Sunday, January 17, 2010

John Walton and The Lost World of Genesis 1

One of the benefits of Christmas break is the opportunity to catch up on some reading, and yes, I do feel sympathy for students who have little or no time to read they would like rather than what their professors have assigned. I had the opportunity this past week to complete John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One. The purpose of this essay is not to critically review or to endorse Walton's interpretation but merely to summarize some of the key concepts for those who are interested in the conversation (and controversy) that the book has generated.

Walton uses 18 propositions to develop two key ideas. First, Genesis 1 is an ancient document reflecting an ancient cosmology and that modern scientific theories about the origins of the universe, whether they be creationism or evolution, should not be read into the text. Second, Genesis 1 is not describing the material creation of the universe but rather is an account of the functional origins of the world. More specifically, the world is given its functions as God's temple, where God has taken up residence and from where he rules the cosmos.

Walton would have the reader see that much of the modern debate over Genesis 1 concerning how God created the world or the age of the earth is an attempt to use Genesis to answer questions that are foreign to the text itself. Genesis 1 "does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their 'scientific' understanding of the cosmos." Like other ancient peoples, they understood the sky to be a material substance able to support the residence of the deity and to hold back the waters above the earth. They viewed the earth as resting on pillars. God revealed truth through the creation account, but the purpose of the creation account was not to give ancient Israel advanced cosmological understanding. Genesis 1 was not designed to address how God's creative activity relates to the natural world or the natural processes that stand behind creation.

All of these are modern issues imposed on the text and not the issue in the culture of the ancient world. We cannot expect the text to address them, nor can we configure the information of the text to force it to comply with the questions we long to have answered. We must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us. Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today's dialogues. (p. 21)

As we begin our study of Genesis 1 then, we must be aware of the danger that lurks when we impose our own cultural ideas on the text without thinking. The Bible's message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism. Its message transcends the culture in which it originated, but the form in which the message was imbedded was fully permeated by the ancient culture." … we must respect the integrity of the author by refraining from replacing his message with our own. (p .21)

We should not worry about the question of 'truth' with regard to the Bible's use of Old World science. As we mentioned before, some scientific framework needs to be adopted, and all scientific frameworks are dynamic and subject to change. Adoption of the framework of the target audience is most logical. The Old World science found in the Bible would not be considered 'wrong' or 'false' as much as it would just offer a different perspective from a different vantage point. (p. 61)

God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography—he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had because the shape of the material world did not matter. (pp. 61-62)

Concordist interpretations attempt to read details of physics, biology, geology, and so on into the biblical text. This is a repudiation of reading the text at face value. Such interpretation does not represent in any way what the biblical author would have intended or what the audience would have understood. Instead it gives modern meaning to ancient words." (pp. 104-05)

The theology of Genesis 1 is built around the idea that the cosmos serves as God's temple. Walton demonstrates how the ancient Near Eastern concepts of the temple as a microcosm of creation and the cosmos as a temple are reflected in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Isa 66:1-2; 1 Kgs 8:27). The glory of the Lord that fills the earth (Isa 6:3) is also the glory that takes up residence at the sanctuary in Israel (cf. Exod 40:34). Various objects in the temple and tabernacle represent various aspects of creation (1 Kgs 7:23-26—the basin as sea; 1 Kgs 7:15-22—the bronze pillars; the veil separating the heavens and earth). The Garden of Eden represents a temple (cf. the waters flowing through Eden in Gen 2:13-14 and the waters that flow from the temple in Ezek 47:1-12; Ps 46:4; Zech 14:8; Rev 22:1-2). For further development of the cosmic symbolism, I would also recommend chapter 2 of G. K. Beale's work, The Temple and the Church's Mission.

Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all its functions and God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God's presence. (pp. 84-85)

The idea of the cosmos as a temple has profound implications. "Once we turn our thinking away from 'natural world' to 'cosmic temple' our perspective about the world around us is revolutionized." We are no longer able to look at the world from a secular perspective. All of live is sacred and lived in God's presence. Even the most mundane activities of life become acts of worship. God's presence is "the defining element of existence." We also have a sacred responsibility to protect and take care of the earth.

The cosmos as temple also impacts Walton's understanding of the significance of the seven days in Genesis 1. The number seven is pervasive in temple accounts from the ancient world, and thus the seven-day structure of Genesis 1 is related to the idea of temple building and inauguration ceremonies for a temple. The seven days of Genesis 1 thus have no bearing on the age of the universe (whether read as literal days or long eons of time):

… it is evident that the nature of the days takes on a much less significant role than has normally been the case in the views that focus on material creation, in that they no longer have any connection to the material age of the earth." (p. 91)

… the seven days are not given as the period of the time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple, and perhaps also its annual reenactment. It is not the material phase of temple construction that represents the creation of the temple; it is the inauguration of the functions and the entrance of the presence of of God to take up his rest that creates the temple. Genesis 1 focuses on the creation of the (cosmic) temple, not the material phase of that preparation." (p. 92)

If the seven days refer to the seven days of cosmic temple inauguration, days that concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not a conclusion designed to accommodate science—it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth. If it were turn out that the earth is young, so be it. But most people seek to defend a young-earth view do so because they believe that the Bible obligates them to such a defense. I admire the fact that believers are willing to take unpopular positions and investigate all sorts of alternatives in an attempt to defend the reputation of the biblical text. But, if the biblical text does not demand a young earth there would be little impetus or evidence to support such a position. (p. 95)

Walton's intent in this work is to allow the text of Genesis to speak for itself on its own terms. He writes, "The interpretation set forth in this book arose out of my desire to fully understand the biblical text." His purpose is not to argue for evolution or any other particular view of how God created the material world, though Walton is certainly open to evolutionary thought in ways that will be uncomfortable to many conservative Christians.

According to the interpretation offered in this book, the Bible does not tell us [how the world was created] , so we are left to figure it out as best we can with the intellectual capacity and other tools that God gave us. But the material world was created by him. (p. 169)

I am not suggesting a wholesale adoption of evolution, merely suggesting that neither Genesis 1 specifically not biblical theology in general give us any reason to reject it as a model as long as we see God as involved at every level and remain aware of our theological convictions." (p. 137)

Evolution represents the current scientific consensus to explain the many observations that have been made in paleontology, genetics, zoology, biochemistry, ecology and so on. The question is how much of what is involved in biological evolution runs counter to what I understand to be biblical claims and theological reality. In the interpretation of the text that I have offered, very little found in evolutionary theory would be objectionable, though certainly some of the metaphysical claims of evolution remain unacceptable. (p. 170)

Walton seems open to the idea that Adam and Eve could be understood "corporately as the first humans, not a single original human pair" (p. 139), but his explanation of how this could reconcile with Romans 5 and the Adam/Christ headship issue is not clear. Fossil homo specimens would be part of the prefunctional cosmos and would not be viewed neither as human in the image of God nor as moral beings responsible before God. Death existed prior to the Fall (and was thus potentially part of the evolutionary process), and the only consequence of the Fall was that death was passed on to human beings (cf. Rom 5:12). Walton briefly discusses the issue of origins in public education, arguing that Christians should focus on demanding that metaphysical naturalism, a matter of belief rather than science, not be bundled together with the teaching of evolution," rather than trying to promote the teaching of young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design in the classroom (p. 165).

Whether one agrees with Walton's interpretation or not, his caution we must not allow modern agendas attached to the issues of origins to prevent us from hearing the theological message of Genesis 1 is an important reminder. From an apologetics standpoint, Walton's work also helps us to see that defending a theistic worldview is far more important than defending a particular view on how God might have created the material world.


  1. For those interested in Dr. Walton's book, here are two links worth visiting:
    Dr. Vern Poythress has written a critique of Dr. Walton's book at Dr. Walton has replied here:

  2. Actually, Walton is NOT open to the idea that Adam and Eve represent an ancient corporate humanity. On pg. 139 of this book, he states in reference to that viewpoint:

    "Such views, which I continue to find problematic on a number of levels, have been proposed in attempts to reconcile the supposed contradictions between the Bible and the anthropological fossil evidence, and they stand as examples of continuing attempts to try and sort out this complex issue."

    In other words, he is citing the views of others descriptively, not his own. Later he states:

    "The image of God and the sinful act of disobedience dooming all of humanity are biblical and theological realities linking us to Adam and Eve, whom the biblical text treats as historical individuals (as indicated in their roles in genealogies). That God is the Creator of human beings must be taken seriously. We continually seek understanding of biblical texts for what they communicate in their own theological and cultural contexts. Whatever evolutionary processes led to the development of animal life, primates and even prehuman hominids, my theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve."

    So Walton clearly does not accept attempts to turn the Fall into anything other than a historical event. Unfortunately, he goes on to say "Rather than cause-and-effect continuity, there is material and spiritual discontinuity, though it remains difficult to articulate how God accomplished this." That's an unnecessary concession to doubters, in my opinion, and is the kind of cautious scholarly language that may go over well in academic circles but grates for defenders of the faith. Scripture reveals what truths God chooses to impart. We are not called upon or required to articulate what God does not reveal.

    That being said, while I think Walton's thesis has some merit in enabling Christians to read Genesis 1 according to its plain meaning (the historical-grammatical method) I am not entirely convinced of his thesis overall. Scripture states plainly "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned." and also "Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being."

    Genesis plainly states that man was made from the dust of the earth, not that he was made from an existing creature. To my reading, this doesn't leave room for human evolution of any kind. There is simply no connection.

    Overall, a good review though. I have the book and also Walton's other book, "Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament".