Saturday, March 01, 2014

Review: Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation

Adler and Van Doren said, “Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.”[1] Upon first reading this book, I wrote a review. After writing it, I thought, “I really should read this book again to understand it better.” So I did. And then I wrote a second review. It was ten pages long. Then I thought, “This book deserves one more reading.” So I gave Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation a third and wrote this review.

This book deserves a thorough reading because of the rarity of its inclusive nature among evangelical works on the topic. Unfortunately, scholars who disagree about the interpretation of Gen 1–2 often spend more time talking about each other instead of talking to each other. This book brings together five distinct perspectives on these chapters from scholars who all hold to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The chapters derive from papers presented at a symposium at Bryan College in late 2011. The papers have been updated to include more recent discussions among evangelicals and each of the other contributors have been allowed to write a brief response appended to the end of the five main chapters. It also includes two chapters concerning the teaching of Gen 1–2 and unresolved chapters in these passages by two professors from Bryan College and a fine introduction by prominent Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton.[2] The structure promotes dialogue but might have been improved by the addition of a brief final response by the chapter’s author.

Instead of summarizing and responding to each chapter, I want to highlight the positive nature of the contributions, highlight two brief criticism and suggest areas that need further discussion. First, the inclusive nature of the discussions in the book must be highlighted. Discussions between the poles of the evangelical spectrum are rare. This book includes the full spectrum of evangelical perspectives. Second, the quality of the scholars should be highlighted as well. The organizers of the symposium and editor of the book included first rate evangelicals representing the various perspectives. Third, the book allows for dialogue between the contributors. This dialogue heightens the readers understanding of the various perspective, especially in regards to clarifying the disagreements. Finally, the book mostly avoids discussions of science. Many lay people mistakenly assume that the debates on the nature of Gen 1 stem from the rise of modern science. This is not the case, as each of these perspectives has historical precedents that precede its rise. For the most part, the contributors focus on textual issues only referring to science as addendum to their arguments. Interpreting God’s revelation in Scripture should first and foremost arise from exegeting the text.

I do have two criticisms. First, at a couple points throughout rhetoric attempted to fill the void of weak arguments.[3] Evangelicals must frame our arguments around the evidence, and let the content be primary. Each of the contributors make strong arguments at points, and thus it only hurts their position to resort to rhetorical strategies for help. Second, evangelicals must avoid slippery slope arguments on this topic. Historically there has been great diversity of interpretation among exegetes of these chapters and assuming that one perspective has prize place denies the reality of historical disagreement as well as the complexity of interpretive issues in the passage. As evangelicals, we should note that slippery slopes are only dangerous if we are standing on truth to begin. If we are not, then a slippery slope may actually be the quickest route to the correct destination.

After considering the chapters and responses, some issues need further discussion and I hope that this book opens the door to them. First, more needs to be written on the connection between Hebrew literary styles and historical reference. Among the contributors to this volume C. John Collins discussed this with the most depth, although left much unsaid. I would argue that this issue undercut Todd Beall’s and Tremper Longman’s interpretations significantly. Although Beall’s arguments in support of the narrative nature of Gen 1–2 were effective, he did not adequately show that literary narrative necessitates historical referent. The same could be said of Longman’s argument. He effectively pointed out figurative elements in the text, but failed to address why figurative language could not have a historical referent. Hopefully, future discussions will make this crucial topic more central. Second, more work needs to be done in the connection between the mind of the author and readers and the text. Readers have no access to the mind of either and thus can only access it from the texts that they are trying to interpret. We must be careful to avoid circular reasoning on this matter. Walton has made strides in this area, but much more work remains.[4] Third, the discussion often jumped from Old Testament analysis of the text to New Testament discussions of Adam. As biblical scholars and Christians this is perfectly acceptable and expected. With that said, the contribution of a scholar specializing in the New Testament use of the Old Testament would have been welcome.[5]

This book excels at bringing together various accomplished voices to discuss pertinent issues with a long history of disagreement. As evangelicals who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, and particularly as apologists interested in defending the faith, we need to know more thoroughly the variety of interpretation on these chapters. This book, while probably not for beginners, provides a helpful resource for apologists interested in topics related to Gen 1–2.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary served as a church planter in Asia from 2006-2013, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies in order to return to Asia and better teach how the Old Testament points to Jesus.

[1] Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book.

[2] These will not be addressed as they largely deal with only one perspective and are not as important to apologetic concerns.

[3] Examples would be Beall’s use of exclamation points and heightened language as well as fear tactics. Instead of helping his argument, these made them seem less academic and weakened what were interesting arguments based on content alone. At the other end of the spectrum, Longman frequently used words like “obviously” and “clearly,” which only reinforce that the matters are neither clear nor obvious—hence this book. Finally, Walton’s categories of “competent” and “ethical” reading seem to imply that those who disagree with the extent of influence of other ANE worldviews are reading the text incompetently or unethically. He surely does not hold this, so a revision of wording may have helped.

[4] For instance, the average Hebrew individual couldn’t read, much less would have been familiar with cosmological texts and ideas of cultures separated by long periods of time and geographical distance. We can rather confidently say that the cultures had similar understandings of the cosmos, but we should be careful in overstating those similarities and also note the dissimilarities that are just as frequent.

[5] An obvious suggestion would be G.K. Beale who has written extensively in both Old Testament and New Testament matters and specifically on the New Testament use of the Old Testament.


Kyle Essary said...

Posting to subscribe to comments.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the review. I started reading this when it was first released and then got busy with other things and forgot about it.

My own thoughts from what I did read was that, as usual, there was a lot of poor reasoning going on, starting with Hamilton's introduction.

P.S. Something has been messed up with the comment system here for a while. I can't submit a comment via my wordpress ID because it says OpenID can't be verified... but of course I'm not even trying to use OpenID. Plus the comment gadget on the right sidebar has been broke since forever :)

Kyle Essary said...

I'd be interested to hear your reasons for disagreeing with Hamilton if you have time.

Unknown said...

Over the next couple days I'll give Hamilton's introduction another read and get back to you with specifics.

As I recall, near the end of his introduction he attempts to provide some reasons for why all the contributors are evangelical. And I don't think I'd disagree with his conclusion, but my point is that it was poorly reasoned. That's not a major criticism (and I don't think Hamilton has a major point to make here anyway). But just indicative of the sort of thing at several points throughout what I read.

Unknown said...

Hi, G. Kyle Essary (not sure if I should call you G. or Kyle or G. Kyle).

As requested,

On page 3 Hamilton proves some reasons for taking the contributors to be orthodox, evangelicals.

I take it he gives two primary reasons:

(1) "[Because] all the authors identify fully and unapologetically with historic Christian orthodoxy and embrace wholeheartedly the basic tenets and historic creeds of the one holy catholic church" (p. 3)

(2) "[Because] all of them would have no hesitancy about including themselves in the evangelical tradition as we commonly use that general phrase today" (p. 3)

From (1) he also draws the conclusion that "To label any of them heterodox because of the view presented in an essay would be both unfortunate and misguided" (p. 3).

First, my objections to (1). There is a hidden assumption here that if a person identifies themselves with historic Christian orthodoxy and agrees with the basic tenets and historic creeds of the church then they are an orthodox evangelical. I have two objections. One, I'm not sure self-identification and agreement with the basic creeds is sufficient for "orthodox, evangelical". (Partly because "evangelical" is so ill-defined and Hamilton offers no definition.) Two, one might be generally creedally orthodox and yet hold onto a heterodox view. For example, one might deny the historicity of, say, the twelve disciples of Jesus. The historicity of the twelve disciples of Jesus is not mentioned in the creeds. Therefore, it's incidental that one could qualify as creedally orthodox while denying that Peter, John, Judas, etc. existed as historical persons.

Second, my objections to (2). One, I have no idea how "we commonly use that general phrase" (evangelical) "today." I suppose it might mean something like "has a high view of Scripture" but I'm not sure how much more specific we can get. Two, the fact that someone wants to include themselves within a certain group doesn't in itself tell us whether they belong in that group. For example, Mormons want to include themselves in the group labeled "Christian."

Now I want to reiterate that I don't necessarily disagree with his conclusion and none of this is a major criticism. So all this might seem pedantic and I wouldn't normally bother spelling out something like this, but you asked for specifics regarding Hamilton and his statements on the authors being evangelical is what I first recalled. Having read the chapter again I could add a few more things, but nothing critical to the book per se. Still, it's one instance with others throughout the book.

Unknown said...

Oh and I forgot to include my criticism of his subconclusion regarding (1): An obvious non-sequitur. One could say "I identify as an orthodox Christian and affirm all the historic creeds" and then write an essay which espouses some creedally heterodox position.

Kyle Essary said...

Just call me Kyle.

I actually think his two points are important, but I read him as arguing something different than you imply. In both situations, his comments are polemic and not to make an argument for their identification as evangelicals.

I think Hamilton's wording could have been more precise, but his comments were to defend against those who might read this book and say, "John Walton is heterodox because he holds to an old earth" or something similar. By saying that they adhere to the classic creeds, he is saying that they are not heterodox as some would certainly claim. None too few will accuse fellow brothers in Christ of being heterodox, or even unsaved, over non-essential issues. That's why the words evangelical are absent in the paragraph up to this point. That's not at issue.

His comments on their self-designation as evangelicals have a context as well. Some, like Peter Enns for instance, seem more and more hesitant with using the term personally, and quite a few are uncomfortable with them using it since they deny traditional evangelical essentials such as inerrancy. Can you still fit within the Bebbington quadrilateral and deny inerrancy? Maybe, but most of us are uncomfortable calling someone an evangelical who does not hold to inerrancy. It's one of the very minimal beliefs required for ETS membership after all. His point then is that these are not scholars on the fringes who might or might not be an evangelical (like Lamoureaux on the Historical Adam book for instance), but these are all scholars who self-identify and are well-known as evangelical scholars.

I hope that helps clarify his points.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kyle,

I'm not sure what sort of distinction you have in mind between polemic and arguing for their being evangelical. Everything you go on to say fits with what I took them to be and I think I showed that what he is saying (e.g., Walton isn't heterodox because he holds to the classic creeds) just doesn't follow or isn't significant. One can hold to a heterodox position even if they happen to agree with the classic creeds. An obvious example I didn't mention is Open Theism.

I acknowledge that his self-designation remarks probably have in mind what happened to Peter Enns and Waltke. But, again, so what? That someone wants to include themselves in a certain category doesn't tell us much. Again, Open Theists want to be considered evangelical (though that may not be a good example because maybe you think they should be so considered). I suppose we could ask "Are they fringe Evangelicals?" But Hamilton doesn't attempt to raise or answer such a question.

Kyle Essary said...

The distinction between polemic and positive argument would be something similar to these two statements:

1. John Walton is an evangelical because he (1) teaches at Wheaton, (2) holds firmly to classical inerrancy, (3) is a leading member of the ETS, (4) is a member of an evangelical church, etc.

2. John Walton holds to all of the historic creeds of the church, so nobody could question his orthodoxy. Furthermore, he calls himself an evangelical so is not uncomfortable with others labeling him as such based on his work.

The former would be an argument to include John Walton among evangelicals based on certain criteria. It's making a positive case for why we should consider John Walton an evangelical. It might be given in response to the question, "Is John Walton an evangelical?" That's not a question that Hamilton is addressing here though. His is different.

The second is polemical in that it provides a defense against certain expected attacks. Not knowing Walton's broad swathe of work, or his prominence among evangelical scholarship, one might simply read his chapter here and say, "Hey wait...ANE mindset? Old earth? Is this guy even a Christian?" The question arises from the readers unfamiliarity with Walton and their unfamiliarity with the historical writing on the topic by orthodox Christians. Hamilton provides a polemic against such questions by showing that each of these authors hold to the shared beliefs of Christians. That's why evangelical is never mentioned in his discussion at this point.

On the other hand, there are those who say (to play off Derrida), "I might rightly be called an evangelical," but their meaning of evangelical stands far from what most would consider one to be, and they would not be able to affirm even the minimal standards of ETS membership, nor teach at most evangelical seminaries. Thus, stating that these scholars openly call themselves evangelical only further highlights that they are not fringe scholars, but well-respected, scholars right in the middle of evangelical OT scholarship. Nobody questions their presenting papers at ETS.

Honestly though, nobody is questioning the evangelical credentials of these scholars (which is sort of Hamilton's point) and arguing about proper definitions of evangelicalism, although something that needs to be done, isn't even a consideration in this book...nor does it need to be.

P.S. I don't think Open Theists should be consider evangelicals...but I think it's a hard case to make that they aren't since we don't have any proper definitions of evangelical nor ecclesial authority to define it.

Kyle Essary said...

I do think you make a good point that calling someone orthodox doesn't mean much. After all, many (if not most) of the readers on this site would consider someone like Bill Craig to be an evangelical hero, yet he:

1. Denies divine simplicity
2. Denies the historic understanding of God's relation to time
3. Denies the historic understanding of God's personhood and relations in the Trinity
4. Denies the historic understanding of God's foreknowledge

And on and on...I'm not trying to pick on WLC (after all, he's been hugely influential in my personal walk with the Lord at times and most big name evangelical scholars have such points), but on topics that are neither specified in the creeds nor clearly outlined in evangelical confessions, it's hard to ask whether those holding such beliefs are "evangelical." I guess that's why the ETS membership standards are so open ended and they struggled and lost the movement to not allow Open Theists.

Unknown said...


My first thought is that this is a distinction without a difference. But when you say "The distinction between polemic and positive argument would be..." and later "The second is polemical in that it provides a defense..." it looks as though you're distinction is between an offensive argument and a defensive argument. I still don't think that makes a difference to what I wrote. (2) certainly provides us with an argument; namely, that nobody could question Walton's orthodoxy because he holds to all the historic creeds. The fact that Hamilton's motive is what you're calling "polemical" just doesn't seem to make any difference: okay, he's being polemical, but the polemic doesn't work for the reasons I spelled out.

Kyle Essary said...

Thanks for continuing this conversation. The distinction holds because your original contention was that he was making a positive case that they were orthodox, evangelicals. My point was that this isn't his intention.

In regards to your first point, he wasn't making a positive case for their evangelicalism. In fact, the term "evangelical" isn't mentioned at this point in his discussion. He's making a defensive statement against those who will undoubtedly read the book and say, "How can this person think Genesis 1-2 allows for evolution and still be a Christian?" He's defensively saying that there is nothing that any of them states in this book that would be in contradiction to the historic creeds. Thus, they are historically orthodox in their affirmations of the essential truths of the Christian faith as outlined historically.

Neither is his second point given as a proof that they are evangelical, but a mere (and almost inconsequential overall) point that these are not some neo-orthodox liberals that we might call evangelical because they hold to a generic high view of Scripture, but these are self-identified evangelicals. They are the type that teach at evangelical institutions and attending evangelical churches, go to ETS meetings, etc.

Neither of these points are relevant to the book itself though. Even if they were radically liberal, which none of them are, the point of the book is the diversity of scholarly discussion of Gen 1-2. Have you read any of that discussion yet? If so, what are some of your thoughts on the exegetical issues. After all, the exegesis is what's most important regardless of what someone self-identifies as, or whether or not they are rightly included in an "evangelical" discussion.

Anonymous said...


You said the distinction holds. Well, maybe so, but as I've been saying the distinction is *irrelevant* to my critique. You said my original contention was that he was giving a positive case (rather than a defense) but that's not correct. My original critique was *neutral* as to whether his reasoning and intended conclusion were positive or defensive. To help clarify this, please see the argument map I've created here:

As you can see from the maps above, it makes no difference to my original critique whether you cast this issue in terms of a positive argument or a defensive rejoinder to an anticipated contention.

You say he wasn't making a positive case for their evangelicalism at "this point." But I really don't know what point you're referring. My critique was taken from the fourth paragraph on page 3 and the author had already framed this in terms of the evangelical tent in the previous paragraph. But if you think the focus is on being orthodoxy as a separate issue from being evangelical again makes no difference to my critique. You can just drop the word "evangelical" from my critique of (1) and it holds together the same as otherwise.

Next you've shifted from a hypothetical objector questioning the contributors' (you originally said "John Walton is heterodox because he holds to an old earth") to a hypothetical objector questioning the contributors' Christianity (you're now saying "How can this person think Genesis 1-2 allows for evolution and still be a Christian?"). This, I think, *is* a distinction with a difference. And I don't think Hamilton is addressing himself to hypothetical objectors to the contributors' status as Christians. Hamilton clearly has in mind the charge of heterodoxy and not heresy or apostasy. He says, "To label any of them heterodox because of the view presented..." The reason this is a distinction with a difference is because the criteria for being Christian are different, ceteris paribus, from the criteria of being orthodox (or evangelical). So any reasons Hamilton might give for the respective conclusions will look a bit different.

Next, you say his second point isn't (intended to be) a proof that the contributors are evangelical, but a point that the contributors are not some neo-orthodox liberals. Well, again, that's just an issue of framing that makes no difference to my critique. Hamilton frames the issue in terms of identification with evangelicalism, not in terms of neo-orthodox liberals. But again, it makes no difference so long as you take evangelical to be "~neo-orthodox liberal". And whether you want to call it a proof or a point is irrelevant since no matter what we label it he clearly thinkings he is supporting his point (or proving his point or proving his contention or whatever) by reasons I debunked above.

Finally, I agree the this isn't germane to the book's topic per se. I pointed that out myself a long time ago. But you asked about specifics for Hamilton's introduction and so... here we are. I've read several of the discussions that are germane to the book's topic. I thought Averbeck, Beall and Collins made the most sense. I have more criticisms of what I read from Walton and Longman, but I have no desire to get into that right now.

Kyle Essary said...

Thanks for a very extended comment and even a flowchart! I respect the dedication to your points.

I would see no distinction between orthodoxy and Christianity, and thus would contend that I didn't "shift." I do not hold that there is such a thing as an unorthodox Christian. If someone denies the basic truths as outlined in the creeds (what Hamilton refers to in the passage), then they are not a Christian in the most general sense of the term.

I would extend this to even some views that you mention above, which are not outlined by the creeds, such as Open Theism. The view espouses a diminished god that cannot be equated with the Triune God of Christianity.

And that doesn't even get us to evangelicalism, and whatever that term means (as our discussion above shows).

Thanks for keeping up with the critique. I'd be interested to see what you've to say on the relevant topics in the book at a later time if you're interested. That's more my field than discussions of who is or isn't evangelical.

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