Interpreting Adam: An Interview with John Walton

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April 8, 2014 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin, Biblical Interpretation, Human Origins

Today's entry was written by Jim Stump and features John Walton. You can read more about what we believe here.

Interpreting Adam: An Interview with John Walton

As mentioned yesterday, we are beginning a series of interviews with contributors to Zondervan’s Four Views on the Historical Adam as a way of exploring the options open to Christians who take the Bible seriously and accept the science of evolution. The interviews are intended to probe more deeply into the positions advocated in the book and will be read most profitably as a supplement to it.

Our first interviewee is no stranger to the BioLogos community. John Walton has been influential for many of us as we’ve wrestled with the creation account in Genesis 1. His popular book, The Lost World of Genesis One and the more scholarly version, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, put forward the basic thesis that Genesis 1 is not attempting to give an explanation of the origins of the material of our world. Rather, it describes in language appropriate to its historical setting, the origins of the functions of things in our world. He believes that God created all of the material of the universe, but that is not what Genesis 1 is about.

In his contribution to the Historical Adam book, Walton extends this interpretation to Genesis 2. He believes the Bible does commit us to thinking of Adam and Eve as historical figures, but that’s not what Genesis 2 is about. Instead, it treats Adam and Eve as archetypes for all of humanity. That opens up other possibilities for reconciling the historicity of Adam and Eve with what we’ve learned from genetics. Here is Walton’s summary of his position in the book:

In my view, Adam and Eve are historical figures—real people in a real past. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that the biblical text is more interested in them as archetypal figures who represent all of humanity. This is particularly true in the account in Genesis 2 about their formation. I contend that the formation accounts are not addressing their material formation as biological specimens, but are addressing the forming of all of humanity: we are all formed from dust, and we are all gendered halves. If this is true, Genesis 2 is not making claims about biological origins of humanity, and therefore the Bible should not be viewed as offering competing claims against science about human origins. If this is true, Adam and Eve also may or may not be the first humans or the parents of the entire human race. Such an archetypal focus is theologically viable and is well-represented in the ancient Near East (p. 89).

Jim Stump: Your view that the creation accounts are about functions instead of material origins has received a good deal of attention in the last few years. Some criticize it on the grounds that it is an innovation in the history of interpretation, but that in itself shouldn't disqualify the view from consideration. Still, can you tell us a bit about the process of developing the position?

John Walton: My view developed from close reading of the biblical text. Even though the view shows continuity with the ancient Near Eastern cosmological ideas in various (not all) ways, and even though it resolves some of the conflict with science, it was not devised with those ends in mind. For decades I had held a view that Genesis 1-2 is very different from the ancient Near Eastern literature and that it conflicts with science, yet I did not seek to compromise the biblical text to resolve either one. The position that I have now taken comes from the text itself. It is based on a combination of textual observations, most of which are not new observations. It is just that previous interpreters were often hampered from putting all the pieces together the way that I have. Sometimes they were more interested in other theological issues; sometimes they were busy either arguing against science or arguing for it; and sometimes they were simply lacking information either from science or the ancient world.

JS: You claim that Genesis 1 and 2 are not primarily about history, but other parts of Scripture are. What sort of historical scenario of the deep past does a faithful reading of Scripture commit us to?

JW: We always have to be alert to the authoritative claims that the text is making. If we have texts dealing with the past (“history”) we still have to ask what the author’s interests are in this past and what he is trying to convey about that past. For example, is he focusing on events or ideas? There are many different ways to write about the past and we do not want to be guilty of flattening them all together. A good example might be found in comparing how Genesis 14 writes about the past concerning Melchizedek and how the author of Hebrews writes about the same character.

A faithful reading of Scripture is committed to whatever claims the text is making. Such a reading has to be characterized by competence (literary, textual). I would also claim that we must engage in ethical reading (reading the text for what it intends instead of reaching for the things that we want to discuss) and we must be virtuous readers as we seek to be the sort of people that the text would envision us being transformed into. Sometimes, unfortunately, those discussing these issues are not testifying to their relationship with God by treating one another with love.

JS: You say (on p. 108), "I acknowledge that most Jews in the first century would have believed that all people were descended from Adam; but they also believed that the earth was flat." This brings up an important interpretive question about the relationship between the human authors and divine inspiration of Scripture. It seems that you admit that we can find in Scripture evidence that the authors believed things about the world that are in fact false. If this is so, why not say that their attribution of a historical Adam is just part of their cultural cognitive environment like the flat earth?

JW: The historicity of Adam is an important question and addressing it requires us to make a judgment call. The difference between those aspects of Scripture that come with authority and those that are incidental elements that happen to characterize the thinking in the ancient world may be represented by a thin, gray, dotted line. People will inevitably disagree about which issues should be classified on one side or the other. The way that I try to make the decision is based on whether the author of the text is hanging theology on the point. There is no theology that is founded on whether a person thinks with their heart or their brain, so we can safely consider physiology an incidental rather than expressing authoritative teachings. The same is true about a flat earth or a geocentric cosmos. No theology or biblical teaching hinges on cosmic geography.

Some believe that historical Adam is another example of something that can safely be considered incidental, while others believe that Scripture hangs some important theology on the issue. Those are the differences that emerge in the Four views book, not only among the four authors giving their views, but also between the two who offered pastoral responses.

JS: What influence does (and should) modern science have on how we interpret the Bible?

JW: Modern science should not be taken lightly and certainly should not be viewed as the enemy. There is no war between science and faith, though there are sharp differences between those who believe in God and his role and those who disavow the existence or involvement of God. For those of us who firmly believe in God as Creator, we should expect that scientific discovery should lead us to more and more understanding of the work of God. I would not be inclined to impose scientific conclusions on the Bible and therefore feel compelled to adapt my interpretation to the demands of science. I do believe, however, that scientific discovery and information can prompt us to re-examine what we have believed to be biblical claims to consider whether we have read the text in the best way. Just as scientific observation is subject to constant reinterpretation, so biblical interpretation is subject to reconsideration as we might discover ways in which we have not been sensitive enough to what the Bible is saying. We all have presuppositions that we hold due to culture and tradition that we may need to bring back under scrutiny.

JS: You've spent a lot of time traveling to different audiences and speaking on this topic. Have you seen the climate changing for Evangelicals who take Scripture seriously?

JW: I have seen a new level of openness to consider new information on the table. Scientists working with the genome have presented some significant new information and at the same time I have been offering different ways to interpret the details of the biblical text. I think that many Christians have seen that the warfare mentality is not constructive either in dealing with non-Christians or in how we interact with one another. I am seeing a new level of willingness to recognize that the Church is big enough to include some diversity among those committed to a faithful reading of science. People from an older generation are beginning to understand the challenges faced by their children and grandchildren and are interested in re-examining the biblical text—not to subvert or compromise it, or make it conform to the demands of science, but to recognize that the biblical text is an ancient document that derives from an ancient world and that a faithful reading needs to recognize that and interpret it in that light. I find many people who are seeing how important that is and are therefore willing to consider interpretations that are based on that reality.

Come back on Monday for the next installments in our Options for Interpreting Adam series—an interview with C. John Collins on the Old Earth Creation view of Adam.


Jim Stump has served as the Content Manager at BioLogos since August 2013. As such he oversees the development of new content and curates the existing content. Jim's PhD is in philosophy from Boston University where he wrote a dissertation on the history and philosophy of science. He is the author (with Chad Meister) of Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010) and the editor (with Alan Padgett) of the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). Jim is a frequent speaker at churches and other groups on topics at the intersection of science and Christianity.
John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.

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