Saturday, July 25, 2015

95 Theses, #29: Interpreting Genesis 1-11

To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction


(Painting: "Noah, the Eve of the Deluge," by John Linnell, 1848, oil on canvas)

29.) Biblical Interpretation: Genesis 1-11 – With the framework of Thesis 28 in mind, we are ready to examine how this principle of interpretation works in relation to the actual texts. I begin with leaning on the interpretation of early Christian theologians, since they're much closer in time and culture to the writing of these texts, so it's worth considering whether they might have a better sense of the genre and intended claims of those writings. When we consider how the earliest Christian theologians interpreted the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we find that they are most often taken as allegorical expansions on historical events; that is to say, as theological representations of true history, rather than as "strict history" in a modern sense. (Incidentally, there is a long church tradition going back to the early church fathers which claims that to read them as strict history in the modern sense is to misread them--see Augustine's Confessions, the end of book 12 for a repudiation of the idea that we must be tied down to merely one interpretation of the creation account, and book 13 for an allegorical interpretation of Gen. 1) Nonetheless, these stories are true--they tell us true things about God and about the human condition, and there's no compelling reason to disbelieve that they reflect on real historical persons. In general, the very first Christians seem to have treated these chapters as allegories illustrating spiritual truths and pointing the way to Christianity. To try to read them as modern history or modern science would actually be to dishonor the Scriptures, because such a reading was probably not the original intent. Nonetheless, this does not preclude the partnership of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the authors and redactors to frame their stories in a fashion that pointed the way towards the ultimate truth of Christ. The Garden of Eden stories are an essential storehouse of theological insight into human origins, human nature, and its relationship with God, and the Noahic stories prefigure the human role in the redemption of all creation and foreshadow the crucial symbolism of baptism. There are undoubtedly true historical characters behind these stories; but we do violence to the intent of God's sacred text if we demand on reading them according to our own 21st-century genres rather than according to the genres in which they were actually written. I have too high a regard for sacred Scripture to do that, so I lean on the ancient Christian understanding of these texts: as windows to teach us about God's plan of redemption in Christ Jesus.

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