How Walton’s Lost World Opened up a New World for Me | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Note: This is the seventh and final post in the blog series accompanying our spring Book Club, which is reading The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton.

In the fall of 2009, I was at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in New Orleans. Browsing the book room just before heading home, I picked up a copy of the newly released The Lost World of Genesis One and put it in my carry-on. On my flight back to Chicago, I don’t think I set the book down. I was mesmerized and could sense that some order was being imposed on my mind where there had been pockets of disorder (or at least non-order).

My father was a science teacher, and although we were conservative Christians, I never really felt threatened by scientific findings like many in my community did. My undergraduate degree was in science education, and in my graduate work I specialized in philosophy of science. I was able to separate the science of evolution from the ideology that is too often bundled with that science, and so didn’t really have a problem with accepting evolution. But as a Christian who recognized the authority and inspiration of Scripture, I wasn’t always sure how to reconcile science and the Bible. I wasn’t persuaded by those who claimed “the Bible obviously says…” as an argument for why evolution must be false. To my mind, such people had to do a fair amount of gerrymandering to get the Bible to obviously say such things, and their hermeneutic approach had to be completely abandoned for other parts of Scripture. But I didn’t really know what to say besides, “the Bible must not mean that, because natural world pretty clearly testifies otherwise.”

Richard Dawkins claimed that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. I’d like to co-opt that claim and transform it into something better: Reading Walton’s book helped me become a biblically fulfilled evolutionary creationist. In The Lost World of Genesis One I found a way forward for thinking about the Bible from the standpoint we find ourselves at today. It is now obvious to me that the ancient Near Eastern thought world must be considered when we interpret the text of the Old Testament. When I speak to church groups about science and Bible, I’m basically a Walton impersonator on this point, using examples from his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible about how our better understanding of the language and culture has helped us read Scripture more accurately. Here are a few of his examples in increasing order of significance for how we understand the text:

  • 2 Kings 18:17 In the King James Version, Tartan, Rabsaris, and Rabshakeh are treated as proper names. But study in ancient Near Eastern languages has shown that these words were actually positions in the army and are translated in the NIV as supreme commander, chief officer, and field commander.
  • The discovery of many ziggurats in the ancient Near East has led to a better understanding of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. Instead of a way for people to climb up into heaven (was God really worried about them succeeding at that??), the tower was intended to bring God to earth in that location. God’s frustration of their efforts, then, is to distinguish himself from the cultural expectations: this is not how I will come to dwell among you.
  • Joshua commanding the sun to stand still (Joshua 10) must be read against the backdrop of the celestial omen literature of the time. A strong case can be made that Joshua’s prayer doesn’t have anything to do with the sun moving (or the earth rotating), but is instead a prayer that their enemies would be demoralized by seeing the full moon on the 15th day of the lunar month (one of the ancient omens read, “If on the 15th day the moon and sun are seen together, a strong enemy will raise his weapons against the land”). See Walton’s blog post on this.

Our reading of Scripture is enriched when we understand how it draws from ancient genres and contexts on the one hand, and how it subverts ancient expectations on the other. This approach is very important to BioLogos, and many biblical scholars in our community are helping us understand the ancient world in which Scripture was written. But when I talk about these things to church groups, invariably someone in the audience expresses despair about this, feeling like they have to have a PhD in order to read their Bible. I think it is important to make two points about such reactions: 1) Every person can benefit by picking up the Bible and reading it every day. We evangelical Christians believe that God speaks to us through the Bible—he doesn’t just speak to people with PhDs. But 2) Every community of believers needs to have Bible scholars they trust who can help them read the Bible better. Since at least the Protestant Reformation, there has been a tendency for Christians to develop individual interpretations of the Bible (and form their own denominations!). We must recognize that some people are better trained and equipped to interpret Scripture—just as we recognize there are experts whose opinions should be respected in the field of medicine and auto repair.

But now, I am of the opinion that Scripture interpretation is not a purely academic affair. I like the caution that fourth-century Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nazianzus gave to those who would study the Bible: “it is not for all [people], but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness” (Oration 27). To paraphrase, when looking for experts to trust, we ought to consider not just the degrees that have been earned, but the character of the scholar. This business of origins gives plenty of opportunity for testing that character. On this count, I’ve been impressed with Walton’s character and the way he handles himself.

The first time I saw John in person was in early 2011 when I took a group of students to hear him lecture on The Lost World at Andrews University—a Seventh Day Adventist school. I was impressed with his calm and humble demeanor in interacting with a predominantly YEC crowd. On another occasion I saw him on a panel which could have turned ugly when a participant tried to turn the dialogue into accusations about who is right and who is wrong. John deftly diffused the situation with wise words which he later wrote into this blog post for us: On Being Right or Wrong.

I know there are Bible scholars, even in the BioLogos community, who disagree with Walton’s specific conclusions on Genesis 1. My one semester of Hebrew many years ago doesn’t qualify me to assess the finer points of these arguments. There is no debate, though, that Walton’s work and his character have opened up the way for many, many people to think more constructively about the relationship between science and the Bible. We’re pleased to have featured The Lost World of Genesis One in our spring book club, and we trust that it has been beneficial for many of you to work through.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/how-waltons-lost-world-opened-up-a-new-world-for-me

#2

Well stated, Jim. I concur on Walton’s gracious demeanor and ability to handle a tough crowd with grace and truth. I’d also add that Walton has been a tremendous encouragement and conversation partner for junior scholars. He shows genuine interest in us and our work, and doesn’t shy away from extended conversations at conferences.

Jim, now you’ve got me interested more in your upbringing and graduate days among other evangelicals!


(James Stump) #3

@KJTurner: Thanks. Here’s a bit more of my story: http://biologos.org/blog/belief-in-god-in-a-world-explained-by-science-part-1 I’ll have to tell you more about it sometime.


(Jon Garvey) #4

Jim

I thoroughly agree with you on both the ground-breaking nature of Walton’s approach and on his gracious and godly attitude - when I e-mailed a question on Adam to him out of the blue he was willing to send me, pre-publication, an article on the matter.

It’s worth remembering that his interaction with ancient ANE texts goes back for several decades, and has been entirely grounded on deep familiarity with their nuances in conversation with faith in biblical revelation. So his approach is entirely Evangelical (in the original sense). So even if one disagrees with any particular conclusions, he has made the “literal reading” of the biblical text essentially dependant on a better understanding of its cultural context.

The full implications of this are broad. Not only does it mean that we should not read scientific Creationism into the text - but that neither should we give admission to evolutionary interpretations, which can have had no more relevance to the writer or his audience. LIkewise, we should remember that taking Adam as an archetype, a type common in the ANE literature, should also exclude taking him as an allegorical “Everyman” figure - a type which was unknown in that world. Archetypes - like Adapa or Gilgamesh - were actual individuals (that is either historical or pseudo-historical, but not merely re[presentative).

Walton’s approach must also have some implications for traditional critico-historical approaches, whose assumptions arose when academics knew next to nothing about the ancient world and based their theories on nineteenth century culture. All of this is likely to be quite revolutionary, if and when it filters through the theological system.

I also agree with you that this in no way robs the ordinary believer of access to God’s truth - not only is the spiritual meaning of Scripture robust enough to resist distortion of its core truths by host-cultures, but the gift of qualified teachers has always been part of the Lord’s endowment for his Church.


#5

Jon

You make a very good point by noting that understanding the cultural context means that the “evolutionary interpretations” have no more relevance to the ancient writer and audience than “scientific Creationism”.


#6

Jim

I was also at the ETS meeting in New Orleans, had a great time in the city. I also got a chance to talk with John Walton. You are absolutely right about his character.

You note that you didn’t have a problem with science and could accept evolution but were not sure how to reconcile science and the Bible. This seems to be a common dilemma for Christians who are knowledgable about science. The idea that, “the Bible must not mean that, because natural world pretty clearly testifies otherwise”, is behind many of the blogs at BioLogos.

I think it would be better to drop the idea that the two books [nature and the Bible] must agree because God is the author of both. Instead of the concordism that the Bible and science must agree, let’s just say God accommodated the mistaken ideas about the natural world held by the original authors and hearers of Scripture.


(Jon Garvey) #7

TJR

Thanks for compliment above.

On this post, of yours, I question whether the idea of “accommodating to the mistakem ideas about the natural; world” is what’s going on in Genesis, though of course God must, necessarily, always accommodate to both our cultural perspectives and our human limitations.

But implicit in your words is still the idea that, though there may be a Waltonian functional meaning in the creation stories, this is “symbolic”, and behind it stands a “real” Hebrew cosmology - which is material, and scientifically obsolete. With respect, that is in my view a product of our modern materialist worldview, in which there is solid reality, fictional symbol, and not much else. I believe in the ancient world it would have been the other way round: the physical nature of the world was only a representation to our senses of the real world, which is God’s cosmic temple. Or in non-Israelite religion,these things were really divinities, and the rocks, air, and stars phenomenological appearances - symbols, if you like…

I’ve argued on my blog at http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2015/03/05/the-literal-literal-meaning-of-genesis/ that any “scientific” rewriting of the account would simply replace ancient phenomenological conveniences like “firmaments” and “waters” with modern phenomenological conveniences like “vacuums”, “particles” or “fields”, all of which are either inaccurate (space is not a vaccuum - it’s full of dark matter, gravity, photons - even water, etc) or metaphors from our homely anthropological experience.

To me, there is more to be gained by understanding how little physical science there is in Genesis at all - whether ancient or modern - and seeing how understanding it in its own terms begins to accommodate our understanding to its truths.


#8

Jon

I tend to keep my comments brief, which may lead to some misunderstanding. I agree with your last sentence. There is very little physical science in Genesis. In fact, I don’t like calling it science at all. Science of the time or ancient science will have to do but it’s a far cry from what we mean by science. And I certainly would not want to replace ancient phenomenological conveniences like “firmaments” and “waters” with modern phenomenological conveniences like “vacuums”, “particles” or “fields”.

I think the idea, that the Bible must be in agreement with what we know about nature because God is the author of both, is wrong. The concept of accommodation allows you to think the Bible can be inspired but that God would not override the human writers ideas about the natural world.

As far as the “functional”-“material” or “symbolic”-“real” goes, I haven’t given it that much thought. I just figure, that if an ancient Hebrew came up to me and said the sky is solid I would believe that is what he really thought. Likewise if he said that Adam was the first human I would not think he meant Adam was a group or that Adam was chosen from a group of humans. Since we don’t have a time machine we can’t know for sure what ancient peoples thought.

Thanks for the link to your blog - there are some interesting posts that I will read later.


(Jon Garvey) #9

Thanks for reply TJR.

I don’t disagree with you overall, especially on divine accommodation (which has been as legitimate hermeneutic since Augustine and before). But from my reading it’s giving greater thought to words like “symbolic” that helps us think more like the ancients, to our benefit since they sometimes knew what we’ve lost.

It is indeed difficult, but not totally impossible to get inside their heads when they’ve left us literature, and when there are comparable examples closer to home, like mediaeval writings and non-western cultures. “Symbolism”, for example, is actually a relatively recent way (a few centuries only) of looking at things, in which “reality” as seen as material and non-material descriptions therefore are ony fictional representations of the material.

Example - most evangelicals now think the Eucharistic sacrament must be “purely symbolic” - whereas even a couple of centuries ago it wasn’t hard to understand that, in some way other than Catholic transubstantiation, the elements were spiritually (and therefore literally) what they represented. Nowadays that sounds crazy talk, because the “reality” is just ordinary molecules, yes?

So Hebrews don’t say the sky is solid - they say it is a raquia or expanse and we interpret that, etymologically, as meaning “in reality materially solid” rather than “in reality the curtain of a temple.”

In fact we speak just as “symbolically” regarding the deep and mysterious scientific nature of the world - an ancient (but materialistic!) Hebrew hearing us say that light waves reach us from the sun would assume, if he read our books like we often read the Bible, that we believe the world is in an ocean. He might find things confusing when we also told him we are bound to the sun by a field. Just imagine what kind of picture he’d draw of “the 21st century conception of the cosmos” on that basis, and how he’d look down his nose at our error in thinking the heavens were both an ocean and a field.


#10

Jon

I’d like to continue this discussion but we seem to be getting off topic of Walton’s view of Genesis. I am interested in your example of the Eucharist. I always thought that except for some Lutherans and Anglicans most Protestants considered it to be just a memorial. I am not that familiar with modern church history can you refer me to any sources that show what evangelicals thought about the Eucharist in the past. I would find it to be of great interest.


(Jon Garvey) #11

TJR

You’re right in saying that exploring eucharistic doctrine takes us off-topic (though I maintain that the concept of participation/representation v symbolism is a central necessity of Walton’s attempt to “get inside” the ANE mindset).

I’ve not got a link to an exhaustive source, but here’s a brief summary http://christianityinview.com/eucharist.html of the range of current views, of which the take home message is that at the time of the Reformation, for the most part, those who weren’t Lutheran “consubstantiationists” took the Reformed view. For example, the Westminster Confession speaks of a “sacramental union between the sign and the things signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.”

Only Zwingli and his associates took a minority position of “symbol only”. In fact I’m told even that is a modern oversimplification of Zwingli’s view, but I haven’t chased that up.

It’s also worth remembering that the Reformation came at a time when the mediaeval mindset was already becoming ousted by Humanism’s rationalism - witness the start of “modern” science not long afterwards. The sacraments were instituted under an older view of reality.


(system) #12

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