Yes, Walton’s book is a barn burner, better than Crichton or Clancy.
Your summary is solid, but you focused on only the first part of the book, the exegetical part, which is the most relevant and interesting part for someone raised in the Christian church. However, his propositions exploring the implications of the exegesis are equally important. The paragraph, “God’s Role in Everything” in Proposition 17, “Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker,” is an especially important one. To quote Walton, “Our scientific worldview has gradually worked God out of the practical ways in which we think about our world. When science can offer explanation for so much of what we see and experience, it is easy for our awareness of God’s role to drift to the periphery. […] The result is a practical (if not philosophical) deism in which God is removed from the arena of operations. […]”.6 Alvin Plantinga also developed this important line of thought in his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism.7
Many of the attempts to resolve the conflict between science and religion inadvertently give God the “gaps” between natural explanations, gaps which grow ever smaller with the progress of science. This is objectionable to believers for obvious reasons. It is also objectionable to scientists because when well-meaning Christians fill a “gap” in scientific explanation with God’s unique action, they are essentially declaring it to be “off-limits” to scientific investigation. Dawkins says, with some justification, that it kills curiosity.8
Ultimately, Christians must see God as the originating and sustaining cause of everything in the world, even if we acknowledge “evolution” (in some form) as an accurate summary of phenomena. Intelligent Design and similar attempts at reconciling science and Genesis fall into the trap of practical deism. In attributing some phenomena to “nature” (for example, speciation through descent with modification) and others to God (for example, creation of the first self-replicating molecule), the increasingly detailed natural explanations of phenomena slowly and relentlessly marginalize God.3,6
In the biblical narrative, the relationship between God and creation is more pervasive and “organic” (in a figurative sense). Paul, for example, links creation and providence and locates them in Christ: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and things on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17) The “before” in “before all things” is a priority in position, indicating rule, rather than a priority in time.9 Christ rules over all of Creation. There is no deism; Christ is active in, under and around every part of creation.
Walton’s “cosmic temple inauguration” explanation of Genesis 1 resonates with this New Testament perspective. God is all-present, active and purposeful in his temple, the world. For many scientists who are atheists, like Dawkins, this is even less acceptable than young earth creationism. Yes, Walton’s reading of Genesis 1 leaves open the possibility of speciation by descent with modification over a long period of time; no, it is not an accommodation of Genesis to science.
If Walton’s explanation is correct, then it is the literal (or face-value or plain) reading of Genesis 1 because it is how an ancient Israelite would have perceived it. This appeal to a different perception is not a convenient justification. The experiences, expectations and values of a reader’s culture determine the plain meaning of the text for him or her. These influences are so foundational that readers are often completely unaware of their existence. The “literal” meaning of Genesis 1 is not how we perceive it but how ancient Israelites would have perceived it. Walton summarizes by saying, “[Genesis] was written for us, but not to us.”10 It is the perception of the original audience that matters here. Walton’s approach is good interpretation working within the grammatico-historical principle of biblical interpretation.
The grammatico-historical principle, in contrast to allegorical methods, says that the intended meaning of a Bible text is the plain meaning of the words in their grammatical and historical context11; in other words, the plain meaning of the text to the original hearers. The grammatical context is usually easily accessible, but the historical context is less so. Nevertheless, it is often possible to reconstruct the important elements of the worldview of the author and readers by studying extra-biblical literature that was written in the same era as the Bible text and looking for resonances with the ancient worldview in the Old Testament as a whole. Walton concludes from studies of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian literature, together with corroborating Old Testament texts, that ancient Israelite readers did not sharply distinguish between the natural and the supernatural, and furthermore would not have read the text as an account of material origins.6 This is exactly what we moderns do instinctively when we read Genesis 1. We come to the text with questions and expectations foreign to the author and the original audience. We read it, and it seems to give straightforward answers to our questions—until the contradictions surface. But our culture is “worlds apart”—geographically, temporally and culturally—from that of an ancient Israelite, and our unrecognized assumptions make us unaware of the plain meaning of the text for someone who lived in the Near East 3500 years ago.
Cultural conditioning affects our reading of New Testament passages too. Ken Bailey, a New Testament scholar who lived and taught in the Middle East for many years, details how pre-modern Arabic translations of the story of the prodigal son avoided a literal translation of “run” in Luke 15:20 (“his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him”) because they assumed that the father (who represents God the Father), a landowner, would not run because it was shameful.12 Even today, middle-aged Arab men do not run.12;13 He went on to show how the plain meaning of the story, for Jesus’ hearers, was that the father paid a redemptive price, bearing shame to redeem his returning son. In early 21st Century North American culture, we have no ingrained bias against mature male landowners running and so we are blind to the significance of the father’s running for the message of the parable. At best, we read into it an expression of the loving father’s longing for his lost son. Our culture comes with unrecognized assumptions that veil to us the shame of running, part of the cost paid to restore the lost son.12
The pervasive influence of culture affects the ability of modern cultures other than ours to understand the plain meaning of the Bible too. Muslim friends reading the Bible for the first time instinctively projected Islamic assumptions onto the text. For them, the literal meaning of “Son of God” in Arabic was—well—literal; what they heard was that Jesus was the physical offspring of God.14 This take on Christian teaching was enshrined in the Qur’an’s commentary on what Christians believe: “Say, ‘He is one’. Allah is the Self-sufficient. He begets not and was not begotten and there is not one who is equal to Him!” (The Qur’an, Al-Ikhlas, 112.1-3, author’s translation); and “It befits not Allah that He should beget a son. Glorified be He! When He decrees a thing, He only says to it: “Be!”—and it is.” (The Qur’an, Maryam, 19.35)15. Many Muslims thought that the Trinity was three gods; God the Father, God the Mother (Mary) and God the Son (Jesus). Calling Jesus the “Son of God” merely confirmed that impression. The instinctive meaning of “Son of God” to them is literal and very different from what the Bible meant!
The pervasive influence of culture affects the ability of modern cultures other than ours to understand the plain meaning of the Bible.
Finally, many Christians object to Walton saying that the Scriptures are perspicuous, or clear, and we don’t need mediating scholars. The doctrine of perspicuity affirms that the ordinary modern reader can, by ordinary means, gain a sufficient understanding of the Scriptures. It does not claim that every part of Scripture is equally clear or that the meaning will automatically cross worldviews and culturally conditioned expectations. The Westminster Confession says it this way; “[N]ot only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” (Chapter I, vii, emphasis added). The “due use of ordinary means” includes hard work and a ruthless examination of the assumptions we bring to the text. It also means we listen to scholars with experience in Greek and Hebrew and the “life setting” of ancient peoples. The doctrine of perspicuity does not allow us to dismiss scholarly work out of hand simply because it challenges our personal take on the Scriptures.
Walton’s conclusions are not the whole story, but they correct a first blush, early 21st Century, North American, reading of Genesis 1. As you noted, Walton says in Lost World that he doesn’t know how the current picture of human evolution and a historical Adam and Eve can be reconciled. He has since addressed this question in a subsequent book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate.10 If you are impatient and need to have all the answers now, this will be disappointing; however, it suggests a fruitful line of study for someone with a bent for biblical studies. At the least, it shows that evolution and Genesis are not inherently at odds and that we are not abandoning the “literal” (as perceived by the ancients) meaning of the text.
Not everyone will agree with Walton’s conclusions. A dogmatic atheist, like Richard Dawkins, is likely to remain antagonistic because he is opposed, in principle, to any theism.8 He sees scientists who allow room for faith as compromising, inconsistent scientists, calling them “Neville Chamberlain” scientists.8 Ken Ham, a prominent young-earth creationist, simply dismissed Walton’s book as a capitulation to evolution, without engaging with Walton’s argument, because it differs from his reading of Genesis 1 as an account of material origins.16 He sees Christians who accept an old earth or evolution as compromising, inconsistent Christians who don’t believe the Bible. You will have to decide how reliable Walton’s conclusions are based on the evidence he presents. I have tried to show why we cannot casually dismiss Walton’s approach as mere accommodation or an attack on the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.
A recent work by Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context, complements Walton’s work and offers a compelling understanding of the creation account by rooting it in the concerns of law.17 He does so by a careful examination of how the Pentateuch uses calendars (fly-over territory for most North Americans) and how they apply to Genesis 1. He shows that the purpose of the creation week calendar is to set the cadence of life and worship for God’s people to flourish in His kingdom, not to provide a journalistic chronology of creation. To reiterate, the concerns we bring to Genesis 1 are not the concerns of the author and the original recipients. In the words of one reviewer, “It’s a recovery of the past only in the sense that every age has a tendency to read the scriptures through its own lens rather than that of the original audience and intent of the original author and so we find ourselves having to constantly remind ourselves of how the original audience would have heard these words.”18
I suggested Walton’s book first because it is the apparent differences between Genesis 1 (read as an account of material origins) and modern science that disturbed me the most. Our faith depends on the reliability of the Bible, and the seeming conflict with science nibbled at my confidence with the question, “If the Bible is not reliable in its account of creation, how can we expect it to be reliable in matters of salvation?” Walton shows that there is no essential discrepancy because Genesis 1 is not concerned with the question of material origins that we moderns bring to it.
My next suggestion is Richard Dawkins’ book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.19 Dawkins addresses two fundamental questions:
What is real?
How do we know?
Dawkins’ answers both questions in the first chapter very directly. You can skim the rest, but see if you can state Dawkins’ position fairly, in a way that he would say, “Yes, you have it.”
Glad to interact at any point along the way.
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