Posts Tagged ‘John Walton’

Why Genesis 1 was written

February 11th, 2010 | 12 Comments

Not that I have all the answers, of course.

I thought I’d reproduce a summary of my current thoughts on the issue that I formulated in an interesting comment exchange under a post on another site.

I asked what sort of question the authors of Genesis 1 etiology intended to answer:

[1] why the world exists,
[2] how it got made, or
[3] both.

One commenter (whose opinion I highly respect) essentially agreed with me that the answer is [3], but added that Genesis 1 only answered [1] by implication of its primary goal of answering who is responsible, namely YHWH. I have sympathy for this, but I explained why I wrote [1] as I did.

I think Genesis 1 primarily attempts to answer the question of why everything is here as it is by instructing the Israelites/Jews that YHWH tamed chaos in order to subjugate and commission creation for His purposes. Things work as they do (=are “functional” in Walton’s terms) because it was He who intended the sun to shine, the fish to inhabit the ocean, man to hold dominion over nature, etc. The reason the world works as it does is because it was intended to work that way (“God saw that it was good”). There is certainly a strong element of the “who” answer intimately integrated into this, but I think another key aspect of Genesis 1 is a worldview shift toward the common Judeo-Christian belief that the chaos we see in our world is somewhat apparent rather than real.

What I mean is that God is in control of all creation and does not have to periodically journey to Jotunheim to grapple with his mortal enemies the frost giants—the frost giants are well under His jurisdiction. As I explained before, the gods of the ANE are typically not supreme rulers (although they are sometimes called this): they are simply the forces who are in a unique position to keep order in the universe, a responsibility they frequently shirk and indeed often circumvent by their own or other gods’ reckless actions. In contrast with the dualism of gods vs. forces of chaos (often including other gods) seen in so many other world cultures, Genesis 1 describes a deity who is supreme over nature and not in eternal competition with it. YHWH is pictured elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in continuing contention with chaos and other insurgents, but He settles these incidents from a position of authority rather than as a merely marginally stronger force.

Chaos in Genesis and Germanic mythology

February 4th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Dr. Enns has recently reminded us that the Ancient Near East conceptualized the beginning of creation as a battle between order and disorder, the gods vs. chaos. We see the chaos of the natural world represented as an antagonist in the Genesis cosmogony. The forces of chaos are never quite given the dignity of a name, but the functionless void upon which the curtain opens in Genesis 1.2 and God’s actions of appropriating already existing material in that chapter clearly demonstrate that He is not tasked with creating a world from scratch but with the more typically king-like duty of bringing order out of disorder, as John Walton has been arguing.

But this “cosmic battle” between order and chaos is by no means a peculiarly ANE leitmotif. Although separated by hundreds of years from the ANE, Germanic mythology as it shows up in the Scandinavian stories is characterized by the same dualism. As fitting for a people thriving in a harsh environment, the mythology of the Scandinavians as represented in Old Icelandic (“Old Norse”) literature shows this motif in the form of the continuous struggle between the gods and the ancient, formidable, grotesque giants, the frost giants in particular for obvious reasons. The world itself was born of chaos: from the gap between the realm of fire and the realm of ice a mountainous frost giant Ymir was formed, the father of all giants from whose body the earth was made after being slain by the gods (there is good evidence that many of these motifs go back to common Indo-European mythology). The delicate balance of power between the cruel and pitiless forces of nature and the order maintained by the gods is evident in Snorri’s highly entertaining rendition of “Thor and Utgard -Loki” (also called “Thor’s visit to Jotunheim”): while the two gods and accompanying human are clearly somewhat at the mercy of the giants in Jotunheim (“Giantland”), the prospect of encountering the wrath of Thor’s hammer keeps the giants from exploiting their better position.

As J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out long ago in his monumental lecture/essay, “Beowulf: the Monsters, and the Critics,” the Germanic outlook was thoroughly grim, for they anticipated that order as championed by the gods was fighting a losing battle against chaos and its monsters, and that valor was a matter of playing one’s part in a game that everyone knew could never be won.

“The Northern Gods”, Ker said [in The Dark Ages], “have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason” – mythologically, the monsters – “but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.” And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this “absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.”

Tolkien notes that the eschatological conception of “the doom of the gods” indicates that the Germanic outlook was much bleaker than the Mediterranean mythologies in predicting that chaos would triumph. But surely in accepting this fate they were but extrapolating a macro view of world history from their most reliable source: each individual’s experience. Human life is born in travail, then thrives and pushes back against all odds; defying death in early years, maturing to fear and avoid it, growing more and more aware that an entire lifetime’s work of survival is but delaying the inexorable fate of all. Each of us must succumb to the destructive power of nature, so why shouldn’t the entire world work that way?

Polytheistic cultures generally envisage gods as beings of a different sort altogether from the Judeo-Christian conception of God: rather than ultimate beings supreme over the natural world, they are merely beings whose great power was essential for maintaining some control over the natural world — and not always successfully. Despite depicting YHWH in standard ANE terms as a king, Genesis 1 describes Him as in full command of all the chaotic forces of nature.

Acknowledging Genesis’ ANE pedigree does not by any means strip it of special meaning. Rather, studying commonalities among cross-cultural cosmologies highlights the sort of meaning the original audience of Genesis would have been wanting and allows us to appreciate the accounts for what they were intended to be.

N.T. Wright on “unfaithful”, “flat” readings of Genesis

January 13th, 2010 | 10 Comments

The BioLogos Foundation hits another home run by soliciting and sharing this gem:

Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, while no fundie, is generally regarded among scholars and many evangelicals as fairly conservative in his theological outlook (e.g., he affirms an historical Fall of some kind), so this is good to hear from him. I found it interesting that Bishop Wright clearly affirmed Walton’s model of Genesis 1 as a statement of God’s authorship and control of the universe recounted in the form of an analogy to a temple dedication. He echoes Walton when he warns that taking a “flat” view of Genesis as simple history just because it’s what our culture expects is in a real sense a dishonor to the text itself.

If we want to be faithful to the text, we must take it on its own terms, regardless of what we think it should be saying. Those who insist on a simple historical account are in effect attempting to wrest the creation stories away from the original audiences and make it meet our interests. The ancients would have found little enough meaning in a newspaper account of the events that began world history, but so many Christians are insisting that God was under some obligation to leave them out in the cold in order to satiate our modern demands.

Creation as God’s temple

November 27th, 2009 | 10 Comments

John Walton points out that often in the Ancient Near East, a temple dedication ceremony would take place over seven days’ time; for six days, the temple would be furnished and the priests would take up their posts, and finally on the seventh day the deity would come in to take residence and begin to exercise his/her authority. Walton argues that when the Hebrews heard the priests read the creation week of Genesis 1 to them, they would probably not have taken it (primarily, anyway) as a treatise on history or a scientific origins account but as a comosgony framed in terms of an analogy with the construction and resulting importance of the temple as God’s headquarters for the universe. Walton refers to Genesis 1 as a “temple text”: it is a literary form of analogy to the establishment of the sanctuary. His “rest” was not about sleep, but about settling in at the control booth and taking command of the cosmos He had set in place. Six days you shall work, rest on the Sabbath. In fact (and this is not from Walton), that’s why the Sabbath was not made for man, but man for the Sabbath: it became a day of doing nothing (even healing!), when, as Jesus demonstrated with the healing of the man with the withered hand, it was intended to be a day of doing the Lord’s work, a day set aside to remember God’s intention for the heavens and the earth (the implementation of His purposes).

Remember Isaiah 66.1: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house that you build for me?” Like the word “rest” in Genesis 1, this word commonly translated footstool may sound like it’s describing a simple Laz-E-Boy scenario. as most commentators recognize, the footstool language should conjure the image of the posture of the victorious ANE king with his foot on the neck of the defeated foe. It’s the picture of a king exercising authority and dominion. A king in this position could “rest” in the confidence that he was in control of the situation, but his kingly responsibilites were by no means complete. Footstool in passages like Isaiah 66.1 and Psalm 110.1 refers to those who have been subjugated; it is after this “rest” of conquest has been undertaken that the king’s reign over all his subjects is realized. Recall that Isaiah 66.1 is only a few verses after the passage in chapter 65 in which Isaiah describes the establishment of a new heavens and a new earth, which is the same setting as Genesis 1. Compare Ps 110.1: “The LORD said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet,’ ” which was quoted multiple times in the NT (Lu 20.43; Ac 2.35; Heb 1.13; 10.13). What Isaiah was envisioning in chapters 65 and 66 was a new order, a new throne and footstool; this time those forcibly subjugated would be those who had been nullifying God’s purpose for His house. Beginning with the “earth is my footstool” verse, Isaiah goes on to list God’s grievances against those whose right standing with God implied by their adherence to the Law was being contradicted by their character, because they weren’t honoring God with their actions.

The early Christians thought of themselves as the new temple being built up (e.g. Ep 2.20); if they recalled their ANE past, they would have anticipated their “dedication” after their completion and furnishing. This completion would be realized in the initialization of God’s full reign through Christ, which Christ would conduct by putting his enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15.24-27), the most obvious of which were of the same cloth as the “enemies” seen in Isaiah 66, the practitioners of the Mosaic covenant whose lips honored God but whose hearts were far from Him.

Genesis 1 is a description of God’s ordering of the cosmos in the familiar terms of the house of the Lord. Not an historical account of the creation of the physical universe, it is a carefully sculpted literary expression using the familiar terms of the covenant intended to bear witness to God’s preeminence over all creation.

My position on the origins question

April 16th, 2008 | 22 Comments

Josh recently commented on another thread, “I want to hear your explanation of the origin of life on earth. I have heard the positions you are against. So how did we come about?”

Actually, you’re asking two different questions. The first, concerning the origin of life itself, I have not come to any conclusions on. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a supernatural act of intervention. But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened by some natural process. The fact is, even scientists don’t have a really good explanation for “abiogenesis” (life from non-life), although they’ve got lots of hypotheses. Yet this current lack of knowledge alone does not make me immediately decide, “Oh! Miracle!” I have explained elsewhere why this God-of-the-gaps explanation is a sinking ship; that some rain god’s direct, miraculous intervention is behind the phenomenon of rain might have seemed like the only possible explanation before an understanding of meteorology, but such a claim would not only have been entirely premature, but, when displaced by a scientific explanation, would appear quaint and superstitious. Just because we don’t know now doesn’t mean we won’t be able to figure it out, and we may even one day be able to reproduce it.

This leads to an important clarification of my understanding. The rotation of the earth, gravity, photosynthesis, fossil formation – what do these have in common? 1) God is responsible for all of them. 2) They operate independently from overt divine activity. What’s my point? What I’m trying to say is that I affirm that all the rules of the universe, such as those responsible for the processes I just mentioned, operate just as they were designed to do. Therefore, I’m an intelligent design advocate of a different kind. As Howard Van Till says, God designed a “fully gifted creation”, which means that He set it up to run in a way that did not require Him to break His own rules in order to create us. I contrast this with Van Till’s assessment that ID posits a “system of natural causes [that] fails to include the formational capabilities needed for assembling certain complex biotic structures, such as the bacterial flagellum.” I contend that there was in fact more design put into the universe than ID advocates or creationists allow for, only that this design lies so deeply embedded within nature that the unbeliever will not be likely to notice it.

For the believer, however, God’s involvement in nature is much more visible on the surface than even ID advocates claim: scientists in the intelligent design movement go to great lengths to dust biology for God’s fingerprints, when the fact that the laws of nature even exist is God’s smoking gun – He’s responsible for it all, not just the gaps! Note, however, that I’m not using the cosmological argument and asserting that the existence of natural laws are proof of God’s existence; on the contrary, God’s role in the physical processes that perpetuate the natural world is one of intentionality and purpose, unrecoverable by science and unprovable by philosophy. God doesn’t have to keep making the universe work; all He has to do is will it to work. Of course, even creationists and ID advocates would agree: where we differ is that whereas I believe this essentially naturalistic manner of cosmos management started further back than the present day, the stance of the ID/creationist crowd is that God began using natural laws to run the universe only after the creation. This is seen by the fact that they don’t regularly posit the necessity of God’s intervention to make sure that iron rusts when exposed to water nowadays, yet (under a literalist, historiographic understanding of Genesis) the creation, including plants created on the third day, was able to get along without light from the sun until the fourth day, because ostensibly the laws of nature did not apply until after He was done.

Now to the second part of Josh’s question: how did we (humans) get here? We determine these sorts of things by examining all available resources.

What surprises some Christians is that I am fully confident that the Bible is not one of those resources, nor was it ever intended to be. In Genesis 1-11, until we get to Abraham, we are not getting history as we would from a history book; we are looking at stories common throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE), remolded and adapted to serve God’s purposes. I have previously linked to the conservative Wheaton scholar Dr. John H. Walton’s presentation on Genesis 1. Watch it or else: it’s an hour-long presentation, but if you’re at all interested in understanding my position, you’ve got to check it out. An inelegant way of summarizing it is to say that this chapter is a complex literary work affirming that YHWH is responsible for the universe using imagery drawn from the Jewish temple. The Garden narrative, while retaining firm roots in Mesopotamian mythology, has been reformulated as an archetypal story showing God interacting with humanity, in terms reminiscent of and serving as commentary on the Torah. I plan on addressing this stuff later.

If we don’t use Genesis as a science book or to determine the origin of humanity, where do we look? My choice has been to look to those who dedicate their life’s work to observing, analyzing, and hypothesizing about the natural world: scientists. And no, that group of people is by no means primarily made up of atheistic conspirators against theism. For Pete’s sake, the head of the Human Genome Project is a devout evangelical Christian who, from his intimate knowledge of DNA, cannot conceive of another explanation of the data he’s seen than common descent.

I’m not going to be dogmatic about exactly how everything got here in scientific terms, because I’m not a scientist. But for me, as with any question beyond my ken, I yield to those people who have studied the matter in depth. To sum up my position as a non-scientist who doesn’t think the Bible speaks to the “how” of creation, I would like to quote Dan Werner’s comment on Mike Beidler’s post discussing Van Till:

As to the scientific question, I stand with the whole of scientific tradition these past 140+ years in affirming full-fledged evolution. There can be no other acceptable position for a layperson such as myself. To believe otherwise would not be humble.

Case Study: the Fall

February 11th, 2008 | 30 Comments

This is the seventh in a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

The traditional doctrines of the Fall and of Original Sin teach that the first human’s first sin caused a rupture in the whole race’s ability to interact with God. How the death that Adam experienced because of his sin was passed on to all his descendants has been explained in various ways: the federal view says that Adam’s fall from God’s favor was effective for all humanity because he was the “head” of the race. Another view is that the Fall corrupted Adam’s very genetic makeup, causing humanity to be a slave to its own sinful and fallen flesh, which explains how it was passed on to his children, and thus the whole race.

Regardless of how they explain it, most Christians believe that God considers all humans straight out of the chute as culpable of sin, a stance of separation from God called “Original Sin”. This position explains why every human sins, and why we automatically start out life estranged from God. That we all sin and by nature act in ways that do not please God from early childhood at least is apparent to all. For this reason, it is accurate to say that unredeemed mankind is, as a race, “falling”, but as for “fallen”, what did we fall from? Or, more importantly, what caused this Fall? Allow me to present you with an alternative interpretation based on a view of the Genesis account as etiology.

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The Literary-Generic Principle

January 20th, 2008 | 13 Comments

This is the fifth of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

The Importance of Determining Genre

Because the Bible is a compilation of literary works, in order to get the sense of it, we must interpret each of them in the manner in which it was intended, viz. according to the appropriate literary category. Surely the principle of interpreting things in the manner in which there were intended approaches tautology, but how many Christians ever really follow it through? As mentioned before, the assumptions that determine the “manner in which it was intended” are too often based on what meets the eye alone. So what do I mean by interpreting the Bible as literature?

You read a novel in much the same way that you read the newspaper, realizing that they are both forms of narrative. How you interpret the narratives in each, however, depends on your recognition of the type of literature you are reading. No one would say that Great Expectations was “errant” or “a pack of lies” unless he thought it was written as history. The same goes for the Bible, which is far from uniform in literary genre. We have farmers, shepherds, doctors, and kings for authors; what thoughtful person, recognizing that God chose this diverse crowd rather than three or four prophets or priests to bear witness to Himself, would conclude that God would homogenize their testimonies into one nameless genre, erasing the distinctiveness of each one in His quest to dole out a series of unanalyzable propositions? Instead, within the pages of Scripture we find a broad range of writing styles that includes poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, and epistle.

Moreover, there is not always a one-to-one genre-to-book correlation. Not every segment within the book of Genesis, for example, is to be interpreted as the same sort of narrative, as is somewhat obvious to someone doing comparative literary analysis on the type of stories being told. The Creation part of Genesis shares many characteristics of Ancient Near Eastern mythology, whereas the stories of the Patriarchs remind us of the Icelandic sagas, collections of family stories that give a group of people a common heritage.

The historical-grammatical (or grammatico-historical) method of biblical interpretation is the practice of taking into account the original language and the culture of the original audience when researching the original meanings of Scripture. By and large, though, inerrantists have used this principle as a defensive and reactionary measure to clear up problems rather than as an active interpretive method: for instance, it is responsible for the observation mentioned before that Judah (and later Israel) used accession year dating, because Edwin Thiele looked at Persian (and that of other ANE cultures) record-keeping and saw that this explained a lot of long-supposed errors in the dating of the kings. The historical-grammatical method has been modified by many exegetes to act as a sort of middle-ground that suspends the value of a plain reading if by any means it helps to demonstrate the scientific inerrancy of the Bible. What is missing from that version of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is the principle we have been discussing that insists upon interpreting the Bible in terms of the literary characteristics, devices, and genres that make it up. We may call this the literary-generic principle; this principle is a tool that cannot be neglected by anyone claiming to use the historical-grammatical method of interpretation and exegesis.

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