“The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” by John H. Walton
This book stirred up quite a bit of controversy when it was published in 2009. Unfortunately, I let it gather dust on my bookshelf for a year before I recently picked it up to read it. I wish I’d gotten to it sooner! I enjoy a challenge, and this was a challenging book for me — not because of it’s readability (it’s quite approachable) but because it forced me to think hard about a perspective on Scripture I’ve never considered. Any book that can do that is worth reading, no matter whether I end up agreeing with it in the final analysis.
I’ll admit that I approached this book with a lot of skepticism. Any time someone claims to have discovered a new (or, in this case, lost for millenia) way to interpret Scripture, my first reaction is to doubt the “new” interpretation. Though I believe Scripture to be authoritative and inerrant, I have great respect for the theologians, pastors, and scholars throughout Church history who have come before us. Though not everyone in history has come to the same conclusions (far from it!), I found it difficult to believe that someone today could have uncovered an entirely new approach to something as important as the account of Creation in Genesis 1, which every scholar for the last several thousand years has missed.
That said, Dr. Walton’s arguments are quite compelling; much more so than I anticipated. His basic proposition is that Genesis 1 is NOT an account of material origins at all, but of “functional” origins. He argues that, because in the modern world (even as far back as in Jesus’ day) we think of the word “create” in terms of physical manufacturing, we read that ontology into the Genesis 1 account. However, Genesis is an ancient document, written for an ancient audience which, according to Walton, did NOT have the same understanding of “create”. In the ancient world, creation (the Hebrew word “bara”) had to do instead with the assignment of function. Thus, Genesis 1 is the account of God giving function (specifically, “anthropocentric” functions designed to make the world suitable to human life) to an already materially-existing world.
The author does, however, affirm God’s physical creation of the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), which was something I did not expect him to say. His argument is not that God was not the material/physical Author of creation, only that Genesis 1 is not that account.
Walton calls his view the “Cosmic Temple Inauguration View”, because he contends that the language of Genesis 1 is similar to the language used to describe the inauguration of other temples, both in Scripture and in other documents of ancient cosmology (Egyptian, Sumerian, etc). One example he gives is Solomon’s temple, contrasting the building of the temple with the creation of the temple. We can read the account of the construction of the temple in 1 Kings 6-7, which took 7 years. However, the physical building didn’t “become” a temple until the temple was inaugurated (with a 7-day feast) and God came to dwell there. In Solomon’s prayer of dedication in 1 Kings 8, he tells of the various functions of the temple, and that language finds parallels in the Bible’s first chapter.
In the ancient world, Walton explains, temples didn’t have function until a deity dwelt there. Furthermore, a deity’s power was thought to be restricted to the place where his/her temple was located. It follows, then, that Genesis 1 gives the account of the entire cosmos being the temple of the one true and living God. He has assigned function to all that is, and his power is absolute throughout the universe because the cosmos is his temple. Walton sees confirmation of this in other OT passages, such as Isaiah 66:1-2, which speaks of heaven as God’s throne, and earth as his footstool.
Much of the book is devoted to addressing the topic of evolution. Walton stresses that his book is not intended to support biological evolution, though many will undoubtedly read it this way. His point is that if his interpretation of Genesis is correct, there is no reason on theological grounds to reject biological evolution as a method; science should be able to speak for itself without being forced to fit into perceived biblical restrictions that aren’t there. He is careful to describe several very nuanced positions, such as differentiating between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism”. The first is a biological process that may or may not be substantiated by scientific study, but would not necessarily conflict with biblical teaching if found to be true (though he does appear to hold out Adam & Eve as historical figures who, as the first humans, were specially created in God’s image and did not evolve; this point was a bit unclear to me on my first reading). Most modern scientists, though, subscribe to “metaphysical” naturalism (what most people think of when hearing the word “evolution”), which begins with a presupposition that the universe is “dysteleological” — it has no ultimate purpose. This, says Walton, is NOT science but faith, and is not compatible with Scripture.
Along the same lines, Walton does not estimate age of the earth, because he believes the Bible does not address the issue. I have become increasingly unwilling to be dogmatic about the earth’s age myself, but this is bound to be a problem for readers with strong convictions on this particular issue.
The book’s greatest strength, in my view, was a distinction Walton makes between exegesis and theology:
“Even if the reader is not inclined to adopt the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1, his or her theology could still be greatly enhanced by the observations offered here by embracing a renewed and informed commitment to God’s intimate involvement in the operation of the cosmos from its incipience and into eternity. We all need to strengthen our theology of creation and Creator whatever our ciew of the Genesis account of origins. Even though it is natural for us to defend our exegesis, it is arguable even more important to defend our theology.”
He goes on to list four theological affirmations that are expected of us once we come to see that God’s role as Creator is more than simply the “builder” of everything; He is also the ruling sustainer of the cosmos. Each of these ought to be able to be affirmed by Christians of all different exegetical persuasions, and I agree that this book was helpful in focusing my attention more on these ongoing aspects of God’s creative work:
- The world operates by Yahweh’s design and under his supervision to accomplish his purposes.
- The cosmos is his temple.
- Everything in the cosmos was given its role and function by God.
- Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of people who are in his image.
In comparing his view to other views (including Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and the Framework Hypothesis), the Cosmic Temple Inauguration View comes across as a “miracle” interpretation, offering answers to the problems offered by the other views. It certainly seems to “work”; that is, it is internally consistent. Personally, though, I’m not interested in whether something “works”. I want to know if it’s true, and here I’m just not sure I can come to full agreement with John Walton.
Perhaps it’s just because material ontology is so engrained in my thinking, but I am not fully convinced by Walton’s claim that Genesis 1 is about only functional and not material origins. Unfortunately, my knowledge of science, ancient cultures, and the Hebrew language are insufficient to allow me to do much more than rely on other experts in such fields to interact with Walton, and see whether his research can be refuted or corroborated. And so it is with great interest that I will watch the ongoing dialogue between theologians and other intellectuals more knowledgeable than I that will inevitably crop up in response to this book. (For instance, this exchange between the author and respected biblical scholar Vern Poythress.)
In the meantime, I highly recommend reading this book yourself. At the very least, it will give you plenty to think about! Buy it here.