The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debateby John H. Walton IVP Academic (2009) 192 pages.
I find it exhilarating when someone picks up an idea and rotates it so that, by looking at it from a quite different direction, I see it with a new freshness. John Walton, professor of Old Testament theology at Wheaton College, does this in this book with Genesis 1.
He argues that we misunderstand ‘create’ (bara) and ‘made’ (asa), interpreting them as being about the material cosmos coming into existence. Instead he sees Genesis 1 as the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple. He illustrates the difference with a number of examples. At what point is a college created? Is it when the buildings go up? Or when the students and faculty arrive on campus and classes begin? Or when the commencement ceremony begins? His argument is that Genesis 1 is not concerned about the material construction at all.
There are various ways of “reconciling science and religion (and the Bible)”. A friend of mine exclaimed that he would be the first to rejoice if it was shown that Genesis does describe the origin of the universe and life scientifically, but his realisation that science conflicts with the literal reading of the Genesis texts leads him to reinterpret them. My approach is different. I cannot but read the early Genesis texts as ancient myths, collected together by an editor who clearly had no concerns, for example, to alter what was received in order to make some sort of consistent “what actually happened”.
John Walton helpfully delineates an approach that carves out science-religion conflict as a pie (with supernatural and natural slices). As the science bit gets bigger, the god-of-the-gaps bit gets smaller. He distinguishes this from a layer-cake approach (with a supernatural and a natural layer). Science, by definition, stays completely within its own layer. Some of the discussions around this I found (as someone with some competence in science and theology and philosophy) very useful for anyone wanting to intelligently explore the science-religion debate.
Those (“concordists”) who hold to Genesis as if it has contemporary science embedded within it will find this book the most challenging. There is also a good reminder of an error we all see from time to time, of picking an original word, examining its synonyms, and inserting a meaning that fits with one’s preconceived idea rather than allowing the understanding of the word to come from the context in which we find it.
There are issues with this book’s approach, not least for those who follow a sola scriptura approach. John Walton is saying that, open the Bible, and none of us have understood what the first page is about – at least not for a couple of thousand years!
My normal approach John Walton would describe as the “Framework Hypothesis” (page 110). I understand Genesis 1 as akin to a poem of seven stanzas with a particular pattern (“the first three days defining realms of habitation and the second set of three filling these realms with inhabitants”). John Walton sees his approach not as replacing this but as adding further value.
I highly encourage you to read this book.