Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rehabilitative vs. retributive justice: A case study

I just learned about an interesting news story from, of all places, Wikipedia's "Did you know?" section. It's about a man, Cornealious Michael Anderson, whose case is pretty well summed up on Wikipedia:
Cornealious Michael Anderson was convicted of armed robbery in 2000 and sentenced to 13 years in the Missouri state prison system. Shortly after his conviction he was released on bail pending the outcome of an appeal of his conviction. In May 2002, his appeal was ultimately rejected and his bond should have been revoked with a warrant issued for his arrest, but it was not. It is unclear why he was not arrested and imprisoned to serve his 13-year sentence, but, apparently due to clerical errors and miscommunication, the Missouri Department of Corrections thought he was already in prison. The error was only discovered when he was scheduled to be released from prison in 2013. On July 25, 2013 he was arrested and required to serve his 13-year sentence.
I've already pointed out our uneasiness about the traditional view of Hell in that it presents a strictly retributive concept of God's justice (endlessly punishing people for their sins, with no hope of respite), which clashes with our modern rehabilitative concept of justice (where reconciling the wrongdoer with society and morality is the goal). Here, we see these two kinds of justice clash dramatically. A man who has, to all appearances, already been rehabilitated from a crime he committed, now faces retribution for it. The subsequent outcry of "injustice" that followed reveals how purely retributive justice clashes with our expectations for what justice is. As someone on This American Life said about the case, "13 years without going to prison did exactly what you'd hope 13 years in prison will do for a person."

This case displays a complex interaction between retribution and rehabilitation in peoples' reactions. Whereas Missouri's actions reveal an independent need for justice-as-retribution (and if this leads to the rehabilitation of the criminal, that's great too), this comment views retribution as a means to rehabilitation, and therefore unnecessary (harmful, even) if Cornealious has already cleaned up his life.

Apply this to God and our definition of justice. Do we believe God, in order to be just, must punish sin independently of restoring sinners (and not just sinners, but the whole tainted creation)? Or is the restoration the ultimate goal, with retribution (in the form of "discipline", see Hebrews 12) attendant to it? Cornealious' plight has increased my certainty that the latter is more true. As I studied in a previous post, the Old Testament generally refers to God's "justice" as something we should earnestly desire and emulate, something that has been perverted in the creation that God is going to restore—not something we need to be saved from. Or consider how the Greek word for "justice", dikaiosyne, can also mean "righteousness"—which I, after N.T. Wright, take to mean something along the lines of "God's covenant faithfulness to fulfill His promises to His people and restore the creation from sin and death."

Of course, this doesn't mean that all punishment for sin is always restorative. God's wrath is said to consist of more passively "giving up" sinners (Romans 1:24-28), infusing the natural consequences of their actions with divine displeasure. This is roughly the view on Hell that I came to in my study of it, following after C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller: it's a consequence of our own rejection of God, not something He actively does to us. We are free agents able to accept or reject God's grace, rather than objects who are simply acted on by God, for good or evil. God doesn't want to destroy us for being sinners—He wants to redeem us from our condition by destroying our sin; this justice only becomes harsh when we refuse to let go of it and accept life.

I'm reminded again of the powerful episode in The Great Divorce where a man with a lizard (representing lust) on his shoulder whispering into his ear is followed by an angel repeatedly asking the man to let him kill the lizard. The man refuses at length, but finally accepts; only after the lizard is killed does it turn into a powerful stallion to carry him into the mountains of heaven where all souls long to go. This is a good depiction of the restoration that God can and will work in those who know Him: not just the destruction of the flesh but its transformation into what it was always meant to be. As is written: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Cor 5:17)

For those wanting to do something to help Cornealious, you can sign a petition for his release (started by his attorney) on

Friday, February 21, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon

Some of you may already be familiar with the recent internet phenomenon known as Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP). If not, a brief primer:, a website that streams live feeds of people playing video games, is hosting a rather unique playthrough of a modded, emulated version of Pokemon Red in which the player character (Red) is controlled collectively by people watching and commenting on the feed, with the "players" typing button commands into chat which are then interpreted and executed by poor Red. The result can be described as entertainingly chaotic, with Red spastically wandering around, opening and closing the Start menu, and (more rarely) inadvertently releasing his cherished Pokemon. See for yourself (it's worth watching, if only for a few minutes); Randall Munroe of xkcd has posted his take on it, as have others.

So why am I referencing this short-lived internet trend on my blog? To reflect on it, of course! I can certainly understand the appeal of watching TPP (though maybe not of trying to play it). It's entertaining to watch the chat commands rapidly scroll by and Red attempt to execute them, with the action bordering on nihilistic absurdity. And at the same time, this (admittedly artificial) difficulty to completing the most basic tasks, while entertaining, also turns what began as a children's role-playing game into an epic group effort that has captured the attention of hundreds of thousands. People (I imagine) get to celebrate as Red makes it to the next trainer battle or catches a Pokemon, and howl in confusion as he releases his cherished starter Pokemon, ABBBBBBK( the Charmeleon. Whether they'll make it through the whole game is anyone's guess.

It's even more interesting to see how the game has captured peoples' imaginations. In his random flailings around the Start menu, Red often seems to select the Helix Fossil in the Item menu. And so the Helix Fossil has become an internet meme of its own, a sort of magic 8-ball that holds all the answers. Red's current strongest Pokemon, aaabaaajss the Pidgeot, has become "Abba Jesus" the glorious leader of the team; similar identities have been assigned to most of Red's Pokemon. People have divided into factions supporting the two control modes, Anarchy and Democracy, almost like political parties (or houses of Hogwarts). A whole mythology has begun to spring up around the idiosyncratic, near-random happenings of this playthrough, giving us artistic depictions of moments like when Red inadvertently released his Flareon (which was supposed to be a Vaporeon), or what I can only describe as the information-age version of Gematria linking Flareon with the evil Dome Fossil, the dualistic opposite of the good Helix Fossil.
"Bird Jesus [Pidgeot] banishing the False Prophet [Flareon]"
My choice of the word "mythology" in that last sentence was not accidental. I see more than idle internet diversion going on in TPP. After four weeks of studying the cultural and philosophical background to the Old Testament, I see the same kind of mythmaking at work here that so many pagan Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures engaged in. In the absence of science, ancient cultures' myths were their way of exploring and understanding the world around them, of infusing both daily life and the historical goings-on of nations with meaning. ANE myths tended to reflect the societies that made them. Hence the phenomena of nature (the waters, the sky, the land, the storm, the sun, etc.) were associated with humanlike deities dwelling in a society much like the mythmaking one. Ancient Egyptians, protected from incursion on all sides by natural features and sustained by the dependable rhythm of the Nile, saw life as orderly and under the wise rule of the gods, including their divine-human ruler, the Pharaoh. Ancient Mesopotamians, by contrast, lived in a region with unpredictable weather and flooding, with life dependent on irrigation; they saw the gods as clashing and competing, creating humans to do the grunt work of sustaining society.
Anyway, today we tend to turn to science (or some similar manifestation of our post-Enlightenment worldview) to explain things, except the weightiest matters of life, afterlife, meaning, morality, and so on, for which we turn to religion (though it's becoming increasingly possible to believe that there is no need for this). But when confronted with something we truly can't explain or (effectively) control, like Red's bizarre behavior while making his merry way through Kanto, we turn back to mythological storylines to put it together in our heads.

From a more detached perspective, though, I can't help but see TPP as the projection of all the chaos, diversity, and pluralism of our modern world, which at times seems to be going in every direction at once, onto a single (virtual) individual. Seen in this microcosm, we laugh, celebrate, and mourn with Red's exploits. Being able to see and understand our own society in this way is as hard as it is scary. Most days I don't feel like trying.

And from a theological perspective, I ask the question: I wonder if this is how we look to God? Like bumbling, spastic lunatics who can't tell their Charmeleon from an Elixir, wandering directionlessly through life and doing things that, ultimately, don't make any sense? It's a different perspective on what "sin" is than the classic view of willful rebellion, but no less accurate.

Update: The Helix Fossil has been revived. The theological implications are enormous.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why I haven't read The Pilgrim's Progress

Justin Taylor recently expressed worry for the future readership of John Bunyan's allegorical classic, The Pilgrim's Progress. I found it a bit ironic, having tried to read The Pilgrim's Progress twice and failing both times. As with most books I don't finish, this isn't because I lost interest but because I encountered something I disliked enough to stop reading. In both cases, it was this passage:
Now, said Christian, let me go hence. Nay, stay, said the Interpreter, till I have shewed thee a little more, and after that thou shalt go on thy way. So he took him by the hand again, and led him into a very dark room, where there sat a man in an iron cage.
Now the man, to look on, seemed very sad; he sat with his eyes looking down to the ground, his hands folded together, and he sighed as if he would break his heart. Then said Christian, What means this? At which the Interpreter bid him talk with the man.
Then said Christian to the man, What art thou? The man answered, I am what I was not once.
CHRISTIAN: What wast thou once?
MAN: The man said, I was once a fair and flourishing professor, both in mine own eyes, and also in the eyes of others; I once was, as I thought, fair for the Celestial City, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I should get thither. [Luke 8:13]
CHRISTIAN: Well, but what art thou now?
MAN: I am now a man of despair, and am shut up in it, as in this iron cage. I cannot get out. Oh, now I cannot!
CHRISTIAN: But how camest thou in this condition?
MAN: I left off to watch and be sober. I laid the reins, upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the Word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and he is gone; I tempted the devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me: I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent.
Then said Christian to the Interpreter, But is there no hope for such a man as this? Ask him, said the Interpreter. Nay, said Christian, pray, Sir, do you.
INTERPRETER: Then said the Interpreter, Is there no hope, but you must be kept in the iron cage of despair?
MAN: No, none at all.
INTERPRETER: Why, the Son of the Blessed is very pitiful.
MAN: I have crucified him to myself afresh [Heb. 6:6]; I have despised his person [Luke 19:14]; I have despised his righteousness; I have "counted his blood an unholy thing"; I have "done despite to the Spirit of grace". [Heb. 10:28-29] Therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises, and there now remains to me nothing but threatenings, dreadful threatenings, fearful threatenings, of certain judgement and fiery indignation, which shall devour me as an adversary.
INTERPRETER: For what did you bring yourself into this condition?
MAN: For the lusts, pleasures, and profits of this world; in the enjoyment of which I did then promise myself much delight; but now every one of those things also bite me, and gnaw me like a burning worm.
INTERPRETER: But canst thou not now repent and turn?
MAN: God hath denied me repentance. His Word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this iron cage; nor can all the men in the world let me out. O eternity, eternity! how shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity!
INTERPRETER: Then said the Interpreter to Christian, Let this man's misery be remembered by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee.
CHRISTIAN: Well, said Christian, this is fearful! God help me to watch and be sober, and to pray that I may shun the cause of this man's misery! Sir, is it not time for me to go on my way now?
INTERPRETER: Tarry till I shall show thee one thing more, and then thou shalt go on thy way.
"God hath denied me repentance." It baffles me how this book can be considered such a spiritual classic when contains this expression of a message so antithetical to the gospel. Even if Bunyan were talking about the "unforgivable sin" (which he makes no attempt to do), I would dispute his theology. God's grace and patience have no limits. We can't wear Him down until he decides with one more sin, "You're done" and shuts us out of His presence, denying us grace no matter how much we may plead and repent. God is better than that, no matter how bad we are.

More directly: the whole, entire story of Scripture is about God recklessly pursuing sinful people even as they reject and sin against Him. This prodigal grace doesn't stop or get replaced by the expectation of keeping your nose clean once we become Christians. God will never shut us out, we can only shut Him out. However we interpret the solemn warnings in Hebrews 6 and 10 which Bunyan references, we must read them in a way worthy of God. I simply can't say that The Pilgrim's Progress does.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A (not so) quick guide to finishing Revelation less confused than when you started

For the final paper in my master's biblical hermeneutics class, I was tasked with writing a paper exploring and interpreting Revelation 12. (The following is a dramatization of real events in the style of Jewish apocalyptic literature) When I saw this assignment, I fell down before the whole assembly of my peers and professors and wailed. The earth split open, the mountains quaked and crumbled, and the stench of burning sulfur poured up from the depths; a third of the world suffocated at the sulfur. The angels holding back the waters of the deep were commanded, "No more!", and they let the waters roll up over the great cities of the world, and a third of them were flooded. Then I was in the Spirit and heard a voice saying, "Fear not." I looked, and there before me stood an angel in front of an open door. He took me through the door into the sixth heaven and told me the true meaning of Revelation 12, saying, "You must teach this to students, and professors, and kingdoms, and nations." Then I saw coming down from heaven the perfect paper on Revelation 12, and I took it and submitted it.

A most troublesome book

Well, writing that was surprisingly fun. I can see why apocalypse was such a popular genre among second-temple Jews. But it probably reminds you of why Revelation might just be the most difficult book in the Bible for modern audiences. Chances are you either steer clear of it as much as possible, or you take an unhealthy level of interest in it. If you do pay a healthy amount of attention to it, it's probably to the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3 (which can be interpreted and applied more like the epistles), the exaltation of Jesus as the slain-and-risen lamb in 4-5 (which is a depiction of the glory of God similar to Isaiah 6 and acts as a nice illustration of Philippians 2:9-11), or the defeat of evil and the ultimate restoration of all things in 20-22 (to which my church frequently turns for the ending of the "gospel story"), skipping all that confusing stuff in between.

Unfortunately, Revelation 12 was right in the middle of all that confusing stuff in between, so I had to address it. As my description indicates, I was pretty nervous about this paper, so I checked out three commentaries from rather diverse viewpoints to help me make head or tail of it. Heavenly vision or no, the paper went well and is on this blog if you're interested. Before I have to return the commentaries, I wanted to share some of the things I learned from my study of Revelation.

When I thought in the past about the rather colorful sequences of events depicted in most of Revelation, I assumed they were all describing, in some confusing symbolic way, "the end times", and it was our job as interpreters to try to understand how they would play out, like figuring out the best way to put together a really difficult puzzle. As I learned in one of the commentaries, though, this is just one of four ways to read most of Revelation, called futurism. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the diversity of viewpoints this book has led to) Those four main views are:

Preterism: Revelation 1-19 describe events that happened shortly after the writing of the book (probably around the end of the first century AD).
Historicism: They describe events that took place (or still are taking place) in church history. This view was popular among Reformers who thought the Pope was the Antichrist/false prophet and the Roman Catholic Church was "Rome"/"Babylon".
Futurism: They describe events that will take place in the "end times", a period of history future to the apostle and still future for us.
Idealism: They don't describe historical events, but allegorically represent spiritual truths that are fulfilled continually.

A mixture of these views is also possible (preterism/idealism, futurism/historicism, etc.). Somewhat better-known, there are three views regarding the "millennium" described in Revelation 20, when Satan will be imprisoned and the faithful will reign with Jesus, and its relative ordering with other events that are supposed to take place.

Premillennialism: After a gradual deterioration of the world, Jesus will bodily return to rule with His followers for a thousand years. This is further divided into subviews regarding the relative timing of this return with the "great tribulation" mentioned in Revelation 7:14. This, again is the view expressed in the Left Behind books.
Postmillennialism: Jesus' thousand-year reign with the believers will be only spiritual in nature, preceded by an improvement in conditions and response to the gospel in the world by the work of the church. The millennium may have already begun. After the thousand years, Jesus will come bodily to judge everyone.
Amillennialism: The "thousand years" is to be interpreted symbolically or nonliterally, and doesn't correspond to an actual period of history.

My journey through Revelation

From the options I listed, it should be clear that Revelation is a book with a lot of possible latitude for interpretation in many places (i.e. most of the book). Many of the conclusions we draw from studying it should be considered theories, not doctrines. So while I would now describe my reading of John's last book as amillennial and preterist/idealist and can provide reasons for seeing it as I do, I can't dismiss futurism, premillennialism, or any of these other readings offhand as "unbiblical". I know and respect far too many people who would disagree with me to do that.

Still, the commentary I read with which I now agree most felt to me like a breath of fresh air. Looking back, I think I had gotten very tired of how futurist readings of Revelation seem to produce more heated debate, speculation, and theological platform-building (which I really don't think John was going for). Maybe your experience with Revelation has been different; maybe you have found reading it in a futurist way to be fruitful. I'd love to hear about how. I was simply searching for a way to read this book that did it justice, and I couldn't seem to find it in the traditions I grew up with.

So I stayed restless about this book because read properly, Revelation has the potential to be the most awesome book in the Bible (I really mean that). It's full of scenes that would be over-the-top even for Michael Bay, the ultimate cosmic battle between good and evil at the end of the age, and depicts Jesus as the awesome, evil-destroying Prince of Peace who fulfills all of God's promises of faithfulness and wins the battle for the fate of the cosmos. I want to read Revelation and get hit in the face with all that until I can't help but worship the God who authors it all.

With that said, I was able to identify seven guidelines to reading Revelation in a way that is more helpful than confusing; hopefully they'll work for you even if you don't come to the same conclusions as me.

1. Mind the genre (and context) of Revelation
Or rather, genres; it incorporates elements of the prophetic, epistle, and apocalyptic genres. The one of these that gives us the most trouble is apocalyptic ("apocalypse" is just the transliteration of the Greek for "revelation"). Apocalyptic literature is a distinctly Jewish genre that usually involves dreams and visions set on both heaven and earth, bizarrely symbolic language, and formal stylization such as the symbolic use of numbers and sequences. It had a similar goal to the Old Testament prophets (hailing from the age after the "true" prophets had stopped speaking) of looking forward to God's ultimate deliverance and redemption of His people, but unlike the prophets was written instead of oral. Gordon Fee says:
Part of the reason for this was that apocalyptic was born during the time of powerful world empires, which was often a time of persecution for the Jewish community. These writers, therefore, were engaged in a kind of subversive literature, prophesying cataclysmic judgments on their persecutors—God's own enemies—who at the time of writing appeared so powerful that there was no hope for their collapse except by divine intervention. Thus these writers no longer looked for God to bring about their redemption within history; rather, they pictured God as bringing a cataclysmic end to history, which also ushered in a redemptive conclusion for God's people.
John J. Collins defines it:
"Apocalypse" is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.
If possible, reading some other Jewish apocalypses helps greatly to give a larger sample of this genre. Its closest peer in the Bible is the ending of Daniel, which Revelation repeatedly references.

Most apocalypticists, to add credibility to their vision, would write under the name of a famous Old Testament figure and mention how they had been commanded to "seal up" their words until the age of the actual author, but John speaks not in the guise of an established prophet but as a Christian prophet contemporary to his audience. His revelation differs from others in two key ways: John (we think, with support from textual evidence) does not write under a pseudonym, and John is not commanded to "seal up" his vision for a later age (he is explicitly commanded not to in 22:10). Says Fee: "John is not simply anticipating the End, as were his Jewish predecessors and contemporaries; rather, he knows the End to have begun with Jesus, through His death, resurrection, and ascension."

Considering the context of Revelation (historical, cultural, literary) is also important. Though writing in the style of Jewish apocalypticists, John's immediate literary context is unquestionably the Bible (that is, the Old Testament), which he references almost constantly in his imagery. Many of the characters and symbols he uses are from Daniel; some of the plagues he describes are from the Exodus, and that's just scratching the surface. Lots of his depictions of the Father and Jesus are also from the Old Testament, to emphasize the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises therein. Others of his symbols were rooted in his culture, from the obvious (Rome, the city set on seven hills, becomes a woman on a beast with seven heads) to the obscure (the hordes described in 9:16-19 might be mounted Parthian archers?). In any case, it's important to ask ourselves what John's imagery would have meant to his original audience, rather than simply what it seems to mean to us (more on that later).

I'll try not to make the other items this long...

2. Keep in mind the purpose of Revelation
As I hinted above, I seriously doubt that John wrote Revelation to incite bouts of debating, disagreement, and speculation. I hope we can all agree on that, at least. I see the first few verses as a mission statement: John does say that God gave it to him "to show to his servants the things that must soon take place" (1:1), but in 1:3 says "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near."

So in other words, while part of John's purpose is to tell his audience about what will take place, simply knowing what John is saying, much less fitting it into a theological grid of some kind, is not the point. Rather, he intended his letter to be read aloud, understood, and kept. This means he intended this letter to spur a certain action or attitude in his audience, which (from the rest of the book) seems to be an increased, steadfast faith that loves Jesus and hopes in His coming even unto death. I believe John wrote the book to encourage the believers in these first-century churches by setting their lives and their persecution in the context of the cosmic battle between good and evil, and by showing them the eventual outcome that their faith is leading them to

So, even though we aren't the target audience of Revelation, we should still seek to fulfill John's purpose in writing it. I believe John wrote in order to be understood by his audience, not to set a puzzle for later generations of interpreters to "figure out".

3. Focus on what is clear
Rather than what is unclear or obscure. (Of which there is plenty) This calls for epistemological humility, realizing that a great many people smarter than you may disagree with (say) your interpretation of the locusts in Revelation 9 as Apache helicopters. Attach a degree of uncertainty to your conclusions. Be especially careful about staking too much or building any doctrine on top of unclear passages (let alone textually disputed passages).

4. Consider John's theological perspective
I also refer to this as the prophetic "God's-eye view". John places a high value on depicting the events of Revelation as God's doing, either directly or through the "theological passive", a common device for pious Jewish authors wishing to avoid using God's name explicitly. For example, in Revelation 12:14: "But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle". The implied giver here is probably God Himself.

I think this kind of prophetic speech has a different effect on us in our more intellectual, dualistic culture than it did in John's day. We see all these seals being broken, trumpets being blown, plagues being sent, cosmic battles being fought, and assume that these events, if they are fulfilled physically, will be obviously miraculous or supernatural. In other words, we view God "doing" something exclusively from something being done by humans. Or, more mathematically, divine agency and human agency are mutually exclusive. I disagree with this assumption.

A helpful example: the ministry of Jesus. God chose to come to earth as a human, to live, breathe, eat, grow, and feel as a human. While Jesus didn't shy away from doing miracles, this is quite different from saying His whole life was one continuous miracle, or that He was some kind of energy being in the sky beaming peoples' sins out of them, or some kind of giant hand sticking out of the sky. This kind of imagery is much more like we see in the apocryphal gospels than in the genuine ones. In the life of Jesus we see the Father most clearly (Jhn 14:9), but we also see divine agency and human agency coming together perfectly and beautifully.

If I may analogize for a moment, I think a better explanation is found in the world of theater (or literature). For example, the plot of Hamlet is driven by greed, ambition, revenge, love, grief, and an intricately woven tapestry of human actions and passions. People have spent centuries analyzing it. Yet on another level, the events of the play can be understood as driven not by the actions of the characters, but by the writing of Shakespeare, and his own thoughts and intentions in writing the play. So, John's prophetic writing is written to his fellow players to lift their eyes from their immediate surroundings, to pull aside the curtain, to remind them that they stand on a vast cosmic stage, and that ultimately God is in control of the plot. What is, on one level, a human action is, on another, part of God's script. Our actions aren't free or divinely determined. They are both. If we bifurcate our everyday human perspective from John's theological one, we are like actors debating the motivations of the playwright instead of saying their lines.

One example from Revelation where I found this helpful is in what is sometimes referred to as the "Great Tribulation", beginning in chapter 6. Previously I saw this as God arbitrarily killing people with natural disasters of all kinds that might still be referred to today as "acts of God". As one commentary offered the possibility that, for instance, the four horsemen might be describing the persecution of Christians by human (perhaps Roman) persecutors who would later face justice themselves, all under the sovereignty of God. That the parts of Revelation that previously seemed random or bizarre might be theologically oriented descriptions of human actions is a very compelling theory to me.

5. Remember our bias as modern readers of an ancient document
I think of two ways this plays out especially in our reading of Revelation: we generally assume that the most faithful interpretation of Scripture is a literal one, and we believe that a crucial part of "understanding" a passage is figuring out its informational content. By the first, I mean that we can feel almost bound to read passages literally and concretely, feeling as though we're somehow evading God's word if we don't. The frequent debates you may hear on "whether to read the Bible literally, or metaphorically, etc." are an example of this. Not only are we looking for a simple rule to follow in blanket fashion for interpreting scripture (another trademark of modern thought; everything proceeds from simple laws and rules), we consider a strictly literal reading to be plausible. I can assure you that before the enlightenment, people didn't wonder whether to read the Bible literally or metaphorically: they chose both ways, and threw in a moral and anagogical sense to boot!

How this plays out, especially in a book like Revelation, is that we discern a literal reading for some bit of apocalyptic imagery, like that exactly 144,000 celibate Jews will be saved in the Tribulation in chapter 14, or that the faithful will reign with Christ bodily for 1,000 calendar years, and then turn believing it into this macho test of faith, even if it raises far more questions and concerns than it answers. We assume that details that look concrete must be concrete, even if they are serving a very different purpose for John, like numerical symbolism or a citation of an Old Testament prophet for continuity.

The other way is that we focus on the informational content of Scripture. We ask what it can tell us, what we can learn from it, maybe view it as "biblical data" to add to our body of biblical knowledge. The result is that we keep thinking about theology without getting around to living it. I know of no one more guilty of this than myself. What this means for Revelation is that John's original purpose of exhorting and encouraging churches in their faith all too often gets drowned out in the quest to figure out what all of his apocalyptic storytelling is really about. We do very well to remember 1 Corinthians 8:1b, which I think certainly applies here: "This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up."

The problem with both of these assumptions is that they are anachronistic. They read our modern ways of thinking back onto ancient people who didn't share them. We think about how the cosmic signs in 6:12-17 are possible according to modern science, or whether the 24 elders in ch. 4-5 are angels or elect humans and the implications of either for pretribulationism, when these concerns were simply not on the radar of John or anyone in his audience. We must be willing to set aside our assumptions about what the Bible says when they keep us from it. Which leads right into the most important point...

6. Read with an incarnational hermeneutic
I am truly indebted to Peter Enns for tackling the questions that were undermining my faith, and for transforming how I approach the Bible. Central to his approach is the incarnational hermeneutic: the idea that Scripture is fully human and fully divine, just as Jesus was. Neglecting either side of it will lead to problems. In general, and especially in a book like Revelation, evangelicals tend to neglect the human side.

Here's how this question of the nature of Scripture applies with Revelation (this summarizes several of the previous points): Revelation, like the rest of the Bible, is "God's word" written "for all believers everywhere", and since God's words will never pass away (Mat 24:35, Mar 13:31, Luke 21:33), it must be speaking to us just as it did to its late first-century audience. (This is part of the reason the futurist reading is so compelling) Therefore, we feel justified in reading Revelation in anachronistic ways because it speaks the same eternal spiritual truth to us as it did to the churches in Asia Minor, and the same Spirit will guide us into all truth (Jhn 16:13) just as He guided them.

But, applying the incarnational analogy, we recall that the human side of Revelation: that it was given to first-century Christians in a specific cultural and historical context, through a uniquely second-temple genre of literature that we are largely unaccustomed to today. It does not speak independently to us, but rather through this cultural lens. Whatever we do with it today must take into account the "situated" form in which it was written and what it meant to its original audience, not just what it means to us. We must follow what John does with its details to the conclusions he draws before we can apply them to our own context. This will go a long way towards alleviating the anachronistic ways we approach Revelation.

7. Consult multiple commentaries
This point is probably the simplest, but is also the most important (I lied about the last one). Revelation is probably the book of the Bible for which commentaries are most necessary. Whatever you do, if you want to seriously study Revelation, don't go it alone, or even with a single commentary. Ideally, get several that express a variety of views and positions to weigh. I did this as a happy accident in my own study.

It's "Revelation", not "Revelations". Or, if you like, "The Apocalypse of Saint John".

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Revelation 12

The following is a hermeneutical paper I wrote on Revelation 12 for my MATS program.

The book of Revelation has something of a checkered history among the Christian church as a source of great controversy and fear in its confusing depictions of God and future events. Of all the books of the Bible, it is the clearest reminder that hermeneutics is not something we have to (or should) go about alone. If we take advantages of good commentaries and the wealth of Christian interpretive tradition of this book, we can begin to see it as its original audience might have: an awesome testimony to the salvation of Jesus Christ, an encouragement in times of trial, and a tantalizing (not comprehensive) glimpse of what is to come.

The author of Revelation is traditionally identified as the Apostle John, author of the fourth gospel and three letters; he explicitly identifies himself in 1:1, 4 and 9. Textual criticism affirms that though there are some stylistic differences between it and John's other works, these are no more significant than those between, say, Galatians and Romans, and the more significant similarities give us little reason to doubt this John's identity as author. (Fee xix) The date of writing is believed to be the late first century or early second century based on the conditions of the churches in chapters 2 and 3, the references to a past martyrdom, and the state of the tension between the church and the Roman empire—just before serious persecution broke out. (Fee xx)

The recipients are explicitly stated as the churches in seven cities in western Asia (modern Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:11), all relatively close to the island of Patmos where John lived in exile. These churches were in various conditions internally, as we see in chapters 2 and 3, but John's occasion for writing to them is the external situation of increasing Roman persecution. His relationship with these churches is not entirely clear; given his high status in the church as "the elder" (2 Jhn 1, 3 Jhn 1), he may have been familiar with them, but he now speaks to them as the witness to a heavenly vision. His purpose in relaying the vision is not, I believe, to provide information about the future (though it does do this) but encouragement and exhortation to the churches to persevere in the faith amidst a rising tide of Roman persecution. The book's apocalyptic genre and prophetic tone serve as the vehicles by which he does this.

This should inspire some caution for interpreters. Our textbook wisely reminds us that the events of Revelation "predict literal events, though the descriptions do not portray the events literally." (Klein 443) John uses bizarre and symbolic imagery to depict real people and events; even more confusingly, he conflates them temporally, jumbling together past events with future ones (either in his immediate future or eschatological). In my study of the book, two interpretive guidelines I've settled on are to read it nonliterally (for the actors are almost always depicted by symbols of varying transparency) and to realize that the "plot" of Revelation (at least before chapter 19) is driven by the earthly events the churches are about to experience—prophetically dressed in heavenly language—not abstract theological realities or a cosmic forecast of the end.

Revelation 12 is roughly in the middle of the book, and reading the whole thing helps greatly in understanding its context. After Paul's greeting (1:1-8) and initial vision of the Lord Jesus (1:9-20), he is given messages for the seven churches (ch. 2-3) which serve as appraisals of their spiritual condition and ways they need to prepare for the upcoming trials. Then the apocalyptic imagery begins in full, with John taken to God's throne room in heaven (ch. 4) where he sees Jesus the risen Lamb receiving great praise and glory for His victory over death (ch. 5). This makes Him worthy to open the seven seals of a great scroll. As He does this, the Christian martyrs are oppressed and cry out for justice (6:10). The faithful are sealed as belonging to the Lord (ch. 7) while God begins a program of wrath to bring justice against those who persecuted them (ch. 8-10), sending a sign against them in the form of two more witnesses (ch. 11).

Chapter 12, and 13-14 after it, lay the stage and, importantly, a theological foundation for the subsequent pouring out of God's wrath (ch. 15-16), defeat of the powers of this world (ch. 17-18), and ultimate defeat of Satan, death, and Hades (ch. 19-20). I will be focusing in this paper on chapter 12, which can be outlined as follows:

I. Introduction of the characters (1-6)
  A. The woman (1-2)
  B. The dragon (3-4a)
  C. The child (4b-6)
    1. The dragon attempts to devour the child
    2. The child is taken up to heaven
    3. The women hides in the wildnerness
II. War in heaven (7-12)
  A. Victory of the angels, Satan thrown down (7-9)
  B. A triumphal hymn (10-12)
    1. Salvation has come
    2. Celebration of Christian martyrs
    3. Rejoicing in heaven, woe to the dragon
III. War between the women and the dragon (13-17)
  A. The woman flees to the wilderness (13-14)
  B. The dragon spews a great river (15-16)
  C. The dragon goes off to make war on the woman's other offspring (17

The chapter starts off by introducing several important characters. In verse 1, John sees "a great and wondrous sign" (NIV) in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars. This is an example of John's near-constant references back to the Old Testament as a sort of code to convey meaning to his readers using their Bibles (Septuagints) that any Roman readers would miss. In this case, it is a reference to Joseph's dream in Gen 37:9, and so based on this and later clues the women likely represents faithful Israel, or more generally "the faithful messianic community". (Fee 164) In verse 2 we see that she is pregnant and about to give birth.

Then in verse 3 we meet the second character, the dragon, via another sign in heaven. Again, its bizarre description is best taken symbolically. Its ten horns are probably a reference back to the fourth beast in Daniel's similarly apocalyptic vision (Dan 7:7), and though it is clearly stated to represent Satan himself (v. 9), its seven heads may also be an association with Rome, the great earthly enemy of God's people, which was a city set on seven hills (Fee 165). Its tail sweeps a third of the stars from the sky—which is less of a literal event and more of an identity marker by way of reference to Daniel (8:10), and could also be a reference to the angels who fell with Satan from heaven. (Patterson 263) This dragon prepares to devour the woman's (Israel's) child when he is born—who could the child be?

Of course, this child is identified in verse 5 as none other than Jesus, through a reference to the messianic language of Psa 2:9: he "will rule all the nations with an iron scepter". An extremely condensed retelling of the life of Jesus, he is born and then "snatched up to God and his throne", bookending Jesus' earthly life with references to its beginning (the nativity) and end (the ascension), leaves little doubt that John is talking about the Messiah. Following this the woman flees to the wilderness, where God will take care of her (signifying God's preservation of the remnant of Israel; see Isa 10:20-22, Jer 31:7, Mic 2:12) for 1,260 days.

The significance of this number is less clear; it is the same length of time God's witnesses will preach to the people of the beast (11:3). It is also roughly equivalent to 42 months, the length of time that the nations will trample on the court of the gentiles (11:2) and the beast from the earth will exercise authority (13:5). In 12:14 this length of time is also given as the even more mysterious phrase "time, and times, and half a time" (possibly meaning the equivalent 1 + 2 + ½ = three and a half years), which is also used in Dan 7:25 as the time the saints will be handed over to the fourth beast, and time given in Dan 12:7 until the completion of the visions. All of these have to do with the time God allows the wicked to reign and His people to suffer tribulation at the hands of evil, the time until wrongs are righted and the victory is won.

However it is expressed, three and a half years is half of seven years, seven being a good, perfect, and complete number because of its role in Genesis 1. In this case, it encourages the churches by emphasizing the temporary, passing nature of the tribulation and looking forward to the time of perfection. "Merely three and one-half—the period of tribulation years—it is not perfect or good. It is not God's final word, but only an imperfect, incomplete parody of the perfection to come." (Klein 447) "The complete or perfect seven is split in half, symbolic of the in-between times that are fractured until they are repaired by the messiah." (Resseguie 161)

After this, John shows his propensity for depicting events asynchronously (or rather, in theological rather than chronological order). Having just depicted the birth and ascension of Jesus, in verses 7-9 he now returns to prehistory to show the war in heaven between Satan's armies and the Lord's angels. As in other places, Satan and his angels are defeated and cast from heaven (see Isa 14:12-15, Ezek 28:12-17, Luk 10:18, 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6). We are also given a clear identification of the dragon as a symbol for Satan, as well as "that ancient serpent" (tying him back with the serpent in Genesis 3).

Following this is a great and beautiful hymn of victory in heaven in 10-12. It begins with a triumphant affirmation that the great eschatological hopes of Christians, the power and salvation and kingdom of God, and the authority of his Christ, have now come. Satan, the accuser, has been thrown down, though he continues to accuse the brothers and sisters on earth as we will see. Verse 11 explains Satan was defeated by the faith and perseverance of Christian witnesses and martyrs (the same word in Greek), a bit of a contradiction until you realize John is tying Satan's heavenly defeat with how God's human followers resist him on earth, allowing the churches to which he is writing to share in this cosmic victory in the midst of their current hardship. The hymn ends with a call for rejoicing in heaven, but a sober warning to the earth at the upcoming wrath of the devil (and, by association, oppression and persecution from Rome).

After the dragon is hurled to the earth, he seeks revenge on the woman—almost certainly a reference to/fulfillment of God's promise of enmity between the woman and the serpent in Gen 3:15. The women "was given the wings of a great eagle" to fly to the aforementioned place of refuge for "time, times, and half a time", the duration of the tribulation, signifying God's protection of His people. The dragon spews a torrent of water from his mouth, which the earth swallows. Then, in verse 17, the dragon turns to make war against her offspring—"those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus", that is, the Christian church.

John seems to be employing more Old Testament references here (besides the thematic reference to Gen 3:15). It seems to be "an apocalyptic retelling of the story of Israel...but in such a way that the two stories (the Old and New) merge at the present point where Satan, through the empire, is now pursuing Israel's new, and therefore true, offspring, the followers of the Slain Lamb." (Fee 175) So verse 14 is a reference to God sustaining Israel in the desert before and during the Exodus.  It could also signify all the times God has sustained His people in exile, such as during the Babylonian captivity. Likewise verses 15 and 16 call back to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea in Ex 14-15, particularly 15:12: "You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them." Either way, these verses depict by analogy the protection from God that the faithful are to put their faith in through the present pursuit of the church by Rome.

Finally, in verse 17, the dragon is enraged and goes to make war against the Christian church. John is clearly setting the stage for the seven churches' present situation, foreseeing that Satan (through the Roman empire) is about viciously persecute the church by way of analogy with the past tribulation of Israel; this is the main prophetic insight of the book. (Fee xvii) He identifies the church as the offspring of the women (who gave birth to Jesus), those who (1) obey God's commandments and (2) hold to the testimony of Jesus (an implicit reminder to continue in these things).

In Revelation 12 we see John draw a coded parallel between the war between God and the devil, God's past deliverance of His chosen people, Israel, and a promise of His deliverance of His chosen people, the church, from imminent persecution. John weaves an alternate, repackaged account of some key parts of salvation history, and through the clever use of symbolism he elevates the present plight of the churches in Asia to this same cosmic stage while hiding the book's countercultural message from their oppressors. In this chapter the Apostle teches his audience that though the cosmic forces of evil are mighty and bent on their destruction, the God they follow is mightier still and alone able to preserve His covenant people, just as He has been doing from the start.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A correction on Adam

Repeatedly on this blog I've said various things to the effect that the Old Testament doesn't have a theology of original sin, that Paul glimpses this idea in retrospect while envisioning Jesus as the "second Adam". Notably, several times I've said that the Old Testament never connects Adam's sin with the general sinful condition of the Israelites or anything else:
The OT's only mention of Adam outside of Genesis is in the genealogy in 1 Chronicles. Nowhere does it ever connect the Israelites' acts of disobedience with Adam's sin, as Paul does. [Source]
The link between Adam's sin and the human condition is made only by Paul. Jesus never mentions Adam; he is only mentioned in the Old Testament as part of a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1:1, never as an explanation or ground for anyone's sin. [Source]
Well, today I'm here to confess to you that I was wrong.  It's somewhat embarrassing to realize that a point I have made so many times on this blog, thinking it was a real zinger, but it won't do to keep saying it now that I know that it is just flat-out wrong. Specifically, because of Isaiah 43:27 (which doesn't mention Adam by name but makes his identity fairly clear): "Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me."

Let's not take it too far: this verse does mention Adam's sin and connects it to Israel's subsequent unfaithfulness (in the midst of a polemic beautifully contrasting Israel's waywardness with the Lord's faithfulness to redeem them and forgive their sins), but still doesn't come close to articulating anything that could be considered an orthodox Christian "doctrine of original sin". Adam seems more like a prototype or example of sin that his children follow after; there is no mention of sin "entering the world", much less an "Adamic covenant". Still, it is certainly something.

And given what I've been learning since making some of these sweeping statements about Adam, I can't say I'm surprised. The line between what we regard as divinely revealed doctrine and things that were simply part of the cultural air that the Biblical authors breathed is very fine indeed. For example, in Genesis 1-2, the idea that the world was created from chaos by a deity was common sense in the Ancient Near East; the important thing in the story is how God does it, not that He did it. Similarly, the Israelites' ideas of heaven, hell, angels, demons, and other things may have developed considerably during their rule by Persia due to the influence of Zoroastrianism. Of course, this intermixing of revelation and "culture" goes both ways; an idea's originating outside the Bible (particularly the Protestant Bible) does not preclude it from being true or "revealed".

So this verse in Isaiah might be a glimpse at an embryonic form of the doctrine of "the Fall" that Paul brings up in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5. Rather than Paul arriving at it in a vacuum, it presumably developed and gained popularity during the Second Temple period, explaining how Paul can mention it relatively offhandedly to his audiences.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My two cents on the Nye vs. Ham debate

If you've been following the news (not even Christian-specific news), you've probably heard about the debate yesterday between Bill Nye (the science guy!) and Ken Ham (the president of Answers in Genesis). I didn't watch the debate; from what I've heard (a considerable amount in the circles I'm in) about it, the most it accomplished was exposing Ham's young-earth creationism to the ridicule of the secular community. Of course no meaningful dialogue took place between two men with such diametrically opposed viewpoints. Peter Enns warned Nye on his blog about walking into Ham's "well-tuned, battle-tested, apologetic war machine". BioLogos, unsurprisingly, offered several excellent responses from Christians sharing parts of Nye and Hams' views. Rachel Held Evans pretty well sums up my thoughts (emphasis added):
Since I’ve been asked: I’m with Nye in that I don’t believe young earth creationism is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era. I’m also a Christian who loves the Bible and believes it to be inspired by God and authoritative in the Christian life. My view is that Genesis 1, having emerged from an ancient Near Eastern context, assumes an ancient Near Eastern cosmology and addresses theological concerns, not scientific ones.(For more on this, I highly recommend John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.) 
And I believe that church leaders who teach that Christians have to choose between the Bible and science, faith and reason, are doing a huge disservice to the Church, essentially setting believers up for failure. That teaching wreaked havoc on my young faith, as I write about in Evolving in Monkey Town, and in several of the posts below.
These superior writers save me having to articulate most of my thoughts on the debate; they do it better. However, I did have something I wanted to share when reading this (secular) response on the Slate. Several times the author, Mark Stern, mentions how Ham divides science into two categories: observational science and historical science. He quotes Ham: "We observe things in the present; we’re assuming that that’s always happened in the past." When Nye explained the process of evolution, Ham would retort, "You don’t know that. You weren't there." A longer quote to finish the illustration:
When Nye noted that a tree in Sweden is older than Ken Ham’s Earth, Ham scoffed: “We didn’t see those tree rings actually forming. We didn’t see those layers being laid down. You’re assuming things in regard to the past that aren’t necessarily true.” When Nye pointed out that radiometric dating places the Earth’s age at about 4.5 billion years, Ham sneered: “There’s only one infallible dating method. The witness who was there and told everything and told us. From the word of God.” And when Nye explained that astronomy provides a glimpse into the past and the astonishing age of the universe, Ham held that “there is nothing in observational astronomy that contradicts a young universe. The reason I believe in a young universe is because of the Bible’s account of origins.”
To sum up, Ham's epistemology seems to consider only two sources of information to be valid: divine revelation, and direct observation. We didn't observe evolution taking place (actually, we can and we have), the argument goes, so whatever scientific reasoning we may use to support the theory of evolution is invalid. The only reliable knowledge we have of the origin of life is the (literally, scientifically, historically-interpreted) revelation from the One who was there.

I've already written enough on evolution that I won't critique this epistemology again. But reading this description of Ham's constant returning to observation and discrediting of any other way of gaining scientific knowledge reminded me of some reading I did for my latest master's course, focusing on situating the Bible in its historical, geographical, and cultural context. Specifically, a description of ancient Mesopotamian science:
The Sumerians were unable to present their ideas in a connected fashion, either in the realms of nature, abstract matters, and theology, or in those of mathematics or jurisprudence. Thus, Sumerian science lacked the conceptual framework of formulated principles (what in the West has been called "natural laws"), and simply ordered nominal expressions one after the other in a one-dimensional fashion, without any kind of elucidation.1
In other words, Sumerian science (and, to an extent, Babylonian science after it) consisted of lists of words, names, calculations, legal decisions, or observations, with little (if any) conceptual framework connecting them or attempts made to infer abstracted principles. Since everything that happened was believed to be by the will of a hierarchy of somewhat capricious deities, this kind of reasoning was understandably deemphasized.

Anyway, the Slate article reminded me of this reading with its description of Ham's epistemology. If your only valid source of scientific knowledge is observation, then you can't make inferences about the past. Of course, you also can't make any predictions about things that haven't happened and been observed, so the whole scientific system of formulating general laws from specific observations goes out the window. What is left is a framework for "science" based exclusively on observation surprisingly similar to the endless lists of the Sumerians and Babylonians.

The ironic part is, the ancient Israelites who wrote and compiled the Torah make have shared this epistemology, coming from a similar ancient near eastern background. But (to greatly condense and reduce its message), the narrative of the Bible can be viewed as the story of the true God choosing a people to bless and lift out of their paganistic, polytheistic background, revealing Himself as the creator and sustainer of a universe wholly subservient to Him and given order according to His will—a trajectory that contributed, eventually, to the development of the very scientific view of the world that Ham opposes. How his conception of a wild cosmos with no knowable laws except by divine decree, similar to the one of the ancient Mesopotamians, fits with the God of the Bible is beyond me.

  1. Wolfram von Soden, The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994)

Myth, Inspiration, and Believing the Bible

The following is another forum response in my master's program about Ancient Near Eastern myths and their place in the Bible.

The essay by Frankfort says that " nothing less than a carefully chosen cloak for abstract thought."1 I would agree, but add that it is also more than this; myths are not simply the ancient version of our modern, abstract thought, or its expression in ancient language. Peter Enns gets at this more clearly when he describes myth as "an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing origins and meaning in the form of stories."2 The purpose of myths went beyond the abstract philosophizing we associate with the term "metaphysics" today. In ANE cultures there was little distinction between theology, philosophy, science, and history; myths addressed them all, effectively laying out the backdrop on which everyday ancient life was lived.

Myths told people about the nature and doings of the gods (whose existence was evident; as Frankfort explains, there was little distinction between the personal and the impersonal, and "natural" events were attributed to higher powers), how they pervaded and affected the visible world, and how to live rightly before them. They provides people with a common sense of identity and purpose. They served as a kind of glue that bound a society together by participation in a collective story that had been going on since the formation of the world. Roetzel describes this sociological purpose of myths in a society, saying they "point beyond everyday experiences to the deeds of its deity and thus provide a transcendent vision that legitimizes the institutions of a society"3—especially the monarchy.

Overall, I think "myth" is the best term for ANE stories that expressed metaphysical ideas, as long as you keep in mind that the purpose of myths was also broader than this, because in the ancient world there was little distinction between metaphysics, physics, politics, science, etc.—the narratives of myths bound all of these things together in a unified vision of life before the gods.
All of this is certainly interesting, but it gets dicier when you start comparing the Bible and these myths. For most of Christian history the assumption has simply been that since the Bible consists of inspired revelation from God, the stories depicted in it are historically true. To question the historicity of the creation, the flood, or the exodus is to question God's truthfulness.

But the parallels we see between parts of the Old Testament and ANE myths show that it's not that simple. Rachel Held Evans describes how she encountered this tension while studying the Gilgamesh flood story: "“The similarities between these texts must mean that they are of the same genre and share a similar context,” my English-major mind was screaming. “Why would we regard one as history and the other as story when they use such similar images, styles, symbols, and plotlines? That just doesn’t make sense.”"4 In other words, all other things being equal, are the stories in the Bible that bear such resemblance to ANE myths somehow less mythological themselves by virtue of their inspiration?

I would say no. I would definitely agree that "[God used] forms of thought current at the time the Bible was written, including myth, to communicate truth". It is tremendously presumptuous to say that because the Bible is inspired by God and therefore true, that it must be true in exactly the way that we conceive of truth today, so that Biblical narratives must be true in a historical, scientific sense. It simply doesn't do the Bible justice to impose our modern standards of truthfulness on it. We must accept the Bible as true on its own standards. When God communicates to man, He does so in a contextualized way, using the forms and methods of communicating truth that are familiar to the people He is speaking to, rather than some kind of formless, transcendent divine speech (which we unconsciously equate with speaking the kind of historical, scientific truth with which we are comfortable).

Of course, once we realize this the question of the mythological forms of the OT doesn't simply go away. The problem is, the stories of the OT resembling myths were written in a time when little distinction was drawn between myth and "true" history, but were passed down to a time when a sharp distinction is drawn; so we believe them as historically true because that's how they've always been believed, even though they no longer bear any resemblance to our culture's definition of "history" as they once did. This distinction has been so gradual that it is easily missed.

We are still concerned with the historical truth of Genesis because, as Enns points out in The Evolution of Adam, Paul seems to assume it and use it as part of a theological platform. So it won't do to simply say that the truth of Genesis has nothing to do with its historicity, as we do of Job. We want to agree with Paul that Adam was a real flesh-and-blood person living in the not-too-distant past from whom all modern humans are descended—a historical and scientific claim—but we do so in a premodern way, based on myth and divine revelation, contrasting with the modern, more empirical basis on which we usually believe historical or scientific claims. The effect of holding these beliefs in tension is to drive a wedge in between what we believe "on faith" and the everyday things we believe on a more rational basis, preventing valuable dialogue between the two.

What are we to do? What are we to make of how the biblical authors take seriously writings which we would classify as "myth", a genre which we normally consider more fairy tale than historically reliable? We can't simply go back to being premodern people like Paul for whom there was no such tension, not if we want any meaningful interaction with the world around us. Simply arguing that Genesis is fundamentally different than contemporary ANE myths is intellectually dishonest; the similarities run too deep.
The most common solution is, as I mentioned, to argue that while other myths are antiquated and false, the Bible gets a "free pass" to being true by virtue of its inspiration, despite its resemblance to them. As I tried to show, I don't think this is a tenable position either; it is anachronistic (inspiration = modern truth, no matter how premodern it may appear) and a bit presumptuous.

A somewhat better way is to attempt to separate out the different ways that Genesis was believed to be true. So while we now see that Genesis is not scientifically true, its intent was not to teach modern science, but to teach about God and human purpose, a teaching which is just as valid today as it was then. Unfortunately, this belies the fact that the various facets of myth (the theological, the historical, the scientific) were all united for ancient people, and separating them out in this way is still anachronistic, albeit more subtly; Genesis may not speak to modern science, but it does express ancient science. And, of course, Paul bases his argument in 1 Cor 5 on Genesis being true in a historical sense, indicating that he would probably resist such an attempt to dissect the mythological genre in this way.

So what is left? While not fully achieving it, Enns at least points to the need to integrate our modern perspective with the Bible's premodern one. Can we accept that the Biblical authors considered Genesis to be historically true though, from our perspective, much of it looks more like myth, while also affirming that from then to now it has always been the inspired word of God? I think so. This requires interpreting in such a way that "translates" the Bible not just from an ancient language to a modern one, but from an ancient worldview to our modern one. The result is not necessarily a stronger or better faith, but one that is less compartmentalized and more integrated with how we go about our whole lives—a goal worth striving for.

  1. Henri Frankfort et. al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1977), 7.
  2. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2005), 40.
  3. Calvin Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, KY, 2002), 79.
  4. Rachel Held Evans, A Review of "The Evolution of Adam" by Peter Enns, 1 February 2012, <> (5 February 2014).