A Review of C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well:

Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11

There is a blindspot hampering most debates about the early chapters of Genesis. In recent centuries, traditional interpretations of the creation and flood narratives were challenged by advances in astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology. Now in the present century, those old debates persist and have been added to. Today, the science of genetics further challenges how we read the Adam and Noah narratives. Consequently, the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis has only been heightened in recent generations.

How Christians read Genesis 1–11 has become a touchstone for certifying ones orthodoxy with respect to Scripture, and ones posture toward the scientific bent of the age. Now as much as ever, it is important for Christians to Read Genesis Well with an eye for Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11. But there is a blindspot that hinders our ability to make progress in that endeavor.

Jack Enlisting Jack

Zondervan, 2018

In his latest (and aptly titled) book, C. John Collins identifies that blindspot, and he enlists the help of C. S. Lewis to address it. According to Collins, “Everyone engaged in these exchanges about Genesis and science has views of how language and literature work,” however “these views generally lie below the surface, below the level of articulation and defense” (p. 25). Typical discussions about Genesis rely on the exegesis of texts, but they lack attention to the linguistic disciplines required to justify ones presuppositions about how texts work. Collins would have us pay more attention to these underlying issues in our Genesis debates, by adopting a more rigorous engagement with linguistic pragmatics and sociolinguistics.

Collins is certainly correct to identify this gap in most discussions of Genesis 1–11. It is an oversight that exists, probably because most of us find our eyes glazing over at the mere mention of “locutions,” “illocutions,” and “perlocutions.” Most theologians and biblical scholars are content to argue about exegesis and theology (areas in which they have expertise), while leaving more obscure matters of linguistics to experts in those fields. What is needed is a greater infusion of linguistics expertise into hermeneutical discussions of Genesis. In his book, Collins has offered a great service, not only by focusing attention on this blindspot, but by providing a readable primer—even invoking the guidance of the approachable C. S. Lewis—to better educate us for the task.

Collins’s employment of Lewis as a guide is one of the strengths of his project. Lewis was a considerable scholar of literature with a deft ability to unpack the inner mechanics of various kinds of texts, and a brilliant command of language himself to share those insights. But Lewis has also endeared himself to many through his timeless tales of Narnia. Who can resist the charm of learning textual linguistics from the literary father of the Pevensies? In the first and most important half of the book, Collins provides four chapters that draw upon Lewis for a series of lessons on linguistic pragmatics and sociolinguistics.

Chapter one opens up the problem, exploring trends that fostered our inherited, modern preference for the maximal use of so-called “literal” readings. Here, the work of Charles Goodwin (1817–1878), Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893), and James Barr (1924–2006) is deemed to have cultivated the contemporary conflation of “taking a text seriously” with adopting the surface meaning of words (i.e., literalism). But the goal of faithful interpretation is to take the text seriously with respect to the various ways in which various texts are intended to communicate. Hence the need for tools to engage in rigorous textual linguistics, rather than making arbitrary assertions of which statements are literal and which metaphorical. Although Lewis never compiled his own linguistic insights into a single textbook, Collins finds that a survey of the Oxford don’s many writings leaves one “with a raft-load of linguistic and literary ideas that can be developed into tools for careful reading” (p. 25).

Chapter two presents an introduction to four particular disciplines to which Collins wants us to give greater attention. “Linguistics” and its numerous subfields (phonology, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, and so forth) help us to appreciate various social factors that determine the character of a text. “Rhetoric” appraises the function of a text and what it aims to accomplish in its target audience. “Literary Criticism” appropriates tools for assessing the features of the text within its own (that is, the author’s) terms.Collins successfully retains both technical precision and readable definitions of these disciplines as he aids those lacking expertise to engage in these fields. And finally, under the heading “Genre,” Collins notes the rather inconsistent and confusing ways in which interpreters commonly invoke genre; and he offers some more precise definitions to tighten our arguments about a text’s “genre,” “register,” and “style.” Collins successfully retains both technical precision and readable definitions of these disciplines as he aids those lacking expertise to engage in these fields.

Chapters three and four serve up, what might be judged as, “the main course” of the book. These chapters teach us how the aforementioned linguistic disciplines operate in biblical interpretation. Continuing to interact with Lewis while also engaging with various passages from across the spectrum of Scripture, Collins shows us the linguistic complexity behind the production of meaning in biblical texts and how sensitivity to linguistics enables better critical decisions about those meanings. The formula that equates “taking texts seriously” with “the plain sense” of the words, is overly simplistic. In fact, far too often, “that . . . equation (ironically) stands in the way of receiving the pragmatically plain sense of the biblical text” (p. 61). Collins’s argument of this point is not new, but rarely has a scholar backed that assertion with such a rigorous set of linguistic methods to control our decisions about how various texts are supposed to be read. It is extremely important to provide controls against the abuse or overuse of non-literal interpretations, and it is on this score that Collins’s painstaking efforts offer something that is much needed in contemporary faith-science debates. These chapters at the heart of Collins’s book—chapter three, “Types of Language and Biblical Interpretation,” and chapter four, “Good-Faith Communication: What Does it Mean to Speak Truly?”—are themselves worth the purchase of the book. These chapters will benefit ones reading of Scripture generally, not only in Genesis 1–11.

Reading Genesis Responsibly

In the second half of the book (chs. 5–11), we leave C. S. Lewis and our schooling in linguistics behind, and Collins applies those lessons to Genesis 1–11 specifically. In one sense, it is in these chapters that the book’s promise to help us “Read Genesis [1–11] Well” is fulfilled.

Here, Collins shows us how to employ linguistic tools to assess the nature of the text in Genesis 1–11 (chs. 5–6), and he leads us through a pericope-by-pericope, “rhetorical-theological reading” of those passages (ch. 7). Historians and theologians will particularly appreciate chapter eight, where Collins shows how literary readings of these textsIn the second half of the book, we leave C. S. Lewis and our schooling in linguistics behind, and Collins applies those lessons to Genesis 1–11 specifically. were employed in the broader Christian and Jewish traditions, even prior to modern linguistic formulations for such approaches. In chapters nine and ten, we finally engage with the scientific implications of the text: to what extent ought the “world picture” presented in Genesis to be compared or contrasted with that produced by modern science (ch. 9); and how ought the creative acts of God portrayed in those passages to be related to the natural processes deduced by the sciences (ch. 10)?

Chapter eleven concludes the book, in the manner any effort for a faithful reading of Genesis 1–11 ought. Collins “draws this work to a close with a few thoughts on what it means to appropriate these chapters of Genesis responsibly” (p. 290). If the point of linguistic analysis is to identify the intended impact of the text upon its reader, a sincere reader ought to consider what response the text expects of him or her. Even if there is debate about the relevance of Genesis 1–11 for questions of science, its message of God’s glory and redemption in human lives must never become lost in the debate.

There are plenty of conclusions drawn by Collins with which various readers will take issue, but his overarching argument is one that should be taken seriously by all. Too often, those arguing about the early chapters of Genesis either presume “literal” readings are the most honest or invoke “non-literal” readings without methodological controls to justify those decisions. Collins’s work introduces literary tools that will help us guard against being arbitrary in those assumptions.

Those familiar with Collins’s other writings will appreciate his own example of this carefulness. (Note, in particular, his Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary.) And hopefully Collins will add further resources to aid in the linguistic rigor of biblical scholarship. While the present volume identifies a blindspot and introduces solutions for contemporary Genesis debates, this is not an exhaustive textbook. Hopefully further work by other linguistics experts and further writings from Collins will continue to help us read Genesis well.