- Monday is for Family
- Tuesday is for Theology, Faith, Ministry, etc.
- Thursday will be devoted to quoting Theology (formerly "Quoting Moltmann"). I'll post a quote from one of my favorite theologians or authors.
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!
In February 2007, a tornado ripped through the local High School in Enterprise, AL. Eight teenagers died crouched in the supposed safety of the school’s central hallway, including 16-year old Katie Strunk. Katie died just feet away from the classroom where her mother, a teacher, was seeing to the safety of her students. I know because my father told me on the phone. He was her preacher. He was also the police chaplain who identified her body and informed her parents of her death. I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I type this, and I find that I’m struggling to hold back tears because of the raw emotion of it. This voice that’s embedded deep inside of me keeps telling me, “this isn’t they way it’s supposed to be.” I turn on the news every day and I’m greeted with reports of war, reports of children starving to death, reports of violence, and sometimes worse. I watched the twin towers fall on live television. I helped muck out houses in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. I’ve seen 4 pieces of water damaged plywood and a tarp that someone nailed together as a shelter for their family in Mexico. The voice in my heart screams to me again. It tells me that something is seriously wrong. I read the opening chapters of Genesis, and I’m reminded that the voice speaks the truth. I am also reminded that the tear-drenched proclamation that the voice keeps telling me is not simply a message of despair. When I look at it closely I can see that it is a message infused with hope. I remember that the cosmos has a Creator, who dreamed up the way things are supposed to be in the first place and who is certainly powerful and loving enough to get us there again. I flip to the back of my Bible and I see, in no uncertain terms, a return to Eden and a God who promises to make all things new.38 I am reminded that the curses pronounced in Genesis 3 do not reflect God’s desire for the world, nor are they intended to be permanent. I see Katie and her family reunited with the sting of death removed. I see children who spent their lives empty, now full and smiling. I see war, violence, terror and all of their effects, erased and forgotten. I see people who lost their homes due to hurricanes, tsunamis and poverty welcoming the city of God as it descends from heaven and a Savior who left to prepare them a place there. I see a return to harmony…to shalom. As Michael Wittmer so eloquently states,
“…the gospel story of redemption represents God’s restoration of creation. God refuses to allow our fall to ultimately destroy his good creation, and he graciously comes to earth to put away sin and restore the world to its original goodness.”39
This is our story, at least the beginning and end of it. It would be a sin, if the people of God inadvertently worked to exclude people from community rather than working to include them. It would be a sin if the people of God replaced the relationship he has always desired with a legal code. It would be a sin if the people of God misused the creation texts as a justification for exploiting and abusing the earth. It would be a tragic sin, if the people of God were inadvertently working to perpetuate the curse rather than working with God to reverse it.
It should be briefly noted that in neither creation narrative is creation described as “static”, unchanging, or even “perfect”. In contemporary thought, God’s original Creation/the Garden of Eden is generally thought of as pristine and complete. From this point of view, the problem consisted of Adam and Eve breaking the rules and thus making Creation imperfect. This reading seems to depend more on Greek philosophy than the Biblical narratives. Again, one of the ways that God exercises his creative power in the creation narratives is to empower his creation, or stated differently, to load it with potential. Bouma-Prediger states that…
“…not all agency resides with God. While God is the ultimate Creator…God’s means of creating often involves the sharing of power…Like a risking parent, God lovingly empowers creation for its own benefit. In other words, creation has the genuine ability to respond.”33
This is by no means a new or radical interpretation of the text. As Gonzalez points out:
“In the case of Irenaeus—and several other early theologians—the original perfection of creation is not to be understood in the sense that it was absolutely finished, with no room left for growth and development. On the contrary, God’s purpose was that the human creature would grow in such a way as to enable it to enjoy an ever-increasing fellowship with the divine.”34
So, what exactly happened when Adam and Eve ate from the tree? Many view the closing verses of Genesis chapter three as the account of an angry God giving humanity the ultimate cosmic spanking. As already noted, I’m not so sure that this is accurate. In his exploration of Genesis 3, Grenz rightly points out that when Adam and Eve hide from God, it reveals to us that their “pristine fellowship with the Creator is broken.” He adds that when they cover themselves from each other, it reveals that “their sense of guilt and shame has marred their former sense of human community,” which is further “defaced” in the curse that the husband would now rule over his wife. Finally, Grenz explains that “through their act, the first humans lose the primordial harmony with creation,” and “in this manner introduce enmity into creation itself.”35 Thus, when human beings partake of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” the original harmony of Creation is broken. McKnight is quite on target when he defines sin as:
Sin is the breaking of shalom. It is anything that breaks or prevents a return to the harmony depicted in Genesis 1 and 2. God’s desire is that human beings would be in harmony with Him. God’s desire is that human beings would be in harmony with each other. God’s desire is that human beings would be in harmony with all creation. I would contend that all sin can find its roots in the breaking of these kinds of harmony. More that that, I would contend that this is exactly what we see played out in Genesis 3. Bouma-Prediger explains:
“In [Genesis] 3 we learn that Adam and Eve desire to transcend their creaturely finitude and become, like God, omniscient. But in this attempt they fail to trust in God and thus become estranged. Their relationship with God is broken. They become estranged with each other…They lose touch with their own true and best self…And they become out of joint with the earth. In these four ways they and we are alienated. In short, our lives are interwoven with a contagion called sin, which we knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate.”37
There is a striking difference between the world that God creates in the Genesis accounts and the world that is…even at the time of the writing of Genesis. Brueggemann tells us that the main theme of this text is that “God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way.” He further insists that this is the “presupposition for everything that follows in the Bible,” and that this relationship is “not one of coercion,” but rather one of “free gracious commitment and invitation.”19 This is both the starting point for the Biblical narrative and also a description of the reality of Genesis 1-2. The word that the ancient Hebrews used to describe this state of being was “Shalom”. Plantinga defines shalom as, “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight,” and “a universal flourishing wholeness, and delight.”20 McKnight explains that the Bible “begins with humans in union with God and communion with others and the world.”21 This is the world that God brought into being, and further, it is the world that we are being called back to. It is a world of relational peace/harmony between God and humans, between humans and other humans, and between humans and creation.
One of the key concepts given to us in the Genesis 1 narrative is the idea of human beings as created in “the image of God”.22 When I was a child in Sunday School, I took this passage to mean that God must have thumbs, knees, etc. I simply took the phrase at face-value and interpreted it concretely. “We look like we do because that’s what God really looks like,” I thought. Perhaps he does. I would not presume to know what God “looks like” if, indeed, he looks like anything at all. However, I would admit that my childhood interpretation most likely missed the point of the text. Von Rad contends that this language is meant to make an analogy to the practice of earthly kings who erected images of themselves in the outermost regions of their kingdoms. As the image reflected the king, so human beings are to reflect the Creator God.23 Thus, according to Von Rad’s view, the fact that human beings are created in the “image of God” is less of a physical description and more of a charge to image God to the rest of Creation. While Brueggemann accepts this as one proper interpretation, it is only with the caveats that a) it is an inadequate metaphor and b) the only way for human beings to reflect God as king is to exercise “freedom with” and “authority over” everything within their care. However, Brueggemann assert that this text must be read “in juxtaposition to Israel’s resistance to any image of God.” He proposes that while surrounded by idolatrous cultures who made graven images of their gods, Genesis’ first creation narrative makes an astounding counter-claim, namely that “there is one way in which God is imaged in the world and only one: humanness!”24 Interestingly, even with this alternate interpretation of the text, the charge given to humanity remains the same: We are to reflect the Creator to creation. But how, exactly can human beings do that? How do finite creatures image an infinite Creator? Middleton seeks to help us answer these questions by suggesting a “functional—or even missional interpretation” of the “image of God”. He suggests that when this passage is seen in the context of the surrounding Near-Eastern cultures, this text “designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”25 Indeed, this may be a more useful interpretation as it seems more pro-active than “reflecting”.
The relationship between God and creation is often overlooked in theology. However, God’s relationship with and attitude towards his creation is firmly established in the opening chapters of Genesis. Somewhere along the way, Christians (particularly) became enamored with a dualistic worldview rooted in Platonic philosophy which views physical matter as “bad” or “evil,” while viewing only the spiritual as “good.” Even though this view resonates strongly with many aspects of Gnosticism (a heresy much of the New Testament actually seems to be refuting), many Christians seem to buy into the idea and long for escape from this “evil,” material world. Over and against the neo-Gnostic worldview accepted by many Christians, Michael Wittmer points out that God, (whom he refers to as “the toughest critic imaginable”), “announced no less than seven times that his work of creation was ‘good’,” in the first chapter of Genesis alone.26 Additionally, some of the confusion seems to come from certain interpretations of Genesis 1:28-30 where human beings are told to “rule” (govern) over the animals and are “given” the vegetation for food. This is commonly interpreted in terms of domination, and is sometimes even used as justification for the exploitation of natural resources. However, these verses must be interpreted in the context of the previous verse in which human beings are created in the “image” of God and must also be shaped by the second creation narrative in Genesis in which human beings are placed in the garden to “work and care for it.”27 Marshall explains that…
“Thus ‘ruling’ is a fundamental part of God’s creative act itself; it is built into the very way that God planned not only human beings but even the rest of the world. God made human beings precisely in order to care for the earth. We were made to serve this purpose. It is built into our very being; it is our design…If we do not take up our responsibility for God’s world, we defy not only his command, but also our very nature and the very purpose for which we were created. Our responsibility for the world is a fundamental part of God’s plan for creation.”28
Bouma-Prediger insists that to equate dominion with domination in this passage is “faulty exegesis. He further asserts that when viewed in the larger context of scripture, dominion must be understood as entailing “suffering” and in terms of “service.”29 Brueggemann reinforces this view by noting that the idea of “subjugation” here is used in relation to animals. He suggests that this calls to mind the imagery of a shepherd. Thus, he insists that, “…the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse,” but rather, “…with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.”30
Though certainly not to the same extent, the relationship of human beings to other human beings as God’s created image-bearers is generally glossed over by modern people, blinded as we are by our infatuation with the concept of the individual. One point that comes across quite clearly in both creation narratives is that humans are relational bound to each other and can only reflect God and live out the charge he has given us in community. Individually, it is simply not possible. While ancient peoples weren’t as infatuated by individualism as we tend to be, they were very much blinded by a worldview that embraced power over other people by means of violence and force. Middleton explains:
“…whereas power in Babylonian and Assyrian empires was concentrated in the hands of a few, power in Genesis 1 is diffused or shared… The democratization of the imago Dei in Genesis 1 thus constitutes an implicit delegitmation of the entire ruling and priestly structures of Mesopotamian society…The democratization of the image in this text thus suggests an egalitarian conception of the exercise of power.”31
In the first narrative, human beings are created all at once, male and female and in this we are said to bear the image of God. The implication is that the image of God cannot be borne, reflected, or lived out by individuals.
The second narrative depicts God as creating an individual male, but then goes to great lengths to show that this is not the ideal situation and that, indeed, he is not even complete until the creation of the woman with whom he can be in relation. Bouma-Prediger clarifies:
“If being-in-relation is the nature of things, then to be human is to exist in relationships…We are not autonomous selves, floating free in a world of atomistic individuals, as many would have us believe. Rather we are persons related to much more than meets the eye. Created by God, we are dependent upon God and made to be in a loving relationship with God. But we are also created to exist among and live in communion with other humans.”32
“Being-in-relation” is our nature by design. We exist for community. We are incomplete outside of relationships.
It is generally agreed upon that there is much resonance between the Genesis creation narratives and the Babylonian creation narratives that were in circulation around the time of the writing of Genesis. Though some would claim that this implies a general borrowing by the Hebrews from the surrounding culture13, many would contend that this utilization of the language of competing narratives is intentionally subversive. Enns proposes that…
“One could suggest that the purpose of Genesis was to contrast such ancient Near Eastern stories as Enuma Elish. The God of Genesis simply speaks things into being. It is reasonable to suggest that the Genesis story is meant to be contrasted to the reigning Babylonian ideology; that is, one could argue that an important purpose of the Genesis story is to argue that the God of Israel is truly mighty and that he is solely and fully in control of the cosmos.”14
Upon first glance, the resonance between the Genesis accounts and the other Near Eastern accounts of creation is striking. However, when viewed through the interpretive lens of intentional subversion, the dissonance becomes overwhelmingly obvious. In virtually all other creation narratives creation is enacted through violence between a multiplicity of capricious, self-centered Gods. As Middleton and Walsh point out,
“rather than begin[ning] with conflict among the gods, the Scriptures begin with the effortless, joyous calling forth of creation by a sovereign Creator who inters into a relationship of intimacy with his creatures…In contrast to an ontology of violence, then, the Scriptures begin with an ontology of peace.”15
Longman and Dillard propose that an obvious “polemic” emerges: While in the myths of the surrounding Babylonian cultures, creation is the “result of divine sexual activity and conflict,” the Genesis account depicts the Creator God as “sovereign, self-sufficient, and supreme.”16
The result of this intentional subversion is that the Hebrews effectively create an alternate, competing worldview. A world that originates in violence is a world that perpetuates violence. A world that is created by self-interested, perverse sexual activity is a world characterized by the same. A cosmos ruled by capricious, self-interested gods is a world where capricious self-interest is all one can expect from humanity. However, a world created in peace by a selfless relational God, is given a trajectory of peace and community.
In some ways the creation accounts in Genesis seem designed to point out the inadequacy of the gods of the surrounding cultures while pointing out the superiority of the one, true God. Middleton explains that while in the Atrahasis epic, the gods feel threatened by human overpopulation and devise evil plans for “thinning out the human race”, the Creator God of Genesis “freely grants fertility to both human and nonhuman as a permanent gift or blessing.”17 Middleton further suggests that while the “heavenly bodies” are considered gods by the surrounding cultures, in the Genesis accounts they are identified as creations of the one, true God, and that the stars, particularly, are mentioned only in passing.18
The point is that these narratives are intentionally crafted to convey truth about the creator God by subverting the false claims of the surrounding cultures. This move is intentional and must be understood if one is to grasp the meaning of the Genesis accounts. Set against this backdrop, it is to that meaning that we now turn our attention.
Genesis 1-3 does not offer one cohesive creation account. Though a handful of scholars and many professional ministers attempt to argue otherwise, it is generally accepted (and somewhat obvious) that Genesis 1-3 contains 2 creation narratives that are far from identical. Brueggemann suggests that we err greatly if we separate the “garden narrative of chapter 2” from the “disobedience narrative of chapter 3,” due to the coherence of those texts. He further asserts that it is incorrect to view that passage as a parallel to, what he calls, “the creation liturgy of Gen. 1:1-2:4a.”7 Indeed, it is actually quite a difficult task to merge the two narratives as they claim different details, order, and time-frames. Von Rad suggests that the two narratives come from different sources/traditions. He proposes a Priestly source for the first narrative and a Yahwist source for the second.8 However, I do not believe one needs to hold strongly to the document hypothesis theory to accept that these are different tellings of a narrative that conveys truth regarding creation, while also, as Ellis proposes, containing “paradigmatic value,” and “comunicat[ing] some things about the spirituality of everyday life.” 9
The first Biblical Creation narrative is found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. The opening 2 verses are a bit ambiguous in that verse one states that God created the heavens and the earth while verse 2 explains that the earth was dark and chaotic. The dominant understanding treats verse 1 as a complete sentence while reading verse 2 as depicting God giving order to the thing he has just created out of nothing (creation ex nihilo).. However, according to Jewish scholar Jon Levinson, there have historically been other interpretations. According to Levinson, the great Jewish commentator Rashi argued that verse 1 “could function as a temporal clause,” which would be resonant with the beginnings of some other Near-Eastern creation narratives. Levinson explains that while to modern people the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” to ancient peoples it was “chaos,” which they considered to be “much worse than nothing.”10 The Jewish TANAKH Translation thus renders the text:
When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—
My intent in mentioning this is not to “take a side” in the debate over creation ex-nihilo. Rather, I would simply suggest that this is not a point that the text is actually concerned with. The point is that God is the Creator and Order-er of the Cosmos. The text is ambiguous about whether or not God used pre-existing material in his work of creation, because it is unconcerned with such an issue.
Genesis 1:3-27 depicts God as creating, ordering, naming and empowering almost everything imaginable, generally speaking. Verses 4-5 introduce 2 phrases that form almost a cadence throughout the remainder of this narrative: “and God saw that [it] was good,” and “…and there was evening…and there was morning—the ____ day.” Besides giving the text an artistic, poetic, and/or liturgical quality, these phrases also infuse the entire narrative with another level of meaning. First of all, God believes that virtually everything he creates is “good.” Secondly, the narrative is oriented within the framework of time, though this is far from problematic. God’s act of creation is ordered in days. However, these days are denoted by periods of darkness and light, before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, which takes place on the 4th day! The implication would seem to be that God gives and sustains the order, and these heavenly bodies are only given as markers or signs. ( I will speak more on this below, as this claim provided dissonance with competing Near-Eastern creation narratives.)
God’s action in this narrative is not simply direct creation. In some places, God separates (vs. 4, 6-7, 14, 18) and gathers (vs. 9). Further, God apparently acts as a catalyst for creative action by his creation. Verse 11 depicts God as calling for the land to produce vegetation (rather than God creating it directly), and verse 12 depicts the land as actually producing it. It is apparently this process that God refers to as “good” in verse 12. Additionally, while verses 21 and 25 depict God as creating sea-life, birds, and animals, verses 20 and 24 depict God as calling for the sea and land to actually produce them.
Verses 26-27 portray God as creating human beings on the same day as the other animals. Interestingly, in this telling male and female are apparently created simultaneously and no definite number of them is given.. Significantly, we are also told the purpose they are to serve: they are created in the image of God to rule/govern. It is also interesting to note that verse 27 seems to act as a sort of parallelism. We are told that God created human beings in his image, then in the second line, that statement is reflected back (“in the image of God he created them”), then the third line tells us that God created them male and female. This odd grouping seems to indicate that the author understands the third line as at least relating to the first two.
Verses 28-30 record God as giving the human beings a charge. They are to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to “rule the earth and subdue it”. Verse 27 then provides us with the connection necessary to understand both the charge given to us and what it means to bear the image of God. By creating human beings both male and female, God has given them the power to create life as he does. It is thus only in community and relationship that human beings can in any sense bear the image of God creatively. They are also told to rule and govern the rest of creation, and they are to do this while bearing the image of God. They are given the preceding verses as an example of how God rules, orders and governs. It would seem that this can also only be done in community/relationship, and it would also seem that God rules by empowering what he has authority over rather than hoarding power and ruling by force.
Verses 2:1-2:3 unambiguously conclude the narrative by stating that God’s work of creation was “completed” (or “finished”) no less than 3 times in 3 verses. Verses 2:2-3 also depict God as resting after the work was completed, thus instituting the Sabbath. This is a fitting end for such a story. Brueggemann asserts that this Sabbath, as it is kept by the faithful, is “a disciplined reminder of how creation is intended.”11
The second creation narrative is found in Genesis 2:4-3:24. Just as verses 2:1-3 made it clear that the first narrative was concluding, verse 2:4 makes it quite clear that a new narrative is beginning, and that this is also an account of creation.
This narrative is much less interested with time than the first narrative was. However, it could be persuasively argued that at least 2:4-25 takes place over the course of a single day, as there seems to be no break in the action. Further, whereas in the first narrative the creation of vegetation preceded the creation of human beings, the second narrative goes to great pains to explain that vegetation had not been created yet because a) there was no rain12, and b) there was “no one to work the ground.” When human beings are created in this telling, God creates a single male. This man is not said to be created in the image of God, but rather is created by God from the dust of the ground. In the first narrative, God charges human beings with the care of the whole earth. In this second telling, God plants a garden called “Eden” and places the man within it to care for it. God then tells this man that he is free to eat of any tree in the garden, but that he “must not” eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for to do so will lead to his death. While it is certainly possible for God to create such a tree, it seems to function symbolically here as well. Further, I would like to suggest the possibility that this is not stated as a legal prohibition with an implied punishment, but rather as a parental warning about danger and consequences/trajectories.
At this point, God declares that it is “not good” for the man to be alone, so God parades all of the animals in front of him a) to see what he would name them and b) presumably to see if one is an appropriate helper, though it is unclear in the text if this is a genuine search on God’s part or an enacted object lesson to make a point to the man. The text tells us that “no suitable helper was found.” God then creates a woman from a piece of the man (rib). Again, this stands in contrast to the first narrative where male and female were created simultaneously by God’s direct action. Here the male is created from the dust of the ground and the woman is created from a piece of the man (both created from pre-existing material). The man recognizes and appreciates the goodness of the partner God has created for him. While this telling is substantially different from the first one, it makes a similar point…We are only complete in relationship. In verse 24, the narrator adds a bit of commentary about how a man will leave his father and mother for the sake of his marriage…which is something of an anachronism since marriage has not been instituted and no one has ever had a father or mother at this point in the text. Verse 25 gives us a clue about the complete harmony of their relationship by explaining that they were naked and not ashamed.
Chapter 3 continues the second narrative by introducing the character of a shrewd serpent. Though the Christian tradition commonly interprets this to be Satan, the text makes no such connection. This serpent deceives the man and the woman into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by convincing them that God does not have their best interests at heart, but is in fact, threatened by them. Christians tend to place the blame for this squarely on the woman, though this is a bit unfair and tends to serve as a justification for sexist attitudes. The serpent chooses to engage the woman, who did not exist when the warning about the tree was given (though she has apparently been told of it.) Additionally, verse 6 tells us that the man was with her, presumably for the entire interaction, yet uttered not a single word of protest.
Realization comes crashing down on them as they realize they are naked and become ashamed. When God comes and calls for them, they hide. Both the man and the woman place the blame everywhere on but themselves when confronted by God about their disobedience. In response, God pronounces curses on everyone involved and banishes them from the garden and effectively revokes their access to the “tree of life” which presumably would enable them to live forever. Here, I’d like to repeat my suggestion that these curses are not punitive, but rather are consequential trajectories. I would further contend that such a reading is implied by the opening clause in each curse: “Because you have done this…” It should also be noted that God provides coverings made of animal skins for the man and the woman to replace the shabby ones they crafted for themselves from leaves.
Whenever I sit down to watch a movie or a television program (which is becoming increasingly rare), I try to pay attention from the second the story begins. I consider the beginning to be key to understanding the rest of the story. This seems to be a minority opinion. I am frequently frustrated by people who talk through the opening moments or aimlessly fidget with other things, waiting for the story to “grab them”, only to be hopelessly confused later in the film, or worse yet, to thoroughly misinterpret the plot or characters due to their own inattention to the opening scenes.
Approaches to the Biblical narrative seem no different. The first 3 chapters of Genesis are perhaps among the best known texts in the Bible. They are also among the most misunderstood and misappropriated. Many Christians today seem to read Genesis only as a proof-text in arguments about the need for atonement and/or to counter certain scientific theories that they perceive as contrary to the Biblical account.
In making an analogy between Biblical interpretation and reading a novel, Peter Enns rightly suggests that
“…the first reading of the Old Testament leaves you with hints, suggestions, trajectories, and so on, of how things will play out in the end, but it is not until you get to the end that you begin to see how the pieces fit together. And in that second reading, you also begin to see how parts of the story that seemed wholly unrelated at first now take on a much richer, deeper significance.”1
It is certainly appropriate, from a Christian perspective, to reinterpret Old Testament texts in light of the Christ event. However, this must be recognized as reinterpretation and not as pure exposition of the author’s original intent and understanding. Further, we must let the text initially give us “hints, suggestions, trajectories and so on” before we apply our re-interpretive lens, lest we apply the wrong lens altogether by mistake. For this reason, as we approach the task at hand, we must consider what the text is not before we explore what the text is.
In spite of all Evangelical claims to the contrary, one thing that the first 3 chapters of Genesis are “not”, is a refutation or a pre-existing contradiction of the theory of evolution. Without putting too fine a point on it, such a reading does violence to Scripture by misappropriating the text, thereby distracting us from its true intent. Even the conservative scholars Longman and Dillard point out that in spite of all of the “discussions and debates over the last century,” these texts are surprisingly unconcerned with “the process of creation”.2 Enns unambiguously contends that not only were ancient people not concerned with explaining the universe in scientific terms, such a means of investigation was “unavailable to them”.3 The point is that when we try to use the text as a treatise refuting a scientific theory that would not exist in any form for at least several millennia, we subvert the text in the pursuit of anemic goals. Brueggemann asserts that these texts leave open “all scientific theories about the origin of the world,” and take “no stand” in these matters. He further proposes that “Such a way of treating the grand theme of creation is like reducing the marvel of any moving artistic experience to explorations in technique.”4 Additionally, John Mark Hicks contends that in essence, these particular texts aren’t even written in theological terms, but rather are offered as a “relational narrative.”5 Perhaps this reveals the ugliness of what is generally done with the Creation narratives in Genesis. The narratives are generally stripped of relationship in favor of an exploration of mechanics. They are thus effectively reduced to the narrative equivalent of pornography (mechanics devoid of relationship).6
The first believer’s baptism of the Reformation was performed when Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock in January 21, 1525. Most Restorationists would applaud this monumental, catalytic event were it not for one detail. Blaurock was not baptized by immersion. Though it is difficult for most of us to grasp, the method of baptism simply wasn’t the issue at the time. It can be argued, however, that this event in 1525 set the stage for us to even be able to explore that question. This is a good example of the curious resemblance and dissonance that the Restoration Movement has with the early Swiss Anabaptist movement.
In his letter to Thomas Muntzer on September 5, 1524, Conrad Grebel goes to great lengths to describe this fledgling movement and to even list many of its defining beliefs. In addition to what has already been mentioned, there are many points of both connection and dissonance with the Restoration Movement that can be found in this correspondence. Like the Campbells, Grebel clearly believes that the Church had “fallen away” and sees his movement as seeking to restore simple, primitive Christianity by returning to what is revealed in Scripture. Grebel took this to the extreme of understanding the silence of Scripture on a given subject to be prohibitive. In regards to chanting, he explains to Muntzer:
Whatever we are not taught in definite statements and examples, we are to consider forbidden, as if it were written, “Do not do this, do not chant.” (Harder, 1985, 287)
This certainly resonates with the dominant hermeneutic of CENI (Command, Example and Necessary Inference) in the Restoration movement. In relation to the Lord’s Supper, Grebel contends that there should be no chanting or liturgy, but rather only the reading of relevant Bible passages from the New Testament. Restorationist would resonate with this in some ways, however they would tend to balk when Grebel presumes to list which passages are relevant and appropriate (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11) and insists that “neither more nor less” than these passages may be used. Grebel also contends for a symbolic understanding of the elements of communion, which most of us would heartily agree with. Additionally, he argues for a common cup, though this should not necessarily be understood as the “one cup/multiple cup” debate from Restoration circles. It most likely has more to do with the dominant practice of the Catholic Church at the time of offering bread to the congregation but reserving the cup only for the priests. In relation to Communion, Grebel makes an additional but interesting point that many from our movement would find odd. He argues that no one should take communion alone as it was a sign of fellowship. Historically, Restoration churches have tended to emphasize personal reflection in this time, and taken the elements of communion to “shut-ins” who are unable to attend our services. It’s an intriguing point, and our movement might benefit from engaging with Grebel’s thought on this. Overall, Grebel outlines a form of patternism that many in the Restoration Movement, particularly Churches of Christ, would resonate with. However’ he applies it more rigorously than most of us in churches of Christ would feel comfortable with, in that he sees the silence of scripture as actually forbidding singing in the assembly. I think I can safely say that many in a tradition that sees a cappella singing as a major part of its identity would have a problem with this. In the broader sense, I can’t imagine any Restoration church wanting to abolish all singing and music from their worship services, nor feeling compelled by scripture to do so.
Grebel also articulates an essentially pacifist position. In his letter to Muntzer, he explains:
Moreover, the gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor [should] they [protect] themselves…True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. (Harder, 1985, 290)
We know from history that Grebel and his followers actually lived this belief out in the face of the worst kind of persecution, torture, and death. We also know that historically, there have been many major thinkers and leaders in the Restoration Movement who resonated with this sentiment, such as David Lipscomb. Even so, this belief, for the most part, stands in contrast to current Restorationist beliefs on the subject.
It has been my intent to briefly reveal the historical “roots” of restoration thought in early Swiss Anabaptism. I believe that the exploration of our history is vitally important for the life and vitality of our movement. It locates us in our story. It gives context to our thoughts and beliefs. It forces us to look hard at our past and remember both the beautiful and the ugly. It helps us to avoid the same dangers and mistakes that have been made in the past. It gives us hope for the future as we see how the gospel has changed the world again and again in the past.
Allen, Leonard C, and Hughes, Richard T. 1988. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ.
Bromiley, G. W., ed. 1953. Zwingli and Bullinger.
Harder, Leland, ed. 1985. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism. Scottdale: Herald Press.