Friday, August 7, 2009

New Interpretation of Genesis One

So there's a new book out, one proposing what I take to be a new interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis one. It's by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and is titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I'll probably take a few posts to blog on it, since it provides fodder for good discussion.

Not counting this one, I'm aware of about a dozen different views on the correct interpretation of Genesis one. A couple of those are no longer live options: I don't know of anyone today who holds the view (believed by some to be that of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) that each of the creation days was a period of 1000 years. Likewise, you'd have difficulty finding anyone today defending the view of Augustine and Origen that the creation 'days' are merely figurative (that is, that they do not involve any time at all), but that the account conveys spiritual truths. [Of the existing views, Walton's new interpretation is perhaps closest to this one, though he would almost surely deny it.]

Of the remaining 10 views, perhaps the rarest now is the Gap Theory, which was popularized by Scofield in his study Bible, and enjoyed a good following for some time. Most folks today recognize overwhelming exegetical and scientific problems with this view.

Another fringe idea (that is, one without a vocal defense today) is that the six days are merely a theological statement, a polemic against the pagan cosmologies of Moses' time. This idea was advanced by Karl Barth and others, and if it has proponents today, they don't seem to take a very active part in the discussion. Walton seeks to distance himself from this view, but it is (as I see it) the next nearest idea to that which he is himself advocating.

Walton's interpretation has this in common with most (at least 10) of the other views... acceptance of it makes it possible to reconcile Genesis one with the findings of modern astronomy, physics, geology, and chemistry. Only the two young-earth approaches lead to the rejection of virtually all of science, those being the plain-day view (defended by the late Henry Morris and by Ken Ham and others, and taught as "what the Bible says" in the majority of conservative American churches) and the Relativity-Day view (of Derek Humphreys and Gerald Schroeder), which at least seeks to come to grips with the plain evidence from astronomy that the stars have been around a good deal longer than 6,000 years.

But whereas this new interpretation allows for the ancient universe and earth attested to by the creation itself, Walton makes it clear that this was not a consideration for him--that instead he had only the goal of doing justice to the text itself in light of the cosmology of the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Indeed, he has nasty things to say about concordists (or his straw-man version of them)--those who seek to reconcile Genesis one with modern scientific understanding.

I think there is a good deal of merit to some of what is argued in this new book, and I'll hope to highlight those points in coming posts. But I also see significant problems with important parts of Walton's theses, and I'll be happy to discuss those as well. Stay tuned for those posts, but better yet, pick up a copy and read it, so that you, too, can be in on the discussion. (It's really a rather small book, the chapters are short, and it's easily read in a few short sittings.)

Though I ultimately disagree strongly with some of Walton's conclusions (and with some of his starting points as well), I welcome this new infusion into the discussion. I believe that God is honored when we take His Word seriously, especially if our disputations are carried out with humility and respect, as befitting Christ-followers.

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