The Lost World of Genesis One: A Review

In 2009, IVP Academic published John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Walton is a professor at Wheaton College, teaching courses in Old Testament (OT), Hebrew, and archeology. He’s involved in numerous professional societies and has published extensively. Walton’s The Lost World—also the title of that second, less-than-stellar Jurassic Park film—has nothing to do with dinosaurs but concerns the ancient world of human origins.

Overview

The Lost World is divided into eighteen chapters, or “propositions.” Each proposition contributes to Walton’s overall thesis: Genesis 1-2 isn’t an account of material origins, but rather of functional origins (a concept explained below). Consequently, appeals to Genesis in scientific discussions about material origins are misguided and anachronistic, doing violence to the author’s intentions.[1] In what follows, I’ll offer a review and analysis of each section of the book, concluding with a recommendation.

Propositions 1-2

Review

In propositions 1-2, Walton posits, “Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology,” and “ancient cosmology is function oriented.” Accordingly, the Israelites didn’t subscribe to a modern, scientific cosmology that divides the world into the “natural” and the “supernatural.” Modern interpreters, says Walton, shouldn’t seek to interpret Genesis 1-2 with modern scientific explanations.[2] Instead, “we must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us.”[3] Therefore, we should read the Genesis text not with English ears but with Hebrew ears.

One of the ways that Walton proposes examining the Hebrew culture is through other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures. Thus he gives attention to mythological origin accounts from the Akkadian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Sumerian traditions.[4] This leads Walton to conclude that “people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.”[5] In other words, Genesis 1-2 doesn’t concern material origins.

Analysis

Walton is right in stating that Genesis 1-2 includes aspects that are functional, purposeful, or symbolic. We see this, for example, in the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28).[6] However, the legitimacy of functional origins needn’t negate the testimony of Genesis to material origins. Walton is also right that a premodern worldview didn’t divide reality along natural and supernatural fault lines. However, in diagnosing the modern error, he falls victim to his own.

Specifically, if, as Walton puts it, the modern interpreter sees Genesis 1-2 through a material lens, then he sees it through a functional lens. The problem is the same: the ancient worldview wasn’t divided, instead seeing reality as a unified, integrated, material-immaterial, natural-supernatural whole. Additionally, Walton would lead us to believe that every instance in which the OT appeals to creation theology is, in fact, an appeal only to function, not material; that claim, I believe, is difficult to sustain.

Actually, even though Walton insists that Genesis 1-2 doesn’t contain an account of material origins, he subtly admits, “Cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established.”[7]

Another problem is his claim that Genesis 1 “is not written to us.”[8] Although men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote the books of the Bible to specific audiences, He also inspired them for all Christians at all times in all places. As the Free Will Baptist Treatise states, Scripture is “God’s revealed word to man,” and, “Since the Bible is the Word of God, it is without error in all matters upon which it speaks, whether history, geography, matters relating to science or any other subject.”[9] The Bible, then, is written to us.

Finally, although cultural and historical studies can help explain the Biblical world, Walton relies too heavily on pagan literature.

Propositions 3-11

Review

In propositions 3-11, Walton considers the specific language of Genesis 1-2. For example: “Create,” according to Walton, doesn’t refer to material creation ex nihilo, but to functional creation.[10] The earth being “formless and void” might be better translated “unproductive.”[11] In addition, he posits that Genesis 1-2 depicts a drama in which the King of the cosmos assumes His throne. Walton writes, “Divine rest is in a temple,” “The cosmos is a temple,” and “The seven days relate to the cosmic temple inauguration.”[12]

Walton explicitly disclaims a both/and approach—that Genesis could refer to functional and material origins.[13] Accordingly, the created order existed chronologically before the period disclosed in Genesis 1-2. Concerning the theological conundrum of death existing pre-Fall, Walton proposes that only animals and plants, but not human beings, were subject to it.[14]

Analysis

Walton lays part of the blame for modern readers interpreting Genesis as material origins at the feet of a faulty translation tradition. However, to take this critique seriously, we have to believe that Genesis has nothing to do with material origins, a claim of which I’m not convinced.

Although Walton’s discussion on a historical Adam and Eve is unclear at times, he appears nevertheless to affirm it. On the one hand, he writes that New Testament “authors regularly treat Adam and Eve in archetypal terms.”[15] On the other, he refers to the “creation of the historical Adam and Eve.”[16]

Next, Walton’s proposal that Genesis 1 is a “cosmic temple inauguration”[17] is intriguing and helpful. However, his treatment of this Genesis theme is not as substantial as others’, which may leave some readers otherwise unfamiliar with it dubious. Nevertheless, Walton, at the very least, introduces readers to this oft-overlooked motif. For a fuller treatment of it, see G. K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission.[18]

Finally, excepting his use of ANE primary sources and a sole reference to Josephus, Walton doesn’t appeal, throughout the entire book, to a single Jewish or Christian voice from the great Christian tradition for technical support of his thesis. In fact, the earliest authority upon which he relies was published in the 1960s; even so, the majority of them are published in the 1990s or after. This is a glaring omission.[19]

Propositions 12-18

Review

In propositions 12-18, Walton turns his attention to science, theology, and education. He considers young- and old-earth creationism, framework hypothesis, gap theory, and the belief that Genesis includes two creation accounts.[20] Walton disaffirms any dysteleological (lacking purpose) theories of evolution, e.g., Neo-Darwinism; but is comfortable with theories of “teleological evolution” that are consistent with the Biblical witness.[21]

Nevertheless, although Walton affirms that evolution “is difficult to reconcile to the character of God,” even conceding several “disturbing features,”[22] he offers no counter evidence. Instead, he points to Job: with some questions, we simply have to trust God.[23] Walton then highlights embryology, history, and meteorology as evidence that a sovereign God works through natural processes.

Of the theological issues that invariably arise with evolutionary theory, the most substantial concerns the nature of the imago Dei, “the nature of sin,” and “the historicity of Adam and Eve,” in Genesis 2 and Romans 5.[24] In the end, Walton offers no solutions to these difficult questions.[25]

Finally, Walton considers to what extent public schools should teach creationism, evolution, and intelligent design. Walton’s proposal is that science classrooms should deal only with natural causes, and not remark on either dysteleological or teleological metaphysical causes.[26]

Analysis

Walton’s intentions are noble. He regrets that many people believe that they have to choose between faith and science. He hopes that his thesis will result in people seeing faith and science not as in conflict, whereby “the inevitable result as science progresses is that God’s portion gets smaller and smaller, and overall, God becomes no longer useful or necessary.”[27] Rather, he hopes that people will view faith and science as complementary, such that scientific advances enlarge our wonder at God’s awesome work in creating and sustaining the world.

However, this tendency of people to divide faith and science doesn’t require adopting teleological evolution, especially when Walton doesn’t even (1) entirely prove his prima facie case, or (2) satisfactorily address the numerous challenges that his proposal poses—whether scientific, theological, or otherwise, such as evolution’s “disturbing features,” or the Genesis 2-Romans 5 challenge. There’s something ironic about Walton finding difficulty with the faith-science divide, while also suggesting that we consider teleological evolution in faith with a Job-like disposition.

Notwithstanding the theological challenges that his proposal presents, Walton offers several helpful reflections on important theological themes arising from the recognition that Genesis 1-2 contains functional components. These include: sacred space, Sabbath, order, humankind’s purpose, and the holy nature of the created order. These are good.

Walton’s proposal regarding public education depends on whether the reader believes his thesis and agrees with his solutions. He proposes that public school classrooms promote methodological naturalism, but not metaphysical naturalism. A difficulty with this is that it violates our nature as human beings to ask not simply what, but also why—what Leroy Forlines refers to as the “inescapable questions of life.”[28]

Recommendation

At only 192 pages and written at a popular level, The Lost World is short and accessible. Walton offers helpful contributions throughout, whether giving attention to those functional facets of Genesis 1-2, or drawing attention to that false faith-science debate. Even so, this book has its challenges, creating as many questions as it answers. In conclusion, I’d recommend The Lost World especially to those whose expertise or profession is in apologetics, Old Testament, or science.[29]

____________________

[1] Walton only ever identifies the author of Genesis as “the author”; he doesn’t discuss the question of Mosaic authorship one way or another.

[2] John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 14-15.

[3] Ibid., 19; cf. 9.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 24; cf. 33.

[6] The cultural mandate refers to God’s command to humankind to multiply, and then to fill, subdue, and rule the earth.

[7] Walton, 52.

[8] One wonders what this claims says about Walton’s doctrine of revelation.

[9] A Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the National Association of Free Will Baptists 
(Nashville: Executive Office, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 
2008), 3; italics added. Certainly, an omniscient God can put words in the mouths of His authors that they don’t fully understand! The phenomenon of prophecy offers an example of this.

[10] Walton states, “The ‘beginning’ is a way of talking about the seven-day period rather than a point in time prior to the seven days” (43).

[11] Scholars sometimes debate over the length of period included by the Hebrew word day. Walton affirms that the seven “days” of creation are twenty-four hour periods. But since his thesis precludes material creation, the length of “day” is altogether inconsequential for that debate.

[12] Ibid., 71, 77, 86.

[13] Ibid., 92.

[14] To illustrate, Walton writes, “Just because death came to us [as human beings] because of sin, does not mean that death did not exist at any level prior to the Fall. . . . All of this indicates clearly that death did exist in the pre-Fall world—even though humans were not subject to it” (99).

[15] Ibid., 70.

[16] Ibid., 138. See also Kevin P. Emmert, “The Lost World of Adam and Eve,” Christianity Today, March 19, 2015; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/march/lost-world-of-adam-and-eve.html; accessed February 23, 2017.

[17] Walton, 86.

[18] See G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004).

[19] William A. Dembski, who rejects young-earth creationism, writes, “The young-earth solution to reconciling the order of creation with natural history makes good exegetical and theological sense. Indeed, the overwhelming consensus of theologians up through the Reformation held to this view” (William A. Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 55.

[20] Ibid., writes, “All of these positions have in common that they are struggling to reconcile the scientific findings about the material cosmos with the biblical record without compromising either” (112).

[21] Ibid., 152, 163. Walton writes, for example, “The view of Genesis offered in this book is also teleological but accepts that all of creation is the result of God’s handiwork, whether naturalistic mechanisms as identifiable or not, and whether evolutionary processes took place or not” (130; italics added); and, “Though the Bible upholds the idea that God is responsible for all origins (functional, material or otherwise), if the Bible does not offer an account of material origins we are free to consider contemporary explanations of origins on their own merits, as long as God is seen as ultimately responsible” (131); “This does not mean that all aspects of evolutionary theory should be accepted uncritically or even that evolution provides the best model. . . . I am not suggesting a wholesale adoption of evolution” (136); and, “Exegesis of the original meaning of Genesis 1 gives us no cause to argue with the idea of the physical world coming about by a slow process” (150); and “We could propose a mechanism for material origins designated teleological evolution meaning that evolutionary processes may well describe some aspects of origins (noting that human origins need to be discussed separately), even though much controversy still exists about how evolutionary changes took place. . . . This view is not only exegetically sound, it is also theologically robust and actually strengthens our theology of creation” (163); and, “Whatever aspects of evolution that continue to provide the best explanation for what we observe should not, in most cases, be objectionable for Christians. . . . There is no reason to believe that biological evolution teaches something contradictory to the Bible (though some evolutionists are proponents of metaphysical conclusions that contradict the Bible). . . . Biological evolution is not the enemy of the Bible and theology; it is superfluous to the Bible and theology” (165).

[22] Ibid., 132. Examples include the survival of the fittest, pseudogenes, chromosomal aberrations, blind spot in the eye, and the inherent instability of the spine. See also from non-Christian David Hull:

The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror. . . . Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural history 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 Galápagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray (David Hull, “The God of the Galápagos,” Nature 352 (1991): 485–86).

See also agnostic Ronald Numbers:

For creationists, history is based on the Bible and the belief that God created the world 6,000–10,000 ago. . . . We humans were perfect because we were created in the image of God. And then there was the fall. Death appears and the whole account [in the Bible] becomes one of deterioration and degeneration. So we then have Jesus in the New Testament, who promises redemption. Evolution completely flips that. With evolution, you don’t start out with anything perfect, you start with primitive little wiggly things, which evolve into apes and, finally, humans. There’s no perfect state from which to fall. This makes the whole plan of salvation silly because there never was a fall. What you have then is a theory of progress from single-celled animals to humans and a very, very different take on history, and not just human history (Ronald Numbers, “Reason or faith? Darwin expert reflects,” Gwen Evans, University of Wisconsin-Madison News, February 3, 2009; http://news.wisc.edu/reason-or-faith-darwin-expert-reflects/; accessed February 24, 2017; Internet.

[23] Walton writes, “When God finally appears [to Job] he does not offer an explanation, but offers a new insight to Job. By confronting Job with the vast complexity of the world, God shows that simplistic models are an inadequate basis for understanding what he is doing in the world. We trust his wisdom rather than demanding explanations for all that we observe in the world around us and in our own lives” (132). “God did what he did, and we cannot second guess him” (132-33).

[24] Ibid., 137. For more on this general questions, see Jesse Owens, “From Eden to Eden,” Helwys Society Forum, January 9, 2012; http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/?p=1838; accessed February 25, 2017; Internet; and Kevin L. Hester, “Adam, Eve, and Maple Tree Leaves,” Free Will Baptist Theology, September 9, 2014; https://www.fwbtheology.com/adam-eve-and-maple-tree-leaves/; accessed February 25, 2017; Internet.

[25] Although Walton doesn’t propose a solution, he summarizes another proposal, ultimately taking issue with it:

“How can human beings be considered the result of an evolutionary process and the biblical teachings be preserved? A solution that some offer suggests separating the material issues in human origins from the spiritual or metaphysical ones. In other words, they propose considering that humans develop physically through a process and somewhere in that process, undetectable by science, the image of God becomes part of the human being by an act of God. This would be followed by an act of disobedience by those image-bearing humans that constitutes the Fall and initiates the sin nature. Some suggest that this is what occurred with a single, historical human pair (a literal Adam and Eve) while others conjecture that this transpired with a group of persons so that ‘Adam and Eve’ would be understood corporately as the first humans, not as a single original human pair. Such views, which I continue to find problematic on a number of levels, have been proposed in attempts to reconcile the supposed contradictions between the Bible and the anthropological fossil evidence, and they stand as examples of continuing attempts to try to sort out this complex issue. Unfortunately no option is without difficulties” (137-38).

Walton is satisfied to leave the question to mystery, “Whatever evolutionary processes led to the development of animal life, primates and even prehumen hominids, my theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve. Rather cause-and-effect continuity, there is material and spiritual discontinuity, though it remains difficult to articulate how God accomplished this” (138).

[26] Walton explains, “Science education can promote methodological naturalism . . . without indoctrinating students in metaphysical naturalism, to which we now turn. . . . Empirical science is characterized by methodological naturalism” (154).

[27] Ibid., 113. He also writes, “It seems to many that they have to make a choice: either believe the Bible and hold to a young earth, or abandon the Bible because of the persuasiveness of the case for an old earth” (95; cf. 163).

[28] See F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House, 2001). This false dichotomy is illustrated in the fact that public school science classrooms already promote a Darwinian metaphysic.

[29] This notwithstanding, The Lost World been reviewed well on Amazon (4.5 starts), Christianbook (4.7 stars), and Goodreads (4.2 stars).

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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