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Rejoinder to Vern Poythress

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February 11, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Rejoinder to Vern Poythress

Today's entry was written by John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Karl A - #4330

February 12th 2010

I have not read The Lost World of Genesis One, but I want to point out that the selection Walton mentions above (pp. 10-22) is available for reading on Google Books (http://books.google.com).  (But not the whole book, so keep buying it folks!)

Dr. Walton, I’m looking forward to your article on accommodationist hermeneutics. Even if it’s published elsewhere, please at least give us a heads up (better yet, post it here!).  I for one am fairly new to some of these approaches, see the value in them, but, like other posters on BioLogos, wonder, “how far does this go?”.

As one who recently read Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration, I would be interested in specifically hearing your perception of commonalities and differences between your hermeneutical approach and his.  From reading the above-referenced passage, I can see one immediate commonality: you both seek to understand the Bible in its original context (your p.19), then distill from that hermeneutical principles (in contrast with approaching the Bible with a predetermined theological grid).

John Mulholland - #4361

February 12th 2010

2nd try - Prof. Walton,  thank you for your Rejoinder. Finally, the central issue is clear and on the table for deep consideration, study & diiscussion.  I have long felt that Bibliical interpretation among evangelicals has been caught in a straightjacket.  I wondered why more attention has not been given to the historical context & original audience of the Biblical texts.  I have concluded the welcome Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura came with a high price.  True, we needed the Bible translated into the languages of all peoples, & true, we needed to be reminded that all of us could and should read the Bible ourselves & understand it directly.

However, this then raised “plain meaning” by ordinary people to the standard for interpretation, and put specialized historical Biblical scholarship in the cellar.  It is long past time for us to hear from scholars like you, investigating the history of Biblical texts and providing scholarly insight.  If evangelicals hope to have any credibility at major secular research universities, we simply must move forward on this, otherwise we will continue to be treated as not worthy of consideration, and rightly so.

Justin Taylor - #4369

February 12th 2010

FYI: Drs. Collins and Poythress both argue against the Framework hypothesis in their respective works.

Justin Taylor

RJS - #4390

February 12th 2010

Justin Taylor,

Poythress argues against the framework view, sort of.

He notes (p. 143)  that the analogical day view (his preference) “can be considered as one variant of the framework view.”  He prefers the analogical day version “because it retains a sense of chronological progression and affirms the reality of the structure of the seven days as a pattern for man to imitate.” (p. 145)  The framework view can take Genesis as a literary framework, and this is not something Poythress seems comfortable with, so the view is modified and clarified to retain a concordance between the written word and physical reality. (I don’t comment on Collins because I have not read his book(s).)

But this distinction really makes the point that Walton makes in this post doesn’t it?

Karl A - #4395

February 13th 2010

2 questions:
1) Who is the Collins referred to in the Framework View? Francis?
2) What is the Framework View?

RJS - #4409

February 13th 2010


This Collins is C. John “Jack” Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. Poythress uses Collins’s work on the analogical days version of the framework theory to develop his position in his book “Redeeming Science.”

The framework view argues that the pattern of six days in Genesis 1 is a literary framework organizing the act of creation. Poythress (if I read him right) agrees - but also thinks that the framework is not arbitrary, but is part of the truth and significance of the text, thus the emphasis on analogical days.

RJS - #4410

February 13th 2010


To provide one more quote - p. 345 (conclusion of appendix on the Framework View) “the two theories (or some of the other attractive theories) do not generate any major theological differences, so we may the more easily live with the remaining disagreements.”

What I find rather perplexing in Poythress’s critique of Walton falls in line with this comment. I don’t see how there is a major theological difference. These are alternatives to be weighed on the merit of the arguments. I find Walton’s view persuasive - and a useful entry into the conversation.

Scott - #34104

October 10th 2010

No consistent Christian, let alone a consistent Protestant or Evangelical, would ever say or even suggest that Genesis, or any scripture, is false. Jesus quoted it as fact.
Now let me ask you: did God make a mistake? Was he too lazy to correct a mistake? Is he deceptive? Is he ignorant? Would a God who told his people not to in any way follow or base their faith on pagan religions repeat pagan lies that he wants his people to base their faith on? Does God have an admiration for what he hates? Did he start a historical document by writing fiction? Does he have Multiple Personality Disorder?
Isaiah 8:20 – “To the Law and to the Testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”

Daniel Wells - #49637

January 31st 2011

I know this is almost year after this debate, but I am recently only reading Walton’s book and reading these reviews and rejoinders.

It seems that Poythress and Walton have different views on what “phenomenological” language entails in Gen 1.  Walton, in employing his form of “accomodationist hermeneutics”, allows for empirically “false” statements.  Yet, I think Walton is unclear by what he deems “false” versus true.  (I also think he unfairly criticizes Poythress for not allowing any accomodationist hermeneutic.  Any fair reading of Poythress knows this is false.)

Poythress would say that statements concerning material appearance in Gen 1 are not false just as a 21st century person saying, “The sunset was beautiful” isn’t making a false claim.  It depends on the intent/usage of the words (which is Poythress’ point). 

Perhaps a better way to state the disagreement is that Walton rejects a modern concordist hermeneutic (i.e. 6-day young earth views) while Poythress rejects both modern and ancient concordist views.  In other words, Gen 1 doesn’t “intend” to reflect the science of its day either, just as a scientist today who claims “The sunset it beautiful” isn’t intending to make a scientific claim.

Donald Byron Johnson - #60612

April 29th 2011

Thank you John for interacting with Vern.

I think Vern has identified a key difference in hermeneutics, when Gen 1:9 says “... let dry land appear.” is it God accomodating to the ancient Israelites and putting things in their terms so they would understand  OR did dry land actually appear. 

And if you claim the former (as I want to do, following John), where does the accomodation stop?  What are the warning signs that one’s accomodationist hermeneutic is going too far?  So I really want to see John’s article on this.


Thanks again.


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