Is this book a game-changer on Genesis 1?

genI’m a bit slow off the mark with this one as this book was actually released in 2009. I stumbled across it having spoken with some of the OT boffs at Tyndale House and then saw Scot McKnight’s blog describe John Walton’s work as ‘game-changing’. I have to say, having just finished John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One it is an incredibly stimulating and important work. If you haven’t read it, you really must, as I suspect his position will filter down and exercise enormous influence over evangelicals seeking to reconcile the biblical text with modern science.

It’s impossible in a few hundred words to adequately represent his argument so I’ll give it to you in a nut-shell and leave you to buy the book and decide for yourself whether you find it persuasive. In essence Walton is arguing that Genesis 1 is more interested in ‘functional ontology’ rather than material origin. Walton carefully examines similar texts from around the Ancient Near East and concludes that all have in common a concern to describe the functions of the creation, and the role and presence of the deity within the creation. Ancient cosmology is about function not origin. Walton is an evangelical and is thus crystal clear that God did it all, but argues that Genesis 1 is more concerned with the function and ordering of the created world than the exact mechanism by which it came into material existence. So days, seasons, firmaments and expanses are about bringing order and function to that which he made. His discussion of hebrew terms like bara and tohu wabohu is stimulating indeed. Walton argues that Genesis 1 is ultimately a sanctuary text which depicts creation as a temple in which priests serve and God rules. The seventh day then is not so much about rest as about rule – the temple is finished; now the deity comes to his throne and begins to rule through the work of the priests in the ordered system. Walton is committed to reading the text on its own terms and has a good critique of ‘concordism.’ He believes in 7 actual days and a historical Adam. But what he is suggesting is that questions of material origin are not to the fore in the narrator’s mind – everyone took it as read that God did it – the question is teleological – to what end? Now, I know this thesis will provoke lots of questions and the best thing I could say is read the book for yourselves. For what its worth I think its compelling and in lots of ways convincing, without agreeing with everything in the book. [The real challenge Hebrew lovers is to try and translate Gen 1 according to Walton’s theory – I’m not sure this is very easy but am still working it through]. This is a book that takes the text seriously and seeks to understand it on its own terms. The conclusions, if correct, would go along way to helping resolve perceived tensions between the biblical text and modern science, and would give a new slant to the meaning and message of Gen 1.

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4 thoughts on “Is this book a game-changer on Genesis 1?

  1. Hello! An ex-holtwhite’s neighbour has just discovered your site! Like I do much of the time, I only pick up on this kind of thing when I get pushed by people with strong views. The place where I am has a number of people who are very influenced by a certain US organisation (I’m reluctant to type their name in because from what I’ve seen it’s like some kind of bat-signal for their supporters on the internet!) who believe all the solutions are to be found in book one of the bible (let the reader understand). I find Walton’s view compelling and very helpful – however it is so far from what I was taught as a child and what many church people will be prepared to accept as a possibility. Any thoughts on how to integrate his view into a church setting rather than it being a position that you may hold but not articulate out of fear?

    1. Hi Toddy – how ya all doin? whereabouts are you presently?

      Yeah – its a good question. It’s one thing to ponder privately, it’s another thing to come out of the closet on this, so to speak. I think there are parts of Walton’s thesis I’d be happy to speak more publicly about. For example I think the temple text idea is pretty easy to defend and demonstrate from the tabernacle, Sol’s temple, Ezek’s temple, Jesus, church, new creation. That’s a pretty cool theme running through which immediately gives Gen 1 a theological angle, and not just a historical angle. In that sense I’m not fighting with your (and my) friends – I’m simply introducing another level of meaning. Additionally Walton is happy with a literal six day framework – forming, filling, then dwelling on day seven. So far, so happy with our friends I’d hope. I think some of Walton’s stuff I’d keep a little quieter. He says it’s all about functional ontology and nothing about cosmological ontology – I don’t think it’s an either-or, and our friends would struggle with his view here. He also says, in view of his argument, that the length of time that preceded the functional ontology of Gen 1 is of simply no interest to the author, and therefore shouldn’t worry us either. Again, he may be right, but our friends would hear that and utterly reject the rest. So I think I’d say affirm what you can affirm and keep the rest in the closet. Does that help?

      1. We’re doing OK – Todd junior no3 is on the way and we’re out in Suffolk – in general things are going great…. Some really encouraging things going on. In terms of the Walton stuff the way through you suggests both helps and doesn’t help. Sure our 1st set of friends would perhaps layer the temple understanding on top of where they are, but wouldn’t re-evaluate conclusions regarding the implications for their chronological understanding. That is in essence my struggle, it’s the group of ‘other friends’ (who are mainly younger, more scientifically minded.) I want to be able to offer an alternative way through, faithful to the text, but concluding something different to what they think it has to say – without it exploding in the church. I found Walton’s take on the bible being rooted in the scientific understanding of the day, and not about our science really useful. I’ve subtly used it occasionally when talking to them. Where I struggle is that we (and by we I mean churches in general) are sensitive to our first set of friends, but in doing so don’t always say to those who for understandable reasons find that position unconvincing, there are other evangelical options that really try to take the bible seriously in its cultural setting. I’m still trying to muddle my way through this one.

        How are you guys doing these days? Very funny to find out only recently your wifey and I know lots of the same people independently on FB!

  2. ah good news – congrats! Yeah, all good points you raise. no easy answers I guess. It’s trying to take people with you without losing them, while at the same time not letting the slowest person always dictate the pace. tough issues – we’ll all have to keep wrestling. blessings on y’all

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