Friday, July 16, 2010

Alexander Campbell on Genesis 1:2

For the longest time, I've been meaning to read Alexander Campbell's Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch. He delivered them at Bethany College during the school year of 1859-60, when he was in his early seventies.

Campbell is an important member of my extended spiritual family, to say the least. And I've always wanted to find out more about how he handled the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. According to Campbell, how should the church put the Old Testament to use as holy scripture? Here, I suppose, he will answer that question not so much in theory, but in practice. So I'm looking forward to what will follow.

So far I've read the first two entries. Lecture I is introductory. Campbell highlights the necessity of the Bible for any education worthy of the name. He speaks against human theories, contrasting them with facts from the Bible. As I read this lecture, I thought about how members of the Churches of Christ, conservative heirs of Campbell, who have pursued higher education have almost always been "facts people." That is, they've typically studied history and languages, above all the Bible; but not so much philosophy or systematic theology. To get a feel for why that's the case, one would need to go no further than Lecture I, where Campbell says: The failure of popular systems of education . . . presents to us, very impressively, the truth that facts, and not theories, realities and not speculations, are essential to the true intent and meaning of education (p. 63). And where are the facts to be found? Where do we meet up with realities? Above all, says Campbell, in the pages of the Bible.

In Lecture II, Campbell covers the first two verses of Genesis 1. He presents running commentary on words and phrases. Up to this point in the Lectures, he hasn't made reference to specific Hebrew words. But he does mention the sense or the gist of the Hebrew text. In this lecture, I was especially intrigued by Campbell's reference to contemporary geology versus the biblical creation account. Here is part of his discussion of Genesis 1:2:

The second verse is especially important, inasmuch as it has to do with the many dates entertained by geologists, in regard to the antiquity of creation. But as already remarked, we take the Mosaic account, against all the world of authority of whatever nature--always accepting however, the geological history, so far as it accords with the inspired record. In this verse Moses presents us with a statement of the condition of things, in that undefined period, anteceding all the acts in the drama of creation, presented in the sequel of this chapter. How long a measure of time is assumed in this series of facts, is beyond the mental scrutiny of mortal man. (p. 71).

Here Campbell clearly states that when human theory goes against something the Bible affirms, then he will side with the Bible every time. Nevertheless, he notes, Genesis 1:2 does not give a time frame for that period during which the earth was without form and void. I don't know if the so-called "Gap Theory" had been formulated as early as Campbell's day. What is clear is that he leaves open the possibility of a huge gap in time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3. In spite of his loyalty to the Bible, I wonder how much he was concerned that the Creation account match up with modern geology. Either way, he makes it a point to emphasize the indefinite period described in Genesis 1:2. Interesting, don't you think?

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