John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths: Unique or Just Different?

Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2009, 204 pgs.

Summary: John N. Oswalt (1940-     ) is distinguished professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has a written a careful assessment of the uniqueness of the biblical conception of God and how this distinguishes the Bible from similar forms of ancient near-eastern religious texts.

The Bible unlike any other ancient source views God as absolutely independent and transcendent of the cosmos and any other order. There is then no non-personal congruence between the created reality and God. He is God not a man.

Oswalt, following Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963) in The Religion of Israel, then defines myth and mythological thinking as finding continuity between the deity and the cosmos. The gods of the pagans are produced and to some degree controlled by the material world or a power above them, because they are of the same process or controlled by the same ultimately impersonal force. Thus, the Bible exists as a text that describes a unique relationship between God and creation in opposition to that described in mythological literature.

[M]yth depends for its whole rationale on the idea that all things in the cosmos are continuous with each other. Furthermore, myth exists to actualize that continuity. Thus mythical descriptions of the gods invariably depict them as human in every respect, only more so. They are strong; they are weak; they are good; they are bad; they are trustworthy; they are fickle. All that humanity is, the gods are. And how could it be otherwise in a cosmos of continuity? (45)

The spiritual universe then becomes manipulable through spiritual and physical means. The gods are bribable and dependent on human action for sustenance, glory, and perhaps being. Even when the gods cannot be influenced or manipulated, they too are controlled by a power behind and above them that can be accessed by humans.

Humanity under this view is then caught up in powers that are above and beyond their ken, yet they may be able to channel some aspects to their advantage through ceremony, magic, or unique personal attributes. Here lies the ground work for magic, parochial Christianity of all stripes, paganism, evolutionary and process thought, and so forth. Continuity, manipulable personal powers, and impersonal necessary powers allow humans to participate on equal footing with the gods.

Benefits/Detriments: Oswalt presents a careful and Christian account of Kauffmann’s work. Further, he links it well to modern philosophical and liberal Christian views. The contingency of God or the divine and other species of divine and material uniformity are the default worldview of the flesh. Oswalt describes the “the rules” and the “authorities” of this “present darkness” (Eph. 6:12).

My only caveat is that Oswalt appears to hold a non-traditional view on the attributes of God (pg. 131); it also not clear to me that his Arminian view of soteriology is coherent with his rejection of the non-contingency of God.

Highly recommended for all interested in higher criticism, apologetics, inter-religious dialogue, and understanding of the role of magic in Christian practice.

Shane Walker is preaching pastor at First Baptist Church in Watertown, Wisconsin. This post appeared on the blog of Andover Baptist Church in Linthicum, Maryland.