With Modern Eyes We Misunderstand (RJS)

After the post last week Is Evolution a Must Win Battle? I was made aware of a recent book by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden In the Beginning … We Misunderstood. This book explores the meaning of Genesis, starting with the question: What did Genesis mean to the original authors and readers? When we read Genesis in translation and through modern eyes we will run the risk of misunderstanding the text. The book looked intriguing,  so I ordered a copy.

Johnny Miller (ThM, ThD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a teaching pastor and professor who currently serves as a professor emeritus at Columbia International University, in fact he is a former president of CIU. John Soden (ThM, PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) teaches Old Testament at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School. Miller and Soden have a rather conservative take on the interpretation of scripture. For example, they believe that Moses was the substantive author of the book of Genesis as we have it, although he used sources in the book and the text was subsequently edited by others before reaching the form we have today. They assume the basic truthfulness of the text, including Genesis, but ask questions about the meaning of Genesis 1 in its original context.

Miller and  Soden argue against a concordist view of the relationship between science and scripture, whether of the Young Earth or Old Earth varieties. Answers in Genesis and Reasons to Believe make similar errors here. A concordist approach is in constant tension – either adjusting science to Scripture or Scripture to science. But this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of scripture and the message of Genesis. Modern science (or in fact any science beyond that of the original ANE culture) should not be read into or out of the biblical text.

We realize that many Bible-believing people believe that the Genesis account requires a certain understanding of science because of the way they read it. We believe, however, that there is evidence in the biblical text and its context that shows it is not revealing the science of creation. Instead it is revealing the Creator of science, albeit in a prescientific way.(p. 40)

The important question to ask of Scripture is not how does it agree with modern science? but what did it teach the original audience about the creator God and therefore what message does it have to teach us today? The message for the original audience and the message for us today are not fundamentally different.

In its original context. To understand at the meaning of Genesis in its original context Miller and Soden look at the language of Genesis 1, they look at the historical context of Genesis 1, they look at parallels to Genesis in the surrounding culture. And here they make the point that Genesis is not a unique literary form. Even assuming Mosaic authorship (and they do) “it was not some kind of heavenly dictation never before seen by humans.” (p. 59)  We have every reason to believe from the Exodus story that Moses was an educated man; he wrote in his context and out of his context. The story of Genesis then, they suggest, should be viewed in the context of ancient Egyptian culture including theology and cosmology, the experience of the Hebrew people as slaves for four hundred years, and the purpose of the exodus to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and establish them in the promised land. Genesis is a foundational story for the people of Israel and it distinguishes them from the surrounding peoples.

In the bulk of the book Miller and Sorden look at the creation account in the light of its Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Cannatie context. In important ways the text both assumes the cultural surroundings and distinguishes God and his people from these surroundings. Genesis 1 “starts with the Egyptian perception of the universe and then vigorously challenges their theology. (p. 97)”  Theological contrasts are also drawn between the worldview of the Mesopotamians and the view of God, Yahweh, as the creator, transcendent and sovereign over all of creation.

Typical Objections. In the final section of the book Miller and Sorden run through a number of typical objections raised by many in the church, especially those familiar with Answers in Genesis and other Young Earth material. These are questions about the authority of scripture and the role of death in creation. All of the answers to these questions point back to the need to understand the essential message of Genesis in its context, not ours. For example:

The  question, however, is not “How can I trust the Bible if it does not mean what it says?” What this question is really asking is, “Can I trust the Bible if it does not mean that I thought it meant from my context when I originally read it, before I understood what it would have meant to the original readers?” We have already established the principle that the authority and reliability of God’s Word is based on what it affirms. Affirmation must be understood in the light of what God said through the original author to the original audience – how they would have understood its meaning. We cannot force the text to say what we want it to say without doing violence to God’s intent in the medium of normal human communication. (p. 152)

Yes we can trust the Bible, even if it does not mean what we think at times when reading it through modern, western eyes. But we need to study the historical and cultural context of the text to get the full meaning of the text. The young earth creationist, old earth creationist, evolutionary creationist, and ancient near eastern Israelite can read the creation account of Genesis one and realize that God is the sovereign Creator and transcendent over all creation and that mankind was created in his image. The ancient Israelite, however, would not have brought modern scientific questions to the text and neither should we. We also increase our understanding of the nuance of the text when we try, however imperfectly, to look at the text through ancient eyes.

Whatever you think of the thrust of the argument presented by Miller and Soden, their patient approach and desire for civil Christian conversation is refreshing. This is the approach we all need to take.

We wish we could offer the final word on the debate over the meaning of Genesis 1, but we realize this is probably impossible. In fact, we anticipate that our work will be critiqued, evaluated, corrected, attacked, and (hopefully) even praised by some. It will probably need revising in a few years as more information becomes available and as our perspective is highlighted or adjusted by subsequent debate. In other words, this work is just part of an ongoing discussion that probably won’t end until heaven.

There is much valuable insight in this book by Miller and Soden. There is also much to fuel further discussion and debate. I doubt, for example, if Moses wrote much of Genesis, but this is really secondary to their argument concerning Genesis. And a defense of Mosaic authorship isn’t a reason to dismiss their book or to go on the attack. It is a door for further conversation and insight, perhaps becoming convinced by their position, perhaps reinforcing my skepticism. I am not making this comment to pick on Miller and Soden, but to praise the book.  We need to be able to listen to each other and move forward. This is the real strength shown by Miller and Soden: a deep heart for the church, the Scripture, and the way of truth. I recommend this book without reservation, especially for those who fear that science is driving the conversation and want to be faithful to scripture.

Miller and Soden recast the questionHow can I trust the Bible if it does not mean what it says?asCan I trust the Bible if it does not mean that I thought it meant from my context when I originally read it, before I understood what it would have meant to the original readers?Are they right? Is this the question many are asking whether they realize it or not?

Do we err by reading scripture through modern eyes?  If so how and when?  How can we know?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Ian Thomason

    Without having read the book for myself, from the summary it would appear the two authors are pointing us back to an oft forgotten/neglected hermeneutical principle: we must read Scripture literarily before we read it literally.

    Bravo!

    Ian

  • phil_style

    RJS, I’ve only recently started reading “S. Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross”.

    This contains a remarkable treatment of Genesis from Adam/Eve right through to the Abraham/ Issac event. He makes an excellent case for the trajectory of Genesis as a discourse on human violence, and sacrifice in particular. (In his first few chapters he also pulls in lots of work from the Psalms and Job in particular which has been of interest on this blog recently).

    I would highly recommend a series on this book. If you or Scot have the time (which you probably do not!).

  • Joe Canner

    This sounds like a valuable resource. The authors’ support for the traditional authorship of Genesis could be a useful bridge to those who reject interpretations of Genesis that are pro-science because they think those interpretations are based on a “low” view of the reliability of Genesis.

  • RJS

    Joe,

    I think it will be a useful resource – not because it serves as a bridge (although it may) but because it takes a very healthy approach to the conflict.

    We need a family dinner table where we can exchange ideas in a productive manner – and we need to hold many ideas loosely, realizing we are quite probably wrong or partially wrong on some group of them.

    We also need to realize that reading Scripture faithfully requires a degree of humility recognizing that we bring cultural expectations to the text that it may not be written to address. It is not unfaithful to scripture to come to the realization that we may have misunderstood the intent.

  • Jeff Y

    Sounds very good. I absolutely love the excerpt on original understanding. This is a fundamental point. If we lift the text from its historical, literary, cultural context – it begins to float away and becomes any text we want it to be. Of course, we cannot establish context perfectly in every case. But, that’s okay. We do our best and move on. No one has all the answers.

    RJS – I am sure you’ve read Walton’s work on Genesis 1 (I’ve spent a good bit of time the last 10-15 yrs on the early chapters – before Walton, reading Seely on the Firmament, Wenham, Waltke, and many others). What area would you say this book adds to the understanding of Genesis 1 that Walton’s work does not?

  • http://thebookofdavis.blogspot.com/ Michael Davis

    I like that you were able to stay positive about the book even though you disagree with much of it.

  • RJS

    Michael,

    Actually I agree with much of the book – just not all of it. But that is not a problem at all. In fact we do much better if we read and interact with a wide variety of perspectives.

  • Rick

    I don’t think the fact that these 2 authors are Dallas grads, and one serves at CIU, should be overlooked. That shows that significant advances for such genre focused scholarship are being made in, and those connected to, strongly conservative institutions.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    RJS, I appreciate your review of this book. I appreciate these two authors and the questions they are bringing to the text. (This one is now on my reading list for 2013.)

  • Patrick

    I felt that book was more influential with me than Walton’s book. I think they both have validity, but, this book’s case was stronger.

    Genesis 1 is basically Egyptian cosmological think with Hebraic “Pro Yahweh, anti pagan gods” dialectic in there that only a scholar would notice. Their point about the original audience is soooooo important for our understanding.

    The original audience of Gen 1 is different even from later OT writings.

    BTW, for those who don’t think there’s evidence the Jews were in Egypt for a long time, this is evidence. The author knew his audience had been inundated with Egyptian thinking.

  • TJR

    “A concordist approach is in constant tension – either adjusting science to Scripture or Scripture to science. But this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of scripture and the message of Genesis.” This is an important message regardless of what ever else the book may say.
    For me the most important contribution is they bring out the fact that the concordist view has two sides. Many people are aware that the YEC’s are concordist but don’t seem to realize that those who accept the findings of science but want to keep an inerrant bible are also concordist. I often see comments at Biologos, Faraday Ins., or ASA that are adjusting Scripture to science.


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