Creation-Fall-Redemption is a Recent Reading? (RJS)

The interpretation of scripture – and especially the interpretation of the creation narratives contained in scripture – comprises one of the most significant points of conflict in the discussion of the relationship of science and the Christian faith within the church. There is a gut reaction on the part of many Christians that faith is the underdog, forced always to accommodate itself to the high priest of science. The clear, traditional reading gives way to secular reason and naturalism.

This scenario is not entirely accurate however. It is true that discoveries of science, archaeology, and geography force us, at times, to reconsider our interpretation of parts of scripture. But it is not true that there was one universal accepted interpretation prior to the modern era. The history of biblical interpretation is far more complex.

Several years ago I posted on a book by Peter Bouteneff, a theology professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, entitled Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. This book explores the use of the creation narratives in Second Temple Judaism (ca. 200 BCE to 100 CE), in the New Testament, and in the writings of the early church fathers through the first four centuries of the church.  It is a fascinating book – a bit academic, but not too strenuous a read.  This book is worth another look, and I plan to work through the book over the course of the next few weeks updating my original posts and going deeper into some of the key points.

In the first chapter of Beginnings Bouteneff discusses the development of the text of the Old Testament – especially the Septuagint (LXX) used by almost all of the NT and early Christian authors.  He also explores the way that the text was used by Second Temple era Jewish authors in non-canonical writings, apocrypha and pseudepigrapha.

Bouteneff makes several interesting points in this chapter.

First: The OT canon developed slowly over the centuries before ca. 200 BCE.  The various authors and editors may or may not have been familiar with the text of Genesis and the creation stories therein. There are a few clear references (Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 for example), and a few potential references – but by and large the creation narrative was not integral to the development of Israelite faith and practice.  There are, of course, many references to creation in general terms to establish the sovereignty of God, but these do not use details of the creation narrative of Gen 1-3. Adam, Eve, and original sin are simply not part of the picture.

Second: The story of Adam and Eve plays an important part in the narrative logic of the Pentateuch, but not as the origin of sin in a heretofore unsullied creation. Bouteneff suggests that the linear account of creation – fall – redemption so popular today is a reading of the Pentateuch and the whole Bible that is difficult to trace before the 1700’s. A larger sense of what the editor was doing in forming the text we have today from more ancient sources will “prevent us from reading the Pentateuch (or even the whole Bible) as a linear account of “creation-fall-redemption.

The Pentateuch was intended to show – and this is vital if by no means novel – creation and redemption as one contiguous act. As Israel continued to see it, creation shows that God has the power to save, that creation is salvation:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (Ps 74:12-14)

Salvation is embedded by God in God’s act of creation, and the redemption of a particular people is universalized to encompass humankind (Gen. 12:3). (p. 8)

The creation narrative in Psalm 74 gives a picture at odds with creation-fall-redemption. The logic of the narrative in Genesis, considered in the context of the Pentateuch and the OT as a whole, sees the story of Adam as a version of the story of Israel. God’s grace, salvation, and love runs through the entire narrative from Genesis through Malachi. The theme is continued in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

Third: The interpretation of Adam in some segments of second Temple Judaism and more significantly in the early Christian church, was influenced by the translation choices made in the LXX.  As Bouteneff points out: But to translate is to interpret. Many of the choices made by the translators hinged on issues of sexuality and gender. In particular adam is a ambigous term in the original Hebrew and the decision to translate “adam” as a generic term, humankind (άνθρωπος), or a proper name, or to use a phrase avoiding either, played a role in the later interpretations of the text.   In addition word plays in the Hebrew which may modify the understanding of a particular passage, are lost in translation.

Fourth: Many Jewish texts of Second Temple Judaism reflect on the creation narrative and on Adam and Eve in particular.  The way that these texts are used vary dramatically – there was no clearly agreed upon method of interpretation.

Second, the authors show themselves quite at liberty to take license with not only the purported “meaning of Genesis 1-3 but also the details of the text itself. We see especially in Jubilees, but also in other retellings of the narratives, that details are freely omitted and others added to help support the author’s agendas. This may indicate that the gradually emerging concept of “Scripture” and “canonicity” was not one that fixed a particular reading. Indeed, the authors here reviewed tacitly acknowledged multiple possibilities of meaning in the scriptural texts and dealt with them not only on the level of what might be called their “plain sense” but also on that of implied or derived meaning. (p. 25)

Philo (ca. 20 BCE – 50 CE) is a particularly interesting source.  He reflects at length on the creation narratives and the 6-day creation (which he concludes is not a literal 6 days) :

Eden was not a garden that one could have walked through: “Far be it from man’s reasoning to be victim of so great impiety as to suppose that God tills the soil and plants pleasaunces” (Leg. 1.43). Likewise in Quaest. 1.8 he states that paradise was not a garden, but, rather, symbolizes “wisdom.” (p. 31)

The early interpretation of the biblical text was not a straightforward literalism, something undermined only by modern science. Nor does early interpretation uniformly describe a man Adam as the origin of sin and death. The story of the Genesis, and indeed all of the OT, was shaped and interpreted as a story of the mission of God in creation. Salvation plays a key role, but not as some “plan B” necessitated by the act of the first couple. The story of creation is the story of God’s power and purpose.

In what way does the early Jewish reading of the creation narrative impact our interpretation?

Is redemption is a running theme of scripture – but is creation-fall-redemption the running theme of scripture?

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS (and all),
    I love Bouteneff’s book (here is the best of Eastern Orthodox scholarship revealing the many ways the ancient eariiest Christians interpreted and understood the beginning chapters of Genesis). On a side not, yesterday, I was in Chicago listening to Dr. Brendan Pucell, philosophy professor at Notre Dame University in Sidney Australia. He is also an Irish Catholic priest (gentle, fun-loving, and extremely funny). He brilliantly covered issues of science and faith and evolution to the beauty and wonder and mystrey of God. This is one of the most humble-Christ-like persons I have ever met!

    While driving back from Chicago, I turned on my radio to several Christian radio programs. The first one that caught my attention was Chip Ingram speaking about personal creationism versus the unguided process of evolution. The problem is setting up the conversation like this was wrong from the start. Then he has to go all the way back to the very early 80’s to quote a few scientists who were having a crises of faith in evolution. He quotes several atheist evolutionists who say even if there were no evidence for evolution, they would believe in it and I turned it off at that point because I couldn’t take any more of it. I actually like Chip Ingram and have been encouraged by several of his books. But it seems like certain topics for many in the Christian community, all fairness, objectivity, and any sense of respectful treatment of an alternative viewpoint goes right out the window.

    Then I turned on another Christian station where the person was basically saying that Obama is a coward and weak president and the American embassy attacked in Egypt was President Obama’s fault. All I can say is these kind of things are neither intelligent or Christian in their portrayals of others. The church has got to do better than this or we will simply deserve to get the ridicule that the world likes to give Christianity!

  • RJS:

    Has Bouteneff made a historical blunder? I ask because R. Kendall Soulen locates the beginning of the Standard Canonical Narrative (creation-fall-redemption-consummation) in Justin and Irenaeus (2nd century) (see Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology). Soulen states that both Justin and Irenaeus build their idea of salvation history around four great happenings (creation-fall-redemption-consummation). If Soulen is not reading into Justin and Irenaeus, that would make Bouteneff’s point that the creation-fall-redemption reading is modern a mistake.

    Soulen’s point in bringing up the wholly inadequate model of creation-fall-redemption-consummation is to lament that Christian theology has omitted Israel (Christians seem only to need Genesis 1-3 and Romans-Revelation).

  • phil_style

    @CGC, your last two paras are great. I don’t wish to take this too OT, but;
    There is a wider issue here about how our “public” voices engage the issues.
    Unfortunately, the voices with the greatest audiences are not the voices in the academy like Brendan Pucell. They are, rather, the voices in the media – usually running TV and radio shows.

    The nature of that medium requires quick-fire communication which does not afford a considered discussion. Who sits through an hour’s lecture on the radio or TV?

    So back to the OP questions:
    In what way does the early Jewish reading of the creation narrative impact our interpretation?
    I would generally say, that for most of us, very little. I was taught to just “read the bible”. As though amassing as much of its content into my brain would somehow result in an appropriate level of demonstrable piety (this in a semi-Pentecostal evangelical church -think Hillsongs Style). Not once in 5 years of attending services ad small group did any one in leadership ever quote from a founding father, a non-canonical Jewish text or a medi-eval scholar. The “other” material simply isn’t part of the interpretive framework for most of us laypeople, unless we stumble across it at university or via blogs like this. It was, in fact, partly this blog, and partly the late Michael Spencer who started me down that road….

  • RJS


    Perhap he has. I have not looked at all of the evidence carefully. We’ll get to Justin and Irenaeus later in this series. We can look into this question of timing more at that time.

    Would Soulen’s book be worth some posts?

  • I think this is fascinating stuff once again, RJS. Thanks for sharing it. (Another book I’m now tempted to buy and read!)

    Is there something in the human mind that wants to simplify everything, if necessary ad absurdam? It’s not hard to see how evolution might have favoured such a propensity to simplify and generalise. It makes the handling of complex issues so much easier and enables us to come to conclusions far more quickly. Consider common phrases like ‘getting to the heart of the matter’, ‘coming to a conclusion’, ‘seizing the moment’, ‘beating about the bush’, ‘taking a shortcut’ and ‘agonising over the solution’.

    In warfare, hunting, navigating, business, farming and other occupations decisions often need to be made immediately, without gathering all the evidence and pondering the details. Being able to simplify and generalise is a survival skill. It’s a good way to get the most out of limited information and ability. We often need to go with our first hunch. It’s surprisingly effective much of the time.

    Do we sometimes take this useful art of simplifying too far? We build mental models that usually serve us well. The downside is that sometimes they may mislead. The Creation – Fall – Redemption approach (CFR) is commendably simple and easy to remember and work with. But has the Most High stopped creating? Has he been redeeming from the very beginning? Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’. Is that work of building creative? Is it redemptive? Is it both?

  • In light of Derek’s comment (2), perhaps I should expand CFR to CFRC and ask whether building the church is also consummational in addition to being creative and/or redemptive – or all three.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Just bought the book and plan to read along with you. (e-version $14.99). From what you write today, it should be an important read. As I tend to keep saying in various ways these days, if we want to consider perfect human creation, we have only one event and one person to look to – the resurrection and the risen Lord. Every other part of creative redemption points toward him, and toward the ultimate act of redemption that will occur at the eschaton. 

    Speaking of Genesis and the eschaton, and considering the season, Pete Enns has two great posts just up entitled “Reading Genesis: Let’s be Adult about this, Shall We” and “Dear Christian: If the Thought of Either Romney or Obama Getting Elected Makes You Fearful, Angry, or Depressed, You Have What we Call a Theological Problem” 

    Both posts nicely complement what you write here today.



  • So, are we to abandon the creation-fall-redemption narrative?

  • scotmcknight

    Derek, I would say Irenaeus read the Bible as a narrative preparing for the gospel, but I don’t have the original so I can’t tell if my chapter outlines and titles for sections was added by the editor (John Behr) or were original. If original, then from Cain on we have the preparation for salvation. If not, we have much less of a reading like that. I have always seen his The Apostolic Preaching as a narratival/storied reading of the Bible vs. a more systematic reading, but I have not asked if the titles were his own. I’d like to know.

  • Jerry Sather

    Perhaps the key word is “linear” account of CFRC. A more faithful reading may view the creation story as a summary of CFRC with consummation promised but not fulfilled. The story of Israel recapitulates this theme which then is carried forward into the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

  • RJS


    I think the key may be “linear” as Jerry Sather suggests. But at this point I am neither agreeing with nor disagreeing with Bouteneff on this issue – just trying to think through his ideas.

    Fallen world (human finitude and failure), redemption, consummation … I don’t see any call to give up on this idea.

  • That helps. So maybe historically the conversation began with Jesus and the resurrection, and worked outward from there. It isn’t that CRFC elements aren’t historically there but rather that the discussion begins Jesus, not creation? Maybe I’m jumping ahead.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I wrote so fast this morning that the correct spelling is Dr. Brendan Purcell and his book is “From Big Bang to Big Mystery.” Peter Bouteneff’s book is the best I have read to date on the early church fathers interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

  • BTW, last July I bought “Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology” edited by Ian MacFarland

    Fifty-one excerpts from Christian thinkers from the early church to the present. I may have to move this up the reading list in light our your series. 😉

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Okay, here is Boutneff on Iraenaeus: Iranaeus emphasizes that we are not working with “a linear chronology” (emphasis mine) or a biography. All history is summed up in the incarnation. Iraneaus’s concept of time and history, which is anything but chronological. For him, Adam is not the real beginning nor Christ the end. Rather, the passion and resurrection of Christ are the recapitulating center and underlying sense of the trajectory of human personhood . . . History was not a linear trajectory from Adam—first created perfect—-through sinful humanity to Christ and beyond. History began with the incarnate Christ, such that Adam was made in his (Christ) image (taken from pp.73-87 is the section: “Beginnings:
    Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives”).

  • CGC

    Hi Michael,
    Maybe the way of resolving the CFRC narrative is to interpret it in the frameowrk of kairos time rather than chronos time? Maybe the deadness that people sometimes feel in the church is their faith is still working on the clock, around linear time rather than a Kairos holy moment indeterminate time?

  • Thanks, RJS. I have this book and other things have kept me from digging into it. But your provocative post makes me want to look at it again. I may be corresponding with you about this and perhaps running a complementary series on Internet Monk. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again! I look forward to hearing more and interacting with your insights.

  • RJS:

    The Soulen book is about supersessionism in Christian theology and not really about how to read the Genesis account.

    Mike Kruse:

    Soulen says, and Scot also says in King Jesus Gospel, and I agree: there is important stuff between “The Fall” (sic) and “Redemption.” I would say it this way: Israel is not a footnote, but is the forefront of God’s redeeming work. Some sort of “Story of Israel” or “Covenant Community” has to come in between. And Israel’s history is more than preparatory (as Soulen shows, Irenaeus was, sadly, quite supersessionist and triumphalist).

  • I’m on the same page with Chaplain Mike – looking forward to the series, and wanting to dig in to these ideas. Thanks again, RJS, for provoking discussion just where we need it.

    And, yes, looking to this sort of scholarship has not been part of our everyday Bible reading & discipleship – though I think it should be. How can concepts like “chronos” vs “kairos” or “linear” vs. “centered” history become real-life common sense in Christian communities, rather than the playthings of theologically-minded intellectuals? What a challenge to move our communities to move our communities on towards more considered & faithful use of the Word!

  • Derek (18): I would agree with you that Israel is not footnote, and that supersessionism has had its day, and is now resting. Whether Israel “is the forefront of God’s redeeming work” can be contested without reverting to supersessionism or being a closet-supersessionist. Your proposal, though of the “Story of Israel” or “Covenant Community” suggests a great deal of promise.

    Was Irenaeus supersessionist and triumphalist? I’m not certain, but, it’s been a few years since I last read Apostolic Preaching and Against Heresies. I tend to be a bit of apologist for Irenaeus at this point: if we knew the heretics were coming, and they assassinated our predecessor, we might make some statements to encourage the flock in mission that in hindsight and in context we might not otherwise publish. Soulen has the benefit of sitting in his office, relatively secure from assault for his practiced beliefs: not so for Irenaeus. I’m not giving Irenaeus a free pass (as if I could anyway); rather, some statements will get made in context that one might not otherwise consider.

  • Harvey Stob

    I was reading Against Heresies when, taking a break, I began reading this post. Derek raises an good question, I think. In Book 3.21.9 & 10 Irenaeus writes: And he (Jesus) recapitulated in himself the work originally fashioned, because, just as through the disobedience of one man sin came in, and through sin death prevailed, so also through the obedience of one man justice was brought in and produced the fruit of life for the men formerly dead.