John Walton: “The Lost World of Genesis One”

Now that everyone (Art, Andrew, others) has said their piece on John Walton’s book, it’s my turn to gather their crumbs and weigh in.

The main thesis of Walton’s book is his frequent refrain: Genesis 1 concerns functional ontology, not material origins. His first eleven propositions are an attempt demonstrate this thesis using exegesis, ANE context and theological reflection. Propositions 12-18 draw out the implications of the primary thesis for the church, theology and science.

Walton is critical of concordism, a term which characterizes several different views of Genesis 1. Concordism “seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text” (16-17). The various concordist positions, including Young-Earth and Old-Earth Creationism, Gap Theory, Day-Age Theory, etc., presuppose that Genesis 1 concerns material origins. In order to be faithful to Scripture, then, Genesis 1 must be reconciled with the observations of science, which explores the material world.

Walton argues convincingly that Genesis 1 presents functional ontology, meaning that the existing physical components of the universe are formed, organized, and instilled with purpose. For example, water, though it exists in the primeval sea of Genesis 1:2, is separated into the sea and the firmament on Day 2 and pushed back to reveal dry-ground on Day 3, in order to provide sky for the birds and sea for the teeming things on Day 5 and land for the animals on Day 6. Genesis 1 does not describe the creation of water ex nihilo but rather God taming it and giving it purpose.

Though he demonstrates the relationship of the Genesis account to other ANE worldviews, Walton does not place much stock in the polemical view of Genesis 1. He argues that the Genesis 1 creation account is only tacitly, rather than explicitly, a polemic against the other creation myths. He observes that Genesis 1 does not contain the cosmogonic battle characteristic of other ANE myths since there is only a single deity (103-104).

Walton presents his thesis not as an abstract theory about an ancient text but as a way for the church to answer what has previously been a difficult question. Not content to remain in the domain of OT studies, Walton rebukes both the church and the scientific community. He believes that the church has done itself a double disservice. Theologically, it has sacrificed the biblical worldview that attributes eternal significance to the physical world as God’s temple. Socially, concordism has sacrificed either the church’s high view of Scripture or its credibility in society. Walton criticizes those in the scientific community who equally “adulterate that which is empirical with that which is nonempirical” (156), that is, mixing “theories of evolutionary mechanisms” with “metaphysical teleology or dysteleology” (157).

Walton’s book combines careful exegesis and responsible historical conclusions with thoughtful prescriptions for the church and the scientific community. Though not a scientist, he recognizes that scientific has strayed beyond its bounds. As a Christian, he offers the church a way to be faithful to Scripture and still engage in relevant dialogue with society.

One of the my difficulties with the book is the brevity of Walton’s treatment of Genesis 2 and Romans 5 (138-41).  He presents Genesis 1 as a theological account of Creation, but the biggest stumbling block for Christians like me who are inclined toward his view is Paul’s theology of sin, creation and resurrection in Romans 5 and 8 and 1 Corinthians 15.  This is a huge issue, but Walton barely addresses it.  Walton’s project would be significantly strengthened by a more developed explanation of the function of Adam in Paul’s hamartiology.  As impressed as I am that Walton “wandered afield” from his own academic discipline into science, practical theology and social policy, I wish he would further flesh out his theory’s implications for NT theology.

InterVarsity Press
$10.88 (Amazon.com)

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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4 Responses to John Walton: “The Lost World of Genesis One”

  1. The absence of interaction with Pauline theology seems to be curiously true of many of these discussions seeking to develop an ANE reading of Genesis creation narratives (and I write as someone very much open to such discussions). I also find it curious that interest in reading these creation narratives from a non-material perspective is gaining prominence within OT studies at the same time that interest in the material resurrection of creation as the climax of God’s work is on the rise within NT studies (e.g., NT Wright). Again, I write this not as one antagonistic towards either interests, but as one who remains genuinely befuddled with how the two relate to each other.

    Good review. I admit, the book is on my shelf but still needs to be read (which is true of an unfortunate percentage of my library).

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      I’ve noticed this as well. The discussions of “the historicity of the Bible” are becoming more nuanced, and rightly so. Jesus’s bodily resurrection is a hill I’m willing to die on, but the “historicity” of Job or Jonah are hills on which I’m happy to fire a few shots and then concede. I’m still unsure about the Adam hill.

  2. v02468 says:

    Well written. Bill has a good observation about NT studies vs OT studies. I’ll have to think about that a bit.

    I also think it is amusing that there has been so much sensationalism over that other theologian who says bara should be translated as spatially separate rather than create. Walton’s monograph and the other theologians monograph should be coming out at the same time and both are supposed to have a chapter dedicated to the word bara. I’m looking forward to reading them.

  3. Pingback: Why Ham Is Wrong and Nye Doesn’t Get It | think hard, think well

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