John Walton: The Lost World of Genesis OneContinuing on the theme of creation/evolution-related books from around five years ago (1, 2), we now move across the pond to Wheaton College, Illinois, and to John Walton and his very influential book, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009).

Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His main area of interest is the ancient Near East, and in how we should understand the Book of Genesis in that context. His books include a fairly substantial commentary on Genesis (2001), a more scholarly book from 2011 on the same topic as The Lost World of Genesis One (Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology), and The Lost World of Scripture (2013). I really should have read those books before writing this review. But I haven’t. Read on at your own risk!

The first thing to note about the book is that it confines its attention almost exclusively to Genesis 1 (well, 1:1-2:3). It’s important to remember that this isn’t the only relevant part of the Bible when thinking about creation and evolution. In fact, as we saw in the previous book, it is possible to build a strong case for a young-age creation position without even looking at Genesis 1, based on what the rest of the Scriptures says about Adam, about the Flood, and about death and suffering. Walton is not unaware of these considerations, of course. On Adam and Eve he writes: ‘Whatever evolutionary processes led to the development of animal life, primates and even prehuman hominids, my theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve’ (p.139). Likewise, he holds that ‘the disorder and brokenness of this world are the result of human sin and the Fall’ (p.148).

One of Walton’s principal observations is that Genesis 1 depicts the cosmos as a temple. This is largely based on the use of the word ‘rest’ for the seventh day, and the obvious fact (to people in that culture) that gods rest in temples. ‘Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple’ (p.72). So, to say that God rested on the seventh day is to say that God took up residence in his temple. This moves the emphasis from what is not happening (‘rest’ as inactivity) to what is happening. ‘Rest’ means that ‘stability has been achieved’ and that ‘the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken’ (p.73). This is helpful for our understanding of the Sabbath, which becomes not so much a time in which we simply don’t do certain things, as a time in which we actively ‘recognize that [God] is at the controls, not us’ (p.147).

Walton seeks to read Genesis 1 as people in the ancient Near East would have read it. In reading an ancient text such as Genesis, ‘we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully’ (p.9). We need to consider the author’s purpose in writing Genesis: ‘God has communicated through human authors and through their intentions’ (p.106). So we should be cautious about imposing our modern scientific questions onto the text. It is striking that Genesis 1, or Scripture in general, makes no attempt to correct people’s wrong beliefs about the material properties of the cosmos. Whether we are considering the sky as a ‘firmament’ (a solid dome with water above it), or whether we are considering how we think and feel with our hearts and our kidneys, God consistently ‘adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood’ (p.18).

Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity (p.19).

So, if we are not to impose our modern scientific questions onto the text, does that mean Genesis 1 is just a theological treatise? Interestingly, Walton would say that it isn’t. He is (mildly) critical of the ‘framework hypothesis’ way of reading Genesis, and of any approach that see Genesis 1 as being ‘only theological,’ having ‘a literary shape that makes it poetic’ so that it ‘should not be taken as any sort of scientific record’ (p.103). Those approaches, in his view, do not go far enough, and he is sceptical that the Israelites would have ‘thought of this text in only literary/theological terms’ (p.112). I share his concerns on that point. Whether they held their beliefs about the creation week in quite the same way as they held their beliefs about the everyday world of their direct experience is a question I’m currently pondering. But to suppose, for example, that they could say, ‘For in six days the Lord made [everything],’ (Ex. 20:11) and to think of that as being a purely theological statement, with no hint about what actually happened in space and time, seems a bit tenuous.

So, if Genesis 1 is not concerned with modern scientific questions, but if it is still describing something that actually happened, then what is the conclusion? Remarkably, Walton is led to the conclusion that the world was actually created in six ordinary 24-hour days. I say ‘remarkably’, because Walton is very much open to the standard evolutionary understanding of the history of life. In other words, Walton is a six-day creationist who also believes (or is at least open to the belief) that the cosmos is billions of years old, and that life arose by evolutionary processes over millions of years.

How does he manage to square that circle?

He does so by suggesting that the ancient readers would have read Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins, not as an account of material origins. As such, there is no conflict between our science and the Bible: evolution is about material origins, and the Bible is about functional origins. ‘As an account of functional origins, [Genesis 1] offers no clear information about material origins’ (p.163).

Walton suggests that ‘our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms’ (p.24), but 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’ (p.26, emphasis in original). What then would it mean to create something? ‘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’ (p.26). So he can describe the cosmos as having had a ‘material phase’: a period in which it may have contained ‘dinosaurs and fossil “homo” specimens’ but in which it was ‘prefunctional’ (p.169). The ‘seven days of creation’ are then seen as ‘literal twenty-four-hour days associated with the inauguration of the cosmic temple — its actual creation, accomplished by proclaiming its functions, installing its functionaries, and, most importantly, becoming the place of God’s residence’ (p.93). A helpful parallel for this is the creation of the temple in Jerusalem. It had a material phase, during which the building was erected, but it only became the temple — it was only created — when it was inaugurated, and when the various material components were given their function.

What are we to make of this?

Walton is clearly right to point to a functional emphasis in Genesis 1. There is clearly a greater interest in the roles that various created things play than in what they are made of. He also makes a plausible case that Genesis 1 assumes that there was some kind of (functionless) material already present before the start of the seven days. Writing about verse 2, he notes that ‘here at the beginning of the creation process, there is already material in existence — the waters of the deep’ (p.49).

But beyond that, I find the sharp distinction between material origins and functional original deeply problematic, for biblical, conceptual and practical reasons.

First, there are biblical problems. Genesis 1 doesn’t simply say, ‘Let X do Y’ (giving a function to something that already exists materially). Rather, it says, ‘Let there be X, and let X do Y.’ I can’t see what ‘Let there be X’ means in purely functional terms. It seems to be saying that something wasn’t there at all (either materially or functionally), then God spoke, and then it came into being.

Second, there are conceptual problems. Is it possible to think about the cosmos being made into an ‘ordered system’ without its material properties being affected? And can a world full of living creatures (or ‘precreatures’!) really be described as having no function at all? Walton gives examples of computer software, colleges and curricula, in which the existence of the thing is not purely material. But can that same distinction be applied universally? And is non-material existence the same as functional existence? Is the non-material existence of computer software the same as it having a role in an ordered system? If the software is never used, does it have a functional existence? If the curriculum is never followed, does it have a functional existence?

Third, there are practical problems. These become evident when you ask ‘the question of what actually happens in the seven days’ (p.97). Walton answers as follows:

The main elements lacking in the “before” picture are … humanity in God’s image and God’s presence in his cosmic temple. Without these two ingredients the cosmos would be considered nonfunctional and therefore nonexistent. The material phase nonetheless could have been under development for long eras and could in that case correspond with the descriptions of the prehistoric ages as science has uncovered them for us. There would be no reason to think that the sun had not been shining, plants had not been growing, or animals had not been present. These were like the rehearsals leading up to a performance of a play. The rehearsals are preparatory and necessary, but they are not the play. They find their meaning only when the audience is present. It is then that the play exists, and it is for them that the play exists (p.97f).

But are there not seven days in the creation week? What happened during the first five? In what sense did anything exist (functionally) at the end of the fifth day, if there were no people present at that stage?

[F]unctionality cannot exist without people in the picture. In Genesis people are not put in place until day six, but functionality is established with their needs and situation in mind (p.51).

So God established the functionality on days 1-5, but the functionality didn’t exist until day 6? Perhaps the idea is that God announced on each day what the functions of the different parts of his creation would be, come the sixth day? But that doesn’t fit with the text of Genesis 1, which repeatedly says, ‘and it was so’, and, ‘it was good’, which Walton proposes refers to ‘functioning properly’ (p.51). So it must be the case that the cosmos was able to function, albeit imperfectly and partially, before people were created on the sixth day.

But if that is the case, then what actually happened on the first five days? Walton doesn’t read the text as saying that nothing actually happened. Something didn’t have a function, then it was given a function, then it functioned according to its newly-assigned function. But what does that mean in practice? Were the sea creatures assigned the function of filling the waters of the seas after they had filled the waters of the seas? Were the sun and moon assigned the function of giving light on the earth when they had already been doing precisely that for millions of years?

What would the observer have seen in these seven days of Genesis 1? At one level this could simply be dismissed as the wrong question. It continues to focus on the eyewitness account of material acts (p.99).

But if, in asking this question, we fail completely to come up with any plausible scenario for what actually happened, then maybe we need to question whether this distinction between material and functional origins is the right approach in the first place.

So where does that leave us? Walton hasn’t argued against the young-earth creation position as such. It is perfectly coherent to think that God could have chosen to create things (materially and functionally) in seven days so that it would be clear that the cosmos is a temple, and hence that ‘this world is a place for God’s presence’ (p.85).

But that still leaves us with the problem of the firmament. ‘We cannot think that we can interpret the word “expanse/firmament” as simply the sky or the atmosphere if that is not what the author meant by it when he used it and not what the audience would have understood by the word’ (p.57). Walton notes that if Genesis 1 is an account of material origins, and if there is actually no solid firmament, then ‘we then find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist’ (p.94). But nor is it easy to explain the functional creation of something that has no material existence, given that ‘something must have physical properties before it can be given its function’ (p.27).

Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on why ancient people made any attempt at all to describe things that were so far from their everyday experience. If no one had seen the foundations of the earth, then why speak of its pillars? If no one had touched the sky, then why describe it as a solid dome? If no one had been beyond the sky, then why speak of the waters which were above it? If no one had seen someone’s kidneys having emotions, or their heart thinking, then why speak as though that were the case? And if no one watched the earth or the sun or the first animals come into existence, then why speak of how it happened at all?

Those beliefs had a function in their lives. They needed to think and speak about who they were, where they had come from, and the world in which they lived. It’s impossible to do that without using language. And they did so in appropriate ways. Appropriate for what? Not for modern science: they were not going to apply for a research grant to find out what the earth’s pillars were made of! But, for pretty much any other purpose, it is entirely appropriate to describe the earth as resting on pillars, or the sky as being a solid dome. And it is entirely appropriate to speak of God making the ‘firmament’, if you want to reflect on God as being in control of the weather system. As Walton says, ‘The cosmic waters posed a continual threat, and the “firmament” had been created as a means of establishing cosmic order’ (p.57).

Or, to put it simply, following Walton, perhaps we should try again to hear Genesis as the original hearers would have heard it? Whatever effect the text would have had on them — however it would have shaped their beliefs and their lives — we should allow the text to have those same effects on our lives. And if all of those effects lead us in the ways of goodness and beauty and truth, then, in that sense, Genesis 1 provides an entirely good and beautiful and true account of the origins of the heavens and the earth.