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.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rick,

I would like to respond to a few of the arguments you raise against the cosmic temple inauguration view. I read John Walton's book recently and while I am not yet committed to his view I have been looking for posts such as these critiquing the view in order to better understand it and to see its relevant strengths and weaknesses. I have only responded to some of the numbered questions for the sake of brevity.

2) I am convinced of the philosophical and scriptural importance of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. This conviction would not be changed one iota if Genesis 1 was no longer available as evidence for creation from nothing. If readers have thought they found creatio ex nihilo in the text but Genesis 1 is not speaking about material, then this is a classic example of eisegesis, and an understandable one, given other scriptural references to material creation and the logical inference that God is responsible for it.

3) Nothing is lost, it is still the correct inference to draw from scientific discovery, natural theology and the scriptures outside of Genesis that God is responsible for the material creation of the universe. If people have misread Genesis due to materialist assumptions, the good and gracious news is that they have believed; the inferences they drew about God and the universe were ultimately correct, even if they read the text of Genesis 1 anachronistically.

Apologetic value is gained if we can end the conflict between YEC Christians and naturalists which has been damaging to the advance of the gospel and the reputation of Christianity. Walton’s view gives intelligent Christians another option that respects the text of Genesis while taking the findings of history and science seriously. I can only see upside to this view currently.

4) This doesn't really matter, Walton was clear that the link was not the details or motifs within the origin accounts but rather the shared ontology of people in the ANE. The specific similarities or differences of ANE cosmologies are inconsequential beyond the milieu that impacted the formation and reception of Genesis.

5) Walton's claim is that Genesis was written and received by people with a functional ontology and as such does not reference material creation. The existence of material ontologies later in history or the recent findings of scientific discovery do not falsify the thesis.

6) It seems unfair to critique Walton's popular-level book for being brief in argumentation when he has also published a scholarly book (ANE Thought and the Old Testament, 2006) on the same topic, which I myself am yet to read. It seems fair to assume that his scholarly work would be more in-depth and a better basis for a comparison of rigour. Having said that, Walton defended 18 propositions in the book, so it was hardly all that brief either.

Regarding radical claims requiring radical evidence, the thesis makes sense of a lot of details within the Genesis 1 account that I found interesting. For example it makes better sense to read the introductory sentence of Gen 1:1 as exactly that, rather than seeing it as describing an initial act of creation, because each of the 11 "toledot" sections all have an introductory sentence before beginning to give their accounts. We should reasonably expect this pattern of the first section too.

The knock-on effect of that though is we arrive in verse 2 with earth and water already existing, without any creative act having occurred. A material reading can't account for this at all. To make things worse, Heaven is not created until verse 8, but on a traditional material reading had already been created in verse 1.

There are a whole bunch of other problems with a material reading (the more I consider this the more I'm finding myself persuaded of the thesis) such as the creation days in which no material is created, but I will leave my reply here as it has taken up enough of our time at this point.

Kind regards from one apologist to another,


Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi Nathan:

Thanks for reading! (I wrote this blog post in 2009, haven't written a new blog post since 2016, and have moved on to battling other issues besides this one. Nonetheless, since you took the time to write such a thoughtful response, I'll offer you a reply.)

In order to avoid simply talking past one another, let me begin by conceding that Walton might be on to something in that there may be a level of meaning in the Genesis account that addresses function rather than material. But his thesis is that there is no material (no scientific) content to be found in Genesis 1 and 2, despite the fact that Jews and Christians throughout history have read it as addressing material creation.

Walton's statement that most bothers me in this regard is his claim that God never revealed in Scripture any scientific truth that was at odds with the current scientific understanding of the original audience of a given Scripture passage or book. This is false, since it was just by finding in Genesis 1 and 2 a revelation of a material creation that Jews and Christians came to believe that YHWH was the Creator of all things. You wrote that people read Genesis 1 anachronistically due to materialist assumptions. The problem is that from very early on the people to whom these truths were revealed understood it in just this way. In other words, people could not have read a material creation anachronistically until after Einstein, as that was when the first scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe became clear. All prior belief about God creating the material universe came from the belief that this was exactly what God Himself revealed to them through the Genesis 1 and 2 account.

You wrote that apologetic value is gained if we can end the conflict between YEC and naturalists, and that Walton's thesis provides an option for doing this. To this I have two remarks. The first is that if this is Walton's purpose, it goes too far, and seems to insulate Genesis from scientific critique by insisting that it contains no scientific content to begin with. I was a scientist first, and an apologist later. So I take Psalm 19 and Romans 1 very seriously, and when I find--in the traditional material understanding of it--that the Genesis 1 creation account perfectly matches* the latest understandings of 21st-century science, I use that fact as powerful apologetic argument, particularly with scientifically astute skeptics and doubting believers. While I try to be versatile in my apologetic methods, the sphere in which the Lord tends to place me means that evidential apologetics is often at the fore; this is exactly what Walton seeks to rule out of bounds.

The second thing I would say is that YEC is, ultimately, an aberrant interpretation whose time has long passed and that needs to be abandoned. As an apologist, I defend historical Christianity, not the long-refuted speculations of a couple of 17th-century theologians.

Again, I don't doubt that Walton is right to find a functional understanding in the Genesis creation accounts. But I believe that understanding to be only a secondary or tertiary set of revealed truth, and disagree with his claim that material creation is not intended in these passages.

Thanks again for your response, and many blessings in your apologetic and other endeavors. In Christ,


*The specific difficulties you raise are easily allayed; I would recommend you read one of many relevant books by Hugh Ross, such as The Creator and the Cosmos.