“Why Bother with Genesis?” by Nathan MacDonald

Nathan MacDonald
Nathan MacDonald

Nathan MacDonald is reader in Old Testament at the University of St. Andrews, leader of the Sofja-Kovalevskaja research team at the University of Göttingen, and coeditor (with Mark W. Elliot and Grant Macaskill) of the new volume Genesis and Christian Theology, in which twenty-one noted scholars consider the ancient book of Genesis in dialogue with historical and contemporary theological reflection.

In this post, MacDonald considers the continuing importance of Genesis to life and faith today. 

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“I don’t understand why you really bother,” Richard Dawkins protested before the audience of academics and students gathered in the University of Oxford’s elegant Sheldonian Theatre in late February. The archdeacon of the new atheists was debating the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

“I don’t understand why you really bother, because when you think back to who really wrote Genesis, there is no reason to think that they possessed any particular wisdom or knowledge. Why would you want to waste your time reinterpreting Genesis to make sense of it in the twenty-first century? Why not just stick to twenty-first century science?”

Williams’ response: “If I want to answer 21st century scientific questions, then I stick to 21st century science. If I want to understand my moral and spiritual position in the universe, I reserve the right to go back to Genesis.”

The following day many of the media reports complained that the two protagonists circled each other in the ring but never seemed to land any blows —  certainly not the knock-out blow that makes for a good news story. Despite the attempts by philosopher Anthony Kenny, the urbane chair of the debate, to stoke the embers, the fire of controversy always threatened to go out. Watching the debate again it seems to me that only at this one point did the flames began to flicker into life: when the book of Genesis was raised. Dawkins was baffled and incredulous: “How does it help to go back to what somebody wrote in, whatever it was, 800 BC?”

Genesis and Christian Theology
Genesis and Christian Theology
(Click to order.)

At this point Kenny intervened, noting that perhaps it would help to recognize that for Williams Genesis is, in some sense, written by God. Perhaps. But it might have been better if Kenny had asked Williams to answer the question “How does it help?” by addressing the question of what kind of “help” Williams might look for in Genesis. Or, when Dawkins objected that the authors of Genesis did not possess “any particular wisdom or knowledge,” Kenny might have asked what kinds of wisdom and knowledge Williams finds in Genesis.

It is a remarkable thing that this ancient book – Genesis – can stir such controversy. And that it can be held by so many to possess wisdom and knowledge that we need for today. Even if many Christians – and even many Christian theologians – appear to have little use for the Old Testament, or are even frankly embarrassed by it, Genesis still features at the heart of debate and discussion about Christianity, and within it, posing and offering answers to many fundamental questions: who is God? how did creation come to be? what is its purpose? what are humans? are we free? why death and pain? why are humans violent?

In 2009 a number of the most able Christian theologians and biblical scholars gathered in beautiful St Andrews in Scotland to think and talk together about the kinds of questions Genesis raises and about the book’s significance for Christianity and the modern world. Genesis and Christian Theology brings together the very best reflections from that conference and offers a fascinating journey into this most fundamental of books. I don’t suppose Dawkins will read it, though if he did, he might begin to understand why we bothered.

Click here to order Genesis and Christian Theology, edited by Nathan MacDonald, Mark W. Elliot, and Grant Macaskill.