Criswell Theological Review 7.2 (1994) 65-81.

[Copyright 1994 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]

 

 

 

COSMIC MAPS, PROPHECY CHARTS,

AND THE HOLLYWOOD MOVIE,

A BIBLICAL REALIST LOOKS AT

THE ECLIPSE OF OLD

TESTAMENT NARRATIVE*

 

 

JOHN SAILHAMER

Scholar in Residence

Northwestern College

St. Paul, MN

 

1. Introduction

 

There is a general recognition today that our society has lost its iden-

tity. It has lost its sense of a common story. Recently in a television in-

terview, Ken Burns, the writer and producer of the PBS series

"Baseball," was asked why he chose to devote such time and attention

to the game of baseball. His answer was surprising, but insightful.

Baseball, he said, is the only common story that Americans still share.

A generation ago, Americans had a much more comprehensive story.

That story was rooted in a shared experience. It was, moreover,

founded upon a common religious heritage. That heritage was, in fact,

a continuation of the Biblical story. With the collapse of that story,

however, the only remaining thread in the common bond of American

society is now baseball. Thus Ken Burns, the PBS producer, set out to

tell the story of baseball. It was an effort, he said, to bring our country

together.

Without a story to define us as a nation, we cease to act as a nation

and, really, cease to be a nation. I think we would all agree that the

loss of our nation's story is a serious problem today and affects every

part of life. There is, however, an even more serious loss of story. The

Christian Church also has a story. That story is told in the Bible. To the

 

* This article represents the two lectures read for the annual Criswell Theological

Lecture, February, 1995.

 

 



66 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

extent that our individual stories are linked to the biblical story, our

lives have meaning and purpose. If we should ever lose that story, or

if that story should be changed in any way, we will quickly forget

who we are. One of the central tasks of Christian education is to en-

sure that the biblical story continues to be told. An equally important

task is to ensure that the story is preserved intact. It is my contention

that the biblical story is in danger today of being distorted, accommo-

dated, changed, and ignored. Some of those pressures are exerted by

the Bible's own best friends.

 

2. The Biblical Story

I want to address the issue of the biblical story. I want to talk about

what makes it tick. Why is it so important? What threatens it today?

As my title suggests, I want to approach the biblical story under

three headings: 1) cosmic maps; 2) prophecy charts, and; 3) the Holly-

wood movie. These three headings, I think, point to, or at least illus-

trate, the essential function of the biblical story. That function is to give

us a sense of the nature and purpose of God's world. In the words of

N. Goodman, the biblical story is a "way of worldmaking."l

 

2.1. "Cosmic Maps"

Let's begin by looking at "cosmic maps." I am taking the idea of a

"cosmic map" from the Yale theologian G. Lindbeck. In his book, The

Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck addresses the question of the nature of

religion and theology in a "post-liberal" age. What he means by a post-

liberal age is that in his view classical liberalism has come to an end.

We live in an age which has come to appreciate the essential limita-

tions, indeed fallacies, of classical liberalism. Liberalism was born out

of the Enlightenment notion that reason, or human experience, is the

ultimate source of truth. Religion, according to the Enlightenment and

modern liberalism, consists of a basic "core experience" of reality. Every

human being has such a "core experience," or at least is capable of hav-

ing one. Theology is the specific, culturally conditioned expression given

to one's "core experience." Religion and theology are like the eruption of

a volcano. The core molten lava of religious experience breaks through

the crust of the earth's surface at various places and forms a volcano. A

whole ecological system then forms around the volcano. That system is

analogous to theology. Liberalism's view of the religion and theology

 

1 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Com-

pany, 1978.



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 67

 

of the Bible, for example, is that the biblical story is Israel's expression

of their "core experience." Christianity is also a volcano that has broken

through the earth's surface at a particular time and place. Liberalism

leads to pluralism because all "religions" are merely the cultural-bound

theological articulations of a common "core experience." Behind all re-

ligions lies the same deep structural "core experience." All religions are

expressions of the same basic truth.

Lindbeck argues that liberalism is simply wrong. There are no

universal "core experiences." That is not the way cultures and religions

work. What we know about religions today, says Lindbeck, suggests

another, quite different, explanation. Religion is an essential feature of

culture. Religion is a component of culture in the same sense as lan-

guage is a component of culture. Religion and language are what cre-

ate the basic semantic structures of culture. They are not created by

culture. They create culture. Language gives a culture its essential sur-

face structures of meaning. It defines for a culture the ways it organizes

its world--both the physical world and the world of its ideas. Religion

gives a culture its essential deep structures of meaning. Religion tells

a culture what is real and not real, what is true and what is false, what

is good and what is evil. Religion tells a culture what lies behind the

world defined for it by language. Religion tells a culture about the na-

ture of God, humanity, sin, and redemption. Religion gives a culture the

grammar with which it seeks to express itself.

In other words, for Lindbeck, there are no common "core experi-

ences," at least not any that can serve as a meaningful deep structure.

Religions, like individual languages, have their own distinct idioms. Each

religion has its own unique way of defining human experience. There

are no common deep structures. Human experiences are essentially

semantically neutral until they are refracted through a particular reli-

gious prism. Within cultures, faith and religion serve as interpretive

schemes which, like language, a culture uses to give meaning to human

experience. "Religions are seen as comprehensive interpretive schemes,

usually embodied in . . . narratives. . . which structure human experience

and understanding of self and world."2 Thus the biblical narratives and

their story, as Lindbeck sees it, are "similar to a (linguistic) idiom that

makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs,

and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. . . it is

a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals

rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities."3 To

 

2 Lindbeck, 32.

3 Lindbeck, 33.



68 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

become religious in such a scheme "involves becoming skilled in the

language, the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian

involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to in-

terpret and experience oneself and one's world in its terms."4 In the

model of culture suggested by Lindbeck, the biblical story is the lan-

guage of a culture which gives common shape and meaning to human

experience. How does it do this? Lindbeck argues (and I agree) that

the Bible structures culture (whatever culture) by means of its narra-

tives. The biblical narratives are a "cosmic map." They are the compre-

hensive interpretive scheme which shows the fundamental structures

of reality. What is true, good, and real in the biblical narratives are,

in fact, what are to be taken as true, good, and real. The world we

experience as readers of the Bible is the only real world. To be true

and real, our own individual world must conform to the world we read

about in the Bible. It is no accident that the Bible opens with the state-

ment, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The

Bible begins with the one and only reality that preceded its world, that

is, God. God alone exists eternally. All else is dependent on him and

owes its origin to him. From that starting point the Bible begins to un-

fold its cosmic map. From that point the Bible begins to define what is

real and what is not real, what is true and what is false, what is good

and what is evil. Like the lexicon and grammar of a language, the

Bible gives shape and meaning to our world by presenting it to us as

a totality.

An important aspect of Lindbeck's view of culture and religion is

the active role which the biblical narratives play in defining the nature

of reality. "Human experience," says Lindbeck,

 

"is shaped, molded, and in a sense constituted by cultural and linguistic

forms. There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we

cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the

appropriate symbol systems. . . . A comprehensive scheme or story used to

structure all dimensions of existence is not primarily a set of propositions

to be believed, but is rather the medium in which one moves, a set of skills

that one employs in living one's life. . . . Thus while a religion's truth claims

are often of the utmost importance to it (as in the case of Christianity), it

 

4 "A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and

shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexist-

ing self or of preconceptual experience. The verbum internum (traditionally equated by

Christians with the action of the Holy Spirit) is also crucially important, but it would be

understood in a theological use of the model as a capacity for hearing and accepting the

true religion, the true external word, rather than as a common experience diversely artic-

ulated in different religions." (Lindbeck, 34)



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 69

 

is, nevertheless, the conceptual vocabulary and the syntax or inner logic

which determine the kinds of truth claims the religion can make."5

 

What Lindbeck is getting at here, I think, is that the Bible, and par-

ticularly its narrative, creates and defines for us the fundamental nature

of the world in which we live. It is within that world that the Gospel

makes sense. The Bible provides the "cosmic map" within which the

lost can see that they are lost and also by which they can find their way

home. Central to the biblical world is the need of redemption and the

possibility of atonement.

 

I would now like to turn to three personal ways in which my own

"cosmic map" has been formed. In some respects, I am representative

of many in my generation. In other ways I am not. I give these ex-

amples from my own personal experience because they provide an

illustration of how "cosmic maps" work, and ultimately, how the Bible

structures our reality.

 

2.2. How are "Cosmic Maps" formed? Three examples from my own

personal experience

 

2.2.1. Prophecy Charts. When I was growing up, my father was a

pastor and an evangelist. In our church we used to have what was

called a "prophecy chart" hanging in the front of the sanctuary. That

prophecy chart was one of my first "cosmic maps." It was a rather

conspicuous one at that. It was a large piece of painted canvas--like a

banner. It had seven circles drawn on it, each representing one of the

dispensations noted in the Scofield Bible. At either end of the chart

there was a half-circle which represented "eternity past" and "eternity

future." In the middle of these two parts of eternity there stood all of

human history. At the end of history stood the "Great Tribulation," the

"Millennium," the "Great White Throne Judgment," and the "Lake of

Fire." It was not difficult in that church to know the "big picture." It

was also very clear where we, as a church and as individuals, stood

within that picture. In every prophecy chart I had ever seen, we were

only about 6 inches from the "Lake of Fire." I know for me, as a young

child, that prophecy chart had a powerful influence on my life. It was

like a map at the shopping mall. I always knew exactly where I was

in God's program. I learned to watch and wait for God's next act in

history. It scared me, and at the same time, it gave me comfort. I

learned how to live my life "in light of the second coming of Christ."

There is a book out today about such churches and about grow-

ing up with such expectations. It is called "Living in the Shadow of the

 

5 Lindbeck, 34-35.



70 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

Second Coming." It is an interesting book, but, to be honest, I do not like

the title. For me, at least, and I know I speak for those in my church,

the second coming did not cast a shadow upon our lives. The second

coming cast a bright light of hope. It made every day of my young

life meaningful. It gave it direction and purpose. There was anticipa-

tion. And there was also a constant warning: Maybe today! Our youth

director would say to us, "Would you like to be doing that when Christ

returns?" or "Would you like to be in a movie theater when the Lord

returns?" I have to be honest, when I look back. Without such warnings

my life would not have been the same.

Now let me quickly say that I do not think we should start hang-

ing prophecy charts in our churches again. It was, admittedly, a quite

unsophisticated way to create a "cosmic map." But it was effective. We

got the point. Now that I have four children of my own, I often ask

myself, What has replaced the prophecy chart for my children? How

are they learning about God's plan for the ages, the whole counsel of

God, and what the prophets say? Do they know down deep how their

lives fit into God's plan? Do they know what God's plan is? A Chris-

tian's life is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. We need to see how we fit

into the whole picture. The contours and colors of our lives, like a

piece of a jigsaw puzzle, are meaningless without a sense of God's big

picture. The prophecy chart once did that for many of us. I do not think

it could do it again. Something, however, must take its place.

 

2.2.2. The Hollywood Movie. I turn now to the second way in which

I have been given a "cosmic map"--the Hollywood Movie. Throughout

all of my growing up years, I was not allowed to "go to movies." Mov-

ies were not allowed. There were only two exceptions: movies with

biblical themes (10 Commandments, David and Bathsheba) and "old

movies" on TV. Leaving aside the matter of movies with biblical themes

(which is a different subject altogether), let me say that growing up

in Southern California in the late 1950's, I saw a lot of "old movies."

Through luck or providence, my family moved to California just at the

time when KHJ-TV purchased the entire film library of RKO Studios

from Howard Hughes. That began what was then called the "Fabu-

lous 52" series. For 52 weeks each year, KHJ-TV ran a classic Holly-

wood movie every night of the week and several times over the

weekend. I spent many a night, many a week, watching the same clas-

sic Hollywood movie over and over again. According to Lindbeck, What

was happening to me? Hollywood was giving me a "cosmic map." It

was a "cosmic map" made of old reruns, but it was a powerful state-

ment about the world, the good, the bad, the true, the false--it care-

fully and precisely defined for me the reality of the 30's and 40's as

Hollywood had seen it. That "cosmic map" was, to be sure, a sort of

 



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 71

 

hand-me-down. But it was a powerful map of reality. There was in those

movies, at least in my life, stiff competition between the prophecy chart

and Hollywood.

In the 20th century, the role of the movies and television, and now

videos, has been central in defining our "cosmic maps." Reality, for

many, if not most 20th century Americans, has been defined by the

movies and television. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Fred and Ethel Mertz,

June and Ward Cleaver--these families sometimes have more reality

than our next door neighbors. A few years ago my wife, Patty, was in

the teacher's lounge of her school. She overheard some teachers talking

about another woman whom she did not know. The teachers were talk-

ing about all the troubles this woman had gone through. Her family

problems, her health problems, her problems at work. Finally my wife

broke into their conversation and asked, in a compassionate tone which

showed she was concerned, "Who is this lady?" The teachers broke out

in laughter. They laughed because the woman they were talking about

was one of the characters in a soap opera they had been watching.

Their conversation about her was just as if she were a real person.

The noted film critic Neal Gabler has written an intriguing study

of the Hollywood film industry. He has entitled the book, An Empire

of their Own.6 Gabler's thesis is that the view of American life and of

the world which we know as the classic Hollywood film (e.g., "It's a

Wonderful Life") was, and is (as we might expect), a view of a world

that never really existed. The world of the classic Hollywood movie

was, in reality, merely the world which the Hollywood movie produc-

ers created from their own imagination. Gabler's thesis is that those

Hollywood producers created their world primarily, and principally,

for themselves. It was a world which reflected the kind of world they

themselves wanted to live in but could not. Most Hollywood producers

at that time were immigrants to this country. Their movies presented

the world of the "American Dream" which they had sought in coming

to this country, but it was a world which they had not found when they

got here. As immigrants in the early part of this century, they had been

excluded from the "real America," whatever it might have been. Thus,

having no place else to go, says Gabler, they created their own "Ameri-

can Dream." They created an "Empire of their own." It is that dream,

that world, which we know so well from the Hollywood movies. Louis

Mayer, the head of MGM and the most powerful man in Hollywood at

the time, spent most of his waking hours watching the movies he had

produced. He watched "old movies" just like I did. That was his world

just as it was quickly becoming mine.

 

6 Neal Gabler, An Empire of their Own, New York: Crown Pub., 1988.



72 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

It would be interesting and tempting to diverge from our topic and

discuss just what the "world" created by the Hollywood movie was like.

It would also be fun to point out how "biblical" such a world really was.

The major producers in Hollywood during its heyday, for example, were

all fundamentally influenced by the stories of the Bible. The greatest

Hollywood producer of all time, D. W. Griffith, was quite biblically lit-

erate. In Griffith's scenes of Babylon in the classic silent film "Intoler-

ance;" for example, Hollywood and the prophecy chart, in fact, merge

into a single image. That is true of many Hollywood films. The book has

not yet been written (that I know of) on the relationship between Holly-

wood and modern American evangelicalism.

I must move on, now, to my third example of how my own "cos-

mic map" was formed. I call this "the old fashion way"--by reading it.

 

2.2.3. Reading the Bible. A good friend of mine recently offered a

probing observation about me. It was an observation that you could tell

was really a form of question. He had heard me talk about my up-

bringing and my father and his prophecy charts. He could see I had a

deep appreciation for my heritage. He could also see I had gone quite a

way beyond the rather simplistic observations of those prophecy charts

and prophetic sermons of my father. His question was, How could I

still have an appreciation for prophecy charts? That, for me, was not a

hard question to answer. I told him that things like a prophecy chart

were of great value in my life because they pointed me back to the

Bible's own story. They forced me to return to the Bible and read it

again. They helped me read it as well. They helped me see the "big

picture." They helped me see the things which Christians in all ages

had seen in Scripture. They helped me see the hand of God in the

course of human history--a human history whose outline was given in

Scripture itself. It was a history that followed the outline of Daniel's

visions and would come to a close in the visions of St. John. To be sure,

I have been able to fill in and enrich my understanding of the Bible

many times over through my own study and reading of Scripture. Never-

theless, when I read the great theologians of the Church, Augustine,

Luther, Calvin, Cocceius, and others, I find the grasp which these men

and women had of the whole counsel of God was very near that pic-

ture of God's plan for the ages which my father's prophecy chart had

given me. The details, for sure, were different, and we may dispute

about the details. But the plan itself, was essentially that of Augustine,

Luther, Calvin--not to mention the Apostle Paul and St. John. That, of

course, was not an accident. Not only did those who drew up prophecy

charts read and reread their Bibles. They also stood on the shoulders

of many others who searched the Scriptures. They were, in fact, a part

of a long line of biblical scholars which can be traced back to the clas-



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 73

 

sical writers of the 16th and 17th centuries. My father was not a bib-

lical scholar. His teachers in Bible School were not scholars. In many

cases, in fact, they had an aversion to real scholarship. But whether

they knew it or not, their understanding of Scripture was rooted in

some of the best biblical scholarship ever produced by the Church-

here I have in mind the works of Bengel, Vitringa, Cocceius, and Cru-

sius, the unsung heroes of modern evangelicalism. I was enriched much

further than my father ever imagined when he hung that rather crude

and unsophisticated prophecy chart at the front of our Church sanctuary.

What I am saying is that the effect which my Bible background

had on me was to point me to the biblical text. Through reading the

Bible I had been given a biblical, that is, textual "cosmic map." I had

something, though in a very simple way, which the prophets, the apos-

tles, and the great theologians of the Church had themselves cherished.

I had a world that was fundamentally informed and structured by the

Scriptures. I had the heritage of all 20th century evangelicals--the heri-

tage of Scripture, I had the privilege to grow up among a people who

held the Bible to be God s Word, and who understood Its world to be

the only real world.

Then something very different happened to me. I graduated from

college and went to seminary. From that experience I nearly lost it all,

That is, I nearly lost my biblical "cosmic map." I nearly lost it, not be-

cause seminary was a challenge or a threat to my faith. The reason I

say I nearly lost my cosmic map at seminary is because it was there

that I got the idea of going to graduate school and studying ancient

Near East history. It was not that the study of ancient history threat-

ened my biblical cosmic map. It was because it threatened to replace

my map with another quite different one. As I now look back on it,

the point where my biblical "cosmic map" was "almost lost" was at the

point where the idea entered my head that the study of ancient near

East history would help me understand the Bible. Thus it was to un-

understand the Bible that I went off to study the ancient Near East. For

me personally it was a very fortunate thing indeed that the same year I

entered graduate school, Yale University Press saw fit to publish a book

written by Hans Frei entitled The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.7 It was

that book which rescued my biblical "cosmic map," Frei's book was not

written to evangelicals, nor did he even have evangelicalism in mind

when he wrote the book. The book does speak, however, to crucial is-

sues which face evangelicals today.

In his book, Frei has addressed the question of where the locus

of meaning lies in biblical narrative. His central focus is on the way

 

7 Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and

Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1974.



74 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

biblical narratives contribute to our "cosmic maps." How do they pro-

duce meaning for us in our world?

It is Frei's contention that the Bible's purpose is to produce mean-

ing by creating a meaningful world for us with its narrative. It does this

by putting before our eyes a world in which. Jesus and the Gospels make

sense. Like a Hollywood movie, the Bible creates an empire of its own.

The key difference between the two, however, is that while the Holly-

wood movie does not claim to be real, the Bible does. Biblical narrative

is realist narrative--it presents persons and events as real persons and

real events and it expects us to treat them as such. To understand the

Bible one must approach it on its own terms. That means one must ac-

cept its world as the only true reality and attempt to understand one's

own life within the context of that world. The Bible expects us to come

into its world. To attempt to force the Bible into another world is to miss

the whole purpose for which the Bible was written. Here, we will see,

is the crux of the matter. Do we accept the Bible and its world or do we

make it fit into another world, the world which has been created by mod-

ern historical research? That is, the world of the ancient Near East?

According to Frei, the biblical narratives were correctly and pro-

foundly appreciated in times past. Biblical scholars, such as Calvin and

Augustine, clearly understood the Bible's intent. They let its world be-

come their own. They accepted the Bible's world as the only real world.

The Bible was correctly understood, not because these older biblical

scholars were brighter or more learned. The Bible was understood cor-

rectly because earlier biblical scholars and readers simply accepted the

presentations of the biblical narratives as real and true. Before the rise

of historical criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries, Frei argues, the

Bible was read literally and historically as a true and accurate account

of God's acts in real historical events. It was assumed that the realism of

the biblical narratives was in fact an indication that the biblical authors

had described historical8 events just as they had happened.9

 

8 Frei suggests that these early theologians were mistaken in their understanding

of the biblical narratives and that the realism of the narratives was intended only to be

"history-like," not real history. Sternberg, we believe correctly, takes issue with Frei on

this important point. According to Sternberg, Frei has unduly limited the aim of biblical

realism to a merely literary device. Frei "wishes to focus attention on the biblical text by

cutting through the hopeless tangle that religious controversy has made of the issues

of inspiration and history. But instead of suspending judgment on them as articles of

faith. . . , he tries to neutralize them altogether." Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical

Narrative, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985, p. 82.

9 Western Christian reading of the Bible in the days before the rise of historical criti-

cism in the 18th century was usually strongly realistic, i.e., at once literal and historical,

and not only doctrinal and edifying. The words and sentences meant what they said, and

because they did so they accurately described real events and real truths that were rightly

put only in those terms and no others. Frei, The Eclipse, p. 1.



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 75

 

This description of one's reading the Bible seems quite natural to

evangelicals. It has, in fact, fallen to the lot of evangelicalism to pre-

serve this reading of the biblical narratives. According to such an under-

standing of the Bible, the real world is identified as the world actually

described in the Bible and one's own world is meaningful only insofar

as it can be viewed as part of the world of the Bible. On this point, Frei

acknowledges his dependence on Erich Auerbach's description of the

real world in biblical narrative,

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a his-

torically true reality--it insists that it is the only real world. . . All other

scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it,

and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be

given their due place within its frame.10

 

What this means is that in these earlier views, the Bible had mean-

ing because it described real and meaningful events. Moreover, these

events fit together in a meaningful whole. It was a whole world cre-

ated and sustained by a sovereign God. The concept of divine provi-

dence was, in fact, the matting that held together the depiction of events

in the biblical narratives and the occurrence of those events in history.

God was the author of both the Bible and the historical events which

the Bible depicts. As Meir Sternberg has put it, "With God postulated as

double author, the biblical narrator can enjoy the privileges of art with-

out renouncing his historical titles."11 The medieval theologian, Thomas

Aquinas (Summa Theologica), has given the Church its definitive ex-

pression of this idea: (Aquinas said) "The author of Scripture is God, in

whose power it is not only to use words for making known his will

(which any human being is able to do), but also historical events in the

real world."12 For Thomas, the course of human events was a real story

written by God in the real world. "History" is "His story." This is pre-

cisely the biblical view described above by Auerbach. Frei calls such a

reading of the biblical narratives "precritical." It is precritical because

it takes the Bible at face value and reads it as it was intended. It is also

precritical because it represents the viewpoint of most biblical scholars

before the rise of historical criticism. The key element in the precritical

view of the Bible and history is divine providence. What Thomas has

described is the convergence of the biblical record of events with God's

 

10 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

(trans. Willard R. Trask), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953 (orig. 1946).

11 Sternberg, Poetics, p. 82.

12 "Respondeo dicendum, quod auctor sacrae Scripturae est Deus, in cujus potestate

est, ut non solum voces ad significandum accommodet (quod etiam homo facere potest)

sed etiam res ipsas." Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Rome: Forzan, 1894, p. 25.



76 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

providential work of bringing those events to pass. The Bible describes

the very events that happened just as they happened.

Frei argues that over the last two centuries, the precritical under-

standing of Scripture has been gradually eroded by an increasingly

historical reading of the Bible. We have grown accustomed to looking

for biblical meaning beyond the narratives themselves and within the

events they recorded. The aim of biblical interpretation ceased being

the narrative texts and began to focus on the process of reconstructing

"what really happened" in the actual historical events. The meaning of

the Bible was not that which the Bible depicted but that which really

happened. But how do we know what really happened, apart from the

Bible? We know what really happened by applying the tools of his-

torical research. History tells us what really happened. History tells us

the meaning of the events that lie behind the biblical narratives. As

a result of this shift in focus from the text to the event, biblical schol-

ars paid less attention to the text as such and devoted an increasing

amount of attention to reconstructing historical events. It is this deflec-

tion of attention away from the text and onto the events of history

which Frei speaks of as an "eclipse" of the biblical narrative.

According to Frei, one can see most clearly13 the theologians' shift

in attitude toward the biblical narratives in the nature of their response

to the challenge of English Deism in the 18th century.14 On two impor-

tant points Deism challenged the precritical attitude toward Scripture.

First, Deism rejected outright the notion of divine providence. Deism

held that the universe was guided by its own internal and universal

laws and that the will of God was not a direct factor in its operation.

Secondly, Deism rejected the idea of special revelation. God had not

broken into the web of causes and effects to express His will directly

 

13 Frei argues that the origin of the "eclipse" of biblical narrative had already be-

gun to occur in the middle of the 17th century with the works of Johannes Coccejus

(pp. 46-50). In his attempt to link biblical prophecy to events in his own day, Coccejus

frequently identified the meaning of the prophetic message with contemporary histori-

cal events. The mourning spoken of in Isa 33:7; for example, is identified by Coccejus as

a reference to the death of the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus: Haec optime conveni-

unt in Gustavum Adolphum.

14 Klaus Scholder has argued, and Frei agrees, that the breakdown of the link be-

tween the biblical world and the world view of modern man had begun to take hold

much earlier, "In der Auseinandersetzung mit dem neuen Wirklichkeitsverstandnis, das

von den ersten Jahrzehnten des 17. Jahrhunderts an immer entschiedener auf tritt, das

immer deutlicher dem biblischen Weltund Menschenbild in seiner traditionellen Ueber-

lieferung widerspricht und diesen Widerspruch mit immer unwiderleglicheren Beweisen

bekraftigt, entstehen die ersten Versuche der historischen Kritik, mit denen die historisch-

kritische Theologie ihren Anfang nimmt." Ursprilnge und Probleme der Bibelkritik im 17

Jahrhundert, Ein Beitrag zur Entstehung der historisch-kritischen Theologie, Munchen:

Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1966, p. 9.



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 77

 

to human beings. History ran its own course and followed its own

laws. God had not disturbed the flow of history to insert his own spe-

cial revelation. One cannot imagine a more frontal attack on the bibli-

cal "cosmic map" than Deism presented. Divine providence and special

revelation lie at the center of the biblical view of the world.

The loss of the notion of divine providence, Frei argues, meant

there was no longer any certainty in the course of history. How could

we be sure that the course of God's acts in history were adequately

reflected in the course those actions followed in the Scriptural narra-

tives? The link which Aquinas had seen between the things that hap-

pened in history and the description of them in the Bible was broken.

God was no longer the author of either Scripture or history.15

The loss of such a link meant that the task of describing the rela-

tionship between God's acts in history and the record of those acts in

Scripture passed from exegesis into the domain of historical science.

Whereas previously one could turn to Scriptural exegesis to learn about

God's acts in history, now one must resort to a scientific and historical

reconstruction of the events themselves. History, rather than the text

of Scripture, had thus become the central focus for understanding the

meaning of Scripture. History and science were now the source of the

biblical "cosmic map."

As I have already suggested, Frei did not write his book with

evangelicals in mind. On at least one occasion, Frei was given the op-

portunity to respond to the specific issues of evangelicalism. On that

occasion, Frei politely declined the offer. In spite of his reluctance to

speak to the issues of evangelicalism, Frei's basic insight still deserves

an evangelical response. On numerous occasions, I have attempted to

give such a response. Here I want only to summarize the main points

I have tried to make. First, I believe evangelicals today are running

the risk of eclipsing the biblical text in a way similar to its eclipse at

the hands of historical criticism. Evangelicals have rightly stressed the

importance of history in demonstrating the accuracy and reliability of

the biblical narratives. A knowledge of historical background infor-

mation, for example, can serve that purpose. Here, however, evangel-

icals must exercise an appropriate caution. Historical information has

an apologetic value. Historical information must not, however, take the

 

15 Scholder maintained, "If the historical-critical theology is characterized by the

fact that it has come to grips fundamentally and methodologically with the modern un-

derstanding of the world, then its origins must be linked with the rise of the new, modern

world view. . . . From this very fact also is revealed the route whereby we may understand

the origin of historical criticism. It must have begun just at the point where the modern

view of reality reached its full form, that is, where the older unity of the Scriptures, the

world view and faith became problematic. . . . " Ursprunge und Probleme, p. 9.



78 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

place of the meaning of the text. Let me give one example. In Exod

7:20, "Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD had commanded. He

raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck

the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. The

fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians

could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt." The intent

of the narrative appears clear enough-"all the water was changed

into blood." Moses raised his staff (A) --> the water of the Nile became

Blood (B) --> the fish in the Nile died and the Egyptians could not drink

the water (C). The realism of earlier biblical commentators led them

to take this statement at face value. It meant that the waters of the

river actually became blood: the biblical narrative (A -->B -->C) was

identical with the historical event (A -->B -->C). Henry Ainsworth, for

example, explains the text in the following manner; (he says) ''as the

Egyptians had shed the blood of the children of Israel, drowning them

in the river, Exod. 1.22. so in this first plague, God rewardeth that, by

turning their waters into blood. . . ."16 The seriousness with which the

earlier commentators read this narrative as real history can be seen in

the remarks of Cornelius a Lapide:

 

it should be noted that there was not merely one miracle here but many,

or rather, one continuous conversion of the flowing waters of the Nile

into blood which happened for seven days. For the Nile in Ethiopia bore

pure waters, but when they reached the borders of Egypt, the water

immediately turned into blood persistently and continuously throughout

the seven days. . . . The waters did not merely have the color of blood, but

they also had the nature of blood and were, in fact, really blood.17

 

Later conservative, and more "historically" oriented commentators,

began to understand the sense of this passage within the context of a

growing historical consciousness. They retained a miraculous element,

but understood the meaning of the text in light of historical analogies.

They wanted the biblical world to fit into their own world, or the world

they imagined the ancient Near Eastern world to be. Keil, for example,

says of the passage, the changing of the water into blood is to be in-

terpreted in the same sense as in Joel iii. 4, where the moon is said to

be turned into blood; that is to say, not as a chemical change into real

 

16 Henry Ainsworth, Annotations upon the Second Booke of Moses Called Exodus,

London: M. Parsons, 1639, p. 23.

17 Comelius a Lapide, (d. 1637) "Ubi nota, non unum hicfuisse miraculum, sed multa,

vel potius unum continuatum, per continuam aquarum Nili aflluentium in sanguinem

conversionem, idque per septem dies. Nam Nilus in AEthiopia puras ferebat aquas; ubi

vero attingebat fines AEgypti, mox vertebatur in sanguinem, idque assidue et continuo per

septem dies. . . . aquae non tantum colorem, sed et naturam habebant sanguinis, erantque

veres sanguis," Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram.



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 79

 

blood, but as a change in the colour, which caused it to assume the ap-

pearance of blood (2 Kings iii. 22)."18 Keil then gives the basis for this

interpretation and we can see his dependence on the principle of his-

torical analogy:

 

According to the statements of many travellers, the Nile water changes its

colour when the water is lowest, assumes first of all a greenish hue and

is almost undrinkable, and then, while it is rising, becomes as red as ochre,

when it is more wholesome again. The causes of this change have not

been sufficiently investigated. The reddening of the water is attributed by

many to the red earth, which the river brings down. . . but Ehrenberg came

to the conclusion, after microscopical examinations, that it was caused by

cryptogamic plants and infusoria. This natural phenomenon was here in-

tensified into a miracle, not only by the fact that the change took place im-

mediately in all the branches of the river at Moses' word and through the

smiting of the Nile, but even more by a chemical change in the water,

which caused the fishes to die, the stream to stink, and, what seems to

indicate putrefaction, the water to become undrinkable. . . .19

 

The point of this discussion is that in these evangelical conserva-

tive commentaries, the meaning of the biblical text ('"the water became

blood") is not taken as ostensibly true but rather is identified with the

meaning of the event as it has been reconstructed from similar events

("the water became red like blood"). The miraculous element in the first

plague is retained but it is nevertheless significantly reduced to that of

an intensification of a natural phenomenon--red algae. Moreover, the

narrative link between the blood of the Hebrew children thrown into

the Nile in Exodus 1 and the Nile becoming blood is lost. The text thus

loses an important clue to its meaning.

It is not hard to see how such a shift effects the meaning of the bib-

lical text. Once the meaning of revelation in the Bible becomes identi-

fied with that which we think actually happened, the focus becomes

 

18 C. F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, p. 478.

19 Keil, pp. 478-79. More recently, Kaiser has taken a similar position, "The sources

of the Nile's inundation are the equatorial rains that fill the White Nile, which origi-

nates in east-central Africa (present-day Uganda) and flows sluggishly through swamps

in eastern Sudan; and the Blue Nile and the Atbara River, which both fill with melting

snow from the mountains and become raging torrents filled with tons of red soil from

the basins of both these rivers. The higher the inundation, the deeper the color of red

waters. In addition to this discoloration, a type of algae, known as flagellates, comes from

the Sudan swamps and Lake Tana along the White Nile, which produces the stench and

the deadly fluctuation in the oxygen level of the river that proves to be so fatal to the

fish. Such a process, at the command of God, seems to be the case for this first plague

rather than any chemical change of the water into red and white corpuscles. . . . " EBC,

vol. 2, p. 350.



80 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

the meaning of the historical event as such. The text says the Nile

became blood but we think it more likely that it became red like blood

with algae. Hence, the goal of Bible study becomes the theological mean-

ing of what we think actually happened. Or at least what the modern

historian is able to reconstruct as the event. The meaning of that event

takes the place of the meaning of the text.

What has been the outcome or what may be the outcome of this

subtle shift among conservative evangelical approaches to the Bible?

For my purposes today, I want to highlight one specific result. It has

brought about a change in our "cosmic maps." Today, our cosmic maps

look more like typical modern secular "cosmic maps" or like typical

ancient Near Eastern "cosmic maps." They look less and less like the

world we find in the Bible. There has been a gradual, incremental re-

placement of the meaning of the text and its world by the meaning we

have assigned to historical events. What is the meaning, for example,

of Genesis 1 among evangelicals today? For some, the flood geologists,

Genesis 1 tells us about a global water canopy. Why? Because the text

explicitly talks about it? No. Because that's what flood geologists be-

lieve actually happened. For others, Genesis 1 tells us about geological

ages. Still, for others, it tells us about the sequence followed by a the-

istically guided process of evolution. But how much do these views tell

us about the author's intent in writing Genesis 1 and the role it plays

in the author's overall strategy in the book of Genesis, or the Penta-

teuch? Our focus is all too often on what we perceive to have happened

rather than on what the Scriptures clearly describe.

In the process of focusing on the world that lies outside the text, we

have, in fact, focused on our own historically and socially constructed

world. Our biblical "cosmic map" is thus being replaced by one which

we ourselves are creating. In our world, the Nile does not turn to real

blood. In our world the Nile only becomes red, like blood. The Nile be-

comes red with micro-organisms and the earth was formed through a

long period of geological ages. If we are to understand the Bible, it has

to fit into that world. Genesis 1 must, therefore, be speaking about long

geological ages. Piece by piece and part by part, the biblical world, our

"cosmic map," is being dismantled and refitted into another more com-

patible world. That world is the one we have come to accept as the "real

world" of the 20th century.

The greatest threat to our biblical world, however, does not lie in

our view of the past but in our view of the future. It has long been held

by evangelicals that the message of the prophets is that Jesus is com-

ing again. Some evangelicals have understood the prophets in more

realistic terms than others. But evangelicalism has nevertheless pre-

served the classical biblical view of the world that is heading toward



John Sailhamer: ECLIPSE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE 81

 

its conclusion. That is, in fact, the blessed hope of the Christian. The

return of Christ is the end of the story. Or, as C. S. Lewis would say, the

end of the beginning of the story which God will write for eternity.

The reality of that blessed hope is directly linked to our acceptance of

the biblical world-the biblical "cosmic map." To say it another way,

the lack of the reality of that hope in today's world is directly linked to

our reluctance to accept the biblical world--the biblical "cosmic map."

For there to be an end there must be a beginning. The Bible is the

story of that beginning. This, I think, is what Peter is speaking of when

he warns against "scoffers" who will come in the last day. They will

say "all things have continued as they were from the beginning of

creation" (2 Pet 3:4). In other words, the world does not allow for the

acts of God. But Peter's warning is followed by this reminder, "by the

word of God the heavens existed long ago. . . the world was destroyed

by the flood. . . and by the same word the heavens and earth that now

exist have been stored up for fire. . ." (2 Pet 3:5-7). God is at work in

this world.

Peter had a biblical cosmic map. The end of the world was going

to be like its beginning. God was at work in both. Peter's realistic view

of creation led him naturally to a realistic hope of a final redemption.

If we take the biblical world at face value and understand its world

to be our own, then our hope should be fixed on our Lord's return. The

world had a beginning and it will have an end. Our task is to live in the

light of that end. We are to wait expectantly and patiently for His

return. That is the blessed hope of every Christian.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College

4010 Gaston Ave.

Dallas, TX 75246

www.criswell.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu