By Roy E. Gane (Old Testament Department, SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University)
Here I would like to respond to the January 30, 2011 post by my friend and colleague Nicholas Miller (Department of Church History, SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University) titled: “The ‘Found’ World of Genesis 1: Is Theistic Evolution a Meaningful Option for Seventh-day Adventists?” Dr. Miller was reacting to the Friday evening and Sabbath afternoon presentations at Andrews University on January 21-22, 2011 by my friend John H. Walton of Wheaton College, author of The Lost World of Genesis One. On Friday evening, Dr. Walton presented his approach to comparative methodology: how to understand the Old Testament within its ancient Near Eastern context. On Sabbath afternoon, he applied his approach to Genesis 1, proposing that this account of the Creation week (of literal days) recounts God’s assignment of functions to components of Planet Earth and its environment to inaugurate it as a cosmic temple in which he took up residence and began his rule.
Miller raised a number of issues that deserve clarification and further discussion. I will not attempt to provide solutions to all the problems he raised, but will try to identify some productive directions in which we can make progress regarding (1) understanding comparative methodology, (2) what is at stake regarding a comparative approach to Genesis 1, and (3) the role of Andrews University in hosting scholarly debate.
I agree with Miller on several important points, including the need to pay careful attention to methodologies and philosophies behind them, the assessment that theistic evolution is not in harmony with Seventh-day Adventist teaching, and the opinion that we at Andrews University need further thinking and discussion concerning choices and formatting of opportunities for live interaction with scholars who are impacting the wider academic community in some ways that may be challenging to us. However, my perspective differs from that of Miller in some ways, at least partly because we work in different disciplines: While he is a church historian, I am in the area of Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies, like Walton.
John Walton is an evangelical scholar who, like Seventh-day Adventists, believes in the uniquely authoritative divine revelation and thought inspiration of the Bible in the sense that God used ancient Near Eastern messengers to convey his messages for human beings of all subsequent ages (Genesis [NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 19-20; cf. The Lost World of Genesis One, 9-15). For him, the meaning of a given passage of Scripture must be ascertained within the context of the biblical text itself. The question is: What does the Bible intend to say? Enduring principles in God’s messages transcend time and place to reach us today, but communication of these principles is often clad in the garb of the ancient culture of the human messengers and their original audience. Culture is not the biblical authority, but even divine communication to humans must take their culture into account in order to be effective.
We can agree with Walton that God gave his principles to people with particular world-views and lifestyles, not in a cultural vacuum. The very fact that he revealed himself through human language means that the Bible contains a cultural element because language is always a product of culture; it is never culturally sterile. The culture of the biblical messengers and those whom they addressed was foreign to ours in a number of ways. Although we can ascertain basic principles of God’s salvation through Christ and will for our lives without trans-cultural awareness, deeper understanding of God’s written Word requires us to engage in some careful cultural translation so that we do not simply read our own ideas into the Bible. We possess a growing corpus of historical resources (such as extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern texts and material remains) to help us with such translation to some extent, but the ancient human authors had no access to our modern ways of thinking. So it is up to us to try to understand them. This is why Walton is passionate about making relevant biblical background materials accessible to Bible students. He has rendered us a huge service by writing Ancient Israelite Literature In Its Cultural Context and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, co-authoring The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (with Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas), and editing the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT).
In his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Walton briefly reviews the history of comparative methodology from early simplistic, unbalanced, and often polemical approaches that claimed to either “prove” the Bible from ancient Near Eastern parallels or to “disprove” its unique inspiration by using the same kinds of parallels to argue that the Israelites simply borrowed from their neighbors and their religion was not unique (15-19, 29-38). Walton has adopted the “contextual” approach championed by W. W. Hallo (see Quote of Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 18, posted on Mar 2, 2011). This approach, which is now generally accepted by scholars involved in biblical comparative studies (including myself), recognizes that elements common to the Bible and its ancient environment must first be examined within their respective cultural (including textual) contexts before they are compared with each other. Comparison must consider not only similarities but also differences. Even items that appear identical on the surface may function differently within different cultural (including religious) systems (cf. “Principles of Comparative Study” in ibid., 26-27). Study of ancient Near Eastern materials can enhance our understanding of the Bible by comparison and contrast, but it can never override or replace careful analysis of the biblical text itself.
If Walton’s Friday evening presentation sounded philosophical, it is because he was outlining relationships between the Bible and other ancient materials and demonstrating his methodology. His comparative approach is based on careful analysis (by himself, Hallo, and many other scholars) of the nature of the biblical and ancient Near Eastern materials themselves. It is not his concoction from modern philosophies, such as those of Kant or Gould, or a circular reflection of his own modern world-view. The point of his “layer-cake” analogy is simply to illustrate the comprehensiveness of God’s knowledge, as compared with limited human (including scientific) understanding, which grows but never can equal that of God (The Lost World of Genesis One, 114-118). Walton does not detach the “natural” and “supernatural” domains from each other. Rather, he points out that ancient peoples, such as the Israelites, did not see the transcendent and mundane realms as separate from each other the way moderns do. They “believed instead that every event was the act of deity…The idea that deity got things running then just stood back or engaged himself elsewhere (deism) would have been laughable in the ancient world because it was not even conceivable” (ibid., 20).
I am in full agreement with Walton’s basic comparative approach as he has clearly articulated it both in his publications and his Friday night presentation at Andrews University. For decades I have used the same kind of methodology to enhance exegesis, including in collaboration with Walton, who edited my contributions to the NIV Application Commentary (Leviticus, Numbers) and ZIBBCOT (“Leviticus”) series. Walton has done far more than I in systematic presentation and analysis of comparative materials, and I am deeply grateful for his large contribution. There is nothing about his basic approach, per se, that threatens Seventh-day Adventist teachings in any way. We are committed to learning all we can about the Bible, the messages of which constitute our authoritative guide to faith and practice. Proper interpretation of extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern data does not co-opt or subvert sola scriptura; nor does it prove or disprove the Bible. Archaeology and study of ancient extrabiblical texts and cultures are no basis for faith or lack thereof, nor are they higher criticism, which seeks to edit the text of Scripture by reconstructing earlier phases of authorship, editing, or tradition. Rather, comparative study helps us to see the biblical messages in sharper relief as we observe how God’s ancient people lived, thought, and interacted with other peoples.
The Creation Account of Genesis 1
Like Seventh-day Adventists, John Walton accepts literal days in Genesis 1 and a special role for the Sabbath. It appears that we could adopt his interpretation of the Sabbath as the culmination of a week-long inauguration of God’s cosmic temple—an idea that he finds in the Bible, in agreement with some analogies in ancient Near Eastern texts—as a significant contribution to Seventh-day Adventist theology of the Sabbath. He has also enhanced our understanding by drawing attention to God’s role in assigning functions as an integral part of his creative process. Walton is right that not every day of creation brought new material into being: For example, the Sabbath was not new material.
For us the challenging aspect of Walton’s conclusions regarding Genesis 1 is his idea that this account does not cover creation of materials, which occurred earlier during a period of time that is unspecified by the biblical text. He believes that God originally made everything out of nothing, but does not know whether the Lord did it a few days before the week in Genesis 1 or whether he evolved it over a much longer period. According to Walton, this information is simply outside the scope of Genesis 1, and we should not try to get more out of it than what is there just because we want to and we have always believed that this passage provides a comprehensive view. So Walton’s conclusion does not require long ages for material Creation, but he opens the door for this possibility. If he is right, he has “cut the Gordian knot” to resolve tension between the Bible and scientific theories, including those maintaining that life on Planet Earth is millions of years old.
So if Walton’s basic methodology is correct, why has he come up with a conclusion that threatens Young Earth Creationism, the position accepted by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination? Does this mean that the SDA church, which is committed to relying on the actual meaning of the biblical text, should now adopt Walton’s open-ended conclusion that material creation preceded the Creation week of Genesis 1? Not necessarily. In any discipline, a correct basic methodology provides a helpful environment or framework for investigation, but it does not dictate one possible correct conclusion. While proper overall methodological controls narrow the range of options to potentially correct ones, these may significantly vary from one another. This does not mean that research is hopelessly subjective and unable to yield solid conclusions. Rather, different conclusions from the same basic methodology result from variations in application of the methodology.
For example, scholars who share a source-critical approach to the Bible have come up with a plethora of divergences in their dissections of the text. Similarly, conservative scholars who would die for sola-, tota-, and prima-scriptura in its final form have plenty of ongoing debates. Likewise, biblical scholars attempting to employ the basic guidelines of the “contextual approach” can disagree over the meaning of the biblical text, the significance of an ancient Near Eastern textual or material artifact, and/or the relationship between them. This doesn’t mean that everyone is right. Rather, as in science, further data, investigation, debate, and testing of hypotheses are needed to eliminate options and refine our understanding, which may never be adequate but usually can be improved. This is what the scholarly enterprise is all about.
Any true scholar, such as Walton, who develops a new theory expects that his work will be rigorously tested. Conclusions derived through a valid methodology must still be tested to find out whether its application to the raw data holds up to scrutiny. Since Walton’s basic methodology is correct, it is off-target to criticize that, and we should move on, narrowing the focus to questions about his application to the text of Genesis 1. Thus, for example, we could seek further clarification concerning issues such as the following:
- Do all Hebrew terms for Creation in Genesis 1 (including the verb “to be”) lack components of their semantic range that refer to bringing visible phenomena (which could include material) into existence in such a context?
- Genesis 1:2 refers to the state of Planet Earth as covered with water and dark (for an unspecified length of time) before God created light = day on the first day of the Creation week (verse 3-5). Why would verse 2 describe the world in this way if the material Creation were already complete and all that remained was for the components to receive their functions in the cosmic temple? By contrast, the wilderness tabernacle is clearly described as materially complete (Exod 40) before its functional consecration in Lev 8. Granted that the pre-Creation state was functionless and that Creation brought functionality into being, is it possible that God (unlike the Israelites who constructed the tabernacle) simultaneously brought the cosmic “temple” of Earth into phenomenological existence and inaugurated it?
- What does Genesis 2—describing material formation of Adam, animals, and birds from earth and Eve from Adam’s rib (vv. 7, 19, 21-22)—contribute to what we learn from Genesis 1? Granted that the narrative of Genesis 2 provides archetypes for categories of living beings (e.g., we are all “dust”; The Lost World of Genesis One, 70-71), doesn’t the text present the origins of these functional archetypes as events in which God brought something materially new into existence?
- We can agree that Genesis 1 communicates about Creation in ways that would be understandable to an ancient observer of the cosmos and its contents, not in strict harmony with the more precise accounts that could be supplied by modern scientists describing the same phenomenological dynamics. But in terms of content, how can we differentiate between humanly supplied background information (in accordance with shared ancient Near Eastern cosmological views) and divine message in this context? Granted that there may be points of agreement with ancient Near Eastern traditions, does not Genesis 1-2 present itself as the definitive account of origins (Hebrew toledot; Gen 2:4) revealed by the God of the Bible to his ancient people? What background could be accurately supplied regarding a process that (according to the text) began before there was a human observer? It is true that the purpose of Genesis 1-2 is not to answer scientific questions, but the details in these chapters do provide the theological/relational foundation for the entire Bible by showing how God is the omnipotent Source, Originator, and therefore legitimate Ruler of everything on Earth.
- Strictly speaking, the problem of death before sin is outside the scope of Genesis 1, according to Walton’s theory. However, he recognizes the potential implication “that if the material phase had been carried out for long ages prior to the seven days of Genesis, there would be a problem about death” (The Lost World of Genesis One, 99). His answer is that the biblical teaching of death through sin applies only to the death of human beings (Rom 5:12), who were created mortal but were to have access to the tree of life as the antidote to mortality (Gen 3:22-24; ibid., 100). So “death did exist in the pre-Fall world—even though humans were not subject to it” (ibid.). But if death is normal for non-human created beings, why does Romans 8:19-23 speak of the “bondage to decay” and “groaning” of all creation as temporary, pending “the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV), i.e., from the results of sin? And is “death” in the limited ancient biblical sense of loss of the “breath of (the spirit of) life” (Gen 7:22; not applicable to plants, microbiological life, or the cellular level, such as the epidermis of human skin) an indispensable part of existence in a non-fallen Earth? So has Walton really resolved the problem of death in the geologic column?
I raise these as examples of issues that could be discussed with those who are interested, including Walton, who undoubtedly has thought about them. Since they are real questions, not rhetorical ones, simply stating them neither neutralizes Walton’s credibility nor closes the case in any direction. Rather, my point is that this dialogue about application of the “contextual approach” to Genesis 1, in which many Christians have a stake (not just SDAs), is just beginning to get underway.
Andrews University and Scholarly Debate
In his post, Miller stated: “As a Christian university, we should be open to hearing and considering ideas that we may not agree with. I have no trouble with having Prof. Walton being on our campus and lecturing. But I do have concerns about the format that was put into place for the presentations.” I agree. The Seminary at Andrews University is the logical place for discussions of this nature, which properly require some consideration of technical aspects (including those raised by Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One, such as the semantics of Hebrew bara’, “create”; 38-44) and opportunities for prepared responses by relevant specialists, which the invitee(s) could then answer. In fact, the possibility of the Seminary inviting Dr. Walton was explored in 2009, soon after his book, The Lost World of Genesis One, appeared. But it was felt that the topic was too hot for the Seminary to handle, given that there are members of the church who would pounce on the Seminary leadership, as they have in the recent past, if we host a speaker whose ideas are controversial in our environment.
This raises a question about the nature of the education that we are attempting to provide at the Seminary and in the wider university. Granted that there may be speakers whom we probably should not invite because the result of their “rattling our cage” would not likely be helpful. But why can’t we personally interact with those Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars (as we have in the past) whose thinking can be productively stimulating for us, even if we do not agree with everything they say? Why should the fact that we invite them be taken as a blanket endorsement of all their ideas, so that we are accused of departing from the faith that was once delivered to the saints? Keep in mind that I am talking about invited guests here, not permanent faculty members.
No doubt some think our Seminary should be like a glorified SDA catechism class, but it is essential for the education of our Bible teachers and pastor-evangelists that they learn how to interact with and reach out to people who think outside their “box.” So what will happen if some undergraduates attend such an event? Will their faith be undermined? I would ask in response: Which is better, to have them hear the various sides of an issue in the faith-affirming environment of our university, or to hear only some sides by reading books or getting information from the internet? They will inevitably be confronted with questions that affect or potentially affect their faith. Will they encounter such issues here, where they have support, or elsewhere, where they will be on their own? Will we do enough if we only teach them what to think, or should we also teach them how to think?
Is it possible that many young people are leaving the church because we have never taught them how to think for themselves? Have those who want to deny us the opportunity for productive scholarly discussion with outside speakers thought about that? Should we go on bowing to their pressure? We are just as concerned about the confessional integrity of our teachings and the effectiveness of our education in carrying out SDA mission as they are. This is not about flexing the muscles of academic freedom; it is about practical common sense: What really works toward the achievement of our shared goals?
Again, I am not trying to solve everything here. But I do propose that Andrews University, and especially the Seminary, should give some serious thought to these questions and formulate some consistent protocols for the future, which we are prepared to defend. If we don’t invite challenging outside speakers, the Adventist Forum will be happy to take up the slack and do it for us, as it did in arranging for Walton’s presentation on January 22. But that is not the best venue and format for the kind of scholarly discussion that is needed to address some issues, including Walton’s proposal regarding Genesis 1. Nevertheless, it is thanks to that event that we are having this discussion, which can bring theologians and scientists of faith into fresh and positive interaction with each other. I am not worried about the outcome, provided that we continually seek to humbly and carefully follow God and his Word.