Sidney Greidanus has earned a reputation as a fantastic biblical theologian, especially for teaching many students how to preach Christ from the Old Testament. Given my love for Biblical Theology and respect for Greidanus’s work, I was excited to dig into From Chaos to Cosmos, the latest installment in Crossway’s series “Short Studies in Biblical Theology.” I eagerly received this book as part of Crossway’s blog review program. However, I found this work to be far less illuminating than I hoped.
As with all the contributions to this series, From Chaos to Cosmos is written to make the recent scholarly work on biblical theology available to a wider lay-Christian audience. Biblical theology is concerned with the study of the Bible as a cohesive whole, often with an interest in the themes that run through the Bible and display its unity. To tease out the theme of Chaos and Cosmos, Greidanus examines the Bible across 3 chapters; chapter 1 considers Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua; chapter 2 considers “Wisdom, Psalms, and Prophets;” and chapter 3 the New Testament. These chapters are rather long, divided into smaller sections ending in discussion questions. This breaks up the book rather awkwardly. It would have been better to have broken each of these divisions with study questions into individual chapters and to have titled the “chapters” as parts.
Chapter 4 moves from exposition to application, offering guidance on how to preach or teach this theme. Having such a chapter is a great idea and feeds right into Greidanus’s strengths as a teacher and scholar. However, every chapter, including this last one, is severely crippled by two significant issues, namely, the lack of a clear definition for the theme and the misidentification of the theme in Scripture.
The Lack of a Definition
Like the previous book in this series I reviewed (The City of God and the Goal of Creation), this book is sorely missing a clear definition of its theme. Shortly into the book, it is clear that by “chaos” some form of disorder is intended and by “comos” order(17-18). These are pretty obvious definitions given the usual meaning of “chaos” and the technical sense of the word “cosmos.”
What is unclear for me is how order and disorder are related to the various examples of “chaos” and “cosmos” that Greidanus unpacks throughout the book: how are sin, death, Satan, the sea creatures, the waters, the deep, the flood, darkness, and the wilderness (or formless and void places) all captured by the term “chaos?” This ultimately gets at what I think is the most significant issue of the book. While lacking a clear definition at the outset makes it hard to follow the theme(s) he unpacks, following the argument of the book is made all the harder by the fact that Chaos with its opposite Cosmos is not actually a theme in Scripture. Now, that is a bold claim, but let me defend it.
The Lack of a Single Theme
The discipline of biblical theology is interested in identifying, expounding, and presenting those features of Scripture that bring it unity. One of the significant ways of doing this is to trace a theme throughout the Scriptures. This is the form of biblical theology that Crossway’s “Short Studies in Biblical Theology” is interested in. To make such a study Biblical—that is, of the Bible—and unifying, the theme it traces must actually be present in Scripture. Though there are many volumes dedicated the theme of “Chaos” in the Old Testament, I remain convinced from my studies of the Old Testament (the OT is the subject of both my master’s degrees) that it is a figment of scholar’s imaginations.
That this is the case is subtly hinted by Greidanus himself when he observes that many biblical scholars do not like the word “chaos” because it is not found in the Bible, instead preferring a slew of terms (“without form, void, darkness, the deep, the waters, the seas, Rahab, great sea creatures, and Leviathan,” 17). It is not a problem, of course, if a term does not appear in Scripture; the tri-unity of God is surely a theme in Scripture though there is no term for it. However, considering the slew of terms Greidanus offers, we must ask “what unifies these terms?” If “chaos” brings all these terms and figures together, what feature is “chaos” describing? I cannot identify such a unifying feature. It is all the more telling that Greidanus begins his survey in the Ancient Near East.
Is Chaos a Theme?
That is, “Chaos” is a very clear theme in the Ancient Near East. In the pagan culture around Israel—as in the pagan cultures of Greece and elsewhere—the contrast between order and disorder, or chaos and cosmos, is prominent. In fact, the “sea” (YAM), leviathan (the seven headed chaos beast), Rahab (the chaos or sea dragon), and darkness are all symbols of disorder and philosophical chaos—the formless “nothing” that exists in opposition to the primary creator deity or force. However, the question of Biblical theology is not “what themes are present in the ancient near east” but “what themes are present in Scripture?” (See this article.) We must ask, are the ideas of “formless and void,” darkness, Rahab, leviathan, the sea, death, Satan, and sin held together by a single unifying idea in Scripture—“chaos.”1 To this question, I think the answer is a resounding no. If they are, Greidanus and the supporting literature do not show it; they assume it because of the ANE background. Instead, I would argue that what is presented as one theme is a mixture of 2 or 3 themes.
For example, Chaos is said to be broad enough to encompass a variety of ideas and themes, including Satan, death, and sin; by definition, it must then be considered a sort of evil. In fact, if chaos means disorder in contrast with God’s order and is manifest most often in rebellion and curse (e.g. Rahab,Satan, sin, and death), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that “chaos” is thoroughly negative; either a judgment of God or rebellion against God (two ideas that are sufficiently distinct to cast doubt on the theme already). However, as is clear from the creation narrative, “formless and void,” “darkness,” and “sea” are not presented as bad things. The later are part of the whole creation God identifies as “good.” We may include “formless and void” in that category, for it merely describes the world as all sea without land. All of this is created by God, by His word, and considered good. How, then, is it part of a negative “chaos” theme?
You may at this point bring up the fact that these are in fact treated as negative in the rest of Scripture. When the flood is brought on the earth, once again the world is covered in water (Gen 7:20); when Israel and the nations are judged, they become “formless” and “void” (Isa 24:10, 34:11, Jer 4:23); and in the New Creation, there is no longer night nor the sea (Rev 21:1, 25). However, this development is not explained by a “chaos” theme but by three distinct themes: the creation/decreation theme; the rebellious sea and its creatures theme (for a lack of a better term); and the light/darkness contrast.
Creation and De-Creation
The creation/de-creation theme is linked to God’s judgment. God originally created a good and orderly word to be the theatre of His glory, a world with a purpose. However, when sin enters, rebellious individuals seek to twist the created order to their own purpose. Therefore God often responds by wiping the slate clean: He de-creates and recommissions the creation for His purposes. In the flood, He wipes out most of created life except for pairs of animals (as at creation) and some humans. He also re-covers the earth in water, like it was in the initial created state. God then recommissions humans, as He had the original man and woman. In this way, God de-creates in judgment and engages in recreation, only this time promising never to de-create on this scale again. At Babel, God de-creates by shattering the unity He gave to man, yet he recreates at Pentecost. In His judgment of Israel, God de-creates by decimating the land, only to return the exiles and recommission it (temporarily) for His purposes. God will ultimately de-create and recreate when He wipes out the whole old creation and makes a new creation (2 Pet 3:11-13). It should be noted than in every case where creation/de-creation is found, God is the origin of the formless and void or de-created state. It is, therefore, the exact opposite of chaos; it is part of God’s great plan and a manifestation of His unchanging character, the purest manifestation of order.
The Sea and Its Creatures, Darkness and Light
Turning to the sea and its creatures, there is no evidence in the creation account that the “sea” or the “great sea creatures” are perceived negatively; in fact, Psalm 104:24-26 uses the sea and its great creature par excellence—Leviathan—as a testimony to God’s “manifold works.” However, throughout the Prophets and the Writings, the sea and its creatures—particularly Leviathan and Rahab—become symbols of rebellion or reckless power. Rahab—and potentially Leviathan in one case (Ps 74:14)—is a pseudonym for Egypt, a significant manifestation of rebellion against God. Leviathan is a creature formed by God and controlled by God (Ps 104:24-26), yet a figure of what is out of man’s control (Job 41:1-34). And the sea is considered a force that needs to be contained (e.g. after the flood, Ps 104:5-9). Proverbs 8:29 could be read negatively as if the sea was a transgressor, yet “transgress” in the ESV can and probably does mean “cross over” without connotations of disobedience. However, throughout the Prophets and by the time of Revelation, the sea is seen to represent opposition to God (e.g. Rev 13:1, 21:1). In every case however, the sea is considered to be firmly under God’s control, even if it symbolizes attempted opposition to Him. Thus, like de-creation, the sea and its creatures are not “chaos” but tools in God’s hands.
The same could be said for light/darkness. I think is evident how the association between light and good and dark and bad could develop from common experience, and I see no reason to root it in the creation account or attach it to these themes. It is nevertheless the case that dark vs. light becomes a significant theme in Scripture, characterizing the kingdom of Satan and its behaviour in opposition to the kingdom of God and its behaviour (e.g. John, Eph 5:3-27, 1 John).
All this to say, I am not convinced by Greidanus or any other scholar that there is truly a “chaos” theme in Scripture. It is surely present in ANE literature but not in the Bible. Because there is no unifying theme in the first place, Greidanus’s attempt to bring together the above three themes along with themes of unrighteousness/righteousness, life/death, sin/obedience, kingdom of God/kingdom of Satan is ultimately disunified and unfortunately forces many texts into a mold in which they do not fit. References to the Exodus are mistaken for references to a mythical creation battle—which is prominent in ANE cosmogonies—and references to the flood are also mistaken as creation references. Greidanus is a fantastic scholar and his work has been a gift to the church, yet in this case the result will not be helpful for students of the Bible. I sadly cannot recommend this little book.
1Oddly enough, Greidanus adds Israel’s slavery in Egypt as an example of Chaos; I think this demonstrates the ambiguity of the theme.