Genesis and Christian Theology (Short Review)

As I was working on some lectures on Genesis for a biblical theology course I am teaching, I remembered that Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012) has sat collecting dust on my shelf for about a year. I picked it up last week and spent a good bit of time in it. Edited by Nathan MacDonald, Mark Elliott, and Grant Macaskill, this volume comes out of a yearly study at the Univ of St Andrews on Scripture and theology based on a particular Biblical book – in this case Genesis, but they have previously published volumes on Hebrews and the Gospel of John. I believe a volume on Galatians is slated for the near future.

This essay-collection is broken into four sections: Genesis and Salvation History, Genesis and Divine-Human Relations, Genesis and the Natural World, and Genesis and the People of God. Some contributors are Old Testament scholars (William P. Brown, Gary Anderson, Stephen Chapman), some are “theologians” (e.g., Trevor Hart, Ellen Charry), a few are New Testament folks (e.g., Mark Elliott), and some are very difficult to categorize (Richard Bauckham, Walter Moberly)!

Below I will only give a very brief glimpse at a couple of interesting essays, but let me say I highly value the work these scholars are doing. Two things to mention here. First, they are working together – there is real spirit of inter-disciplinarity at work, built into the foundations of the conference (and thus the book). We should be reminded that Genesis is not the property of Old Testament scholars! Secondly, each individual author is encouraged to engage the text historically and theologically. Not any old OT or NT person could do this. Each contributor had to have some substantial level of comfort reading Genesis from behind and in front of the text. This is stretching and challenging, but highly worthwhile, as evidenced in this book.

Now, many essays were interesting, but I will mention a couple that drew my interest. The first essay, by William Brown, is called “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis.” Brown points out that in books like Exodus you have theophanic accounts of “God’s dread-filled, self-disclosing presence” full of “pyrotechnics.” In contrast, in Genesis, we see a “distinct matter-of-factness that characterizes these accounts, a certain casualness, and in at least one striking example, a casualness with a vengeance. The Genesis theophanies are extraordinarily ordinary” (6). What does this mean? One lesson we should be reminded of is that there is “a surprising immanence at work” in these Genesis theophanies. “God takes on human form; God eats; God wrestles; God loses; God utters a self-curse. God appears in the darkest night and under the burning sun” (25). I will not soon forget Brown’s appeal to Sebastian Moore’s reflection about the Psalms: “God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology” — God behaves in Genesis in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology! Right when we think we know how God behaves, he shocks us, in this case with a “manifest diversity” in his appearance. “And accompanying God’s presence is a voice filled with blessing and full of surprises” (p. 25).

In Richard Bauckham’s essay, “Humans, Animals, and the Environment in Genesis 1-3,” we learn much about the purpose and nature of humanity. The call from God to “subdue,” Bauckham argues, is not a heavy-handed overpowering, but the prompting to begin agriculture: “the only way humans are able to fill the land is to cultivate it and so to make it yield more food than it would of its own accord” (p. 180). Humans are also called to “rule.” Ruling, though, is not about the freedom to use and abuse the land and animals. In fact, Bauckham argues that “ruling” should naturally involve protection – he wisely points to Noah’s deliverance of the animals through the ark. A third key point I found in this essay is about humans being made from soil and told to work it: “The man from the soil must work the soil in order to live from the soil’s produce” (p. 187). Bauckham concludes:

The sumptuous availability of [technology for food production] in the affluent West means that we do not have to think much about their source, though uneasiness with the artificiality of modern farming methods has led to some such thinking and to the movement back to organic food. But in the face of the looming world shortage of food, likely to be disastrously intensified by climate change, a movement back to a degree of local self-sufficiency, entailing urban people’s reconnection with the soil, begins to seem desirable (189).

Much richness of theological insight pervades the rest of the essays and I look forward to other volumes in the series!

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