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Book Review: “Interpreting Eden” by Vern Poythress

Vern Poythress offers a contribution to the interpretation of Genesis with his book Interpreting Eden. His arguments are primarily centered around targeting rival readings of Genesis.

One of the more controversial claims in a book full of such claims is Poythress leveling his sites on interpreting the language in the Bible about the state of the universe. Poythress is keen to demonstrate that the author of Genesis and authors of Scripture did not believe, as many have argued, that the earth had a solid dome over its sky. He draws several lines of evidence in support of his theory that, basically, these authors had an accurate view of the Earth. First, he argues throughout the work that the biblical authors write with a perspectival view in mind. That is, they are writing from the perspective of how things appear. So, for example, saying that the sun rises in the east is not a claim about objective reality but rather accurately reflects how one observing the sun from the Earth might see it.

Interestingly, Poythress couches his discussion of the “dome of the sky” language in the Bible not in interactions with experts in the Ancient Near East who make this argument and seemingly make it clear that this is exactly what the ancient Israelites believed, but rather he makes his interlocutor a “modern student” who somewhat naively reads the Bible literally (see, for example, Kindle locations 1196-1210). So, rather than critically interacting with the many scholarly accounts by experts on the Ancient Near East, Poythress presents the readings of cosmology as a cacophony of voices, strangely concluding that “My point is not to decide between various interpretations [of ANE evidence or cosmology], but to point out that the existence of variant interpretations constitutes a difficulty” (location 1228). But Poythress would hardly allow this same level of critical uncertainty when it comes to, say, biblical texts that are favored by Reformed theologians to make their point. Yet it is unclear that the many, many variant interpretations of virtually any text in the Bible present such a similar difficulty which, for Poythress, ultimately leads him to conclude that readings which allow for ANE background to be carried along with the biblical text “border… on incoherence” (1255). Would he make this same conclusion in regard to the dissonant voices of his own preferred texts to back his theological conclusions elsewhere? Doubtful.

Moreover, Poythress’s use of analogies obfuscates issues rather than clarifying him. His notion of the vehicle-cargo approach virtually insists upon a lieralistic interpretation of the analogy while he uses it to make vague and metaphorical points. Here again, he fails to interact with experts in the ANE and instead attacks what he sees as a “physicalist” reading of the Old Testament, without allowing these rival interpreters to even make their arguments. He then simply concludes that “Modern physicalist readings run the danger of not recognizing analogy and metaphor in ancient texts” (1280) despite himself acknowledging that these same modern readers make analogies between other ANE texts and Genesis!

Poythress also tries to show that a comprehensive picture of providence is required and then contradicted by some views within Christianity. He writes:

Among people who claim to be Christian, something akin to deism still exists in our time. It consists in the idea that… created things are sufficient in themselves to develop under their own power. In other words, God is basically uninvolved in detailed development. (Kindle location 424)

This appears to be a somewhat veiled jab at theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationists, depending upon one’s preferred parlance), who would see evolution as proceeding generally under its own power. It is here worth noting that Poythress does not acknowledge the vast diversity within those who affirm evolution and Christianity. For example, many evolutionary creationists affirm that while evolution may appear random, that does not preclude it from being directed by God or ordained and ordered by God. Indeed, Poythress himself has argued at length that we humans may perceive something as chance when it is in fact ordered by God. To then turn around and claim that this means people are only “claiming” to be Christian when they would affirm this same approach to evolution seems disingenuous at best. Moreover, Poythress goes on to say that “The deistic view affirms that God sustains the existence of the wind and the water” (Kindle loc. 431). This left me wondering what definition of deism Poythress is operating under, as deism is explicitly the view that God creates the universe but then does not interact with it. The act of sustaining existence is itself a miraculous act of God, and so would contradict a deistic perspective, which instead is explicitly mechanistic in its understanding of creation after the deistic god has created it (see, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s discussion of Deism alongside the Enlightenment). So Poythress’s charge is off base and, again, seems disingenuous, particularly for him to say these people “claim to be Christian…”

Time and again, Poythress makes it clear that there is an agenda in this book. He isn’t going to the text as often as one might think, given the subtitle of the book as a “Guide to faithfully reading and understanding Genesis 1-3.” Instead, he continually uses his presupposed interpretive lens to bash his theological opponents, who are referred to as deists, who “claim to be Christian,” who are “old fashioned liberals,” who are naive, etc. This judgment-laden language ought to show readers exactly what is happening in the book. It isn’t an attempt to objectively approach the text; it is a practice in using one’s own presupposed lenses to then conclude all other positions are in the wrong. Oddly, for example, after spending quite a large portion of the early part of the book in critiquing the notion that the biblical text is a vehicle for some ANE views that may be wrong or scientifically misinformed, Poythress himself acknowledges that “distinct cultures and subcultures may have shared some stock images” (2797). Does this mean the text of Scripture is a vehicle carrying the cargo of ANE allusions to “stock images” like the “contrast between chaos and order”? It certainly seems that is what Poythress is saying, yet he already claimed that such a view is “incoherent” earlier in the book. Yet it becomes clear that Poythress himself cannot help but acknowledge the ANE influence on the biblical text. Thus, despite his aversion to seeing parts of the biblical text as ANE background, which he argues allows readers to “simply excise anything they want by labeling it in their minds as merely a vehicle” (1454) he allows himself the leeway to claim that this “stock imagery” is present. Is it impossible for Poythress, then, to decide parts of the text are “stock images” when he finds them too difficult to assimilate into his own perspective? He doesn’t seem to think so, but his own position is effectively the same, here, as those he claims to oppose. He just arbitrarily assigns his position the label of “conservative” and “inerrancy” while excluding others from the Kingdom for their “claims to be Christian.”

Ultimately, Interpreting Eden is a book that will benefit most those who already agree with Poythress’s theological presuppositions. His arguments against “physicalist” interpretations and his unsubtle attempts to paint those with whom he disagrees as “deists” make it clear there is a theological agenda at play here rather than an attempt to grapple with the very real problem many of these texts present to the modern reader (who is, ironically, his main interlocutor).

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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SDG.

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