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Book Review

What Genesis 1 is all about

Here’s another contribution to the thorny issues surrounding creation, evolution and human origins, and this is one of the best I’ve come across. The fact that the publisher is IVP Academic tells you it isn’t bedtime reading for the average Christian, but for those with a thoughtful interest in these things this book is essential material. It is The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton (IVP Academic, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3704-5).

As the title shows, it focuses on Genesis chapter 1. The author helpfully sets out an interpretation of that chapter in the form of eighteen propositions, as follows—with my remarks in square brackets:

  1. Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology [not a scientific account of material origins].
  2. Ancient cosmology is function-oriented [not materials-oriented].
  3. ‘Create (Hebrew bārā’) concerns functions [not creation ex nihilo].
  4. The beginning state in Gen 1 is non-functional [material exists, but it isn’t ordered].
  5. Days one to three in Gen 1 establish functions [rather than produce materials].
  6. Days four to six in Gen 1 install functionaries.
  7. Divine rest is in a temple [the standard pattern in Ancient Near Eastern thinking].
  8. The cosmos is a temple [the cosmos is specifically ordered as a temple for God to dwell in].
  9. The seven days of Gen 1 relate to the cosmic temple inauguration.
  10. The seven days of Gen 1 do not concern material origins.
  11. ‘Functional cosmic temple’ offers face value exegesis [this is the truly ‘literal’ interpretation].
  12. Other theories of Gen 1 either go too far or not far enough.
  13. The difference between origin accounts in science and Scripture is metaphysical in nature.
  14. God’s roles as Creator and Sustainer are less different than we have thought.
  15. Current debate about Intelligent Design ultimately concerns purpose [teleology].
  16. Scientific explanations of origins can be viewed in light of purpose, and if so, are unobjectionable.
  17. Resulting theology in this view of Gen 1 is stronger, not weaker.
  1. Public science education should be neutral regarding purpose [issues relevant to the debate about teaching evolution and/or creation in American schools].

So there you have it. A solid, balanced approach that carries real clout. If you are anxious to sort out the confusion surrounding creation and evolution this is essential reading. In fact I’d go so far as to say that, if you can only read one of the many books on the topic, this should be it.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]

We…recognize the common conceptual worldview that existed in ancient times. We should…not speak of Israel being influenced by that world—they were part of that world.  (100)

Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.  (121)

Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. This approach to the text of Genesis 1 is called "concordism," as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text.  (126)

Most of us never consider alternative ontologies. Our culture has given us our beliefs about what it means for the cosmos to exist (material ontology; existence is material; creation is a material act) and many of us would not realize that these beliefs are the result of a choice.  (219)

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.  (226)

Old world cosmic geography is based on what they could observe from their vantage point, just as ours is based on what we are able to observe given our scientific information.  (261)

If we conclude that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not thereby suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing.  (398)

…the following expanded interpretive translation of verse 1: "In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it."  (421)

…the meaning of the repeated formula "it was good," which I propose refers to "functioning properly."  (469)

Cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established.  (488)

God doesn't make anything on day three. We can imagine their quandary—how can this be included in a creation account if God doesn't make anything on this day? By this point in the book, the reader can see the solution easily. Day three is only a problem if this is an account of material origins. If it is understood as an account of functional origins, there is no need for God to make something. Instead, we ask what function(s) were set up, and to that question we find ready answers.  (539)

Among the many things that the image of God may signify and imply, one of them, and probably the main one, is that people are delegated a godlike role (function) in the world where he places them.  (641)

In the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have "settled down." Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed.  (684)

The role of the temple in the ancient world is not primarily a place for people to gather in worship like modern churches. It is a place for the deity—sacred space. It is his home, but more importantly his headquarters—the control room. When the deity rests in the temple it means that he is taking command, that he is mounting to his throne to assume his rightful place and his proper role.  (710)

Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God's presence.  (800)

If the seven days refer to the seven days of cosmic temple inauguration, days that concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth.  (896)

It seems to many that they have to make a choice: either believe the Bible and hold to a young earth, or abandon the Bible because of the persuasiveness of the case for an old earth. The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice. The Bible does not call for a young earth. Biblical faith need not be abandoned if one concludes from the scientific evidence that the earth is old.  (907)

Everything we know logically repudiates the absence of death at any level prior to the Fall.  (953)

People who value the Bible do not need to make it "speak science" to salvage its truth claims or credibility.  (1010)

Reading the text scientifically imposes modern thinking on an ancient text, an anachronism that by its very nature cannot possibly represent the ideas of the inspired human author.  (1033)

Science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it.  (1076)

Two extremes need to be avoided as we seek to understand God as Creator: 1. that his work as Creator is simply a finished act of the past (potential for deism), or 2. that his work as Creator is in an eternally repeating present (potential for micromanagement).  (1132)

The paradox of intimate involvement without micromanagement defies definition.   (1166)

Intelligent Design has been criticized as being a God of the gaps approach. "God of the gaps" says that if there is no known naturalistic explanation of an observable phenomenon, that phenomenon is attributable to God. The unfortunate result of this way of thinking is that as scientific knowledge grows and more phenomena are explained, the role of God shrinks away.  (1222)

Though the Bible upholds the idea that God is responsible for all origins (functional, material or otherwise), if the Bible does not offer an account of material origins we are free to consider contemporary explanations of origins on their own merits, as long as God is seen as ultimately responsible. Therefore whatever explanation scientists may offer in their attempts to explain origins, we could theoretically adopt it as a description of God's handiwork.  (1257)

It would be unacceptable to adopt an evolutionary view as a process without God. But it would likewise be unacceptable to adopt history, embryology or meteorology as processes without God.  (1299)

The question of the age of the earth can only be addressed from Genesis 1 if it is an account of material origins. If it is not, then the Bible offers no information on the age of the earth.  (1320)

I can affirm with the psalmist that God "knit me together in my mother's womb" without denying the premises of embryology. Likewise those aspects of evolutionary mechanisms that hold up under scrutiny could be theoretically adopted as God's mechanisms.  (1346)

The cosmic-temple idea recognizes that God is here and that all of this is his. It is this theology that becomes the basis for our respect of our world and the ecological sensitivity that we ought to nurture.  (1397)

"Good" is a reference to being functional, not a matter of moral goodness. This is an important distinction because it does not suggest that we ought to look for moral goodness in the way that the cosmos operates. When we think of "good" in connection to being functional rather than moral, we don't have to explain how predation can be part of a morally good world.  (1435)

As the result of an empirical discipline, biological evolution can acknowledge no purpose, but likewise it cannot contend that there is no purpose-it must remain teleologically neutral.  (1459)

We must keep in mind that we are presumptuous if we consider our interpretations of Scripture to have the same authority as Scripture itself.  (1606)

It is not creation and evolution that are at odds, but their ideological cousins, Creationism and Evolutionism.  (1780)

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