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Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Andy Holt


This review comes at the perfect time. Though we did a series on Walton’s book when it came out, we are treated to review of the book during a period when this topic is fresh and relevant to the posts of RJS. 

Again, if you’d like to submit a review, please do so…

Blog Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
by John Walton

The first chapter of Genesis is the most hotly contested biblical text of our time. Theories and interpretations abound as scholars have turned the chapter upside down and inside out looking for biblical clues (and ammunition) to the origins of the universe. There are at least four major schools of interpretation on Genesis One: young-earth creationism; day-age theory; the gap theory; and the literary hypothesis. It’s time to add a fifth school to that list: John Walton’s cosmic temple inauguration.

Walton derives his thesis from his exploration of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and their creation myths. The problem with the current, Western interpretations of Genesis One is their failure to overcome the distance between our modern culture and the culture of ancient Israel (existing alongside and within larger cultures like Egypt and Babylon, which all have their own fascinating creation stories). “Despite all the distinctions that existed across the ancient world, any given culture was more similar to other ancient cultures than any of them are to Western American or European culture.” (12)

Crossing this cultural gulf means making one significant,
and seemingly obvious, proposition: Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. (16) This
means that “it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or
address modern questions.” (16) What, then, are the terms in which it describes
cosmology? This is the crucial question, and what sets Walton’s interpretation
on a different course from the others.

Moderns tend to think of creation only terms of material
origins. What is the sun made of and how did it come into being? How long did
it take for the mountains to be formed and how did they get their current
shape? What is the physical composition of humanity and how did we get to be
the way we are now? These are the questions of a modern, Enlightenment-oriented
culture. But these are not the questions of a polytheistic culture, or even a
monotheistic culture within a wider polytheistic world? In order to understand
Genesis One, we need to ask the questions the ancients asked.

Rather than questioning the material origins of the
universe, the ancients told stories about the functional origins of creation.
Existence, for them, was not tied to the material properties of an object, but
rather to how that object functioned within a closed system. “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.”
(26) Walton proves his point through numerous examples from ancient Near
Eastern texts, and concludes with this contrast between modern and ancient
thinking: “We tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether
someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more
like…a kingdom.” (35)

Functional Ontology is the cornerstone of Walton’s
interpretation of Genesis One. Using this as his lens, he sees in Days 1-3 the
creation of the three fundamental functions of life: time, weather, and food.
“So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather;
and day three the basis for food. …If we desire to see the greatest work of the
Creator, it is not to be found in the materials that he brought together–it is
that he brought them together in such a way that they work.” (59) Perhaps a
better translation of “It was good”, then, would be “It worked.”

From here, Walton proposes that Genesis One “should be
understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple.” (84)
Because “divine rest takes place in temples,” (87) the seven days of creation
are best understood as a temple inauguration. “By naming the functions and
installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place,
the temple comes into existence–it is created in the inauguration ceremony.”

The implications of this interpretation are numerous., but I
will only mention two. First, if Genesis One is an account of functional
origins rather than material origins, there is no conflict between a “literal”
reading of Genesis and the findings of evolutionary science. (Walton argues
that the real fight between the creation (and ID) camp and the evolution camp
is over teleology, and he makes some interesting prescriptions for public
scientific education.) Second, if the cosmos is God’s temple (or divine resting
place) then there are no such things as natural resources–there are only sacred
resources, and we must adjust our ecology accordingly.

Walton’s book offers valuable insight into the Genesis One
debate, and ought to be carefully examined by those on all sides. There is much
more in the book that is worthy of discussion, and it is accessible enough to
encourage conversation between all interested parties.

Questions: Does Walton present a reading of Genesis One that
allows Christians to remain theologically and exegetically faithful while being
scientifically relevant? Do you find the argument of functional ontology
convincing? How does this interpretation change the game on cosmic origins?

Comments read comments(11)
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Michael W. Kruse

posted July 24, 2010 at 4:38 pm

This one of the most important and helpful books I’ve read in some time. Thanks for reviewing it, Andy.

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posted July 24, 2010 at 6:59 pm

PRELUDE – I want to thank all of you for making everything you all do accessible to people like me. I mean that in terms of physicality (if you could call the internet physical) and an honest attempt at relevance to non-academic people. I need a new job where I get paid to read and hypothesize about all this stuff. It is too hard doing all this while raising a family of three teens, running a business and holding down a corporate job….
RESPONSE – Yes, functional ontology makes perfect sense to me. As an engineer from a few decades ago, I am used to trying to think about the capital s System of things rather than the small s system that most people think about. The System of the cosmology of the universe with humans an element is the System of God. It is a System, not system.
Also, my years of disillusionment and engrossment in other Systems (particularly Buddhism) makes me predisposed to this type of thinking. that is the type of thinking that Christianity needs, imho…
On of the great parts about the phrase functional ontology is the implicit recognition that the connection between the parts is the operative part of the whole. That the whole, when reduced to parts, is irrelevant. It is the relationship, in this case functional ontology. I am convinced that the whole is best described by the relationship between the participants not the “parts”. The parts are unimportant in the scheme of things. “It” is not about the part, it is about the relationship of the parts.
This looks like another book you people are going to put in my reading list….arghhh I wish it was on audio. I do at least 1 hour of driving a day and audio sure helps.
QUESTION – What is that picture in this post (and had been previously used?). I can’t figure it out?
captcha – speedier irritability

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Michael W. Kruse

posted July 24, 2010 at 7:25 pm

#2 DRT
The pic is Trinity College in Dublin. I’ve used this pic at blog a couple of times too. I love it.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Under this Trinity College Dublin Library, I believe called The Long Room, is the Book of Kells.

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posted July 24, 2010 at 11:33 pm

You mention time, weather and food as functions being established in days 1-3. What functions were established by days 4-6. I do not have access to Walton’s book, so I am curious

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posted July 25, 2010 at 7:12 am

I don’t have my copy at hand either – I lent it to my dad, who read it, bought another copy, and proceeded to lend both to various of his friends who have thought and wrestled with these issues.
But we ran a long series of posts on the book last summer.
You can find them with this link. Or search John Walton on the blog. That will get you started – but my link is a little cleaner.

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Andy Holt

posted July 25, 2010 at 7:27 am

The gist of it is that Days 1-3 were the functions, and then Days 4-6 were the functionaries: Sun, moon, stars; fish and birds; animals and humans.

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Stuart Cook

posted July 25, 2010 at 9:06 am

I’m only up through Proposition 16 in my reading, but thought I’d add a comment since reading this review. I had high hopes for this book, since Scot recommended it in response to my letter to him which he forwarded to RJS with my permission and which started the little “Houston,…” series of posts a few weeks ago. First, on the upside, I find it very helpful to view Genesis 1 in terms of Functional Ontology. That does seem to help with the old earth and literal Genesis 1 problem. I’m also interested in how to resolve the Darwinian origin or homo sapiens with Genesis 2, which Walton correctly points out is a problem when you come to Romans 5. The idea (p. 100) that somehow death affected all life except for homo sapiens prior to the fall seems a bit far-fetched. Commenting on Genesis 2 and Romans 5 (pp. 138-139), Walton explains “Whatever evolutionary processes led to the development of animal life, primates, and even prehuman hhominids, my theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve. Rather thatn cause-and-effect continuity, there is material and spiritual discontinuity, though it remains difficult to articulate how God accomplished this.” My comment to myself after reading that last phrase was “no kidding!”
But that is exactly what I want someone to explain.
It seems to me that Walton is back to “God of the gaps” here. Science can explain the origin of species except for one, if we want to hold on to our view of Scripture. But if we drop our view of the Bible, then the problem goes away. I like fewer problems, but I too feel a sense of loss at dropping my view of Scripture. I don’t want to go that way, but I’m still not in possession of very good reasons not to.

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posted July 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

I found Walton’s book quite good with respect to Gen 1 – and the young earth versus old earth discussion. It stops short though at the biggest issue as you note. The discussion of Adam and Eve is a bit sparse (unsatisfactory) and it doesn’t deal with the more troublesome text of Gen 2-3. We need some solid thinking here.
But the view of Gen 1 as a functional description, and even the view of humans as created for a function is quite useful in shaping my own thinking about Genesis.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Isn’t Walton saying that something materially new happened with humans — when, say, hominids suddenly became homo sapiens?

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posted July 26, 2010 at 9:19 am

Nice review, but I have one quibble. I would not say that Walton adds a new 5th category to the ways of reading Genesis 1. Instead, I think Walton’s view lies very much within the category of “literary” interpretations; he just has some new things to say about the exact nature of the literary form used. Walton himself even says in the book that his view is complementary to and entirely compatible with literary framework views such as those of Meredith Kline and Henri Blocher.
I personally think it is helpful to start the categorization further back, with two categories. One top-level category is “concordist” interpretations which assume that Genesis 1 must be giving scientific information and therefore must be made to “line up” with science. Under that category would be 6×24-hour (YEC) views, day-age, and gap theory. The other top-level category (which would include pretty much all non-fundamentalist OT scholars these days) would be “literary” views that see Gen. 1 as using literary devices of some sort to communicate a theological message rather than trying to be a modern scientific account.
I also agree with the comment that Walton’s book, as great as it is for Gen. 1, does not particularly help when it comes to issues of Gen. 2-3. In the few passages of the book addressing Adam, etc., one gets the feeling that Walton’s scholarship would push him to put Gen. 2-3 also in a “literary” category, but that Romans 5 and theological commitments force him to step back from that leap and insist on Adam as a real individual in space and time.

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