Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, by C. John Collins ★★★★
I had purchased this book from Amazon last November when it just came out, but finally have found the time to read it. I know Jack Collins, and have enjoyed the other books that he has written. Thus, my interest in reading this text.
The title strikes me as a bit offensive. Reading Genesis well? Haven’t we read it well in the past? Is this book offering us the new definitive manner of “reading” Genesis? Is there some novel hermeneutic technique that we will be discovering in the course of this book? Do we read the book of Genesis differently than we read the remainder of Scripture? Is this book a rebuttal of liberal scholarship? Is it a caving in to liberal scholarship? Has Dr. Collins discovered a new version of Joseph Smith’s Urim and Thummin, a translation stone which some angel dude gave to him? Collins answers most of my more critical questions in the text of this book.
Dr. Collins starts his text in full speed. The initial discussion centers around historical literary criticism of the text. I’ve not heard of either Jowett or the 19th century literalists, and know about James Barr but unfamiliar with his attempts at literary theory. Neither does Dr. Collins give a summary of the issues at stake, so I’m left in the dark. In the subsequent chapters, Collins takes a literary critical approach to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, discussing how different literary approaches might lead to different ends in the interpretation of Genesis. Collins avoids the strict approaches which have been taken in the past, such as defining the genre of a literary piece (is a segment of Scripture poetry, strict history, allegory, etc., etc.). As a take-off of CS Lewis, he asks questions regarding the text audience, how they would have seen the world and what they would have taken the text to mean, and how the author might have intended his text to be interpreted by the reader.
In later chapters, Collins works through the pericopes of early Genesis, offering solutions to their interpretation. He then discusses issues of competing thoughts, such as, whether the formation of man was by strict evolution, theistic evolutionism, young earth creationism, and the many variants that fall between. Helpful is Collin’s insistence on differentiating one’s world view (the overall concept of God creating the world) vs one’s world picture (the notion of how we picture the world in our mind at this time). In ancient times, the world was pictured phenomenologically, but then, don’t we still describe our world in mostly phenomenologic terms?
I end up with an ultimate question—how has Collins helped our understanding of early Genesis? Is this a radical new approach to interpretation that Collins offers in this book, or is it a new cloak for traditional means of Genesis interpretation? Several concerns come to mind. Most contemporary authors offer interpretations of early Genesis that are overly concerned with maintaining concordance with the current state of science. Perhaps this approach is brutally chronologically arrogant, offering “science” to high of place in our thinking of Scripture. Do we really think that science has given us a substantive grasp on the nature of the universe, when all of our past ancestors lived in darkness? When science changes, will our hermeneutic change? I don’t say this critical of science, because I am myself a scientist and have a respect for what we’ve learned about the world, yet I also have a cautionary approach for the certain-to-be scientific paradigm shifts that will alter our “view” of Genesis.
Collins is correct that we must not read Genesis from a scientific perspective, especially since the ancient Hebrews did not think with the scientific context that we think. He is also correct that the various pericopes of early Genesis cannot be labeled as strictly poetry or history. Even if they were labeled as history, the Hebrews would have viewed history in a different fashion from the Greeks. So, what do we do with the stories of early Genesis? Is it even necessary to provide a contemporary answer to every story in Genesis that seems to clash with “modern” science? My personal approach tends to be more VanTilian, in that our approach to Scripture must allow that God’s word provides the interpretive framework for seeing the world, rather than our own framework as forming the structure for interpreting Scripture.
I provide a simple example of where I’m left swimming, in terms of interpreting Scripture. Using the first chapter of Genesis, I agree with Collins that the primary intention of the author was to offer the reader a world view, that of God being the creator ex nihilo of all things. Yet, I can’t leave it at that. Is Genesis 1 poetry? It doesn’t read like poetry! Is it history? It doesn’t read perfectly like history! Is it allegory? Perhaps, but then I can’t explain why the author structured the creation narrative in the manner that he did, giving a deception of some sort of historical event. Other events provide very similar questions. God forming Adam out of the dust of the earth; the fall; Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden; the garden????; civilization during the time of Cain and Abel; the flood; the tower of Babel; all of these offer questions as to the nature and extent of what really took place, that only imperfect solutions are available. If readers up to the contemporary epoch had it totally wrong and we’ve just now figured that out, that seems to do discredit God as being a terrible communicator, yet He is the ultimate author of Scripture. Perhaps God messed up???? Do we need to be specialized in literary criticism and ancient languages to grasp the new principles of interpretation of Genesis? If so, then we are trashing the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Maybe the Pope was right, that only he and a few of his closest buddies had a grasp on interpreting Scripture—except that Protestants have exchanged the pope for people in academia. I don’t know what to think here in terms of where Collins is eventually taking us. I don’t think that Collins would be willing to offer an ultimate statement on precisely what happened in space/time during the accounts delineated in Genesis 1-11. It is not that Collins has failed, it is that nobody will probably be able to generate a true final statement while we spend our time on earth.
I have enjoyed reading Jack’s book. He writes well. He is very provocative to the thought processes, and I appreciate that. Not being a literary theorist, or even a theologian, I might have missed a bit of Dr. Collins thesis, and he might read this review wondering what kind of bozo missed some of the fundamental points of his text. Oh well. I will persist in remaining somewhat of a creation agnostic, clinging mostly to the emphasis that Genesis provides a Weltanschauung. When I encounter young earthers, I acknowledge that perhaps they are correct. When I encounter old earthers (which I tend to prescribe to), I acknowledge that they might be correct. When I encounter theistic evolutionists, I pray to God that He would forgive their heresy and unbelief in Scripture.
Which brings me to a point. Perhaps more time needs to be spent at “fencing” in orthodoxy, and defining the boundaries from which a person might go “off the edge” in terms of believing Scripture. Where do we draw the line on the interpretation of Genesis where we accuse the interpreter of unbelief in the text? I’m not a theologian, and will leave that to Dr. Collins to work on.