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The strange new world of the bible

What do you see when you look up?


or this:

ht Mark Meynell

A theological revolution occured early last century when Karl Barth turned from his liberal protestant heritage to jump with both feet into "the strange new world of the bible" (the title of an early book of his).

Have you jumped in, or only dipped your toe?  It's a very hard thing to do.

It's so hard, you might just need Mike Reeves, Michael Ward and CS Lewis as guides.  So if you haven't listened to this brilliant podcast - do so forthwith.


0 thoughts on “The strange new world of the bible

  1. Josh

    I see the first one, which proclaims God's greatness certainly.

    I'm not sure what you're getting at, though. If you've truly "jumped in to the Bible," you're going to believe the world is flat with a solid dome between yourself and heaven? I'll be honest, I haven't read anything by Karl Barth.

  2. Glen

    Hi Josh,
    The Barth line is just a good line- you don't need to know his theology.

    You use Psalm 19 language in conjunction with the video. I guess what I'm trying to say is that next time you read Psalm 19, realize that the video is *nothing* like David's conception of the 'heavens'. Jump in with both feet when you read the bible.

    The podcast will explain more.

  3. Glen

    In addition - realize that both are artistic interpretations with leaps of creative imagination being employed. The raw data used is different and the creative leaps of the video are *vast*.

    What we see when we look up has much to do with what we expect to see. I'm no good at it myself, but I want to be able to see the heavens the way David did.

  4. Heather


    The podcast was interesting, but are you aware that the first two minutes focuses on the guest's time spent living in CS Lewis' home, sitting in his study, freezing in his bedroom--

    I couldn't help but laugh as it appears Lewis has posthumously joined the T4G crowd.

    I don't like either of the perceptions you've offered as examples.

    The video starts with "earth" as the center of the universe.

    And the schematic is cold. But, then, most charts about how to view God or how He "works" do tend to leave me feeling as though He is unreachable and impersonal.

    You're right, though. What we see of God is often influenced directly by our own pre-conceived notions.

    At any rate, I don't think David had that diagram pasted to his palace wall ;)

  5. Chris Oldfield

    "realize that the video is *nothing* like David’s conception of the ‘heavens’. Jump in with both feet when you read the bible."

    For starts, I'm not so sure that diagram is much like it either. The dots may be there, but joined up totally differently.

    I know what your trying to do, and I've been trying to decide what to do with allegory & demythologisation for a couple years now, but I fear this rhetoric is misleading.

    When we read "earth", we automatically think "planet earth", but presumably the bible writers probably just thought land - the land, as in "the meek shall inherit the land", so by the same token, if you really want to "enter the world of the bible", why not just read Gen 1:1 (for example) as "in the beginning God created the land and the sky", and make it a local narrative about God's people and God's land?

    We are right to think cosmology in Genesis 1 because it is declaring the good news that creation is a cosmos (in protest against babylon's creation myths, where material gods emerge out of primeval chaos), and that life is a gift, not a product. But I suggest we too easily put that cosmology in the category of modern/medieval cosmology (ie not just thinking order, character & purpose, but size, form and scale), that is we only hear "heavens" and "earth" in universal terms because of the impact of medieval/modern cosmology!

    I'm not sure what your rhetoric is trying to achieve:

    (a) modern cosmology (ie size, form, scale) should be replaced by medieval, or even (reconstructions of) "hebrew" cosmology, if the bible is true. In your example (Ps 8), to say "the heavens declare the glory of God" is only true if the heavens (as David conceived them) exist. Otherwise there's a total breakdown of correspondance: if the heavens don't exist as David conceived them, (for the sake of argument, let's just say this diagram really does illustrate his conception)


    (b) neither modern cosmology nor medieval cosmology nor hebrew cosmology (taken for the sake of argument to be how your picture illustrates it) are right. We should be Kuhnian postmodern skeptics about science & progress - the "truth" about the world is only located in consensus in the scientific community, and paradigm shifts are only located in sociological breakdown of agreement in the community. None is truer than another, or at best let's say Hebrew cosmology is true because the bible is inerrant and God's the only one who can tell us the form & scale of the cosmos.

    I prefer to humbly suggest (c) that the poetry of Psalm 8 really does communicate something, that the glory of God is declared (without words) when we look up at the night sky. When we look at the stars (however we see them, or from however far), we are seeing gifts: "the work of his hands". And therefore the glorious richness of Psalm 8 is meaningful and protests against "Babylon" (that it's chaos, mindless, material), whether the reader is hebrew, medieval or however the stars are conceived.

  6. Chris Oldfield

    sorry, line missing at the end of (a)
    *if (what David had in mind by) "the heavens" don't exist then we might as well say "nothing" declares the glory of god, or "unicorns" declare the glory of god

  7. Si

    I watched on iPlayer last night a thing on the History of Chemistry. The presenter disliked the Greek's 4 Elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water), but loved Paracelcus' 3 Elements, even though they were basically a similar thing (in fact, looking around, it seems that Paracelcus had the 4 elements, but that they acted in only 3 ways - Mercury, Salt and Sulphur - that he took off a Persian view). Then there was the dissing of Alchemy, not because it was scientifically bunk, but because it mixed Metaphysical and Physical - but that's what Paracelcus did, yet he gets considered good for some reason (perhaps because he was more recent).

    Lewis said he was the "last of the pre-moderns". Lewis knew that there were 9 planets (well, 8 and Pluto), not 5 and that the earth went around the sun, not the other way, still thought Aristotle's view of the solar system was good, because the metaphysical stuff there was good (in his view).

    I think we neglect the metaphysical aspects of creation, focusing on the physical. (the opposite error is Gnostic, so we don't want to go too far) I'm not sure I'd agree with either of the two options in the post.

    PS - why if you zoom out from Cambridge (not the one in Massachusetts), do you have an American voice?

  8. Duane

    Hi Glen!
    Here is an American voice. I hate to go off topic. Won't be offended if you delete me, but this being a day old now.

    The pod cast was interesting by the by. But whilst over at the theology network, I did a very little browsing, I stumbled across a work by one Glen Scrivener, (heard of him?) called "A theology of Preaching" I think. I looked for a comment box- no go. I tried to find it...oops o.k. so I did find it in your archives june 20,2009. Ill' go there and comment. Timely article by the way!


  9. Glen

    Hi Chris,
    I'm away from my computer for a few days (posts are being published automatically), so I'll respond briefly from my phone.

    Why do you say that Genesis 1 is written in response to Babylonian myths?
    Certainly the video is not the context for reading it, and maybe the diagram gets some of the scale issues wrong (which would only go to show that scale *is* important to Hebrew cosmology), but why should we accept Babylon as the interpretive context? I think that assumption skews a lot of things and it's not given in Scripture itself.


  10. Dave K

    Chris makes a good point I think.

    To say that the Bible writers thought of the world like the second diagram, is quite a stretch. That is our translation of how they thought, and we've probably lost a lot in the translation. To draw a diagram describing the Biblical view of the cosmos seems to be as mad as trying to paint the visions of Revelation. People have done both, but so much is lost in the translation that you wonder whether it is referring to the same thing at all.

    John Walton says:
    "ontology in the ancient world was more connected to function than to substance. In other words, something exists when it has a function, not when it takes up space or is a substance characterized by material properties. This applies to everything in the cosmos, where various elements come into being when they are given a role and function within the cosmos. The neglect of curiosity about the physical structure of the cosmos is therefore not simply a consequence of their inability to investigate their physical world. The physical aspects of the cosmos did not define its existence or its importance; they were merely the tools the gods used for carrying out their purposes" (p.167, ANE thought and the OT).

    So neither the video or the diagram really tell us anything important from an Ancient Near Eastern point of view. Both descriptions are crying out for the word of God to explain them. Both are crying out to have their function explained, and without that function... who cares?

    I am reminded again that without the Gospel Word creation by itself tells us nothing about God's purposes for us. Without that word we are left to interpret creation for ourselves, and it then only condemns us as law. The first video shouts at me of my insignificance, my lostness, and my vulnerability. The second diagram tells me that God is uninvolved and the world is static with no hope for change. The Gospel that tells us that God does care for us, that this universe is creation and not unchangeable order or threatening chaos. It then says that this creation is a GIFT! Given to us to serve us! Destined for resurrection! How incredible is that.

    Once I hear about the revealed function of Creation then I don't care about the structure anymore. And in that I think I share the Hebrews' worldview.

    On a side note. Chris doesn't say that Gen 1 is written in 'response' to Babylonian myths, but that it is 'in protest against' them. I think it is undeniable that Gen 1 shares language and concepts with other ANE myths, including Babylonian ones. From reading the OT the ANE strikes me as a very connected world and I don’t think it could have been read by the Israelites except in conversation with these myths. Given the author also was aware of these myths he, like all preachers, would have written sensitive that it spoke to this situation.

    ...and if the tower of Babel and Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans are not also saying something about Babylonian religion then I haven't got a clue how to read the bible. I think there are enough clues to mean that Babylon has to be at least part of the interpretive context of Gen.

  11. Chris Oldfield

    Hi Glen & Dave. Not much to add, but I'll reply to this key question:

    "why should we accept Babylon as the interpretive context? I think that assumption skews a lot of things and it’s not given in Scripture itself"

    Skewed against what? If you're looking for a preface to the scriptures saying "This is written in an Ancient Near Eastern language no longer spoken, in the geographical area now known as Iraq, and the land of Canaan you will soon read this man Abraham marked out is the land now known as Palestine", you won't find it. I'm tempted to say, enter the strange world of the bible, and you'll see it everywhere - I'd cite Gordon Wenham here. But it's a legitimate question. Honestly, I'd say it's something I'm coming to see more and more as I read the bible...Particularly, the wisdom literature and the doctrine of creation therein.

    Here's a few of the flags that I see:

    - There are Specific links: (eg rivers tigris & euphrates mentioned in eden, when they return to those rivers, "eden" isnt there - god isnt there - it's godless, overgrown, and they're in exile (eg Daniel 10:4)

    - but also narratively: Abram is called out of Babel, the city which seeks to make a name for itself, to seek the city "whose architect and builder is God", the God who will give his name (yAHweh) to make AbrAHam great & a blessing to the nations. The whole nation, call and project of Jerusalem is the protest against idolatry (material gods) by the God who speaks & rules from heaven.

    - Observing the text, it seems to me that the vanity (hebel) of Ecclesiastes is about exile: vanity, vanity...God's word coming back to him empty (whereas the prophets, eg Isaiah proclaim the reverse: the promise of return from exile & new creation mean it's not in vain!), likewise the futility & weightlessness of idolatry, "the gods of the nations are nothing", or the question of weight/glory (cabod) in Isa 40, or Daniel 1-5...BUT "remember your creator", in Eccl 5-12, Daniel 1-12, Psalm 73, Isa 40 etc, which are the essential themes of the gospel picked up in 1 Peter.

    - Theological links: can't begin to understand Daniel 1:1-2 or the tragedy of 2 Kings 25 without the background of Genesis 12, nor that without Gen 1-11. The Babylonians/Chaldeeans aren't just any old nation that happened to attack - note how for instance the assyrians, the egyptians, & loads of other kingdoms are mentioned, but BABYLON is the one that's constantly brought up as repulsive, again and again. The Babylonian exile seems to be back to square one regarding God's purposes for his people & planet, and the exiles are given new names, the names of the Babylonian gods, eg Daniel "God is my judge" --> "may bel protect me", or Mishael ("who is like God?") --> Meshach ("who is like Achu (moon god)?") It seems that the whole struggle in exile is to obliterate the identity of Israel, and that in the heavenly realms against the LORD (this has implications for the Son of God & new creation theologies in eg Ephesians 1-3)

    - Doctrinally: the doctrine of creation makes repentance is wise, but the Babylonian doctrine of creation guts the gospel of any sense at all. For instance, the worship of material gods in Daniel 2-5, or the conclusion of Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 3 "is this not great Babylon that I have built with my mighty power for my glory" actually FOLLOWS, it MAKES SENSE with a Babylonian theology of creation. By contrast, if God has established order, then we are not self-made, and repentance makes sense. Or compare Psalm 8 "man set in majesty over the animals, & Daniel 4, where man loses his majesty & becomes like the animal (cf Eccl.3) - it's all about the unwinding of Genesis 2, the man becoming like the animal.

    In short, I'm increasingly convinced that the writings (Psalms/Job/Proverbs, through the book of 5 (centring on Ecclesiastes), to Daniel/Ezra/2 Chronicles) are all about the tension between the Babylonian exile & the doctrine of creation ("God is in heaven, heaven rules"), against which the gospel of the kingdom/reign of heaven/God is announced by Jesus. For what it's worth, I've found James Hely Hutchinson's teaching on the OT (wisdom literature in particular), John Lennox's teaching on Daniel, particularly formative, even life changing.

    What do you think?

  12. Glen

    Thanks Dave and Chris - some great quotes and links I'd like to follow up.

    Can't write much here at the moment. But imagine that Moses was the author of the bulk of the Pentateuch, imagine it wasn't therefore written in Iraq, conceivably some Egyptian or Canaanite mythologies are on the horizon but not determinitive. Imagine that the tabernacle provides by far the most fruitful backdrop to the creation narratives... and you might take some different views on - for instance - whether structure/layout (let alone sequence/chronology) are important.

  13. Chris Oldfield

    I was being hyperbolic, but point taken about "In Iraq". It was off the top of my head, and I'm no expert, although an earlier source for Genesis than Moses would put a very different light on things. Moses could still have substantially written, or edited it, or Moses could have substantially written it & later compilers edited it - the scriptures (through however many scriptors & whatever process of scripting) are "breathed out by God", as people were "carried along by the holy spirit". Even if we say (and I dont see why we couldn't) that Moses had the whole thing revealed to him personally, then that wouldn't deny the relevance of the historical context of Genesis 1-12 - unless we want to say, like the Muslims do about Jesus, that the historical context of the events revealed is unimportant (with a gnostic Jesus, whom you wouldn't even know lived in Jerusalem, let alone in the religio-socio-political struggles of his day). So "About Iraq" makes the point just as well.

    That said, I'd read the creation as the backdrop to the tabernacle & temple, not the other way round (cf Goldsworthy/Pratt on 1 Kings 4-8).

  14. pgjackson

    Chris, hope you don't mind me stickin' my oar in here.

    'That said, I’d read the creation as the backdrop to the tabernacle & temple, not the other way round...'

    But doesn't that work the same way with the creation and the exile? If the tabernacle-creation connections can be read as working in this way then why not the exile-creation connections too?

    I'm really not convinced by the arguments for seeing Genesis as primarily an anti-babylonian polemic. One set of reasons is that it's simply too convenient for a whole bunch of assumptions that are there in our culture, and that makes me uncomfortable.

    But also, at the end of the day, it feels like a particular angle on the chicken and the egg argument. The arguments run from the connectedness of various things (like the flood narratives to gilgamesh, or the creation account to babylonian creation myths), but, as with the chicken and the egg, there are two ways of construing the relationship.

  15. Chris Oldfield

    hi pgj

    In a way, fine! So Babylon's theology of creation were produced in antithesis to Genesis, implying that the message of Genesis was understood not first and foremost photographically (in terms of scale, size, timing, form...), but theologically (in terms of order, character, purpose, value...). By the way, that would seem to stand as an argument against (for example) creationist reconstructions of Genesis 1, because it'd be pretty difficult to see how you'd come up with the Enuma Elish in protest against creationism!! Modern scientific reconstructions of creation would be more like the sort of protest you'd come up with if Genesis was meant to be read like 20th century creationists say...Here's Gordon Wenham's advice:

    ‘The ancient oriental background to Genesis shows it to be concerned with rather different issues from those that tend to preoccupy modern readers. It is affirming the unity of God in the face of polytheism, his justice rather than his caprice, his power as opposed to his impotence, his concern for mankind rather than his exploitation. Whereas Mesopotamia clung to the wisdom of primeval man, Genesis records his sinful disobedience. Because we tend to assume these points in our theology, we often fail to recognize the striking originality of the message’

    So he's agreeing: entering the "strange world of the bible" actually helps us to critique our own familiar world - Wenham's "Striking Originality" is Newbigin's Scandal of Particularity - "the gospel which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied" (Foolishness to the Greeks)

    By the way, I'm not saying it has to be read *primarily* in this way: there are several layers to it - not least temple. I'm just saying that God's saving purposes in special revelation from Genesis to Revelation clearly confront the sinful world dis-order that builds babel. The Bible stands against what Babylon stands for. Not sure what's controversial about that, seems a fairly standard historical way of reading the bible, isnt it? (eg Luther's "babylonian captivity of the church", Augustine's tale of 2 cities...) “why should we accept Babylon as the interpretive context? I think that assumption skews a lot of things and it’s not given in Scripture itself”, is simply "Skewed against what? What's the straight measure against which this is a skewed reading? Creationist reconstructions? Fine by me.

  16. pgjackson

    'By the way, that would seem to stand as an argument against (for example) creationist reconstructions of Genesis 1, because it’d be pretty difficult to see how you’d come up with the Enuma Elish in protest against creationism!! Modern scientific reconstructions of creation would be more like the sort of protest you’d come up with if Genesis was meant to be read like 20th century creationists say...'

    Well, depends on what worldview one is protesting against Genesis from. If you're attacking the biblical account of creation from a materialist worldview then modern scientific reconstructions might be exactly what you'd come up with. Oh look, in fact, maybe that's what has happened! ;-)

    I'm not totally sure what you're getting at with pitting photographic against theological. All I'd say by way of an example of where I'm coming at this from is - I'm not sure why Genesis meaning 'day' when it says 'day' is necessarily to be pitted against it having a theological purpose. And, after all, the rest of the bible doesn't function that way (the gospel especially, the resurrection accounts, Jesus' miracles, the transfiguration). In fact, it's a key tenet of the bible's theology that it is rooted in history. We can't pit theological concerns against factual concerns in an ultimate sense, whatever else we might want to add by way of qualifiers when it comes to literary genre. When the 'anti-Babylonian polemic hypothesis' is marshalled in such a way as to claim that this false separation of factual concerns from theological ones is simply apparent, then I'm against it. But maybe that's not really your point here, in which case, sorry if I'm diverting the discussion.

  17. Chris Oldfield

    we're not talking about worldviews, we're talking about the heavens/earth in view, and whether the biblical doctrine of creation gives us a cosmology of form, size & scale (ie one option in the category of "hebrew"/medieval/modern cosmology). I'm disagreeing, for the above reasons that

    I'm just not sure what Glen means by "entering the world of the bible". I offered 2 options by means of clarification above:
    (a) does he mean we should embrace this "hebrew" representation (as diagram) and reject "modern" cosmology (of form, size, scale) because it's what David/the bible writers "had in mind"?
    (b) does he mean that neither is truer than any other, and we should have no concept of the size, form & scale of cosmology?

    If not, what? I offered (c) [see above], that it's a category mistake, which got us into questions of Babylon.

    although obviously related, getting into creationism & the question of "days", and comparing Genesis to new testament history is certainly diverting the discussion. *bites lip* apologies for my part in diversion.

  18. Paul Blackham

    To be honest I thought that Glen was making a much more basic point. I haven't listened to the podcast, so I can't comment on that.

    I thought the contrast between the video and the image was the way that in the diagram the structure of the universe is seen in deeply theological ways whereas in the more modern imagination the structure of the universe is seen as having no theological meaning. Thus, we are encouraged to draw theological implications or worship stimulation from the size and scale of the universe, but we are not encouraged to see how heaven and hell, life and death, Jesus and the Spirit are structurally displayed in the world around us.

    The modern world's artificial and dogmatic split between 'fact' and 'value' still pervades this view of the world. What we see in the sky can be labelled as balls of burning gas or as angelic homes or as points on a cosmic zodiac narrative... but we cannot [apart from the mind of Jesus] declare one to be a more basic or more factual account... without recourse to a foundational theology.

    In a way it goes back to that weird idea: the historical fact is that Jesus of Nazareth died, but the theological interpretation is that Jesus atoned for sins: one is in the realm of historical facts and the other an interpretive perspective! Yet, surely the historical fact is that the Eternal Son, in the form of the Servant, bought the church with His own blood. That is a theological judgement, true, but no more or less than to say that 'Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion'.

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