Have you been reading Genesis wrong all your life? One Wheaton College professor would have you think so. Specializing in the Ancient Near East (ANE) literature, especially the biblical Old Testament, Dr. John Walton provides colorful and controversial views on the ancient story of the beginning. He wrote them down in book series that have the tantalizing title of “The Lost World of…” He has also given many talks sharing his views. To understand his thinking better, I read him and listened to many hours of him sharing his arguments, including lecture, discussion and debate. He seems to be a brilliant, rational and creative guy.
I want to say up front, many of our views overlap. He’s a smart man and has really helped me understand a number of things better, which I appreciate. I do, however, have a number of concerns with his positions. At times it is hard to critique his ideas; they are quite complex and the discussion gets weedy. Since my time is limited, I will only take a stab at a few of them. It also seems that many of his talks are somewhat repetitive. So, even if I don’t always source one of his ideas, the supplied links contain them. To give this more balance, I also linked to a number of people who have shared their concerns.
If you are one of my regular readers, you may have noticed that I usually dance within the land of ideology and philosophies, not in the land of critiquing individuals and persons. I also try to skirt the age of earth question. For this post, however, I will focus mainly on Walton’s views and what I think emotionally drives them. The age of the earth issue will be in context of Walton’s views. Beyond that, I would rather continue to avoid both of those issues.
Walton’s Lost World
What comes to mind when you hear the world “battery”? A power source for your flashlight? An artillery unit? A line up of tools or items? Mugging another person? A pitcher and catcher duo in a baseball game? Words can be ambiguous in their definition; they can be equivocal. Obviously, we have to look at the context to understand the word’s definition. This is no different from biblical text, context is essential. What is the context of the chapter, verse, phrase or even word? The need to understand context extends into the ancient cultures too. Biblical slavery is not antebellum slavery. Biblical kings are not medieval European kings. Ancient cities are not the same as contemporary cities.
Walton claims to be a text guy, a biblical text guy. He attempts to understand the cultural context of the days and times of the biblical writers. Walton, at times, uses his background in extra-biblical ANE literature to better understand the times of the biblical texts. He claims he avoids using extra-biblical ANE text to push his biblical exegesis, rather he is interpreting the biblical text for itself. However, he does seem to refer to ANE concepts in many of his points. I don’t see why this method is wrong. If we want to understand how they understood the text, should we not check out surrounding cultures of that day?
On the other side of the coin, there does seem to be a need for plain reading of the text. Does it take an elite textual scholar to deconstruct each word and then reframe the whole story as Walton is prone to do? Are we not to trust the many translators and translation teams who have been immersed in the text through the centuries? If we can’t trust the text for what it says, then how can we know unless we have a John Walton telling us what it actually says? As Dominic Statham says, “It is difficult to accept the idea that the vast majority of Christian and Jewish scholars have been wrong about the Bible’s account of creation for so many centuries” (Dubious and dangerous exposition). One person compared Walton to a modern day gnostic, because of his propensity of giving us “hidden knowledge” that the Judeo-Christian world has lost for thousands of years (The Gnostic World of John Walton). Is Walton here to correct everything?
We also have to remember that the text of the Old Testament took greater than a thousand years to write, by various people who lived in various places. I would be stunned that everyone in all those places held to the same ANE views that Walton suggests. Obviously, ancient people were much more isolated than we are today, and even people today have various worldviews even though they live in the same vicinity! So just using the sniff test alone, I think we should be careful to come to bombastic conclusions from ANE sources.
As you may know, unlike Walton, I’m not a Hebrew language scholar, rather I have a science, technology and design background. So, I do respect him for his background. But even with that said, all my life I’ve been reading and studying the ancient biblical texts at one level or another. I also have been in the world of apologetics for years. It seems to me that the text is clear enough for the simple to understand all the while containing unfathomable depths for the curious. Brand new ways of understanding the text, however, always makes me pause. I think the biblical principle of holding and guarding past teachings is always a good place to stand (2 Timothy 1:13).
Walton talks about biblical inspiration, which may be thought of as God working through the writers to share his thoughts. The biblical text has a type of dual authorship, the chain of inspiration where God inspires the ancient authors. However, he strangely puts the emphasis of vested authority on the ancient human author, not God. “We ought to focus more narrowly on the authoritative message that is embedded in the author’s intentions.” And similarly, he says, “We need to know as precisely as possible what the text claims by the authority vested in the human author’s intentions (The Problem with Trying to Read Science Out of Scripture). He also says that if we are not reading the text through their worldview, culture and lenses, the meaning does not have authority (John Walton – Human Origins and Genesis)!
While the ancient writer’s understanding is essential, it’s not a sufficient nor ultimate authority. Should not that authority be vested in God? If this is true, we need to read it how it was intended to be read. If God inspired it, we need to read it as God wants us to read it, not just how the writer intended it. If God really is God and if he really did make and order everything, he should know how the universe works. Even if he is communicating in a way the ancients can understand, it does not negate the fact that God is still speaking the truth about the universe. Just because they understood an aspect, doesn’t mean that is the total message. Just as a hand drawn map is quite different from the actual terrain, if done well, it still is an accurate representation of the world. The ancients may have been seeing the accounts in black and white while we may be seeing it in color.
For example, this is common in biblical prophecy. Daniel, and the other biblical prophets, did not always understand God’s revelation completely. For example, we read in Daniel 12:8-9, “And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my Lord, what [shall be] the end of these [things]? And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words [are] closed up and sealed till the time of the end.” The person who wrote it may also have understood it totally different than we do, as we see in the prophecies of Jesus. Consider the prophecy in Psalm 22. While David was really groaning, it was also really a foretelling of Jesus on the Cross! Looking back, we see things that the human authors themselves did not see in the moment, but God saw all along (for example, Luke 24:25-27).
“The Bible was not written to us but for us”
One of Walton’s most repetitive lines is “the Bible is for us, but not to us.” In other words, it was written to the ancient Hebrews, but for all humanity. This is all true. Like I said above, he thus suggests we need to understand the text as they understood the text. They had a different culture, language, time and place. While this is true on one level, I do think this needs to be tempered with another thought too. Jim Bendewald, from Evidence Press, points out that this line of thinking “…can make us feel that since we can’t understand Hebrew and are not intimately familiar with the ancient near eastern texts, we shouldn’t interpret Genesis for ourselves.” Actually, the opposite should be the case. He goes on to say, “…the Bible transcends language, time and culture. The Bible was not just written by men, it was written with the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” This was my point above; God is God and it was guided by his inspiration.
Bendewald also agrees with what I said above about prophecy, “Prophecy often is dual in nature. But the Bible is timeless with its messages applying to people of all ages. The Bible was written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who is beyond time and culture. I do agree that the Bible is to be interpreted in light of its original language, culture, type of literature and other factors. But let us not forget that God too is the author and He transcends time and culture” (7 Reasons Dr. John Walton is wrong on Genesis 1).
Science and the Biblical Creation Account
Walton is clear that he is a text guy, not a science guy. He claims not to use science to push his exegesis. He accurately adds that the ancients did not understand contemporary scientific knowledge. Rather, he says, they had a totally different “Cosmic Geography,” or view of the world. The “Cosmic Geography” of the ancients was filled with gods, and they had a functional, not physical focus (John Walton – Human Origins and Genesis).
He bucks the contemporary reading of Genesis claiming that the ancients thought of creation in terms of functional origins rather than material origins. Thus, the Genesis account was not about material origins or the physical creation of the universe! According to Walton, the ANE people also thought when it functions, has a name, when it is separated out, has a role to play and when it works, the thing starts to exist. In other words, nonexistence to them meant non order. Thus, when God gives names he makes nonexistence into existence. Thus the line between existence and non existence for them was not material, rather functional (Restitutio, podcast #152, Why Didn’t God Call the Light Light?).
According to Walton, however, the Genesis account was not when God fabricated the material universe; God did that prior. Instead, the first chapters of Genesis only show God giving function and ordering this previous material creation. One writer explained Walton’s views this way, “Therefore, Walton presents Genesis chapters 1-11 as the origin of functional purposes such as the origin of food instead of material trees and plants.” (7 Reasons Dr. John Walton is wrong on Genesis 1)
Like I said previously, I think we should read with God’s perspective, not necessarily from the perspective of the ANE people. God is the Creator; thus it strikes me that he is more than capable of understanding the workings of the universe. It seems more than reasonable that God communicated in a way that the ancients could understand what he was saying while simultaneously communicating reality.
Even with this said, the text really seems to suggest that God created everything in the Genesis account. When one reads the Genesis accounts, one sees it talk about physical objects like earth, plants and animals. At the same time, we see it talking about order, names and meaning. God both created animals and gave them their roles to procreate after their kinds. God created plants and gave them their uses. God created light, the sun, moon, stars and earth, and gave them their roles as calendars. God created humans and gave them their roles too, to have dominion over the earth and to procreate. God created the world but also gave it order.
Consider also the Decalogue’s summary of the Genesis account; it really sounds as God created EVERYTHING at the beginning in the same stretch of time, functional and physical: “For [in] six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them [is], and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11).
John affirms this too, John 1:1-4 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” Jesus too, being God, says something similar. Being in a post Hellenistic period, as John was, presumably he understood the prominent Greek thought of his day. He did not, however, “set the record straight”. If the Greeks were the ones who promoted the idea of a physical and discernable world, as Walton claims, why didn’t Jesus correct the minds of his listeners when citing the creation story (Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24)? Matthew 19:4-6 records it this way “And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made [them] at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mark, in Mark 10:6-9, says this, “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Not only did Jesus lump both the physical and the functional together here, but he did not provide a correction to the post Hellenistic thinking of dual creation of the physical and the functional. One may say that is an argument from silence, and it may be. However, Jesus was happy to correct their misunderstandings on other things, including one that was within this passage! I would argue that the reason he did not correct them was because he knows as much as we do that it is reality that the world is more than just immaterial or material world, rather it is both.
This is one massive reason materialism fails; it doesn’t match reality. As a Christian, I’m obviously not a materialist. I think there are nonmaterial things in the world that God created, such as our spirit, order, laws and information. But I will go a step farther, not only does God create nonmaterial things, we can too as co-creators. Consider such things as thoughts, ideas, dreams, concepts, philosophies and arithmetic calculations and formulas. The scientific method, information and laws are all immaterial too. However, just as materialism fails to match reality, so does a view that only focuses on order and function. Thus, if that was the focus of the ANE people, they only partially understood reality.
So Walton’s dogmatism leaves me scratching my head, why can’t you have it both ways as the text implies? Is this not how it has been tradition has understood? Why can’t we let God be God conveying reality to us, the way he actually created? Just as I know of no Christian in science who would think that the Creation story was just a creation of the physical universe, why would we think it was just the immaterial meanings and order? Creationist Stephen Lloyd makes a similar point in his debate with Walton (Unbelievable? Have we misread the Adam and Eve story? John Walton vs Stephen Lloyd). However, Walton strangely seems dogmatic that Genesis is to be read in the functional origins only view.
In fact, this dualistic view of reality, material and immaterial reality, was assumed by the founders of the scientific revolution. The founders were from a Judeo-Christian worldview that gave us science, that built the scientific enterprise! Plus, his idea of God infusing order in the universe is something that creationists and design advocates have been saying all along. Not only do we find that in the Genesis account, but we also find it built in both the universe and life. The big scientific conclusion of the twentieth and twenty-first century is understanding that physical life and the physical universe contains information infused order! Strangely, this is what Genesis has said all along, whether the ANE people understood the whole picture or not.
I do want to agree with him, to think that the ancients thought scientifically wouldbe anachronistic. The concept of science was non-existent throughout the biblical time period. Science came about thousands of years later, in medieval Europe. While the scientific world assumed natural laws, the ANE people didn’t think within a natural law mindset (John Walton – Human Origins and Genesis). While true, they were not prone to think “magically” either. The ancients saw patterns in nature too, that could be counted upon. They harnessed those patterns to get their way and were skeptical about claims of deviance from those patterns. You don’t think they wouldn’t have been skeptical of Jesus’ virgin conception? They know babies came through sex. They were skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection; dead men don’t walk three days later. David assumed his dead child would stay dead. Jacob bred goats and sheep to his advantage. Moses couldn’t figure out why a burning bush was not coming down in ashes. No, they did not think in the world of natural law as we do today, but they did understand order and repetition in nature.
Walton advocating the division of biblical reality between form and function gives me another concern too. Such an approach opens the path for compromise on the acceptance of the materialistic evolutionary history. While Walton tries to distance himself from the evolutionary worldview, he does work closely with an organization that promotes that. He also sure seems quite comfortable with that idea. (John Walton – Human Origins and Genesis). Not only has Walton been financed by Biologos as a speaker, he is also on their Advisory Council. Biologos is a Christian think tank that attempts to mesh evolutionary history with Christianity (John Walton’s bio at Biologos).
Plus, as you may know already, I think Neo-Darwinism is regressive, not progressive in our understanding of the world. I’ve made the arguments in the past that Darwinism is not compatible with the biblical worldview, reality and even science. Thus, I take great issue with the ideas of universal common descent for the origin of humanity and the flawed thinking that genetic mutations are capable of creating the required information for life’s diversity on earth.
I agree with Casey Luskin when he says “Walton wants religious persons to … deny that religion can ever make any empirically testable truth claims. Thus, he suggests that we should believe that God is ‘working alongside or through physical and biological processes in a way that science cannot detect.’” In other words, God is the invisible leprechaun that blows bubbles to make your pot of porridge when you heat it over the fire. Luskin goes on to say, “That bland view seems to add an unnecessary and dubious assumption, as we should not assume that God’s actions could never be detected by science. If the theory of intelligent design is correct, Walton’s assumption might not just be wrong, but it could hinder the progress of science” (A Misguided Attempt to Critique Intelligent Design: A Response to John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One).
Why do people believe what they do? For Walton, I think I know. While Walton may have unbiasedly come to his conclusions, I don’t think that is what happened. He, like the rest of us are prone to let emotions drive decisions. The major item that emotional drives his novel thinking was nicely pointed out by John Bloom. Bloom said this: “I have a great deal of empathy for Walton’s intentions: to present Christianity in a manner that does not create a conflict between science and the claims of the Bible, and especially not to lay any particular creation model as a stumbling block in front of the cross.” (Lost World of John Walton a book review of The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate)
I came to that conclusion too, after listening and reading him and listening and reading others who had commentary on his views. This one emotional drive is supported by three or four legs, depending on how you look at it. I want to make a side note, just because one is emotionally driven to argue a point does not make that person right or wrong. However, once we do know the emotional drive, it makes more sense when his views seem so awkward.
In one of his talks he gave three reasons for his passionate drive to argue his views (Origins Today: Genesis through Ancient Eyes with John Walton). One is that he sees a high attrition rate in the young people of the Church; they are leaving in droves. He says churches say one thing about the universe’s origin, life’s origin and humanity’s origin, and secular colleges and universities say something different. When the youth enter university, they have to choose, and his method short circuits this. Since the Bible says nothing about the material universe’s creation, this either-or issue is now gone, students can still support a secular origins view or even a materialist evolutionary history.
The second reason he gave was for a similar reason, but this time in the sense of evangelism. An unbeliever may be drawn to Christ through a Christian’s life, but then sidelined when he or she finds out that the materialistic evolutionary view of history is not compatible with Christianity. Thus, again, the material creation belief becomes an obstacle to Christ.
His last concern is that he feels the Church is doing a poor job ministering to people in science. He told of one of his colleagues in biology. She’s is always nervous about going to a new congregation. After they find out she is a biologist, she knows when she answers their next question, they will marginalize her and treat her as an unworthy member. In other words, this “colleague” holds to an evolutionary view of history and origins and other Christians don’t agree. This brings me to my fourth reason, which may be the same as the third, I just don’t know.
The reason I say I don’t know is that on his faculty bio on the Wheaton College page, he says this: “My wife, Kim, was trained as a biochemist, which has made for interesting dinner conversations–especially when I was working on my Genesis commentary” (John Walton’s Wheaton Bio). This is interesting, is his above female “colleague” actually his wife? It may be, I just don’t know. If so, I could see why he has such emotional passion! Another source said this about Dr. Walton and his wife: “Dr. Walton said that his wife (who is a biochemist) and colleagues influenced him to accept an Old Earth [OEC] view.” (7 Reasons Dr. John Walton is wrong on Genesis 1). I set out to find the recording of this claim, but could not find it. It seems like this recording, and some others from that time frame, were taken offline. I’m not surprised by this claim, however. Walton repeatedly says that he used to be a Young Earth Creationists (YEC). Without getting into the age of the earth debate, it seems that he totally sided stepped the main arguments between YEC and OEC!
Now, like I said before, just because one is emotionally charged to address an issue, does not make that person’s views are right or wrong. What makes it right or wrong is if it really is right or wrong. I’m concerned with Walton’s above ideas, and a number of other of his ideas, because I don’t think they match reality nor the knowledge of the authority behind the text. He wants me to see the text in human 2D; however, I would rather see it in God’s 3D purposes!
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So, what did you think? Feel free to share your thoughts below!
The following are just a few sources to hear Dr. Walton for yourself: He has many other lectures which can be easily found online.
- John Walton – Human Origins and Genesis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFyT00m5uTE&t=31s
- Origins Today: Genesis through Ancient Eyes with John Walton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR82a-iueWw
- The Lost World of Adam and Eve by Dr. John Walton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fn1ESgtNi4&t=2502s
- Understanding Genesis 1-3 – John Walton and Joe Fleener https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kOflP3eLSI&t=1233s
- Reading the Old Testament: The Ancient Origins and Authority of Scripture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RDAbu0KDwM&t=7358s
- Unbelievable? Have we misread the Adam and Eve story? John Walton vs Stephen Lloyd https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Have-we-misread-the-Adam-and-Eve-story-John-Walton-vs-Stephen-Lloyd
- Restitutio, podcast #152, Why Didn’t God Call the Light Light? https://restitutio.org/2018/10/18/152-why-didnt-god-call-the-light-light-john-walton/
The following sources include commentary and critique of Walton’s works:
- Lydia McGrew. Review of John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/03/review_of_john_h_waltons_the_l.html
- Lydia McGrew. Why do human origins matter? Part I of a review of John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve. http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/03/why_do_human_origins_matter_pa.html
- Lydia McGrew. Part II of a Review of John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve. http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/03/part_ii_review_of_john_h_walto.html
- Lydia McGrew. Part III of a review of John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve. http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/03/part_iii_of_john_h_waltons_the.html
- F. David Farnell. A Review of John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy. The Lost World of Scripture, Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. https://theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jisca/07-1_341.pdf
- Dominic Statham. Dubious and dangerous exposition. https://creation.com/review-walton-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one
- Thomas Purifoy Jr. The Gnostic World of John Walton. https://isgenesishistory.com/gnostic-world-of-john-walton/
- Thomas Purifoy Jr. How did Theistic Evolution Bring 3 Wheaton College Students to the Ark? https://isgenesishistory.com/theistic-evolution-college-students-ark/
- John Bloom. Lost World of John Walton a book review of The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate https://www.equip.org/article/the-lost-world-of-john-walton/
- Keaton Halley. John Walton reimagines Adam and Eve https://creation.com/images/pdfs/tj/j29_2/j29_2_47-51.pdf
- The Lost World of Walton. https://creation.com/lost-world-walton
- 7 Reasons Dr. John Walton is wrong on Genesis 1. https://evidencepress.com/articles/7-reasons-dr-john-walton-is-wrong-on-genesis-1/
- Richard Ostling. No ‘proof texts’: Wheaton College scholar seeks to shelve Old Testament moral rules (updated). https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2019/2/19/biblical-bombshell-evangelical-expert-seeks-to-shelve-old-testament-moral-rules-nbspnbspnbsp
- Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/component/finder/search?q=john+walton&f=1&Itemid=101
- Casey Luskin. A Misguided Attempt to Critique Intelligent Design: A Response to John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. https://evolutionnews.org/2011/09/a_lost_attempt_to_critique_int/
- Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks). https://creationwithoutcompromise.com/2018/10/15/critique-of-john-walton-noel-weeks/
- Steve Ham. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: A Response. https://answersingenesis.org/reviews/books/lost-world-adam-and-eve-response/