I recently received John Walton’s NIV Application Commentary on Genesis from a good friend. Apart from a general dislike for the structural format of the series, the content has been both extremely insightful and bewildering at the same time.
Every one has their “thing,” their particular emphasis and specialty. Of course, Walton’s thing is ancient Near Eastern (ANE) background comparative studies. Walton’s emphasis provides us with fruitful reference material, which helps us to transcend our cultural situatedness and read the text of the OT through the lenses of reconstructed elements of an ANE paradigm. Walton’s contributions in this respect shine through in his part in the IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament.
I’ve found times, however, in his Genesis commentary that this emphasis becomes so axiomatic for Walton that, the comparative analysis is held at the expense of the straight forward teaching in other biblical passages, not least the ones that are authoritatively interpreting the various Genesis texts he’s considering. Genesis 1:26 is a case in point.
Walton affords two-plus pages to the use of plural pronouns in reference to God in Gen 1:26 (i.e., “Let us...in our image”; see pp. 128—30). Walton sets forward three lines of reasoning used to deal with this anything but uncontroversial topic: 1) theological, 2) grammatical, and 3) cultural. The cultural perspective is later qualified as offering two differing veins, one of which is Walton’s preferred resolution for the plurals. Walton defines these three categories as follows:
1. Theological: The plurals are explained as an expression of the plurality within the Godhead, either specifically of the Trinity or at least as a recognition of the two persons represented by the creator God (elohim) and the Holy Spirit of verse 2.
2. Grammatical: The plurals are explained as an expression of grammatical or rhetorical conventions, including self-deliberation, plural of majesty, and grammatical agreement with the plural elohim.
3. Cultural: The plurals are explained against the background of ancient Near Eastern culture.
One of the cultural interpretive options is that the plurals represent a vestige of polytheism. Walton rightly dismisses this option out of hand, as it is the result of heterodox presuppositions that he (and most other students of the Bible) simply can’t adopt. The grammatical option even less attention before dismissal.
Granting the ANE background and other OT text such as 1 Kings 22:19—22; Is 14:13, and Job 1, Walton concludes that the cultural view that assumes the plurals are to be understood as representing a “heavenly court” comprised of angels is the best case hypothesis for reading Gen 1:26.
Walton’s positive conclusion notwithstanding, my concern with his handling of this verse is in connection with his dismissal of the theological reading of the plurals.
He begins by admitting that, “the theological is probably the most popular in traditional circles...” I’m sorry, but given the contemporary attitude towards anything “traditional,” this reads as poisoning the well—he has bent the reader toward his conclusion prior to hearing his argument, if, that is, the reader doesn’t understand themselves to be part of the “traditional circle.” Today, it is almost unanimous consensus that if something is coming from a traditional perspective, it is necessarily wrong or at very least needs serious questioning.
In addition, the statement reads as if the theological reading is held only by those in “traditional circles,” or in other words, modern “traditionalists,” a.k.a, anti-intellectual fundamentalists. How it ought to read, though, is that the theological view of Gen 1:26 comes not from a traditional “circle” but rather a long “line” of tradition. The theological reading has a sustained pedigree throughout the orthodox hermeneutical tradition.
For instance, if the Epistle of Barnabas sheds any light on the apostolic interpretation of this verse, then the following is significant. “For the Scripture says concerning us, while he speaks to the Son, ‘Let Us make man...’” (Barn., VI). Likewise, Irenaeus has this: “[T]he Son and Holy Spirit, to whom He says, ‘Let Us make man’” (AH, IV, Preface: 4). And again, “[T]he Son and Spirit, by whom and in whom...He made all things, to whom He also speaks, saying, ‘Let Us make man...’” (AH, IV:XX:1). Furthermore, Tertullian, in his treatise Against Marcion, says the same. “Since then he is the image of the Creator (for He, when looking on Christ His Word, who was to become man, said, ‘Let Us make man...’)” (Ch. VIII).
These men are not reading Gen 1:26 through highly developed, post-Nicene Christological/Trinitarian lenses; a charge that might be laid at the doorstep of Calvin, who concludes thus in his commentary of Genesis, “Christians, therefore, properly contend, from this testimony, that there exists a plurality of Persons in the Godhead. God summons no foreign counsellor; hence we infer that he finds within himself something distinct; as, in truth, his eternal wisdom and power reside within him.”
From these examples, the “traditional circle” boasts a 2000 year circumference; from the best minds in the faith, the theological view was the Patrological view and the Reformational view of the plurals in Gen 1:26. Shall we then throw this to the wind?
This, of course, provokes a question: How much authority ought ecclesiastical tradition and historical theology exercise over our hermeneutical practice today? Historically, Protestants, in response to the absolutism of the Romish doctrine of papal authority, have tended to overreact and do their interpretation in a vacuum. This attitude has been heightened and exaggerated by the individualistic and autonomous spirit resident in the various independent-fundamentalists movements of the 20th century, which scathes any tradition as being the “traditions of men” (as though they are not constructing a tradition of their own!).
Such an attitude is unwise at best (literally). And it seems that Walton shares some measure of this attitude toward the authority of our historical interpretive heritage.
“[I]f we ask what the Hebrew author and audience understood, any explanation assuming plurality in the Godhead is easily eliminated. If the interpreter wishes to bypass the human author with the claim that God’s intention is what is important, there are large obstacles to hurdle. If divine intention is not conveyed by the human author, where is it conveyed?”
This last sentence begs some attention. The question seems loaded and rhetorical to me. If we answer this question with any dual agency theory, Walton has framed it so it would seem that we’re disparaging authorial intent (and adopting a quasi-dictation idea of inspiration). This works, however, only is we accept his equivocation.
Here Walton seems to be equivocating the terms “understood” and “conveyed.” This appears to me to be the only way for his argument to work. For if we take the terms to denote their usual lexical sense, then limiting our conclusions to what the human author and his contemporaries understood would eliminate not only plurality in the Godhead, but divine intention altogether, reducing the Bible to a monument of human literary genius. On the other hand, of course, we’re obligated to subscribe to the idea that the divine intention is conveyed (or carried through, communicated by, et cetera). However, it does not follow from the fact that the author’s own words are the vehicle of divine intent to the notion that the divine intention of the author’s words are strictly bound by the cultural categories and plausibility structure of the author and his contemporaries. This, though, is exactly what I believe Walton’s remarks “convey.”
Moreover, if the divine intention is constricted to the paradigmatic understanding of the author/audience, then what we commonly understand as “progressive revelation,” the organic escalation of God’s Self-disclosure in Scripture, is dependant on and subordinate to the cultural and sociological developments of ANE civilization. I believe this conclusion is as unavoidable as it is heterodox.
Finally, Walton says:
“Certainly, if the New Testament told us that the Trinity was referred to in this verse, we would have no trouble accepting that as God’s intention. But it is not enough for the New Testament to affirm that there is such a thing as the Trinity. That affirmation does not prove that the Trinity is referred to in Genesis 1:26. Without specific New Testament treatment, we have no authoritative basis for bypassing the human author.”
I’m inclined to respond to these remarks with tongue in cheek...
“Certainly, Mr. Walton, if the NT explicitly told us that ANE comparative analysis was the most proper means of extracting the divine intention from the OT texts, then we’d have no trouble accepting the primacy you afford the method. That modernistic methods like this exist, and can be brought to bear on the text of Scripture (working on the presupposition that the Bible is ordinary literature!), is not enough to convince us. Without specific NT use of this method, we have no authoritative basis for bypassing the Christological-Canonical reading used by the NT authors.”
The truth in this jest is this: Walton rightly appeals to later revelation, particularly that later than the Advent of Christ, Who is the Sum and Finale of God’s revelation to mankind, in order to establish an “authoritative basis” for the theological view. He believes there is none, so... But this seems like special pleading, since Walton has no NT basis for allowing ANE background analysis to be the final determiner in discovering the divine intention in the reading of Gen 1:26.
In Lk 24:25ff, the two on the road to Emmaus are upbraided by Jesus for their reading of the OT. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses (i.e., Genesis) and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself...Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Further, Paul teaches that an Old Covenant reading that does not presuppose Christ is a “veiled” reading.
Does not, then, the NT train us to always take a Christ-first, theological reading, lest we too are “slow of heart to believe”?
And what of the logic of the NT? The NT presents Christ as the uncreated Creator, through whom all things, including man, were made. Moreover, the image-restoration texts (esp. Eph 4:24 and Col 3:10) teach us not only the essential attributes lost in the Fall, but also their recovery; our salvation is a progressive recreating into that originally good image of God in us, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus, without any self-consciousness of inconsistency, Paul presents us with the clear teaching in the renown ordo salutis, Rom 8:28--30, that our salvific reshaping is into the image of the Son. And John, when we shall inherit our full redemption, the resurrection and perfection of our bodies, 1 Jn 3:2. Good and necessary deduction from the NT data offers the very thing Walton claims is not there.
Nevertheless, beyond the logic of the NT, what about the explicit texts, such as Jn 1:1—3, Col 1:15f, and Heb 1:1—3? Where else did the early Church fathers get the notion that the plurals of Gen 1:26 were an intra-Trinitarian discourse? For Walton to claim that because these texts don’t explicitly read “Gen 1:26 is Uni-Plural Divine dialogue,” we must suspend judgment is unfair; for using the same rationale, he’d also have to suspend judgment that even there exists such a thing as the Trinity, since the NT doesn’t say so according to the rigors of his expectations.
So, while I’m finding some of Walton’s gleanings from his expert research in ANE background very helpful in many respects, there are several points in the commentary, such as this one, where he seems so stuck on his “thing,” his specialty, that he’ll slay both good exegesis and common sense on its altar (to use ANE language, that is;).
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4