11 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 2

I might have unnecessarily tainted these series of posts, revealing as I did in the previous post my general indifference to whatever theories scientists come up with to explain the material origins of the universe. This mindset does not drive Walton's book. His concern is, emphatically, hermeneutical and exegetical. To be sure, the reader may deduce certain motivations on his part that wag the exegetical dog, but the only one he explicitly reveals is a desire to handle God's Word rightly.

It just so happens that I appreciate the way he handles it because it frees me up to continue thinking as I always have throughout my adult life—that whatever theory the scientific community puts forth is worth entertaining precisely because it has no bearing, by definition, on what the creation narrative of Genesis 1 conveys.

There, I've shown my hand. Let's start surveying the eighteen propositions Walton proffers.

Proposition 1 discusses how the cultural ideas behind Genesis 1 exhibit an ancient cosmology. “That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions” (p. 16). Even though this book doesn’t purport to promote any one particular view of how God created the material universe, it’s clear that in this first proposition Walton intends to cut off at the knees any view that argues modern science is embedded in Genesis 1 or that the biblical text dictates what modern science should look like (ibid.). This approach to the text, called “concordism,” ends up changing the very meaning of the text itself, since it attempts to make the text say something it never intended for it to say. This view also suffers from the assumption “the text should be understood in reference to current scientific consensus, which would mean that it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century” (p. 17). But science, by its very nature, is in a constant state of flux. Thus, “if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would be unintelligible to people who live prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time” (ibid.). Rather, God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood. In short, God accommodated himself to the exact culture that received his revelation (incidentally, I know there's some kind of recent rowe "out there" that revolved around a guy named Peter Enns, but I'm fairly ignorant of the controversy, and so I'm not sure how connected this discussion is to it. When I read Prof. Poythress' review of Lost World, I did get the impression [in the last few lines of the article] that this book raises similar concerns for some readers—but more on that later).

As another biblical example of God accommodating himself to the exact culture that received his revelation, Walton mentions how the ancients thought “the seat of intelligence, emotion and personhood was in the internal organs, particularly the heart, but also the liver, kidneys and intestines” (consider too how our English Bibles render “entrails” as “mind,” etc., p. 18). This was not metaphor but physiology; thus, God didn’t see the need to revise his audience’s ideas of physiology when he talked to them about such things. “Instead, he adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood” (ibid.). Denying this, Walton suggests, would lead to folks trying to construct a physiology for our times that would explain how people think with their entrails.

I’ve spent the time and space explaining this first proposition in detail because of its foundational nature to the rest of Walton’s book. Those whose views lean in more “concordist” directions, then, can see how their presuppositions are at odds with Walton’s on a basic, hermeneutical level.

The rest of this chapter (prop. 1) attempts to challenge the tendency to read back into the text the modern dichotomy between natural and supernatural. It is not something most Christians will deny; still, it helps to be reminded of this so that they too can avoid assuming this dichotomy when engaging the text. Walton mainly does this to keep us asking the appropriate questions from the text (alas, he tells us, “we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today’s dialogues,” p. 21).

In Proposition 2, Walton simply argues that the ancient cosmology of Genesis 1 is “function oriented.” That is, the meaning of existence in the ancient world had less to do with material ontology and more to do with functional ontology. “Something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system” (emphasis original, p. 26). Walton contends that we know this from both the biblical text and from other literature of the ancient world, which he proceeds to unpack throughout the rest of this chapter. In short, to “create,” to cause something to exist, is to give that something a function, not material properties. According to Walton, “we tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom” (both of which are defined according to their functions, pp. 35–36). In other words, the ancient world defined existence in terms of having a function in an ordered system.

If not, why not?

Go on to Part 3.


John Schaefer said...

Like, like a lot. Re: Enns. I had no idea. I checked this page out: http://trevinwax.com/2008/03/29/the-peter-enns-controversy/

It appears to present as negatives a bunch of a really smart positions. I am (1) pleasantly surprised that seminaries still have people in them who appear to have a clue and (2) confirmed in my cynicism that when such true geniuses appear, the (admittedly powerful) dunces are always already in a conspiracy against them.

Chris Donato said...

We'll take your use of "dunces" loosely, John. The folks who opposed Enns at WTS are just as brilliant as the ousted.

My one question about this is simple: Why does Enns assume the biblical author didn’t know exactly what he was writing? What if, for example, the author of Genesis knew what he was writing was not scientific cosmogeny? What if he deemed readers who read him that way to be reading wrongly? Would this not alleviate Enns’ concern re: "accommodation"?

That said, I would point readers to "garver's" (presumably, Joel) helpful comments in the thread to which you direct us.

This stuff is rarely pretty, and as I said, I'm pretty ignorant of the situation. Time will tell (if it hasn't already) if from the perspective of the seminary all this was worth it.

John Schaefer said...

Chris, the capacity for scholarly interaction in blog comments is well attested... But I'm going to try anyways. It appears (and the appearance is no doubt false) that you're making an anachrostic argument here:

"What if, for example, the author of Genesis knew what he was writing was not scientific cosmogeny? What if he deemed readers who read him that way to be reading wrongly?"

How on earth could a scribe in something like 1300 BCE know a term like "scientific cosmogeny" or recognize the concept (a millenium prior to Aristotle) well enough to avoid referring to it? What if the luxury of "reading him that way" is unique to those of us who came after the Renaissance?

It appears to me to be a classic anachronistic argument. I know it's not, that I'm misunderstanding. Please help.

Chris Donato said...

John, I'll buy your criticism. Maybe my word choices were not the best. I'll try again:

What if, for example, the author of Genesis knew what he was writing was not to be taken as an account of material origins (absent as that concept appears to be in ANE creation narratives) but functional origins?

I do think that "reading him that way" (i.e., reading anything resembling scientific cosmonogeny [i.e., material origins] back into the text) is a modern (well, slightly pre-modern) "luxury," as wrongheaded as it is.

Have I understood your concern?

John Schaefer said...

OK, that makes sense--you're restating the author's argument. But I'm still not convinced that the distinction was conceivable for the contemporary author between functional and material accounts.

The starting place would be to do some linguistic anthropology. What are the terms used to describe discourses, and what do these terms mean in context? Does a term exist in ancient Hebrew that is roughly equivalent to the English word "functional"? Does this term have any meaningful relationship to any equivalent terms for "material"? This would probably take 50 to 100 pages to do the terms justice.

Once we have worked through some of these terms, we can start coming to terms with the ways the meanings of these words are determined by the various contexts in which they occur, and how they in turn come to determine meaning within these contexts. There has to be a limited set of texts, so it shouldn't be too hard. That should take another 50 to 100 pages.

Then, I think, it would make sense to start talking about grander issues of ideology, belief, and exegesis.

Chris Donato said...


Yes, that is the crux. Supposedly Walton has done this linguistic work, which he says leads him to make the distinction between material and functional ontology. The book I'm walking through here is the lay-level version of his argument, so it doesn't include the more technical stuff.

I've heard he's going to be coming out with a book on this very subject in a more academic fashion. But he has laid some groundwork already in this book.

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