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John Walton | More Than History

Discussing interpretation with biblical scholar John Walton and exploring the answers his work offers.


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Church pew with bibles

Discussing interpretation with biblical scholar John Walton and exploring the answers his work offers.

Description

Biblical interpretation is all about asking questions—How did Ancient Israel understand the book of Genesis? How much context do we, as modern readers, need to discover the intended meaning of the text? Does the text hold the answers to the questions we are asking? Jim and guest host Rebecca McLaughlin discuss these thorny questions with biblical scholar John Walton and explore the answers his work offers them.

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Transcript

Walton:

The theological position is that God is the creator of everything. And even in the specific wording we get in Colossians, visible and invisible, we get the idea that God is the creator of at every level. Whether it’s initial creation, whether it’s ongoing creation, sustaining creation, which of course is ordering going on. Whether it’s material, whether it’s functional, whether it’s order. God is the creator and that creator idea, the maker of all, picks all of that up.

I’m John Walton. I’m a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. 

Long time followers of BioLogos will probably be familiar with today’s guest. John Walton has written many articles, spoken at many conferences, and been a leading voice in the faith and science conversation for a long time. For many of us in this business, myself included, John has been an important gateway into a deeper understanding of the harmony between science and biblical faith.

In 2009, John wrote the popular book, The Lost World of Genesis 1. The book led to four more books in the Lost World series, which together provide rich insight into the context of the ancient Near Eastern world, and with that a broad overview of the Walton school of thought on understanding the Old Testament.

For many people, they think the only way to reconcile modern science with the Bible is to twist and contort the Bible, or ignore its obvious meaning or face value. Walton disagrees. He thinks we must understand the Bible on its own terms, and when we do so, we see that it is addressing different questions than the ones modern science tries to put to it. So if we want to know how old the Earth is or whether evolution happened, we’re not going to find those answers in the Bible. We ought to look to science for answers to scientific questions. John has developed a lot of helpful metaphors for describing this approach, and we get into some of those in our conversation.

I was joined in the interviewer role by our friend Rebecca McLaughlin, who helped out a couple of times before. You can find more about her in the episodes with Praveen Sethupathy and Jennifer Wiseman. 

At the BioLogos website, you can find a bunch of resources relevant to our conversation today, including a series of reflections by several people on The Lost World of Genesis 1. There’s a link to that series in our show notes. Or go to the search bar at biologos.org and type in John Walton. We have several hours worth of video of Walton’s teaching, and a number of short articles he’s written for us.

But now let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well thanks for talking with us here today. And why don’t we start out by hearing a little bit of your own background. Where did you come from? What was life like in the Walton House growing up?

Walton:

I was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Norristown was the town I grew up in. And there were five kids in the family; I was second of the five. And we were a family who really took church and Christianity very seriously, that was kind of the way we were raised by my parents. And it was demonstrated in the fact that we learned the Bible at home, extensive conversations and discussion of the biblical text, as well as in my church. It was a small church. It was actually a…

Stump:

Of what tradition?

Walton:

It was an independent church. It actually met in a barn. Even though this was the suburbs we met in a barn. It was in the middle of a subdivision and the farmer had sold off all his land for the subdivision, but he didn’t sell the barn. So there’s a barn sitting on two acres, and that was where our church was. 60 people. Sunday school rooms were the animal stalls down in the basement. Half walls, straw on the floor. I mean it was…

Stump:

Must have been great for the nativity every Christmas?

Walton:

Easy. Yeah. So very rustic, very small church, but very interested in the Bible. So I grew up with the Bible. We did a lot of Bible quizzing, not on like the international level or something, but just did Bible quizzes. And so I tended to learn a lot of the content material of the Bible at a really, really young age. So that was my upbringing. Very Christian, very Bible oriented, very much in the church.

Stump:

And you said that Old Testament was your passion. How did that come about?

Walton:

You know, I’m not really sure. I think it probably came out of just all the quizzing and things we did growing up because I was good at it. And you tend to develop passions as a kid around things that you feel like you’re good at. I think that’s the only explanation I have. I don’t have anything else that I can think of that triggered it.

McLaughlin:

John, I went to seminary 10 years ago and I don’t have a lot of discipline, so I’m really bad at the biblical languages. I pretty much read like a three year old when it comes to Greek or Hebrew. What do you think you most gain personally by being able to read the Old Testament in Hebrew?

Walton:

Yeah, it’s really an important, I mean I sell my students on this all the time.  And it’s not the idea that you can be a technical expert in the linguistic aspects. But what I tell them is whether you’re reading a translation or whether you’re reading a commentary or whether you’re listening to a pastor, people are making judgment calls for you. Because Hebrew is, you know, pretty tricky. There are lots of words, we don’t really know what they mean. There are even more words that we kind of know what they mean, but there’s no English word for it. And so somebody picks up an English word and sticks it in there, and they’re making a judgment call for you. So people make judgment calls for you. The reason to study Hebrew is so that you can make more of them by yourself, and so that you can tell whether they’re making good calls or not. And so it’s really more on that exegetical level rather than on the pure linguistics level. Frankly, I am not a very gifted linguist. Lots of the languages I’ve studied didn’t really stick very well. And so it’s more the idea of using the language to interpret the text that I find very compelling and that I talk to my students about a lot.

Stump:

We will talk more about the Bible and its relationship to these topics that BioLogos is interested in. But because we are BioLogos and have this penchant toward the sciences, I need to ask, at least, is there any, anything in your background growing up, your history, that drew you to have an interest in science or at least to consider the work that you’re doing in relationship to science?

Walton:

Well, as I said, I was raised in the Bible. I married into science. My wife was in college as a biology major, a pre-med student and went on to graduate work in biochemistry. And so all of that came when we got married. And so our household was Bible and science. I mean, this is the dinner conversation. And so that was a very important part for opening my mind to what was going on in the sciences. Frankly, I have very little aptitude for science, but the idea that that was a deep passion of hers brought it into that conversation. So without her input and her kind of mentoring, you know, I would just babble meaninglessly on scientific topics.

McLaughlin:

I come from a split household as well. My husband is an engineer and I’m an English major. And one of the few things we argue about is whether it is valuable to study non-science engineering-y, economics-y subjects at university. What would be your best argument to somebody as to why studying the humanities at the university level is in fact valuable?

Walton:

Well, both humanities and sciences teach you certain ways to think, and I think they are valuable ways to think. I mean, I look back on my accounting and economics education. And accounting taught me ways to think, the ways that accountants have to think. And my first book that I ever published was a charts book. I mean, you know, lay out the spreadsheet. So to that extent, I think that that was a valuable aspect of my education, instead of a dead end or a waste of time. And I think that’s often the case if you’re a humanities person and you’re looking at the sciences, or the other way around. It helps you to learn to think.

Stump:

When and how did you get connected to BioLogos?

Walton:

Actually, I was at the first conference meeting in Manhattan. I was shocked that I had gotten an invitation because this was not the crowd that I usually, you know, ran with. And so it was a surprise to me, but I was very delighted to get the invitation because it brought together these two aspects of my interests. And apparently Francis Collins had read my book, and that kind of started pushing things in that direction. So that’s how I got involved. BioLogos was interested in having people who could speak to the Bible issues in this pile of scientists. And so I was very pleased and honored to be asked to be part of it.

Stump:

So by your book, I assume you mean The Lost World of Genesis One?

Walton:

That’s correct.

Stump:

So this has become something of a franchise, right? So a “lost world” implies there’s something of this cognitive environment of the first scripture writers that we’re trying to recover, right?

Walton:

Yes. And as it’s come together, you know, we start with the modern questions. Something not just of academic interest, but something that’s of real interest in the modern world. So you know, something like the age of the earth or evolution or things of that sort. And then we try to approach that question, first of all, by looking deeply into the Hebrew text. Are there things we’re missing? Are there things that are here that we might be reading incorrectly, or that need adjustment? And then we go into the ancient Near-Eastern context because the Israelites are part of that world. 

And so it’s this combination of deep textual analysis and then acquaintance with the ancient world, that then leads us to say, “So here’s some new information on the table. Things that are not floating around in our traditional ways of thinking, but that are worth knowing.” And hopefully that may lead to some reassessment of what kinds of answers do we give. All of that, of course, is premised as each book starts with the ideas of methodology and hermeneutics. How do we approach a text and try to understand it well? And so the whole idea of reading the biblical text in light of its world, the ancient world, was very important for all of that. But we have to lay down the theology of Biblical authority, how Biblical authority is tied to reading a text in its context, and then what’s important about this context. So those are the kind of features that characterize The Lost World Series.

McLaughlin:

John, as a Brit living in America, I get to notice some of the cultural differences between two worlds–old world and new world. And if I were to stand up in a room for the amount of Americans and say, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Kingdom, everyone would know what I was messing with. As the first people who encountered the book of Genesis, which wasn’t us, what kinds of things would they have had in their minds, almost like the pledge of allegiance for us, that may have informed how they heard those first words.

Walton:

There’s quite a lot of that going on at all different levels: in the words they use, in the meanings that are inherent in those words that would be different from what we would say about the same kinds of words, and about much more abstract kinds of things. So in Genesis one, everything from what does it mean for God to rest? That’s pretty much right on the surface there because we always get confused about day seven and don’t know quite what to do with it. So that’s something that the ancient world knew exactly what was going on. But what does it mean to create? And we wouldn’t have thought of that one. We weren’t confused by create. We were confused by rest, but we’re not confused by create. But the fact is, we modern way of thinking about what creation is and they thought very differently in the ancient world.

But even beyond that, once you start addressing that question—what it means to create—next thing you’re asking, “What does it mean to exist?” Because creation is bringing something into existence. And now you’re kind of free floating in an abstract world of thinking. And so there’s all sorts of levels at which this is happening, where we have to try to engage, “how did people in the ancient world think?” And that’s a difficult task.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

McLaughlin:

I’m going to ask a slightly skeptical question, John. So there’s always a risk when we talk about needing a context outside the Bible, in order to understand what’s in the Bible, that we’re taking the Bible out of people’s hands. Effectively saying, unless you have this additional knowledge, you’re not really going to be able to understand what you’re reading in the text. And as a good Protestant, I would be always anxious about that. At the same time, as I said, my Hebrew and Greek is terrible, and most Christians don’t have any access to the Hebrew and Greek. We’re depending on translation. So how would you reassure somebody who felt like what you were saying was taking the Bible out of their hands, effectively?

Walton:

Well, we really don’t take the Bible out of their hands from a theological gospel perspective. That’s there for anyone to observe. That’s what the reformers meant when they talked about the clarity of scripture. That anyone should be able to read it in their own language and get the basic drift of the Bible. But those same reformers, of course, felt somehow compelled to write hundreds and hundreds of volumes of commentary in theology to try to clarify those things which are far from simple. So I think we have to differentiate between that level of basic core understanding of the Gospel and God to… From the theological side, now to the exegetical side, of saying, “Here is what this passage means, and here’s what it refers to.” And that’s a much more difficult task. Which again, the reformers absolutely understood, and we need to recognize it too. 

An example I use is that I’m not much of a handyman. So when something goes wrong with the plumbing of the house, I crawl under the sink, and hold a wrench in one hand, a hammer in the other, and try to figure out which of these two am I going to use? And so every once in a while it can work. I can fix a basic plumbing problem, but most times I say, “You know, I’m not equipped for this.” And you have to recognize when you’re not equipped for it. And so I might call a plumber and they’ll come in and next thing I know he pulls out this handy dandy tool that I’ve never seen before. And “zing zing” and he’s got it all fixed. And I say, “Wow, if I had that tool, I could have done that too.” Other times he looks and he says, “Your whole plumbing system is shot. You really need a rebuild.” Well, I don’t do that myself, I need somebody to help me. And it’s the same: there are things we can do by ourselves, there are things that if we had the right tool we could do them, but there’s other things that, yeah, we really need to have someone with some expertise.

Stump:

Expertise is kind of a dirty word in our cultural moment right now, isn’t it? And I’m afraid it infects this area as well.

Walton:

Yeah, it does. But it’s interesting, people don’t mind thinking about expertise when they think about their own giftedness and their work in the body of Christ, you know? That’s a whole idea of the body of Christ, that we all have things we contribute to it. And I can’t do the things that my other friends in church can do, and they serve me by doing it. And they’re not equipped or trained or gifted to do some of the things that I can do, and I serve them by doing it. It’s all about service, not elitism. And it’s how the body of Christ is supposed to work, that we all contribute what we do to help the body.

Stump:

Well, let’s push a little deeper into some of that service that you can offer us here now.  you mentioned two other words that come up for Genesis one create and exist. Give us the overview here of what’s going on in Genesis one with relation to those two terms.

Walton:

Well, as I try to understand the terminology both in the Bible and in the ancient world, and of course it’s not always the same in every issue, but on this issue, I think that it’s fairly clear that they were interested, not so much in manufacture of material. They were interested in bringing order to a system — order and purpose. And so when they talk about create, those are the kinds of activities. Naming and separating are both ordering activities, and we find them both in Genesis, as in the rest of the ancient world. And so this ordering process is very strong in their sense of what it means to create. That also means that since existence is correlative to creating, that something exists for them when it has a purpose and a function in an ordered system. A role to play. And those were assigned by God. And even in the ancient world, the gods who make decrees about how everything is supposed to work in this ordered system. So for them, existence is tied into order. And creation is an ordering activity.

Stump:

So I’ve heard reactions to your work from other professionals in the discipline that range from “Yes, this is obvious. Of course,” to “No. Walton has overplayed this functional versus material.” So let’s spend a little more time trying to get our minds around this, and just what it is that you are claiming with respect to these functions — the ordering that’s going on in Genesis one. And what you’re not claiming with regard to that.

Walton:

You know, when I wrote The Lost World of Genesis One, I thought for a long time trying to figure out what word am I going to use as the contrasting word. It’s very clear that we today think in material terms, and so what am I going to use to contrast to that? And function was the best I could come up with at the time. And I think it still goes the right direction for us, but I think the word that I found that works better is the one I’ve already been using: ordering. To bring order to the world. You do that by setting up role and purpose and function. So, but order is the bigger category. And order is something that’s important in every aspect of life in the ancient world. And of course, I would argue it’s important for us as well.

But that Genesis one is about order, not material, is difficult for some people to grasp or to accept. They might say, “Well, why can’t it be both?” I get that question all the time. “Why can’t it be both?” And my answer is, “Well, it could be both, but both sides have to prove that it’s that. I think I can demonstrate that it’s order. I can demonstrate that they’re not really focusing much on material, as they focus on order. If you want to say that it’s material also, you’ve got to prove it. It’s not just a default that’s accepted because it’s your traditional way of thinking.” So I’ve had to develop some illustrations to try to help people grasp that issue.

Stump:

Good. Let’s hear some of those.

Walton:

Yeah. Long ago, I started using the distinction between house and home. And that the building of a house is a creative act and the making of a home is a creative act, but they’re inherently different creative acts. And that’s one thing that’s been helpful to people to see the difference between them. 

One that I’ve been using more recently, is I use the example of going to a play. And because of traffic and weather and parking, you end up walking into the theater a half hour late. And so everything’s going on. The theater’s dark and hushed, and nevertheless you poke the person next to you, and you say, “How did the play begin?” So he turns and he says, “This play was written in 1938 it was a Pulitzer Prize candidate. That year was very popular on the stages of both America and…” And you said, “No, no, no, no, no. How did the play begin?” He said, “Well, you can’t have a play without a script.” “Yeah, I know but…” He says, “Okay, this set was constructed by Maurice Construction Company. They’re really famous for setting, getting sets to fit in this kind of a building in this kind of a cool…” “No, no, no, no, no. How did the play begin?” “Well, you can’t have a play without a set.” “I know, but..” “Okay. Okay. Okay. So the cast was chosen by…” Right? And finally you say in your frustration, “What’s happened since the curtain opened?” 

Now see, it’s a very interesting analogy. Analogies breakdown, of course, eventually. But it’s interesting because all of those things are legitimate answers to how the play began. But yet, a person can have one or the other in their mind. What question do you want to have answered? Okay. And that helps understand that there are different levels at which that could operate. In our modern society, when we talk about the beginnings of the cosmos: how did the world begin?  We really like the set story. I mean that, that’s how we think of the right answer. And in fact, sometimes almost the only answer to the question: how did the play begin? Or how did the world begin? And so the set story.

Well and I come along and say, “No, it’s really the action story. What’s happened since the curtains opened.” And so the critique against me would be, “Well, you can’t have the play without the set. You can’t have the action without the material cosmos.” I grant that. But still, there’s questions that people are interested in and other questions that they’re not interested in. And so this doesn’t become a question of, well, “What was happening on the set before the action started?” I’m not… the Bible’s not answering that kind of question. To say, “Were things functioning at all? You know, weren’t there rehearsals?”, I mean it’s just getting way out of range of the question.

Stump:

Okay. So if we can pin you down here, to see how far we can push these metaphors. When did the curtain… or when was the curtain drawn or opened up for this biblical story we have starting in Genesis one? Can we put a calendar to that event?

Walton:

Well, I don’t know that I would call it a calendar, but we can say that the text is opening up the story. You know, the curtains are pulling open, lots of the set is already in place, and it describes the various aspects of the set. But still in the end, it’s talking about the idea of people in God’s image. And day seven: God coming to dwell among them. So if we talk about this as a home story, not a house story. A home story: you ask whose home is it? And of course at some point the house had to be built, but if it’s a home story, then you say, “whose home is it?” Well in one sense it’s the home for people because God is talking about how things function for people, right? Days, years, months, signs, seasons: how they function for people. And how people function in it: subdue and rule. But it’s not just a home for people, it’s also God is taking up his dwelling place among us, which I would claim is his reason for creating us. And I call it what God has always wanted. To be present among his people. So there’s a very important theological aspect of Emmanuel, God with us. Okay. And it’s going to take other shapes as time goes on. But that idea of God being with us. And so in that sense, that’s the nature of the story. That’s the home story.

McLaughlin:

So John, I live in a house which is also a home. And my husband and I made the home, but somebody else built the house. I’m assuming that you believe that God also made, in the material sense, the universe. How would you argue that from the scriptures, or is that just a sort of background belief?

Walton:

Yeah. The theological position is that God is the creator of everything. And even in the specific wording we get in Colossians, visible and invisible, we get the idea that God is the creator of at every level. Whether it’s initial creation, whether it’s ongoing creation, sustaining creation – which of course is ordering going on. Whether it’s material, whether it’s functional, whether it’s order, God is the creator. And that creator idea, the maker of all, picks all of that up. At the same time, we have specific verses that we could look at when it talks about God laying the foundations of the world. That’s a material kind of thing. So they believed that God is the material creator. And of course even the logic: if he’s not, then he’s somehow contingent on that. And so you can go to the philosophical argument as well. So at some point, God created the house. God built the set. You know, God wrote the script. I mean, we can use all of those. At some point, God did that and the Israelites recognize that. But they don’t really… that’s not the level of things that they are most interested in because order is the highest value.

McLaughlin:

So one thing that’s always fascinated me about the Genesis account, is how God creates by his word. He literally says things, and they come to be. What do you think that adds versus imagine another version of Genesis where it was God using some sort of more obviously physical means to create? Unpack that a little for us.

Walton:

My basic tagline is the Bible is interested in agency. Particularly divine agency, as the creator. He issued decrees and they were done. You know, you think of Jesus with the man who wanted his son healed. He said, “Oh, don’t bother coming. Just issue the decree. It’ll be done.” And the same idea that God issues the decrees and it’s done. So the Bible’s interested in agency. Our science is interested in mechanisms, and we want to know all about the mechanism. That’s a great thing, but that’s not what the Bible talks about.

Stump:

So is it a category mistake, then, for me to just keep pressing you on this issue of calendars and time periods? And you know, asking, “So did God order things over the course of a week the way we would call it?” It sounds to me like you’re saying that this is a retelling of an actual event that happened, yes? The universe has been ordered. Can we then talk about what that physical reality was like before and after the ordering, or is that out of bounds here?

Walton:

Not easily because again, they’re not trying to think of it in going back in time with your video camera and kind of showing a before and after picture. Israel’s before picture is Tohu wa-bohu: formless and void, which means not ordered. So their beginning picture is non-order, then God orders (creating), and that produces the ordered world. So to say, “What would an unordered world look like?” Well, we’d have to immediately then talk in our terms. We couldn’t talk in their terms. Their non-order is sea and darkness. That’s Israel. Genesis one two. That’s the ancient world. That’s their non ordered world. So those are the kinds of things that we have difficulty shifting gears between our modern questions and ways of thinking.

Stump:

But what I hear you saying then is we don’t really need to worry too much about what would the sun have really been like before it was ordered or functioning for us to tell us day from night.

Walton:

Correct. Again, the biblical passages to tell us that it does do that job of day and night and signs and seasons and all of those things. It does function those ways, and God set them up to function for us. We’re not looking to establish a timetable or a sequence.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We here at BioLogos think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to let you know about the common questions page of our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Three

McLaughlin:

Taking things in a slightly different direction. One of the things, it seems to me that Christianity offers to the world today, is a solid foundation for the idea that human beings are special and distinct from any other kind of creature. And have an extraordinary value that is independent even of our capacities. Can you reflect on that from the perspective of Genesis and God’s creation of humanity in this sort of special relationship with him?

Walton:

Well certainly in Genesis one, the focus on image of God has to come into that discussion. But of course the Bible says very little about the image of God. It follows up the designation of image of God with the idea that that includes both male and female. And it also follows up with some tasks. Again, functions: ordering the world, subdue and rule, or those kinds of words. So we can see that the image of God is going to affect those kinds of questions. What I find interesting, and something that I only noticed relatively recently, is that pretty much every indication, every statement about the image of God in the Old Testament is corporate in nature, not individual in nature. If that’s true, I mean, if that’s reflective of the nature of the image of God, then that would suggest that we really can’t talk about an individual person as being the image of God. It’s humanity, which is the image of God. Now, people on all sides won’t like that because lots of times when invoke the image of God, it’s to say that this person or that person in this situation…

Stump:

That I’m special.

Walton:

Yeah. Or having certain disabilities or limitations, you know… Are they in the image of God? And if we say, well in the Bible it’s really a corporate designation.

Stump:

Isn’t there a passage though where they’re talking about the death penalty or something, that it’s you shouldn’t take this person’s life because of that person was in the image of God? What am I thinking of?

Walton:

That’s Genesis 9. You’re thinking of Genesis 9, the the Noah covenant. And that gives humanity responsibility for carrying out justice. And it indicates that, again, you can’t just take a human life with impunity because humanity is image of God. So I don’t think that’s…

Stump:

That’s not an individual description there.

Walton:

No. So in this sense it’s somewhat like the body of Christ because body of Christ, none of us would say I am the body of Christ. We always recognize we as God’s people are the body of Christ and we participate in the body of Christ. We are members of the body of Christ. But you wouldn’t say, “I am the body of Christ.”

McLaughlin:

Just to pull those two ideas together. So in Colossians, I believe, Jesus is described as “the image of the invisible God.” Is there a sense in which the whole of the Bible is waiting for that one human who in fact is the image of God, who then we can all also be part of his body?

Walton:

Exactly. We are part of Christ. And therefore we are the image of God in Christ who… yeah.

McLaughlin:

And just to maybe then take that a step further, connecting back to a few things we were discussing a minute ago. One of the things that’s distinctive about Christianity, is the fact that we are rooting our beliefs in a very specific historical event of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Walton:

Absolutely.

McLaughlin:

I think some people would feel anxious about the idea that we’re a sense, sort of questioning what history meant in the ancient world, etc., etc. As we think about how does, how does that implicate then our beliefs about historical events recorded in the new testament in particularly Jesus, his death, the resurrection? So maybe you can reflect on that for us.

Walton:

Well, first of all, we have to confront the idea that we are being reductionistic if we say that for something to be real, we have to be able to do to describe it as historical. I think that’s a mistake. I think raises the label historical above its pay grade. Reality is bigger than empiricism or whatever you want to use for that. Yet of course, things happened in history. And that’s true of the exodus. It’s true of the Torah being given. It’s true of the temple being built. It’s true of Christ’s incarnation. It’s true of the resurrection. These are things that happened in history and they must happen in history. Still, the reality behind those is more than just a historical reality. More, not different. It’s more than historical realities. There’s a theological reality of what took place when Christ died for us, of what took place when he rose from the dead. So they have, certainly, an anchor in history, but they have a reality that transcends that historical event. So I think we have to kind of reassess our use of the word historical.

Stump:

If I could go back one more time to image of God and history in this regard. Is it significant at all that this a first mentioning of image of God is happening in Genesis one where we have all of this ordering going on, or perhaps in this case function is a good word to use… That is this the functioning of Homo sapiens in the same way that there’s an ordering, or a functioning, of the sun for the seasons, a functioning of the dry land… And where all of these things are not a material creation, but being ordered, is image of God the ordering of our species in some sense then? Or assigning a function to our species?

Walton:

Yes. I think less ordering our species, more ordering how our species is going to interact in the world. That is, as I understand the image of God, it’s the idea that God has commissioned humanity to work alongside him in bringing order. He has ordered the world to a certain level, but there’s still an outside the garden and inside the garden. The sea and darkness is still there, which is not true of new creation. So it has not been fully ordered, and instead he has commissioned us to work alongside him as his images. Okay? Or as his image corporately in order to continue bringing order to the world.

Stump:

And for the history piece of that, would you say too that in the same way I was asking about a before and after for things like the sun, can we ask about a before and after of humanity having the image of God, or Homo sapiens having the image of God? Or is this too a retelling in the same sense that the seven days is a retelling that it’s a category mistake? Or do you want to go closer to what you just did with the resurrection, and say this would be an event in history, the way we understand history, of God’s bestowing the image onto these creatures.

Walton:

I tend to think that that is something that happened at a particular point, although some people would say it could of happened gradually. But I don’t know how we could make that decision because Genesis one is more interested in that it happened, not when or through what sequence. I don’t see any sequencing. We talk about seven days, and we think that’s a sequence.  but I don’t tend to think of it that way. If anything, it’s a sequence of how things are told. But the idea of here’s what gets to it… I’ve gotten, so I don’t call Genesis one an account of cosmic origins. And that’s because the word origins always brings up, in our minds, science. So I think it’s more accurate to call it an account of cosmic identity. What is the cosmos? And it chooses to discuss that in certain days, to talk about different aspects of the cosmos and how that fits in. But it’s about cosmic identity.

Image of God, this is what humans are. And we are that because God made us that. And likewise in Genesis two, I no longer call it an account of human origins, I call it an account of human identity because it’s trying to tell us who we are. Not some biological story that we would tell about how we got to be that way. And so if we’re going to try to think as they think, so that we interpret the text well, that might be a way that we can do that.

Stump:

Sometimes people react to your views thinking that you’ve adopted these positions specifically to try to eliminate the conflict that there could be with scientific theories compared to what the Bible is saying. I don’t hear you using that kind of language at all here. Right? This is not driven by scientific concerns.

Walton:

That’s correct. I mean, I was raised in a very traditional young earth context. I was content with that even into my adult and professional career.  That if that’s what the Bible demands, I’m ready to shoulder that. And despite certain discomfort that could arise, I was committed to reading the Bible for what it was. I must confess that at times I did become uncomfortable. That somehow, I don’t feel like this is what’s going on, but I don’t know what else to do. So I haven’t had any lifelong burden to try to resolve the conflicts between science and faith. And I should tell you too, that marrying a scientist did not do that because my wife was seeking answers just as I was. It’s not like I suddenly came under the influence of a very opinionated person on all of these things. We’re just all trying to understand it together.

So that’s, that’s really not what drives me. What drives me is to understand the Bible well. And if that ends up being compatible with science, that’s great. If it ends up being problematic, well that’s, that’s the way it is, and we have to try to make that work. So I grew up with that kind of mentality. People sometimes have wondered whether, you know, really I’ve got this agenda for promoting evolution. And I’m just rereading the Bible in crazy ways just to try to make that work. And so to me, it’s very important to make the point that if tomorrow morning all the headlines blazed, “evolution proven false, it was all a hoax,” you know, that nothing would change about my presentation. My presentation is about reading the Bible well. And if that happens to have something to say about compatibility, that’s great. But if one paradigm passes off the field, another one will come on and you’ll have to ask the same questions, is the Bible compatible with whatever the reigning paradigm is? And I think those are always questions we have to be prepared to address, but we don’t address them by how much we’re persuaded by the reigning paradigm. We address them by how we can understand the process of interpretation of scripture takes place.

Stump:

Let’s push a little further here into the nature and function of the Bible in this sense, you’re a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, right?

Walton:

I am.

Stump:

Which means that you sign a statement that reads the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety is the word of God written and is therefore in inerrant in the autographs. Inerrant is a pretty important, divisive word among American Christians. Can you reflect a little bit on what you mean by inerrant in this sense?

Walton:

Well of course, I signed on for that with the Evangelical Theological Society. I signed the same, similar kind of statement with my employer at Wheaton College. And I really have no qualms about signing that I accept inerrancy. Again, I was raised that way. I’ve defended that way of thinking throughout my life. So it doesn’t give me some sort of stress or anxiety about signing it. At the same time. It’s important that we understand it well. So one of my Lost World books, The Lost World of Scripture that I did with Brent Sandy, talks about how does inerrancy fold into all of these many different things. And we affirm inerrancy in the book, but we also seek very carefully to qualify it with nuance so that we really know what we’re saying and what we’re not saying.

So I’ve got no difficulty describing what the Bible is by using a word like that. Although, anybody who uses it knows that it requires some qualification. Things like “in the autographs,” as you just read, things like “in all that, it affirms.” Those are serious, significant qualifications that need to be unpacked. I find that for dealing with the topic,   even as I accept inerrancy as descriptive of what the Bible is, I actually find it more useful, more productive to think in terms of what we do with the Bible. When we talk about it as being inerrant, we are affirming, among other things probably, but at least its truth. And so what does it mean to treat the Bible as true? So I think that when we move from the theoretical (inerrancy) to the practical (How do I treat the text? How do I approach the text?) that that can actually be more important terminology.

So, a way that I’ve tried to say that involves a couple of different pieces here. First of all, of course I want to be a faithful interpreter. Even inerrancy requires interpretation because you can’t say what’s inerrant and what it’s affirming unless you have an idea of what it’s affirming. And so it ties into interpretation. So we want to be faithful interpreters, and as faithful interpreters, I express that by the idea that we are accountable to the truth claims of the text. Okay? We are accountable. And Accountability is big for me on this because that tells me how I have to act as an interpreter. I am accountable to the truth claims of the text. 

McLaughlin:

John if a non-Christian asked you, “Why should I bother reading the Bible?” Or, “What most excites you about reading the Bible?” What would you say to them?

Walton:

Okay, those are two different questions. Why should you read the Bible? In that case, I’m just like the third graders. Jesus. Right? That’s the answer to every question they ask in Sunday School for third graders. Jesus. I mean that’s what’s important about it all. You know, what excites me? It’s not like Jesus doesn’t excite me, but of course I’m an Old Testament person. So there’s a lot of things about the Old Testament that excite me. As God begins to unfold his plans and purposes in the world, which of course finds a high point in Jesus. I used to say its climax in Jesus, and in a way you could say that, but of course history doesn’t stop with Jesus. There’s a new creation coming, there’s the church, there’s all kinds of things. So but certainly Jesus is the linchpin of all of that. And so if somebody… Why should they read the Bible? Well, Jesus. Why do I get excited about the Bible? It’s opening up God’s plans and purposes, which includes, very prominently, Jesus.

Stump:

What’s next for John Walton? Any more lost worlds to explore?

Walton:

Of course after each Lost World book, I said I’m not doing anymore of them. So that wouldn’t really mean a whole lot for me to say that.  There’s a book coming out in a month or so, called Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology. It’s not a Lost World book. It’s with Cascade, and it’s again co-authored with my son, who I did a couple of the Lost World books with. So that’s coming out very soon and that will, I think, put some new information on the table. Hopefully help people think through some of the very difficult issues with that. It’s not a book about phenomenology, it’s a book about trying to understand the biblical text in its context. So that’s the one coming up soon. But then there’ll be a long lapse because I’m working on a major Daniel commentary, and that’s going to take me several years to do so that’s going to occupy my time for awhile.

Stump:

Well, thanks so much for talking to us.

McLaughlin:

Thanks John.

Walton:

Love being here.

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Featured guest

John Walton

John Walton

John Walton is an emeritus 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 book, The Lost World of Genesis One.

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