Leithart's future/end of Protestantism IV: do the words of Genesis matter...

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This is the fourth installment of our examination of Dr. Peter Leithart's call for the end of Protestantism. 

Paragraph One; "The Future-End of Protestantism":

Protestants often act as if the Reformation were the end of history, the moment when the Church reached its final condition. For these sorts of Protestants, the future of Protestantism can only be more of the same. This cannot be. God is the living Creator, still at work in his world, and that means that the Protestantism of the future will be something new, and, given the pattern of God's creativity, something better. (Leithart's emphasis)

Here in paragraph one, Dr. Leithart sets up his narrative, prodding readers to stop "acting" foolishly; to put aside their sectarian tribalism and hop on board his train headed into a future guaranteed to be "better" than the past because this is "God's pattern of creativity." With his second and following paragraphs, then, Leithart sets out to build a Biblical foundation for his hermeneutic of better.

Paragraph Two; "The Future-End of Protestantism":

In the beginning, God created the world in six days, and each day improved on the previous one. He spoke light, separated light and darkness, and said it was good. Come the next day, and first-day good was not good enough, so he separated the waters below from the waters above and inserted a firmament between. After he tore the waters and called earth to fruitfulness, he said that was good too. Another evening and morning, and again good was not good enough, so he spent the fourth day hanging lights in the firmament, the fifth calling swarming things to swarm in the sea and birds to hover on the face of the sky, the sixth filling the earth with animals and creating man male and female in his image. Each day was good, but each was followed by darkness and dawn that made good better. When he finished, Yahweh God pronounced it very good and rested in what he had made.

As we said in an earlier post, we can see how someone given to deep insights might want to assume that each of the six days of creation left the created whole better than it was the day before. And yet, for the sake of taking the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture seriously, it must be pointed out that God's response to the conclusion of each day's work was not "God saw that it was better" but "God saw that it was good."

Most of my life has been spent in academic contexts and more than once I've been told that the worst department in the modern college or university is the English Department. When I ask why, those with lots of experience in and with English departments tell me that the study of English literature is...

entirely disconnected—unhinged, really—from any anchor in objectivity. They don't have minerals. They don't have chemical compounds. They don't have equations or code or statistics. English literature is merely endless wrangling over words and their meanings. So then we would understand how today's literary men may be tempted to approach the Bible as they approach other texts, how they may be inclined to interpret the Sacred text just as they interpret other texts—in accordance with their own temperament and worldview, their own personality and eschatology.

Maybe some of our readers took a Bible as Literature course as I did at University of Wisconsin, Madison? If so, you may remember how you had to speak up in every last class session, defending the text of God's Word from being twisted, the words of Scripture from being left behind? This sort of thing has only grown over the intervening thirty years as postmodernism's deconstruction has marched unopposed through every last text, sacred or otherwise. Finally, the Academy has begun to move on, but modern Bible critics aren't yet done with this fad. They continue to approach the text of the Word of God with the same sort of conceit the president of Dubuque Seminary had when he said to me thirty years ago, "Tim, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say."

I responded, "So when Mark Twain writes, 'Jim walked to the edge of the raft, lifted his arms above his head, and dove into the Mississippi River,' I suppose what he really meant was that 'the DC10 taxied out to the runway, lowered its flaps, and took off into the night sky'. So no, Dr. Duba, you can't make the Bible say anything you want it to say. Words have meanings."

Speaking of meanings, is it too small-minded and unoriginal of me to point out that Genesis chapter one, verse 1 says "God saw the light was good;" but then, in verses 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25 it still says "God saw that it was good." Scripture doesn't change it to "God saw that it was better." God is not seeking a part in our metanarrative of a giggling excitement over progress, improvement, and change-always-for-the-better. 

Dr. Leithart declares, "each day improved on the previous one," but the only hint of better in the actual words of the Creation account is that God speaks for the first time on the sixth day of creation saying to Himself "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness." Undeniably these words are meant to indicate something better, which of course is what distinguishes man from every other part of God's Creation: of all the creatures made by God, only adam bears God's image and likeness. And thus it is that the last day of God's work of Creation ends with a declaration very different from each prior day's declaration: instead of the statement, "God saw that it was good," on the day He creates His image-bearer, the statement ending this final day is changed to "God saw that it was very good." The Holy Spirit alters the wording this one time in order to add the principle of improvement:

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)

Being fashionistas not just in our clothing and smartphones, but also in our theological tastes, we watch for the latest blog post and article and book of the man who is most exciting just now in his amazing Biblical insights. So of course, were we writing the first chapters of Genesis, we would want to change it from "God pronounced it good" to "God pronounced it better and said, tomorrow will be even better than today—I promise you!" We'd have God issuing a Tweet stoking the publicity of His next improvements. It was good; then it was better; but I guarantee, tomorrow will be even better than today.

Now, if I were to want to unleash the power of the Word and Words of God in this wicked generation; if I were to want to preach this text; I would not try to make it one more account of progress, roping God's words of Genesis 1 into reassuring my contemporaries that tomorrow is always better than today. Rather, seeing the hatred of divisions and distinctions that is near the center of postmodernism's rebellion against God, I would point out that a very large part of God's work of Creation was nothing other than drawing lines, making separations, establishing kinds; declaring and enforcing distinctions and divisions. Then I would move on to preach that postmodern man reserves his greatest hatred of God's work of creation for our Heavenly Father's separation of man, placing in him alone His Own image and likeness and immediately bifurcating this man into male and female. Not male and male or female and female; not Adam and Steve but Adam and Eve; not fifty shades of gender but two kinds of adam, one male and one female.

But Dr. Leithart is moving somewhere else and needs the six days of creation to push his metanarrative of change for the "better." As Dr. Leithart sees it, what the people listening to him need to see is that God's pattern of creativity is all about progress, all about things getting better. And sad to say, there are a lot of people who have recently taken on postmillennialism and are feeling a duty to sign on to this superficial treatment of Genesis 1.

But stop for a minute and think: if God singles out the sixth day of Creation and His work that day making man in His Own image and likeness as the one time when He changes his declaration from "it was good" to "it was very good," should we not respect the actual words of Genesis 1 by making the point of progress He declares the point of progress we declare?

Here's how our Lord applied Genesis 1 to His time:

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE... (Matthew 19:4)

Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? (Matthew 6:26)

Now I know the first chapter of Genesis has many, many proper applications. There's never only one application of any Word of God. But if some guy into literature wants to pull me and mine into his metanarrative of improvement for the purpose of pulling me and mine into his future without Protestantism, I'd prefer he not rope Genesis 1 into his project as if God created all things in six days so that each day provided a milepoint marker on the road of better and better and better and better and better. Can anyone awake today think men need confirmation of their conceit that time and progress walk hand in hand?

Is this really what God's sovereignty, providence, and decrees teach us; what postmillennialism requires; that every day in every way, the world is getting better and better?

"But," our readers might respond, "Dr. Leithart is not talking about the world! He's talking about the church!"

Really? Which church? The Jerusalem above who is our mother? Is it his view that the Roman Catholic church is our mother?

And if so, what ever happened to the Reformers' marks of the church? Is this one more part of historic Reformed doctrine that Dr. Leithart views as old and in the way? Or worse, is he prepared to say that the Roman Catholic church today has the right preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the (seven or two?) sacraments, and the right exercise of church discipline?

But nevermind, we're on our way to Better and the train doesn't run on questions. It runs on steam.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!