The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

John Walton IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL May 22, 2009
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Walton argues that the literary purpose of Genesis 1 is not to describe the material origins of the world, but rather its functional origins. Further, within its ancient culture Genesis 1 is like a temple inauguration text, in which the cosmos is God’s temple and He has taken residence there, sustaining those functions and exercising His rule. Walton argues that if this originally intended purpose is honored, there is no need to see a conflict between Scripture and science, so long as science stays teleologically neutral. The real conflict is between metaphysical assumptions, an insight that should shape public policy regarding teaching science and origins in schools.

The book is arranged as a series of short chapters each of which discusses one of eighteen propositions. In these chapters Walton attempts to establish the propositions and explain their implications. He discusses four basic issues: (a) matters of interpreting the face value meaning of the literature in its cultural context (chaps. 1–2, 10–11); (b) specific interpretations of elements of Genesis 1 (chaps. 3–6); (c) the view that Genesis 1 is a cosmic temple inauguration text (chaps. 7–9); and (d) matters of the modern origins debate and educational policy (chaps. 12–18).

Regarding the first point (face value meaning) Walton’s perspective is that as an ancient Near Eastern cosmology the creation text of Genesis is function-oriented. To take it as an account of material origins would be to deny the text its original intent. God did not change Israel’s scientific assumptions about thinking as occurring in the heart (instead of in the brain), or about the sun as rising and setting (instead of the earth rotating). Nor did He change Israel’s assumptions about cosmic geography (e.g., a solid dome, “firmament,” holding back the heavenly waters). Instead He spoke truth about the functional order of the cosmos in its conceptual framework. Walton believes that God created the material universe and did so out of nothing, but he does not believe that this is what Genesis 1 addresses. Before wrestling with the details in chapters 3–9, it may be helpful to read chapters 10 and 11 to get the fullest grasp of his big-picture perspective. Importantly Walton challenges readers to adopt the ancient perspective that characterized Scripture in order not to separate the “natural” from the “supernatural.” Separating them has the potential for a deistic error of seeing God start up supposed “natural” processes and then letting them run, rather than recognizing that God is actively sustaining what are called natural processes. Being able to describe a natural process (e.g., cell division and embryology) does not remove the supernatural element that humans are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together in the womb—by God.

Regarding function orientation, Walton attempts to show from Genesis 1 that the account is not primarily about material origins but about functions. He means that while Genesis 1 may refer to items and processes that admittedly are material for the sake of the story the focus is on their function. This is similar to a parable having no real physical referent, though the teaching of the parable is still fully true. He does successfully argue at points that the main concern of the text is about making a functioning world, not about the scientific mechanisms of material processes. But at several points the case is overstated, so that it sounds like he means Genesis 1 would have been understood as being about the abstract functions without being about material origins at all. For example day three is seen as a problem for the view that Genesis 1 is about material origins because in Walton’s view God did not create anything on day three. Further, Walton’s perspective is that the three components of land, water, and seed-bearing plants stand for the function of food production. In the case of the seas the water is already there, so it is not a creation out of nothing, but it does describe a material process for which “create” (in English) is legitimate. However, it would seem natural that the original audience would do more than assume that God made the function of food production, and that the account refers to real material plants that people could eat, plants that were not there to begin with. Ancient Near Eastern creation texts may start with unformed substance that gets modified, but they still have a pattern in which specific things were not there at first, and then were. The fact that these ancient texts describe the change of unformed matter into new things does not mean that on the surface they are primarily about abstract functions rather than material origins.

Word studies related to the topic of creating constitute a significant part of Walton’s argument. Unfortunately he does not discuss together in one place and in a uniform manner the important issues of the linguistic descriptions of God’s creative work. Instead the treatment is selective and spread out, making the data seem less problematic. The argument that ar:B; (“create”) is about functions is not convincing from a lexical perspective (Isa. 4:5 and 41:18–20 are particularly problematic, since things are first not there, and then they are). Walton correctly opposes the idea that ar:B;  inherently means creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), but he does not prove that it refers exclusively or primarily to functions. Similarly the discussion about God “making” (hc;[;) falls short. While it is correct that hc;[; can range widely in meaning from “make” to “do,” he omits the point that a verb’s specific meaning (and its English rendering) often depends on the nature of its direct object (e.g., “do” an abstract, “make” a physical object). God’s making man out of the “dust” of the ground involves the mortality of all humanity in an archetypal way (“to dust you shall return,” Gen. 3:19), Walton says, and he considers that making Adam out of dust was not a description of a material origin.

But Walton argues his case better when he deals with generalizations about the function of genre, the worldview of the ancient Near East, and God’s condescending to the cultural framework of His audience. Regarding the notion that Genesis 1 is a cosmic temple, Walton advances a thesis worthy of more attention, namely, that the recording of the seven days of creation culminating in God’s “resting” is a temple (or tabernacle) inauguration text. Deities rest in temples. Temple building does appear in ancient Near Eastern texts that treat creation. The god makes a temple, which is where he rests and runs the universe that was created or set in order. For Walton there are similarities and differences. God creates and rests in a temple, but the temple is not a building; it is the entire cosmos. After all, God cannot really be contained in a building, since heaven (His throne) and earth (His footstool) cannot contain Him. And God’s rest is not a rejuvenating nap, but a transition from the work of setting up (creating) the world to sustaining, maintaining, and ruling it. This view gives added meaning to the command for Sabbath rest.

One of Walton’s strong points, as in many of his other works, is in noting where biblical similarities to ancient Near Eastern culture facilitate communication, while differences advance the unique theses of Israel’s monotheism. Space constraints have not allowed Walton the opportunity to furnish all the data one desires before adopting this perspective. (Walton also has a more detailed and scholarly work on the topic, Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology [Lake Winona, IN: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming]. See also his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006].)

In considering implications for the origins debate, Walton sees trouble for both young-earth creationists and old-earth creationists who approach Genesis 1 from a concordist perspective, trying to correlate modern science with the descriptions in Genesis. Walton’s view is a type of framework hypothesis (a literary/theological approach), and his suggestions for education and public policy depend more on seeing Genesis 1 from this general perspective than from seeing it as a temple inauguration text in particular. The most important thing is to separate descriptions of material processes, which science can attempt, from the metaphysical issues of purpose (“Why?” questions), which science cannot address. The issue is teleology. Genesis 1 is not teleologically neutral, for it explains purpose, which science cannot do.

Walton believes that descriptions of material processes related to origins are confined to science and that speculations about material processes are not constrained by the biblical account. But whatever the process was or is, it is metaphysically dependent on God. In turn Walton advocates that the science classroom be teleologically neutral. Methodological naturalism does not allow room for a religious explanation of purpose concerning origins, but it also does not allow for Neo-Darwinists to be proponents of metaphysical naturalism. The inability of science to detect purpose should not be used to advance the notion that there is no purpose (dysteleology). He believes students should be taught to distinguish between the scientific method and metaphysical notions, not in the science classroom but by people trained in philosophy. His recommendations assume that origins will be taught in the schools, but he does not address the question of whether hypotheses about origins are a useful part of the curriculum, and if so, at what age they should be introduced. While teleological neutrality sounds like a good goal, it is fair to ask whether any discussion of origins can avoid the “purpose” question, whether the public school setting is capable of being teleologically neutral, whether it is in the science classroom that students should hear about the limits of methodological naturalism, and whether knowing hypotheses about origins should be a priority in the curriculum.

—Brian L. Webster

July 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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