The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

By John Walton
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2009). 192 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 259-261

John Walton has put forward eighteen propositions in as many chapters in setting up a new alternative explanation of the creation account in Genesis One. They reveal that the author has given a lot of thought to his position, which obviously did not suddenly appear overnight. After reading the introduction and the first chapter on Proposition I, “Genesis 1 is Ancient Cosmology,” the “Summary and Conclusions,” as well as the “FAQs,” and taking note of the other seventeen chapters’ headings, it became obvious that a short review would not be a sufficient response. Looking through the seventeen other propositions confirmed this. This book begs for a critical review in a journal article which would tackle it proposition by proposition, if not line by line in places. Walton is proposing nothing less than a major overhaul of the literality of Genesis One. His label for this “newly created” theory is the cosmic temple inauguration view. Basically this means that the cosmos has been assigned the function of being God’s temple, where he has taken up residence and has the world set up as His headquarters (162).

Supposedly in the ancient world the nations, including Israel, were much more attuned to functions of the cosmos than to its materiality. Genesis One proffers a record of functions and not of material creation. Sorry, but this reviewer is still unsure whether he understands it. In clear straightforward terminology, the historical narrative lays out what God actually did in six days of the creation week. Furthermore, it was the absolute beginning of everything!

Walton has succeeded in lifting Genesis One above the fray between science and theology (163), or so it appears. One cannot use Genesis to object to any mechanism offered by science since it is not an account of material origins, and in any case, science is in a constant state of flux. It provides, however, the best explanation of the data of the day (17). Nothing is gained by bringing God’s revelation into accord with the science of the day. The theological key is to acknowledge when science proposes something deemed substantial, “Fine, that helps me see the handiwork of God.” Relax theologian, our response to any proposal without fearing the discussion, is quite simply, “Yes, but there is no reason God could not have been involved in that process” (164). Teleological evolution crops up as a explanation of evolutionary processes having purpose and goal. Thus, evidence of design will be found. The upshot of all this is simply that neither Creationism nor Neo-Darwinism need relinquish any point they have made. Neo- Darwinists should no longer promote dysteleology as a corollary to the science, and should acknowledge its flaws and need of modification (167). On the other hand, Creationists can keep their theology of God’s total involvement in creation, and keep their literal reading of Genesis 1. All they need to do is “to acknowledge that traditional interpretations or understandings of English words do not necessarily constitute the most faithful reading of the text” (167). The “material phase” of the heavens and the earth occurred, so one is informed, before “in the beginning” over long eras during the prehistoric period. The Bible, thus, yields nothing by which the age of the earth could be determined, and the biblical record really does not cover the original creation (93-99). The question of physical death present before the Fall of Man has been disconnected from the Fall of Man. That the resurrection overcomes physical, spiritual, and eternal death goes unmentioned. Further, the original creation had everything in abundance without suggesting that the created order was essentially subjected from the outset to death, scarcity of resources, and struggle to survive.

Much is made of having to read Genesis in a way that is true to the context of the original audience and author, and preserves and enhances the “theological vitality of the text” (Preface). No revelation was given to the Israelites to change what they were already understanding of the cosmos. Were the words of Moses merely echoing contemporary Israelite understanding? Or, did these words instruct Israelites on what they were to believe in contradistinction to other nations’ “origins” literature? The Genesis text uses plain language and can be understood by men of every age. It’s a timeless text. The order of events is clear, as is the time-span for God’s working in initial creation. So easily understood that anyone can see where the theories they have embraced are not in line with Moses’ inspired words. Walton, however, almost dialectically, remarks, “[I]t represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God” (15). But for what purpose was the revelation given? To give their point of view respectability and authority? Or was it to keep them deceived by the prevailing false views of origins? Walton comments that God was content for Israel to retain “the native ancient cosmic geography” (18). As for the location of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and as for the shape of the earth and the nature of the sky, none of these has any significance. If Israel alone of all the nations has received the divinely inspired literature on origins, then this revelation cannot contain false concepts, can it?.

That is enough for now. There is enough material for this reviewer to function as a critic of the book. For optimum benefit, he would say, a thorough study of the biblical text is warranted before engaging with The Lost World. It will be a challenge not only in terms of grammar, syntax, and principles of hermeneutics, but also in terms of application to our day and how to relate science to the Bible or vice versa. No doubt others will pick up on this new perspective and extend the ideas of The Lost World of Genesis One. One last item: A Th.D. dissertation entitled “Genesis 1:1–2:3: A Textual and Exegetical Examination as an Objective Foundation for Apologetical and Theological Studies” by Bryan Murphy submitted to TMS in May, 2008, actually answered or countered much of Walton’s book in advance. Hopefully, Dr. Murphy will find time to have his dissertation published.