Rejoinder to Vern Poythress
Regular visitors to the BioLogos blog are likely familiar with the recent dialogue between Dr. John Walton and Dr. Vern Poythress regarding Walton’s recent book, The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP Academic, 2009). Last year in World Magazine, Dr. Poythress published a review of Walton’s book that critiqued several key arguments included in the text.
To offer another perspective, we posted Walton’s response and, in doing so, invited Dr. Poythress to comment. Dr. Poythress’ follow-up appeared on our site shortly thereafter, and below we have a follow-up from Dr. Walton.
In reply to Dr. Poythress’s specific inquiry, I do not include physical appearances among the anthropocentric functions, because in my view the issue is functions not appearances, though some level of material language is necessary to describe the functions of the cosmos.
On the larger issues, I find it strange that the strongest resistance to the view that I present in The Lost World of Genesis One has come from the more conservative proponents of the Framework Hypothesis (Poythress and Collins). Most readers would realize that on the matters of science and Scripture, the Framework Hypothesis, which basically views Genesis 1 as a literary/theological construction, arrives at the same bottom line that I do: old earth and room for evolution in theologically qualified terms. We differ in how we get there. Poythress seems to object to the accommodationist approach that I take to interpretation, but perhaps what has not been made clear, and is not intuitive, is that accommodationist hermeneutics come in a variety of forms. Accommodationist interpretation accepts the premise that God has accommodated some aspects of the cultural understanding of the target audience in order to communicate more clearly. I am uncomfortable with some of what I consider extreme forms of accommodationalism and am currently working on an article to give careful attention to the use and abuse of accommodationist hermeneutics. Readers can revisit my initial defense in Lost World of Genesis One, 10-22. Nevertheless, I infer from some of his statements that Dr. Poythress is unwilling to allow for any accommodation.
It seems to me that the main issue is that Dr. Poythress believes that the descriptions of appearances in Genesis one must be validated. In contrast my view allows that the statements of physical appearances and the phenomenological language need to be understood against their ancient Near Eastern backdrop. If the revelatory focus is the functions, we do not need to validate the description of the material cosmos (in either of his two material categories) any more than we have to validate thinking with our blood pumps (believed by the Israelites and in the ancient Near East and affirmed in the Bible). He wants to be able to account for the material statements of Genesis as true statements (as far as they go) of physical appearances (the perspective of an observer). My accommodationist hermeneutic allows for material descriptions in Genesis to be false as they have been drawn from the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, which Israel shares, as communication hooks used by God to reveal what is central.
It is true that much of the ancient Near Eastern descriptions do correspond to appearances, but in my view it goes beyond that. A solid sky is not a matter of appearance, but of deduction from a series of observations. Locating cognitive processes in the heart and other organs is not a matter of appearances. These cannot be identified as simply figures of speech. Other aspects of ancient Near Eastern descriptions reflect their theology, and these are rejected in light of the revelation God gives his people.
Despite the fact that in terms of Bible and Science there is very little that divides us, we have a deep disagreement over the use of accommodationist hermeneutics. As a result, Dr. Poythress’s initial claim in his review that my position was unsustainable, was in effect a disagreement with my hermeneutics. He has a right to hold to a different hermeneutic, but the sustainability of a view cannot be denied if it logically follows the hermeneutic that is laid out. Any hermeneutic must be weighed in accordance with how it handles the evidence to produce reliable results in interpretation. We differ because I believe that the hermeneutic that Dr. Poythress espouses does not take sufficient account of the commonalities that are evident between the Bible and the ancient Near East. I infer that he believes that the accommodationist hermeneutic that I espouse poses too great a problem for inerrancy. In my mind, inerrancy is best served if we understand the words of Scripture in the way that the ancient author and audience would have understood it. This is what readers will have to sort out.
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.