Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)

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.

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(IVP, 2009)
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(IVP, 2013)
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(IVP, 2015)

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.

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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

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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).

He concludes,

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.

 

 

The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)

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In this blog entry and the next, I would like to introduce two excellent journal articles by Noel Weeks, both of which appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal. The first, featured here, is from 2010. The second is from 2016. Both are available in pdf online (links below).

 

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Noel Weeks is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney in Australia. He has degrees in both zoology and theology and has taught Ancient Near Eastern history for most of his life.

Back in 2010, in Vancouver, I had the distinct privilege of enjoying a very charming and thoughtful lecture by Dr. Weeks on Christian education. His ability to engage an audience and speak intelligently for 45 minutes or more without any notes astonished me at the time.

The article at hand addresses the use of “background” material informing the study of the Bible. For instance, when the Bible describes God’s creating work, does it do so in ways that might be comparable to other “creation” accounts in the Ancient Near East? What about Abraham taking Hagar to function as his wife because Sarah was barren? Was this common? Or, when God makes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 or commands circumcision in Genesis 17, is God making use of existing cultural customs? If he is, what can we learn by doing some “background” study? Such study could be very helpful, but it needs to be kept in its proper place. Scripture alone is the Word of God, and the Word of God is self-attesting and fully trustworthy in itself.

A treasure trove of “background” information has become available in the last century. In the first half of the twentieth century this was used to show the reliability of the biblical text, but in the last fifty years it has been used in much the opposite way. Comparisons to other Ancient Near Eastern “creation” accounts, for instance, have lately led John Walton to argue that the church has misunderstood Genesis for millennia. He argues that the Genesis creation account only tells us about the function of the created things, not their origins. According to him, this view of Genesis 1 matches the Egyptian and Mesopotamian way of telling their creation stories.

Weeks’ article from 2010 was written before Walton’s books and arguments had really begun to gain traction. Yet Weeks’ arguments are pertinent: he points out that the use of this biblical background material to back up the biblical account opened up the likelihood that the same material would be used to break down the biblical account—the methodology was flawed. The Christian must first of all receive the text in faith.

Arguments based on supposed parallels often suffer from the following faults:

  1. The cultures or texts being compared had no contact geographically.
  2. The cultures or texts being compared were from vastly different times.
  3. The point of comparison is too general to be helpful.
  4. The assumption of uniformity across cultures, lands, and times is flawed.
  5. The assumption that biblical authors must have conformed to what was common in their place and time is flawed. This denies the possibility of God’s revelation transcending their time and place, of newness, and of change.
  6. The transmission of the text or practice from the one culture to the other culture is rarely, if ever, explained.
  7. Correlation does not imply causation.

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Among the other alleged parallels that Weeks addresses, he speaks to the question of common creation accounts in the Ancient Near East. His comment is very much to the point: “The background to the biblical creation stories has been ‘found’; the problem is whether it has been found in Mesopotamia, Ugarit, Egypt, or a complex mixture” (229–30). As he explains, each of these options presents significant difficulties. In no case have scholars explained how the account of one culture reached another or was used by the other culture. In the case of Egypt, there are even several differing accounts available, so which one is the right candidate as “background” or “parallel”?

Weeks concludes that if scholars are going to read the text of Scripture as if it was locked into its own time and culture, then they need to realize that they themselves as scholars are also locked into their own time and culture (235). Yet scholars constantly act as if they have transcended this problem. This is illogical.

To read the full scholarly article, Noel Weeks, “The Ambiguity of Biblical ‘Background’,” in Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 219–36, click here.

You can also watch Dr. Weeks lecturing on biblical interpretation at a special invited lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary in this 30-minute video.

De Moor on Science and Scripture

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One of the reasons history is exciting is that you often find others who have dealt with similar questions to the ones you’re dealing with.  No, they’re not usually identical questions, but they are sometimes similar.  When it comes to these similar questions, it’s also interesting to compare the answers given in history to the answers we come up with today.  Here at Creation Without Compromise we’re especially interested in the questions and answers that have to do with the relationship between science and Scripture.

Today’s venture into history takes us to the late 1700s.  By and large Reformed theology had been devastated by philosophical influences associated with the Enlightenment.  There were only a few holdouts who could be described as confessionally Reformed and orthodox.  One of them was Bernhard De Moor (1709-1780).

After serving for several years as a pastor, De Moor took up a position as professor of theology at the University of Leiden.  In this capacity, De Moor lectured at length on a textbook published by his teacher and friend Johannes à Marck.  These lectures were later published in massive seven-volume set with the catchy title, Commentarius perpetuus in Johannis Marckii Compendium theologiae christianae didactico-elencticum.  De Moor’s book is regarded as the high water-mark of Reformed orthodoxy.  It was a comprehensive overview of Reformed theology as it stood at that time.

Dr. Steven Dilday has taken on the massive task of translating De Moor’s magnum opus into English.  He has been making it freely available online here.  He began in late 2012 and, at this moment, he is currently in chapter 2.  This is obviously going to be a project that stretches over many years!

One of the topics dealt with in chapter 2 has to do with the relationship between science and Scripture.  I would like to briefly survey what De Moor writes on this.  Here we can observe a Reformed theologian from about 200 years ago dealing with questions similar to what we face today.  If you’re interested in reading the English translation of Dr. Dilday for yourself, the topic begins at this blog post.  But I think you will find my summary a little easier reading…

Broadly speaking, De Moor is dealing with Scripture in chapter 2.  In section 21, he begins by noting that the Bible does have a primary subject:  true religion.  The Bible is mainly about “the right manner of coming to know and of worshipping/serving God for the salvation of man as sinner and the glory of God…”  However, Scripture does also speak of other things related to this primary subject.  These other things include natural, historical, and genealogical matters.

 From there, section 22 of chapter 2 deals with the fact that Scripture speaks truly.  De Moor insists that God’s Word speaks truly about all things, including natural things.  This is directly connected to the fact that the One who inspired these writings is the Spirit of Truth.

Here one has to remember that De Moor is commenting or lecturing on a textbook of Johannes à Marck.  De Moor mentions that à Marck points out an alternative hypothesis, namely that “Scripture in natural matters speaks according to the erroneous opinion of the common people.”  The philosopher Baruch Spinoza advocated this position, and so did theologian Christoph Wittich.  De Moor also notes that the English theologian Thomas Burnet took this position in regards to what Scripture says about creation and the Flood.  Just prior to that, he also points out that this was the view of Balthasar Bekker (1634-1698), a Dutch theologian heavily influenced by Cartesian rationalism.

Now I want to pause here for a moment and mention something important about Bekker.  Bekker argued the hypothesis mentioned by De Moor in relation to demons.  Specifically, Bekker taught that the angels (including demons) are not real, but the good angels in Scripture merely speak metaphorically of God’s omnipotence. Bekker also taught the Eve was not tempted by a literal snake in the garden, nor was Christ literally tempted by Satan – it was merely a dream.  At issue was Bekker’s way of interpreting Scripture.  Dutch theologian Wilco Veltkamp has written a dissertation which delves into this.  In a December 2011 article in Nader Bekeken (see here), he explained the connection between the hermeneutics of Bekker and that of theistic evolutionists today.  The connection is a refusal to start with the authority of Scripture and submit to Scripture through to the end of an issue.

Going back to De Moor, this hypothesis gets several points in response, beginning with the observation that its foundation is preconceived human opinion rather than Scripture.  De Moor points that the Bible was inspired in all things by the Spirit of Truth.  Scripture calls God the God of Truth. This hypothesis makes him a liar.  Moreover, God is omniscient and he knows that of which he speaks.  He would also never deceive us or leave us in error.  If this hypothesis were true, De Moor writes, we are at liberty to interpret Scripture as we please and there would no longer be any certainty as to what it actually says.  De Moor quotes Augustine as he insists that none of the canonical writers erred.  He finishes responding to this hypothesis with a reference to article 5 of the Belgic Confession, “We believe without any doubt all things contained” in these canonical writings.

De Moor then adds some nuance to the discussion.  He notes that while the Holy Spirit “never speaks according to the errors of the common people,” he can accurately relate errors made by people.  Further, De Moor acknowledges that Scripture does sometimes speak according to external appearances.  For example, the Greek in Acts 27:27 literally says that the sailors with Paul suspected that some country was “drawing near to them.”  Of course, the land wasn’t approaching the ship, but it is common to speak in that fashion and no one errs in so speaking.

There is one more objection that De Moor addresses – this one also comes from Spinoza.  It’s one that is still trotted out today, albeit in a different form:  Scripture is not designed to teach us concerning natural matters or science.  Instead, the intent of Scripture is to make people obedient.  Today’s version usually refers to faith or salvation rather than obedience.  But certainly we do hear today as well that the Bible is not a “textbook for science” and such things.  How does De Moor respond?  He affirms again the primary purpose of Scripture is to teach true religion.  However, that primary purpose does not exclude subordinate ends such as teaching people the magnificent natural works of God.  One does not rule out the other.  Finally, it would out of place to suppose that the Holy Spirit would use errors to carry out his purposes.  He would never give anything contrary to the truth – it would be out of character for him.

De Moor concludes this section with an intriguing reference to an Order of the States of Holland and West-Friesland, dated September 30, 1656.  This order actually prohibited the interpretation of Scripture by nature, rather than the other way around.  In other words, at one point there was Dutch legislation maintaining that Scripture is to be the lens through which we interpret nature.  De Moor deems this legislation “altogether pious.”

It’s important to remember the era in which De Moor lived – it was the heyday of Enlightenment rationalism.  The Bible was under attack by those who said that it could stand in the face of reasoned scrutiny and scientific developments.  Intelligent people could not take the Bible seriously at face value.  In that milieu, De Moor stood for the absolute authority of the Word of God.  He promoted confidence in the infallible and inerrant Scriptures, also when it came to the relationship between Scripture and science.  He was not a rationalist – no, he was addressing rationalism and doing so on the basis of Scripture.  Those promoting theistic evolution today, especially in Reformed churches, need to ask themselves whether they are carrying on the heritage of theologians like De Moor or betraying it.

“The Historic Reformed Understanding of Genesis”

QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism -- the first German edition in 1563.
QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism — the first German edition in 1563.

Creation Without Compromise exists because of concerns about origins in our Reformed churches.  In the “About” tab on this website, we state that we are “committed to the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis.”  In the November 6, 2015 issue of Clarion, Rev. Peter Holtvluwer wrote a review of our website and under the heading of “Improvements,” he suggested we fill out the meaning of that statement.  What do we understand by “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis”?

Essentially, what we mean is the consensual understanding of the first chapters of the Bible that prevailed amongst confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches especially prior to Darwin.  In the Reformation era, our theologians agreed in emphasizing the literal understanding of Genesis as the ground for doctrine — this was coupled with an emphasis on careful methods of interpretation.  Hence, prior to Darwin, there was a definite consensus regarding how to read the first chapters of the Bible.  Occasionally there were dissenters from that consensus, but this dissent was not encouraged or tolerated.  After Darwin, we recognize that this consensus was challenged in significant ways.  Yet it must be remembered that the Reformed consensus was maintained in the church courts even after Darwin.  For example, we think of synodical decisions against Rev. J.B. Netelenbos and Dr. J.G. Geelkerken in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (1920 and 1926) and Dr. Ralph Janssen in the Christian Reformed Church of North America (1922).

What are some of the features of this historic consensus?  First and foremost would be the insistence that the first chapters of Genesis describe history in a literal and straight-forward fashion.  While they may have some literary features, these chapters are not metaphorical or mythical, but plainly historical and should be interpreted as such.  What follows from that is creation in six ordinary days.  When Genesis 1 speaks of “days,” it means days more or less as we experience them today.  Moreover, if we take Genesis at face value, Adam was created from actual, physical dust of the earth by God.  He was the first human being.  He became a living being when God breathed life into him.  He did not have a biological father or mother, human, hominid or whatever else.  The first woman Eve was created by God from Adam’s rib.  She did not have biological parents either.  Together, they were the first human beings and the parents of all human beings who have since lived.  God also created all other kinds of creatures in the six day creation period – and these were created by his Word.  More could be said about what follows in Genesis – a literal snake speaking to Eve, a fall into sin, a worldwide flood, etc. – but I trust readers get the picture.  Everything I have said up to here was the historic consensus view in Reformed theology.

Some elements of this historic consensus have found their way into the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional heritage.  On the matter of creation days, we can think of the Westminster Confession’s statement in chapter 4.1 that “it pleased God…to create or make of nothing the world…in the space of six days, and all very good.”  In article 12 of the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the Father through the Word, that is, through his Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures, when it seemed good to him, and that he has given every creature its being, shape, and form…”  Article 14 goes on to say that “God created man of dust from the ground.”  Heidelberg Catechism QA 7 confesses that our depraved nature comes from “our first parents” Adam and Eve.  Other elements of the historic consensus are not found in our confessional heritage, arguably because they were considered to be so self-evident from Scripture as to not require such codification.  When most of the Reformed confessions were first written, the challenges that we face today regarding origins were virtually unthinkable.

Since this is just a short blog post, I’m not going to lay out all the evidence for the existence of this historic consensus.  William VanDoodewaard has done that for us at length in his excellent book The Quest for the Historical Adam (see my review here) and I refer readers to his research.  Amongst others, VanDoodewaard discusses John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Girolamo Zanchi, Lambert Daneau, William Perkins, William Ames, the Leiden Synopsis, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Manton, John Owen, Bernard Pictet, Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel.  According to VanDoodewaard, figurative interpretations of Genesis existed even before Darwin, but they were found amongst Roman Catholics, Socinians, and Anabaptists.  Reformed and Presbyterian churches would not countenance such interpretations.  He writes, “Anything that contradicted or failed to cohere with the literal reading of the Genesis text was rejected as subversive to God’s revelation.” (p.86)

Now the big question is:  why do we think that “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis” is so important to maintain and defend?  It’s not because we’re conservative and just want to hold on to old-fashioned things because old-fashioned must be better.  No, it’s simply because we are convinced that the old consensus is biblical.  Old-fashioned often is better, but only when it lines up with God’s Word.  That’s where we stand.

Thus says the LORD:  ‘Stand by the roads and look, and ask for ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls…’”  Jeremiah 6:16a

Keller: Can we take Genesis 1 literally, if we hold that God used evolution to create?

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.”

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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.[1] 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!

Whose authority?

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.[2] 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).

[1] 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.

[2] See my blog entry at https://creationwithoutcompromise.com/2016/02/03/the-lost-world/.

A Dangerous Direction

BeekeA few months ago, we included a review of a book edited by Richard D. Phillips, God, Adam, and YouYou can find Dr. Van Raalte’s review here.  I’ve had the book for a while, but have only just begun reading it myself.  So far, it definitely lives to up to what was said in the review.

I’d like to share an excerpt from chapter 2, “The Case For Adam.”  Dr. Joel Beeke presents ten persuasive historical and theological arguments in favour of the orthodox view of Adam.  His final theological argument is that “the historical Adam is a test case for biblical authority.”  He specifically critiques scholars like Peter Enns who argue that God “‘adopted mythic categories’ from the ancient world, myths that we may now discard, so long as we retain the kernel of truth they contain.”

Beeke goes on to remark:

Those who take this route perhaps may not realize that they are departing from the path of biblical orthodoxy and following the same road as unbiblical neoorthodoxy.  Emil Brunner (1889-1966), a prominent neoorthodox theologian, said that the Bible’s teaching on creation is “not a theory of the way in which the world came into existence,” but only a summons to know God as your Lord and Creator.  Thus, he said, the Adam of Genesis 2 is inseparable from ancient beliefs about the universe and cannot be viewed as a real individual in light of our modern understanding.  For Brunner, Paradise was a “myth” not “historical fact.”

It is not necessary for us to go in this direction.  Why couldn’t the ancient Hebrews have understood it if God had told them that he created by a long, slow process of evolutionary change?  Every day, as they planted and harvested crops or worked with sheep and cattle, they could see change and improvement in the various seeds they planted or the animals they bred.  Why couldn’t God effectively communicate to them that he had conferred a human soul upon an existing animal rather than breathed life into a body formed directly out of the earth?  Why not reveal in Genesis that God made many human beings at first, instead of just one?  Why would these things have been harder for them to accept than the idea that there is only one true and living God, given that all their neighbors worshiped many gods?  And why must we separate the way in which God created from the fact that he is Creator?  Does it not glorify God as Lord to know that he created man, not through any natural process, but by a supernatural act of creation?  Yes, the account of the historical Adam’s creation greatly honors God as Creator and Lord.

Furthermore, this is a dangerous direction to go.  If the Bible is a mixture of cultural dressing wrapped around divine truth, then how can we be sure which part is the husk and which is the kernel?  What one generation embraces as the kernel of divine truth could very well be rejected by another generation as merely more human culture and tradition.  We see this happening around us even now with respect to the definition of marriage and homosexuality.  (pages 38-40)

Beeke is spot on.  Indeed, theistic evolutionary views can only gain acceptance as believers succumb to lower views of the Bible.  Such views typically over-emphasize the human element behind the authorship of Scripture and under-emphasize the divine.  We should never forget the Reformed (and biblical) teaching that the primary author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit.  And yes, “primary” is the right word.  The Bible is not 50% human and 50% divine.  It is first and foremost the Word of God.  It has come to us through human involvement, but it remains entirely 100% the word of our Father in heaven.  The more clearly we see that, the better equipped we are to stand fast against false teachings like theistic evolution.

Symposium on Adam and Eve

Reposted from bylogos.blogspot.ca, with thanks to Dr. John Byl. We at Creation Without Compromise have with great interest been following the symposium he reviews here.


Books & Culture has recently published a symposium on Adam and Eve. John Wilson, the B&C editor, interviews Karl Giberson about his new book Saving the Original Sinner (2015) Then follows two rounds of contributions from eight scholars. Here is the outline of the symposium, with links to all the papers.

Saving the Original Sinner [interview with Karl Giberson]

Round 1:
Round 2:
John Wilson, Adam’s Ancestors [brief wrap-up]

This symposium gives a useful overview of the current debate. The brief summaries of the views of the various participants saves one the tedious work of reading lengthy books and essays.

Unhappily, only two of the participants (VanDoodewaard and Madueme) affirm the Biblical position on Adam and Eve. The rest have all accepted evolution. Consequently, Enns, Giberson, Lamoureux, and Schneider all view Adam and Eve as purely symbolic. Walton and Poe do leave room for a modified view of Adam and Eve, but heavily adapted so as to fit within the evolutionary framework.

For those defending the plain meaning of Genesis, the contributions of Madueme and VanDoodewaard are thus particularly worth reading.

Dr Hans Madueme is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Here are a few pertinent quotes, one from each paper:

Obviously, if you agree with scientists that a historical Adam is impossible, then devising fresh hermeneutical strategies to resolve the tension with Scripture is a logical move. In fact, however, the Bible does very clearly depict a historical Adam; such revisionist exegesis goes against the grain of the text, driven by scientific pre-judgments that set epistemic limits on what the Bible can say. That’s a mistake; Scripture unshackled—not science—is the self-authenticating authority.

Turning to the scientific “facts,” let me call into question any commitment to methodological naturalism, the notion that we can only appeal to natural phenomena when doing genuine science. Methodological naturalism is the status quo among scientists and enshrined in the scientific perspectives that conflict with the Adamic events of Scripture. Theologically speaking, methodological naturalism strikes me as deeply problematic. To use Alvin Plantinga’s language, it yields a truncated science; it does not appeal to the full evidence base—an evidence base that, I would argue, includes divine revelation and all the glorious realities to which it attests. Once we reject methodological naturalism, we will have a truer and richer appraisal of the biblical witness and the world it signifies. An appropriately expanded understanding of biblical reality includes Adam’s historicity and its vital theological implications; for those of us who find those implications compelling, any scientific opinion that rules out Adam will fail to convince. (Death of God by Poison)

Scientific plausibility is the key; can we still believe doctrines that are implausible by the lights of current science? We can invert the question: If scientific plausibility should guide the expectations we bring to Scripture, then why would we be Christians? Why would we believe that the Son of God became a man? That he died and rose again after three days? That he ascended into heaven? These fundamental Christian beliefs contradict everything we know from mainstream science. If we can no longer believe Adam was historical, then why should we believe in the resurrection? In The Evolution of Adam, Peter Enns answers this way: “For Paul, the resurrection of Christ is the central and climactic present-day event in the Jewish drama—and of the world. One could say that Paul was wrong, deluded, stupid, creative, whatever; nevertheless, the resurrection is something that Paul believed to have happened in his time, not primordial time.” That misses the point. We’re told that we can’t affirm a historical Adam because it’s scientifically unbelievable, but why trust Paul on the resurrection when that, too, is scientifically unbelievable? Or, to flip the script, if we believe the resurrection, then a historical Adam is no biggie. (Demythologizing Adam)

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the author of The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (2015). Here is a sampling from his symposium contributions:

I stand with the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy believing the literal tradition, including the creation of Adam and Eve, from dirt and a rib on the sixth day, a day of ordinary duration. There are numerous reasons for the endurance of this view, despite varied efforts to the contrary of a minority stream of individuals from the patristic era to the present. First, the literal understanding of creation, including human origins, is remarkably viable exegetically. It is also hermeneutically consistent with the whole Genesis text. Second, it coheres seamlessly with the rest of Scripture’s teaching on creation, man, and redemption. The literal tradition on origins is cohesive with a full-orbed exegetically derived Christian theology.

The most substantive challenge to the literal tradition is posed by mainstream dating methods, particularly in relation to fossils. Even here, an understanding of a mature creation, the fall, curse, and ensuing natural processes interspersed with episodes of catastrophism along the way, gives cogent answers to satisfy issues of geological age and subsequent biological adaptation. The literal tradition has exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological coherence with Scripture, historical endurance beyond all other interpretive models, as well as extensive ecclesial and confessional support. There is good reason to believe that it stands as an example of the Holy Spirit’s fulfillment of Christ’s promise to guide of the church in the truth of the Word. (The First Man and Woman)

There is a certain clear and compelling logic to the post-Adam/no Adam viewpoint of Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, and others participating in this roundtable. Where we grant that an ancient earth requires an alternate, “non-literal” approach to time in Genesis 1 and 2, we are left with little (if any) exegetical ground to argue against wide-ranging evolutionary hypotheses. If we accept an adjusted hermeneutic and allow for mainstream evolutionary biology, there is no longer exegetical ground to maintain a historical Adam and Eve, created specially by God in a brief span of time, from the dust of the earth and Adam’s rib, respectively. If we have actually adopted a new hermeneutic for Genesis 1-2 and maintain that Scripture teaches a unity of truth, then we ought to revisit and work towards reinterpreting New Testament passages on Adam.

I believe that the “middle ground” of an evolutionary Adam is just as untenable and ad hoc as Giberson and Enns note it is. But instead of creating agreement, this logic is ample reason to go back to what the mainstream of the Christian church has held to for millennia. The exegetically, hermeneutically, and theologically compelling position is that God created Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman, without progenitors, disorder, or sin. It was this Adam and Eve, the only existing humans, who fell into sin in the Garden, bringing the curse on themselves and all creation. (No Adam, No Original Sin, No Christ)

Note that both authors make a strong case for consistency. Granting an ancient earth, and therefore adopting a non-literal approach to Gen.1-2, undermines the exegetical case for an historical Adam. Likewise, if we can’t believe in the Biblical Adam because it is scientifically implausible, why should we believe in an equally scientifically implausible resurrection from the dead?