Posted By MSH on January 15, 2010
Naked Bible readers will remember I got into this issue several times during the discussion on inerrancy. It’s current again for me for two reasons. One is N.T. Wright has chimed in on the subject in this video, which I offer for the curious (I’m not inclined to care what Wright says on this subject since he’s not a Semitist). The second is that I just wrote a journal review of John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Here are some excerpts of the as yet unpublished review:
Walton’s thesis is straightforward: since our modern scientific culture is just that—modern—our cultural context would have been utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the biblical writers. For Walton, any attempt to embed modern science into Genesis 1, whether by traditional, literalist creation science or other approaches by Christian scientists involving evolution or modern Big Bang cosmology, amounts to imposing a foreign culture onto the text.
Walton unfolds this general thesis by offering eighteen “propositions,” each of which forms a chapter. . . . The first proposition (“Genesis 1 is Ancient Cosmology”) is arguably the most crucial. Walton knows full well that many of his readers will object to his thesis, having equated biblical inspiration, authority, and inerrancy with the question of whether Genesis 1 is scientifically coherent in its literal exposition. He patiently and clearly explains why this is ill-advised and perhaps even impugns God’s decision to dispense revelation when He did at the time in which He did. The danger lies not in making Genesis palatable to modern science, but in changing the intended meaning of the inspired text itself. Walton writes:
If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology. If we turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. . . . Since we view the text as authoritative, it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say. . . . If God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science. . . . We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood (p. 17).
Walton brings analogies to the reader’s attention that reinforce the coherence of his thesis. For example, when the Old Testament speaks of the “mind” and refers to the seat of emotions and intellect as the heart, liver, kidneys, and intestines, modern science cannot be aligned with such a notion. As Walton notes, “When God wanted to talk to the Israelites about their intellect, emotions, and will, he did not revise their ideas of physiology and feel compelled to reveal the function of the brain. . . . Consequently, we need not try to come up with a physiology for our times that would explain how people think with their entrails” (pp. 18-19).
While I would quibble with Walton on certain points, as someone who is trained in Semitics, this reviewer sees Walton’s work as an essential primer on the realia of Genesis 1 and a much-needed corrective to the inconsistent hermeneutics found in apologetics material on origins. Frankly, this is a book that needed to be written and was long overdue. Walton shows us that we are far better off to focus on how a creation with a lone external, independent, intelligent Cause conforms much more lucidly to the findings of modern science than to resist letting the Bible be what it is.
I hope Naked Bible readers avail themselves of Walton’s book. It’s just the sort of expose on this issue that is needed for sharpening the inerrancy discussion.