Many Christians are opposed to calling Genesis One an allegory or poetry. These Christians warn that this threatens to change the clear message of the Bible, watering it down, and thus compromising the Gospel. On the other side, other Christians are troubled by efforts that interpret Genesis too literally. Does not an over-literal reading of Genesis One conflict with modern science, creating an unnecessary obstacle for a non-believer in coming to know Christ? John Walton, an Old Testament scholar at Wheaton College, takes both of these concerns seriously, and he suggests a third alternative.
In the previous Veracity post about John Walton, you were introduced to Walton’s thesis that the first chapter of Genesis is an account of the functional order of the universe, NOT the material origins of the universe. It sounds a little odd, but some refer to John Walton’s perspective as an archetypal view of creation. Walton calls it a cosmic temple inauguration view.
Yeah, just go ahead and try to explain that to your grandmother…. or Joe Friday.
Okay, it does sound a little fancy and nerdy. But just exactly what is Dr. Walton driving at? Let us give Dr. Walton a little room here, shall we? Walton argues that the Genesis was written for us but not to us. It is as though we are reading someone else’s mail when we read Genesis. Walton contends that Bible students today need to understand Genesis from the perspective of those ancient Hebrews who first read the text. If we fail to do that, we risk distorting God’s Word.
Whoa. Do I have your attention now?
In the last Veracity post on this topic, we set out some of the primary points of John Walton’s thesis. But before doing a “deep-dive” it might be good to consider some of the objections critics have been making to his ideas. Then, as you look over Walton’s presentation, you can evaluate on your own whether he has made a good case or not. Even if you are not entirely convinced, you will be challenged to grow deeper in your faith and understanding of God’s Word.
Critical Engagement with John Walton’s Thesis
As Davis A. Young, professor emeritus of geology at Calvin College, says on the book’s jacket, John Walton “has blown away all the futile attempts to elicit modern science from the first chapter of the Bible.” Not everyone is happy with this. For example, Walton’s thesis directly goes against the Young Earth Creationist idea that you can somehow read historical science directly out of the Biblical text.
Young Earth Creationists protest that John Walton is introducing extra-biblical data into how we interpret the Bible, thereby denying the plain meaning of the text (see this critique from Creation.com, as well as Answers in Genesis’, Ken Ham here and then a response to Ham).
Furthermore, Walton’s thesis finds that even Old Earth Creationists, while they do better in reconciling modern science with the Bible, they are still doing violence to the Biblical text (not just in Genesis!) by reading modern scientific concerns into the text and not taking advantage of the critical insights offered by Ancient Near East literary research to help to understand the original ancient context in which the Old Testament was written. For example, it is fine to say that God’s “stretching out of the heavens” fits in with our contemporary understanding of an ever expanding universe due to the Big Bang. But it would be completely wrong to assume that somehow God was revealing to the Psalmist the secret to Big Bang cosmology several thousands of years before modern science discovered the Big Bang. God is not doing this in the Bible.
Old Earth Creationists argue that Walton may indeed be right about the functional aspects of the teaching in the Genesis. However, they argue that Walton’s dualistic separation between the functional and material aspects of the Creation does not do justice to the message of the Bible. A number of Walton’s critics, such as Hugh Ross at Reasons to Believe in this important essay, argue that Genesis can and does teach both a functional and a material understanding of God’s act in Creation. For Hugh Ross, the two are not mutually exclusive. Ross argues that Walton unwisely dismisses attempts to find and discover agreement between the Bible and modern science.
Even some Intelligent Design proponents have taken issue with various implications of John Walton’s thesis (albeit for different reasons).
Walton’s response is that his critics simply do not understand his argument nor do they appreciate the evidence from Ancient Near East literature. His argument does not deny Biblical inerrancy nor Biblical authority. Nor is he trying to “do science” with the Bible, as he explicitly states that he is not a scientist. Rather, Walton claims that the study of Ancient Near East literature places the interpretation of Genesis within its proper context. John Walton does not care about what “the Bible has to say about science” because in his perspective, the Bible is telling us nothing about a modern scientific approach to material origins!
Why Christians Need to Think About What John Walton is Saying
A number of Christians intuitively find discussions about the relationship between the Bible and science to be a frustrating exercise of missing the point. But when sandwiched between those who try to mine the Bible for scientific facts on one side and those who dismiss the authority of the Bible altogether on the other, it is difficult to come up with an intelligent response that takes the meaning of the scriptural text seriously. John Walton offers an intellectual framework on how to do just that.
What I find important about John Walton’s thesis is that it raises the questions concerning how Christians should go about interpreting the ancient texts of Scripture: What were the original writers of sacred Scripture trying to teach and affirm when they were writing to the original audience? If we fail to do this, as John Walton argues, are we dishonoring the Scriptures by doing violence in how we read the Bible? Whether or not Walton ultimately succeeds in making his particular case, I think his primary objective is correct: we do the Word of God no favors by insisting that a text that was written centuries and centuries ago must conform to contemporary, 21st century expectations of what we think it should mean. We must learn to read the Bible through ancient eyes.
John Walton believes that if Christians are going to take the Biblical text seriously, that you must seriously engage the evidence. John Walton went on a book tour across the country giving lectures based on The Lost World of Genesis One sponsored by a BioLogos grant. Below is a 2-hour presentation at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, beginning with a 5-minute introduction by pastor John Ortberg. Do you find Dr. Walton’s case convincing?
John Walton is on a roll with his “Lost World” theme. In addition to his critical edition of the The Lost World of Genesis One theme aimed at a technical audience, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, reviewed here at the Gospel Coalition, Walton not to long ago released The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, with co-author Brent Sandy, specifically addressing questions regarding scriptural inerrancy. He is currently working on a new book that might be titled something like the “Lost World of Adam and Eve”.
A few other reviews of Walton’s work show the diverse impact Walton is having. James McGrath has an excellent point by point review of the book that I would recommend that divides Walton’s thesis into eighteen different propositions. Some other helpful shorter reviews include one from Old Testament scholar Pete Enns, and this from another Old Earth perspective by Lee Irons. For an audio treatment criticizing Walton’s views in-depth, consider listening to William Lane Craig’s “Creation and Evolution” Sunday School podcast, sessions #7, #8, #9, and #10. Look here for the first transcript.
John Walton has taken in a number of the criticisms and published them, including a 2-hour extensive instructional video, complete with interactions with Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, including Walton’s personal testimony, available at Biologos.org. If you want to dig deeper, you will enjoy the following two-hour video. Some of the material in the first video above overlaps with what is presented here, but he goes more in-depth on some issues, and Walton even includes more of his personal testimony: