Monday, August 10, 2009

Walton's New Thesis

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

Walton's book is a series of propositions--eighteen of them in fact--with each one given a chapter. The number of propositions is a problem: in order to get to the implications of his theses, he does a rather poor and hurried job of supporting those main theses. Moreover, he ventures far outside his area of expertise (Old Testament) in the later chapters, and this becomes quite obvious (especially) when he discusses science and public education.

In this post, let me just tell you what Walton's main theses are (without further comment) and then highlight one of the tangential points about which I agree with him. His main theses are:

1) That Genesis 1 is an ancient cosmology and that we can better understand it by looking at other cosmologies contemporaneous to it.

2) That Genesis 1 is function-oriented and not an account of the material creation of the universe. What God is doing during the seven 'days' of creation is inaugurating the cosmos (already in existence) as His functional temple.

One of the propositions with which I agree--and which I think is a discussion that needs to be had--is this... "God's Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought" (Proposition--and thus chapter--14). In this chapter, Walton seeks to avoid two extremes, seeing creation as a finished act of the past (on the one hand) and a form of micromanagement that denies God's use of natural process at all (on the other). His contention is that
The Bible to some extent offers the idea that creation is ongoing and dynamic.
The chapter itself bogs down a bit, but Walton elsewhere makes important points that relate to this proposition. In particular,
In chapter one we pointed out that the common dichotomy drawn today between "natural" and "supernatural" did not exist in the ancient world. I would also propose that it is not theologically sound. God cannot be removed or distanced from those occurrences that we so glibly label "natural." When we so label phenomena, it is an indication that we understand (at least to some extent) the laws and causes that explain it. Be that as it may, that does not mean that God does not control that process. What we identify as natural laws only take on their law-like quality because God acts so consistently in the operations of the cosmos. He has made the cosmos intelligible and has given us minds that can penetrate some of its mysteries.
He is, of course, right about this, and his subsequent illustration and discussion constitute some of the best writing in the book. Earlier (in Proposition 1), he appeals to Richard Bube (The Human Quest) for an explicit statement that I frequently make myself, that...
if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist.
I agree. We understand (in part) what gravity is, but we cannot explain why it works. Nor can we expect it (or the strong nuclear force, for that matter) to continue its operations were God to cease His work of sustaining creation. Indeed, on a biblical understanding, we would expect everything to cease without God's continuing sustaining of it.

The problem--for Walton's more central theses--is that it does not require acceptance of his view of Genesis 1 (that the account concerns function only and does not treat material creation) to arrive at this conclusion. I--along with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers throughout history--see Genesis 1 as dealing with the material creation of the universe (which is what Walton denies), and yet am in lock-step with him that God's creative activity is ongoing and that natural laws do not operate independently of His sustaining work. He is wrong, then, when he claims that (italics mine)
In the position of this book, the idea that Genesis 1 deals with functional origins opens up a new possibility for seeing both continuity and a dynamic aspect in God's work as Creator...
So, I disagree that one need accept Walton's more radical thesis about Genesis 1 to arrive at a biblical understanding of God's work as Creator/Sustainer. Nonetheless, I appreciated his statement and discussion of this understanding.

In the next post, I'll highlight another area in which I find Walton's thinking accurate in important ways.

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