This blog post provides a simpler account of a scholarly essay by Noel Weeks called, “The Bible and the ‘Universal’ Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton,” Westminster Theological Journal 78 (2016): 1–28.
But first an introduction.
The titles of several of John Walton’s books make clear his view that the Bible comes from an ancient world that we no longer understand . . . unless we accept Walton’s explanations of how these ancient cultures worked and thought, and then apply Walton’s reconstruction to re-intrepret the Old Testament.
Apparently the books are selling well, for IVP has turned this into a “Lost World” series with one more volume per year, for 2017, 2018, and 2019. In every case the premise of the volume is that Western readings of the Old Testament have grossly misunderstood the meaning of the text by ignoring the Ancient Near Eastern context. For example, The Lost World of the Torah (i.e., of Gen–Deut), due to come out in Feb 2019, argues that “The Ancient Israelites Would Not Have Understood the Torah as Providing Divine Moral Instruction,” and “We Cannot Gain Moral Knowledge or Build a System of Ethics Based on Reading the Torah in Context and Deriving Principles from It” (the book’s theses have been announced online). Presumably the Ten Commandments, part of the Torah, do not provide moral instruction? We shall find out when the book is published.
As with all of Walton’s books, this raises questions about how much we can assume that there was such a thing as an Ancient Near Eastern mindset that was shared across very diverse cultures and several millennia. Weeks’s article from 2010 pointed out enormous problems with this assumption (we reviewed this in a previous blog post).
Enter a second essay by Weeks, directly challenging Walton.
Weeks begins by pointing out that the crucial weakness in Walton’s method is the belief that the ancient world and our modern world are so vastly different that the Bible’s conformity to thought patterns of the ancient world—as reconstructed by Walton, we hasten to add—and its differences from our world, can be taken for granted. As a result of this assumption, Walton doesn’t need to make careful distinctions in his evidence from the ancient world. Weeks, however, shows how important it is to evaluate the evidence much more closely than Walton does.
First, he points out biases in the textual evidence (mostly clay tablets) from Mesopotamia, that is, the land of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians:
- 100s of 1000s of Mesopotamian texts versus a few dozen from Israel (besides OT)
- 90% of Mesopotamian texts are economic or administrative records but the biblical text of the OT is not of that sort
- the 10% of the Mesopotamian texts remaining are mostly for divination & exorcism
- next, it’s unclear whether the few Mesopotamian texts that could compare to the Old Testament represent matters central to Mesopotamian thought
- also unclear whether Mesopotamian scribes recorded views of their own culture & time or simply repeated past stories for other reasons
- further unknown whether the average person in Mesopotamia thought in the way of these few texts or whether such views belonged only to the elite
Weeks concludes, “When all these reservation and qualifications are taken into consideration, the simple quoting of a Mesopotamian text as the background to the OT is implausible” (6).
Weeks next reviews the evidence from Egypt, then from Hittite sources, and then from the Transjordan area. The only site that provides texts of ancient myths is Ugarit, on the Syrian coast (7). But Ugarit has no creation account, nor do the Hittite myths (8). The only creation account, from the Enuma elish, is actually about the superiority of the Babylonian god Marduk. The dating of the document’s origin is likely late second millennium B.C., too late to have been consulted by Moses (9).
Weeks asks whether even ten references over two thousand years and two cultures can establish a common view, and then adds that “on some crucial points Walton is more likely to have two than ten” (10).
Walton’s key arguments next receive scrutiny.
- First, about creation in Genesis not being about the origin of things, but only their functions, Weeks provides two counter examples from Babylonia (11).
- Second, the particular functions that Walton ascribes to each day of creation are rather out of line with his claim to convey the ancient mindset, for he chooses very abstract functions, such as time, the architectural design of cosmic geography, fecundity, etc. (12).
- Third, the idea of creation as temple where God came to rest just like all other ancient gods lived in temples is challenged by the fact that these gods were often described as living in other gods’ temples or even reposing outside a temple, and especially, having their more permanent residence in a heaven (13–14, 18).
- Fourth, the assumed “scientific naiveté of the ancient people in apparently thinking of the universe as a three-tiered structure is false. While such texts exist, other, different texts from the same cultures also exist (14–17).
- Fifth, the importance of the seven-day period in general does not need to be questioned, but its purported tie to the length of time for building a temple fails (19).
Interestingly, Weeks concludes that Walton has not only made the Bible more like the surrounding cultures, but he has also made the surrounding cultures more like the Bible (18). And, we might add, both as unlike today as possible.
In a major section of his paper, Weeks also critiques Walton’s application of his method to Scripture more broadly, but for our purposes we will not describe this (21–6).
In summary I am not impressed by the whole approach outlined here. There is no recognition of the difficulty of discerning a uniform mind of the ANE. Individual extra-biblical texts are turned into representations of the whole huge chronological and cultural span. Even more striking are claims that are simply false (26, bold here and in following paragraphs added).
The tendency of [Walton & Sandy’s] system is to push any real impact of God on the world further into a grey area . . . They reject Deism . . . but their system has the same tendency . . . The points of interaction between the deity and the physical world are postulates of faith without tangible physical evidence. [However], the biblical text is clear that when God interacts with the physical, the physical world is actually, visibly changed (26).
Structurally this approach is very similar to the neo-orthodox thesis of a Word of God within the Scriptures but not synonymous with the Scriptures (27).
In other words they make no attempt to set forward a method by means of which we might climb out of the language of an ancient time into the message for us. I suspect that they do not tell us because they already know what parts of the text are objectionable. Whether is it the parts that do not fit Kantianism or the parts that make the modern unbeliever scoff, it is modern problems that really drive them. I fear they have fallen into the trap they wished to avoid (27).
We need to see that the Bible stands over against both the ancient world and the modern world. It does so because God is distinct from the creation he made and yet he impacts upon it (28).
For those who prefer to get the gist of this article in video format, you can watch Weeks’s lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, posted online. I’m sure they’ll be happy for the added web traffic 🙂 and you will be happy to listen to his very winsome style of lecturing. A pdf of the article can also be obtained.
When I was a seminary student, we had the privilege of having Dr. Margaret Helder as a guest speaker. Having grown up in Edmonton, Dr. Helder was not a stranger to me. She had occasionally been a guest speaker at our Christian school in Alberta. However, on this particular occasion at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton, I heard her say something that I couldn’t recall having heard before. I don’t remember if it was part of her original presentation or in reply to a question, but she pointed out that the so-called Big Bang and Genesis are incompatible. I don’t remember the exact reasons she gave as to why that was, but it sounded quite reasonable to me at the time and, since then, I’ve kept it in the back of my mind.
I thought about this again recently as I encountered a book which suggested that the Big Bang and Genesis are compatible. Gregory Koukl’s new book The Story of Reality is generally a recommended overview of the Christian worldview (a review will be appearing shortly on my blog Yinkahdinay). In chapter 7, Koukl is answering two objections to the Christian view of God as Creator. The second has to do with miracles. After all, creation is a miracle. He notes that all scientists “pretty much agree that the universe had a beginning.” That beginning was the Big Bang where “all things exploded into existence in a fraction of an instant.” Then he says this (page 51):
I know the Big Bang idea is controversial with some Christians, but I think that’s because they haven’t realized how well it fits the Story [the Christian worldview laid out in the Bible], which basically says the same thing.
So according to Koukl, the Big Bang fits with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Reading this gave me occasion to look a little more into this and refresh my memory as to why Dr. Helder had told a group of seminary students and professors otherwise.
I found this article on creation.com to be especially helpful: The Big Bang is not a Reason to Believe. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the whole article, this chart about sums it up — each flash on this chart represents a conflict between the chronology of Genesis 1-2 and Big Bang cosmology:
Does the Big Bang really fit the story that well? Perhaps if you define “Big Bang” in some way that doesn’t reflect how it’s really being used in astrophysics. Maybe that’s what Koukl has done. Or perhaps if you insist that Genesis 1-2 don’t give us a chronologically accurate, historic account of the origins of the universe. Of course, that second option could find you up against Jesus Christ, who clearly taught that Adam and Eve were created at the beginning (Matthew 19:4). No, I still think that Dr. Helder was right. There’s no reconciling the Big Bang and God’s Word.
A recent discovery in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa appears to support the idea that there were many versions of early humans once walking the earth. At least, that’s the claim that has been made here by Professor Chris Stringer, curator of a new exhibit at London’s Natural History Museum.
The discovery of the bones of at least fifteen individuals was made in 2013 by Rick Hunter of the South African Speleological Exploration Club, and it has been called “one of the most exciting finds in the last one hundred years.” The fossils are believed to be a new species of human – Homo Naledi by name – described as being human, but also having many “primitive” characteristics: small brains, mixtures of “primitive” and “derived” features, including hands that appear to be specially adapted to life lived in the trees.
Dr. Stringer admits that the age of the fossils has not been determined. “We’ve put it in our evolutionary diagram at the beginning,” he states. “But,” he adds, “we don’t know how old it is.” However, it is believed that these bones are from “a very primitive kind of human,” who “probably lies close to the origins of the human genus.”
Researchers have drawn a number of conclusions on the basis of this find. Stringer himself states that “we have to get away from this idea that there is a simple march of progress from an ‘ape-person’ to what we are today.” Homo naledi may be part of one of a number of “streams” in the evolutionary process, and one of Dr. Stringer’s stated goals is to debunk the notion that the evolution of the human species is “the pinnacle of a predestined evolutionary sequence.” He adds, “We want to show that diversity, and the fact that there was nothing pre-ordained about our own evolution and our eventual success.”
There are two interesting points to ponder when it comes to both this find, and the way it is being presented to the public. First of all, the agenda of those who have created this display has been made clear; Dr. Stringer himself declares that he is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to change people’s thinking about the manner in which humans have evolved.
His choice of language in describing the viewpoint he is seeking to challenge is revealing, to say the least. He doesn’t like the idea that we humans are “the pinnacle of a predestined evolutionary sequence,” and he argues that “there was nothing pre-ordained about our own evolution and eventual success.” It appears that, for Dr. Stringer, it is not just the idea of an evolutionary process that must be defended. It is also the belief that there is a design or purpose to that process, or an end-goal to that process, that must be abandoned.
The second point we must consider is the impact that discoveries like this, and particularly the conclusions drawn from them, must have on the thinking of those who hold to evolutionary creation and theistic evolution. We’ve noted in previous articles that there are a number of scholars who consider the Biblical Adam and Eve to be the representatives of an early population of hominids, not literally the first humans, directly created by God. Rather, the representative “first couple” of Scripture were the product of a long process of biological development. They were the first hominids endowed with a “human soul,” so to speak.
Should recent finds lead to the conclusion that there are indeed multiple lines in the human family tree? And does this mean that there are some human beings who are not descended from “Adam and Eve”? Or are the theistic evolutionary conclusions in need of correction and revision once again? Were Adam and Eve the representatives of one particular line, or all of them? And if Adam was the covenantal head of only one branch of the human family tree, what does that say about the Lord Jesus Christ?
The foundational issue here is methodological in nature. In the end, your answers to these questions will flow from your starting point. Our starting point is the Triune God, and his perfect word. His word tells us:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:24-27).
This word must be our starting point, and it must shape our thinking – about how to interpret the evidence of “Homo Naledi,” and every other fossil discovery – and everything else in the world. Dr. Stringer’s own words prove that there is no such thing as neutrality, even within the sciences that like to claim the neutral ground as their own. Contradictory presuppositions inevitably lead to contradictory conclusions.
But when we start with the unchanging Word of God, our conclusions are firm, and trustworthy. God doesn’t change, and his word doesn’t change. In the end, when we begin to base our conclusions on interpretations of the evidence made by people with a decidedly un- and even anti-Christian agenda, we are building our house on shifting sands.
As I explained in the last blog entry, Keller entertains the real questions Christians ask when they are told that biological evolution is compatible with the Bible. The first “layperson” question considered by Keller is, “If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?” Keller’s short answer is, “The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking or agenda on them.”
At first glance this is a solid answer—the Bible has authority! But I’ll have more to say about that below.
Genre and intent
Keller expands upon his answer first by delving into the genre of Genesis 1 because “the way to discern how an author wants to be read is to distinguish what genre the writer is using” (3). “How an author wants to be read” is a bit ambiguous, but I’ll take it to refer to authorial intent (Keller’s point is going to be whether or not the author wants us to read Genesis 1 literally and chronologically). The link he proposes between genre and authorial intent, however, is not straightforward. Consider this example: If I use poetry to communicate to my wife how much I love her, my intentions are just the same as if I had written it out prosaically. Even if I used a syllogism, “All my life I have loved you; today is a day of my life; therefore I love you today,” my intentions would still be the same (though she’d call it a silly-gism). It’s true that in poetry I’m more likely to use figures of speech but those as such don’t remove historicity from the poetry. See Psalm 78 for a good example of poetry replete with historical truth.
Genre of Genesis 1
Keller next asks what genre Genesis 1 is and starts his answer with the conservative Presbyterian theologian Edward J. Young (1907–1968) who, he says, “admits that Genesis 1 is written in ‘exalted, semi-poetical language.’” Keller correctly notes the absence of the telltale signs of Hebrew poetry. Yet he also points out the refrains in Genesis 1 such as, “and God saw that it was good,” “God said,” “let there be,” and “and it was so,” and then adds, “Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened” (4). He completes this part of the arguments with a quotation from John Collins that the genre of Genesis 1 is “what we may call exalted prose narrative . . . by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text” (4). Thus this argument is now complete: the genre of Genesis 1 prohibits us from reading it literally.
Misleading appeal to E. J. Young
However, if we follow the trail via Keller’s footnote to E. J. Young’s, Studies in Genesis One, we discover that Keller sidestepped Young’s real point. Here’s the fuller quote, “Genesis one is written in exalted, semi-poetical language; nevertheless, it is not poetry” (italics added). Young continued by pointing out what elements of Hebrew poetry are lacking and by urging the reader to compare Job 38:8–11 and Psalm 104:5–9 to Genesis 1 in order to see the obvious differences between a poetic and non-poetic account of the creation. Prior to this paragraph Young had written,
Genesis one is a document sui generis [entirely of its own kind]; its like or equal is not to be found anywhere in the literature of antiquity. And the reason for this is obvious. Genesis one is divine revelation to man concerning the creation of heaven and earth. It does not contain the cosmology of the Hebrews or of Moses. Whatever that cosmology may have been, we do not know . . . Israel, however, was favoured of God in that he gave to her a revelation concerning the creation of heaven and earth, and Genesis one is that revelation (82).
In note 80 of the same page Young elaborates further,
For this reason we cannot properly speak of the literary genre of Genesis one. It is not a cosmogony, as though it were simply one among many. In the nature of the case a true cosmogony must be a divine revelation. The so-called cosmogonies of the various peoples of antiquity are in reality deformations of the originally revealed truth of creation. There is only one genuine cosmogony, namely, Genesis one, and this account alone gives reliable information as to the origin of the earth (82n80).
With these words of Young guiding our hearts, we turn back to Keller’s statement that it is “obvious” that someone would not compose an account in the exalted style of Genesis 1 “in response to a simple request to tell what happened.” But what if the things therein described happened exactly in that exalted way? Of course we are reading “exalted prose”—precisely because the things described are so wonderful! The literary style not only fits but even reflects the miraculous events. God is glorified repeatedly, all the more because it is literally true.
An old canard: Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2
Keller’s second reason—and strongest, he says—why he thinks the author of Genesis 1 didn’t want to be taken literally is based on “a comparison of the order of creative acts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2” (4). This argument is a bit more complicated and deserves closer scrutiny than I will give it here. But the basic point is that Genesis 2:5 apparently speaks about God not putting any vegetation on the earth before there was an atmosphere or rain or a man to till the ground. This, says Keller, is the natural order. Genesis 1 is the unnatural order, so it’s not literal. His argument is an old canard, but really it is a lame duck.
Let’s examine it: Keller says that Genesis 1 has an unnatural order because light (day 1) came before light sources (day 4) and vegetation (day 3) came before an atmosphere and rain (day 4). However, he reads the text too quickly here, for the separation of waters above and below occurs on day 2, allowing rain before vegetation. On day 4 God set the light sources in the firmament that was already there on day 2. Further, the old light vs light bearers problem is far from sufficient to jettison the chronological order of the creation events in Genesis 1. And, finally, a normal day without light or water wouldn’t kill these plants anyway.
To continue: the order of events in Genesis 2, especially verse 5, is not in the least contrary to Genesis 1. Rather, whereas Genesis 1:1–2:3 refers only to “God” and focuses on the awesome Creator preparing and adorning the earth for man, Genesis 2:4–25 focus on this God as “Yahweh” who lovingly and tenderly creates the man and the woman, prepares a beautiful garden for them, and who thereupon enters into a loving relationship with them. Each chapter makes its own contribution to the story, with chapter 2 doubling back in order to more fully explain the events of the sixth day. This is a common occurrence in Hebrew prose. Further, we can easily fit 2:4–25 chronologically in between 1:26, “Let us make man in our image” and 1:27, “So God created man in his image . . . male [Adam] and female [Eve] he created them.”
Finally, Genesis 2:4 begins the first “toledoth” or “generations of” statement, which after this becomes a structural divider in Genesis, occurring nine more times. Young argues that we should translate “toledoth” as “those things which are begotten” (59). If we follow this suggestion, we see that Genesis 2:4ff tell us about the things begotten of the heavens and the earth, such as the man, who is both earthly (his body) and heavenly (his spirit), or the garden, which is earthly, yet planted by God. When Genesis 2:5 states that “no shrub of the field” had yet grown and “no plant of the field” had yet sprouted, it portrays a barrenness which sets the stage for the fruitful garden (2:8–14) and the fruitful wife (2:18–25). Further, the “shrubs” and “plants” of the field likely point to cultivated plants that require human tending. Adam will be a farmer. If so, the point of 2:5 is not the lack of vegetation altogether, but the lack of certain man-tended kinds, such as those Yahweh God would plant in the Garden of Eden.
Therefore, we ought to conclude the very opposite of Keller. Whereas he argues that we cannot read both chapter 1 and chapter 2 as “straightforward accounts of historical events” and that chapter 2 rather than chapter 1 provides the “natural order” (5), we most certainly can read both as historical and literal.
Keller pulls together both the genre and the chronology arguments and concludes,
So what does this mean? It means Genesis 1 does not teach us that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days. Of course, it doesn’t teach evolution either . . . However, it does not preclude the possibility of the earth being extremely old (5).
However, both of Keller’s grounds for not taking Genesis 1 literally have been exposed as weak at best. In contrast, E. J. Young’s strong arguments for the literal, historical reading of Genesis 1, a few of which we reviewed here, remain firmly in place. Exalted prose indeed, and true!
Finally, a word about the authority of the text: Keller states that we must “respect the authority of the Biblical writers.” His wording is similar to John Walton’s in his speeches at a conference I attended in September 2015. Walton frequently spoke of “the authority of the text” and stated that it rested in the original meaning “as understood by the people who first received it.” But missing from both Keller and Walton is the recognition that all Scripture is breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16) and that therefore the primary author is the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). We are not called just to respect the authority of human writers or of the text, but of God himself! There are passages of Scripture for which the first intention of the human writer—as far as we can discern it—does not reach as far as the divine intention (for example, certain Messianic Psalms such as 2 & 110, or the injunction about the ox not wearing a muzzle as it treads out the grain (Deut 25:4; cf. 1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18). In fact, Peter tells us that the Old Testament prophets searched with great care to find out the time and circumstances of the things they prophesied about Christ—implying that the prophecies went beyond the knowledge of the prophets themselves. He adds that these are things into which even angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10–12). Thus, it’s clear that the primary author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit and that the authority of the text resides in his intentions first of all. This is why one of the primary rules of interpretation is to compare Scripture with Scripture. This book alone is God’s Word!
Let us take great care in handling the Word of God, greater care than Keller does on this point. And let us conclude that the text of Genesis 1 itself clearly indicates it is to be read literally, historically, and chronologically (Keller, at least, has not proven otherwise).
 In addition, Keller’s note 17 on page 14, linked to a different section of his paper, asserts that prose can use figurative speech and poetry can use literal speech. It appears, then, that he undercuts his own argument.
 See my blog entry at https://creationwithoutcompromise.com/2016/02/03/the-lost-world/.
William Van Doodewaard, author of The Quest for the Historical Adam (RHB, 2015), has written a critical review over at Reformation21 of another book published in 2015 by John Walton. We highly recommend that you read the review.
Walton’s book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve explains his views on Genesis 2 and 3 whereas his earlier book, The Lost World of Genesis One, lays out his interpretation of Genesis 1. If you’re not familiar with Walton’s views, Van Doodewaard’s review will help as might this interview, but don’t be surprised if it feels a bit mind-bending, for Walton’s approach truly is unique.
After reading J. Richard Middleton’s blog last September, I attended a conference on September 18–19, 2015 entitled “Genesis Recast: The War with Science is Over” where Walton gave two lengthy speeches, one representing each book. The event was hosted by an evangelical megachurch in New York State and sponsored by Biologos and other organizations. Walton opened the first evening and was first up to speak the next day. His role was to try and open the minds of the evangelical audience to the idea that perhaps we have been misunderstanding Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for centuries, if not millennia. He kept emphasizing that all he was doing was reading the text for what it is; he didn’t have an agenda to make room for evolution or some other theory. The audience could have been forgiven for doubting this, for one of the presentations that followed Walton’s was by Stephen Schaffner, a Christian physicist. He opened by asking what genetics tells us about where humans come from? His short answer: Through evolutionary biology. We were then shown branches of the evolutionary “tree of life” in which all living organisms have their place, beginning with the simplest life forms and evolving to homo sapiens over aeons of time. In Schaffner’s view the number of people on the earth has never been smaller than about 5000 and all people of European ancestry have at least 2% Neanderthal DNA.
So much for a historical, literal Adam and Eve as the one human pair from whom all humans descend.
I have neither the expertise nor the time to critique Schaffner’s presentation (you could look here, however). My point is just to make clear that Walton’s views fit into a context and are being used—whether designed for this purpose or not—to open the way for acceptance among Christians of most or all of the theory of evolution.
Schaffner ended with a quotation from the Russian Orthodox biologist Theodosius Dobzhandsky,
It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist . . . Creation is not an event that happened in 4003 BC; it is a process that began 10 billion years ago and is still underway.
Dobzhandsky is, of course, merely applying the definition of the word “evolution” to “creation.”
The conference included a special lunch reserved for persons in ministry which I attended and which allowed us to ask Walton some questions. The first question was, “How would you teach this to children in Sunday School?” Walton responded that he would emphasize the positive aspects of the account: general things like God is the Creator and the one who gives order. But children, of course, will want to know whether the things described in Genesis actually happened the way they are described. Telling them there really is a Santa Claus but adding that his handwritten note from the North Pole doesn’t mean what you think it does, will leave them puzzled, unsatisfied, and uninterested in Santa Claus.
The advertising for the conference highlighted the idea that the war with science is over; Scripture, the Christian faith, and science are all in agreement. The conference made clear that this meant a wholesale reinterpretation of Genesis with virtually no challenge asserted against modern scientific theories and interpretations. Christians are hearing this more often, and can rest assured that the message is going to be repeated frequently. Walton was on a circuit, giving his speeches at many different venues. Other organizations such as this one (as well as a few evangelical universities and seminaries) have also written successful grant proposals to the Templeton Foundation, Biologos, the Faraday Institute, etc. and will be hiring personnel, putting on local seminars, creating brochures, establishing student scholarships, etc. They are out to change the mind of the church regarding God’s miracle of creation in six days.
The work that Van Doodewaard has done in his 2015 book and in the review we’ve introduced here will truly help equip us to stand firm upon the Word of God.
One of the most important reasons we need to study church history is because Satan repurposes just about every error and heresy he has ever engineered or promoted. Seldom do you encounter a totally original false teaching. The evil one regularly takes advantage of the fact that human beings have short memories and are easily distracted. But by studying church history, we can equip ourselves to discern and resist his evil ways.
In 1655, two hugely controversial books appeared in Europe. In these two books (which can be found here), Isaac La Peyrère argued that many other human beings had existed before and alongside Adam and Eve. He claimed that Adam was merely the ancestral father of the Jews. However, the Gentiles traced their lineage back to various “pre-Adamites.” To make his case, he appealed to Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, although he did question the authority and authenticity of Scripture in many places.
Today we hear talk again of pre-Adamites, although the arguments have shifted because of the wide acceptance of biological macro-evolution. If human beings have an evolutionary history, then we are necessarily looking at the existence of pre-Adamites. If macro-evolution is true and also applies to our species, then an historical Adam (if there was one) cannot have been immediately created by God from literal dust of the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7). Instead, this historical Adam was biologically created by the normal process of a sperm fertilizing an ovum. In other words, prior to being constituted as a human being (being endowed with the image of God), the being we call Adam had a biological father and mother – pre-Adamites.
Plenty has been written recently to demonstrate that this contemporary argument for pre-Adamites is unbiblical. However, is there anything we can learn from Reformed engagement with previous forms of pre-Adamitism? Francis Turretin addressed La Peyrère’s arguments in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology in 1679. In the English translation, Turretin’s discussion takes up about six pages (pp. 457-462 of volume 1). This is a good summary of the issues, as well as an orthodox biblical response. But it was by far not the only response.
Just one year after La Peyrère published his pre-Adamite books, a full-length book response appeared from the pen of Samuel Maresius (1599-1673). Maresius was a Reformed theologian from France (his original surname was De Marets). When he responded to La Peyrère, he was a theology professor at the University of Groningen, in the northern Netherlands. Maresius’ book was entitled, A Refutation of the Fable of the Pre-Adamite: Accomplished in Seven Basic Questions. This volume appeared in several editions – the one I used in preparing this post contained 689 pages (you can find it here).
As the title indicates, Maresius treats the topic through seven basic questions. However, he first of all writes a lengthy (109 pages) preface in which he defends the authenticity and authority of Scripture. That provides a window into his method in this volume. His answers to the questions are based first and foremost on Scripture. Yes, Maresius does bring in other supportive material as well, but the authoritative foundation is Scripture alone.
Let’s now briefly look at the seven questions Maresius asks and see what can be learned from them in terms of our present-day engagement with pre-Adamitism. Even though the background is different, some of the questions have not changed and the answers are still relevant.
1. Is Adam the first of all men and is he to be acknowledged as the parent of the whole human race?
Maresius answers in the affirmative. He supports his answer by appealing to Scripture passages, including Matthew 19:4-5. Matthew 19:4 says that God created male and female (Adam and Eve) at the beginning – which means the beginning of the universe, during the six days of creation. Adam was at the beginning and is therefore the first of all, the parent of the whole human race. Maresius understands that the issues at hand are not solved merely by looking at Genesis 1 and 2. Rather, Scripture must interpret Scripture. Jesus clearly believed that Adam was the first of all men, and therefore we ought to as well.
2. Is the forming of Adam and Eve described in Genesis 2 different in order and time from the creation of man in the image of God referred to in Genesis 1?
This is to be denied, says Maresius. You cannot drive a wedge between the first two chapters of Genesis in an effort to make room for pre-Adamites. The man in Genesis 1 is the same as Adam in Genesis 2. La Peyrère argued to the contrary and it’s important to remember that background. Maresius argues that the first two chapters of Genesis present the same history of human origins from different perspectives. Moreover, he again appeals to other Scripture passages outside of Genesis to support his position.
3. Should the foundation of the world and human affairs be regarded as having taken place long before Adam?
To this Maresius says, “No.” In other words, in answer to La Peyrère, he maintains a young-earth position. Any time someone starts introducing pre-Adamites, we run into the question of the age of the earth. Maresius had to deal with it, and so do we today. The biblical evidence runs in favour of a young earth.
4. Does it follow from what Paul says Romans 5:12-14 that other men existed before Adam?
This was a nearly-clever argument introduced by La Peyrère. He reinterpreted Paul to be saying that there were other human beings before Adam who were lawless and sinful. But their actions were not considered sin until Adam came along and broke God’s command to him. This comes across as a radical attempt to reinterpret a problematic text for La Peyrère and Maresius recognizes it as such. It is simply sloppy exegesis to use Romans 5:12-14 to argue for pre-Adamites. Lesson: beware of the Scripture-twisting needed to support a refusal to believe what Scripture plainly reveals in Genesis 1 and 2.
5. Is it possible for the sin of Adam to be imputed to men not descended from him, or those who are pretended to have existed in the world long before him?
Another way of putting this question: can the imputation of original sin be universal if Adam is not the head of the entire human race? Maresius denies this and argues that universal imputation requires a single head of the human race. In both old and new forms, pre-Adamitism is going to have human beings who are not biologically descended from Adam. If they are not descended from Adam, then Adam’s sin cannot be imputed to them. In La Peyrère’s version of pre-Adamitism, he also has human beings existing before Adam, and these too cannot be regarded as sharing in Adam’s sin. In whatever age pre-Adamites are proposed, it should be noted that a reconfiguration of the imputation of original sin becomes necessary.
6. Scripture frequently distinguishes between Jews and Gentiles. Can it be inferred from this that the latter are not descended from Adam, but instead from pre-Adamites?
This question is peculiar to La Peyrère’s position. While we can note that Maresius denies this, I don’t think there’s anything that can be drawn from this in terms of relevance for our present-day discussions.
7. Was the flood of Noah universal?
Maresius affirms a global flood in the days of Noah, contrary to what La Peyrère argued in his books. Like at least some contemporary advocates of pre-Adamites, La Peyrère maintained that the flood was a local phenomenon. Noah’s family, preserved in the flood, continued to represent the line of Adam. However, the Gentiles continued to exist in other parts of the world, unaffected by the flood in Noah’s locale. But Maresius points out that Scripture simply does not support this view. After all, Genesis 6:12 speaks of what precipitated the flood: universal corruption. Universal corruption requires universal punishment. After the flood, Genesis 10 provides genealogies which account for the existence of all peoples after Noah, including Gentiles. Maresius proves that arguing for a local flood requires the twisting and perversion of Scripture, and his arguments remain applicable today.
There is a bit more to be gleaned from this episode in church history. When La Peyrère wrote his books in 1655, he still identified as a Calvinist and was a member of the French Reformed Churches. He soon ended up being arrested by the Roman Catholics – they regarded him as an enemy of their faith too. Faced with their threats, he apologized to the Pope, recanted his views, and became a Roman Catholic in 1656. “Recanted,” however, is a term that can only be used loosely here. La Peyrère went through intellectual contortions to officially disavow his pre-Adamite views while actually still holding them. He wanted to save his life and his intellectual legacy. He actually wrote a defense in response to Maresius’ book, but did not publish it because of a promise to the Pope not to promote pre-Adamitism. There is sometimes more than meets the eye or ears. Sin is deceitful and the sin of unbelief no less so.
Perhaps you’re wondering: if his views were so wrong, why was La Peyrère never disciplined by the French Reformed Churches? Well, it had been tried. Already in 1626, he was suspected of teaching and holding to unbiblical ideas, although it’s not clear whether pre-Adamitism was on his mind yet. His case went to a provincial synod of the French Reformed Churches. However, some 60 pastors defended him and he was acquitted. In his monograph on La Peyrère, Richard H. Popkin suggests that it was the La Peyrère family name which led to this outcome – they were well-respected and influential. Although no formal discipline took place, La Peyrère’s views were roundly condemned by Reformed theologians like Maresius and Turretin. They did what they could to broker no room for pre-Adamitism in the Reformed Churches of Europe. If there ought to have been no room then for La Peyrère’s form of pre-Adamitism, why should there be room now for a different form of pre-Adamitism with many of the same features?