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John Walton, Genesis 1-2, and Vern Poythress

posted by Scot McKnight

Walton.jpg

John Walton’s new book on Genesis (The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
), which essentially argues that Genesis 1 is about the function of materials instead of the construction or creation of materials, was blogged about on this blog at length. The book generated lots of conversation and learning. Not all are in agreement with John, and one of his stronger critics is Vern Poythress.
The review by Poythress, in World Magazine, was critical enough that John has now responded. 
You can find entry into both the review and the response here.


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the Foolish Sage

posted February 4, 2010 at 9:32 am


From Walton’s response: “…it seems quite telling that he did not interact with any of the evidence from the ancient Near Eastern literature, which serves a very significant role in the argument. He also did not deal with all the Hebrew lexical information that was brought to bear to demonstrate the position within the Bible itself. Instead of dealing with the evidence that was presented, he contented himself with saying it did not make logical sense to him. But isn?t that the very point? Ancient ways of thinking are not intuitive to us, nor is their logic transparent. That is why we delve into the literature for evidence. These are serious oversights.”
Deja vu. That is exactly the approach taken by Poythress and the Westminster Theological Seminary faculty minority who opposed Old Testament prof Peter Enns. The paper prepared by the Hermeneutics Field Committee (profs who generally supported Enns) raised numerous issues out of Ancient Near Eastern literature and Hebrew lexical issues within Scripture itself, all of which were studiously ignored in any responses by the minority report (the Historical and Theological Field Committee). Don’t confuse us with the evidence!
The full texts of the documents mentioned above are available at http://www.wts.edu/about/beliefs/statements/theological_discussion_documen.html



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John Frye

posted February 4, 2010 at 9:52 am


Another example of evangelicalism unraveling at the core. Those who think critical research about science/faith issues is over and settled (Poythress et al) ought to leave the academic arena. As comment #1 notes–two great scholars, Enns and Walton, are examined,judged and dismissed by those not even in their league. Sad.



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Larry

posted February 4, 2010 at 10:44 am


Isn’t Poythress’ thinking here a good example of what McClaren tweaked in his blog post that was discussed here yesterday? “It’s new, it’s different, it makes me uncomfortable, there it’s wrong”.



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Phil

posted February 4, 2010 at 11:11 am


Larry,
Yeah, it appears so.



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dopderbeck

posted February 4, 2010 at 11:17 am


I’m not entirely sure what Poythress is going on about. In his own book “Redeeming Science,” Poythress allows for the same sorts of conclusions as Walton, i.e., that evolution might have been God’s means of creation. I suspect Sage (#1) hits the nail on the head: Poythress is one of the firmest critics against any sort of “accommodation” hermeneutic, and while Walton I think would not go as far as Enns, quite clearly Walton is willing to allow that God used “incorrect” underlying ideas about the material creation to communicate an authoritative message that is principally about function.



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Eddie

posted February 4, 2010 at 1:13 pm


“It’s new, it’s different, it makes me uncomfortable, there it’s wrong”.
Pretty well says it Larry.
Dylan said it too: “The Times They Are A Changin’.
Sometimes the evanglical community more closely resembles Jr. High School girls drama than it does men willing to accept new and better idea for the sake of truth.
I am very much looking forward to meeting John Walton when he comes to Butler University on March 18th a little more than 6 weeks from now.
His book totally makes sense to me…



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AHH

posted February 4, 2010 at 2:15 pm


Interesting also that the Poythress review was not in a scholarly journal, but rather in World magazine. Guess that is a sign of how much certain ways of reading Genesis get tied up with the “culture wars”.



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Ben Wheaton

posted February 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm


Ah yes, let’s all insult Vern Poythress. Uber-partisanship is so much fun!



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Scot McKnight

posted February 4, 2010 at 3:07 pm


Well, someone has to stand up here and say we need to avoid attacking Poythress’ character; I have no reason to believe Vern is anything but a committed Christian and deeply serious in his intellectual engagement.
The issue is in part whether or not Poythress fairly represented Walton’s argument; the other part is whether he has toppled Walton’s theory by examining the evidence afresh or shown that Walton’s evidence doesn’t support his findings.
I don’t find it at all likely that Poythress disagrees because it’s “new”.
RJS reviewed Poythress’ book about science on this blog two years ago or so.
I like Walton’s book; I’m not an expert on ANE sources; and I’m not surprised some are not happy with what he’s saying because his view is compatible with some views that traditionalists don’t like, but being compatible with is not the same as saying Walton argues such views. John’s view on Genesis 1-3 is uncompromising in its affirmation of God as creator, even special creator, and of the historicity of Adam and Eve. But his seeing Temple in Genesis 1 makes some nervous.



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BPRjam

posted February 4, 2010 at 3:08 pm


Ben (#8), if you have some words to speak in defense of Poythress’ review, or against Walton’s response, I’d love to hear it. I don’t personally see much ad hominem going on here, except perhaps comment #2 (“dismissed by those not even in their league.”), and only then if I really squint my eyes.
At the end of the day, the only horse I have in this race is proper exegetical method, and the search for truth. If Poythress has an important point contra Walton, I want to know. Do you have some input that can clarify Poythress’ point, and that is a proper critique of Walton’s method(s)?



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John W Frye

posted February 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm


My comment (#2) about those who critiqued Enns and dismissed his scholarship because they cannot adjust to where it *may* take them, and Poythress’ critique of Walton, is their (in both cases) unwillingness or inability to deal with the ANE evidence and biblical support these scholars bring to their work/new ideas. That’s what I meant by “out of their league.” I intended no personal assault upon their character or Christian good will.
Thanks, BPRjam (#10), for not squinting your eyes.



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dopderbeck

posted February 4, 2010 at 3:40 pm


Scot (#9) — of course we shouldn’t attack his character, and I’m not sure anyone here has really done so. Still, let’s be honest: a review like this in the bastion of theological scholarship and refined intellectual engagement that is World Magazine (-cough, gag-) invokes WTS’ and Poythress’ role in the current round of the Bible Wars. We’re not talking here about a robust and layered exchange on an SBL meeting panel; the only reason we’re talking about it at all is because of the renewed Bible War context.
IMHO, the “problem” this illustrates with Walton’s approach is that “middle ground” is exceedingly, exceedingly hard to hold. I very much doubt this has anything at all to do with Walton’s specific proposals about the nuances of Ancient Near Eastern thought.



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WTS student

posted February 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm


“As comment #1 notes–two great scholars, Enns and Walton, are examined,judged and dismissed by those not even in their league. Sad.”
I guessing that all of you will be eating your words if and when Dr. Poythress (who has published more material then Enns and Walton combined, has more acadmeic degrees these two men, and sat on the editorial committee of the ESV) gives a response. To even assume that ANE sources ‘scare’ Westminster scholars such as Dr. Poythress is absolutely ridiculous. His peers are G.K. Beale and M.G. Kline who together with Dr. Poythress who not only wrestle with what you commentors call ‘evidence’ but also the authority and definition of the word ‘evidence’ in the first place. In other words, the philosophy of the use of the word ‘evidence’ in science at the deepest level will be tackled as well. To assume that the evangelical community can just toss around the word ‘evidence’ in some sort of neutral fashion is almost laughable.



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BenB

posted February 4, 2010 at 10:51 pm


WTS Student,
No offense to you, and no offense to Dr. Poythress but…
(I say this as someone who could never agree theologically with Dr. Enns by virtue of his having even thought about teaching at WTS)
You mean to tell me that you think a New Testament scholar is more qualified to comment on Ancient Near Eastern Literature than Peter Enns? I’m sorry, it’s not an attack on Dr. Poystress, but there are very few scholars in the entire world who are “in his league” when it comes to ANE literature. Certainly not a New Testament scholar. Also, more degrees and publications don’t honestly mean very much. There’s a lot that goes into assessing those sorts of things.



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WTS student

posted February 4, 2010 at 11:58 pm


no offense taken …
More qualified? I guess it depends on what you mean by qualified. Would you say that M.G. Kline is just as ‘qualified’ given his Ph.D’s in both Assyriology and Egyptology? …I hope so. Yet Kline and Enns come to different conclusions on the nature of scripture due to different theological implications. Kline and Poythress share the same theological implications because they take issue with the root of the nature of ‘evidences.’ This is an area where I would argue that Poythress is more than competent to comment on given his expertise in philosophy of science, language, and hermeneutics. On a side note…if publications and degrees don’t mean much then what is your standard for entering this ‘league’ of extraordinary gentlemen? (not trying to be condescending here …thought it would be a good joke, cheesy, i know.)



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RJS

posted February 5, 2010 at 6:48 am


WTS Student,
Qualification is relative of course. Poythress is not as “qualified” to comment on ANE culture – this isn’t his specialty. But the argument here has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of data or knowledge. The disagreement is, at its rock bottom, an argument about what scripture must be.
Poythress starts with a presupposition about scripture and reads everything through that lens.
Scot is right – I reviewed Poythress’s book and found it quite helpful. I would recommend it to anyone struggling with issues of science and faith – especially if they come from a conservative perspective where the view of scripture is of paramount importance.
I actually think Walton also starts with a presupposition about scripture, but is willing to allow more latitude with the form different passages take.
I find Poythress’s concordist approach (based firmly in a specific view of scripture) much less helpful and less coherent than Walton’s view.



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RJS

posted February 5, 2010 at 7:05 am


To continue … of course “personal preference” is not how we should decide issues like this.
But Poythress has a specific view of scripture. It is rock bottom for him. When I apply that view to my reading of scripture it results in many pretzel twists and contortions to make everything fit together. It is hard to develop and overall coherent and satisfying approach.
Walton’s approach to Genesis One – while still quite conservative – provides a consistent Christian way to read scripture as the Word of God that does not require as many contortions to make the text fit our preconceptions. It is actually an approach that lets scripture be itself and teach us. It also (apparently – not my area of expertise) is consistent with ANE scholarship.



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dopderbeck

posted February 5, 2010 at 9:57 am


WTS Student (#15) — thanks for these comments. On the one hand, I agree with some of your inclinations here. If we take scripture seriously (whatever exactly that means), and if we take our own sinfulness seriously, and indeed if we take our own inherently limited humanness seriously, we always have to ask critical questions of evidential claims that seem to contradict our understanding of scripture. So, in this sense, I understand and agree with your scare quotes around the word “evidence.”
OTOH, there is a point at which scare quotes around the word “evidence” cause us to slide into an unreal, obscurantist world that becomes disconnected from the reality we actually inhabit. The popularity of young earth creationism, in my judgment, is Exhibit A for how easy this is to do. Poythress is of course not a YEC, but the same sort of anti-realist epistemology seems to me to underwrite the strongly Van Tilian apologetic program.
So, in this sense, I don’t want to put scare quotes around “evidence.” There is also a point at which we have to critically query our theological presuppositions, as they also are subject to human sinfulness and limitations. Some versions of some theologies and interpretations of scripture, it seems to me, shatter against the hard rock of reality, whether rock unearthed by geologists or by archeologists.
The rock bottom issue, as far as I can tell, is this: does all extrinsic evidence have to be interpreted in light of the dogmatic presupposition concerning the Biblical text, or can the dogmatic presupposition concerning the Biblical text also be interpreted in light of the extrinsic evidence? I think there must be a dialectical relationship here, or else we’ll inevitably slide into mere fideism.



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RJS

posted February 5, 2010 at 11:38 am


dopderbeck,
As usual on such subjects you put it better than I, but exactly.



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AHH

posted February 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm


Dopderbeck #18 said,
The rock bottom issue, as far as I can tell, is this: does all extrinsic evidence have to be interpreted in light of the dogmatic presupposition concerning the Biblical text, or can the dogmatic presupposition concerning the Biblical text also be interpreted in light of the extrinsic evidence? I think there must be a dialectical relationship here, or else we’ll inevitably slide into mere fideism.
I agree wholeheartedly, but I think there is a related “Bible wars” issue here that is also very important. This is the relationship between our presuppositions and our interpretation of the Bible, independent of extrinsic evidence. It seems that to some extent Walton but especially Enns want our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration, and therefore our hermeneutics, to be shaped by the phenomena of the Bible itself rather than dogmatically held on the basis of presuppositions about what the Bible is supposed to be like. Using the Biblical text itself to call into question cherished notions of “inerrancy” and so forth begets controversy even before one brings in evidence from archaeology, geology, etc.
Of course one can’t totally separate these issues — you can’t look much at “the phenomena of the text” without bringing in extrinsic information about context, nuances of meaning in the Hebrew, etc.



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Bob Robinson

posted February 5, 2010 at 4:05 pm


vanguardchurch.blogspot.com
Walton was here in my town for a debate on this issue at Malone University. The person on the other side of the debate asked Walton who, in the history of the church, has ever held his view on Genesis 1. Walton, quite honestly, said “Nobody.” And then further said that this, of itself, does not negate his interpretation (I agreed with him, by the way).
After the debate, I did a debrief with the college students I hosted at the event. I asked them this question: “When somebody offers a novel interpretation of Scripture, how do we discern that it is right or wrong?” The reason I asked this of these students was because I think that this an important first question to ask, even before engaging in a debate about Walton’s view in particular. That’s because some Christians are always wary of new ideas in terms of biblical interpretation, and just as many Christians are always excited about the newest and most exciting ideas that are offered by “the scholars.” We need a first principle on this!



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Mfort

posted February 26, 2010 at 10:08 am


(1) Just because Poythress summarizes Walton and critiques a specific element of his argumentation, does not mean he misrepresents him. He assumes the research, assumes what is correct (even affirms what is correct in his critique), and offers a focused response to raise important questions. I think that’s okay. Counter responses (I think) should address the questions he raises rather than (I think) probe his motives, qualifications, or argumentation methodologies.
(2) I am sometimes over-sensitive and very defensive when people critique me. This is a malignancy that must be cut out of evangelicalism. We must repent of our unhealthy need to have everyone accept our claims uncritically.
(3) I could be very wrong on all of this…but especially this one! Isn’t Poythress’ primary concern the alleged existence of all material pre-creation? That just because ANE thinking and focus was function, does it necessarily mean that material was not also “in play?” Regardless of what ANE thinking is, when the material character of the sun becomes the material character of the sun, only then does it function as the sun. It does not function as the sun any other way. If, prior to this, the “material” does in fact exist in some form, it still does not exist as the sun, but something else. Can we separate actual material from actual function? I’m confusing myself–time to move on!!!
(4)If Walton is correct about pre-creation materials, we must stop referring to Gen 1 as “The Creation Account.” That title itself arises from our cognitive environment not ANE’s. This would actually be kind of cool! (I am neither advocating nor mocking…but if he’s correct it would be cool to come up with new way to refer to the Gen account.”
(5) Love covers a multitude of sins…and hopefully interpretive stances! ;)



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