Saturday, July 05, 2008

"The Cheshire Cat certainly is a literal cat"

Jeremy Pierce and I have been having a little TET-a-TET about Genesis:

I could say more, but I'll probably leave it where it stands. Here's my side of the exchange:

By steve hays on June 30, 2008 7:53 PM

You should review John Currid's 2-volume commentary on Genesis while you're at it.

By steve hays on July 2, 2008 2:48 PM

“Well, I haven't looked at it, so I can't say much. I know he takes the six-day literalist view, which puts it way down the list from any evangelical commentary in this list…I'm very reluctant to recommend any work that defends such a view, even if the rest of the work turned out ok.”

Isn’t that a rather myopic criterion, Jeremy?

“It's very hard to maintain such a position even textually.”

How would you know that if you haven’t even studied his exegesis?

“Never mind given what God has revealed through scientific study.”

But that isn’t the job of a commentator. Indeed, a commentator should avoid intruding these extraneous concerns into his exegesis. To shape his interpretation with a view of modern science would be blatantly anachronistic. A primary purpose of the grammatico-historical method is to avoid such anachronistic reinterpretations of the text.

I’ve read 19C commentaries on Genesis which reinterpret the text in light of cutting-edge 19C science. Needless to say, the exercise is hopelessly obsolete.
When we interpret a text from the past, including the sacred text, the first duty of the commentator is to assume the historical horizon of the ancient author and his target audience—not make the author/audience assume the historical horizon of a modern reader. The last thing we should do, exegetically speaking, is to bring the text into our own time and place. That’s a valid move after we’ve done our exegetical homework, and are now concerned with its application to our own situation.

It’s seem to me that you’re allowing apologetics to drive exegesis. Do you think that apologetics should dictate the exegetical agenda? Should apologetics prejudge what the word of God is allowed to say?

In my opinion, the job of apologetics is to defend the results of exegetical theology, not prejudge the results of exegetical theology.

“I did look at his Exodus commentary, and I was particularly disappointed at his treatment of the lying issue with the midwives.”

Once again, Jeremy, I think your priorities are askew, and you bring unrealistic expectations to a commentary.

You’re an ethicist, Currid is not. It wouldn’t surprise me if your understanding of licit deception is more sophisticated than his.

Currid is an OT scholar and a field archeologist. He brings a different kind of expertise to the text of Genesis or Exodus. He has a doctorate from the world’s premier institution in the field of ANE studies. And that background is still very useful in dealing with the Pentateuchal literature.

I also wouldn’t be as dismissive of the “six-day literalist view” as you are. Ironically, an uber-liberal like James Barr defends this interpretation on grammatico-historical grounds:

By steve hays on July 3, 2008 10:06 AM

Hi Jeremy,

“Interpretation isn't just about exegesis.”

That statement isn’t self-explanatory.

“But the best exegesis of the best commentators has shown that there's no need to take the days to refer to 24-hour periods.”

First of all, you’re the one who wants to turn this into a debate over YEC. You chose to single out that feature of Currid’s commentary. That had nothing to do with my initial suggestion that you include his commentary in your review.

“The structure of the passage almost cries out to be read as a poetic structure describing what God did…”

Are you alluding to the framework hypothesis at this point? Since you insist on debating this issue, there are several problems with the framework hypothesis:
i) The parallels are rather inexact.
ii) Apropos (ii), other scholars have “discovered” different internal lparallels, so the whole exercise is rather subjective.
iii) In the hands of someone like Kline, the literary analysis becomes rather labyrinthine.
iv) There’s a schematic, visual quality to the framework hypothesis. Indeed, proponents of the framework hypothesis often feel the need to illustrate their interpretation by showing the reader a diagram. But Genesis was written for the ear, not the eye. For a listener.

More to the point, the basic chronological structure of Gen 1 is the 7-day week. That’s linear, not parallelistic. And the reason for the 7-day week is, of course, to foreshadow the Sabbath. A six-day workweek followed by a day off.

That temporal sequence furnishes the structuring principle of Gen 1. The backbone.

So the only real question is whether the creation week is figurative or literal. That’s the proper way to broach the issue.

“But not as if it's a scientific manual detailing what happened in actual 24-hour periods.”

You know that’s a caricature, Jeremy. The question at issue is not whether Gen 1 is a “scientific manual.” That’s just a diversionary tactic.

The question is whether it’s factual and historical. Science is a second-order discipline. Science and history take the same world as their object. So if Gen 1 is factual and historical, then that will impinge on the subject matter of science. Gen 1 doesn’t need to be a scientific manual to have scientific ramifications.

Of course, you’re tacitly assuming a particular philosophy of science—scientific realism.

“I don't see where apologetics is fitting in here. I didn't bring it in. I did bring science in.”

You seem to be suggesting that any interpretation of Gen 1 which comes into conflict with science is out of bounds. So you seem to be taking a concordist position, which is a classic apologetic move. If you’re not concerned with the scientific fallout from a YEC interpretation, then why would you introduce science as an undercutter or defeater for a YEC interpretation?

So you seem to require an interpretation of the text that’s scientifically defensible. Which is why I said apologetics is driving your exegesis at this point.

“What I said is that it's hard to derive that view from the text, and if you bring more into interpretation than just exegetical issues (since those don't settle it), you're not going to get any help from general revelation.”

Now you’re treating science as a facsimile or transcript of general revelation. Hence, if an interpretation of Gen 1 conflicts with science, it conflicts with general revelation. How you arrive at that equation, I don’t know.

I suppose that depends, in part, on whether you view perception as a window or a veil. It also depends on what a world would look like if it were up-and-running in the span of six calendar days.

“You seem to have a linear model of hermeneutics, and I don't find that plausible. Theology affects exegesis. Ideally you can try to do exegesis without letting theology affect it too much, and then you can try to develop your biblical theology, eventually asking more systematic questions, and so on, but that will then mean you need to start over again and do your exegesis in the light of what you've arrived at with the broader picture. The spiral model of hermeneutics is much more accurate to how people actually think and is at least psychologically possible. A linear model isn't.”

I didn’t say we should do exegesis without theology. I didn’t say anything like that. What I said, rather, is that we should resist anachronistic interpretations which interpret the text beyond the historical horizon of the author and his target audience.

There is, however, a difference between exegetical theology and systematic theology. When I interpret Genesis, I don’t limit myself to Genesis, for the Pentateuch forms a literary unit. Themes in Genesis foreshadow later Pentateuchal developments. Yet intertextuality stays true to original intent. To the viewpoint of the narrator.

Systematic theology operates at a higher level of abstraction. We should interpret each author on his own terms, according to his own theological framework, rhetorical strategy, literary allusions, anticipations, and historical circumstances.

The job of systematic theology is to take the results of exegetical theology and integrate them at a higher level of synthesis. It’s a second-order discipline.

“I do ethics, but everyone does ethics. I have to think about possible cases of licit deception, because I have to teach ethics, but he has to think about them too, because he has to comment on Exodus 1. The text seems to treat what the midwives did as not just morally allowable but especially praiseworthy. This is a pattern throughout the Bible. Bill Arnold recognizes this in his Samuel commentary in the NIVAC series. His treatment of that issue is absolutely stellar. The Exodus one by Enns in the same series and the EBC one by Walter Kaiser (who has a book on Old Testament ethics) seemed absolutely terrible to me. They seem to go against the text in order to defend a view that seems to fit their moral intuitions. They do bad exegesis on other texts to get those texts to teach those views, and then they think this particular text must be read in a way that doesn't fit with its emphasis in order to maintain those views. The problem starts with their exegesis, not their ethical reasoning. I'm not expecting brilliant ethical arguments, although Arnold's navigation of those issues does meet my philosopher's standards. I'm just expecting them to look at the text and comment on what it does say.”

i) I’m not taking issue with your position in this respect. I agree with you that the Bible authorizes deception in cases where innocent life is at risk. Whether we can extend that principle to other, less dire cases is an interesting question.
ii) I wouldn’t be surprised if Currid’s interpretation is colored by John Murray’s classic discussion (Principles of Conduct, chap. 6), which is influential in Reformed circles. Ironically, Murray is using the very methodology you recommend for Gen 1. Murray was a systematic theologian, and he begins with the divine attribute of truth or truthfulness. He then uses that as an overarching framework to deal with Scriptural passages which seem to imply divine approval for deception in life-threatening situations.

I happen to think that Murray’s reasoning is flawed, and it does lead to a certain amount of special pleading when he has to cope with problem passages (problematic for his position). He resorts to hairsplitting distinctions to salvage his position. But that’s due to his starting-point.

By steve hays on July 4, 2008 3:25 PM

“I meant just a more general recognition of poetic elements, material that is very similar to genuine myth in other ancient near eastern literature.”

Like what? The Enuma elish? There are scholars who reject that comparison.

“All the views on this take the language literally. I've written about that before. The six-day view does not have a monopoly on taking the language literally. The days refer to days within the structure of the mythic poetry. The question is whether the mythic poetry itself refers to actual days, whether the literal days within the poem correspond to periods of time of greater length, or whether they do not correspond to any chronological pattern. I take the third view, but in all three views the days are not metaphorical for something other than days. They literally mean days within the account. It's how the account is taken, not whether the language is literal.”

Um…isn’t that a rather Pickwickian definition of literal? On that definition, you could take Alice in Wonderland literally because the Cheshire Cat is a literal cat within the story. This isn’t what we ordinarily mean by a literal interpretation. Indeed, it turns the ordinary meaning into its opposite.

“It takes the account to refer to a chronological ordered of exactly what happened and when, as if it's giving a scientific account of the order of events in a way that you can hold it up to scientific views and compare them to see if the science disproves the Bible or the Bible disproves the science.”

Not “scientific.” Just factual or historical.


  1. I have several off-topic comments.

    (1) With regards to the Doctrine of Origins I'm definitely and definitively against neo-Darwinian macro-evolution (which includes abiogenesis) and theistic macro-evolution (which includes abiogenesis). I'm undecided as to the various creationist explanations, and thus open to them.

    (2) I don't read Parableman much, but the few times that I have, I am most impressed. I like his work on inerrancy. And I like his work on the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate.

    (3) My favorite Steve Hays' comment in his interchange with Parableman: "It’s seem to me that you’re allowing apologetics to drive exegesis. Do you think that apologetics should dictate the exegetical agenda? Should apologetics prejudge what the word of God is allowed to say?

    In my opinion, the job of apologetics is to defend the results of exegetical theology, not prejudge the results of exegetical theology."

    (4) The tet-a-tet with Parableman is edifying. Thanks for allowing me to witness the iron-sharpening-iron exchange.

    Pax all.

  2. I'll toss in a couple of pennies myself. First, because I view Genesis 1 as typological in nature, I am flexible as to how literal or figurative the days are. However, I also must point out that the scientific basis for most dating methods leaves me underwhelmed. I also believe that stylistically Genesis 2 is obviously a historical narrative, so that even if Genesis 1 is typological, Genesis 2:4 on is not.

    In my view, the point of the typology is (as Steve rightly noted) to establish the Sabbath. This is explicitly given as the reason for the Sabbath in Exodus; Christ further clarifies and tells us that men were not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was created for men (that is, God did not need to rest but did so for our benefit); and finally the author of Hebrews treats the Sabbath as our typological promise of future rest in heaven. So the motif carries throughout all of Scripture, and it functions whether we have a literal 24 hour period of days or not.

    There are several pros and cons for each position, of course, but the key of each position must be that it remains faithful to the concept of the Sabbath. Any view that destroys this goes against more than just Genesis 1.

  3. Dear Mr. Hays,

    Thank you for recommending Currid's commentary on Genesis. Can you recommend other modern commentaries which support the traditional view of creation? I'm currently rewriting my critique of the New American Bible and would like to incorporate more of this type of work.

    Incidentally, you might be interested in my article. I recall that in the past you have quoted some of my work in defense of biblical inerrancy as part of the "Who Speaks for Catholicism?" series.

  4. Hi Ben,

    Currid's commentary is the best modern commentary from that standpoint. However, there are also some useful articles explaining and/or defending the traditional chronology. One is Hasel's article, available online:

    Another is the online article by Barr, which I referenced in my reply to Jeremy:

    Barr also wrote a much longer article on Ussher's chronology:

    "Why the World was Created in 4004 B.C.: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology," Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 67 (1984-5), 575-608.

    Of course, Barr was a liberal, but he does a good job of showing the basis for the traditional chronology.