Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

By John H. Walton

Published by IVP Academic, 2009

One of the biggest hot button issues in religion is the creationism v. evolution debate. Exactly how did God create the universe and everything in it, and what does the first chapter of Genesis tell us? Professor John H. Walton, of Wheaton College, offers a new perspective in The Lost World of Genesis One, one aimed at reconciling a conservative Christian position on scripture with the reality of modern science.

He does this by asking how the text of Genesis chapter one would have been understood - not through the eyes of scientists or theologians - but by someone living at the time it was written. His conclusion, which he goes to great lengths to explain, is that it would have been read as a description of God establishing the functions of the world and not an account of its material creation: “people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of having a function within an ordered cosmos.” (p. 26) (Very) briefly, the world began without functions, it was without form and void, then the first three days established functions and the second three days installed those functions. Day one established day and night, periods of light and dark, day two established the sky and seas, creating a roof (firmament) to keep out the cosmic sea, and day three the dry land and vegetation. On day four the first day’s functions were installed, the sun and the moon and the stars, for signs, seasons, days, and years; on day five the skies and oceans were filled with life; and on day six the land was filled with animals, and mankind. On the seventh day God rested. Walton sees the seventh day of creation as pivotal. It does not simply mean that God stopped what he was doing. Rather, when the Genesis account was written people understood that the place a god rested in was his temple. It represented the place of a god’s authority. Genesis one, then describes God’s dominion over every aspect of creation and His continued dominion over all the Earth.

Walton takes time to address many concerns associated with this debate, including whether God created ex nihilo, the state of the world in verse two, and to compare his argument to the many alternatives that are being put forward. He addresses the first concern by looking at the Hebrew word bara, to create. This verb is used many times in the Old Testament and always in reference to God. Must it mean to create, materially, from nothing (ex nihilo)? Walton can find nothing to substantiate that position, though he is quick to point out that he, like others challenging the (so-called) Creationist view, believes that God did indeed create the materials of the universe as well as the functions. It’s a question of how. His point here is that Genesis one isn’t meant to be an account of the formation of those materials. I thought it interesting that he doesn’t actually refer to the original proof text for the teaching that God created the world, ex nihilo, II Maccabees 7:28 (KJV):
I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.
In the Vulgate, the Latin translation, “of things that were not” was translated simply “from nothing,” or ex nihilo. I think its ironic, given the anti-Catholic sentiments of so many of the fundamentalist advocating creationism, that this important doctrine’s only explicit scriptural support comes from a Catholic translation of an Apocryphal book. Yes, I know that the teaching was advocated by Jewish commentators, but that’s not scripture. And I know that others scriptures can be referenced (John 1:3, Hebrews 11:3, etc), but they only teach that God made the universe and made it from things other than those which appear now. The first point isn’t being disputed by any one, the second, arguably, supports the idea of creation as a process.

The second verse of Genesis one says that the world was “without form and void.” Its an important point for Walton because it describes a world without function. Some Creationists argue for what they call the “gap theory”: that there is a period between the first verse and the rest of the chapter, when Satan, cast from Heaven, destroyed creation. The idea is that God would never has created a formless, empty, less than perfect world. Walton simply states that the Hebrew doesn’t support such a reading, but I would go further and say that proponents of such a reading ignore their own demand for a “literal” understanding of the scriptures and are interjecting their own views of God into the chapter. The Bible says that God created the Heavens and the Earth and that the Earth was without form and void, and then began the process of creation.

Lastly, Walton argues that his position offers various strengths over a variety of others and here I read with some skepticism. Not because I doubted him, but because I think the proponents of those views are all too often so deeply committed to them that they will read this book looking only to find fault and to criticize. They have their position and I think Walton is na├»ve if he thinks a well reasoned, scripturally valid argument is enough to sway them. The audience for this book is people like myself, who believe in the Bible and in science. Who are looking for interpretations that of scripture that honour it as the Word of God, without forcing the believer to choose between faith or reason. Since coming into Pentecost almost three decades ago I have been consistently faced with a variety of Creationist accounts, all back up by pseudo-science, and have long chosen to just ignore the subject altogether. But why should I skim through the first chapter of Genesis because others find the billions of years of creation so upsetting? While my experience leads me to believe that many will never give this book a fair hearing, I also believe that there are many like me who are looking for something just like this book. We are Walton’s audience.

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