Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Lost Word of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Reviewed by Lawrence G. Downing

Organized religion, in whatever form evidenced, has frequently placed itself in the role of a preservationist or protector of the established norms. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is one example among many. Over the years the church has taken leadership in pronouncements upholding the separation of church and state, the promotion of health principles: vegetarianism, anti-smoking/alcohol campaigns, and religions liberty matters. A present-day concern among a significant segment of Adventism is the creation/evolution debate. The call to preserve a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 has been sounded from all levels of the church.

In his inaugural presentation, General Conference president Ted Wilson said, “Go forward, not backward! Stand firm for God’s Word as it is literally read and understood...Don’t misinterpret the first 11 chapters of Genesis or other areas of Scripture as allegorical or merely symbolic. The Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches and believes in the biblical record of Creation which took place in six literal, consecutive, contiguous 24-hour days. If God did not create this world in six literal days and then bless the Sabbath day, why are we worshipping Him on the seventh-day Sabbath as Seventh-day Adventists? To misinterpret this doctrine is to deny God’s Word and the very purpose of the Seventh-day Adventist movement as the remnant church of God. Don’t go backward to atheistic or theistic evolution; go forward to the prophetic understanding that loyalty to God, the Creator and Redeemer, will be seen in the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath as the distinguishing characteristic of God’s people in the very end of time.” (1)

Wilson’s call for a “literal interpretation” of Genesis is an invitation to take him at his word. The end-point, when this invitation is accepted, invites the hearer/reader to explore options that have the potential to lead one in directions quite different from those set out in Wilson’s inaugural speech. A “literal interpretation” of Genesis One, according to some reliable exegetes, allows the reader to accommodate the findings of current science while holding true to the original intent of the biblical text. This, in fact, is the proposition John H. Walton sets out in his book, The Lost Word of Genesis One Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, (IVP Academic, 2009.)

Walton fully affirms God as creator. This belief, he holds, is an essential to the Christian faith. The proclamation of God’s creative power is at the heart of our understanding of the Bible and is first expressed in Genesis 1. Yet these few verses has caused a brouhaha that has challenged Christian churches over the centuries. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is one example.

Genesis 1, as interpreted by traditional Adventists, demands a belief in a short-term earth-chronology and a belief that all of creation took place in six consecutive twenty-four hour days. However, not all Adventists agree with how the traditionalists interpret the text. One can empathize with Walton when he writes, “Though simple in the majesty of its expression and the power of its scope, the chapter is anything but transparent. It is regrettable that an account of such beauty has become such a bloodied battleground, but that is indeed the case.” (2)

Adventists have not escaped the bloodletting. Charges and counter charges are hurled between those who adhere to and advocate the traditional Adventist interpretation of Genesis 1 and those who are less concerned about biblical chronology than they are about the processes that lead to the world as it is now. Under the current church administrative leadership, the debate between the two camps is likely to intensify, and the divide between the two factions will continue to expand. This is unfortunate and unnecessary. There are exegetical interpretations of Genesis 1 that allow both sides to coexist and open the possibility that there can be a degree of civility between the tow groups. (As an aside, is there not something in scripture that calls for toleration among believers?)

In ten propositions, Walton sets forth conclusions that arise from what he terms a “literalist” interpretation of the text. He understanding of the biblical creation account is set within the context of the cultural, linguistic and exegetical framework of other accounts of creation found in ancient non-biblical sources. His examination leads him to conclude that Genesis 1 is a description of function rather than an account of how matter came to be. The writer seeks to explain how the Creator God acted upon a nonfunctional state and through divine intent and act utilized matter for function purposes.

Walton posits that the sun, moon, seas and land are the things that exist that have material existence. Their "function” is the purpose that they serve, the reason they exist. Walton invites the reader to consider a "chair" and a "business" as his examples for how his thesis can be understood. The material in a chair can be analyzed, measured and detected with our senses. The material is what defines the chair and allows us to say it exists. He calls this "material ontology.” (3)

A business can also be said to exist. When we speak of a business existing " would clearly not be the same as a chair existing. Does a company exist when it has filed the appropriate papers of incorporation? Does it exist when it has a building or a website? In some sense the answer to these would have to be yes. But many would prefer to speak of a company as existing when it is doing business...Consider a restaurant that is required to display its current permit form the city department of health. Without that permit, the restaurant could be said not to exist, for it cannot do any business. Here existence is connected to the authority that governs existence in relation to the function the business serves. It is the government permit that causes that restaurant to exist, and its existence is defined in functional terms.” Walton calls this "functional" ontology. "In a discussion of origins we need to focus on the ontology of the cosmos. What does it mean for the world or the cosmos (or the objects in it) to exist? How should we think about cosmic ontology?” (4)

Walton addresses one of the foundational issues in the evolution/creation debate: How is one to understand creation? In today's world we look at existence in material terms. The material view of ontology determines how we think about creation. In essence, to believe that existence is “material” is to believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Consequently, we tend to focus on material origins. But what about the creation of a curriculum? What, asks Walton is “material” about a curriculum?

With this question Walton invites the reader to consider the question of cosmic ontology. Most people, he points out, do not consider alternative ontologies. When we think about the cosmos, we think material ontology; creation as a material act. When he examines writings from the ancient world, Walton finds an alternative view. He proposes that "... people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture. In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind in a human society. In theory, this way of thinking could result in something being included in the 'existent' category in functional terms...In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties. Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not 'exist' if it has not become functional.” (5)

Walton reminds both the scientist and the theologian that their areas of study are distinct and the boundaries for each discipline should be respected. “Those who accept the Bible by faith accept also by faith a teleological view of origins. Empirical science is not designed to be able to define purpose, though it may theoretically be able to deduce rationally that purpose is logically the best explanation. As the result of an empirical discipline, biological evolution can acknowledge purpose, but…it must remain teleologically neutral.” (5) This boundary does not apply to theology. Theology can legitimately argue for a particular teleological point.

While Walton does not answer every objection that arises from the evolution/creation debate, he does, I believe, open an avenue that allows for both advocates of their respective positions to participate in a respectful dialogue. Neither group need demonize the other. An example of how Walton’s conclusions can be applied is found Brian Bull and Fritz Guy’s recent SPECTRUM article, “The Six ‘Creation Days’: Prologue to God’s Rest. (7) The authors use a method similar to that found in Walton’s book to address the evolution/creation debate that rages within the Adventist church and its educational institutions. The authors suggest the possibility for a reinterpretation of the texts upon which conservative Adventists base their conclusions and, as does Walton, they hold that a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 allows for more flexible conclusions than those advocated by church administrators and others.

These authors join with Walton to offer a word of hope that in the end reasonable people can and will follow a course other than one that condemns those that read the same Bible but come to different conclusions. Unlike those who read Genesis 1 and conclude that their reading of the text is incompatible with the conclusions of modern science, Bull and Guy, in agreement with Walton, affirm that science and religion can coexist.

1. Wilson, Ted, “Go Forward,” Adventist World—NAD September 2010, p. 11.
2. P. 7
3. P. 24.
4. Ibid.
5. P. 26
6. PP. 152, 153
7. SPECTRUM Vol. 38 Issue 3, Summer 2010, p 48-53.

John H. Walton (Ph.D., Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Previously he was professor of Old Testament at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. Some of his books include Ancient Near Eastern Thought: Essential Bible Companion, Old Testament Today (with Andrew Hill), Genesis NIV Application Commentary, and IVP Bible Background Commentary (with Victor Matthews and Mark Chavalas).

1 comment:

Todd Patterson said...

Thanks for the balanced perspective on Walton's book. Because of the current atmosphere over Gen 1 the way we engage in the debate is as (or nearly as) important as getting the interpretation correct.