Tolle Lege: Interpreting Eden by Vern Poythress

My first exposure to Vern Poythress was through the “Help Me Teach the Bible” podcast with Nancy Guthrie.  Afterward I immediately purchased 3 of his books, “Redeeming Sociology,”  Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God” and “Christian Interpretations of Genesis.”  Step 2 was to download every audio file of his I could find, mainly through the Westminster Seminary archives.  Step 3 was to regularly haunt the website he keeps with John Frame, where I discovered I could access many of his older books for free, including the ones I had already purchased.  Live and learn. 

A humbler, more versatile scholar I have seldom encountered.  The latter attribute one could expect from a pile of degrees including a Bachelor of Science from California Institute of Technology, a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard, an M.Litt. from Cambridge, a Th.D from University of Stellenbosch, and a couple more from Westminster Theological Seminary where Poythress has been teaching for 40 years.  But the humility this learned man exudes must come the indwelling of the Holy Spirit Himself.  I also suspect there were seeds of this attribute planted during his upbringing on the family’s farm outside Fresno, California, a place I know well, having lived there myself while studying Philosophy at Fresno State University where Poythress taught math long before I was born.

Poythress’s latest book, Interpreting Eden  (Crossway, 2019), and NOT available for free on his website, couldn’t have come at a better time for me as the ladies Bible Study I am involved in is currently going through the book of Genesis.  That said, this isn’t at all a commentary on or supplement to any study of the first book of the Bible.  Nor is it some fresh, new interpretation of the creation account.  Rather, it is an in-depth analysis of the various interpretations already at play, the presuppositions on which they are based, their strengths, weaknesses, and the interpretive strategies they each bring to the text.  

Poythress starts big. His first chapter is entitled, “God.” After examining the various substitutes interpreters of creation have set up in His place from Pantheism, to philosophical materialism, to mechanistic scientism, he points out that “when we begin seriously to take God into account, it changes some important hermeneutical principles for interpreting Genesis 1-3.  In fact it changes every hermeneutical principle under the sun (45).”  Poythress spends several chapters thoroughly fleshing out the ramifications of our presuppositions on the creation account.  Even Christian interpretations fall prey to bad presuppositions.  Of course, these days, Poythress points out, “the word Christian can be used very loosely (47).”  Kind of like Poythress’s description of his own book as a “guide.”  Clearly, “guide” is being used very loosely.  I would say, this book is to “guide,” what “tsunami” is to ones baptism into the subject of interpretations on Genesis.

Thankfully, about half-way through the book, Poythress throws the drowning reader a life-preserver in the form of a three-page summary of the hermeneutical principles he has applied to the creation account thus far (131).  I say linger long over that summery and then once you’ve caught your breath you’re ready for the next wave, “Part 2, Exegetical Concerns.”  In this section Poythress builds on the premise that “God’s present-day governance provides a key framework for interpretation, because God knows that readers’ familiarity with his providential governance of nature offers the natural starting point for understanding Genesis 1 (137).” Poythress applies the term providence to “God’s rule in the present world, subsequent to the completion of his creative acts at the end of the sixth day” of creation.”   This he contrasts with the term creation which he uses to “designate the acts of God during the six days of Genesis 1 (139).” Unfortunately, I think Poythress builds too heavily on this distinction and subsequent correlations.  

Part 3 devotes a lot of time to . . . time, to which he gives due diligence, given its current centrality to modern debates over interpretations of Genesis 1.  He then ends with a helpful examination of “Factuality and Literalism” which also serves to tie a lot of loose ends together.  After such a tidal wave of material, I feel Poythress’s conclusion ends with a trickle.  Even though I agree with his summation, it lacked the force that seemed so present throughout the rest of the book.  He concludes this way,

“God really did create the world in six days.  He really did create Adam and Eve as human beings, made in the image of God—two individuals whose actions and fall into sin have affected the whole human race.  We can be confident about these things, not only because Genesis 1-3 sets them forth, but because they are confirmed by later biblical reflections based on Genesis 1-3.  But we do well to respect the sparseness of the account in Genesis and to remain tentative at some points as to how we think these truths are to be connected with modern scientific claims (289).”

This book would be of extreme value for two kinds of people.  The first are those who have never given the creation account of Genesis a serious thought but are willing to finally come to terms with the reality of this historical narrative and its universal implications.  The second are those who have already given Genesis more than the usual amount of serious consideration and are already so set in their interpretation as to need a good shaking up.  In other words, this book is NOT for the faint of heart.  If really hard questions about your preconceptions and possible biases might cause you to lose confidence in the authentic exalted divine authority of either the God of the Bible or whatever substitute you’re setting up in His place, then maybe this book isn’t for you.


Although I was provided with a free copy of this book from the publisher, I am under no obligation to give it a favorable review.

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