Vern Poythress Responds to John Walton
John Walton’s 2009 publication of The Lost World of Genesis One has attracted a significant amount of 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.
In August of last year, Dr. Vern Poythress (Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) offered a response to Walton’s book in World Magazine. It was not a positive review and Walton was concerned that it had not been a fair treatment. He responded in a BioLogos post last Thursday. We asked Poythress if he would be willing to submit a response and we are pleased to post it today unedited. Poythress raises new issues and and Walton will be responding with his own rejoinder, which we expect to post soon.
I appreciate Biologos's invitation to respond to Dr. Walton's comments on my review in World Magazine. I also appreciate that Dr. Walton endeavored to respond graciously. I am grateful in particular that Dr. Walton recognized that my short review did not have space for full explanations. My own views on Genesis 1 and the Ancient Near East can be found in Redeeming Science (Crossway, 2006). In the limited space that I have here, let me focus on one issue, namely the distinction between material and function. I believe there is an unfortunate ambiguity.
Dr. Walton thinks that I have misunderstood him. After reading his response, I regret to say that I believe he has not understood me. He says that I have "not given clear evidence or explanation of these 'equivocal meanings.'" It appears to me that he has not absorbed what I said about the shift in meaning in the word "material." So, at the risk of repetition, let me try again.
The word "material" can denote material composition or physical appearance or both together. The "material" composition of a college building is the concrete, wiring, piping, and other pieces that make up its structure. The "material" (physical appearance) for a college is the buildings, landscaping, and parking lots that compose its campus. We can describe a college on at least three levels, (1) its material composition, (2) its physical appearance, and (3) its human purpose of learning. Likewise we can describe the world by (1) its material composition (the sun is composed of hydrogen plasma), (2) its appearances (the sun moves in the sky), or (3) its services to human beings (the sun enables us to mark the passage of days).
Dr. Walton and I agree that Genesis 1 does not address area #1, material composition. We also agree that it does have information about services to human beings (#3). My difficulty arises with area #2, physical appearances.
For example, I believe that Genesis 1:9 implies that the dry land appeared. Likewise, Genesis 1:11-12 implies that plants appear on the land. It is not so clear what Dr. Walton believes about these passages. He seems to imply that they have nothing to say about the "material" aspect, which could denote either area #1 or area #2 or both.
In his response Dr. Walton has clarified his meaning by saying that with the term "function" he did not mean that the functions are narrowly religious, but the functions are "anthropocentric." I appreciate this clarification. Unfortunately I find that I still have the same difficulties. What counts as "anthropocentric"? The word can describe what we do when we say that the sun rises and sets. We are describing how things appear from the point of view of ordinary human observation. An "anthropocentric" view includes both the appearance of the sun moving in the sky and the "functions" of the sun, such as giving light and marking the passage of days. If "anthropocentric" includes appearances, it includes area #2, and we are in agreement. If it includes only human services (3) and not appearances (2), we are not in agreement.
My difficulty arises particularly with pp. 92-99 in Walton's book, where he seemed to me to use the wider denotation of "material." The "material" now seemed to me, in the words of my review, to include "all aspects of physical appearance" (area #2). By contrast, the earlier part of his book mustered evidence to show that Genesis 1 did not address material composition (#1). I agree with this earlier evidence. But Dr. Walton has given no evidence that Genesis 1 implies nothing about physical appearance (#2). And Genesis 1 appears to me to include evidence the other way, such as the language about the dry land appearing (1:9) and the plants growing on the land (1:12).
Dr. Walton's argument in pp. 92-99 is plausible because he appeals to valid evidence with respect to material composition (denotation #1), but his readers may not notice that we need positive evidence with respect to physical appearances (denotation #2).
I believe therefore that there is a genuine ambiguity that needs clarification. Once the ambiguity is clarified, we still have to deal with the implications of verses like Genesis 1:9. Does this verse imply that the dry land appeared? And if so, are we obliged to believe that the dry land appeared? And if so, what relation does our belief have to scientific accounts of the origin of dry land on earth? Dr. Walton's book takes an interest in modern science, but we need to clarify ambiguities before we can assess the validity of the book's claims.
In view of Dr. Walton's claim that I have misunderstood him, my safest response is to say that I am no longer sure what he is saying. That is a shame, because the book wants to address important questions with respect to modern science. People are offering various options. Some would say that Genesis 1 is automatically in accord with science, because it does not address appearances. Some would say that it does address appearances, but that we do not have to believe that part, but only the part about God's purposes. Some would say that it does address appearances, but on an ordinary human level, which does not contain more technical information such as modern science seeks. Some would say that science and Genesis 1 are in conflict, and that the Bible is outmoded. These important questions are best addressed when we have developed a clear understanding of what Genesis 1 is implying about appearances, such as the appearing of the dry land.
I am sorry if I have disappointed Dr. Walton by a single-minded focus on one strand of his book (the "material"), when there were many other issues to be discussed. I have focused on that one strand because I think it is flawed, and the flaw has to be repaired to address carefully the concerns with respect to science.
Vern Poythress has been a member of the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary for almost 34 years, where he is currently Professor of New Testament Interpretation. He obtained a BS in Mathematics from California Institute of Technology at age 20, and four years later earned a Harvard PhD in mathematics. He went on from there to obtain four degrees in biblical studies and theology, including a D.Th. from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of many books including the 2006 Crossway book, Redeeming Science.