Dr. Larry Arnn and Hugh discuss Genesis
HH: Joined by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu. You an also get there by going to www.hughforhillsdale.com. Once a week, for three segments, Dr. Arnn or another of the Hillsdale faculty and scholars joins me to talk about some entry in the canon of Western literature. This week, and for the next few weeks, we’re talking about the Bible. And Dr. Arnn, I begin there. This will shock some people. Obviously, it’s not a religious show. Hillsdale, though it has many, many religious people within it, is not a religious school. Why in the world are we including a religious text in the canons of the West?
LA: Well, the West is the combination of influences that come from Jerusalem, where the idea of one God for every man is born, and Athens, where the idea of one truth, one philosophy for every man or woman is born. And about Hillsdale, by the way, Article 6 of our articles says that the teaching of the Christian faith by precept and example shall remain a conspicuous aim of the college, and so it is to this very day.
HH: So would you describe yourself as a religious college then?
LA: Sure, sure.
HH: Okay, that’s interesting. Not a denominational school, though.
LA: No, no, and the first article states our commitment to civil and religious freedom. And that’s in a paragraph that begins the denomination of Christians known as freewill Baptists along with other friends of education. It’s because of that beginning that we have never had a faith statement required for attendance. But students must promise respect for God and the rights for others. And we are, in practice, a heavily, I mean, overwhelmingly Christian college.
HH: I’ve got to ask respect for God. Does that exclude, I know it doesn’t, because the best law student I’ve ever had, Mr. Sandefur, was a self-described atheist. So I guess respect for God does not oblige people to actually believe in Him.
LA: Well, if Mr. Sandefur was ridiculing the faith of the college and of its members, then I wasn’t working here at the time, although I know that young man, and he’s a very fine young man. I would have kicked his tail.
HH: Okay, now let’s talk a little bit about the reaction of your students to the Bible being on the curriculum and how you approach it.
LA: Well, first of all, the Bible is a thing to read. It’s a great piece of writing. And it’s full of profundity and interest. And so the fist thing is, like one of the purposes of our college, by the way, alongside civil and religious freedom, is intelligent piety. And that means we should learn and know what the Bible says. It is a great source of wisdom and the revealed word of God. And so the first step is to read it and see what it says. And it’s extremely interesting what it says.
HH: Now there’s a proposition that you put, the revealed word of God, that others who are not in the Judeo-Christian tradition will reject. Do you teach other texts that purport to be the revealed word of God?
LA: Yeah, we do. Of course we do, some, but not as much as the Bible. And you know, another thing you have to remember about, people forget things like this today. Colleges proceed by evidence and argument and proof, right? And so we don’t have any way of operating except to study and think and talk, and say what seems to us true. Now we also have a mission that describes a goal and purpose of what we do. And people think, because by the way, because of the influence of progressivism, the ancestors of Barack Obama, you know, John Dewey writes that if you have a religious purpose in a college, you are obliged in honor to identify yourself as a propaganda institution. But to think, I mean, what we’re going to do today is talk about what Genesis says. And what it says is amazing and profound, and great to know. We can all agree about that, that it’s the revealed word of God is a claim that it makes that must be treated with respect, and also a conclusion that each person must draw for himself.
HH: And so how do you go about asking your students to study the Bible large before we come down to Genesis specifically?
LA: Well, in just the way I said, let’s start out by knowing what it says. And nobody gets a grade on whether they say they believe it or not. But most everybody here does. But you start with that, right? And remember, you’re required to develop your ultimate opinion about the Bible. There are, you are required to side with it or against it on this point, its claim that it is the word of the great and only God. And that is a fundamental question about it. And you can’t ignore that question. And to say, by the way, that it doesn’t matter what you think about that is to take sides against it as radically as if you said you knew it to be false.
HH: True. Oh, that’s so true. Now I want to quote, or at least paraphrase something Lincoln said. He said he did not have formal education, that he was raised on Shakespeare and the Bible. Am I getting that roughly correct, Larry Arnn?
LA: Yeah, that’s correct.
HH: When he said that, what did he intend to convey? And how good of an education would you have with those two texts?
LA: They’ll do. I mean, you know, it helps if you have a mind like Lincoln’s, but…
HH: They’ll do? Why will they do?
LA: Well, because Shakespeare is, you know, he’s the poet that Socrates predicted would arise, the one who equally facile in tragedy and comedy, and his plays encompass the world and the universe and its possibilities.
HH: When did Socrates predict that?
LA: We don’t know, exactly, but it’s in one of the dialogues, and the name will come to me in a minute.
HH: How interesting.
HH: I’ve never heard that before.
LA: Yeah, yeah.
HH: Okay, so…
LA: He’s the greatest of the poets, and a philosophic poet. And what poetry does, is it described details in ways that reveal the abstractions latent in them. My friend, David Whalen, who was on your show last with me, and I were having lunch today, and I’m reading a Mark Helprin novel, who’s a friend of us both, and I was describing how they go on a little boat trip, these characters in this novel, and the whole universe is displayed in this boat trip. Well, that’s the art of a poet. And also, things are put into movement and motion. You know, human beings are moving in great dramas, and you see them in motion, and you can see what they personify, what they are in principle because of that.
HH: There is a great deal of motion in all of the Bible. There are incredible stories in all of the Bible. How much of it do you expect, and it’s long, 66 books by a number of different authors with one inspiration, but how much of it do you expect your students at Hillsdale to know?
LA: Well, I actually wrote that down so I could tell you the answer to that question, and let me see if I can find it. The answer is everybody in the core reads key passages. And I can’t find the silly piece of paper, but we read much of Genesis, and of Job, particularly important works, and much of Exodus. And then we read Matthew, and we read the book of John, a very important of the Gospels, and we read a couple of the letters of Paul. And they’re all in the core. Everybody reads those. And of course, most people here take other, I found my list now, at long last, after I’ve stated it.
HH: As we run up against the break.
– – – –
HH: Dr. Arnn, Genesis, Job, Exodus, Matthew, John, the letters of Paul, I hope Revelation is on there as well. We will be covering them in subsequent weeks. Did we miss any?
LA: First and Second Samuel, Maccabees, shows the rebellion, Matthew, John, Acts of the Apostles, and six chapters from Galatians.
HH: Terrific. Well, we’ll cover that all. Now to Genesis. In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. Now the Heaven was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. I am using an NIV translation there. Which translation do you recommend?
LA: We use the Revised Standard here.
HH: Okay, RSV. So why, what’s important about Genesis? It’s a creation myth, right?
LA: Well, it’s really great. And I would say first of all, so I’ve got a few points I want to make sure we make today, and I’ll make one of them now. First of all, the order and the days of creation are important. And you should go look at them, by the way, and write down what gets made on what day. And they build toward life and toward man, it’s interesting to say. And then He says that He creates man in His image, and He give him a kind of dominion. And He doesn’t exactly explain what in His image means, but then that comes up later when God gives, in Genesis 2, when God gives man the job of naming things. And that is like God, because in Genesis I, God is naming things. And to give a thing its name is to understand what it is in principle. In other words, you can see a thing and say that it’s hard or rough or tall. When you call it a tree, then you’ve named every tree, and you’ve isolated the identity of it, the essence of it that makes it what it is. And by the way, that’s the capability known as human reason that makes human speech possible. And in Greek, the word Genesis is a Greek word from the translation from the Hebrew that’s one of the oldest ones we have, the Septuagint. Did I say that word right? And the word Genesis means origin. So talking Greek here for a minute, in the book of John, in the Gospel of John, in the first chapter, it says in the beginning was the Word, this is referring to Jesus, and the words are actually ?? ???? ?? ? ?????. And ???? is like architect, Archon was a Greek ruler, beginning point. And then ????? is the word for reason, or for speech, or for word. And of course, the word of God is the thing that Jesus is in the New Testament. And the point is, man and God share the word. They both give the word to things. And because of that, they can talk to each other. That brings them more closely together. And because of that, morality arises among them. And I’ll give you an example. Lincoln says you can put a halter on a dog and lead it around wherever you want it to go, but you can’t do it to a man. It’s not right. Well, that’s because he knows the difference between dog, a word, and man, and the difference in principle between them. And so man is the creature that is born with that divine gift. And that is stated in the first two books of the creation story written a thousand years before Christ, 3,000 years ago.
HH: When we come back from break, we’ll continue talking about Genesis. Dr. Arnn, you mentioned Genesis, or John begins, in the beginning was the word. In Genesis, God created the Heavens and the Earth. Some of our friends would say that is confusing, not a contradiction, perhaps, but confusing. Perhaps when we come back, you’ll tell me what your response to that is, and the other points you wish to make about Genesis.
– – – –
HH: Dr. Arnn, often you will find not critics, but opponents of the Bible will attempt to say there are contradictions therein. You know, the first two chapters of Genesis are opposed to the point of view of the chapters that follow, the first chapter of John is not the same as the first chapter of Genesis. How do you respond to people that play that particular game?
LA: Well, that particular one about the first chapter of John and the first chapter of Genesis is not a very good one, because obviously, what the first chapter of Genesis, when it says in the beginning, God created, that can’t mean exactly the beginning, because where did God come from, right? It’s like the big bang theory that explains what they claim to be the first thing, which is a very dense lump of matter explodes outward and creates the universe. And the point is, where did that come from? So where did this God come from who made this thing? And the claim in the New Testament is, and you know, I’m going to, there’s a long process of learning behind the claims I’m going to make, but I think they constitute orthodoxy, is that God is an eternally, uncreated, always being that is an activity among three persons. And the activity is described by the word love, and the persons are God the Father, the Spirit, which is mentioned here in the beginning of the first verse of Genesis, and the Son. And those three things, you know, C.S. Lewis, who’s a great guide in these things, he says that you can think of God the Father like a father, and you can think of God the Son as what God has to say, and you can think of the Spirit as the activity that prevails among the three of them. He gives the example of, like, when you go to a party. The party takes on a spirit that’s different from any individual in it. And so the point is, the first verse in the first book of Genesis don’t purport to give an account of the origins of God, and what the first book of John, the first verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of John does is says that the word was there at the beginning.
HH: Well and artfully said. Now onto the other points about Genesis, as many as we can in our five minutes remaining that you wish to make.
LA: Okay, well first of all, people should know that Genesis really falls into two parts, and that’s because it has two things to do. And the second one is unique to the Jewish religion, and tremendous breakthrough in the world. And I’ll tell you what that is in a minute. But the first part, the first thing it has to do is it has to account for everything, and that’s what it does in the beginning of Genesis, sort of through the Noah story. But then after that, it has to account for the rising of a people. And that’s what’s weird about this book, because in this book, God is not like the other ancient gods in the ancient cities. This God is at the same time a God of a people, which is what the Greek gods were, or the Persian gods were. He is in addition the God of everyone. And it’s in that combination that makes this so potent an influence on the civilization of the West. Well, the beginning of the book of Genesis is about this creation of everything story, that sort of…and the transition comes when it’s set up for the beginning of a birth of a people. And this people become terribly important. They’re chosen, and that turns out to be hard duty, and also, they’re not very good at it often. You know, my people are stiff that way.
HH: That’s well said, too.
LA: Or as Churchill said, every…
HH: It’s like being a radio host.
HH: You’re chosen to be it, and sometimes you’re not very good at it.
LA: There you go, but you’ve got to soldier on, you know. As Churchill said of the Jews, every time there are three Jews, there are two prime ministers, and one leader of the opposition.
HH: (laughing) When did he say that?
LA: He said that in the Second World War in Volume III. So the point is, now in this creation story, it’s very remarkable how it goes, because it tells, you know, first of all, there’s man, and then it focuses on man after this. And man is given dominion, and he’s given duties. Name everything, be the steward of everything. By the way, Obama says that in his inaugural address. We’re the steward of everything. And that means, what Obama means by that, and that means the government gets to tell you what to do.
HH: That’s the President’s interpretation of Genesis, but not ours.
LA: That’s right. And I’m not sure that this is exactly what the authors of Genesis, or the great author of Genesis, had in mind. But then man comes a cropper. He has a fall, right? And it’s always hard for people to understand what does this fall mean, because this snake shows up, right, and he tempts the woman. And there’s just one thing man is told not to do. Don’t eat of this fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because then you’ll be like Me, more like Me than you were just having words. And Eve is tempted to do that, and talks Adam into it. And they are aware of their nakedness. And they fall, and they are expelled from Eden, and that’s a decisive event in human affairs. And then the question is, how can we all be guilty of that? And I have a view of that myself, which I’ll state now, because I think it’s important.
HH: In a minute.
LA: Okay, well, maybe we’ll start with this next time, but the point is, the argument goes that it changes the biology of man when this fall happens, because we’re to imagine here a creature without want. And now we have a creature who is cursed to difficulty in childbearing, in difficulty of making a living, and not able to control his bodily processes as he was in Eden. And so now we become, because of the fall, necessitous creatures. And that exposes us to temptations different than the ones we would know in an idyllic state, imagine Eden, or imagine Heaven.
HH: And that is where we will begin next week, back in Genesis, because not surprisingly, being a fallen radio host, I have not gone as far as I intended to do. But we will pick up and shoulder on next week. Soldier on, not shoulder on. Soldier on next week with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu. Thank you, Dr. Arnn.
End of interview.