A novel interpretation of Genesis 1
My esteemed blogging colleague, David Smart (aka ‘Ryft’), has written on two recent occasions now, about a novel approach to the reading of the creation account in Genesis 1. It is a view promoted by John Walton in his book, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009).
I must be clear from the outset that this is not a book review. I have not read the book and must therefore rely on secondary citations and explanations of his thesis from people like David, and others. Yet, my attempts at digesting the idea have thus far been only moderately successful and the concepts presented still lack coherence in my own mind. To be as gracious as possible, I must at this point attribute this apparent incoherence to my own limitations. But I certainly look forward to further clarification.
On the surface, I can relate to objections from those who want to reject Walton’s arguments on the basis of historical theology. That is, if the early church fathers never thought Genesis 1 means what Walton thinks it means, how is it that we should now trust Walton’s interpretation? Well, we should trust it on the basis of a demonstrably sound hermeneutic I guess. This approach must necessarily presume nothing of what people like Augustine, Basil, Aquinas, Origen, etc., thought about Genesis, but focus on the Scripture itself. However, Walton’s conclusion then tends to require us to consider that the people who lived in the first few centuries after Christ lacked the recently recovered knowledge that Walton claims now makes it possible to receive this revelation in a new light. That at least, should give us pause. But just how long this ancient knowledge has been lost to us I do not know. Perhaps The Lost World of Genesis One has those answers.
Many of the online reviews of Walton’s book that I skimmed were quite positive on balance. But one review that has helped me get a foothold on this topic and clear away some of the smog, is a critical piece by Dominic Statham, who wrote in the December 2010 edition of the Journal of Creation (JoC).[2,3] (Note: All quoted material in this article comes from Statham’s review, unless stated otherwise. Any errors are most likely my own.) And of course, if Statham has misrepresented Walton in any way, my apparent moment of clarity may again be overcome by the smog. But let’s press on in hope.
According to Walton, says Statham, the first book of the Bible does not provide an account of material origins, but functional origins.
The Genesis account, he claims, refers to a literal seven day period in history, sometime after the material creation, when God assigned the cosmos its real intended functions, prior to his taking up his residence in it as his temple.
While not immediately relevant to the exegetical case being made by Walton, it may help to clear the air a little at this early juncture to note that Statham identifies Walton as a theistic evolutionist – a position that none of the staff here at The Aristophrenium share, as far as I know.
… since Genesis is not an account of material origins, it would be perfectly admissible to consider an evolutionary account of life, so long as it is accepted that God is ultimately responsible for its existence. In answer to the question. “Where do the dinosaurs and fossil ‘Homo’ specimens fit it?” he answers that:
”… these creatures could be part of the prefunctional 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” (p. 169).
Moreover, he claims, “In the interpretation of the text that I have offered, very little found in evolutionary theory would be objectionable” (p. 170) and “Biological evolution is capable of giving us insight into God’s creative work” (p. 138).
I am at a disadvantage having not read Walton’s book, so I don’t know the full context of these remarks. But, a process of death and suffering (the antithesis of creation) provides insights into the creative works of God! Really?
Statham’s impression of this? …
The idea that millions of years passed before God conferred human status on a sufficiently evolved ape … does not sit comfortably with the words of Christ, who maintained that “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female’” (Mark. 10:6). Moreover, a view of the pre-fallen world full of bloodshed, disease, desperate competition and death hardly squares with God’s assertion that his creation, in every respect, was very good (Gen 1:31).
Similarly, Philip Bell notes in a recent article:
“… theistic evolutionists have continued to publish books which purport to solve the riddle of how God could justly have created a “very good” world over millions of years through an evolutionary process involving suffering, death and extinction. … Three of many examples from very influential theistic evolutionist authors: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins, 2006—reviewed at creation.com/collins-review; Creation or Evolution: Do we have to Choose? By Dennis Alexander, 2008—reviewed at creation.com/alexander-review; The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, 2009—review by D. Statham in Journal of Creation (in press)
With that conflict of interest out of the way, we return to Statham:
Our interpretation of any one passage must be such that it is harmonious with and sits comfortably with our interpretation of related passages. This could not be said of Walton’s exposition of Genesis.
He then goes on to cite several passages from the Old Testament that emphasise the material nature of the creation (e.g. Is 40:25-28; Is 42:5; Jer 10:12; Ps 33:6,9; Job 38:44ff [sic? No such passage. He may have meant Job 38ff]; Neh 9:6). It is at this point though, that I think Walton would say, a material creation is not in question, but rather whether Genesis 1 is the account of that creation.
Statham appears to be on somewhat firmer ground, however, in what he says next:
The first verses of John’s Gospel are also particularly relevant here. “In the beginning” is clearly a reference to Genesis 1, yet verse 3 speaks of the Word creating all things. And, again, in Col 1:16, Christ is said to have created all “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible”.
The point here seems to be that Jesus is creating things, not merely assigning function to things. Would this imply the early church fathers also misunderstood the New Testament writings about the Creation too? He continues,
Moreover, Walton’s rejection of Genesis 1 as an account of material origins hardly fits the statement of Gen 2:2-3, which makes clear that, after Day 6, God ceased from work. If God had not created anything material, but simply proclaimed the functions of that which already existed, what work had he done? It hardly fits the sense of Ex. 20:8-11 either, which likens God’s work of creation to the physical work done by the Israelites. Furthermore, Walton’s argument that the ancient Israelites’ understanding of the Hebrew word ‘bara’ (translated ‘create’) would have emphasized function is hardly a reason to reject the view that it also refers to a material creation. Would God have created something without intending it to have a purpose? In Gen. 1:14 we read, “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night’”, suggesting both creation from nothing and assignment of function. If assignment of function was the only intended meaning, why does the text not read, “Let the lights in the expanse of the sky separate day from night”? Similarly, why does v.6 not read “Let the expanse separate water from water” instead of “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water”?
As the article is still in print, I am reluctant to cite much more of Statham’s piece at this time, as I fear I may abuse the limited license extended by CMI. But I do have some final thoughts of my own to add.
One of the criticisms that David has made in light of Walton’s hermeneutic, is that the common and long-held view of Genesis 1 as a description of God acting to create the material world – and not merely assigning function to material things already in existence – is in fact an example of eisegesis. As far as I am able to tell though, this could only apply – at best – to modern readers of scripture.
According to Walton, the reason why the church has almost universally misunderstood Genesis is that knowledge of the ancients and their world-view had been lost for many centuries. However, in recent years, as archaeologists have recovered many ancient texts, and linguists have re-learnt the ancient languages, it has been possible for scholars to regain an understanding of how the ancient world thought.
So if Walton is correct, it is only now appropriate to characterise the hermeneutic that understands Genesis 1 as the material creation, as eisegesis. But this term could not be retrospectively applied to the church and the way she has understood the material origins in Genesis 1, because according to Walton, no such insights were available prior to the more recent study of recovered ancient texts. It would seem then, that they could have confidently determined that a material creation in Genesis 1 was in view, and this would be a quite reasonable exegetical conclusion.
Walton claims that his exposition of Genesis solves many problems that have beset the church in recent years. For example, since, according to this view, the Bible makes no statement regarding the age of the earth, it can accommodate any hypothesis that might be supported by science (p. 95).
Indeed. Even a scientific hypothesis that supports a recent material creation only thousands of years ago?
References & Notes:
- Revisiting old-earth presuppositions and On Old Earth vs. Young Earth debate
- Statham, D., Dubious and dangerous exposition, JoC 24(3):24-26, 2010
Freely downloadable pdf versions of articles appearing in the JoC are typically available about 12 months after the printed publication – follow the link above at footnote 2. However, for the time being (April 29, 2010) Statham’s review is only available in print.