Thoughts on John Walton’s Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes

John Walton

I was recently asked to watch and provide some feedback on Dr. John Walton’s lecture, “Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes.”  Walton was recently in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia giving this same lecture and I understand that several Canadian Reformed people were in attendance.  There is some interest in Walton’s approach to Genesis 1.  Some find his arguments compelling.  That being the case, and since the question of origins is being debated in our churches, I thought it worthwhile to watch the lecture and share some thoughts.  I’m not going to interact with everything he said, but simply touch on some key points of concern.

First of all, who is Dr. John Walton?  He is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.  He has taught at Wheaton since 2001.  He’s written many books and articles including The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.  Furthermore, he is on the Board of Advisors for BioLogos.  In case you’re unfamiliar with this organization, you can read their beliefs here.  BioLogos actively holds to and promotes theistic evolution:  “We believe that God created the universe, the earth, and all life over billions of years…We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent.”

This lecture deals with Genesis 1.  At the very beginning, Walton said that he is not a scientist and would not be pushing any science.  His goal is simply to read the Bible well.  This is a commendable goal.   We all want to read the Bible well.  The question:  does Walton succeed in reading Genesis 1 well?  As I mentioned, what I’m offering here is not a point-by-point review of the lecture.  I will not rehearse everything here.  What I just want to do is isolate three major problems.

The first problem is a subtle one.  That has to do with the starting point.  Let me first state what our starting point ought to be when we deal with questions of how to read the Bible.  Simply put:  we have to start with the Bible.  We go to the Bible to learn how to read the Bible well.  There are some points related to this.  Because Scripture has God as its author, the Bible possesses an intrinsic unity.  Because the Bible has this unity, we can and must use the entire Bible to understand the Bible.  When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we should draw our principles of interpretation from the Bible itself.  Now when we do that, we are reminded that God is the primary author (2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:21), but God did bring his word through human beings.  Yet we must insist that the divine stands over the human when it comes to the Bible.  To keep this from being overly long, I won’t expand on a biblical method of biblical interpretation any more than this.  Those want to pursue that further should begin with this summary of Dr. Seakle Greijdanus’ Scripture Principles for Scripture Interpretation.  For a book-length approach in English, I would recommend Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the approach of Walton.  His first slide in the lecture and the associated comments lead me to that conclusion.  One of the bullet points on the slide is “Authority is vested in the author.”  When I first saw that, I thought that this was an orthodox statement.  If God is the author of Scripture, then certainly authority is vested in the author.  But Walton said, “The authority of Scripture is vested in the human authors.”  Where does the Bible teach this about itself?  This is not a good place to start.  Throughout the rest of the lecture that follows, Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 is to essentially treat it as any other Ancient Near Eastern text.  He treats it as a human text that carries a divine message, rather than looking at as a text first of all inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired all of Scripture.  As a consequence, Walton gives no attention to the New Testament and its approach to Genesis 1.  Genesis 1 is mentioned by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 19:4 and also by Paul in 1 Timothy 2.  How is Genesis 1 regarded in those passages?  Should we not allow Scripture to interpret Scripture?  Instead, it seems to me that Walton takes a humanistic approach to the Bible.  Such an approach is dangerous and will inevitably lead to wrong conclusions.

My second point builds on the first.  Reformed theology teaches that Scripture possesses several properties.  One of these is its clarity.  Some have spoken of the perspicuity of Scripture.  Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130).  The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies or the Hebrew language.  In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).  Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not.  Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.

Walton’s approach compromises the clarity of Scripture.  With this proposal, Christians today need a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1.  In fact, with Walton’s approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark.  There is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light.  Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16.  However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage.  Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it.  It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.

My third point interacts more directly with Walton’s proposed reading of Genesis 1.  Walton thinks that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology.  He argues that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, things comes into existence by reason of their function.  Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use.

I respond by first of all noting the false dilemma Walton seems to present between material and functional.  Though I picked this up on my own, with some research I noticed that I’m not the first one to identify this as a problem.  Why can’t there be both in Genesis 1?  In fact, I think if we have to take the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might be our conclusion.  I don’t see how recognizing the functionality of what’s described in Genesis 1 rules out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days.  Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession.  God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”

Related to the foregoing false dilemma, Walton overstates his case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’.  He argues that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature.  He says, “Nothing material is going on with bara’.”  However, even on the slide discussing this verb, there were things material in nature.  For instance, people male and female.  People have a material nature and they were created out of material:  dust.  But readers do not have to take it on my authority.  This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:

Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13).  More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18[19]; 51:10[12]; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.).  (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).

In fact, NIDOTTE states that Walton’s view is “somewhat misleading.”

There is much more that I could say.  However, I think anything else I would say has probably been said by others and better.  Let me conclude by saying that Walton’s view falls along the same lines as the Framework Hypothesis approach to Genesis 1 and 2.  I recently reviewed ERQ pastor Paulin Bédard’s book In Six Days God Created (you can find my review here and order the book here).  He tackles a lot of these other issues that I haven’t touched on, though he doesn’t directly discuss Walton.  I highly recommend this book.  Unlike John Walton, Paulin Bédard takes the Bible seriously on its own terms — that’s how we read the Bible well.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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