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No Dualisms Here, just Good

The Bible abhors dualism. Man, in an effort to understand and explain the world, has developed the concept of duality. In our limited understanding, we look at the universe as a place of competing and opposing ideas. We turn them into dualisms and then form our philosophy and worldview around the effort to find balance, connection, or meaning between them.

Our western culture owes much to the dualisms explained in ancient Greek philosophy, for example. Herman Dooyeweerd and those who follow in his philosophical footsteps have done well in tracing the development of the Greek dualism that pits form versus matter as a foundational starting point for much of modern western philosophy. Many have explained in much detail how this foundational starting point — a ground motive — grew into the grace-freedom dualism of the medieval western church, and then through the enlightenment into the nature-freedom duality that dominates much of today’s thinking. I leave it to others to defend and explain this process.

My point at the moment is that while we, and by that I am referring to the western believing Church, remain trapped in this duality and allow it to affect our theology and understanding of Scripture, while the Bible’s narrative presents us with a world devoid of dualism.

But, it may be asked in response, does not the story of Scripture speak of a conflict between good and evil, in a creation shaped by transcendence and immanence, light and darkness, with the seed of the woman in perpetual conflict with the seed of the Serpent? Is not Scripture full of allusions and references to, if not outright mention of, a spiritual conflict that is not by its very nature dualistic?

To this, the response must be a sharp no. While there is conflict — you cannot have a good story without conflict to drive a plot — this is not at all the same thing as a dualistic explanation of reality. You can, and we do, have a conflict that continues within an unblended and unmixed reality, a cloth without seams, if you will. A reading of the story without the lenses of enlightenment thinking will point us in this direction. 

This reading begins in Genesis 1, with a transcendent God who exists outside of and separate from the physical and immanent world He is about to create. These two, God and his creation, do not exist in a perpetual state of conflict however. God is already existing in the beginning, before time and physical distance becomes reality. God is the creator of the universe, and seven times in this first chapter God calls the creation good. He speaks — 10  times in fact — and creation comes into being. God is not dependent upon this creation, his goodness and holiness does not depend on the events or results of these creative acts to be seen and understood. God creates a world that is separate from his own being, but fully in line with his nature and character. Creation is good.

Some may respond that the transcendent and immanent quality of this creation brings about a dualism that is to be understood not necessarily as in conflict perhaps, but by their very nature as separate and non-congruent sides of reality.

This is exactly why chapter 2 of Genesis is crucial to our understanding of the nature of creation. The rational critics of the biblical narrative have, since the hegemony of enlightenment thinking in the scholarly word, viewed chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis as proof of two separate sources of the biblical text, forced into juxtaposition by an unsophisticated editor of the text. The use of two separate Hebrew words for God, אלהים, appearing primarily in chapter 1, and the addition of divine name, יהוה אלהים, appearing primarily in chapter 2, is cited as evidence of this editorial activity. This explanation of the text, from a decidedly non-believing hermeneutic, fails to see the purpose of each chapter. 

In the first chapter, as we noted previously, God is transcendent, outside of creation, speaking into existence an immanent word dominated by water, earth, plants, sun, moon, stars, birds, animals, and two humans, created male and female. Then in chapter two, by adding the covenant name of the Lord to the more detailed description of the sixth day of creation, we see God immersed within his creation. No longer does He stand on the outside speaking things into being. Instead, we see the Lord God forming a man out of dirt with his own hands, the image of wet clay dripping from the fingers, and then mouth to mouth breathing into these newly formed lungs a breath that gives life and begins a beating heart. This is no transcendent God. This is a very present Lord, acting and moving within his creation. He is immanent himself, walking, we discover later in the story, with the humans in the cool of the evening. He speaks with them, using the same voice that brought galaxies into existence in the previous chapter, now explaining how they are to enjoy and remain in this garden which the Lord God himself planted. 

Transcendence and immanence are not two dissimilar and opposing states of creation, with one dominating or at least seeking to dominate the other. Transcendence and immanence are two points of view within the same reality, without mixture or conflict. The Lord himself moves as easily within one as the other. While man is made within an immanent world and must live inside it, we will discover in the biblical narrative that through his heart, he can connect with the transcendent, something that surpasses his limited understanding, but is necessary for being whole within what will soon become a fallen world.

The fallen world brings evil into the picture. If seven times the word good is used of creation in the first chapter, then the introduction of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil brings a new element into creation. It is important to note that this conflict of good and evil cannot constitute a dualism, nor does it require us to view reality in any sort of dualistic manner. For one whole chapter, creation existed as good, just good, without any indication of evil. There exists no need for a balance between good and evil. These two qualities are not equal forces of reality, vying for dominance. Good can exist just fine without any reference to evil. It did so, until rebellion entered creation. Evil is an interloper, an invasive weed in the garden. We can define goodness without the necessity of evil, but evil only exists as a rebellion against goodness. This is not duality, this is an invasive species, a weed in the good garden. Good and evil are not opposing forces at work within reality; the world is infected.

Good and evil does become a dominant theme within the book of Genesis, however. Here at the beginning of the story, the two words are juxtaposed as the conflict begins. We see these same two words juxtaposed again in the final chapter of the book, forming a clear inclusio around the stories of the beginning of God’s solution to the problem of evil. When evil enters through the rebellion of the first couple, we see the Lord God’s promise of a seed that will crush the serpent’s head. The way to combat evil is to crush it, and childbirth, which itself becomes cursed by pain, is the path to evil’s destruction. 

This sets conflicts into motion, Cain and Abel is the first example of brothers in conflict as the reader looks for that progeny that will accomplish the crushing. This conflict appears in all the following stories, including the story of Joseph and his brothers. Sold into slavery by jealous and angry brothers, Joseph becomes the means of their deliverance from a world-wide famine. It’s a well-known story, one that involves the transformation of brother Judah, who realizes his own unrighteousness in the story of Tamar and thus is transformed from a brother who wants to sell Joseph into the brother that is willing to sacrifice his own life to save Benjamin, Joseph’s full and youngest brother. 

At the conclusion of the story, when the 10 brothers are begging for their lives before Joseph, he tells them first that he is “not in the place of God,” which is something Jacob had to learn a generation earlier when barren Rachel begged him for a child. 

Joseph then says something remarkable, a phrase that brings the reader back to the conflict (not dualistically) that dominates the story and forms not just an inclusio, but clarifies the theme of the book and perhaps the rest of Scripture. Joseph tells his brothers that they intended evil — just like Genesis 6 reminds us the intent of the human heart is now always towards evil — but that God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20). 

Our rebellion and our heart is always bent towards evil. But the Lord is working to crush that evil and restore creation and us to the good of the original creation. This is not dualism of equal forces, but an invader seeking to overthrow good. God will be victorious and good will be restored, eliminating evil.

That is what Paul is referring to in Romans 8, when he famously says all things work together for good. In the verses prior to 8:28, Paul refers to creation groaning, to childbirth, to deliverance from the pains of childbirth with the glorious unveiling of the Son, Jesus, and the adopted children who share in that glory. These are clear references to Genesis 1-3, with creation, cursed childbirth, and a promise of victory over the serpent. God does work all things together for the ultimate victory of good over evil. Rebellion will be crushed and the whole and unified creation will be made good again. This is no dualism, but good alone.