Excellent, profound, necessary… superseded?

Claus Westermann

There are some books that are simply superseded, and then there are others that remain important but get sidelined simply because of age. I am not sure into which category Claus Westermann’s Creation (published in the 70s) fits, but this is surely an excellent, profound, necessary reading of the early Genesis narratives. I picked it up as a withdrawn title (sadly) from a church library. My gain, I guess.

Westermann’s thesis is that Genesis, and to a larger extent, the Old Testament, is not about how things began, but about who is in control. When we begin to read this way, our perspectives on this pinnacle of ancient world literature are completely reoriented. It is not, as some more conservative commentators might fear, that we are arguing that the Genesis accounts say something other than what they appear to say. Rather, Westermann lifts the creation narratives high above the post-Enlightenment debates that are still with us, cautions us against modern ways of reading Genesis, and alerts us to the profundity of these accounts’ illumination of community.

And so new priorities crystallise. One of these, says Westermann, is that focussing on Creation and Fall leaves out an awful lot. The Bible is the history of Israel’s learning to operate as a people under God, and the creation narratives must fit into this. According to Westermann, sin, in particular, is not simply a matter between God and the individual (as some strains of Lutheran heritage might suggest), but operates in communal life. The Bible is concerned with dealing with this fact. When we start to think this way, a whole new “vista” opens up. In defence of the Reformers, Westermann suggests that any discussions of apparently sinful human nature and its redemption are always grounded by them in the fact of creation, and more modern forgetfulness of this fact only results in anthropocentric theology.

His is a profound reading of not only what “creation” means, but also the meaning of the Fall. One point is that the narratives must be read as a whole. The writer has blended older stories so that creation and fall – positive and negative – must be seen to operate together. The insight is that the universe, including human beings, as good in God’s eyes is “inseparable” from human choice over doing good and evil.

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