Posted by: Tim McNinch | November 16, 2009

What does Genesis really say?

I just finished reading The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, hot off the presses from IVP. Below is my review. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while, offers a convincing reading of Genesis 1 that most of us (myself included) have never considered… If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it!

***

Reviewed by Timothy McNinch. The Lost World of Genesis One. By John H. Walton. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2009. Pp. 192. $16.00.

With this concise study, John Walton (professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College) has delivered a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation at the intersection of faith and science. Drawing upon the insights offered by ancient Near Eastern cultural and literary studies, he proposes that the creation account found in Genesis 1 is not a depiction of material origins at all. If his thesis is correct, John Walton has highlighted an important ‘missing link’ in the often stalemated debate over origins.

Walton attempts to demonstrate that the literary and cultural context of Genesis 1 reveals it to be concerned with how the world functions, rather than where and when stuff of the world came to be; that is, Genesis 1 is presents a “functional ontology” over against a “material ontology”. Walton attributes the common misreading of Genesis 1 as material ontology to simple anachronism. We in the modern West have difficulty reading it as anything other than an account of material origins because we live in an ontologically materialistic era. So we unintentionally read our own ontology into the text. The author and audience of Genesis 1 had an entirely different view of the world, a world that Walton exposes to the popular reader.

Walton builds his argument through a series of 18 propositions, comprising the chapters of his book. The propositions systematically delve into the cultural world of Genesis (propositions 1-2), the meaning of key words, notably bārā’ – “create” (propositions 3-4), analysis of each of the seven days of creation (propositions 5-6), and the cultic context that provides the literary framework of the Genesis 1 (propositions 7-9). Having built a cumulative case for reading Genesis 1 as functional ontology, Walton applies this reading to several of the side conversations concerning faith and science: Young- vs. Old-earth creationism, the merit of Intelligent Design Theory, the impact of Genesis 1 on a Christian response to the scientific theory of evolution, and whether or not public science education should allow for Design.

The common thread of Walton’s thesis applied to these issues is that Genesis 1 and evolutionary science are not in conflict, and science therefore poses no threat to those who take the Bible seriously. “If Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, then it offers no mechanism for material origins, and we may safely look to science to consider what it suggests for such mechanisms” (p. 163).

Walton suggests that what Genesis 1 does offer is a strong case for divine teleology, that whatever mechanism led to the presence of Earth’s biological diversity, its functionality was driven by the express purpose of God. That this purpose may be undetectable by science does not render it irrational. Just as Walton criticizes Young-Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, and other forms of “concordism” for breaching territory outside their jurisdiction, he also criticizes the branch of Neo-Darwinism that suggests dysteleological, or “purposeless” evolution. He makes the great point that teleology or dysteleology belong within the discipline of metaphysics, not science, concluding that neither (represented by the Intelligent Design community and certain Neo-Darwinists, respectively) belongs in the public education science classroom. Students in public education deserve exposure to metaphysical arguments, Walton recommends, but not in the science curriculum.

While this book zeroes in on one of the key places of supposed conflict between faith and science, namely the text of Genesis 1, the thoughtful reader does not leave with all his or her questions answered. I was disappointed that Walton did not carry his analysis into Genesis 2 and 3, or into the rest of the Genesis prologue. These chapters carry almost as much potential conflict with the theory of evolution as does chapter one, but Walton is nearly silent on their contribution to the issue, aside from a few references for support without much substantiation. Perhaps a sequel is in order. I thought Walton was also a touch unclear on how his “cosmic temple inauguration view” (the title he gives to his analysis) relates to actual historical space-time events. Is Genesis 1 a literary construction to convey the functional ontology of the author, or does it describe a “functional” process that took place during seven days of real history? Walton flirts with the question, but ultimately dismisses it as irrelevant. Finally, I thought he waffled on his otherwise strong argument for teleological evolution when it came to human evolution. At some points he suggests that biblical Christians should have no problems attributing the material origins of humanity to the same processes that produced the rest of Earth’s biodiversity. But on a couple occasions, he calls that same perspective into question. “My theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process [the evolution of plant and animal life] and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve. Rather than cause-and-effect continuity, there is material and spiritual discontinuity, though it remains difficult to articulate how God accomplished this” (p. 139). I think Walton weakens his case for God’s teleological involvement in whichever material process he chose for creation by suggesting the need for God to intervene in the case of humanity. It smacks of a God-of-the-gaps approach, which Walton elsewhere eloquently dismantles.

These limitations and weaknesses do not detract, however, from the overall force of Walton’s presentation, which is clear and convincing, yet free of polemic and propaganda. Walton brings a respectful tone to a conversation that so often devolves into political entrenchment.

The Lost World of Genesis One is published under InterVarsity’s Academic imprint, and I am anxious to see how John Walton’s propositions are received by the academic community. At the same time, this volume is absolutely accessible to any thoughtful reader. Walton speaks to the popular reader, defining new vocabulary and using helpful analogies to clarify complex points. His introduction alone, explaining the necessity of contextualizing our exegesis of Scripture, is worth the price of the book for the student or teacher of the Bible. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wrestles with the Creation/Evolution controversy, and label it a “must read” for any Christian student of the natural sciences.

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Responses

  1. Hey Tim,

    I keep meaning to chime in hear and applaud your efforts to start this conversation. On a somewhat related note did you hear about this new work:

    http://www.americamagazine.org/content/culture.cfm?cultureid=74

  2. […] This post was Twitted by craigadams49 […]

  3. How can one say the Bible does not talk of material when that is all it talks of. And not going on to the second book of Genesis just sounds like his theories got dismantled upon further reading. One must delve deeper into Genesis rather than picking and choosing what to disprove.

  4. Thank you for sharing this resource with your readers. I found the book to be very helpful as well.

    As to Colin’s comments I think he has missed the point of the book which argues that reading Genesis in its ancient near eastern context of creation stories it is best understood as a theological treatise rather than describing the “hows” of material creation. Understanding this is to “delve deeper into Genesis.”

    I only now became aware of your blog and hope you post more frequently.

    • Thanks for the comment John! I’ve discontinued this blog in favor of a more general one that tackles many topics (including some of these science/faith conversations). You can find me now at http://timothymcninch.wordpress.com


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