In the fall of 2009, I was at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in New Orleans. Browsing the book room just before heading home, I picked up a copy of the newly released The Lost World of Genesis One and put it in my carry-on. On my flight back to Chicago, I don’t think I set the book down. I was mesmerized and could sense that some order was being imposed on my mind where there had been pockets of disorder (or at least non-order).
My father was a science teacher, and although we were conservative Christians, I never really felt threatened by scientific findings like many in my community did. My undergraduate degree was in science education, and in my graduate work I specialized in philosophy of science. I was able to separate the science of evolution from the ideology that is too often bundled with that science, and so didn’t really have a problem with accepting evolution. But as a Christian who recognized the authority and inspiration of Scripture, I wasn’t always sure how to reconcile science and the Bible. I wasn’t persuaded by those who claimed “the Bible obviously says…” as an argument for why evolution must be false. To my mind, such people had to do a fair amount of gerrymandering to get the Bible to obviously say such things, and their hermeneutic approach had to be completely abandoned for other parts of Scripture. But I didn’t really know what to say besides, “the Bible must not mean that, because natural world pretty clearly testifies otherwise.”
Richard Dawkins claimed that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. I’d like to co-opt that claim and transform it into something better: Reading Walton’s book helped me become a biblically fulfilled evolutionary creationist. In The Lost World of Genesis One I found a way forward for thinking about the Bible from the standpoint we find ourselves at today. It is now obvious to me that the ancient Near Eastern thought world must be considered when we interpret the text of the Old Testament. When I speak to church groups about science and Bible, I’m basically a Walton impersonator on this point, using examples from his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible about how our better understanding of the language and culture has helped us read Scripture more accurately. Here are a few of his examples in increasing order of significance for how we understand the text:
- 2 Kings 18:17 In the King James Version, Tartan, Rabsaris, and Rabshakeh are treated as proper names. But study in ancient Near Eastern languages has shown that these words were actually positions in the army and are translated in the NIV as supreme commander, chief officer, and field commander.
- The discovery of many ziggurats in the ancient Near East has led to a better understanding of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. Instead of a way for people to climb up into heaven (was God really worried about them succeeding at that??), the tower was intended to bring God to earth in that location. God’s frustration of their efforts, then, is to distinguish himself from the cultural expectations: this is not how I will come to dwell among you.
- Joshua commanding the sun to stand still (Joshua 10) must be read against the backdrop of the celestial omen literature of the time. A strong case can be made that Joshua’s prayer doesn’t have anything to do with the sun moving (or the earth rotating), but is instead a prayer that their enemies would be demoralized by seeing the full moon on the 15th day of the lunar month (one of the ancient omens read, “If on the 15th day the moon and sun are seen together, a strong enemy will raise his weapons against the land”). See Walton’s blog post on this.
Our reading of Scripture is enriched when we understand how it draws from ancient genres and contexts on the one hand, and how it subverts ancient expectations on the other. This approach is very important to BioLogos, and many biblical scholars in our community are helping us understand the ancient world in which Scripture was written. But when I talk about these things to church groups, invariably someone in the audience expresses despair about this, feeling like they have to have a PhD in order to read their Bible. I think it is important to make two points about such reactions: 1) Every person can benefit by picking up the Bible and reading it every day. We evangelical Christians believe that God speaks to us through the Bible—he doesn’t just speak to people with PhDs. But 2) Every community of believers needs to have Bible scholars they trust who can help them read the Bible better. Since at least the Protestant Reformation, there has been a tendency for Christians to develop individual interpretations of the Bible (and form their own denominations!). We must recognize that some people are better trained and equipped to interpret Scripture—just as we recognize there are experts whose opinions should be respected in the field of medicine and auto repair.
But now, I am of the opinion that Scripture interpretation is not a purely academic affair. I like the caution that fourth-century Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nazianzus gave to those who would study the Bible: “it is not for all [people], but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness” (Oration 27). To paraphrase, when looking for experts to trust, we ought to consider not just the degrees that have been earned, but the character of the scholar. This business of origins gives plenty of opportunity for testing that character. On this count, I’ve been impressed with Walton’s character and the way he handles himself.
The first time I saw John in person was in early 2011 when I took a group of students to hear him lecture on The Lost World at Andrews University—a Seventh Day Adventist school. I was impressed with his calm and humble demeanor in interacting with a predominantly YEC crowd. On another occasion I saw him on a panel which could have turned ugly when a participant tried to turn the dialogue into accusations about who is right and who is wrong. John deftly diffused the situation with wise words which he later wrote into this blog post for us: On Being Right or Wrong.
I know there are Bible scholars, even in the BioLogos community, who disagree with Walton’s specific conclusions on Genesis 1. My one semester of Hebrew many years ago doesn’t qualify me to assess the finer points of these arguments. There is no debate, though, that Walton’s work and his character have opened up the way for many, many people to think more constructively about the relationship between science and the Bible. We’re pleased to have featured The Lost World of Genesis One in our spring book club, and we trust that it has been beneficial for many of you to work through.
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Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds
A "functional" interpretation of Genesis 1 makes the best sense of what we read in the text itself, in the context in which it was written and received.