being any kind of ethereal vision. It is a plain, matter-of-fact narrative of happenings in space-time, just like the narratives later on in the book of Genesis which we don’t consider mythological (eg. Abraham, Joseph).

    This does not exclude the presence of symbolism. I believe that the garden, a historical reality, was an earthly symbol for God’s presence just as the tabernacle and the temple were. We know that God is not truly contained in any physical location (Is 66:1; 1 Kings 8:27) but this does not mean he cannot attach his presence symbolically (sacramentally?) to a physical locale.

    Here’s the thing. If we completely spiritualise away the garden of Eden, how far do we go with this? Let’s remember that this narrative is not just about trees of knowledge, evil serpents, flaming swords and attendant spiritual realities. It is about real, concrete stuff that we can still touch and see today: the heavens and the earth; man and woman; rivers and rain; animals, plants, minerals. Is the universe actually a non-existent myth? Are manhood and womanhood non-existent myths? Are animals just a fictitious, mythical construct which symbolise a heavenly reality? Of course you’ll answer 'no' to all of this because you are not a gnostic. But if the heavens and the earth are real, if Adam’s manhood and Eve’s womanhood are real, if the animals are real, they why not the rest of it?

    Andrew Bowles said...

    "It is a plain, matter-of-fact narrative of happenings in space-time, just like the narratives later on in the book of Genesis which we don’t consider mythological."

    As I've said, this is a hermeneutical judgement with much to commend it, but not something that can command assent from all orthodox believers because it relies on specific theories of symbolism and a particular attitude to science and other theological concerns like inerrancy that you've laid out in other posts. These opinions are embedded in a particular hermeneutical and theological tradition that is only one small stream of the Church, and hook into narratives about the life of the church that are not convincing to me and many others. The idea that attitudes to Genesis are a signpost to theological and moral orthodoxy is unfounded - the Jehovah's Witnesses are more fundamentalist about the Scripture and its historicity than you will ever be, and the Mormons have fantastic family values. There are many ways to make mistakes.

    With regards to your comments about spiritualisation, since I do see the Garden as a theophanic experience then of course I don't regard the universe as unreal as a consequence, anymore than the New Jerusalem means that cities don't exist. You have to criticise someone from within the assumptions that they are using.

    Anyway, I have said enough on this thread. It has been helpful for me, a while ago I wondered if I would ever be able to read Genesis without the background noise of the creationist/evolution debate in my mind, and now I find that I can. His mercies are new every morning!

    Jon said...

    Hi there, I should probably make this my last post on this series too, don't want to wear it out. I think the moral issue is really important because that's what the story is about - us being sinful. My very top-of-the-head take on what this story tells us.

    - We are all incapable of doing what God wants. The gate to the Garden is blocked, we have to live with our sin and that of those around us.

    - This should make us humble - we need to be willing to confess our own sins rather than deceiving ourselves or others about them or covering them up, and we need to be patient and forgiving with the sins of others.

    - The same applies in the realm of knowledge - since we are no longer in God's presence our knowledge of him can only be indirect and we are not able to comprehend even a small fraction of God's truth. This should make us humble about our ability to know, and tolerant of alternate views (not my strong point, I confess).

    - Despite our expulsion from the Garden, God has not abandoned us - he taught Adam and Eve to make clothes, he made a covenant with Abraham, and so on to the redeeming work of Christ. All is not lost.

    I think we need to be wary of the "strict theology leads to strict morality" nexus as I don't actually think the two go together. In my experience (hence not really verifiable), churches with a more strict theology do tend to be stronger on some moral issues, particularly those to do with sex. On the other hand, those with more "liberal" theology tend to be more attuned to matters of justice and social morality - caring for the poor etc.

    Luke said...

    A great discussion, I extended the moderation-free period to allow for it, thanks everyone for participating. You're still welcome to comment and I'll let them through but I'm sure this issue will come up in another post!

    jereth said...

    Ok, I'll wind up my contribution by getting back to Jon on Romans 5 (I started typing this out earlier).

    Jon, I’m afraid that we’re going to have to part company over this. Back in my more “liberal” days as I mentioned above, I tried very hard to make this work: that Romans 5:12ff. can make sense with Adam as a non-literal, non-historical person. My brain simply couldn’t compute what I was asking it to do, and I had to give up. (Perhaps your brain is superior to mine :-))

    I just do not see how Rom 5:12-14 can be read in a way that permits Adam to be non-historical. Paul is speaking in unambiguously historical terms here: “sin came into the world through one man… sin was in the world before the law was given … death reigned from Adam to Moses.” If Adam was not a real person, then Paul is being incoherent. Indeed, if Adam was not real, then perhaps sin is not real and neither is death; even Moses and the law might not be real – it is all just one big myth!

    In addition you haven’t helped me see how to make sense of the genealogies (Gen 5 and 10, 1 Chronicles 1, Luke 3). How do you have a genealogy with non-existent, legendary people? Or, if the genealogy begins with legendary people and ends with real people, how do we work out where the transition occurs? Maybe there is no transition; maybe you, me, all of us actually don’t exist; we are all living in the Matrix?! :-)

    and finally

    While I maintain that a literal reading of Genesis generally goes hand in hand with more conservative theological and moral views (and there are always going to be exceptions, as you guys have pointed out); I'd like to reassure Andrew and everyone else that (unlike some young earth creationist organisations) I do not hold a literal reading of Genesis to be essential to Christian orthodoxy.

    Great discussion, mates - thanks.


    Anonymous said...

    Likewise, I've enjoyed this discussion! Andrew, I find that I'm also, mercifully, beginning to experience that kind of reading!


    jereth said...

    hey luke, did that last post of mine come through? or should I make it again?

    Luke said...

    There was one but I put it through.

    jereth said...

    yep, that's the one, thanks. Funny that I posted it and then it disappeared!

    Luke said...

    50 Comments! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)