UPDATE, 1/16/12: I recently had a very helpful conversation with Dr. Gordon Johnston, and he was very gracious to answer the questions that I had after attending the presentation (see the questions below). In no uncertain terms, Dr. Johnston affirmed the inerrancy of scripture (as he did in his initial presentation), he affirmed the historicity of Adam and Eve, and he affirmed that Genesis 2 is a faithful narrative of what happened in history. He also reiterated that his view is not a ‘mythical’ reading of Genesis 2. Despite my earlier questions, Dr. Johnston assured me that these affirmations have been his position all along.
Last Tuesday, I learned of a debate that was to take place between two DTS profs about Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation (see yesterday’s post). So after reading the book, I showed up for the debate which occurred last Thursday evening on the campus of Dallas Theological Seminary. It turned out that the discussion was not really about the argument in Enns’ book, though the debate certainly was related to its subject matter.
Gordon Johnston, professor of Old Testament, represented an Enns-friendly interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Elliot Johnson, professor of Bible Exposition, defended the view that Genesis 1-2 presents a narrative description of historical events. The format consisted of 30 minute presentations by each professor, followed by a Q & A with the audience.
Elliot Johnson went first with a presentation titled, “Creation Narratives as a Literary Composition of What Actually Happened.” His reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is fairly straightforward. The creation narratives of Genesis are historical descriptions of what happened when God created the world. Johnson argued that the two creation accounts (Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-25) are not “easily harmonized,” but neither are they “contradictory.” They are literary descriptions of God’s “acts of creation,” and they describe “what actually came into existence.”
Gordon Johnston’s presentation was an adaptation of an article that recently appeared as “Genesis 1 and Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths” in Bibliotheca Sacra 165 (2008): 178-94. Since Johnston was not able to fit his entire presentation into the allotted 30 minutes, I will try to describe his views in light of the fuller treatment that appears in his article. Johnston argues against the widely held view that regards Enuma Elish as the conceptual background of the Genesis 1 creation narrative. He argues that parallels between Genesis 1 and Egyptian creation myths are much more compelling and should replace the older critical view which links Genesis 1 to later Mesopotamian myths.
Johnston regards the Genesis 1 creation account as a “Yahwhist redaction of the culturally shared Egyptian prototype” (p. 192). In layman’s terms, that means Genesis 1 derives from an Egyptian myth. But the biblical writer has substituted the true God for the pagan gods of Egyptian tradition and thereby has subverted the pagan account of creation. Thus “Genesis 1 was originally composed, not as a scientific treatise, but as a theological polemic against the ancient Egyptian models of creation which competed against Yahwism for the loyalty of the ancient Israelites” (p. 194).
The debate was fascinating, to say the least. My specialty is New Testament, and many of the issues that were discussed are not on my front burner. So I benefitted a great deal just by being there. For instance, I was unaware of a rising tide of Old Testament scholars and Egyptologists who no longer read Genesis against the backdrop of Babylonian myths, but who read Genesis as a polemic against the much earlier Egyptian myths. If Genesis is read against the earlier Egyptian myths, then it puts to the lie the notion that Genesis 1 was written later in Israel’s history by a mysterious “Priestly” source. In other words, it dates the composition closer to the time of Moses, the traditional author of the book. Yet for all the supposed benefits of the mythical reading, I did leave with some unanswered questions.
First, how does Johnston’s “Egyptian myth” hypothesis affect our understanding of the historicity of Genesis 1:1-2:4? Johnston said that the mythological approach does not render Genesis 1 unhistorical. He affirms the historical existence of the first man, the first women, the fall into sin, etc. Yet it is difficult to understand why one would affirm such things if the Genesis accounts amount to nothing more than Egyptian myths with Yahweh’s name plugged in here and there. If everyone agrees that the Egyptian narratives are fanciful, then why do the stories all of the sudden become “historical” when the true God’s name is inserted? It seems to me that affirming historicity is a non-sequitur if one is working from the Genesis-as-myth point of view.
Second, what exactly are the doctrinal implications of reading Genesis as a myth (whether Egyptian or Babylonian)? Although both presenters affirmed their belief in the inerrancy of scripture, it was not altogether clear how the newer hermeneutical approach cohered with such a confession. That’s not to say that it doesn’t cohere. It’s simply to observe that issue wasn’t even discussed. I think the confusion on this point was reflected in many of the questions that students asked during the Q & A time. They simply weren’t sure how the Genesis-as-myth approach should impact their belief in the inspiration of scripture.
Third, how do we square the mythical approach with what other biblical writers say about Genesis 1 and 2? As David Howard has noted, “The modern focus on the events, or happenings, of history is important in the Bible’s case because the Bible makes numerous claimsâ€”explicitly and implicitlyâ€”concerning the factuality of the events it records” (An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, p. 35). Both OT and NT writers treat the Genesis creation narratives as if they were straightforward historical reports. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 11:3, the apostle Paul comments on the Genesis narrative by saying that the “serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness.” In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Paul cites the order of creation in Genesis 2 as the basis for his instruction about gender roles (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:8-9). These are just two examples, but more could be cited. Is it proper for Christians to regard Genesis 1-2 as myth when OT and NT writers clearly do not? (See also, 1 Chronicles 1:1; Matthew 19:4-5; Mark 10:6-8; Luke 3:38; 1 Corinthians 15:45.) This is no small point since the evangelical doctrine of scripture has always been based to some extent on scripture’s testimony about itself.
The DTS debate wasn’t about Enns’ book, but many of the same doctrinal questions were at stake. Enns’ book and the DTS debate are but two instances of a larger debate that is going on right now among evangelical scholars and theologians. I have a feeling that this conversation is just getting started and that evangelicals have some work to do going forward. For many evangelicals, the nature of scripture’s inerrancy is very much an open question. I for one will be paying attention to how that discussion unfolds. Stay tuned.