Christian Education and The Questions of Origins

Bible-3Earlier this year Scot posted on several chapters in a new book Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. (Those interested can find them here.) Today I’d like to consider another of the chapters in this book – Teaching Genesis 1 at a Christian College by Kenneth Turner. Dr. Turner received his Ph.D. in Old Testament from Southern Seminary and is currently a professor of biblical studies at Bryan College in Dayton Tennessee. I had the privilege to meet and speak with Dr. Turner and his colleague Brian Eisenback, a biology professor at Bryan, this last summer. Turner and Eisenback have a interest in and commitment to changing the way questions of origins are presented in Christian education, including in typical homeschooling curricula, they are working together to develop a curriculum that could be . They have a two part essay on the Biologos site outlining their interests, motivations, and approach: Christian Education and its Shortcomings: Why We Need a Fair and Balanced Approach to Origins.

Ken Turner’s essay in Reading Genesis 1-2 reflects on his experiences teaching at Bryan College, where a large percentage of the students were either home schooled or educated in Christian schools. The issues raised by Genesis 1 (not to mention 2, 3, 6-9, and 11, Job, Jonah, and more) can be daunting. The Old Testament Literature and Interpretation class is required for all Bryan students, and most often taught by Turner – providing a depth of experience that many will find helpful, including pastors and teachers in the local church. The questions raised in the local church, by high school students, college students, and adults, are not all that much different from those raised by the college students in Turner’s classes.

How should we deal with these issues in the local church?

Turner outlines an eightfold approach – meant to echo the structure of Genesis 1 where we find a prologue, three days of forming/separation, three days of filling/inhabiting and a final day of divine rest. His outline may give some guidance to anyone who wishes to introduce these topics in a local church setting, in adult Sunday School, with college students, or even high school students.

1. Prologue: In the Beginning … Biblical Authority. Here Turner finds it helpful to tell something of his personal story and to discuss inerrancy (which he affirms) and the notion of Biblical authority. In this context concepts like hermeneutics, genre, historical context, and authorial intent can be introduced. From my perspective, and as emphasized by John Walton and Tremper Longman as well as Turner, it isn’t a matter of conforming the text to “modern science” but of being faithful to the intended message of the text.

2. Let There Be Highlight: Distinguish Between the Who/Why and the How/When. “The heart of the creation story is theology proper; it is about God and his relationship to his creation. If we go to Gen 1 and do not come away to worship, something is wrong, something is missing.” (p. 191)

The discussion needs to start with the who (God) and the why of the text – the theological agenda of the author. Turner notes that Gen 1 “is a doxological narrative,” which reads with a certain cadence (even in English) that attracts the reader and invites reverence and wonder.” It also challenges ancient Near Eastern view of the world with many gods and divine struggles. Turner points out that Genesis provides a view of the creator “as nongendered vs ANE gods who are gendered and sexually active.” Finally Genesis 1 presents humans as the climax of creation, not as slaves to serve the gods, but in the image of God.

3. Upper and Lower Matters: Distinguish Between the Biblical Questions and the Pastoral Questions. This gets into questions of the continuum of views held by Christians (and non-Christians) on the questions of origins. It is helpful to present this as a continuum rather than a set of discrete positions. This can foster a profitable discussion on primary and secondary or even tertiary issues. The most significant message to come out of such a discussion is that doubts and questions need not be destructive. As Turner says “We still wrestle; we are not always sure; yet we remain committed to Christ.

4. According to Their Kinds: Distinguish Between Scientific Categories and Biblical-Theological Categories. The point here is that Christians should look to the questions that the author was attempting to address in the text. The questions are often not the questions that we bring to the text … and thus the answers taken from the text are some ricochet off from the intended meaning. The author of Genesis was not addressing issues of modern science. The point of the text is theological.

5. Sources of Light: Using English translations. Turner suggests that it can be useful to compare multiple translations. The teams responsible have often come to different conclusions about the precise meaning of the Hebrew. Genesis 1:1 is an example here. The comparison can help the student or the lay Christian understand the places where the text is clear and where it is obscure. A careful reading of the text can also help us understand the questions asked and answered by the author. For example, Turner points out that the creation of light in day 1 is something of a conundrum. This is not because the sources are created later, but because the light is separated from darkness and identified with day and night. Thus, the intent (in agreement with John Walton’s reading) seems to be a creation of time and units of time, not the creation of light per se.

6. Features Above and Below: Here Turner emphasizes the importance of authorial intent, literary context, historical context, and theological context. He points out that Genesis 1 is prose, not poetry, but that is not the end of the matter. It is not as though poetry can be figurative but prose implies literal. Genesis 1 has a very different flavor from 2 Kings (his example) or even from Genesis 12. Earlier in his essay Turner referred to Genesis 1 as doxological narrative – and this distinction may be useful. The ultimate dividing line in figurative vs literal isn’t really poetry vs. prose, as though the intent can be determined through this particular argument.

7. Human Representatives: Providing Accessible Resources. A short annotated bibliography can be quite helpful, and guide the study of an interested student. (This, by the way, is the intent of my summaries under “Science & Faith” under the banner above.)

8. Rest: Patience is still a virtue. Relax, don’t panic. Be patient. Seek the right questions and allow the conversation to take place.

While Turner’s context is in the college classroom is approach seems to me to be more broadly applicable. This is the place to start – not with science or with what appears to many to be the apparent preeminence of scientific authority over Biblical authority.

What do you think?

Is there a place for this discussion within the church?

How and where can it be effectively broached and taught?

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

If you would like to comment, please see Christian Education and The Questions of Origins at Jesus Creed.

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