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You’ve Been Reading Genesis Wrong: A Review of The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton

Lost_World_Genesis_OneAuthor: John Walton
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Intervarsity Press (2009)
Language: English
ISBN: 9780830837045
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I received a copy of The Lost World of Genesis One as an early Father’s Day present. It’s been on my reading list since it was published. And I’d been anticipating its publication since I watched a video lecture of professor John Walton explaining his view from a Wheaton classroom years before. So in short, I was very excited to read this book. And it didn’t disappoint.

The Lost World of Genesis One contains 18 arguments (propositions) concerning the interpretation of Genesis chapter 1 as well as their application for education and the Christian’s approach to science. Walton’s fundamental thesis is that Genesis chapter 1 has been misinterpreted by many Western Christians in light of modern scientific discoveries and this misinterpretation has fueled the culture wars between Fundamentalists and Modernists over religion and science. However, if Genesis 1 is interpreted using Walton’s view, the tension between the two disciplines evaporates and the culture wars are exposed as the foolishness they are.

1. Genesis 1 Was Not Written To Us

The scientific worldview is the water we Westerners swim in. We don’t marvel at electromagnetism anymore nor debate whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth revolves around the sun. Unconsciously, we bring this scientific worldview to the Scriptures, and for the interpretation of Genesis chapter 1 this is especially troublesome. Some Christians, in an attempt to defend the authority and truthfulness of Scripture, search for an account of the universe’s material origins that is in accord with modern science. When the Text has not immediately lent itself to an easy fit for these interpreters, elaborate and often ludicrous explanations have been devised.

Walton proposes that the reason these explanations, and even more fundamentally this worldview, cannot make sense of the passage is because it ignores the authorial intent and the audience. This narrative was written by an author who did not possess the scientific worldview, to an audience who did not possess the scientific worldview. Instead, the worldview through which the Hebrews viewed this text was one of “Old World” cosmology, Ancient Near East (ANE) culture, and a functional ontology (to be unpacked shortly). To understand the Text the way it was meant to be understood, we will need to think like an ancient Hebrew, not a modern Westerner.

2. Functional vs. Material Ontology

One’s ontology plays a critical role in how one approaches “creation” and therefore Genesis 1. Ontology speaks of existence. In this context, ontology is relevant to Genesis chapter 1 because modern Westerners, because of the scientific worldview, approach the Text with a Material ontology. We look for an account of the origins of all matter. In contrast, the ancient Hebrews, due to their ANE culture and “Old World” cosmology sought an account of how the world came to work the way it does—a functional ontology.

Walton uses a couple helpful analogies to illustrate the difference between functional and material ontologies. One is that of a business. When is a business “created?” Is it when the name is chosen and the paperwork signed? Is it when office space has been secured? Or is it when employees have been hired, and goods or services are being exchanged for currency? The obvious answer that it is the latter exposes our latent appreciation for the function of an entity, not merely its material composition. The second analogy is that of a computer. The physical components of a computer are self-evident and needful. But when does it become a computer? Is it when the parts are manufactured, or when they are assembled, the software is installed, and it is booted up? Let me tell you, as someone who has had their PC kit computer crash and fail to boot, it is the latter.

Walton, therefore, argues that in Genesis 1 God sets up both functions and functionaries—bringing order out of chaos to the cosmos. This is the sense in which the narrative teaches that God “created” the world.

3. The Cosmos is a Temple

Walton also turns on its head some of our traditional assumptions about the Sabbath. By showing that in ANE culture the “rest” of a deity was always associated with a temple, he demonstrates that the 7 days of Genesis 1 correspond to a traditional 7-day temple inauguration. In fact, this correlation is found throughout ANE writings.

God’s “resting,” should not be thought of as inactivity or leisure. Rather, God’s “resting” is his taking up of the rule of his kingdom by inhabiting the command center that is his temple. After the 6 days of ordering his kingdom, establishing its function and appointing functionaries (“vice regents”), God now begins the task of governing his good world.

This gives so much greater meaning to the New Testament teaching of the church as God’s temple both individually and collectively. As God’s command center, we participate in God’s gracious and self-sacrificial governance of the world.

4. All Truth is God’s Truth

Finally, Walton turns his attention to the debate over evolution and its inordinate effect on interpretation of Genesis 1. If Walton is correct about the authorial intent of Genesis 1—that the ancient Hebrews were not concerned with material origins nor possessed a material ontology—then the Genesis narrative doesn’t conflict with modern science. This then throws wide open the pathways of sharing between Scripture and science. Christians needn’t fear biology because of evolution. Science provides another method of ascertaining truth. It does not provide the only method. Scripture provides theological answers to theological questions, while science provides scientific answers to scientific questions. Both seek truth, and both reveal God.

I throughly enjoyed The Lost World of Genesis One and highly recommend it to each and every believer who has ever wrestled with the subjects this book addresses. Every book on interpreting Genesis or the relationship between science and faith written from now on must engage with Walton’s thesis and if it seeks to challenge it: good luck.