Murderous Literalism?

For a sophisticated theologian, Conor Cunningham’s arguments ( Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong ) against a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 are remarkably thin.

He follows what he describes as a “sophisticated” patristic hermeneutics, and adds “After all, if the first two chapters of Genesis are about the very creation of existence and all that partakes of it, about how everything that is relates to its Creator, then what we might call a ‘literal’ approach would do the scriptural account a great disservice. The literal would kill and not reveal, destroy and not disclose” (381).

Why? Cunningham doesn’t tell us. Perhaps his notion of murderous literalism is an application of the Pauline “the letter kills.” But we have to guess. And of course we could ask about other portions of Scripture: Does it “kill and destroy” to take the resurrection accounts “literally”?

Again, “according to Philo, it is foolish to think of paradise as a place” (381). Maybe so; but why? Don’t the references to rivers (including the Euphrates and Tigris) and to directions (east) suggest at least a modicum of geographical interest on the part of the writer?

A few pages later, we get something more like an argument:

Some modern Christians “read Genesis as a discrete piece of history and then later read the Gospels as further examples of such history. But this is wrongheaded at beast, and atheistic at worst.” This involves “falsely identifying what we take to be separate events, such as creation, fall, and redemption,” and implies that these “would make sense on their own. We wrongly assume they have an intelligibility that stands alone, in its own terms” (382-3).

Let me grant that some creationists might have a positivist view of history. Let me grant that it would be wrong, for instance, to understand the fall “on its own” without reference to either creation or redemption. But I don’t see how a literal reading of Genesis is necessarily tied to either of those faults. Original sin is “not true, at least when taken on its own” (383). Fine; but how does a literal reading imply that it can be taken on its own?

“There is,” he says, “no disjunction between creation and redemption,” no “schism between nature and grace” (383). I agree on the theological point, but I don’t see how it is germane to the question. The context is about literalists treating creation, fall, and redemption as “discrete events.” But surely creation and redemption are discrete events, even if they must be understood in the light of one another. Cunningham argues that “the incarnation is not the consequence of, or a reaction to, the Fall, but was always God’s intention” (384). I happen to agree, but again I don’t see how this has much of anything to do with the topic at hand.

Throughout, it is frustrating that Cunningham never discusses what he means by “literal.” Whatever his intentions, that gap leaves him room to maneuver. What is remarkable in Cunningham’s discussion is that he does take a great deal of Genesis 1-2 “literally.” He knows, for instance, that God speaks the world into being, that He “delegates” His creative power to creation, that “God deliberates with himself” in making man, that the God who creates is personal, and much more (384-386). All very good stuff. But I wonder how he can know this. What makes the notion of “creation by speech” an un -literal interpretation and the notion of creation “in six days” literal ? How does Cunningham know which is which? Perhaps evolutionary biology decides for him. Again, we have to guess, because he doesn’t say.

None of this, of course, proves that Genesis 1 should be interpreted literally. But Cunningham leaves the reader with no very good reasons not to.

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