Thesis: Presuppositions III – Mind the Gap

Though I haven’t been posting more thesis stuff recently, I’ve still been working away. I’ve finished with Walter Wink for now, and am digging through Gregory Boyd’s God At War, which I will be comparing with Wink’s theology of the Powers in my thesis. Though I am less inclined toward Boyd in general, he has an overall persuasive approach to spiritual conflict: he argues that we should have a “warfare worldview,” as the writers of the Bible did, recognizing that God is actually at war with evil cosmic forces, and that sometimes our side loses a battle. There are a few presuppositions on which this view depends, and I’ll talk about some of them later, but my reading tonight caught a very interesting (but actually not overly important) presupposition: the Gap theory of creation.

The “Gap Theory” isn’t actually necessary for Boyd’s general argument – a point he stresses, as he acknowledges that the theory is relatively tentative and speculative – but he appeals to it as fitting better with other scriptural accounts of creation. He points out that Genesis 1 is far from the only creation account in the Bible. Most of the other accounts show God in conflict with cosmic forces and evil monsters, with close and clear parallels to the creation myths of other cultures in the Ancient Near East; Genesis 1, on the other hand, seems to go out of its way to show God as creating the world peacefully, with no conflict involved. This is a good analysis of Genesis 1, and it is indeed the largest difference between Genesis and other cultures’ creation myths. Boyd notes that this difference is a major reason why we’ve traditionally given Genesis 1 priority over all of the other creation myths in the Bible: because the others are much closer to pagan myths, and more obviously mythological.

Those aren’t particularly good reasons for dismissing numerous passages of scripture! Boyd is clear throughout his book that he approaches his work from an Evangelical perspective, particularly affirming a high view of scripture as the fully inspired word of God, and makes frequent appeals to this authority as he describes this theory. As part of his argument, then, he points out that even if an event is portrayed in mythological terms, it can and most likely does still refer to a real event. So even if God didn’t fight a sea monster named Leviathan, he really did fight and defeat some evil cosmic force. Not only does this interpretation of the more violent descriptions of creation fit well with the general “warfare worldview” of the Bible, if we take the conflict model of creation as true, we are better able to harmonize all of the creation accounts found in scripture. If we take the non-violent theory based on Genesis 1 as the complete and exhaustive account of creation, we have to dismiss all of the cosmic battle passages outright as mythology; but if we take the conflict views as true, Genesis 1 still fits. Here’s how.

God fought Leviathan, and won. The question is, what deck did he use?

The “Gap Theory” of creation suggests that there’s a major gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Boyd prefers to call it the “restoration theory.” According to this restoration theory, there’s a whole lot missing between those two verses. Boyd holds that God created everything ex nihilo (out of nothing), any number of things happened in what may have been any number of years in between, and the angels and cosmic forces rebelled against God. The good creation was tainted at a fundamental level, and the cosmic forces (which were now evil) met God in battle. The world was laid waste in the process, so that by the time we get to Genesis 1:2, it is “formless and void.” The Genesis creation account is thus actually a re-creation account.

Boyd gives six arguments to support this theory. The first, as I mentioned above, is that it better accounts for all of the cosmic-conflict accounts of creation, including those of the pagan nations. But in some ways, it also deals with Genesis 1 a little better, too. 1:2 can be translated “But the world became (or ‘had become’) formless and void.” The words “formless and void” usually refer to places that have been destroyed or judged, in the rest of the Bible. And before God even begins to create things, there is already “waters” and “the deep”, which are usually symbols for chaos and death in the cosmic-conflict creation accounts, both in the Bible and in other ancient texts; if we hold that God is the only eternally existent being or thing, these things that are usually portrayed as his rivals should not be there before creation begins, lest we fall into the dualistic notion that good and evil have always coexisted and are in some sense equal.

There are other linguistic issues in Genesis: the first humans are told to “guard” Eden – but from who or what? And they are told to “subdue” creation, the same word used to describe the conquest of Canaan; if God had just created the world, and it was all good, then who are we to conquer? But if we are created in a re-created world in the aftermath of an epic battle between God and the already evil cosmic forces of the universe, these instructions make a lot more sense. Boyd suggests that God created us as his image bearers in an attempt to win creation back from the forces of evil, but that we went over to the enemy early on. This view even makes sense of God’s use of the first-person plural “let us make them”, traditionally described as God in council with angels, the creation of which is not mentioned in the creation account.

Boyd holds that the only way that we can make sense of the existence of fundamental evil in the universe is that the cosmic forces fell before humans were even created. “Despite valiant attempts to the contrary, there is simply no way to approach an explanation for this cosmic catastrophe by appealing to puny human wills. Our fall cannot explain the cosmic fall, but the fall of cosmic wills can help explain our fall, and with it, the fall of the world we were put in charge of” (God At War, 109). In this I disagree: I find Wink’s argument that the Powers fell due to human worship of them to be at least as compelling and scripturally based as the more traditional (in the sense that it is derived at least partially from tradition) view of an angelic fall that occurred sometime before the creation of humans. Even so, it’s not a bad point. He goes further, pointing out that this understanding of the world’s prehistory makes sense of the human vocation as God’s regents on earth and Christ’s incarnation as one of us: God chooses to overcome his enemies (being creatures whose free will he respects) through the intervention of other creatures with free will – namely, us – to the point where God becomes one of us in order to make sure the job’s done.

The issue of creation vs. evolution is only one of the six arguments that Boyd puts forth, and he does so only briefly, noting that it’s a handy way to account for not only all of the time that evolutionary theory requires, but also for the existence of “evil” (i.e. all of the dog-eat-dog competition and death that evolution requires) before the fall of humanity. The “Gap Theory” of creation is usually derided as a simple attempt to account for both biblical creationism and scientific evolution, and both sides generally reject it as a lousy compromise between them. When approached from the question of origins, it certainly comes across as an attempt to compromise, and is rightly rejected on those grounds because it tends not to fit with either view very well. Boyd’s attempt to account for evil in the world, however, has actually given the “Gap Theory” a biblical support that it previously lacked; it can now be seen to take scripture seriously, and not to impede scientific understandings of evolution, all because of a better understanding of evil’s origins in the unrecorded prehistory of Genesis 1:1.5. I’m certainly not jumping on the “restoration theory” bandwagon, but it’s certainly a better take on the issue than the old “Gap Theory” ever was, and requires some more thought.

This theory depends on a notion of an angelic fall before the world as we know it was created – that is, on a combination of implication, tradition, and speculation. That said, it fits right into the worldview that Boyd quite successfully argues is central to the Old Testament: the notion that God is at war, literally, with evil forces in the universe. What do you think? Do you agree with the notion of a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 (or, as I think makes more sense, a prehistory before Genesis 1:1)? Does the notion that the Genesis creation is a re-creation after a global destruction fit? Does this argument jive with your understanding of the existence of evil? How about with your understanding of creation?

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6 thoughts on “Thesis: Presuppositions III – Mind the Gap

  1. Questions on books:
    1. Have you read Marva J. Dawn’s book on the Powers? Or how about Clinton E. Arnold? Both are must read if you’re doing theological work on a Biblical theology of the powers.
    2. The Lost World of Genesis 1 by John Walton is an excellent contribution to the discussion of the passage.

    Sorry to just drop in and drop book names, but if you’re dealing with these issues, they’ve helped me. Blessings on your studies?

    • Thanks for your comment Derek, much appreciated! I’ve read through the relevant sections of Dawn’s dissertation, among other works of hers. I haven’t gotten into Arnold yet, but he’s on the list!

      I’d love to read more on Genesis 1, but it was more incidental to my thesis readings than actually relevant. I’ll keep The Lost World of Genesis on my list though! Thanks!

  2. On linguistic grounds, the “Gap” just doesn’t fit the grammar (almost all commentators accept that 1:2 is a circumstantial clause expounding upon 1:1). And I’m not actually certain in what way Boyd has advanced the theory beyond others. It seems to be more of the same of what I’ve read in the past.

    There at least a couple of reasons for Gen 1 taking precedence among the creation accounts of the Hebrew Bible. It is canonically located to give it the pride of place (this is so even, and particularly especially if, one holds to a Priestly writer late in Israel’s history). This should not be dismissed lightly because it means it belongs to the primary reading of creation as opening Torah. Secondly, the other accounts of creation are found in clearly poetic forms suggesting a different reading strategy than the more prose form of Gen 1. Waltke calls it the “demythologized” account for good reason, because it (among all the others) does not contain the same mythological elements but instead is fairly earthy (an intentionally non-struggling narrative).

    On tohu-vabohu: While it refers everywhere else in the HB to a state of uselessness and/or desolation from a former state, the use in Gen 1 points instead to an original unformed and useless state. It means that the usage elsewhere (read in light of the preceding Gen 1) points to an undoing of God’s intention: ordering, giving rightful function, etc. It functions to point to the power of this God who creates and for the likes of an Isaiah it points to the power of this God who undoes and gives idolators over to the substance of their idolatry: nothingness.

    Sometime, you might check out Mark Smith’s “The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1” (Fortress Press 2010). He arrives at some similar conclusions to my own about Gen 1, but does so via another route (positing the priestly Sitz im Leben). In it he discusses what he perceives to be three motifs in creation accounts in the HB: power, wisdom, and presence. He argues (rightly in my opinion) that Gen 1 belongs primarily to the power motif.

    Not sure if I’m offering any help for your discussion Jeff, but these are just a few of my brief thoughts in reply. Keep up the good work!

    • I was hoping you’d drop by and offer the counter-point 🙂

      All of the Gap theory I’ve ever heard before simply presented it as a solution to compromise between Young-Earth Creationism and Evolution, with little or no biblical backup. That’s why Boyd’s (tentative) thoughts were refreshing for me, because he attempted to actually draw from the entire OT to make his point, with the issue of creationism being only one among many. It’s the first time I’ve seen the issue brought up in a non-apologetic way.

  3. Woah. This really shook me to my core Jeff. I love it! I cannot speak in terms of concrete theology, I would have to read a lot more to comment in that way, but I can say it resonates with me, and changes my perspective on many things.

    God at war with real, spiritually evil beings changes my view of God, and I think in a good way. Instead of this unfathomable being, creating humans seemingly out of sheer boredom, I can now view God as, well, at war. And when you’re at war, there are stakes, there is so much meaning in your actions. Creating humanity as this incredibly outrageous strategy to defeat evil while maintaining free will while being intimately engaged with creation. It’s crazy! And it makes God more enigmatic. More charismatic maybe, just a really cool guy I want to hang out with, rather than a stuffy old deity who tries to keep me in line.

    As well, the idea of re-creating the earth from the desolate battle grounds struck me as putting pieces together, like I felt something was off, and now it fits. Again, I can only speak from this innate sense while reading your article, but like Tolkien, (or maybe it was Lewis?) who said we intuit bits of truth in Myth, I just can’t imagine a universe without cosmic forces and epic battles for the planet. It feels true in my bones.

    And evil as an active, but perhaps not visible, source of destruction and pain acting on the world resonates as well. If there is no battle taking place in the heavenly realm, if life is just us trying to keep our sinful nature at bay, then life and creation is simply one long test of self control. It’s like endlessly training for a war that never comes, and it’s hard to feel any motivation to run that extra mile if there’s no enemy in sight.

    But if there is a battle, if there is a war going on for the souls of humanity, and we were created by a battle-hardened God who is audacious enough to give free will to all his creations and bold enough to accept the consequences of their resulting evil, suddenly life makes a heckuva lot more sense.

    And now I think of this renewed sense of purpose: God has called us up as allies. We are the reinforcements, we are his agents, called to lead the resistance. And this part I love, this is a master story teller, here is someone you’ll follow anywhere; God plays for all the marbles, our general enters the frontlines as a private and leads the charge himself. That’s awesome. That’s the stuff the best stories and myths are made of. And I believe it resonates with us because it’s true.

    Again, i can’t speak to whether or not it fits theologically, but it gives me a broader and more inspiring view of God and our place in the universe.

    • Wow, I’m glad my little post resonated so much with you Steve! You may want to check out the whole book, it’s not bad. Or just wait for me to finish my thesis and summarize it there for you 🙂

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