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July 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 3 · pp. 20–22 

Response to Allen R. Guenther

Response to “Creation” by Allen R. Guenther 6/3 (1977): 6–20.

Walter Unger

A number of important hermeneutical principles clearly surface as one reads this paper. My purpose is to point out what these principles are and then briefly evaluate some of the content of this study.

The contextual principle is stated at the outset, with the warning that any attempt to isolate Genesis 1:1-2:3 from its larger context “threatens to destroy its meaning and to fracture our understanding of the whole.” The overarching theme of Genesis, redemption, must be the basic interpretive key for every passage in the book.

A collateral principle clearly evident is that the purpose of a given passage must be the center of hermeneutical focus and not questions of mechanics or methodology. In the paragraph under “The Second Creation Account” (2:4-25) the author broaches the source question, {21} and later he touches on the issue of creationism versus evolution; but in neither matter does he go into detail because, as he says, “Our task is to rediscover what it was God meant to tell us through this account,” and, “The principle is clear: all that exists in the space-time universe derives its existence from God.” This principle can steer us clear of a great deal of talking about and around a text without doing serious exegesis of it.

A third hermeneutical principle clearly exemplified in this study is that of reading Scripture in light of its historical-cultural context and seeking to understand how this has shaped both content and form. The author states that, “Israel’s account of creation must be seen by us through the grid of her circumstances, problems, debates with pagan neighbours and their mythologies . . .” and that Yahweh’s work in history is “described in categories common to the Near Eastern or Palestinian world.” The author proceeds to show how a knowledge of these cultural elements does cast a great deal of light on the Old Testament.

Finally, after seeking to understand what the text meant in its immediate context and time, what the theme and purpose is, and what a knowledge of the historical-cultural setting adds to our understanding of it, the application of the text must follow. What does it mean to us now? Although he might have done more in this area, the author has not neglected this principle. The best example of this in the paper is in the exposition and application of the concept of the creation mandate, or as Reformed scholars put it, the “cultural mandate.” The call to a concern for food production, the condition of our air and water, the use of our natural and non-renewable resources is a part of the divine calling and should not be shunted aside as peripheral, says Guenther. I believe we are weak in our understanding of the relationship between the creation and redemption mandates (i.e., cultural and Great Commission mandates), the paper points this out.

Regarding content, let me raise a few questions and make a few observations. Did not Guenther push his anti-pagan polemic thesis a bit too hard? He does acknowledge an alternate approach, as represented by such Old Testament scholars as Edward J. Young, but this merely with a footnote and no explanation of what this view is. Young states that Moses did not necessarily use words which have parallels in pagan mythology in order to reject these mythologies, but he simply used these words because they were the best ones to express his thoughts. Young draws the analogy of our modern usage of the names of the days of the week. When we speak of Wednesday or Thursday, we are not consciously rejecting an old mythology. We do not consciously think of Wodan’s day or Thor’s day. The old mythological connotations of these words have been forgotten. If two thousand years from now an historian should assert that the usage of these names of the days of the week in the English language represented our antipathy to mythology, he would {22} be wrong. Indeed, most twentieth century users of the names of the weekdays have no idea of the old Norse mythologies behind the names.

When Moses in Genesis 1:2 uses the Hebrew word indicating “abyss” or “great ocean,” it is difficult to see what other word he could have used; even though he may have been conscious that this word, at least in its sound, bore a resemblance to the name of the goddess of the Babylonian Creation Epic. However, Young concludes:

May he (Moses) not have used the vocabulary that was at his disposal and was best adapted to express the truth he wished to set forth? We are not really warranted in speaking of Genesis 1:2 as a treasure house of mythological expressions any more than we are warranted in speaking of the names of the days of the week in English as a group of mythological expressions. What Moses has written does not reveal in any particularly clear manner a rejection of ancient mythology, but it does state what Moses wished it to state; namely, the condition in which this earth existed until God uttered the command that light should spring into existence (Studies in Genesis One, pp. 29-30).

Another concept which I believe was overstressed is that of the culture-boundness of Scripture. Certainly the cultural milieu must be carefully considered, but the role of the Holy Spirit in transcending these forms to communicate timeless, transcultural truths must also be emphasized.

Is Genesis 1 and 2 a mythical account, parallel in many ways with the pagan cosmologies of Near Eastern culture or is it a straightforward narrative account of a space-time historical event? Guenther speaks of this as a “semi-poetic” and “artistic” story. He might have been much more definitive at this point. The implications for soteriology of the myth versus history interpretations of the early parts of Genesis are rather weighty.

Finally, although debating questions of authorship, source, etc., do not always cast light on understanding the central message of a given passage, in this case such considerations are pertinent. Nowhere does Guenther refer to the Mosaic authorship of Genesis, yet he does state that the labels P (priestly) and J (Jahwist) indicate different sources for Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-4:26 and are convenient handles to use. However, I believe he should have clarified why these are “convenient handles” and why this hermeneutical tool is not inconsonant with what the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, asserts regarding Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

These reservations notwithstanding, Dr. Guenther’s paper was a valuable case study in biblical hermeneutics and provided some excellent aids to a fuller understanding of Genesis 1 and 2.

Walter Unger is Academic Dean and Instructor in Historical Studies and Theology at Columbia Bible Institute, Clearbrook, British Columbia.

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