Review of C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4

C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006. 318pp. $17.99, paper.

Passionate discussion is once again taking place in the evangelical academy regarding the nature of Scripture and what is meant by inerrancy. Much of this discussion has been generated by Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation and Greg Beale’s rigorous interaction with some of Enns’s troubling claims. A good portion of the disagreement centers on the extent to which the OT reflects ancient Near Eastern assumptions and how the world picture the Bible generates should be conceived given what modern science tells us about the universe. John Collins did not intend to engage the Enns-Beale debate, but his book is nevertheless a timely contribution to the discussion.

Collins is uniquely suited to write this volume, having a background in science with an S.M. from MIT. Now a professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Collins addresses linguistic, literary, historical, and scientific questions in this thorough study of Genesis 1–4. Collins’ first two chapters set out his methodology and rationale, aiming at “ancient literary competence.” The reader is introduced to “A Discourse-Oriented Literary Approach,” which is how Collins describes the method he employs in analyzing the text as well as the criteria he uses to evaluate interpretative options.

Having set forth his methodology, Collins first takes up Genesis 1–4 in its literary context, then discusses the creation week (Gen 1:1–2:3), the garden of Eden (2:4–25), the fall (3:1–24), and what takes place after Eden (4:1–26). This section of the book is a commentary on the text—not arguing a thesis but discussing the text according to the methodology Collins set forth. Interspersed into these discussions are extra notes on many points of interest, such as the nature of death in Genesis 2:17, the location of Eden, and whether Genesis 3:15 is a protoevangelium (Collins says yes). Collins also helpfully traces reverberations of these texts through the Old Testament and into the New. Having thoroughly discussed Genesis 1–4, Collins turns to the question of the sources for this material, its unity, and who wrote it. He concludes that literary and historical features of the text comport best with the conclusion that whatever sources may have been employed, Genesis 1–11 is a unified composition that fits best with the ancient claim of Mosaic authorship.

Collins then argues in chapter 9 that the communicative purpose of Genesis 1–4 is to set forth the worldview that undergirds the religion of the Pentateuch (244). Chapter 10 takes up historical and scientific issues, and it is here that Collins’ work contributes to the Enns-Beale discussion. Collins writes, “the worldview is intended to be normative, while the world picture need not be; by this distinction I, as a modern who accepts contemporary cosmology as part of my world picture, can share a worldview with some ancient whose world picture involved a stationary earth with an orbiting sun” (262). At the same time, Collins emphasizes the importance of understanding phenomenological language and suggests that the world picture described in the Bible might not be as different from our own as some, such as Peter Enns and Paul Seely, suggest. Collins argues against the view that “the water under the earth” (Exod 20:4) refers to a subterranean ocean (264), and he asserts, “There is no evidence that the ‘expanse’ . . . must be describing a solid canopy as a physical entity; it is enough to take it as if the sky were such” (264, emphasis his). For Collins, “it may well be that some biblical statements reflect a world picture that we cannot share—say, on the size of the earth, or that the moon is a lamp rather than a reflector. But this does not mean that the world picture is part of the message being communicated” (265). These considerations are significant contributions to the ongoing discussion of the relationship between the inerrancy of the Bible and modern science.

This book is a solid contribution to our understanding of Genesis 1–4, and those wrestling with the relationship between science and the Bible will benefit from what Collins says in this and other volumes. The reader of this volume will be spurred to greater rigor in interpretive method, as Collins carefully articulates the Discourse-Oriented Literary Approach he pursues. Meanwhile, those who are attentive to the conclusions Collins draws will also see that he appreciates more traditional exegesis. Hopefully books like this one can lead us to understand how to appropriate and utilize the strengths of both newer (discourse analysis) and older (traditional exegesis) hermeneutical practices. The importance of the subject matter, the quality of Collins’ work, and the timeliness of this contribution make this a valuable volume for which we express our gratitude to its author.  

6 Comments

Filed under Bible and Theology, Books

6 responses to “Review of C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4

  1. Does he interact with Dr. John Walton (NIVAC: Genesis) at all?

  2. Walton’s book is in the bibliography, and there’s one reference to him in the index.

    Hope this helps!

    JMH

  3. Blake Reas

    “Chapter 10 takes up historical and scientific issues, and it is here that Collins’ work contributes to the Enns-Beale discussion. Collins writes, “the worldview is intended to be normative, while the world picture need not be; by this distinction I, as a modern who accepts contemporary cosmology as part of my world picture, can share a worldview with some ancient whose world picture involved a stationary earth with an orbiting sun” (262).”

    “For Collins, “it may well be that some biblical statements reflect a world picture that we cannot share—say, on the size of the earth, or that the moon is a lamp rather than a reflector. But this does not mean that the world picture is part of the message being communicated” (265). These considerations are significant contributions to the ongoing discussion of the relationship between the inerrancy of the Bible and modern science.”

    Dr. Hamilton thanks for your summary and review. What does it mean to say that the “worldview is normative, but the world picture need not be”? How far do we take this? I am going to pose some questions, and maybe you can reply with how you think he would reply:

    i) Does the “world picture” include Adam and Eve? The fall into sin? How does one detach the “world picture” from the “worldview”? For instance if neo-darwinian evolution is true, then there was no Adam and Eve, no fall into sin, no beginning of death, and creation is not “good”. In that case, no matter how you would want to cut it, Genesis (by implication all of scripture) would be false and need to be rejected by anyone with any understanding of what it means to read a narrative. On top of that Christ becomes superfluous because he did not come to save us from death, and the origins of sin have become a mystery. If I wanted to go for this sort of mental gymnastics I would have accepted Bultmann’s demythology a long time ago. This sounds oddly close to Enns, so I am not sure it helps the discussion at all.

    ii)Is scripture concerned with portraying the world as stationary? How do we know scripture is wrong on this? Motion in the universe is relative, and since we do not have a God’s eye view/fixed point from which we can view the universe we do not know where the “center” of the universe is so we may be the center of things after all. Some cosmologist actually believe this. Cosmological theories are speculative, or instrumental and only serve to “save the phenomenon”because the math is more simplistic. We cannot say that a theory is “true” in anyway. Cardinal Bellarmine wrote in the preface to Galileo’s work that a sun centered solar system was a good theory, because it “saved the phenomenon”, but it could not be said to be true; because as I pointed out above we have no fixed reference point on which we can KNOW where the center of the universe is, nor can we know if the earth is moving. We can only measure the movements of the planets around us, and from that we choose the heliocentric view of the universe because the math is simpler, and cuts back on epicycles.

    iii)Modern biology, geology, etc seems to undermine the main biblical story line. As much as people dislike the YEC folk they are right when it comes to the travesty reinterpreting the biblical text in light of evolutionary ideology, and metaphysical naturalism.

    iv) Until we learn to dig underneath these theories to their philosophical foundations we will ever get anywhere in these discussions. This is a rehash of the Orthodox/Modernist debate. Enns and those of his ilk hold heterodox views of scripture at best, because they accept a foreign worldview and expect the christian worldview to measure up, when it doesn’t they lay it on a Procrustean bed and trim it to make it fit.

    Why do we need to like the theology of Genesis with modern science? I think if evangelicals would read more Kuhn, Feyerbrand, Lakatos, and Van Fraasen we would not be having this “debate”. If we realized that science is not an avenue to “truth”, but gives us useful theories to be good stewards of the world God has given us this would not be a problem.

    With these things being said, I think the most sane writer on this subject is Noel Weeks. Weeks up holds scripture, and discusses the ANE cosmologies and shows that they may not be as unified as we think. Weeks is not even sure that the purposes of these cosmogonies is clearly known. Drawing on Horowitz’s “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography” he undercuts both Seely and Enns.

    Blake Reas

  4. Blake,

    Brief replies:

    i) world picture refers to what we think of when we visualize the cosmos in our heads. We think of a galaxy and galaxies, with a series of huge rocks orbiting the burning star we call the sun. the ancients don’t seem to have shared this “world picture” . . . they seem to have thought that the earth was flat, that the surface of the horizon really was solid, and that the dry land rested on the pillars of the mountains over the great deep (waters) underneath.

    ii) I don’t know. I think Collins is simply affirming that we can believe the “world view” endorsed by the Bible–that God created everything–without adopting the “picture” of what everything looks like that the biblical authors might have held. Does that make sense? In other words, we don’t have to believe that the earth is flat and that the sun circles the earth in order to adopt the “world view” of the biblical authors.

    iii) I don’t think I have any quarrel with what you say here.

    iv) I think this is what Collins is trying to do–dig underneath these theories.

    Thanks for your note,

    JMH

  5. Blake Reas

    i) I do not think that we need to committ ourselves to thinking that they thought the world was flat. As I noted Horowitz has questioned this simplistic reading of ANE Cosmic Geography. Professor Noel Meeks, who teaches Ancient History and Semitic langauges at the University of Sydney makes the same points in his response to Paul Seely. Link: http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/3446

    Normally people who make these assertions appeal to passages that refer to the “pillars” of the earth, or the four corners of the earth, but most of those passages are in poetic texts. If we applied the literalistic hermeneutic used to derive a “flat earth” to other passages in the Psalms, Job, or even the book of Revelation we would look rather foolish. Once these passages are shown to be suspect in reconstructing Israelite cosmology we are not left with much except some vague texts that can be read in multiple ways. I guess I am not one to accept the premise that since Israelites were in the ANE, that they therefore held the exact same beliefs about the world.

    Maybe there is a certain unclarity in the world picture, because of the Divine author?

    ii) Like I said a heliocentric view of the universe is not a problem, because planetary motion is relative. We do not “know” that the earth moves, because we do not have a God’s eye view somewhere outside the universe that allows us to make that claim. Betrand Russell even made this point! So, I affirm that a Heliocentric model of our solar system is mathematically simpler, but that does not therefore mean that it is “absolutely true”. It is true for measurements in our solar system, but from the perspective of the Universe we have no grounds to say so. We are left with Divine Revelation.

    As far as a flat earth goes, see above.

    iii)There was one more thing I wanted to note. I will allow for the possibility that the bibilcal authors are sacralizing space. In other words the world we live in is structured, to some degree, by our language. There have been similarities drawn between Genesis 1 and the building of the temple. If that is the case, then I think there are many more interesting interpretive options. Peter Leithart follows this line of thought in his book “A House for My Name”.

    I was glad that Collins admitted that the “solid” fermament reading may not be the best one for Genesis 1:6, since the expanse is equated with shamayim.

    Unfortunately, I no longer go to Southern, though, I am originally from the Louisville area. I live in North Carolina, but I would like to possibly come back someday. Southern was a very good school and I thank God that I had the chance to attend.

    In Christ,
    Blake

  6. Blake Reas

    I almost forgot. Weeks excellent critique of Seely is not online, at least, I do not think so.
    Here is the relevant citation for the article in WSJ: Noel K Weeks, “Cosmology in Historical Context,” Westminster Theological Journal 68.2 (Fall 2006): 283-293.

    Peace

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