Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 1)

 

The phrase sensus plenior is Latin for “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning.”  It is often used in biblical exegesis to refer to a “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of the text intended by God but not intended by its human author.  Classic examples of sensus plenior are 2 Samuel 7:12 which is supposed to contain a prophecy about Solomon as well as a prophecy about David’s “Greater Son”, Jesus the Christ, and Isaiah 7:14 which is thought to prophecy both the birth of Mahershalahashbaz by a “maiden” as well as the birth of Jesus by a “virgin” (the ambiguous Hebrew almah being later translated by the stricter Greek parthenos).

Though sensus plenior is not used to describe pre-scientific statements (as far as I know) the ideas are similar.  Just as sensus plenior says that there is another meaning latent in the text of which the human author is unaware, so Scientific Concordists believe that modern science is embedded in the text unbeknownst to the writers.  An example of this is Isaiah 40:22 where God is pictured as sitting upon the “circle” of the earth.  According to the Concordist, the Israelites may have considered this “circle” to be a disc (not a sphere) like the surrounding nations of the ancient world, but Isaiah was in fact indicating the earth’s spherical shape.  Another example is the psalmist’s mention of “the paths of the sea” in Psalm 8:8.  This was supposed to have revealed the existence of ocean currents.  Examples could be multiplied to include the Israelites establishment of quarantine, healthy diets, as well as the invention of a crude anti-bacterial soap, but these examples are sufficient enough to illustrate the idea.

Both sensus plenior and pre-scientific statements are by definition “context-less” because nothing in the context indicates the presence of the hidden meaning, or else it would not be considered hidden.  Is this a legitimate form of exegesis?  Certain “obvious” examples, like Isaiah 7:14, would seem to say so.  But is there another way to view supposed sensus plenior?  This article begins a series which will examine sensus plenior, “Old World Science”, and some other modern hermeneutical practices which share their context-less nature.

One important thing needs to be said before we launch into a discussion of inspiration and exegesis.  I do not question what God is able to do.  I only intend to raise questions about what God, in fact, has done.  God is able to fill my office with elves and fairies but he is not at present doing so (that I can tell).  It is important to keep these two questions separate and I only intend to address the one: what has God revealed in scripture?

 

Scientific Concordism
Regarding the “sensus plenior” of Old World Science, it is taken for granted that the Bible is not a science text book.  This means that its purpose is not to give us a science education.  Its purpose is to tell the Story of God’s mission to rescue creation from the mess that we’ve made.  Scripture is not for an education in physics but for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

The very definition of sensus plenior, however, is that God embedded a meaning which the human author did not intend and was possibly (probably?) unaware of.  A commitment to this idea, which is, unfortunately often bound to the inerrancy of scripture, has caused some to say that although the Bible is not a science text book it is always accurate whenever it remarks upon scientific matters.1 This view is called Scientific Concordism and is the default position of many (most?) evangelical Christians.

The view is often explained using the “Two Books” metaphor.  It is said that God wrote “two books”: one is written upon Nature in the precise language of math and science, the other is written upon the pages of the Bible in the more common, but also more ambiguous, language of men.   The metaphor itself is very old.  Galileo Galilei used this metaphor in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (A.D. 1615), but even then he was quoting Tertullian’s much earlier work Adversus Marcionem (circa A.D. 208).  He writes,

“Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: ‘We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.’  From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy scripture.  On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.”2

The common belief that modern science completely accords with scripture has resulted in two different approaches. One, believing science to be the clearer revelation, interprets scripture in light of modern science. This has resulted in ideas like the Day-Age Theory, the Gap Theory, and so on. The other, believing that scripture is the more reliable (albeit less precise) revelation, either accepts or rejects science depending on whether or not it agrees with their interpretation of scripture. This has resulted in some rejecting Evolution, Global Warming, Heliocentrism, even the very existence of Dinosaurs. The root of these approaches is exactly the same. They both share the common belief that modern science must agree with scripture. The only difference is that one interprets scripture in light of science and the other interprets science in light of scripture.3

But is it possible that the Concordist approach is inherently flawed? Does our belief in scripture really depend upon its scientific accuracy, or vice versa?  Is it possible that there is a third way?  I believe that there is.  Before offering a third way, however, let’s first consider some of the difficulties inherent in Scientific Concordism.4

 

Difficulties with Scientific Concordism
One way of defending Scientific Concordism is to suggest that the scientific language of the Bible is sometimes intentionally ambiguous. This gets God out of the supposed dilemma of saying something false while at the same time allows him to accommodate the false beliefs of the original readers. 5 This raises the question: if the language of the Bible could be used by ancients to “prove” their science as well as by moderns, does it prove either one?  We must answer, no.  To be fair, this approach does not claim to end the discussion, only to keep it open.

Another bolder approach is to say that the scientific language of the Bible is not ambiguous at all, but quite specific.  It requires that each scripture which supposedly comments upon some scientific fact be precisely accurate.  The problem I find here is that science is constantly changing.  At every stage Christians have thought that the Bible supported the best science of their day.6  And each time science proved otherwise Christians were forced into a corner.  We had three decisions, and individuals have taken all three at different times: 1. Give up the Bible all together  2. Give up that particular interpretation of the Bible.  3. Question the science.

It seems to me that this constant battle with science is never ending.  Regardless of where you begin, either with science or scripture, there is only one way to settle the matter and that is to have all matters settled.  Christians will have to arrive unanimously at an immovable hermeneutic position and say, “This is precisely what the text means.”  So long as we are able to change our interpretations of scripture then science will never be able to “pin us down.”  Each time experts find science to contradict scripture we will either deny the science or change our interpretation.  Just the same, if Christians claim science as their support what will they do when the science changes?  Only when science has settled all matters which it is suited to settle, and only when the interpretation of scripture is finally concluded can we compare the “two books” and say whether they agree or not.

Whether we choose the former softer route, which can prove everything and therefore prove nothing, or the latter harder route, which constantly changes its answers so as to preclude any objective comparison, it seems that we cannot expect science to be an ally in proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

I want to suggest, however, that even though it is not an ally (at least not in the way that Concordists suppose) neither is it an enemy.  It is not an enemy because science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  As we said before, the Bible is not a science text book.  Therefore, we ought not judge the Bible by its scientific in/accuracy.  Immediately someone (perhaps you, the reader) will ask, “Does that mean that there are errors in the Bible?”  Well, yes.  And no.  It depends on how we judge errors.  A quick glimpse at Speech-Act Theory will help explain what I mean.7

 

Speech-Act Theory
Speech-Act Theory is a way of explaining what we do when we communicate with others.  It’s important to note, first of all, that much language involves accommodation.  We must assess where our audience is in their understanding and then choose the appropriate words to communicate with them, even if those words are imprecise and not the words we would normally use (consider how we often explain difficult concepts to children).  Speech-Act Theory helps us to understand this sort of accommodation.  The most important idea behind the theory is that when we speak we are not merely communicating but we are actually trying to accomplish something (hence, Speech-Act), for example, to promise, to bless, to instruct, to pacify, to apologize, to encourage, and so on.  Consequently, we also expect a particular sort of reaction from those with whom we communicate.  We expect them to obey, to understand, to accept a gift/blessing, to forgive, etc.

When we speak we use words, idioms, and tone (if spoken) or genre (if written).  This part of the communication, the first part, is called locution.  One of the most important things to grasp is that genre can be neither true nor false.  Insofar as it bears similarity to the tone of a spoken voice we might ask, can a person’s tone be true or false?  No, of course not.  It simply is.  It is an adornment of the locution, a characteristic of the words which are the vehicle of meaning.  It will change how we receive the message of the speaker/writer but it is not inherently true or false.8 This is also where accommodation happens. Accommodation, then, becomes a part of the genre and, therefore, cannot be true or false.

The next part of the Speech-Act is illocution, what we are trying to do through speech.  Are we trying to encourage, promise, describe, or instruct? Or perhaps something else?  And if we are trying to teach, what are we trying to teach?  If we are trying to describe, what are we trying to describe?  Consider one of Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (XXIII):

 

“The fire for light, a rancorous moon for bread, the jasmine smearing around its bruised secrets: then from a terrifying love, soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses.”9

 

If you were to ask Neruda if this were true I have no doubt that he would say, “Yes.”  We understand that we are not to imagine Matilde, his wife, pouring a bucket of sunshine.  Yet, it does communicate something true.  It is not a scientific truth, not a physical truth.  Rather, it is a romantic or a metaphysical truth.  The phrase “soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses” is the locution intended to describe (the illocution) an evening shared by him and his wife.  The locution, the words and genre he used, are not verifiable or falsifiable. It is the uniquely suited vehicle chosen to describe and praise (the illocution) his and his wife’s shared reality. It is the illocution that we must judge to be either true or false.  (That is assuming the illocution is verifiable.  A command, for example, can be neither true nor false, it merely is).  Only if Neruda and Matilde had hated one another and never spent a single amicable evening together could we would say the poem is false.  Notice, however, that we would not say it is false simply because it used fanciful language.  That is part of the genre (locution) and is therefore neither true nor false.  We would only say it is false if what it affirmed (the love for his wife) were shown to be false.  Authority is not vested in the locution (speech) independent of the illocution (act).

We are now in a position where we can deal with some of the “scientific” statements of the Bible.

 

Old World Science in the Bible
In Genesis 1 the sky is described as a “firmament” (1:6-8).  The “firmament” is the Hebrew word raqiya later translated by the Greek stereoma.  Though some have suggested that raqiya simply means “expanse”, instead of “beaten metal”, stereoma refers to anything firm or solid.  We have already noted that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all believed in a solid dome (cf. footnote 6).  It was none the less true of the Ancients in Israel’s day.  Mesopotamians and Egyptians both believed that the sky was a solid dome which held back the waters above and allowed precipitation through gates in the firmament.10 There is no reason to believe that the Israelites believed anything different, especially considering that this was the common believe even as recently as John Calvin.

Does this mean that God made a mistake?  No.  Remember, the Bible is not a scientific text book.  That means it is not intended to relate scientific facts, that is not its illocution.  Rather, it is intended to talk about God’s mission in the world.  This means that he may (and has) used accommodative language (locution) in order to meet the Israelites where they are and communicate some truth about himself.  The story of Genesis 1 is not about material origins.  It is about God constructing a cosmic temple in which he intends to dwell with mankind.

Elsewhere God is pictured as sitting upon “the circle of the earth” (Isa. 40:22).  Again, Egypt and Mesopotamia appear to have believed that the earth was a flat disk.11  It makes sense for God to communicate to his people using their common language to make a further point.  The point of the passage is that the LORD is greater than idol gods, not to say something about the shape of the earth.

This sort of linguistic accommodation is to be expected.

“Why would we think that the human communicator would use the science of our day? In fact, that would be foolishness because a century from now we will undoubtedly have adopted some new scientific conclusions that differ from what we believe today. Science is always changing, and it is expected that continuous progress will be made. God chose human communicators associated with a particular time, language and culture and communicated through them into that world.”12

Over and over again examples of biblical “Old World Science” could be given.  This need not bother us, however, if we remember that the Bible is not intended to communicate such scientific truths.  Science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  Consequently, science can be neither biblical or non-biblical because the Bible does not take scientific positions, nor can the Bible be scientific or unscientific because it is not concerned with scientific questions.  The Bible and science are different instruments revealing different sorts of truths.  This allows the Bible writers to say what they want to say to us without trying to make them into proto-scientists.  This also allows science to be judged on its own merits.  If the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa it is not so because “the Bible says,” it is so because the science says so.  Further, if the earth is ten thousand years old or ten billion years old it will be found to be so because science says so, not because the Bible says so.  The Bible is not intended to answer such questions and it is a mistake, I believe, to require it to do so.

Conclusion
We have come a long way.  While some may think the chief importance of the above information has to do with whether or not the Bible is inspired, it extends further than that.  This way of understanding the Bible becomes very important to our hermeneutic approach in other places.

First, we have demonstrated briefly that nothing in the context of supposed scientific statements indicates that the purpose of those passages is to communicate scientific information.  The context always indicates that the writer had another goal in mind (his illocution).

Second, this means that if scientific information was intended to be transferred by God, unbeknownst to the human writer, then it is by definition context-less, because the context has indicated otherwise.

“If God had other meanings beyond what he gave through the human biblical communicator, we have no reliable way to get to them except through later authority figures.  We dare not imagine ourselves in that capacity lest the authority of the text end up residing in each individual reader.”13

Which leads to our next point.  Third, if we affirm that such information is embedded in the text we affirm the existence of a context-less message and thereby remove all possible controls upon interpretation.  It now becomes senseless to speak of something being taken “out of context.”  All a person needs to do is appeal to other context-less interpretations to legitimate his idea.  This is, I think, the greatest danger.  It allows the Bible to be abused as a witness to the whimsy of men and women who would support this policy or that, this war effort or that one, trendy diets, particular clothing styles, or invented household rules.  (Anyone who who has fallen prey to such interpretations will know that none of these examples is far fetched).  The possible existence of context-less interpretation not only abuses the Bible but is too often used to abuse people.  The only hope we have at saving others from such manipulation is the serious and prayerful struggle to understand scripture within its ancient context as it would have been understood by its original readers.  These are the controls, the limits, set upon us as students of the Bible which safeguard others from our own pride and selfishness.  God have mercy on us all as we dive deeper into the world of the Bible and the mission of God.

 

 


1. For example, Dr. Hugh Ross, writer for Reasons to Believe, says, “If the Bible is indeed God’s message to humanity, would He not inspire the human authors in such a manner that their writings would communicate truth, and nothing but truth, to all generations?” Internet; Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism-response-to-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one ; Also, Mike Willis for Truth Magazine writes, “Yet, the claim that the Bible is verbally inspired cannot be sustained if the passing comments which it makes regarding the universe are in conflict with the facts of science. Hence, in order for the Bible to be inspired of God, it must be a book which harmonizes with the known facts of science.”  Internet; Avaialble at: http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume21/TM021270.html ; Accessed 17 March, 2017.
2. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, lines 275-286. Internet; Available at: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~kimler/hi322/Galileo-Letter.pdf ; Accessed 11 March 2017.
3. John Soden PhD., “What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” Internet; Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/03/07/concordism-bible-science-discussion/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
4. This is not intended to respond to every shade of Concordism. That would be a task much too large for this short article. I intend only to offer some general objections to common Concordist approaches.
5. James Patrick Holding, a writer for Answers in Genesis, takes this position in his response to Paul H. Seely. “Is the Raqiya’ (Firmament) a Solid Dome? Equivocal Language in the Cosmology of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament: a Response to Paul H. Seely.” Internet; Available at: https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/cosmology/is-the-raqiya-firmament-a-solid-dome/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
6. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all believed scripture supported the science they had but which we now know to be outdated. Internet; Available at: http://www.thegospelandevolution.com/is-scientific-concordism-really-a-feature-of-the-bible/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
7. In what follows I am almost entirely dependent upon John Walton and Brent Sandy’s book The Lost World of Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
8. Something like this idea may be behind the famous conversation where C.S. Lewis said to J.R.R. Tolkien, “But myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver. They are just beautiful lies. You can’t actually believe in fairy stories.” To which Tolkien responded, “Why not? I can. In fact, I do.” Are we then to believe that Tolkien believed in Zeus, Mars, or the Ragnorak? Of course not. He was a faithful Catholic. But he understood that the truth or falsity of myth was not in its genre but in what it attempted to do, and it attempted to speak truth. The conversation continues, “But this is preposterous. How can you seriously believe a lie?” said Lewis. Tolkien then explains, “Myths are not lies. In fact they are the opposite of a lie. They convey the essential truth, the primal reality, of life itself.” This dialogue is recreated from notes in their letters and from Tolkien’s poem which resulted from this conversation variously titled “Polymythus to Misomythus” or more simply “Mythopoeia.” A live action recreation of the conversation is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017. “Mythopoeia” is available here: http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017.
9. Pablo Neruda, Cien Sonetos de Amor, Trans. Stephen Tapscott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 51.
10. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 168-170.
11. Ibid, 171-172.
12. Walton, Lost World of Scripture, 52.
13. Ibid, 53.

Why Am I Here? (Part 2)

 

In the last article we focused upon our end.  We looked at the vision of John that we are to live into.  Another way of getting to the same place is to look at the beginning. “Eschatology [the study of last things] is like protology [the study of first things].”1  A thing’s end is “built in”, so to speak, from the beginning.  A broom is made (its beginning) to sweep up debris (its end).  A camera is made (its beginning) to take pictures (its end).  One can ask “What is a thing made to do?” in order to get a vision of its end.2 When we ask, “What is Man made to do?” We answer “be the image of God.”

The image of God should be understood as more of a vocation than some quality that we possess.  It is related more to what we do than who we are.  (That’s why it is addressed under “Why am I here?” instead of “Who am I?”).  Consider that the days of creation are more concerned with assigning role/function than they are with material existence.3 Whereas Genesis 1:1 is an introduction to the account, 1:2 describes the “stuff” of creation as without form and without function. Day one is about the ordering of periods of light and dark, not the existence of light per se. Notice, v.5 says, “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Why not just call the light, “light”, and the darkness, “darkness”? Because he is not concerned with the material existence of light and dark (if dark can even be said to “exist”) but about what function they perform. The meaning of the verse is that God called the period of light “Day” and the period of darkness “Night.” This further helps make sense of the previous verse. “God separated the light from the darkness” (1:4). If we are speaking materially then it is nonsensical to speak of the separation of light and dark. There is nothing to separate because they cannot dwell together in any rational sense. They are mutually exclusive by nature. However, if it means that God established a particular and ordered period of light and an ordered period of darkness, then it makes sense. To be consistent we should understand “a period of light” throughout whenever the text says “light”.  Therefore, 1:3 is not about the creation of light materially but about assigning a role/function within an ordered system. The meaning would then be, “Then God said, ‘Let there be a period of light’; and there was a period of light.” This sort of role assignment continues throughout Genesis 1. In 1:6 the dome is created with the emphasis falling on its function.  “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.'” (1:6).  When he created the “lights” of the sky he specifically mentions what function they are to perform. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so” (1:14, 15).  If that is the pattern of Genesis 1 then we should consider the “creation” of Man also to emphasize his role rather than his existence.4  That is exactly what we find.

When we arrive at our text the writer places the weight upon the function of Man (1:26).  The “image of God” is defined in terms of what Man is supposed to do, not in terms of what he is.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  Man’s vocation, his role/function, is further explained by v. 28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  Hence, in response to the question, “Why am I here?”  we can answer, “To have dominion over the earth, to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth.”  The rest of this article will be dedicated to unpacking these dense phrases to see what they mean for us.

We Reign Under God
Because of our twisted ideas of power it is dangerous to say simply, “I am here to have dominion.”  It must be acknowledged up front that Man’s dominion is derivative.  Authority is not inherent in us; it has been delegated to us.  God has granted us authority.  “[Y]ou have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:5, 6).  We are “crowned” but there is one higher than us who does the crowing.  God is the one that has given us authority and he must be acknowledged as having more authority than we do. “But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him” (1 Cor. 15:27).  This means that we are not to rule however we want.  We rule under the authority of God and always in deference to him.

We Reign in Imitation of God
Our duty is described as “the image of God” because we are to represent God to the world (this is another reason why we must defer to his authority).  If we are to represent God then there must be some analog between what we do and what God does.  This is, in fact, exactly how the narrative describes it.  We could describe God’s works in Genesis 1 as twofold: separating and filling.

First, separating.  God separated the light from the darkness (1:4), the waters above from the waters below (1:6, 7), and water from dry land (1:9).  Paired with the act of separating is the act of naming.  They are intimately connected.  To name something is a way of separating it from other things.  To give a name to something is to say that it is this and not that.  Our English word “denominate” literally means “to name” but it is also used to designated the number by which a whole is divided, hence the word “denominator.”  As God separates he also names.  He names the light “Day” and the darkness “Night” (1:5), the dome which separates the waters is named “Sky” (1:8), and the dry land is called “Earth” while the water is called “Sea” (1:10).
In imitation of God, the very first thing we find Adam doing is separating the animals by giving them names.  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (1:19).

Second, filling.  Genesis 1 is a symmetrically arranged account of creation.  Those things which are separated on day 1 are filled in day 4, those separated on day 2 are filled in day 5, and those separated on day 3 are filled in day 6.5 The periods of light and dark are filled with their luminaries (1:14-19), the water and sky is filled with fish and birds (1:20-23), and the land is filled with land animals and human beings (1:24-26).
In imitation of God, Man is commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28).

In creation there is a sense in which God held back.  He carried creation only so far and then placed Man upon the earth to carry that creation forward.  God could have named all the animals on his own but he didn’t.  He left that duty to Man.  God expects us to carry on his work of separating/ordering and filling.  “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Ps. 115:16).

We Create Cultures
More and more scholars agree that a great part of Man’s duty upon the earth is to create cultures which glorify God.6 The biblical image of this is that of a gardener.  Indeed, agriculture is the most basic form of culture-making.7  Gardening is an act in which Man takes the raw “stuff” of creation and, by wise nurturing, helps it to grow up and realize its full potential.  This is the picture of what Man is to do with all of the “stuff” of creation.
Creating cultures is, I believe, part of Man’s responsibility inherent in the command to “fill the earth.”

“The command to ‘fill’ the earth here is not merely a divine request that Adam and Eve have a lot of babies.  The earth was also to be ‘filled’ by the broader patterns of their interactions with nature and with each other.  They were to bring order to the Garden.  They would introduce schemes for managing affairs.  To ‘subdue’ the Garden would be to transform untamed nature into a social environment.  In these ways human beings would be ‘adding’ to that which God created.  This is the kind of ‘filling’ that some Christians have had in mind when they have labeled this command in Genesis 1–helpfully, I think–‘the cultural mandate.’  God placed human beings in his creation in order to introduce a cultural ‘filling’ in ways that conform to his divine will.”8

 

This also is in imitation of God.  So much of what is pictured in Genesis 1 is not God making more “stuff” but ordering that stuff in meaningful ways so as to make a habitable (and beautiful) environment for Man to inhabit.  God makes the world liveable (by assigning function) but also loveable (by giving excellence of form).  That is the very definition of culture-making.

 

Conclusion
We began our investigation into “Why am I here?” by looking at our end.  In our discussion of John’s vision of the New Heaven and New Earth we saw the sort of kingdom we are working towards.  In this article we answered that same question by looking at our beginning.  Hopefully we can now see how those two are intimately connected, how the end is “built in” to the beginning.  If Adam and Even would have faithfully fulfilled their commission the picture of Revelation 21, 22 would have become a reality.  Their Garden would have become Revelation’s Garden-City.  They failed, however, and God through Israel and eventually Jesus Christ worked to put it right again.  Christians, through the Spirit of Christ, carry on this project.  It is what we were created to do.  Day by day the image of God is being renewed in us through God’s Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18) as we work towards bringing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  This is who we are.  This is what it means to be human.  So join me in fulfilling our ancient calling.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. J.D. Levenson, Journal of Religion 64 (1984), 298; quoted in T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 14.
2. David Foster Wallace illustrates this in his novel The Broom of the System, The Penguin Ink Series (New York: Penguins Books 2010), 149, 150. “What she did with me–I must have been eight, or twelve, who remembers–was to sit me down in the kitchen and take a straw broom and start furiously sweeping the floor, and she asked me which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle. The bristles or the handle. And I hemmed and hawed, and she swept more and more violently, and I got nervous, and finally when I said I supposed the bristles, because you could after a fashion sweep without the handle, by just holding onto the bristles, but couldn’t sweep with just the handle, she tackled me, and knocked me out of my chair, and yelled into my ear something like, ‘Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom, isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?’ Et cetera. And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom, and she illustrated with the kitchen window, and a crowd of domestics gathered; but that if we wanted the broom to sweep with, see for examples the broken glass, sweep sweep, the bristles were the thing’s essence … Meaning as fundamentalness. Fundamentalness as use. Meaning as use. Meaning as use.”
3. On this point I am indebted to John Walton’s work, especially The Lost World of Genesis One, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
4. J. Richard Middleton agrees with Walton here. “These two examples of creatures in 1:6 and 1:14-18 whose existence is explicitly defined by their function or purpose thus sets up the expectation, or leads to the presumption, that the royal function or purpose of humanity in 1:26 is not a mere add-on to their creation in God’s image, separable some way from their essence or nature.” The Liberating Image: the Imago Dei of Genesis 1, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 54).
5. This is widely recognized by scholars, Walton and Middleton included. See their respective works listed above (The Lost World of Genesis, 62; The Liberating Image, 75).
6. J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2014), 41-55; The Liberating Image, 31, 88, 89; Randy Alcorn, Heaven, (Carol Stream, IL; Tyndale, 2004), 375 and passim; James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 163-164, 205-214; Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), passim esp. 33-37.
7. “As anthropologists know, the basis for all culture is agriculture. We could not develop the sort of complex cultures that we have today–with cities, governments, technology, art, science, and academic institutions–if we did not first find a way to produce enough food for people to eat. Hunter-gatherers can develop only a rudimentary culture. In order to develop any form of complex social order, people must be able to settle down somewhere and have a dependable supply of food. This makes sense of the garden of Eden as the original human environment of Genesis 2. God’s encouragement to the first humans to eat freely from the trees of the garden (Gen. 2:16) clearly indicates that the garden is meant to provide food for human needs.” Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 41.
8. Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, 35.

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 1)

 

“In the beginning …” Those weighty words begin the Hebrew Bible.  Too often the story of creation has been flattened out to become a simple account of how God created the world, but there is much more to say about the first episodes of the true Story of the world.  This article explores what it meant for God to pronounce his world “good” and what that means for us today.

Focusing on a couple of key words in the first chapter of the Story will help to give this article direction.  First, the word good” (Heb. tov) may indicate moral goodness (in contrast to evil).  Here, however, it indicates flourishing or, as it is sometimes translated, “prosperity” (Deu. 23:6; 1 Ki. 10:7; Job 36:11; Ecc. 7:14; Zec. 1:17).  A helpful way to think about “goodness” is in the way that George MacDonald explains it: ” ‘They are good’; that is, ‘They are what I mean.’ ” 1  Whenever a thing is as God intends it to be then it is “good.”

Second, the word “blessed” (Heb. barak), among other things, means to wish or to cause flourishing/prosperity.  For example, “The LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you.  The LORD will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings” (Deu. 28:11, 12 italics mine).  To bless something is to bring about its good, its life, its flourishing.  Notice the parallels between life, prosperity, and blessing:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity [Heb. tov] … I have set before you life and … blessings [Heb. barakah]” (Deu. 30:15, 19).

Now to get to the Story.  When God creates his world the chorus of the creation song is “It is good” (mentioned 6 times: 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) ending with the grand climax “It is very good” (1:31).  This means that initially all of creation was good, i.e. as God intended it to be.  It was ripe for flourishing.  And God intended it to continue to flourish.  The only two times “blessed” appears in the chapter it is followed by the command to flourish: “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth’ … God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth …'” (1:22, 28, italics mine).  God’s intention for all of creation was life, not death.  Man did not eat the animals and even the animals did not eat one another (1:29, 30; cf. 3:22; 9:2, 3).  Death, corruption, and all things which “taste” of death, oppression, injustice, dishonesty, etc. do not belong in God’s good world.

Sadly, this Story takes a horrible turn.  After the primal pair turn away from God (the very source of life/flourishing) they welcome death, not life, into the world (3:19; cf. chp. 5).  They bring a curse, not blessing, upon creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:17, 18).

But the goodness of God was not undone, only infected.  Much like a person with a terminal disease is not dead but has the “sentence of death” in him, a kind of “creeping death” which will eventually claim his life.  Much good remains, but that good is now stained.

If we were to stop here and predict how the rest of the Story would play out we could probably guess.  Like any good Story what has gone wrong will now be put right.  Like Narnia waited for the eternal winter of the White Witch to be lifted, so creation now awaits its redemption (Rom. 8).  Death will pass away and all that takes part in death (Rev. 21:4).  That is exactly what we find.  God moves from Genesis 3 onward to reverse the curse.

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.  This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6-9).

Death disappears.  The curse of our body is gone.  And when the curse of the body, which is made from the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7; 3:19), is undone so shall the curse of the earth itself be undone.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 55:10-13)

So, God never gives up on his original intention for creation.  He wants it to live and flourish.  Through the agency of his people Israel, culminating in the representative Israelite, and human being, Jesus Christ, God won the victory over all that would corrupt his good world (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 57).  In the end God will purify his world from all that is bad bringing about a New Heaven and a New Earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-13).  God wins and fixes what went wrong.  All that was lost in the beginning is restored in the end:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there any more.  But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:1-5, italics mine).  This is the vision about which Isaac Watts sang in his beautiful hymn:

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found”4

CONCLUSION:
So what does this have to do with being human?  That will be explored in more detail in Part 2 of this article but I want to point forward for just a moment.  There are two important things to draw from this:

1. The Story is not “our” Story.  The Story of the Bible is about the mission of God in the world.2  This means God is the Lord, not us.  He is the focus of the Story, not us.  He is the Savior, not us.  Therefore, to be human is to be an actor in a Story which is not our own but which we are invited into.  We are granted a place in an amazing work, the greatest Story every told.  To have a role in this great drama3 is an honor indeed.

2. Creation matters.  God cares so intensely about all he created that he does not intend to give a single bit of it up to the enemy.  All will be redeemed.  Every thing is precious.  Every “rock and tree and creature.”  We are created beings intended to care for created things (cf. Gen. 1:26-28).  We can have confidence that the things we care about will not be forgotten because God cares about them too.

This is the Story we live in.  This is what it means to be simply human.

©M. Benfield 2016


1. “George MacDonald: An Anthology“, C.S. Lewis. 251.
2. “The Mission of God“, Christopher Wright.
3. “The Drama of Scripture“, Craig G. Bartholomew, Michael W. Goheen.
4. “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts.