With Modern Eyes We Misunderstand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you wish to comment please see With Modern Eyes We Misunderstand on Jesus Creed.

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