Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Walton's Theology

(This is the third post in a series about John Walton's new book The Lost World of Genesis One.)

Before critiquing (in a subsequent post) John Walton's main theses about Genesis 1, I want to further affirm some of the conclusions to which his way of viewing creation has led him.

For me, the best chapter in Walton's book is "Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 is Stronger, Not Weaker." In it, he discusses God's power, sovereignty, and goodness, and how one's interpretation of Genesis 1 affects one's understanding of these things. Please note that while I agree with the theological conclusions Walton shares here, I arrive at them quite independently of his interpretation of Genesis 1. That is, I largely reject his main theses and yet agree with him on these points that he finds flowing out of them. That we can arrive at this theology with different interpretations of Genesis 1 is acknowledged by Walton (in the most humble passage in the book, which comes toward the end of the chapter in view):
...even if the reader is not inclined to adopt the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1, his or her theology could still be greatly enhanced by the observations offered here by embracing a renewed and informed commitment to God's intimate involvement in the operation of the cosmos from its incipience and into eternity. We all need to strengthen our theology of creation and Creator whatever our view of the Genesis account of origins.
Amen to that!

Implicit to the discussion in this chapter of God's power, sovereignty, and goodness is the fact that Walton's new and different interpretation of Genesis 1 does not demand the conclusion that the universe and earth are only thousands of years old. But while that (young earth) conclusion has become quite popular within the conservative American church in the last 60 years, there are at least 10 other interpretations of Genesis 1 (each of them more traditional and with a greater historical record than Walton's) that likewise allow for the ancient universe attested to by the creation itself. Nonetheless, Walton is correct when he writes,
...the suggestion that some of God's work of creation may have taken place over a long period of time rather than instantaneously does not reduce God's power. God can create any way he sees fit, and it is no less an act of his sovereign power if he chooses to do it over extended billions of years. It is still accomplished by his word. Some would see the great span of time as further indication of God's majesty. If nothing is taken away from God's works and his sovereignty is not reduced, then there is no theological threat regarding God's person or deeds.
Absolutely. But I was even happier to read the following regarding God's sovereignty in His work of sustaining creation...
If God's work of creation is considered only a historical act that took place in the past, it is easy to imagine how people might not think in terms of God being active today. We have lost the view that nature does not operate independently from God. He is still creating with each baby that is born, with each plant that grows, with each cell that divides, with each nebula that forms. We might find it easy to look at some majestic view like a glorious sunset or the grandeur of the mountains and ponder the magnificence of God's handiwork. But this sense needs to extend beyond the "wow" moments to encompass all of our experience of his world. We have the same problem when we only recognize God in some incredible occurrence in our lives and forget that he provides for us, cares for us and protects us moment by moment, day after day. God did not just create at some time in the past; he is the Creator--past, present, and future.
Wholehearted agreement from this quarter. But then comes the issue of God's goodness. For most conservative American Christians, the idea that creation took place billions of years ago impinges upon God's moral character, since that means millions of years of animal death, something we in our modern, urban comfort find unpalatable. And so Walton addresses this issue as well. He doesn't necessarily do a great job of this (the best treatment of this of which I am aware is the book-length response by Mark Whorton, Peril in Paradise, which I highly recommend), but he is correct when he writes that
...we don't have to explain how predation can be a part of a morally good world.
(As an ecologist with a biblical worldview, I find it rather easy to explain predation, but we can do that another time.)

Again, I am unconvinced of Walton's new interpretation of Genesis 1, but find important areas of agreement in our respective theologies. And so I find reading--and thinking about-- his perspectives a worthwhile endeavor. More importantly, I believe God is honored when we have these sorts of thoughtful discussions--even when we disagree in some of our conclusions.


Dave said...

Hey Rick,

I have read Walton's book. I am curious as too why you disagree with his main thesis. I am not asking you to defend your position, rather I am asking for the reasons you have for not agreeing with Walton's main thesis.

I agree with you that some of the most important points Walton makes occur later in the book in his sections, essentially, about the power and grandeur and eternalness of God.

But I also happen to be convinced that Walton's argument is sound. (That Genesis 1 is a "functional origins" account rather than a "material origins" one).

I appreciate your discussion of Walton's book and treating him with respect despite disagreeing with his primary argument. As you know, the origins "debate" has gotten so hot in Christian circles that people even question another's salvation based on how they view the creation account in Genesis! It's ridiculous. It's refreshing to see a critique that focuses on the material rather than the person. In that, I believe God is honored.

In Christ,


Richard said...

Hi Dave:

Thanks for reading. I intend to get to why I disagree with the main thesis in the next post (which I had intended to write by now). Keep in touch.