Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One – Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by Dr. John H. Walton

If you’d prefer, you can download the PDF to this article: Response to The Lost World of Genesis One

            John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate is one that definitely makes one think deeply and reconsider previously assumed interpretations of the Genesis 1 text. It is insightful in its presentation of his argument for a functional rather than material understanding of ontology. It has sparked much healthy debate and conversation among Bible scholars to reconsider the interpretations of the Genesis text which are perhaps not as well established or that don’t take the cultural/historic factors into consideration. It offers some very interesting and compelling arguments. His use of Ancient Near Eastern cultural context to shed light on how the Genesis text may have been read naturally in its context is thought provoking and definitely offers some additional depth and interesting angles to consider. It is well written and an enjoyably thoughtful read, even if one is not fully convinced of Walton’s position.


Ancient Near Eastern Context

            Walton asserts, that Genesis 1 is written in the context of ancient cosmology and understanding so therefore, “we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we… God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.”[1] He cites many Ancient Near Eastern creation myths to establish the context and culture in which the Genesis emerged. He states,

“analysts of the ancient Near Eastern creation literature often observe that nothing material is actually made in these accounts… Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally non-functional condition… they offer accounts of functional origins rather than accounts of material origins.”[2]

AncientCosmicGeography            If one goes and reads translations of the Egyptian, Babylonian and Sumerian creation texts (which are available online free), it is pretty easy to see some of the similarity which helps to establish the general contextual framework of the audience in which Genesis was written. They all deal with some sort of ordering of a non-functional mass—usually having something to do with primeval waters or the sea—which the gods bring order to and name the functions and functionaries. Nothing material is actually made in these accounts. This parallels some of the features of the Genesis text, though of course not exactly, but the similarities do perhaps establish some common reference points talking about creation which was common in the Ancient Near East. They also share a similar ancient cosmic geography (see image). There are of course major differences between these mythical texts and the Genesis account, and Walton does not argue that these sorts of similarities somehow credit these other texts or discredit the Bible. He just points out how they can help us get into the mindset of the culture of the time to help in understanding how they might have read and understood Genesis and it is a helpful framework to be aware of.

            A good example of how a cultural understanding helps us to understand the meaning of the text in the Bible is the wordמְעֵי [mê·‘āy] sometimes translated “mind, heart, or soul” in the Old Testament (Ps. 40:8, Song 5:4, Is. 48:19, 63:15, Jer. 4:19). The word used in Hebrew literally refers to a person’s entrails because people then believed that the seat of intelligence, emotion and personhood was in the internal organs and this was just how they spoke of this concept. We still do this somewhat today, referring metaphorically to the “heart” as the seat of emotions. Our English translations realize this and help us out, aptly translating the Hebrew word as “mind” because that was the concept that they meant. So it seems,

“when God wanted to talk to the ancient Israelites about their intellect, emotions and will, he did not revise their ideas of physiology and feel compelled to reveal the functions of the brain. Instead, he adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood.”[3]

            Similarly, argues Walton, God utilized the understanding of the cosmology of the day to communicate His revelation of creation to His people in terms they would grasp. He did not see it necessary to teach them Big Bang cosmology or quantum physics before He could tell them truth about His creation. This is a great example of God drawing near to His people in ways they can understand, a sort of ‘gospel contextualization’—if you will. God uses things people will understand in His revelation of Himself, which would in reality be far beyond what we can hope to fully comprehend. Is this not a beautiful pre-cursor to the ultimate ‘gospel contextualization’ seen in the incarnation—where the Divine Logos takes on flesh to be the revelation of God to humans? The incomprehensible becoming—in some manner—comprehensible, and thereby relatable. This has been God’s modus operandi ever since the beginning!


Functional Ontology

            Furthering his case for functional ontology, he uses an analysis of the usage of the Hebrew word for create— בָּרָא [bā·rā]—to show that the grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms but rather in functional terms. That is, everything which God “בָּרָא [bā·rā]” or creates (with respect to this particular verb) is not a material thing. Therefore, the most “literal” understanding we can achieve for the sense of this word is not a material creation one, but something else, which Walton argues is a functional understanding of ‘creating’. Also, he proposes that the repeated phrase, “it was good” refers to “functioning properly” rather than implying some moral sense of perfection.Creation then can also be understood as part of the redemptive narrative in scripture, as God redeems the “formless and void” chaos to a functioning cosmos.Interestingly, the verbבָּרָא [bā·rā] is only linked to God—it is an activity only God does in the OT. One of the things which God “baras” (sorry Hebrew scholars for that butchery of the word-J), is actually a clean/pure heart (Ps. 51:10)—something only God can do.

DaysOfGenesisOne            Walton argues that the first six days of the Genesis account are describing God establishing the functions and functionaries of creation. There is a parallel structure between days 1-3 and days 4-6, where the first set of days are establishing the functions and the second set establishes the functionaries within those spheres. In the first set: day one He establishes time, day two—the weather system, day three—food/vegetation. Then in the second set, the functionaries: day four—lights, day five—birds and sea creatures, and day six—land animals and humans. Other biblical scholars have noted this same structure of the days of Genesis 1 (as illustrated in Figure above). [4]

            He shows that humans are given functions; to subdue, steward and rule, created in God’s image to reflect Him, and in relation to each other they are designed male and female. He sees the creation story as showing how God was lovingly preparing the environment for the introduction of the objects of his affection, humans—an anthropocentric view of biblical creation. He points out, whereas in the rest of the ancient creation myths creation was set up to serve the gods, in the Bible, God has no needs—so creation is set up not for God’s benefit but for humanity’s.

Creation as Temple

temple            Another major concept that Walton highlights is that of the Genesis text being a temple text, describing God preparing and taking up His residence in His temple. He writes, “a temple is built in the ancient world so that deity can have a centre for his rule… it is the hub of authority and control.”[5] God ceasing from His work of creation was to take up his rest in His temple and begin running the cosmos. To support this argument he points out the similarities between the physical Jewish temple and the understanding of ancient cosmology. Temples were understood as a reflection of the cosmos—another theme which becomes more apparent as one studies temples and temple practises of the Ancient Near East. Also it is a theme which can be traced throughout the Bible in such places as Isaiah 66:1–2. His argument for viewing the Genesis creation account as a description also of the establishment of God’s temple, then the installation of the image of God lastly—human beings—is quite compelling.


Genesis and Modern Science

            Walton goes on to argue that from his interpretation of the text, in light of its Ancient Near Eastern context, describing the establishment of functions and functionaries and being a temple text, it therefore says nothing to explicitly support either old earth or young earth creationism. He says, Genesis is basically silent on those issues of science since this was not the purpose to which it was written to address. Therefore, we are not under any compulsion to resist scientific discoveries into material ontology since the Bible doesn’t say anything about it. “Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.”[6] Later he continues, that science is constantly expanding and changing so Divine intention must not be held hostage to the flux of scientific theory, especially if the Bible does not explicitly state that it is. He says that, “science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it.”[7] He affirms that Genesis’ purpose was strictly teleological, offering God’s purposes in the way the cosmos runs and functions rather than its material structure or method of material creation.

            Walton’s view of Genesis allows for the possibility of an evolutionary account of life as along as God is ultimately responsible for its existence. However, this poses some potentially problematic theological questions. He writes,

“these creatures could be part of the pre-functional cosmos—part of the long stage of development that I would include in the material phase… The anthropological specimens would not be viewed as humans in the image of God. They would not be assessed morally (any more than an animal would), and they were subject to death as any animal was.”[8]

            The idea that humans could evolve from apes brings up the question of when did God confer human status on a sufficiently evolved primate and does not sit comfortably with a lot of theologians. When would the image of God be endowed on these evolutionary primates? It seems like the text implies that humans were created distinctly apart from the rest of the animal world, so this view of human evolution is problematic to many as well as myself. However, to be fair, Walton does not outright endorse theological evolution or evolutionary creationism. Also, some scholarly proponents of theological evolutionary models have written numerous works attempting to deal with these questions in meaningful and academically and theologically respectable ways.[9] This position has tended in some circles to be looked down upon without adequate consideration of the best arguments—not just knocking down straw men arguments—so this is a good thing to facilitate better dialog between competing views. His primary goal in the book seems to be to establish what Genesis 1 & 2 is or isn’t saying—not to establish an unequivocal all-encompassing theory of creation. So, to that end, his insights are useful in the discussion of competing creation models.


Criticisms

            Another criticism of Walton’s book is that he outright denies that the Bible asserts God as the source of material creation, however that is not the case. He says,

“though the Bible upholds the idea that God is responsible for all origins (functional, material or otherwise), if the Bible does not offer an account of material origins we are free to consider contemporary explanations of origin on their own merits, as long as God is seen as ultimately responsible.”[10]

            He seems, at least in theory, to be open to whatever scientific explanation is proven to account for the material origins of the cosmos. He views the material aspects in Genesis as heuristic—not essential or revelatory—just as we would not need to posit a solid sky dome in day two to be faithful to the biblical account (The word used in the Genesis account for “firmament”—רָקִ֫יעַ [rā-qî-a‘] literally means a solid dome). Thus, we avoid trying to stretch either science or the text to conform to the other but rather allow them to function as they were intended independently. However, this does pose some problems for maintaining a well-integrated theology to some who think that God’s word must also speak truthfully regardless of a culture’s present scientific understanding and that it has some sort of advanced predictive powers. While this may be true to an extent, it is more important to allow the texts to speak for themselves and not overstretch them. There are simply some issues which the Bible does not address. However, when there is scientific information to support whatever material statements there are in the text, they should be considered on their own merits—since considering the genre and style of the text—that is not the main focus of the Genesis account.


Day-Age Theory

            Walton also takes on Day-Age theorists and concordists, specifically Dr. Hugh Ross—who is a major proponent for the movement. Ross wrote a very interesting response to Walton’s book where he was very kind to appreciate Walton’s contributions. Ross however, distinguished himself as a “soft concordist” who seeks “agreement between properly interpreted Scripture passages that describe some aspect of the natural and indisputably and well-established data in science.[11] He agreed with Walton that a literalistic hermeneutic does not apply to all Bible passages and that we must not read more into the text than what is warranted. However, he also states that to read less into the text than what it does say poses the problem that secularists often interpret such response as proving that Scripture cannot withstand objective testing and that Christians lose out on truth that could be applied apologetically. Ross brings out some interesting scientific arguments which he proposes support his interpretation of the text. Interestingly Walton states in his book, “The Old World science in the Bible offers the perspective of the earthbound observer.”[12] A premise that is essential to a big part of Ross’ theory in how he relates the creation activity of the days of Genesis to the fundamentals of Big Bang cosmology and saw nothing inconsistent with what astronomers had established already.

HughRoss            Ross critiques that, Walton believes there are scientific errors in the Biblical text since it was using the assumptions of the biblical author’s contemporaries to convey a Scriptural truth, however it leaves it up to the human reader to decipher which parts contain human assumptions and which are the error-free teachings of the Holy Spirit.

I would accept Walton’s formulation of biblical inerrancy if the biblical authors had clarified at which points they were describing the mistaken beliefs of their contemporaries apart from the times when they were declaring truth from God. The prophets from Isaiah to Malachi did this consistently. However, in the Genesis creation texts… no such distinctions appear… What disturbs me about Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 1 is that it displays God as parroting human errors.”[13]

            Ross claims that Paul’s declaration stands in conflict with Walton’s view, in Romans 1:20 that, “God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have clearly been seen; being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” He argues, this implies that the science of nature also should lead us to a knowledge of God. I agree with this point, as Galileo said—both the book of Nature and book of Scripture derive equally from the Godhead—however I think he has somewhat misunderstood Walton’s point about God speaking to people in terms they would readily understand by utilizing the cosmology of the day. Also, Ross himself has received criticism from some theologians about his misinterpretation of certain Hebrew words—Ross, a scientist, not being a trained theologian or Hebrew scholar himself. Also, Ross has been criticized on his views of God existing in “hyper-dimensions of time and space” from J.P. Moreland, T.C. Oden and William Lane Craig. In any case, the interchange has been very courteous and helpful in understanding the diversity of views surrounding the topic in order to try to draw more informed conclusions.


Concluding Thoughts

            Personally, I’ve seen much benefit to Walton’s interpretation in expanding my understanding of the Genesis text. While it may not be the “be-all, end-all solution” to every question, his functional ontology and temple text presentation are compelling and thought provoking to see deeper meanings perhaps not previously considered from the text theologically. The idea of cosmos as temple is an eloquently beautiful one, rich in theological and allegorical implications which can be seen continuing throughout the scriptures. Considering that the Genesis text is not primarily a scientific one describing material origins is helpful in resolving a lot of long held contentions and strains to conform science to certain “literalist” views of the biblical account. However, there are some theological implications which I approach cautiously. For example: the image of God on humans and how that would work within an evolutionary model—which Walton’s view does seem to allow room (though that is not a focus of this book). The distinction of human beings from all other creation is an essential part of Paul’s theology, and of understanding Christ as a representative of humanity as Adam was.

            Also, there is possibly some loss to holding too strongly to Walton’s assertion that the Bible makes absolutely no scientific claims or that science cannot tell anyone anything about God or purpose. There are numerous scientific apologetic arguments which add to the reasons for faith and the trustworthiness of the Bible which should not be totally discredited without proper consideration. In conclusion though, I believe Walton’s book brings some much needed balance to the argument over the Genesis 1 text. Walton’s expertise in Ancient Near Eastern thought and culture is definitely helpful and I would also recommend his second volume: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Although some familiarity with Ancient Near Eastern creation myths and culture would benefit a proper understanding of Walton’s contextual argument in The Lost World of Genesis One, I do think most would profit from reading the book in some way as it is written very accessibly. It would be a profitable read for anyone interested in digging deeper into the current scholarship surrounding creation and the Bible, and a must-read for any serious apologist. I’d recommend reading it, regardless of your position on creation, before too quickly dismissing it. There are many various apologetic organizations and theologians who have responded to and interacted with Walton’s book, so it is definitely helpful to be familiar with it to better understand the current debate surrounding the topic.


BIBILOGRAPHY
Walton, John H. “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate”. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Ross, Hugh. “Defending Concordism: Response to The Lost World of Genesis One.” Reasons to Believe (June 22, 2012). No pages. Online: http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism-response-to-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one

Walton, John. John Walton Responds to Vern Poythress’s Review of “The Lost World of Genesis One”” The BioLogos Forum (February 4, 2010). No pages. Online: http://biologos.org/blog/john-walton-responds-to-vern-poythress

Statham, Dominic. “A Review of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton.” Creation.com (December 2010). No pages. Online: http://creation.com/review-walton-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one#endRef2


ENDNOTES
[1] Walton, Genesis One, 15
[2] Walton, Genesis One, 33
[3] Walton, Genesis One, 16
[4] Image taken from: http://visualunit.me/2012/04/14/creation-genesis-1-2/
[5] Walton, Genesis One, 74
[6] Walton, Genesis One, 95
[7] Walton, Genesis One, 112
[8] Walton, Genesis One, 169
[9] You can go to Biologos.org for numerous articles from biblical scholars and researchers on this topic as well as many others surrounding creationism and science.
[10] Walton, Genesis One, 131
[11] Ross, Defending Concordism, Concordism – para. 3
[12] Walton, Genesis One, 60
[13] Ross, Defending Concordism, Concordism – para. 39

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