Review: Genesis and Christian Theology

MacDonald, Elliot, Macaskill (eds), Genesis and Christian Theology. Eerdmans, 2012. 341 pp

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This collection of essays represents the 2009 conference in St Andrews on Scripture and Theology (for more, see here). The conference happens every three years, and previous ones were on the Gospel of John (2003), Hebrews (2006), and most recently on Galatians (2012). The conferences, and books, aim to bring the Bible and theology together by focusing on a particular book in ways that speak to one another and speak together as well. Being at a place like Wheaton where interdisciplinary work is both encouraged and expected, I read these kinds of book with appreciation and sympathy as the challenges of interdisciplinary work are many and not easy.

There are four sections to the book: Genesis and Salvation History; Genesis and Divine-Human Relations; Genesis and the Natural World; and Genesis and the People of God. I cannot summarize/engage all twenty-one essays, so I have chosen three (Fergusson, Bauckham, and Charry. Yes, two of my choices are “theologians” and the other has done significant work in theology as a biblical scholar. (I was going to add Moberly, but the review was already long enough). But my choice is not disguised as mere preference for theology! Rather, I was curious to see how Fergusson and Charry dealt with Scripture as theologians and wanted to see how a seasoned biblical scholar connected Scripture (or Genesis) and theology. The other essays also demonstrate the connection in helpful ways, but this review will just focus on these particular three essays. [Note: I was surprised to not find Kathryn Tanner’s keynote presentation, “Christ as the Image in Genesis 1.” Does anyone know why it was left out of the book?)

Fegusson’s essay is titled “Interpreting the Story of Creation: A Case Study in the Dialogue between Theology and Science” and examines the doctrines of creation and providence in relation to Gen 1–3 and the modern encounter with science. Historically, creation ex nihilo was the standard teaching. It was “not explicitly taught until the church confronts the regnant philosophical commitment in the ancient world to the eternity of matter. Only as this is challenged does a declared commitment to the ex nihilo doctrine appear” (161). Therefore, this teaching “was not primarily an account of philosophical or cosmological concerns… This emerges later… Yet its initial theological appearance reflected a broader set of considerations” (156–57). These considerations include an alternative to creation by or with eternal matter or a theory of divine emanation. Creation ex nihilo also sharply distinguishes God from the world. Moving on to providence, evolutionary theory challenged this doctrine much more than it did a doctrine of creation. Charles Hodge and James McCosh (who Warfield followed) represent a fundamental disagreement: Hodge finds enough tension to contest science in the name of theology, whereas McCosh sees more room for the two to coexist. Fergusson agrees, arguing that “the lesson is that religion and science serve very different purposes and function with complementary rather than competing narratives” (167). In 1889 Aubrey Moore noted that Darwinianism resulted in a positive opportunity for Christians to strongly reaffirm their commitment to God’s ongoing involvement in creation (contra the Deism of that time). While Fergusson argues for complementarity between science and theology, we must proceed with caution. For example, “the survival of the fittest and the reproduction of one’s genes are nowhere commended by Jesus as ordering human action in the kingdom of God. Instead, the protection of the weakest and loyalty to those who are not of one’s own family, tribe, and race are commended” (172).

Bauckham’s essay, “Humans, Animals, and the Environment in Genesis 1–3,” is full of insights and good questions. Humans are called to fill, subdue and rule (or have dominion over) the land and the latter two take place by means of agriculture. In terms of animals, “the human dominion, like God’s, is a matter not of use but of care. Genesis itself provides us with a paradigmatic case: Noah’s preservation of the animals during the flood” (182). The image of God is connected with dominion, not subduing, and allows humans to participate in God’s caring rule over his creatures. However, “dominion is over living creatures, not inanimate nature” (183). Yet our modern “scientific-technological project” seeks after unlimited dominion and we have overfilled the earth to the detriment of other species, resources, and even ourselves. In short, the desire is to be like God, “to transcend nature, to re-create it as we would like it to be” (189). Genesis 1–2 paints a different picture, stressing a right relationship to the earth and among its creatures. Because we live in a post-fall world, we hope for the new creation and, until then, “practice nonviolent, caring dominion to whatever extent might be possible” (185).

Charry’s essay brings Augustine into the picture: “Rebekah’s Twins: Augustine on Election in Genesis.” Augustine’s view of election in Genesis was already determined by Romans 9 and is therefore read through this lens. Augustine, therefore, had a Pauline doctrine of election rather than a “biblical” one (see 267). Charry surveys Augustine’s view of election in key texts (pp. 272–283) and concludes that election means that “God arbitrarily yet intentionally designates individuals for either hell or heaven, for being either saintly or dastardly” (283). The purpose is pastoral and “the goal is to instill fear in people in order to humble them” (283). The arbitrariness should persuade people that they are morally helpless. They cannot determine their election. God does. Yet, “Augustine never says that people can tell which camp they are in” (284). A crucial component of Augustine’s view is his consistent reference to Rebekah’s twins, Esau and Jacob. God both loves and hates, and it is his choice. Again, this should instill fear, but the strategy aims at offering hope after the fear as arisen (285). But is this doctrine of election true of Scripture’s portrayal of God? Charry worries that “one is left with the impression that God does not really like us very much and that we should follow his lead and not like ourselves too much either.” This creates “an adversarial relationship” between God and his creation and does little to recognize God’s love and patience (286).

In terms of the essays, I was both intrigued and disappointed with Fergusson’s contribution. He engaged very little with Scripture and seemed to rely more heavily on the theological tradition. That said, his engagement with modern science was instructive and he was very clear that Scripture and the great tradition are significant resources for meeting new challenges, and these are very valid points. Bauckham’s is much more focused on the text, drawing insights from the Hebrew, textual criticism, and other sources. I found his essay most helpful in bringing Scripture and theology together to better understand humanity’s identity and role in creation. Charry’s essay was a well written rendering of Augustine, but it actually focused more on Romans than Genesis. I was also uneasy with her conclusion regarding God’s “arbitrary yet intentional” election, but I’ll have to leave this up for debate among those who know Augustine on election better than I do.

Genesis and Christian Theology is another helpful installment in the Scripture and Theology series thanks to the conferences and Eerdmans. This text, and others before it, offers helpful examples of how scholars of various disciplines handle Scripture, tradition, history, and theology. My hope is that more people, not just scholars, will grow in the desire to spend time in interdisciplinary work and will experience the value on this kind of dialogue. Despite the benefits, Scripture and theology belong together and I’m looking forward to reading how this worked out at the Galatians conference.

Many thanks to Eerdmans for a review copy.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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One Response to Review: Genesis and Christian Theology

  1. Pingback: Eerdmans All Over: September 27, 2013 | EerdWord

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