Beyond Origins Debates – Genesis 1 Re-visited

November 30, 2009 — 6 Comments

In our series, Fully Human – Fully Alive we stopped to explore the question of how to understand Genesis 1.  I referenced an important new work called  The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton, 2009 (IVP Academic).

“This book presents a profoundly important new analysis of the meaning of Genesis. Digging deeply into the original Hebrew language and the culture of the people of Israel in Old Testament times, respected scholar John Walton argues convincingly that Genesis was intended to describe the creation of the functions of the cosmos, not its material nature. In the process, he elevates Scripture to a new level of respectful understanding, and eliminates any conflict between scientific and scriptural descriptions of origins.” —-Francis S. Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God

The book along with the topic of  evangelicals and evolution was summarized and discussed recently on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog.  You can read the posts and comments here.  It is part of a Science and Faith category.

A website recommended with an enormous amount of resources on all kinds of science and faith issues is from the Biologos Foundation at

Go to the Christ Church website to hear the sermon.  Here I am listing a summary of the key principles from the teaching.


Three big questions that are vital to be able to answer in today’s world – as people of biblical faith:

What does it mean to be a human being from the point of view of biblical faith?

How does biblical faith help to make sense of human suffering?

How does modern science relate to biblical faith?

Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth,

and of all things visible and invisible…

Genesis 1:1  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

John 1:1-3  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made through him…

Biblical Faith and Scientific Inquire – are they enemies or friends?

Athenasius – “On the Incarnation” (3rd– 4th cent.)

“The first fact that you must grasp is this.  The renewal of creation (its salvation) has been wrought by the self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.”  (Creation’s renewal comes by Creation’s Maker!)

Gen. 1  is in the language of ancient cosmology not modern science.

The Bible isn’t written TO us even thought it is written FOR us.

So we have to ENTER the culture.

One key way is to understand the literature of the Ancient world- specifically the cosmology stories

Creation myths.  (sometimes discussed to show how all religions are the same – but really in the Bible’s case it shows just the opposite.  Very valuable!)

Gen.1 is describing the way the parts of creation function, bringing order out of Chaos.

(The way things are to function – not the material make-up or exact way they came into being.)

Illustration: When we go to a theatre – we’re more interested in the story that was created that uses the set design than we are about the material properties of the stage or curtains.  Genesis one is about the creation of the Drama and what it means  not the how or when of the material décor.

“Create” (Ba-ra) speaks of God fashioning something of value and delight out of material that is initially shapeless and barren. It’s “filling in;” making it functional.

In Gen. 1 the world is being given its functions as God’s temple, where he has taken up his residence and from where he runs the cosmos for his people. This world is God’s headquarters!


This is called the “cosmic temple” view of Gen. 1

And in the Ancient world – it provided the people of Israel with a direct confrontation to the origin stories that were the assumed way of thinking about the world in that time.



“Gen. 1 can be seen as a 7 day inauguration of the cosmic temple, setting up its functions for the benefit of humanity, with God dwelling in relationship with his creatures.”  (Walton, p. 163)

Other scholars see the seven days in poetic or liturgical terms: A “Majestic Festive overture (musical intro or liturgy)  It’s a Salvation history – not a scientific explanation!

Gen.1 is not explaining or critiquing modern science; to try to make it so is to change the meaning; be less literal; less accurate.


To insist as many well meaning Christians have sought to do.  That the only true interpretation of Gen. 1 is  to explain the science of how the material creation happened [e.g. a Young Earth – 24 hr day view ] is not only not necessary for the proper reading of Gen 1 – it is a less literal and less accurate understanding of the text. It is seeking to squeeze the language of ancient cosmology and Hebrew language into terminology of modern science. It does not do justice to rules of biblical interp. It has done much to lead into the stereotype that the New Atheism would like to apply to all people of biblical faith!

Walton: “Science cannot offer an un-biblical view of material origins because there IS NO Biblical view of material origins!  All we can say is that WHATEVER HAPPENED – WHENEVER IT HAPPENED – HOWEVER IT HAPPENED – GOD DID IT!”

What science has to offer concerning the HOW [the descriptive mechanisms] of material origins can be explored without offense to the biblical affirmations of Gen. 1


It’s about God as the One who is in charge and focused on loving his creation and fulfilling  his purposes for humankind.


Many implications:

Empirical science should remain neutral on questions of purpose or the way God may have put the functions of the world together which is the faith question of Genesis. This is outside of the realm of true science.

This also means that discussions of Genesis don’t fit in a science classroom since it is not neutral on questions of goal and purpose. (Walton has great discussions for classroom teachers and parents.)

The origins discussion of non-material nature should happen in other subjects.

Those who hold to evolutionary science must not be allowed to impose their non-material conclusions onto the science classroom either. (Dawkins – anyone who believes in a God is = to someone who denies the Holocaust! Philosophical naturalism (the bare world of the senses is all there is) can’t be permitted to be pushed or evolutionary theories overstated in the name of objective science.

Christians who hold to a  7 – 24 hr. day Young earth creationism as objective science and the only Christian view should not make it a goal impose this view into a science classroom. To hold to this view is often what pushes evolutionists to be even more dogmatic.

This view is not the most literal reading of Gen. 1 if indeed Walton and most other evangelical biblical scholars are right in saying we need to read Gen. 1 in the cultural context of the ancient world.

For those who hold to the integrity of Scripture – the descriptive mechanisms of evolutionary science can be evaluated on their own merits and need not be any more problematic for our theology that the mechanisms of meteorology or other natural science!!

When a scientist speaks against something that is a part of biblical ethics – he or she must honestly acknowledge that they are combining two disciplines – biology and ethics (2 kinds of knowing – 2 kinds of understanding) – it’s not just about science.  It is a philosophical or theological issue. Science is not the only decision-maker for society.


There is no contradiction for a scientist being a person of biblical faith;

it is a false dilemma requiring a false choice!


For Christian students – we need to re-energize them to not fear scientific inquire and to diffuse the origins debates by a more accurate interpretation of Genesis.  To infer that we have to choose between biblical faith and scientific inquire is a false choice!!



“The only question worth asking is whether or not the universe is God’s.  If the answer is YES! Then why get so excited about how? The important thing is that we are God’s – created in love…

God’s method of creation…is not where my faith is centered. Madeleine L’Engle

Worship with reverence and awe the Lord of all Creation (and study!)  knowing that, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God!” (Gerald Manley Hopkins)


6 responses to Beyond Origins Debates – Genesis 1 Re-visited


    Lyle, I read that book in October – it is good. You might also find resources at


    I worship the creator God who reached down and wrote, with his finger, the ten commandments on a stone tablet, one of which says:
    Exodus 20 – 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
    God’s willingness to bless the Sabbath and make it holy makes no sense if the days in verse 11 are not the same as the days in verse 9. The simplicity and beauty of Scripture is compromised when it’s intellectualized to gobbledygook.


    I think we need to remember that in Ken’s example of Sabbath that the weekly Sabbath day is only one result of “Sabbath Rest.” The book of Hebrews (4:9) tells us that the ultimate truth of Sabbath rest is God’s re-creation and eternal rest. The Genesis creation account and God’s rest points to the whole scope of salvation.

    The main point of the interpretation of Genesis put forth by Wheaton College’s Dr. Walton is not to make the scripture less plain or beautiful but to let it shine in all it’s fullness, as an answer to both the false world views of Israel’s neighbors and the false world views of today.


    Well done, Lyle. Thank you. A much needed understanding and perspective, one that allows us to move past misguided divisions that break God’s heart. And with that comes more humility and unity of spirit in moving on with Christ and God’s Spirit, with God’s unqualified love, forgivness, and compassion for all, with being God’s Easter people who leave any judgments to God.



    As a scientist (biological oceanographer), and a follower of Jesus; I found your sermon refreshing. Clearly we live in a time of conflicting world views. When world views collide, there is often heated debate, sometimes bloodshed, with both sides insisting they they, and they alone have a lock on the Truth. Often many so-called truths are spoken in anger & fear; but not in love. “Now faith is the substance of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

    I have faith that God spoke the creation into existence,in love. The things which are seen were not mde of things which are visible” Hebrews 11:3.

    We can find “revelation” in God’s word, and His work; the creation itself. By studying the creation, we can come to know things about the Creator. How awesome it is.

    In studying the Word, what are the most important commandments, that summarize the 10? It comes down to loving God, and loving our neighbors. Even neighbors that have different world views. The Blind Men and The Elephant poem comes to mind, a famous version of which was written by John Godfrey Saxe (a relative om my mom.

    I’m excited to be involved in Christ Church, with a focus on “Majoring on the Majors”, and not getting caught up taking sides on minor disputes. In essential things unity. In non-essential things diversity. In all things, love . . . that often seems to be a key missing ingredient.

    There is a very interesting “Through The Eyes of Faith: series of books, sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. One of the books is “History Through The Eyes of Faith” by R.A. Wells. 1989. Another “Biology Throught The Eyes of Faith” by R. T. Wright 2003.

    Another more recent book is “Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey” by Timothy Johnson

    I feels multiply blessed, and multiply challenged, in being to view the world / creation thru the eyes of a scientist, as a follower of Jesus and his teachings.

    We need to be able to speak to the legalism of modern day pharasees, who would code the Word into rules; or to others who would deny the existence of things unseen. We can seek both spirtual and material truths. God created both.

    Jesus was one who attempted to change World Views, not just of his brief time on earth, but for all those who follow. By focusing on His eternal teachings, and appreciating God in both His Word and His Works, we can be prepared to proceed with love and care for people and the planet.


    Spent the morning snowed in here with my folks, first watching Lyle’s “snowed out” message (Lyle reads CS Lewis thru a mirror?), which prompted viewing the vimeo of the first sermon in the “Fully Human / Fully Alive” series, followed by (at my dad’s sugestion) listening to the “Revisiting Gen 1” audio while following along here on the blog. Wonderful job, Christ Church!

    I’m excited to delve into /Lost World/ which arrived thru Amazon last week. Hey, why not have hard copies available for purchase in the “cafe”? Would be a further service to the community…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s