Review ofJohn H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009. 191 pages.
Things I appreciate about the book:
(1) Walton’s Use of ANE Cosmology
I appreciate Walton’s use of ANE texts relating to cosmology and cosmogony. In the past, Bible-believing Christians who adhere to inerrancy have had difficulty with these materials. We are tempted to ignore them either because they are threatening or because we think they are just irrelevant. I agree with Walton that it is extremely important to interpret the Genesis account in light of the ANE myths. Walton’s claim is not that the Hebrew Bible borrowed from the ANE myths but that the myths show us how ancient people thought (pp. 11-12). This was the ancient cosmology that was “in the air” so to speak, and the Israelite creation narrative is written within that milieu. However, unlike Walton, I would want to carefully observe not only the similarities but also the critical differences between the biblical account and the ANE myths. (More on this below.)
(2) Walton’s Critique of Extreme Concordism (pp. 14-15, 103-5, 109-10)
Walton is right on the money when he shows the folly of trying to read modern scientific ideas out of the creation text. I agree with his critique of Hugh Ross's concordistic hermeneutic (pp. 109-10). Walton is right that concordism gives no respect to the human author (p. 104). However, I think he goes too far in the other direction of essentially evacuating the text of all material significance, thus ruling out the possibility of finding any concord between the biblical account and what really happened as understood by science.
(3) Cosmic Temple (pp. 71-85)
I agree with Walton that the Israelite tabernacle/temple was a microcosm of the cosmos, and that the cosmos itself was a temple. The seventh day is God’s taking up his rest in his temple as the King of all creation. Interestingly, Meredith Kline also held this view, but I did not get the sense that Walton was aware of this.
(4) “Origins Pie” vs. “Layer Cake” Model (pp. 113-15)
Walton rejects the notion that God’s activity and natural causation form an “origins pie,” so that the more that science attributes to natural causation, the less there is that is left for God. Instead, the issue of causation is better viewed as a “layer cake.” “The bottom layer might be identified as the layer of secondary natural causation while the top layer is identified as ultimate divine causation” (p. 114). I agree with this. It flows from the Reformed doctrine of God’s providential concursus (WCF V.1-3). All things and events are caused ultimately by God, the primary cause, but he also uses secondary causes (WCF III.1). He works his will in and through the secondary causes that he himself created, sustains, and governs.
(5) Young Earth Creationism’s False Stumbling Block
Walton is eloquent about the danger of interpreting Genesis 1 so literally that it creates false and unnecessary stumbling blocks for faith.
My criticisms of the book:
(1) Walton’s Interpretation of Genesis 1:1
Walton interprets the Hebrew word bara to mean functional creation rather than material creation. He also takes “in the beginning” to refer to the whole creation week, rather than the absolute beginning. But Prov 8:22 and John 1:1 suggest that it should be taken as the absolute beginning. On Walton’s interpretation, Gen 1:1 does not teach that all things were created by God out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Walton himself affirms that doctrine, but he sees it only in Col 1:16-17 and possibly Heb 1:2 (p. 96). But where did the NT writers get the doctrine from, if not from Gen 1:1?
(2) Walton’s Total Separation of Material and Functional Ontology
This is the heart of Walton’s view. But it is neither biblical nor logical to make such a total separation. It is not biblical, because the biblical view of the material/physical creation is that it is created and sustained by God, is good, and will ultimately be glorified in the new creation. This is theologically important because the biblical world view has a positive view of matter in contradistinction from the negative view of matter and the human body commonly held in the ancient world. For example, Platonists, Marcionites, Gnostics, and Manichees held that matter is intrinsically evil.
But it is not just unbiblical to make such a radical bifurcation between material and functional ontology. It is also logically impossible to separate the material from the functional. Walton says the Genesis 1 account details the functional creation of time, weather, and food for man (p. 58), but these all have irreducible material components. Time may not be directly material, but the creation of the heavenly bodies to mark the passage of time, and their relationships within the solar system, is clearly both material and functional. Of course there is a functional aspect having to do with God’s establishment of the inter-relationships of the sun, moon, and stars so that these heavenly bodies can serve to help humans mark the passage of time. But the creation of the sun, moon, and stars still involves material creation of these physical bodies. Weather also involves a material component, such as the establishment of the atmosphere, the chemical and physical properties of water and other gases, etc. Food obviously has a material component.
(3) Are the ANE Creation Myths Interested Only in Functional Creation?
Walton argues that the ANE creation myths are interested only in functional creation. This is the linchpin of his argument (p. 103). But I am not convinced that the ANE creation myths had no interest in material creation, at least the forming of material things like the dry land, the seas, etc. I suspect that it is true that the ANE mind had little concern with the origin of matter itself, since the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is a unique revelation from God in Israelite theology that stands in stark contrast with the ANE world view. The pagan ANE world viewed the primordial waters (Gen 1:2) as eternal and did not concern itself with the question of where they came from. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that the ANE mindset had absolutely no interest in the material shaping of the cosmos and the physical formation of things like the sun, moon, and stars, the firmament, the dry land, the seas, etc. These things may have been viewed mainly in terms of their functional relation to humankind, but that does not eliminate the material component. See Walton’s own excellent description of how the ancients thought on pp. 27-28: “Old World cosmic geography is based on what they could observe from their vantage point,” etc.
(4) No Unique Revelation (Gen 1:1-2)
Walton is so intent on showing the parallels and similarities between the biblical creation account and the ANE myths, that he is left with nothing distinctive about Yahweh’s revelation. He says, “Throughout the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity” (p. 17). But what about creation out of nothing? This was unique, and this seems to be precisely the point of contrast between Genesis 1:1-2 and the ANE myths. Whereas the ANE myths begin with the primordial chaos-waters, which are viewed as eternal, and then progress to the shaping of the orderly cosmos, Genesis 1:1-2 begins with God’s act of absolute creation out of nothing, then progresses to the primordial chaos-waters (cp. Prov 8:22-24 which also puts the absolute “beginning” prior to “the depths” - the same word as used in Gen 1:2, albeit in the plural). But on Walton’s interpretation, Moses should have written v 2 as the very first verse of the narrative, followed by v 1, since Walton interprets bara as bringing functional order out of chaos, not as an act of absolute divine origination out of nothing. This would bring Genesis into perfect harmony with ANE mythology. But the fact that Moses has v 1 first, then v 2, shows that at this point, Yahweh is in fact revealing a unique scientific perspective through the prophet Moses, and not simply working within the parameters of the ANE world view.
(5) “Material Phase” vs. “Inauguration Ceremony” of Cosmic Temple (pp. 86-91)
It is unconvincing to say that Genesis 1 only recounts the “inauguration ceremony” that makes the cosmic temple function, and not also the “material phase” of the construction of the cosmic temple. If anything, Genesis 1 seems to be precisely about the construction of the cosmic temple. It shows the divine architect separating, building, constructing, and getting the temple ready for his coming to take residence in it on day 7.
(6) Inconsistent “Face Value” Interpretation of Yōm
It is strange that Walton evacuates everything in the Gen 1 narrative of any material, “face value” significance, except for the word yōm, which he interprets as a literal 24-hour day (pp. 90, 108). Yet he himself acknowledges that God’s rest in the temple on day 7 is highly functional; in fact, it is the crowning moment of functional creation. So why take the other six days literally? Walton and Kline are almost mirror images of one another. Both recognize that the text is not to be taken at “face value” in every respect; there is literary shaping in the creation account. Kline takes the snapshots of the divine creative activity as literal acts of divine origination, and the temporal framework of the divine work week figuratively. Walton flips it and takes the temporal framework literally and the snapshots of the divine creative activity as figurative acts of “functional creation.” Ironically, the one thing in the passage that is most clearly figurative (the framework of the 7 days), Walton takes at “face value.”
(7) What is Walton’s View of Historical Adam?
Walton does not address this clearly, but his hermeneutic leaves the door open for the view of Peter Enns and others who deny the historicity of an individual Adam from whom all humankind descended by ordinary generation. But the historicity of Adam as the federal head of the human race is a critical underpinning of Paul’s “two Adams” covenant theology (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49).
(8) Creation and Providence (pp. 118-23)
I am uncomfortable with the blurring of the line between creation and providence in Walton’s thinking. Theologians have historically held that God’s work of providence is distinct from and subsequent to his work of creation. If the doctrine of creation is not taught at all in Gen 1, but only in two texts in the NT, and if creation is on a continuum with providence, then the doctrine of creation seems to be teetering on a weak foundation. I recognize that Walton affirms the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. But on what basis?