Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3: John Walton’s World Tour, Part 2
Note: Old Testament scholar and BioLogos ECF grantee John H. Walton spent the first seven months of 2013 traveling around the United States and fifteen other countries lecturing on Genesis 1 - 3. John has written multiple times for BioLogos on topics of biblical interpretation, and a good summary of his views can be found in this video on understanding Genesis and this one on understanding the creation narrative in context. (You can also find purchasing information and a brief description of John’s popular book, The Lost World of Genesis One, by following this link, and you can also click here to view and download John’s ECF-supported video project, Origins Today: Genesis through Ancient Eyes.)
According to John, the response he received from the audiences on his lecture tour, which was funded by his ECF grant, was very good as people were open, inquisitive, and ready to consider new options. He says one of the benefits of presenting the same material 65 times and interacting with people about that material is that he was able to gain new insights and develop new illustrations to help him communicate some complex and difficult issues. This week, we are featuring John’s reflections on his world tour and the insights he gained from his conversations.
Reading the Bible for today
In light of my contention that the Bible is written “for us, but not to us,” people regularly ask me about the importance of reading the Bible for today. They believe that the Bible should communicate into our world and address our questions. They believe that since the Bible is God’s truth, it must speak to what we have come to consider scientific truth about the world. My insistence that we must read Genesis as an ancient text therefore poses problems.
So how should we think about re-readings of the Bible? If we are going to re-read it in light of modern science, what is to prevent others from re-reading it in light of other modern questions and issues? Many Bible readers want to re-read the Bible in light of ideologies: political, environmental, feminist, liberational, sociological, etc. These re-readings are premised on the idea that the Bible cannot be viewed as static or sterile—it has to work for today.
I certainly agree with the idea that the Bible is not sterile or that it is unrelated to the issues of today’s world, but we still have to be alert to the importance of what the Bible is and what it does. When people talk about “authentic re-readings” I would raise the question about who decides what is an authentic re-reading and what is not. Re-readings fueled the Crusades, Colonialism, the Holocaust, slavery, and Radical Zionism. The track record is that re-readings on the whole tend too often to reinforce the Fall and our sinful nature more than leading to resolution of it.
Rather than re-reading the Bible scientifically or ideologically, we need to allow the Bible to be what it is—not a book of instruction about current issues telling us what to do to fix the world. It is God’s revelation of himself, and he is the one who is fixing the world. We are responsible for taking the knowledge of God that the Bible gives us and applying (not re-reading) it to the situations we face in a fallen world. In this way it can be living and active; dynamic not static.
One of the groups that I most often found myself in conversation with during my lecture tour was the community of those who identify themselves as “concordists.” Consequently, I worked hard at distinguishing between what I do and what concordists are doing. A concordist wants to identify aspects of science that may be able to be affirmed as true in relation to an expanded reading of the biblical text. They are asking and trying to answer the question about whether the truths found in Scripture converge with those found in our observations of the world around us. In contrast, I am not interested in what might be true convergence (though I believe that we should expect convergence at some level); I want to know what the Bible’s authoritative claims are—that is, what we are under obligation to believe if we are taking the Bible seriously. Concordists might suggest that various passages of Scripture can align with Big Bang Cosmology, and might even claim that God worded the Bible in such a way that this convergence could be identified as something he wanted to convey. Nevertheless, we could not contend that those passages were authoritatively claiming Big Bang Cosmology—teaching it as the message of Scripture. After all, when we believed in a Steady State universe, one could have produced Bible verses supportive of that, as well. In fact, one could read through Mesopotamian cosmology texts and find lines that would be supportive of Big Bang Cosmology. Concordists are trying to identify the common affirmations between science and Scripture. I am trying to examine those places where people might insist that the Bible claims something that is in conflict with science, and decide whether it does or does not.
On early interpretation of creation as functional
The discussion of creation in the apocryphal book of Ben Sira (2nd century BC) offers one of the earliest interpretations that we have of the early chapters of Genesis. Of course, it is already in the Hellenistic period and therefore not reflecting an ancient Near Eastern context. Chapter 16:26-27 says “When the Lord created his works from the beginning, and, in making them, determined their boundaries, he arranged his works in an eternal order.” Chapter 17 has a long discussion of God creating humans that is entirely functional in focus. It is interesting to see this perspective in the Hellenistic period.
A friend who attended one of the lectures told me about Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of 'Creation out of Nothing' in Early Christian Thought, where there is a very interesting observation: "Until the turn of the first and second centuries and in part later than that there was no [Jewish or Christian] reflection on the nature of the creation process" (Page viii). This confirms what I have been observing: that even though there was a growing interest in the material world and the process of creation through the Hellenistic period and into the ages of church history, an enduring interest in the functional creation with a focus on order remained.
Nature of time and place
At a conference in Mexico I was prompted to some new thoughts by comments in a paper presented by Evandro Agazzi. He raised the question, “Why do we say that the world exists, yet say that we believe God exists?” We tend to grant authority to science to the extent that material existence is a fact, while something non-material is categorized as an opinion or belief. In my interpretation of Genesis 1, it is expressing the principal fact of existence as pertaining to order and function rather than to material. Agazzi turned attention to how we think about the nature of time and space suggesting we might turn our attention beyond time and space, to the places that we find there (time also has places: events that have their own purposes). The places in time and space find their identity relative to people who inhabit them and act in them. Likewise, in Genesis, these places only make sense relative to people in God’s image.
Heaven and earth are particular places in space that take on their significance in relation to us. In time, you cannot speak about the present unless there is a subject who says “now.” So, in the same way, time is relative to us. Agazzi contends persuasively that present, past and future do not exist in Physics; they exist in our experience only in relation to us. Heaven, earth, and time all have a religious sense and a personal sense—and that is why they really exist. Metaphysics has always existed alongside of Physics and both are needed to fill in the totality of reality. Never in history were these things seen in opposition. Humans always seek to give sense and value to their life. Belief and knowledge together contribute to the totality of reality. Knowing this, we have to be attentive to which aspects of reality the text focuses on.
On the transmission of our sinful nature
We all agree that theologically, biblically, and experientially, sin is particular, universal and radical, and, as such, is in need of a remedy. What is less clear in Scripture is how we catch it—how does our sin nature come to us? Neither science nor exegesis provides the answer, though both can identify problems with proposed answers. In the end, then, we will inevitably see a variety of possible explanations that are not ruled out by the Bible. We are then left to try to determine which is the best fit.
Protestant and Roman Catholic tradition have historically followed the thinking of Augustine that the sin nature was transmitted organically from generation to generation. Augustine knew nothing of genetics and even his understanding of biology was sadly uninformed, so we are in a much better situation to analyze this idea today. In the Augustinian model, it is also difficult to explain the fallenness of all of creation.
An alternative model was proposed by Irenaeus and adopted by the Orthodox branch of Christianity. His view is more easily compared to Pandora’s box. We might refer to this as the radiation model, or better, the pollution model. We well-recognize the scenario in which one person can make an error at a nuclear plant and radiation contaminates everything and everyone around; one person can pollute a stream and everyone downstream suffers; one company can dump toxic waste into the environment and everyone gets cancer; one industry can pollute the air and everyone suffers. When one person makes their own interests the center, they create a toxic environment for everyone. In Genesis, the toxic environment involves “disorder pollution,” but as in ecological pollution, all creation groans and disorder reigns. We are all born into that toxic environment and universally and particularly suffer the consequences. Though we continue to act out that disorder, the effects of sin are radical, not just behavioral.
One of the criteria for “fit” in theories of our sin nature is that however we define original sin, the sin nature, and its transmission, we have to be able to explain why Christ is not subject to it. Most have agreed that the Virgin Birth provides the answer, but it is less clear how it does so. It cannot logically be an issue of DNA. There is only mystery there since we cannot address the sources of Jesus’ DNA. How was the father’s side of DNA provided? Yet we also know that he was fully human as we all are, and therefore had the same genetic structure and markers (pseudogenes, fusions, breaks, mutations, etc.).
Perhaps the more fruitful path is to be found in the fact that the Virgin Birth distinguishes him as God. The sin of wanting to be like God cannot be pollution to one who is God. Someone who is naturally inoculated against a disease cannot catch that disease. The Son of God cannot be the source of disorder or be subject to disorder, for he is the very embodiment of order; wisdom personified (wisdom being the perception and pursuit of order). His divine nature therefore immunizes him from the effect of disorder and the fall.
Is it fair that we all suffer because of the sin of Adam and Eve?
Though BioLogos as an organization is non-committal on the historicity of Adam and Eve, in my presentations I affirm that they were real people in a real past. People who share that view often make the claim that it is unfair for the whole human race to have to experience pain, suffering, and death because of someone else’s sin. Given the position that I have taken, Adam was created mortal (and with pain and suffering—after all, “good” does not mean “perfect”), but he was given the hope for life through the tree and (more importantly) through relationship with God in his presence. This means that Adam did not bring death, pain, and suffering to an immortal humanity—he simply failed to acquire life for them (forfeited access to the tree of life; the need for the tree of life indicated their mortality). What Adam failed to do, Christ did. Looking again at 1 Cor. 15:21-22: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Verse 21 is not discussing the ontology of death or resurrection; only the human agency for both. Verse 22 indicates that we all die the same as Adam did and we will be made alive as Christ was. Neither of these makes a clear claim that Adam brought death to us all. Romans 5:12 is more complicated since it comments on how sin and death came into the world (therefore addressing an ontological question), as well as how it came to all people. But based on the context and direction of this chapter in the flow of Romans, Paul is not discussing the pre-fall world, but how death and sin came into the post-fall world that we are part of (since he is talking about our need for salvation). The result is that when we think about the fall, we should not be incensed about what Adam did to us; we can only regret what he did not achieve for us. Christ has succeeded where Adam failed. As an analogy, the ten doubting scouts did not doom the Israelites to wandering in the wilderness; they only failed to do what they would have needed to do to bring Israel into the Promised Land.
1. G. Rubio, “Time Before Time: Primeval Narratives in Early Mesopotamian Literature,” in Time and History in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the 56th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale at Barcelona 26-30 July 2010, ed. L. Feliu et al (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 3-17 (reference to big bang on p.5).
2. For 19 years (1979-1998) Agazzi held simultaneously two university Chairs: Philosophy of Nature and Philosophy of Science, University of Fribourg (Switzerland), and Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, and Philosophy Science at the University of Genoa (Italy). From 1998-2009 he continued as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Genoa, where he is currently Professor Emeritus. He has served as a visiting professor at the Universities of Düsseldorf, Bern, Pittsburgh, Stanford, and Geneva. Since 2009 he has been holding the Rudolf Carnap Chair at UAM-Cuajimalpa Mexico City. He is currently president of the International Academy of Philosophy of Science, honorary president of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies and of the International Institute of Philosophy. He is editor of Epistemologia, an Italian journal for the philosophy of science.
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.