Event Character and the Early Chapters of Genesis

The debate about the historicity of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Flood, the Genealogies, the Tower of Babel continues. Faith/science and faith/history discussions are where the discussion seems to be the most pressing. Are these stories in the first chapters of Genesis in any way historical? Some of them, such as the Adam and Eve account and the Fall account in Genesis 2 & 3 are deeply embedded in the confessional documents of certain traditions–namely Reformed and Presbyterian 16th and 17th century confessions and perhaps others. Unless one moves to a very loose confessionalism, these expressions of the Christian faith are committed to historicity if they are committed to their confessional documents.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) is a denomination that has struggled (and continues to struggle) with how to maintain the historicity of certain events in redemptive history (Adam and Eve’s creation in a state of innocence and their subsequent Fall and the effect of that Fall on the rest of humankind) especially in light of the findings of modern biology, paleontology, and anthropology concerning the origin of human beings which is largely regarded as being full legitimate.

In this post I provide an extended quote from the denomination’s 1991 report on Creation and Science that illustrates what the CRCNA refers to as event character. The point here to to illustrate that the CRCNA affirms some aspect of historicity, but does not claim to locate it precisely in ordinary history. Historicity is deemed to be an important part of what the text is claiming, but any attempt to identify the event with any particular ordinary historical event is doomed to failure because the historical account has been so stylized and adapted to serve an extraordinary redemptive historical purpose.  An earlier report from 1972 on The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority initially developed the idea in the CRCNA.

What precisely is the character of the Bible’s account of the earliest history of the world and humankind? This question constitutes the nub of the problem we are dealing with, and at present there is no consensus among evangelical biblical scholars. The best we can do is to present an example which we believe does justice to what is known about pre-Abrahamic history, to what Report 44 says about the necessity of distinguishing between an event and the way it is reported even while maintaining the event character of biblical historical narrative, and to the revelational significance of the historical account.

The example is the Tower of Babel story. The traditional interpretation of this account in Genesis 11 seems to conflict with the findings of historical linguistics, for there is a great deal of evidence that the diversity of languages precedes Babylonian culture. Since babel in Hebrew is the standard word for Babylon and since the Tower of Babel very probably refers to a characteristic institution of Babylonian culture, the temple tower (or “ziggurat”), the biblical narrative refers to a civilization which already knew a diversity of languages, such as Akkadian, Sumerian, and Egyptian, to mention only three well-known languages from the Ancient Near East. According to linguistic evidence available today, it would seem that the diversification of language must have taken place long before the rise of the Old Babylonian culture.

Because of this conflict some propose to read the story as a parable illustrating human pride but not as a historical narrative related to an event or to a series of events. But “parable” seems not to do justice to the overall tenor and context of the story, which functions as a part of the broad historical prologue to God’s call of Abraham and the history of God’s chosen people. Thus various other interpretations have been proposed. One suggests that, while the story does indeed concern Babylon, the judgment of God refers not to the origin of languages but to a breakdown in communication. The word translated as ‘language” can refer to “talk” or to “speech” in a more general sense. Then the whole episode speaks of the religious pride of the Old Babylonian empire, centered in the ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk in the City of Babylon, and of God’s judgment on this proud manifestation of pagan culture. Ultimately it was a breakdown of communication, of mutual understanding, which brought disaster upon the first great empire of recorded history. Others, however, think it necessary to retain the reference to languages and then suggest either that Genesis 11 as a historical event must be assumed to be prior to the table of nations in Genesis 10 or that Genesis 11 should be understood as a history that compresses into a single event a process that elapsed over a period of time. In all of these interpretations connecting Genesis 11 to Babylon, the interpreter is assuming that an extensive and complex historical tableau is being described in a highly stylized manner and from a perspective that compresses history into a single focus to serve the purposes of the history of salvation. In addition, by its use of this history, however stylized the shape of its report, the Bible intends to illumine the basic nature of human history when it is divorced from the God who is Creator and Redeemer. Hence, Babylon continues to serve, even in the book of Revelation, as a symbol of the cities and empires which humanity erects in opposition to God. Beginning with the story of the Tower of Babel, Babylon is both a historical city and, in Augustine’s terms, a symbol of the City of This World in rebellion against the City of God.

Without placing a stamp of approval upon any single interpretation, we suggest that the approaches mentioned above satisfy the requirements of Reformed hermeneutics. Our increased knowledge of early human history has underscored the highly stylized and compressed nature of the biblical account and cautions us against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention of the account. In such historiography the Bible does not intend to present the entire history in which the narrative is rooted, and the stylized character of the account prevents us from inferring what the total historical picture may have been. In spite of these limitations imposed on us by the nature of these biblical narratives, the function of the historical narrative concerning the Tower of Babel in the unfolding history of redemption remains clear. In general we can say that the primary intention of the historical narratives in Genesis 1-11 is to serve the understanding of the unfolding history of redemption, not to present us with a detailed history of pre-Abrahamic times.

Notice particularly the last paragraph. There is a recognition that the account is “highly stylized and compressed.” We are cautioned “against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention.” We acknowledge that the Biblical account does not “present the entire history” and that we can’t even “infer what the total historical picture may have been.” Nonetheless, the historical character, the event character, of the account remains.

Theologically speaking, there is little difference with so-called non-literal, ahistorical, or symbolic treatments of the text. But the CRCNA insists on the event character (a nuanced historicity) because of the narrative functions in the overarching history of redemption (as summarized by its confessions).

Perhaps this approach is a way forward on some of these issues. Historicity is preserved but there is no expectation that the historical narrative of the early chapters of Genesis can be readily connected with the history of our history books in any precise way.


Hell-o, Rob Bell-o

Although I wasn’t sure I wanted to contribute to the publisher’s or the author’s coffers, I felt as if I had to read Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins if I was going to be a credible critic. At least I bought the less expensive iBook. (My wife did remind me that I could have checked it out from the library.) In some ways the book is easy to critique. Rob Bell relies on broad strokes that are flawed. The details of the argument simply crumble in such cases.

First, two words of praise. Chapter 2 on heaven is excellent. Bell provides the Biblical foundations for an “earthy” heaven, a new heavens and a new earth, that the future is a renewed and restored creation, a place where God’s original intent for creation and its full eschatological unfolding is seen. Bell rightly draws on the Old Testament prophets for these Biblical foundations. This is a welcome discussion, especially in light of some of the more ethereal popular conceptions of heaven and in light of some recent rumblings in some Reformed quarters of an apparent creation-denying eschatology that understands “otherworldliness” in ethereal terms rather than in earthy terms. See for example, Van Drunen’s Living in Light of God’s Two Kingdoms or the ravings at the Old Life Theological Society blog (http://oldlife.org/2011/03/24/hello-rob-bell/). As good as Chapter 2 is, I’m not sure it’s worth the price of the book. Also, I have a bit of personal angst that I agree so much with Bell on heaven, but disagree with him on hell.

Praise number two is in regard to Bell’s belief that in the end God gets what God wants. This kind of talk warms the heart of all Calvinists and all who believe in the sovereignty of God over all things. End of praise.

The trouble with Rob Bell is that he is confused about what God wants. The controlling Bible verse for Bell is 1 Timothy 2:4 that says that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Bell’s entire argument that eventually everyone will be saved seems to rest on these two ideas. God gets what God wants and God wants everyone to be saved. Those who die before they are saved and come to a knowledge of the truth get a second chance. Those who die shaking their fists at God will eventually be overcome by his patience, his goodness, the hell they make for themselves because of their rebellion. Love wins!

Bell’s selective reading of scripture is the chief problem. What about a verse like this: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9:22-23). If God gets what God wants then we should expect some to be saved and some not–some objects of mercy, some objects of wrath–some in heaven, some in hell. Following Bell’s rhetorical style, he would ask, “Which is it?” Good question. But not a new question. Theologians have long distinguished between various forms of God’s will–in particular his secret, decretive will and his revealed, prescriptive will. God gets what God wants only in God’s decretive will, which invariably comes to pass. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says “the decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Indeed, God gets what God wants. But Rob Bell has an overly simplistic view of what God wants..

The other broad stroke for Rob Bell is libertarian free will. Most theologians believe in free will. But there are two kinds: libertarian free will and compatibilist free will. The latter is compatible with the sovereignty of God, i.e. we make our choices uncoerced but they are made according to God’s predetermined plan. Libertarian free will says that God in no way determines the outcome. At best he can only know what we will choose because he can know the future. (And God’s knowing the future is even denied by open theists.) A common expression of this is in the libertarian free will understanding of love. Love, by its very nature, is freedom, says Bell. And when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules as the rest of us. If our love for God comes as a result of God overriding, co-opting, or hijacking the human heart, then it’s not really love. As far as I can tell this definition of free will and this definition of love doesn’t really come from the Bible but is a philosophical principle by which the Bible is interpreted. Anything that violates this principle just can’t be right.

Indeed, the Bible seems to teach exactly the opposite. The Bible uses images of the dead being awakened, being born again, having stoney hearts turned to flesh, even getting new hearts. These things are all God’s doing. Furthermore, the scriptures teach that apart from such meddling with the human heart that no one would turn to God because of our fallen, sinful condition. I for one am grateful that God hijacked my rebellious heart and allowed me to see the truth of the gospel. This free will principle is pushed to the point where not only are the gates of the heavenly city left open so that those who died enemies of God can finally enter in, but also those in the city apparently can check out at any time. (Never mind the idea that the gates are left open because there are no enemies; all is shalom.)

It’s very interesting to me to see folks with evangelicals roots pushing libertarian free will to its logical conclusions (which is just Arminianism as a theological system taken to its logical conclusion). We get the low view of scripture as articulated by Clark Pinnock in The Scripture Principle. (God can’t determine the outcome of someone’s writing in such a way that what’s written is fully God’s word, because that would violate that person’s libertarian free will.) We get open theism where God not only doesn’t control the future but also he also doesn’t even know the future. And now we get universalism. It seems to me that we’re giving up a lot of seemingly clear Biblical teaching in the interest of this philosophical principle.

In my mind those two broad strokes are enough to do in Bell’s argument.

Here are a couple more criticisms though. Bell seems to have a view of scripture where the Bible is the human response to the writers’ encounter with Jesus and his love. Thus, the various descriptions of what happened on the cross (atoning sacrifice, reconciliation, justification, etc.) were not God’s revealed descriptions/interpretations, but merely the attempt of the human being experiencing God’s love through the death of Jesus to explain it using metaphors that the contemporary audience would understand. So for Rob Bell, those of us who experience God’s love need to explain it to those around us in contemporary terms that have meaning for them. Using pictures from the ancient world just won’t cut it.

The Old Testament system, it seems, according to Bell, was nothing special. It was just like all the other ancient religions where something needed to die to placate the angry gods and you were never really sure if you had satisfied them. This is precisely backwards. The Old Testament system, the Law, Israel as a nation, etc. were instituted by God to provide the necessary background for understanding Christ’s work.

Another place that Bell gets it backwards is in his discussion of Christ as the rock from which the Israelites got water as they wondered in the wilderness. He seems surprised that Paul would see Christ in the rock since it doesn’t seem that Moses or the Israelites knew he was there. He wonders where else Christ has been when those experiencing him might not have known he was there. I take this to be a tip of the hat to other religions and other religious experiences that Christ is in them as well without them knowing it and that they are one of the many paths to the same goal. Again there is a startling suggestion that the Old Testament people were no different from any other non-Christian religion. Also, there seems to be a failure to see in the Old Testament a special anticipation of the promised Messiah/Savior. It’s as if Jesus could have been walking on the road to Emmaus with some Hindu disciples and taught them all the ways the Bhagavad Gita spoke of him.