Don’t be tricked!
John Walton and Genesis scholarship
Published: 13 May 2021 (GMT+10)
First published in Prayer News, CMI-South Africa, November 2019
No one likes to be deceived. The apostle Paul warned young Christians to beware of being tricked into slavery in their thinking. Some teachers claimed that they were delivering the Gospel message, when in fact they had mixed aspects of the Gospel with something else. Whether it was the message of the Judaizers or the Gnostics, their unholy mixture perverted the Gospel. Hence the apostle Paul warned Christians in Colosse, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8). Paul’s warning to the Colossians remains relevant today.
The false teachings that Paul warned about were “according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world”. These teachings were syncretistic; that is, the message might have been wrapped in the language of Scripture, but the core ideas originated with autonomous man, not God. As such, Christians need to be continually on guard against religious syncretism. It is a spiritual battle. How are we doing in that battle today?
It is encouraging that many Christian leaders affirm, along with the apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (Romans 1:16). Yet when pressed concerning the meaning of the early chapters of Genesis, many hesitate. In our society where evolutionary claims about origins abound, some would appear to be ashamed of the Genesis account of origins. While the apostle Paul clearly understood the events of the early chapters of Genesis as being historical (cf. Romans 5:12ff), in recent decades some have adopted various re-interpretations of Genesis (i.e. the gap theory, the day-age theory, progressive creation, or the framework hypothesis) all of which in some way seek to accommodate naturalistic claims about origins. And while each of these views has been thoroughly refuted,1 some continue to seek for novel ways to reinterpret Genesis in such a manner as to remove any appearance of a conflict between Genesis and naturalistic evolutionary claims.
Since the publishing of The Lost World of Genesis One (2009),2 John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has gained notoriety for promoting a hermeneutical approach which gives the literature of the Ancient Near East (ANE) a prominent role in interpreting the Old Testament. Walton visited South Africa on a speaking tour at which time I heard him speak. What follows is a synopsis of the message I heard from John Walton and my commentary.
John Walton is a confident and polished speaker and knows exactly what he wants to say. He also knows what he does not want to say, so as to not provoke opposition. In a friendly manner, he gently put forth his assertions, almost tentatively. He said he didn’t want to force anyone to embrace what he was saying, but rather, indicated that he merely wished that his hearers would thoughtfully consider his message. Meanwhile he proceeded to build one point upon another, constructing his interpretation of Genesis.
On Genesis chapter 1, Walton asserted that one could not expect to get to the real meaning of the text by merely reading an English translation. Certainly, knowing the original language would help one understand nuances that might not be fully appreciated when reading a translation, however, I believe that the basic message of Genesis 1 can be grasped even when reading a translation. But Walton went further, saying that even if one were to read Genesis 1 in Hebrew, that its real meaning could not be appraised. It was clear that his approach differed from the grammatical-historical hermeneutic used by Christian scholars for centuries. According to Walton, something outside of the text must be used to interpret the text.
Walton proceeded to explain that we live in a “modern cultural river” with many influences. Hence it would be problematic to read and interpret Genesis through the lenses of our modern cultural river, when Genesis was instead written in the context of an ANE cultural river. How can the context of the ANE be known? In the past 150 years ANE literature has been unearthed, translated, and studied that gives us insight into the ANE cultural river. Walton declares that Genesis may only be rightly understood in the context of extra-biblical ANE literature. Of course, this would imply that previous generations of Christians, without access to ANE literature, could not correctly understand the early chapters of Genesis! This is an audacious claim.
Walton claimed that people influenced by a modern cultural river are concerned about material origins, whereas people influenced by the ANE cultural river cared more about functional origins, and that is what Genesis 1 is really about. Trying to substantiate this point Walton briefly discussed the use of the Hebrew word bara ברא throughout the Old Testament. He claimed that as bara could be used to describe the creation of non-material things, and given the supposed ANE interest in function (over and above material origin), Walton concludes that where bara is used in Genesis 1 it must not have anything to do with material origin! According to Walton the material creation was supposedly already in existence, prior to the Genesis 1 text. In Walton’s view Genesis 1 doesn’t teach anything about material creation, thus in his view nothing which modern science might claim about origins could possibly conflict with the teaching of Genesis 1. He concluded that Genesis 1 is really about God inaugurating a sort of cosmic temple wherein Adam and Eve and their descendants were supposed to serve God as priests.
When Walton spoke on Genesis chapters 2 and 3, while he claimed he believed that Adam and Eve were real people, his emphasis was that they were archetypal, thus representing all of humanity. He sought to distinguish the creation account of man in Genesis 1:26–28 from Genesis 2:7ff.3 Walton asserted that Adam and Eve never called each other by the names “Adam” or “Eve” and went on to say that it wouldn’t bother him if Adam and Eve had both been born, in other words, that they had biological parents! (which contradicts Genesis 3:20). Walton continued with his idea of Adam and Eve serving God in a sort of cosmic temple, and said that the events described in Genesis 3:1–19, would be better described as “the loss” (instead of “the fall”), as Adam and Eve were driven from God’s presence and suffered loss.
What are we to make of Walton’s new hermeneutic?
Despite Walton’s claim that ANE literature does not reflect an interest in material origins, it appears that he has been rather selective. Even the late Sir James George Fraser, who was a renowned anthropologist and no friend of biblical creation, documented dozens of ancient creation ‘legends’ from around the world which address material origins, many bearing a striking resemblance to the Genesis account.4 Yet it may well be that some ANE authors placed an emphasis upon function. Why might that be? Well consider, who exactly were these ANE authors? They would have been the descendants of Noah who were dispersed from Babel. They would have had some knowledge of the truth about God, creation, and the fall, but were living in rebellion against God and would have suppressed the truth (Romans 1:18). Perhaps that was why some ANE authors may have been reticent to discuss material origins. They were avoiding mention of the Creator whom they had rejected. That ought to be sufficient reason for us to reject the notion of using ANE literature as any sort of a basis for constructing a hermeneutic for the understanding of Scripture.
Furthermore, Walton’s claims about ANE writings have been seriously questioned by Dr Noel Weeks, former Lecturer in Ancient History, University of Sydney, and an expert on ANE cultures.5
In a Q&A session, Walton was asked about the NT authors who referred to the early chapters of Genesis as though they understood them as being historical. Walton replied that in order to understand what the NT authors understood about Genesis, that their first century A.D. “cultural river” needed to be understood. Walton’s reply suggests that he thinks that the average person cannot understand Scripture without the help of a modern class of ‘priests’ trained in ANE literature. In other words, he doesn’t believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, a key Reformation doctrine.
I spoke privately with John Walton, pointing out that while he claimed to be concerned about the modern cultural river interfering with our interpretation of Genesis, that philosophical naturalism is part of the modern cultural river. Furthermore, that philosophical naturalism is held to by faith by those who wish to pursue purely naturalistic explanations for origins (i.e. evolution). And thus, for the Christian to claim the Christian faith, and yet hold to evolution (rooted in philosophical naturalism), that would involve religious syncretism. Not responding to the challenge, Walton made his way back to the front of the hall to begin his next lecture.
Coming back to the apostle Paul’s warning, “beware lest anyone take you captive … ”, while Walton warned against interpreting Genesis from a perspective of the “modern cultural river”, in actual fact, Walton’s efforts pave the way for Christians to erroneously embrace an evolutionary explanation of origins, which of course is a foundational component of the modern cultural river.
In Deuteronomy 13 God warned Israel that they ought to be on their guard against ‘a prophet or a dreamer of dreams’ who teaches novel ideas contrary to what has already been revealed to them. And should such a teacher come, Israel should know that the LORD is testing them as to whether they will remain faithful (Deut 13:3). Walton’s hermeneutic gives prominence to pagan ideas in the interpretation of Genesis and places a test before believers today.
Will we follow an academic who offers an excuse not to believe Scripture, and who seeks to pave the way for Christians to embrace evolution? Or will we believe Scripture that provides us with a historical account of material origins, as understood by Jesus and the Apostles?
References and notes
- For a refutation of the Gap Theory, etc., see articles at Creation Compromises. Return to text.
- For a review of The Lost World of Genesis One, seeDubious and dangerous exposition: A review of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton; also The Lost World of Walton: Why John Walton’s Lost World books are a lost cause.. Return to text.
- Contrary to Walton’s assertion that Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:7ff are two different creation accounts, besides regarding them as historical, Jesus refers to both passages in a single breath, demonstrating they describe the same event. See Mark 10:6-8 and Genesis contradictions?. Return to text.
- Frazer, J.G., Folk-lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend and Law, MacMillan and Co., London, 1919. Return to text.
- Weeks, N., The Bible and the ‘Universal’ Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton, Westminster Theological Journal 78:1–28, 2016. A summary here: creationwithoutcompromise.com/2018/10/15/critique-of-john-walton-noel-weeks. Return to text.