Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cosmic Temple Inauguration

(This is the 4th post in a series.)

In his new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, John Walton offers what he calls the "cosmic temple inauguration" interpretation of Genesis 1. As Walton sees it, the original readers of Genesis, like the people of other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) civilizations, saw the world in functional--and not in material--terms. Therefore, when reading the first chapter of Genesis, we ought to understand it not as describing the material origin of the universe and earth (as has always been done), but rather as God's giving function to an already-existent matter during a concrete (solar or human) 7-day week.

Some of what Walton has to share about God's purposes for the creation, about the universe as God's temple, and about God's role in creating and sustaining the universe is very good. I believe that consideration of this facet of the creation account adds a further level of depth and richness to an already rich and wonderful account. In fact, were his proposal simply that we understand functionality as an important aspect of what God sought to convey in this passage, I would agree. At some points, Walton himself seems to temporarily soften his stance, and limit his claims in this way. For example, he ends proposition 17 (which I discussed in an earlier post as the best chapter in the book) this way...
So what affirmations does the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1 expect of us?

1) The world operates by Yahweh's design and under his supervision to accomplish his purposes.

2) The cosmos is his temple.

3) Everything in the cosmos was given its role and function by God.

4) Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of people who are in his image.
You'll get no argument from me on any of that. I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that Walton elsewhere claims that his functional interpretation is the exclusively accurate understanding of Genesis 1, that this account makes no reference to the material creation of the universe (that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not found in Genesis 1), and that God did not reveal to Israel any new scientific content. Walton:
This creation account did not concern the material shape of the cosmos, but rather its functions.
Again (the italics are Walton's),
At this point a very clear statement must be made: Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins--it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.
As mentioned in chapter one, there is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the Israelite audience.
I strongly (but respectfully) disagree with each of these three claims. Here's an outline of my response (I'll be happy to support these contentions in a future post)...

1) The truth of God's revelation transcends the understanding of its original readers (and even of the rest of us).

2) Jews, Christians, and Muslims have throughout the ages found in Genesis 1 the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

2a) In fact, historians recognize a view of time as having a beginning and proceeding linearly as one of the most important contributions of early Judaism to civilization.

2b) Ironically, it was partly their finding creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1 that gave the founders of modern science the logical justification for doing science in the first place.

3) A good deal of effective apologetic material is lost if one denies that Genesis 1 claims a material beginning to the universe. With the discovery of evidence for that beginning (the empirical validation of Einstein's theories of relativity and of a big bang model for the origin of the universe), many astronomers, physicists, and others have turned to Christ, recognizing in the conclusions of their science support for the opening claim (understood in a material sense) of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

4) Walton's thesis depends upon downplaying the much greater differences between Genesis 1 and other ANE cosmologies and focusing only on the rather superficial similarities between them.

5) If creation ex nihilo is found in Scripture at all (and Walton grants that it is), it would necessarily have involved revelation of scientific truth that falsifies Walton's exegetical claims. That is, scientific evidence for a beginning to the material universe did not come until the past century, though monotheists have continued to proclaim it all along by appealing to God's revelation in Genesis 1.

6) Given all this, Walton's denial of a material component to the Genesis account is a radical view. Such a radical view warrants an extraordinary level of supporting argumentation. Instead, Walton's argumentation is brief and superficial relative to the arguments offered by those with opposing interpretations.

Walton's position is further undermined by gross misunderstandings that surface in his subsequent propositions. These include...

7) Walton is wrongly concerned (in his attacks on what he calls 'concordism') with 'scientific consensus.' In my understanding, concordists (and anyone seeking to defend Scripture's inspiration and inerrancy) are concerned with reconciling Scripture with the unchanging reality of the universe--not with the admittedly changing consensus among scientists.

8) Walton betrays himself as completely unqualified to discuss the issues that make up his propositions 13, 15, 16, and 18. That is, he is wrong in his understanding of what science is and of who is qualified to define science. As a result, he misses the point at every turn, whether discussing science per se, intelligent design theory, evolution, or public science education. (I suspect I'll take the time to flesh this problem out in a future post, as this is the sort of thing that really gets my blood boiling.)

Again, I appreciate Walton's understanding of the Genesis 1 account as having a distinctly functional component to it. This view adds richness to an understanding of what God has revealed to us in this creation account. As such, the 'cosmic temple inauguration' view is not incompatible with other interpretations of Genesis 1. That is, one can find simultaneous validity to, say, this view and the framework interpretation and the progressive (or old-earth) creation view; they are not mutually exclusive. But I part company with Walton at the point at which he seeks to claim the contrary--that any view that finds in Genesis 1 an account of the origin of the matter of the universe is wrong.

We now have overwhelming evidence from the creation itself ('scientific' evidence, if you will) that the matter, energy, space, and time of this universe had a finite beginning whose Cause transcends that universe. Lacking that evidence, monotheists throughout the ages have nonetheless proclaimed it to be true, having found in Genesis 1 a clear declaration that God created everything out of nothing. Walton's repudiation of that idea (that Gen. 1 declares creation ex nihilo) is a radical view, acceptance of which would require a much greater set of supporting arguments than that which he offers.


Anonymous said...

I am well aware that ex nihilo is the generally accepted term. But isn't it more accurate to say that the universe came out of God, rather then out of something outside of God? This may only be semantics, but nothing sounds like something when we talk about God making all that exists from "nothing".

David Dore'

Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi David:

It's difficult to know exactly what you're asking, so I'll share a few thoughts, some of which will undoubtedly miss the point about which you're concerned.

I guess I'd respond that it is not just terminology or semantics, but rather that the idea of creation "out of nothing" has a rigourous and storied history exegetically and philosophically, and now has a good deal of scientific support.

Early Christian formulations of this doctrine were specifically aimed at repudiating Greek notions of eternally existent matter (and the idea that creation was ex materia).

God Himself is not material, and so there's also somewhat of a disconnect in saying that the material universe came from Him. Generally, it is understood that the material universe began in the mind of God, but that whereas He is a necessary Being, the universe is contingent (would not have had to exist). What we end up with in any case is an absolute beginning to the matter (and the energy, space, and time) of the universe.

This historical understanding finds powerful support from modern cosmology. The singularity at the beginning of the universe is understood as just such an absolute beginning, beyond which (prior to, before) it is nonsensical to discuss the universe. That is, not only matter and energy, and even space, began at the singularity, but so too did time. Thus, though God is causally prior to the universe, it is generally accepted as wrong to speak of Him as temporally prior to it.

God is eternally existent, and the universe is not, neither as some sort of cosmic seed nor as eternally coexistent with God.

I don't know if any of that addresses your question. If not, come back at me. Thanks for reading.