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C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Genesis and Myth

Tablets of the Enuma Elish, dating to ca. 7th BCE

Is Genesis a myth?  Ever since George Smith discovered and published the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, in 1876, theologians, biblical scholars and informed laypeople have been aware of the fact that the book of Genesis was not written in a literary or cultural vacuum.  As other ancient Near Eastern creation stories have been brought to light we have come to know a lot more about the intellectual, cultural, theological, and literary milieu within which Genesis was written, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to assess just what sort of text Genesis is.  What is Genesis’s genre and how ought we to read it if we are to do so responsibly?

The majority report among mainline biblical scholars is that the ancient texts which Genesis 1-3 resembles most are ancient Near Eastern creation myths, an observation which suggests that that is probably the best way to read Genesis, as well.  In fact, most mainstream biblical scholarship today would understand Genesis to be an Israelite revision or version of prior mythical creation stories.  For many Christians this has been a tough pill to swallow, and it’s not hard to understand why.

In my last two posts I have been looking at the way C.S. Lewis thought about Scripture in general.  First, I looked at how Lewis thought we should approach the whole question of just what sort of Book it is that God has given us.  Second, I looked at the way Lewis thinks God has given His Book to us. The question I want to ask today is this: What did C.S. Lewis think specifically about the genre of Genesis?  Is it myth or history or science or what?  How should we read it?  Is it inspired, and, if so, how so?   Has the dean of modern Christian apologists any insight to offer us as we think through these nettlesome issues?

Lewis directly addresses these questions in chapter XI of his book Reflections on the Psalms.  He begins by dispelling the mis-perception that he believes  “that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical scientific truth.”  On the contrary, says Lewis, “[This] I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.”  Lewis is doing two things here: First, he is staking out his own position as a critically informed interpreter of Scripture, and, second, pointing out precedents for his approach in the grand Christian tradition, namely Saint Jerome and John Calvin.  Lewis is too well read to fall into the all too common misconception that all Christians were wholesale biblical literalists before the dawn of the Modern era.  Figurative readings of Genesis are not always modern Christian capitulations to Darwin but are, in fact, well represented among the best of the Church’s historic interpretive traditions.

But there’s more.  Lewis has also begun to tip his own hand on his view of the genre of Genesis’s Creation narratives here.  Saint Jerome, he points out, sees them as composed “after the manner of a popular poet,” which according to Lewis translates into modern scholarly parlance as “mythically.”  For Lewis, this presents no problem.  Nor is it a problem if Genesis’s Creation story is “derived” in some sense from earlier accounts. I cannot help quoting him at length here:

I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.  We must of course be quite clear what “derived from” means.  Stories do not reproduce their species like mice.  They are told by men.  each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it.  He may change it unknowingly or deliberately.  If he changes it deliberately, his invention, his sense of form, his ethics, his ideas of what is fit, or edifying, or merely interesting, all come in.  If unknowingly, then his unconscious (which is so largely responsible for our forgettings) has been at work.  Thus at every step in what is called–a little misleadingly–the “evolution” of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved.  And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.  When a series of such re-tellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.

For Lewis, “myth” is not a bad word.  It does not necessarily carry connotations of falsehood or contrivance or deception or muddleheadedness.  For Lewis myth is a highly imaginative way of speaking about the world that can speak truth at least as well as history or science can (and, indeed, can speak truths about which history and science must remain silent).  For Lewis, “myth” does not automatically mean false.

This fits well with Lewis’s incarnational or sacramental understanding of Scripture wherein God “takes up” human literature, blessing, shaping, and sanctifying it for His own mysterious redemptive purposes.  He writes:

Thus something originally merely natural–the kind of myth that is found among most nations–will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served.

It would be a mistake to think that Lewis had simply capitulated to the Spirit of the Age or to Darwin.  He hadn’t.  Lewis was, in fact, somewhat skeptical about Evolution, and was an ardent defender of traditional Christianity.  But he was also a professor of literature, a man trained in the reading, understanding, and appreciation of texts, and his literary instincts, given the available evidence, led him to the conclusion not only  that Genesis was myth but also that that was perfectly fine.  He knew that figurative readings of Genesis were well represented in the grand tradition of the Church and took the deliverances of modern biblical scholarship to be not a betrayal but a refinement of that tradition.

This is not to say that Lewis is obviously right about these matters.  But it is helpful to know not only that the 20th century’s brightest defender of the faith was undaunted by these questions, but also that there are more robust theological alternatives available to us than the tinny contemporary debates around Genesis and science and “Creationism” and the like would lead one to believe.

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Genesis and Myth

  1. This is very convincing, but a question raised in my mind that your post seems not to address. Isn’t there a difference between ‘myth in Scripture as a genre’ (which I take it to be Lewis’ position you cited) and ‘Scripture as myth’? How would Lewis (or even yourself) answer?

    Posted by Paul Park | March 14, 2012, 11:54 pm
    • Thanks, Paul. You know, that’s a really, really good question and I be responding to it a bit more fully in my next two posts: “C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Lewis on Myth, Truth, and Fact” and “C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Jesus and Myth.” By way of preview, both of those posts will be working through different parts of Lewis’s essay “Myth Became Fact” which can be found in his book of essays, God in the Dock.

      For my part, I think we would have to say that to speak of “myth in Scripture” is somewhat different from talking about “Scripture as myth.” “Myth” carries a different sense in each phrase. In the former, “myth in Scripture,” we are talking about the presence of writings of a certain genre within the Canon. It is formally just like talking about “chronicle in Scripture” or “psalmody in Scripture” or “epistles in Scripture” or “apocalyptic in Scripture.” In that case, myth carries a much more technical sense, referring to a specific literary genre. That there is myth in Scripture, Lewis is sure and I am inclined to agree with him.

      To speak of “Scripture as myth,” however, is another kettle of fish. In that case we are no longer using “myth” in the technical sense because we are now talking about viewing an anthology comprised of works from a variety of genres–psalms, proverbs, chronicles, gospels, apocalypses, poems, legal codes, etc.–all together “as” “myth.” What does “myth” mean here? What does “as” mean here? Perhaps “myth” here means something like “culturally foundational narrative” or something like that. In that case, sure, you can see Scripture as myth without any trouble because, at least for the Church, it is, in fact, the foundational narrative for our culture, the story providing the rationale for what we think, say and do.

      The “as” in the latter phrase is important, as well. But it’s a little late at the night to be parsing adverbs.

      The main thing is to see that “myth” doesn’t do the same work in both of those phrases. It’s also important to see that in either phrase and in either sense “myth” does not necessarily connote falsehood. Myths in Scripture can be true without necessarily being historical, per se. Scripture seen as a “myth” can also be true, but not without some parts of that “myth” being historical, like, for instance, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Does that make sense? Am I answering your question?

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | March 15, 2012, 2:43 am
      • The “culturally foundational narrative” idea is kinda like a confessional in story form, so to speak? This is interesting, but need to chew on it more…

        But my thoughts do end up with your answer (it’s more of a question in my head), “Myths in Scripture can be true without necessarily being historical, per se.” I’m having difficulty understanding ‘how’. I see it done in Job (truth: God is sovereign) and maybe even Jonah (truth: God is merciful?? this one’s harder), but I’m still having trouble seeing it for Genesis. If Genesis is myth, then I can see how we can claim the truth that God is king over creation (getting some help from the framework view) but I’m trying to see how we can claim that God created the world ‘ex nihilo’ nor even that he just created.

        Thanks for the lengthy response, I look forward to your next posts (and the reply to this comment).

        Posted by Paul | March 15, 2012, 2:15 pm
      • I think there are two issues here: 1) How can Genesis 1-3 be a true myth? and 2) What do we need to be able to “get out of” Genesis 1-3?

        As to the first, I am not sure I see the problem, especially if you are already on board with Jonah and Job being non-historical. Genesis one, in contradistinction to most other ANE creation narratives, depicts one God as being wholly sovereign over and responsible for the creation of the world. The world is very good and humankind is set apart as His special representatives in creation and vicegerents (tip of the hat to Dan McCartney) over creation. The sun, moon, and stars are not divinities to be worshiped but creations to be appreciated. These would be the things that would jump out at an ancient reader and would be the things I would suggest are the central points of the “myth,” all of which are theologically true, important, and revolutionary whether you’re pre-modern, modern, or post-modern.

        As to the second, G.B. Caird was fond of saying to his NT students, “I believe with all my heart that what you are saying is true. But I believe it equally as firmly that it is not in THAT text.” So, yes, Jesus is divine, the embodiment of Second Person of the Trinity, and secretly the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. But the place to look for that teaching is not in NT texts referring to Him as “Son of God.” “Son of God” primarily carried royal, rather than divine, connotations within 2nd Temple Judaism (see, e.g., Ps 2; 2 Sam 7 par; 4Q246, etc.). To get Jesus’s divinity, you’re better off looking at John 1, Philippians 2, and the like.

        Similarly, I believe with all of my heart that God the Son, who eventually took on flesh, died, and was raised, was also a key agent in the creation of the world (John 1; Col 1) and that any full-blooded theology of creation must say so. I believe equally as firmly that there is no way to get THAT crucial doctrine out of Genesis 1-3. Only by the most tortuous, irresponsible eisegesis could one even try to make Genesis 1-3 have said that within its original context. It’s a true doctrine that’s not in THAT text.

        I think the same goes for creatio ex nihilo. That, too, is a crucial Christian doctrine. But it’s probably not what Genesis 1 teaches. Genesis begins with a primordial, chaotic Sea (the Tehom) out of which God forms and shapes the world, not a vacuum. You can, perhaps, get the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo “out of” Scripture, but you’ll have to look elsewhere. We can never forget that Genesis 1-3 is vitally important for our doctrine of creation. But it ain’t everything, even if we’re just talking Scripture.

        Posted by dmwilliams83 | March 15, 2012, 3:39 pm
  2. Thanks for this overview. Very useful stuff. Any contemporary OT/NT scholars talking about this same issue in print?

    Posted by BHodges | April 11, 2012, 10:51 pm
    • Thanks for commenting! It’s always a pleasure to point people to Lewis.
      As for OT scholars talking about this, I would point you in the direction of Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam), J. Richard Middleton (The Liberating Image), Walter Brueggemann (An Introduction to the Old Testament) and Tremper Longman (he has boatloads of books). For a perspective from a phenomenal Jewish scholar, see Jon Levenson (Creation and the Persistence of Evil). There are loads more but these are the folks who’ve been most helpful to me so far. Blessings!

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | April 11, 2012, 10:58 pm
    • You should also check out Pete Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament along with Kent Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words for books framing a doctrine of Scripture wherein this sort of thing makes sense.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | April 11, 2012, 11:00 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Myth, Truth, Fact, and Genesis « Brick by Brick - March 23, 2012

  2. Pingback: Genesis 1-3 as Myth | Tired Road Warrior - April 15, 2012

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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