John Walton Responds to Vern Poythress’s Review of “The Lost World of Genesis One”
Today's entry was written by John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
John Walton’s 2009 publication of The Lost World of Genesis One has attracted a significant amount of well-deserved attention. Walton alerts readers to the importance of the ancient Near Eastern context for properly understanding Genesis 1. A central point of the book is that the biblical text is not concerned about material origins, but with assigning function to the various elements of the created order. In other words, Genesis 1 is not about the creation of the material world, but about ordering chaos. Walton supports his position by engaging biblical and extra-biblical evidence, albeit in a popular presentation. (Walton’s academic treatment of this topic, Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology, is scheduled to appear from Eisenbrauns Press later this year).
BioLogos is very interested in this thesis, as it has direct bearing on what readers have the right to expect from Genesis. Specifically, to what extent, if any, does Genesis 1 concord with modern scientific investigation? Walton’s answer is essentially “none.” This, he says, was not its intent. Not surprisingly, this answer requires those who hold to a concordist position to offer a response.
In August of last year, concordist Dr. Vern Poythress (Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) offered just such a response in World Magazine. It is one thing to review a book unfavorably, however, it is another thing to inaccurately summarize what the book says and criticize that. Since World Magazine has a very large audience, many of whom will never read Walton’s book, we felt it was important to set the record straight. Just what is Walton saying? How does this differ from what Poythress says he is saying? World Magazine would only allow a brief response in the form of a Letter to the Editor. Because of the breadth of World Magazine’s readership, the nature of Poythress’s review, and the importance of the topic to all of evangelical Christianity, we felt it appropriate to publish Walton’s response to Poythress in full here.
We have invited Dr. Poythress to respond to Walton’s concern and will promptly publish his response should he wish to do so.
Interested readers may wish to access the following representative reviews of The Lost World of Genesis One; Intervarsity Press (scholarly endorsements including N. T. Wright, Bruce Waltke, and Tremper Longman III); Baker Book House; ReformedAcademic.blogspot (PDF); and Exploring Our Matrix.
Whenever one publishes a new idea on a controversial topic, resistance and disagreement are expected. As in the sciences, peer review is an important part of the process. More importantly, the Church as the community of God’s people needs to investigate new ideas and, if those ideas are to be sustained, take ownership of them.
I therefore welcome the scrutiny of thoughtful scholars from various disciplines as they investigate the evidence that I have presented in support of my view of Genesis 1 for its substance, logical consistency, and faithfulness to the biblical text and theology.
Vern Poythress is a respected theologian and I appreciate his willingness to engage my thoughts. Though numerous theologians have found my arguments sound, Poythress does not share that opinion and expressed his questions and reservations in his review in World Magazine, August 29, 2009. Normally I do not find responses and counter-responses to be fruitful, but Poythress’s review of my book is particularly problematic, and I feel it is important to set the record straight for interested readers.
My disappointment with Poythress’s review was not so much that he found my position unpersuasive. It was rather that he misconstrued parts of it, misunderstood others, and spent so much of the space of the review simply offering his (unsubstantiated) opinions about what right thinking might look like.
In response, then, a few answering comments might be in order. First, Poythress claims that I am inconsistent in the meanings of “material” and “function.” His statement that I construe “function” as “narrowly religious” is not quite on target, however. The assertion that I made in the book is that I am not referring to scientific or material functions, but to the way the cosmos functions for human beings (p. 64). I would call the functions “anthropocentric” rather than religious. It is not clear what inconsistency he is accusing me of. The functions are consistently anthropocentric while the material is a separate issue and, in my view, not of interest to the biblical author or audience.
Poythress purports to explain my view when he introduces the idea that the functions served as “rooms” within the cosmic temple. That may be an interesting way of expressing it, and I would have to think about it, but to my knowledge I never made such a suggestion, and it seems to me to misrepresent what I am trying to say.
At the top of the second column, perhaps the most egregious distortion occurs when he sets up a straw man as a representation of my position. He states that “People in most cultures experience the world as a whole. They do not constantly separate ‘material’ and ‘functional’ aspects.” These are neither claims that I made nor ones that I would agree with. The question that I addressed concerned what their focus and orientation would be. My discussion in Proposition 10 makes my stance on this perfectly clear. Of course the Israelites understood that there was a material aspect to the cosmos, that the functions depended on the material, and that God was also responsible for the material phase. But any author makes choices about what he addresses, and I tried to demonstrate that the Israelite author was focusing on the functional. Of course the text uses material language throughout -- it would be difficult to talk about the world without it. I used illustrations in the book: the college, the computer, the temple of Solomon itself—in all of these, material language is essential, but the point was that the existence of each was largely based on their functions.
First, it should be noted that when Genesis 1 refers to gathering the waters and the dry land appearing (which Poythress brings up), it is an organization of material, not a manufacture of materials (organizing/ordering is intrinsically functional). Second, the material description (I would contend) must be understood as a description coming out of Old World thinking (thus the similarities in ANE) and therefore not subject to concordist explanation. Some form of material understanding must be used for communication about functions to take place. My contention is that those material aspects are heuristic, not essential or revelatory. Just as we would not need to posit a solid sky in day two to be faithful to the biblical account, we would not need to posit that day three contains a material description that we need to adopt for the basis of our scientific understanding of material origins.
Did the Israelites believe their Old World Science? Undoubtedly they did. Did they ever think about the material aspect itself? Again, undoubtedly. Does this mean the Bible is offering an authoritative revelation of material origins? Not at all. The material language simply represents what they understood about the material world to convey the functional significance.
The illustration of the heart is again instructive. Israelites were well aware of the physical heart and interested in it. But when Israelites or even God talk about cognitive processes related to the heart, it would be a serious mistake to take this as biblical teaching on physiology. Consequently, I am not saying that Genesis 1 has no material content; I am saying that it is not an account of material origins. Organization and ordering are not (in our thinking) issues of origins. In their functional ontology, those are the most important aspects of origins. The text is not affirming their Old World thinking as authoritative revelation from God and we need not make modern scientific sense of their Old World science to protect the reputation of the Bible. We don't have to figure out how we think with our blood pumps.
My point is that God was using their way of thinking about the material world in order to communicate his revelation concerning the functional world. When the Bible talks about thinking with the heart, we discount the material statement because we understand that the Bible is not communicating physiology. God has accommodated their material way of thinking to make the functional point. The same is the case with the waters held back by a solid sky and the land emerging from the seas in Genesis 1.
Most of the second column Poythress uses to express his own opinions rather than interacting with mine. He has a right to do that, but it should not be mistaken as refutation. His views must be defended like everyone else’s.
Poythress concludes that “Walton has read Genesis with a false contrast between material and functional, and with equivocal meanings for the two terms. As a result he artificially detaches Genesis 1 from questions of physical appearance and produces an unsustainable interpretation.” Poythress has not given clear evidence or explanation of these “equivocal meanings,” and the alleged “falseness” of the contrast only expresses his opinion, which he is free to do. But why is the contrast false? What he has claimed in his straw-man argument is that I have made a distinction that I did not actually make. It is not logically inconsistent that the focus of a narrative could be on function rather than material. What evidence does he offer that the contrast is false or artificial? None.
His last comment concerns what he labels “problematic descriptions.” He seems concerned that both ancient Near Eastern literature and Genesis one can be included under labels such as “Ancient Cosmology,” “Old World science,” and “cosmic geography.” Cosmology refers to ideas about the origins and operations of the cosmos, and ancient cosmology is a way to talk about how people in ancient times understood their world. Israel shared some ideas of cosmology with the rest of the ancient world but in other ways had distinctives. Egypt and Mesopotamia were also very different from one another in the details. Despite these differences, they all contain ancient cosmology. “Old World Science” is just a way of talking about views of the world in pre-scientific ancient times (e.g., earth in the center of the universe). Again, Old World Science was characteristic of Israelites as well as all the peoples around. Poythress claims that this “unfortunate labeling” somehow suggests “material affinity with modern science.” I am not even sure what he means by that, though I willingly acknowledge that it uses category labels to distinguish it from modern cosmology and more recent scientific ideas. It seems that such labeling would be called for rather than “unfortunate.”
All of these comments have reflected on the statements that Poythress actually made. I realize that he had limited space for the review, but it seems quite telling that he did not interact with any of the evidence from the ancient Near Eastern literature, which serves a very significant role in the argument. He also did not deal with all the Hebrew lexical information that was brought to bear to demonstrate the position within the Bible itself. Instead of dealing with the evidence that was presented, he contented himself with saying it did not make logical sense to him. But isn’t that the very point? Ancient ways of thinking are not intuitive to us, nor is their logic transparent. That is why we delve into the literature for evidence. These are serious oversights.
I have read a few other reviews of the Lost World of Genesis One by scholars who had reservations about my theory. They were balanced, understood my position well, interacted with my ideas and evidence in depth, and offered assessment of aspects of the theory as they raised important questions. These are much appreciated. Dr. Poythress is certainly capable of offering such a review, but this effort fell far short of that helpful ideal. In the process I believe he did a disservice to me, to his readers, and to the discussion.
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.