19 May 2011

Land of the Lost: Nutshell

"Fish with Legs" by Ellen Marcus © 2011
THE TIME HAS COME for the last post about John Walton's Lost World of Genesis One. [update: Walton's expanded edition on this subject hits the shelf this October—Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology.]

According to Walton, a responsible reading of Genesis 1:1-2:3 will approach the text as ancient literature, not modern science. In so doing, we will understand that the author's original intent was "far different from what has been traditionally understood" (p. 162)—not least since the days of flood geology. The original intent has to do with the functions of the cosmos (why it was created) as opposed to the material structure of the cosmos (how it was created). Walton calls the ancient view of creation the "cosmic temple inauguration view." This means that the events of Genesis 1 describe how "the cosmos was given its functions as God's temple, where he has taken up his residence and from where he runs the cosmos. This world is his headquarters" (ibid.).

The Genesis 1 account can therefore be seen as a literal seven-day inauguration period of the cosmos, in which God set up its functions for the benefit of humanity (key point), "with God dwelling in relationship with his creatures" (p. 163). We cannot, on the basis of Genesis 1, object to any description scientists offer as to how the universe came to be (we can object, but we can't use the biblical text to do so). Walton thinks then that any view proposed by scientists that is deemed substantial can be met with, "Fine, that helps me see the handiwork of God." This includes biological evolution, but we must keep in mind that it's teleological, that is, evolution with a purpose, as opposed to standard neo-Darwinism. Seeing evidences of design in the material world should therefore come as no surprise.

Do you jive with this reading? Why or why not?

At once, for those of us concerned that all of Scripture be accurate no matter what topic it touches upon, we're met with this dilemma: if the ancients held certain views of creation that touch upon how God created, and these views were naturally a part of the thinking of the author of Genesis 1, then wouldn't Genesis 1 be teaching something false regarding how God created? Granted the focus may be on functional origins, but is it really true that there is no information whatsoever being conveyed, or at least assumed, about how God created? In order to protect the infallibility of Scripture (at least how the doctrine's articulated today), we have to say that the text does not, in any way, convey anything about material origins (which Walton does). The author of Genesis 1 could assume (and did, naturally so) false scientific information without writing it down, and thus the Spirit protected God's Word from error.

Does our doctrine of Scripture have to change in order to accommodate this "cosmic temple inauguration view"? Does Walton want to have his (layered) cake and eat it too?


Tyler Wittman said...

After reading Walton's book, I felt like it wasn't really saying much with regard to the evolution debate. Claiming that Gen 1, in its ANE context, is about functional origins and not material origins does not establish that material origins are not part of the "authorial intent" if we hold that authorial intent also pertains to the Spirit, whose inspiring work leaves texts pregnant with meaning not always available to the human authors.

If we restrict our discussion of the doctrine of creation to Gen 1-2, then it's going to be difficult to articulate a Trinitarian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (or ex amore). Dogmatically, I believe creatio ex nihilo is something we have to affirm if we are to protect the Creator-creature distinction. If I remember correctly, Walton doesn't deny that material origins are accounted for in different parts of the canon (or in loci of systematic theology), but the emphasis on functional origins is so loud that such caveats tend to fade into the background.

On the whole, I liked the book a lot for its implications on how we interpret the meaning of Gen 1. I'm on board with the temple cosmology view (I believe Beale and Waltke agree). But I also think that we can find material ontology in the Gen 1 text if we hold to the inspiration and dual-authorship of Scripture as a whole.

I keep wanting Eisenbrauns to release the more detailed account of Walton's view, but apparently they've been delaying it for a while.

Chris Donato said...

I agree, Tyler. Walton studiously avoids saying much about the evolution debate. Its veracity is quite beside the point when it comes to this particular interpretation of Gen 1. And while I do remember Beale saying a lot of similar things in his work on the temple, I don't recall Waltke, in class or in his books, shedding much light on this subject. In fact, his Gen commentary could square with Walton's view in certain places, but his take on Gen 1:1 doesn't seem to (iirc).

Walton definitely affirms creatio ex nihilo, but of course he says we can't look to the creation narrative for that. This will upset some readers, to be sure.

My follow-up question is simply this: if Gen 1 conveys anything at all about material origins, then isn't it in error? That, it seems to me, is the only choice with which Walton leaves us.

jps said...

We've announced John Walton's book:


Chris Donato said...

Been waiting for this! Thanks for the heads up.

Tyler Wittman said...


I retract the Waltke comment, I thought I had read his agreement with the temple thesis (I'm sympathetic with it), but I'm likely mistaken.

I don't see anything, on the surface, wrong with affirming that Gen 1 says something about material origins, even if it doesn't say everything about those origins. This doesn't deny that "material" affirmations are ancillary to the text's central meaning, but I don't see why we can't affirm their presence. It could be that Gen 1 simply tells us that the material creation too was by the word of God, completely his act, and had a definite teleology.

I'm not sure that Walton's conclusion about the material/functional distinction being either/or in the text of Gen 1 doesn't carry faulty hermeneutical assumptions (imho). Is he not restricting the meaning of Gen 1 to its human dimension? I think the inspiration of the text makes it pregnant with meaning, which we see unfolded in the canon and the tradition (both products of the same inspiring Spirit).


Chris Donato said...


I think the caution with which you express the idea that Gen 1 may speak of material origins is the only way to go, if we adopt Walton's view. Because, in a nutshell, if it says anything more than that creation was "by the word of God, completely his act, and had a definite teleology," then it's wrong.

Walton seems to want to say that, e.g., Gen 1:1 is a statement about God giving functions to an already existing universe, so there's no hint of material creation in it. I think he denies the both/and notion you put forward above because he must think the text cannot carry that burden—when it was originally written and even now in light of the unfolding of the canon and the tradition (he says, e.g., that creation ex nihilo is something we learn elsewhere in scripture, decidedly not in Gen 1).

For my part, I'm not opposed to so-called "double fulfillment" of scriptural passages. A human writes something down in a particular time and in a particular context for a particular audience by God's inspiration, and because of God's inspiration it points beyond itself to something greater, a more filling up as it were.

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