How to Interpret the Book of Genesis: An Interview with C. John Collins


C. John CollinsWhat does it mean to be a good reader of Genesis 1-11? What does it mean to take these ancient stories seriously and how does that relate to taking them literally? Can we even take any of this material seriously? How can we have a responsible conversation regarding science and biblical faith?

Bible Gateway interviewed C. John Collins about his book, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11 (Zondervan, 2018).

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What is the content of Genesis 1-11 and why did you think it necessary to write a book explaining how to read it well?

Dr. C. John Collins: The opening chapters of Genesis tell us about God’s making of the world and of humankind—and of how sin entered the world of human experience.

Responses to these chapters run the gamut, from outright skepticism (“how can anyone intellectually responsible credit these ideas at all?”), to critical appreciation (“the texts are wrong about history and science if we take them literally, but they still teach us valuable moral lessons”), to strong affirmation (“these texts are to be taken literally, which then tells us what true science should look like”). And there are many more options available!

How we would talk about these things depends on how we read Genesis, as well as how we read the scientific theories. (I’ve focused on the Genesis side of that!) In this work I aim to develop a reading strategy for Genesis 1–11 that draws its ideas from theories in linguistics, literary study, and rhetoric.

Why do you think C. S. Lewis can help in understanding this Bible passage?

Dr. C. John Collins: C. S. Lewis, well-known for his imaginative stories and for his apologetics, actually had a day job: he was a professional scholar of medieval and Renaissance European literature, first at Oxford, and later at Cambridge. Lewis’ professional writings display an intuitive grasp of disciplines that are nowadays held separate, such as rhetoric, literary interpretation, and linguistics—and these disciplines can, if used wisely, help us to make our reading more careful. In Lewis’ intuitions we see the benefits of not separating what God has joined together, and that’s what I’ve put to work here.

How should any work of art be properly approached?

Dr. C. John Collins: Lewis began one of his books this way: “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.”

Straightaway, Lewis has drawn our attention to three aspects of a work of literary craftsmanship:

  • What it is: issues of things like “genre,” style, and register; what is the relation of literary form and the content?
  • What it was intended to do: what effect does the work aim to produce in its users?
  • How it is meant to be used: what kind of users are envisioned by the work, what knowledge and beliefs do they share with the author, what kind of social setting is the normal locus of use?

I want to apply this way of thinking to Genesis.

How should this Bible passage inform a Christian worldview?

Dr. C. John Collins: All worldviews come to us by way of the Big Story we tell. In the Bible, the worldview serves to define a believing community: that is, the self-identifying question, “Who am I?” can only be answered by reference to such questions as “Who are we?” along with “Where are we? How are we? When are we? and Why are we?”

As Lewis noted, “Christianity, going on from [the Hebrew Bible], makes world history in its entirety a single, transcendentally significant, story with a well-defined plot pivoted on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgement.” Our goal is to tell the story the right way, so that it can have its impact on us.

What is your objective through your book?

Dr. C. John Collins: Fundamentally, I want to help people be better readers of the Bible, in order to play their part well in the unfolding Big Story of the world. There are many issues of debate among Christians, especially over how to relate these chapters to the sciences, and I think I can offer some help in developing a critically rigorous reading strategy.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dr. C. John Collins: Bible passages are like your children: You’re not allowed to have a “favorite,” and so I don’t. Different texts grab us at different times! But one of my best memories is of my son when he was not older than five (he’s 25 now), sitting on my lap in church. He took my pocket Bible and turned to the first page, and recited Genesis 1:1 to me; he told, “That’s my favorite verse in the Bible.” I can live with that.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Dr. C. John Collins: The Bible Gateway site is an enormous gift to the world. I have used it extensively for its incredible variety of Bible versions, not only in English but in other languages as well. I appreciate the other resources as well—it’s heartening to see something on the internet that you find uniformly edifying!

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. C. John Collins: The book is, as I’ve said, focused on science and faith matters. I like to think I’ve helped the conversation along. But I’ve also touched on a number of other topics that I hope will be fruitful for the church as well—say, the propriety of attending to the canon and of respecting ancient readers, and how the Bible uses rhetoric of different sorts to do its work in us. I hope to develop these in the service of homiletics and youth ministry in the future.

I close Reading Genesis Well with a couple of remarks from Lewis’ close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Near the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo is about to leave Middle Earth altogether, he entrusts The Red Book to his loyal companion Sam. Sam will have major responsibilities among the Hobbits; he must give them wise leadership, and set a good example as “the most famous gardener in history.” Frodo envisions Sam in a public role: “You will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.”

The Scripture, especially used in public worship, enables the people of God to remember the dangers from which God has delivered the corporate entity, that they might love their God, their beloved body, and their calling in the world all the more—and devote themselves to these.

Tolkien wrote a letter to his son Christopher as the Second World War’s European campaign neared its end; in this letter he captured well both the human predicament and the way in which the biblical story meets that predicament: “I do not now feel either ashamed or dubious on the Eden ‘myth’. It has not, of course, historicity of the same kind as the NT, which are virtually contemporary documents, while Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’.”

Reading Genesis Well is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Jack Collins is Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis, Missouri. With degrees from MIT (SB, SM) and the University of Liverpool (PhD), he has been a research engineer, a church-planter, and, since 1993, a teacher. In addition to his early focus on Hebrew and Greek grammar, he also studies science and faith, how the New Testament uses the Old, and biblical theology. He was Old Testament Chairman for the English Standard Version of the Bible, and is author of Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? and Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care, and is currently writing commentaries on Numbers, Psalms, and Isaiah. During the 2016–17 academic year, he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Carl Henry Center for Theological Understanding of Trinity International University. He and his wife have been married since 1979 and have two grown children.

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