Takeaway: Professional biblical scholars bring important understanding to texts. We need to spend more time being taught, not just by pastors, but by the academic theologians and biblical scholars throughout the church.
Over the past year I have been increasingly convinced (and convicted) that the church needs to take scripture seriously. Not just reading it or finding biblical principles to live by, but seriously studying scripture and allowing scripture to change us.
I have been hearing about the Lost World of Genesis One for a while, but only started reading it as part of a book discussion. John Walton, a formerly at Moody Bible Institute and currently an Old Testament professor at Wheaton College, makes a clearly presented case that the first chapter of Genesis is not about the material creation of the earth, but a functional creation of the earth as his temple.
This is done through 14 (relatively short) chapters. Each one builds a careful argument that attempts to show why the traditional understanding of Genesis 1 as understood by creationists is not the ‘most literal’ reading. According to Walton, the most literal reading is not the meaning of the English words to listeners in 21st Century United States, but the understanding that the original writer intended and the one that the early readers would have understood in their historical and cultural context. That type of understanding of ‘literal meaning’ takes significant research, time and understanding. It is one that is impossible without professional academic biblical researchers. After all, you need not just the language, but understanding of culture, comparative literature of the era, archeology and more. Walton uses these tools to build a careful, yet highly readable case that Genesis 1 would have been understood by the original readers as a temple dedication story. The author was concerned not with the material creation (creating the physical sun and moon and animals), but functional creation (so day 1 is about the creation of time as an ordering of the day, not about the physical creation of light and darkness).
Walton comes about this not as a defender of evolution or against creationism (he has pretty strong words for all sides of the creation/evolution debate) but because he wants a better reading of scripture. In many ways, I think that the book would have been better if he had stopped at 14 chapters. But he wrote 4 more about implications to public education, our understanding of science, etc., and while I understand his purpose, I think that some will dismiss the very good biblical research of the first 14 chapters, because they disagree with his reasoning on the last 4 chapters.
But biblical understanding that does not impact our real life is only understanding, it is not change. So I understand that Walton believes that unless we move from understanding to practical lived theology, we have not really been impacted by scripture.
The other main weakness of the book is that it primarily concerns only Genesis 1. It does not interact with the second creation story of Genesis 2 or much with Paul around the issue of original sin. It discusses the use of words in other places throughout scripture, but not the theological understanding of the broader pictures outside of Genesis 1. I hope there is another book that fills in this significant gap. Another less important weakness is that in his attempt to be clear and make a careful case, he can repeat his points a bit too often.
While I am fairly convinced by his reading of Genesis 1, I think the impact of Paul’s understanding of original sin as coming through Adam and Eve significantly impacts that reading and lessens the long term impact of his scholarship.
I would recommend almost every Christian read this book, not only because I find the discussion of Genesis 1 interesting and theologically beneficial, but also because I think that we need to seek out biblical scholars to influence our reading of scripture. Pastors are our primary teachers about scripture. But many pastors are weak in their own understanding of the original languages and could also use additional study in biblical studies and culture. Not everyone is finds spiritual development in intellectual challenge, but those that do, need real meat so they can assist those that find their own spiritual development in other ways.
Walton has a much more scholarly treatment of this subject, Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology. And in Nov 2013 he released with Brent Sandy The Lost World of of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (about the development of scripture and the role of oral tradition). I have not read either of the two newer books yet.