Dubious and dangerous exposition
A review of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins
Debate by John H. Walton
Intervarsity Press, IL, 2009
The first verse of the first book of the Bible teaches, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews asserts, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3). Throughout history, the church has held that such statements from Scripture provide the basis for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). The first line of the Apostles’ Creed reads, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”, and the first line of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God … maker of heaven and earth and everything that is, seen and unseen.” The Shorter Westminster Catechism states, “The work of creation is God’s making all things of nothing.”
According to Walton, the church has misunderstood Genesis for centuries
According to Walton, however, this view of Genesis is wrong, and the church has misunderstood its real meaning for many centuries. The first book of the Bible, he argues, does not provide an account of material origins, but functional origins. The ancients, he maintains, thought of existence in terms of function in society and culture, and, in their view, true existence is not even achieved until people and God are there to benefit from these functions (pp. 27, 36). The Genesis account, he claims, refers to a literal seven day period in history, sometime after the material creation, when God assigned the cosmos its real intended functions, prior to his taking up residence in it as his temple. So, according to Walton, the Creation Week should be understood as follows. On Day 1, God’s command, “let there be light”, and his “separating” light from darkness inaugurated temple time. The expanse (sky), ordained on Day 2, is established as the space in which his people live and would function in the new order to control rainfall and irrigation for their benefit. On Day 3, God “separated” the waters on the earth so that plants could grow on the dry land, providing us with food. On Day 4, the “lights in the sky” were dedicated as separators of day and night and markers of seasons, days and years. On Day 5, the roles of fish and birds are assigned their temple function, this being to fill the waters and fly in the sky. Similarly, on Day 6, the terrestrial creatures are ordained to reproduce and fill the land. Man is brought into being as a spiritual creature, carrying the image of God, and his function is established, to exercise dominion over the earth under God. Finally, on Day 7, God’s resting from his work should be understood as his taking up residence in the cosmos, thus making it his temple. Hence, the seven days refer to an inauguration ceremony where God’s temple is “created” and made functional (pp. 87–88).
According to Walton, the reason why the church has almost universally misunderstood Genesis is that knowledge of the ancients and their world-view had been lost for many centuries. However, in recent years, as archaeologists have recovered many ancient texts, and linguists have re-learnt the ancient languages, it has been possible for scholars to regain an understanding of how the ancient world thought. Now, through his study of ancient near eastern beliefs, Walton claims, he has been able to correctly interpret the first book of the Bible. He writes:
“While this reading [Walton’s interpretation of Genesis] is initially based on observations of the biblical text … without an understanding of the ancient worldview, it would have been difficult to ask the questions that have led to this position and nearly impossible to provide the answers to the question that we have proposed” (p. 171).
Scripture must interpret Scripture
In evaluating Walton’s claims, we must apply the usual rules of hermeneutics and, particularly, that Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture. Our interpretation of any one passage must be such that it is harmonious with and sits comfortably with our interpretation of related passages. This could not be said of Walton’s exposition of Genesis.
In general, both OT and NT references to creation emphasize its material nature and often celebrate God’s power and wisdom. For example, in Is. 40:25, 26, God asks, “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? … Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these?” and in Is. 40:28 we read, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no-one can fathom.” Jer. 10:12 confirms “God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom”. (See also Is. 42:5; Ps. 33:6, 9; Ps. 102:25; Job. 38:44ff; Neh. 9:6.) According to the Apostle Paul, God’s act of creation makes his power and divine nature plain so that unbelievers “are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20, 25). The first verses of John’s Gospel are also particularly relevant here. “In the beginning” is clearly a reference to Genesis 1, yet verse 3 speaks of the Word creating all things. And, again, in Col. 1:16, Christ is said to have created all “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible”.
Moreover, Walton’s rejection of Genesis 1 as an account of material origins hardly fits the statement of Gen. 2:2–3, which makes clear that, after Day 6, God ceased from work. If God had not created anything material, but simply proclaimed the functions of that which already existed, what work had he done? It hardly fits the sense of Ex. 20:8–11 either, which likens God’s work of creation to the physical work done by the Israelites. Furthermore, Walton’s argument that the ancient Israelites’ understanding of the Hebrew word ‘bara’ (translated ‘create’) would have emphasized function is hardly a reason to reject the view that it also refers to a material creation. Would God have created something without intending it to have purpose? In Gen. 1:14 we read, “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night’”, suggesting both creation from nothing and assignment of function. If assignment of function was the only intended meaning, why does the text not read, “Let the lights in the expanse of the sky separate day from night”? Similarly, why does v. 6 not read “Let the expanse separate water from water” instead of “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water”?
Walton admits that his view is not one which would be supported by many other scholars (p. 44) and, indeed, this is true. James Barr, who was Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford University, wrote:
“ … probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that
a. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
b. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.”1
It is difficult to accept the idea that the vast majority of Christian and Jewish scholars have been wrong about the Bible’s account of creation for so many centuries. Moreover, if Genesis made no reference to material origins, how were the Israelites to counter the creation accounts of other religions? The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is essential in defending the Judeo/Christian view, making clear that God is sovereign, and the only creator of everything. He existed before the material universe and is not co-eternal with matter. He was not limited in creation by what already existed: rather, being omnipotent, he produced whatever material was needed to form whatever he wanted to create. The universe is his design and ordered entirely according to his own plan and purposes. Moreover, he did not create out of his own substance and is therefore not a part of the fallen world.
Walton claims that his exposition of Genesis solves many problems that have beset the church in recent years. For example, since, according to this view, the Bible makes no statement regarding the age of the earth, it can accommodate any hypothesis that might be supported by science (p. 95). Similarly, since Genesis is not an account of material origins, it would be perfectly admissible to consider an evolutionary account of life, so long as it is accepted that God is ultimately responsible for its existence. In answer to the question, “Where do the dinosaurs and fossil ‘Homo’ specimens fit in?” he answers that:
“ … these creatures could be part of the prefunctional cosmos—part of the long stage of development that I would include in the material phase … The anthropological specimens would not be viewed as humans in the image of God. They would not be assessed morally (any more than an animal would), and they were subject to death as any animal was” (p. 169).
Moreover, he claims, “In the interpretation of the text that I have offered, very little found in evolutionary theory would be objectionable” (p. 170) and “Biological evolution is capable of giving us insight into God’s creative work” (p. 138).
Walton’s God is not the God of the Bible
The idea that millions of years passed before God conferred human status on a sufficiently evolved ape, however, does not sit comfortably with the words of Christ, who maintained that “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female’” (Mark. 10:6). Moreover, a view of the pre-fallen world full of bloodshed, disease, desperate competition and death hardly squares with God’s assertion that his creation, in every respect, was very good (Gen. 1:31). Presumably, in Walton’s view, Adam and Eve, in their originally perfect state, would have been surrounded by this ruthless, violent world. One wonders how Walton would answer the non-Christian Philosopher of Science, Professor David Hull, who wrote:
“Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory … may be like, He is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not a loving God who cares about His productions. He is not even the awful God portrayed in the book of Job. The God of the Galapagos [evolution by natural selection] is careless, wasteful, indifferent; almost diabolical. His is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.”2
The answer to Professor Hull, of course, is that God did not create through evolution. Rather, as the Bible teaches, God created plants, animals and people fully formed and perfect (Gen. 1:31). The suffering and death we see all round us came into the world later, because of Adam’s sin, and is a salutary lesson for all of us as to sin’s terrible nature. But praise God that, one day, he will restore the world to its original beautiful form, reflecting his own beautiful nature, and where “the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat … [and] the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Is. 11).3
The doctrine of creation matters
The biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo lies at the heart of the Christian faith and we should be careful not to diminish its biblical basis. It affirms that God is sovereign and that He can be trusted to do all that He has promised. There are no other gods who compete with Him and He alone merits our worship. The universe belongs to Him, and He will do with it whatever He pleases. By beholding his creation, we are enabled to glimpse something of his greatness and beauty. By recalling that He brought everything into being simply by his word, we begin to realise something of his awesome power. And we are reminded that, as well as being the only creator, He is the only Saviour.4
- Barr, J., letter to David C.C. Watson, 23 April 1984. Cited by Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, p. 137, 2004. Return to text.
- Cited by Grudem, W., Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 302, 1994. Return to text.
- Gurney, P., The carnivorous nature and suffering of animals, J. Creation 18(3):70–75, 2004; creation.com/carniv. Return to text.
- It is significant the Hebrew word ‘bara’ (‘create’) is used in the context of both creation and salvation. See, for example, Is. 43:1ff and Ps. 51:10. Return to text.
I struggle with this review of Walton's material. When seeking to interpret Scripture we must always pay attention to literary and historical context. Statham pays no attention to Walton's work on seeking a historical context Genesis. The Bible, first of all, has something to say to it's original hearers/ readers and then to those who would come later. I can't help but read Statham's bias and a rehashing of the same old rhetoric. Quoting Scriptures out of context to refute Walton's position does nothing to help the reader understand the significance of what he is saying or gird the credibility of Statham or CMI as an important academic and scientific voice on the subject Genesis.
We agree that we must pay attention to the literary and historical context of Scripture to interpret it. I recommend some of the articles listed under the “Related articles” section on this page to see that we do not ignore such contexts. Instead, we believe that Walton has made an inappropriate use of the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context to destroy any notion of Genesis 1 as a material origins account—though it has been held to have relevance for material origins practically unanimously for 2,000 years, across different cultures. He treats the ANE cosmogonies as near context when they are not (they are written in different languages under different worldview assumptions), and always seems to be fighting against the near Scriptural contexts (e.g. Gen. 2:7, 21–22; Exo. 20:8–11, 31:16-17—written by the same author/editor, in the same language, under the same worldview assumptions). The Hebrew bara (“create”) manifestly does refer to material creation, depending on the object (Gen. 1:27, cf. Gen. 2:7, 21–22 and Paul’s use of these passages in 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:45–49; 1 Tim. 2:13, which presume the historicity of the particulars of Genesis 2). If the object of bara intrinsically has material ontology (such as heavens and earth, sea creatures, and humans), then bara implies material origins (sometimes ex nihilo—Gen. 1:1; sometimes production from already-existing materials—Gen. 1:27). Rather than referring to ‘functional origins’, bara more likely just refers to divine origination of something new or unique—the issue is the agency (divine—God is always the subject of bara) and efficiency of origin, not the manner/ontology of origin (which can only be determined by the object of bara—cf. with old-ager C. John Collins). Whatever the ontology of creation in the ANE cosmogonies is (and I personally find it hard to believe that material ontology is completely absent, even after reading Walton’s commentary on them—it seems more likely that material ontology was assumed rather than ignored), the Bible interprets Genesis 1 as implying the material origins of everything (John 1:3; Col. 1:16–17; Heb. 11:3). The history of interpretation is unanimously against Walton’s view; a history that includes intrabiblical interpretation of Genesis 1. One has to ask—are we ignoring the context, or is Walton wresting the context to support his own compromise?
I really appreciate the scripture references provided by Dominic in reviewing this book. I have been pursuing a line of thought in writing an essay for my belief in biblical creation that looks at scriptures where God declares his personal involvement in the direct creation of all things visible and invisible. It likely has no persuasion to one who is committed to a system of evolution that offers an explanation of origins, but I hope it appeals to Christians, who have been deceived by the claims of evolutionists, into re-examining biblical creationism and embracing the same. Great work, Dominic!
The comment "Walton admits that his view is not one which would be supported by many other scholars (p. 44)" risks distorting what Walton actually writes i.e. "This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars, it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition..." Accurate representation is desirable for credibility.
Walton is correct in arguing that, historically, his view has never been seriously considered by other scholars. This is because it has so little basis in either the text of Genesis or the rest of the Bible.
Walton's whole argument is at variance with the principle of the perspecuity of Scripture. This maintains that God intended ordinary people, guided by the Holy Spirit, and using sound rules of hermeneutics, to understand the Bible's fundamental doctrines. We do not require elite scholars, whether they be theologians or scientists, to interpret the Bible for us. This was the great mistake of the Church of Rome at the time of the Reformation.
Cheers for this review Dominic, it's a great service you guys provide, I just heard about this book from a friend and thought "hey, a book on creation, CMI might have a write up on that". and here I am! thanks heaps.