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How to Think Like a Biblical Theologian

To those who mainly regard the Bible as a source for answering their every question about God and the world, biblical theologians can be a real pill, and biblical theology can feel more than a little threatening… I get that.

We are, however, worth getting to know. Thus, in a spirit of self-expression and a deep psychological need to be understood and accepted by my peers, I’d like to illustrate US, with a vague consideration of Gen 1:1-3.

Qualifier: I don’t intend to impugn systematic theology generally through this drama, but I’ve been through this script enough over the years to justify its general relevance.

When a biblical theologian opens the pages of Gen 1:1-3 he or she seeks to understand what the author, within his historical, grammatical, and literary context was attempting to communicate. Personal issues and theological axes-to-grind are, to the best of our ability, put aside.

We begin with an inductive consideration of terms and grammar… in Hebrew; English translations are low level interpretations of how various committees with diverse concerns (like salability) have chosen to represent the original inspired text.

To make a long story short, three major interpretive possibilities emerge.

  1. Gen 1:1 is an independent sentence. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This marks the first act of creation in which God throws down the rough clay that is the “formless and void” earth described in 1:2; God shapes it in 1:3ff.
  2. Gen 1:1 is the same independent sentence from #1, but marks, rather, what I like to call an “umbrella clause” in which 1:1 summarizes in a single general statement a process that will be detailed from 1:2-31. “Creation” begins in 1:2-3 with the “formless and void” earth already in place; God shapes it in 1:3ff.
  3. Gen 1:1-3 is a single sentence in which 1:1-2 sets the stage for the start of “creation” in 1:3 with God’s first announcement, “Let there be light.” It reads, “When God first began to create the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving against the waters, then God said, “Let there be light.”

The biblical theologian does not say, “#1 has to be right…

  • “…because that’s the way the LXX translates it,” though this is not meaningless.
  • “…because almost every English translation reads this way.”
  • “…because my mother read it to me this way.”
  • “…because my heart is set on it reading this way.”
  • “…because we are at war with evolutionists and any other reading just isn’t admissible… and if you say it is, you are a worker of iniquity and in league with the Devil.”

The fact that other texts accredit God with the creation of all that is (Eph 3:9; Col 1:16; Rev 4:11) does not lead the biblical theologian to say “The word creation must, therefore,  mean creation out of nothing.” Instead, he or she asks what the word ברא bara’ means based on solid word study methods that discover rather than dictate meaning in context. Words mean what they mean regardless of what modern readers wish they meant. The word ברא bara’ by the way does not mean creation out of nothing; this is one of the great word fallacies popular in many circles. It does not exclude it, but neither does it demand it.

Based on the claims of Eph 3:9, Col 1:16 & Rev 4:11, the biblical theologian doesn’t say, “Creation in Gen 1:1-33 must, therefore, begin with a creation from nothing.” Instead, he or she gives the author the freedom to tell the story the way he deems it necessary in order to make whatever point he’s trying to make. Beginning for an infinite and eternal being does not need to mark the deity’s beginning, for he is without beginning, nor does it need to mark the beginning of matter; quite to the contrary, the beginning may mark whatever point in eternity past that the narrator choses to start the tale.

The biblical theologian turns to consider the precision of the words, every creation picture, every occurrence of the grammar patterns, the relevance of the wording to other creation accounts from the same time period.

He or she knows that the issues confronted in Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts are not about material origins at all, not about when and how, but about functional concerns in creation. Not, “When did God make the world?” Not, “By what scientific processes did God make the world?” Those are modern fixations. Rather, the ancients set themselves to declare who made it, why he made it, how he made it to function, how his audience could function prosperously within it.

Whether any given biblical theologian does or doesn’t throw in their lot with evolutionary theory is beside the point. I do not believe in the evolution of man, and am skeptical of a lot of old earth “science,” having witnessed enough scientific corruption and popular philosophy pawned as science to be so, but neither am I interested in interpretations of Genesis 1 that force the chapter to weigh in on modern attempts to justify or deny those theories of origins springing from Darwinism. They were not even on the table when Genesis was written.

I think #3 is the most likely reading of Gen 1:1-3. I think #2 is quite possible. I think #1 is grammatically possible, but ideologically unlikely… the heavens don’t come into being until day 2 in Gen 1:6-8; whatever theological thoughts you might have about heaven as some mystical place where you will spend eternity with God, in Genesis, the heavens mean the sky.

2 thoughts on “How to Think Like a Biblical Theologian

  1. Nathan says:

    If their is a choice between “wind of God” or “Spirit of God” in 1:3, why do you go with “Spirit of God”? I am curious because the choice of “Spirit” over “wind” seems assume more theologically than what this biblical author has revealed so far about his thinking. Is this choice based on something that comes later in the writings of Moses?

  2. Indeed, a great dialogue question that takes up an entire chapter in my Dissertation. Something that definitely needs to be discussed. Another wowzer of a question thanks Nate.

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