Genesis One

Scot has handled most of the discussion on John Walton’s (professor at Wheaton) new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, but I am going to jump in with a post on his next two propositions (16 and 17).

The first ten or eleven propositions in this book lay out a powerful approach to the understanding of Genesis One in the context of the original cultures.  The literal approach – assuming a material science and history behind the authorial intent of the text – may in fact distort our understanding of the message of the text.  The remaining propositions deal with the implications or consequences of this approach to Genesis One.

The two propositions we will discuss today build on this background and assert that Scientific explanations of origins can be unobjectionable (Proposition 16) and that the Theology of Genesis One in this view is stronger not weaker (Proposition 17).  I will start with the second – which I find to be one of the key points in Walton’s book.

The creeds state “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This belief is common to all Christians – but does this rely on Genesis 1? Is the theology of God as creator strengthened or weakened when we look at Genesis 1 in terms of function?

Emphasis on Function leads to a stronger theology, a better understanding of God. The view that the focused intent of the author of Genesis One dealt with function and purpose, not material creation, provides a strong view of God – and an important corrective for our world today. The reductionist materialism of much of our world makes function and purpose either secondary or meaningless. But the view of Genesis one presented by Walton emphasizes the ongoing role of God in everything.  God did not create and stop. Functions are not consequences of material structures – but manifestations of God ordained purpose.  Among other things this view of the creation narrative in Genesis one establishes the natural world as sacred space, the temple of God.

Emphasis on Function leads to a better understanding of the role of humans. This view also helps as we consider the unique position and role of humans within God’s creation.

Through Genesis 1 we come to understand that God has given us a privileged role in the functioning of his cosmic temple. He has tailored the world to our needs, not his (for he has no needs). It is his place, but it is designed for us and we are in relationship with him. (p. 149)

This contrasts with the ANE view that people were created as slaves to the Gods.  In our world it contrasts with the material view that “people are nothing but physical forms having no function other than to survive.” (p. 149).

Genesis One establishes the foundation for our understanding of who we are and our place and function within the world.

But how did God create and how did we come to be? This question leads us back to proposition 16 in Walton’s book. Walton points out that:

…if the bible does not offer an account of material origins we are free to consider contemporary explanations of origins on their own merits, as long as God is seen as ultimately responsible. (p. 132)

As a Christian active in the sciences this is how I see the role of science: Science is engaged in the task of understanding the what and how of the world, of God’s creation. We go where the evidence leads and evaluate on the basis of our best understanding.  Science is also engaged in the task of stewardship over creation –  we are not to merely observe and understand, but also to use the knowledge gained from a study of God’s creation.

So what about Evolution? Walton deals with several different issues here.

First – some will suggest that the process of evolution, with natural selection and survival of the fittest is inconsistent with the nature of God. Survival of the fittest is “cruel” and psuedogenes are “wasteful” and chromosomal aberrations – well why didn’t God simply fix it?  In response to such questions Walton points to the book of Job. We cannot stand in judgment of God’s wisdom and we cannot expect to understand it all.  We can look at God’s creation and ask what and how – but the final why may well exceed our understanding.

Second – to separate natural and supernatural is to impose a false dichotomy on creation.

What we identify as natural laws only take on their law-like quality because God acts so consistently in the operation of the cosmos. He has made the cosmos intelligible and has given us minds that can penetrate some of its mysteries. (p. 134).

Here Walton considers Psalm 139:13 as an example: For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. An understanding of genetics and embryology does not undermine this view – God is responsible. He is responsible for the whole; not just for the parts of the process that remain a mystery.

Third – The age of the earth and the time required for evolution is not a problem once we realize that Genesis 1 deals with function rather than material origins and that God can create by process. “One need not conclude that divine fiat implies instantaneous fulfillment.” (p. 138)

Fourth – What about Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5? Here Walton and I part company somewhat, although we agree on some key points.

These considerations are secondary in the interpretation of Genesis One – which must be taken on its own terms. (At least I think we agree on this.)

God is the creator of human beings and this must be taken seriously.

The image of God and the act of sinful disobedience are important biblical and theological realities that must be taken seriously.

All humans are one people, one species, one family, with one history as created in the image of God.

All discussions of the issues are problematic on some level. There is no simple neat solution.  Of course there are many theological questions for which we have no simple neat solutions (problem of evil anyone?).

However Walton takes the genealogies of Genesis, repeated in Chronicles and Luke, far more literally than I am inclined to – and thus takes the existence of Adam and Eve as historical individuals as taught by the text. On theological grounds he also holds to a substantive discontinuity between the processes of biological evolution that led to early primates and hominids and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve.

I also believe that there is a discontinuity – but not in biological evolution, rather in some fashion difficult to identify and connected with the concept of “image of God.” Science tells us something of when and how and what. Science does not describe why, and image of God is front and center in our understanding of why; why humans exist – for what purpose. Identification of an historical Adam and Eve is problematic and the genealogies are irrelevant. At the very least we must go back about 200,000 years to place Adam and Eve in history.  The science is fairly conclusive (within an error range) on when modern humans appeared. This precludes any possibility that the genealogies are historically meaningful.  But the theological issues in Romans 5 are also in need of consideration.

To put it bluntly, I don’t think that a historical Adam is the point of Romans 5 – rather the point of Romans 5 is the interpretation of the atoning work of the one and only Christ in the face of our sinful disobedience as God’s people.  Scripture tells us that this sinful disobedience is inescapable, and extends back to the very beginning. Inescapable that is, except through the work of God in Christ.  Adam is the periphery of the story, not the center, and his importance is as a type not so much as an individual.

Conclusions – Where do we go now? Walton’s contribution to the question of ancient cosmology and the origins debate is a significant.  This is a powerful book written for the church and providing profoundly important insight into the meaning of Genesis 1.

Now we need a similar fresh look at Genesis 2-3 to understand the intent of the original author within the context of the ANE culture.

What do you think? Does Walton’s analysis of Genesis One enhance your understanding of God as Creator and the relative roles of science and faith in our understanding of the world?

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