Review of John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One

In response to an earlier post from our book (“It’s typical of God to begin a new thing by starting with something that already exists”), a reader offered the following comment:

John Walton claims (and I agree) that God’s act of creating (Hebrew bara‘) consists of (in my words) starting with a pile of something and separating it into 2 piles with different functions. I see this as extremely close to the idea of speciation (where one species branches into two) in the theory of evolution.

At the time, Dr. Smith responded:

Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One was published four years after ours, so I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss it in the course of my review of various understandings of the opening creation account. I plan to do one or more posts about it once the original Paradigms on Pilgrimage finishes running. I think it does make a valuable contribution to the conversation.

Here, and in the following three posts, is that promised discussion. [References in parentheses are to page numbers in John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2009).]

John Walton does appeal to a particular understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew word bara‘ to make the case for a new interpretation of the opening creation account in Genesis. However, the sense he finds in the word is not quite that of dividing something into two and giving each part a separate function. I’ll explore his understanding of the word in a later post, but let me begin here with some general observations.

Walton’s analysis of the creation account in The Lost World overlaps in many ways with ours in Paradigms on Pilgrimage. He rejects a “concordist” approach that “seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text” (14–15). Instead, he says we should work to understand the account the way an ancient reader would have. When we do, we recognize that the creation is being described from “the perspective of the earthbound observer” (60) and that the picture in Genesis corresponds with the ancient Near Eastern cosmology in which the biblical authors were immersed: The sky is a solid dome, through which a moving sun passes above a stationary earth, etc.

Walton’s reading of Genesis is so much like ours, in fact, that he reaches many of the same conclusions we do. He insists, for example, that “by definition, empirical science is characterized by methodological naturalism, but once it begins propounding metaphysical naturalism, it has overstepped its disciplinary boundaries” (154). To argue for the valid conclusions of empirical science, he even appeals to the same “atheistic meteorology” analogy: “We believe that God controls the weather, yet we do not denounce meteorologists who produce their weather maps day to day based on the predictability of natural cause-and-effect processes. Can evolution be thought of in similar terms?” (135).

Probably the most significant similarity between Walton’s book and ours is that we are each seeking to encourage and empower believing Christians who feel called to work as scientists. Walton writes of “young people who were raised in the environment of a biblical faith” who “began to pursue education and careers in the sciences and found themselves conflicted as they tried to sort out the claims of science and the claims of the faith they had been taught.” Many felt that they were forced to choose either to believe the Bible and reject scientific discoveries, or else to reject the Bible in light of science. “The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice,” Walton reassures his readers (95). This is essentially the bottom line in our own book, and so Walton is ultimately an ally and a kindred spirit when it comes to understanding and articulating the relationship of science and faith.

That much said, however, there are significant differences between our interpretation of the Genesis creation account and his. Walton argues that this account is actually not a depiction of the material creation of the heavens and the earth. He does state, “I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins” (42), but, he insists, “Genesis 1 is not that story” (95). Rather, “our affirmation of God’s creation of the material cosmos is supported by theological logic as well as by occasional New Testament references” (96). The Genesis account, by contrast, describes functional origins. Specifically, it recounts how things that were already in existence were given a particular function.

Before the events described in Genesis, Walton says, “the material phase . . . could have been under development for long eras . . . There would be no reason to think that the sun had not been shining, plants had not been growing, or animals had not been present” (96–97). But, he writes, “These were like the rehearsals leading up to the performance of a play. The rehearsals are preparatory and necessary, but they are not the play. They find their meaning only when the audience is present.” (97).

The “audience” that Walton has in mind is specifically human beings who have been “granted the image of God” and who can therefore serve him as “vice regents in the world that has been made for them” and as “priests” installed in the cosmos-as-temple so that God can be worshiped there. In other words, the “functional creation” that Walton sees depicted in Genesis is as follows: (1) specific elements are assigned the function of making human life possible (for example, the sun, moon, and stars mark off time); (2) humans receive the “image of God”; (3) God is enthroned in the temple of the cosmos. Walton therefore suggests that the whole account may be understood as a “cosmic temple inauguration” ceremony (86–87).

However, he specifies that “in Genesis, creation is not set up for the benefit of God but for the benefit of humanity—an anthropocentric view” (68). He asserts that the elements are assigned “human-oriented functions” (63) because the stage is being set specifically for humans to be given the function of bearing God’s image. This is essentially “what happens” in the creation account: Things that already exist materially are purposed to support that function. Walton speculates that “animal life, primates, and even pre-human hominids” (138) might already have developed through “evolutionary processes,” but he insists that before the action described in Genesis, “humanity in God’s image” was still “lacking” (96). God then brought about fully human people, “though it remains difficult to articulate how God accomplished this” (138).

Walton suggests that the Genesis creation account may actually have been used in worship, “as a liturgy to reenact (annually?) the inauguration of the cosmic temple” (98), and that if so, it may simply be offering a review of the arrangements that had already been made to support image-bearing humans, rather than a depiction of how these were first put in place. “The observer in Genesis 1 would see day by day that everything was ready to do for people what it had been designed to do. It would be like taking a campus tour just before the students were ready to arrive to see all the preparations that had been made and how everything had been designed, organized, and constructed to serve students” (98).

In a later post I will explore the meaning of the Hebrew verb bara‘, because one of Walton’s crucial arguments for seeing Genesis as an account of “functional origins” rather than of “material origins” is that this word means to give something a function. However, before examining the case he makes for that meaning, in my next post I will investigate some concerns and questions that his overall interpretation raises.

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