John Walton and Tremper Longman on Genesis 1-2 (video)

creation, Genesis, sistine chapel, Adam and Eve

Last month, Western Seminary hosted a conference on different ways of reading Genesis 1-2. Assuming that most people are familiar with the traditional 6-day view of creation, we invited two evangelical scholars who take a rather different approach to the text: John Walton (Wheaton) and Tremper Longman (Westmont). Both of them maintain that if we read the text carefully, paying close attention to how a text like this would have been understood in its original cultural context, we’ll see that the text is not trying to tell us how God created the universe or how long it took him to do it. Instead, the text is telling us important truths about who created the universe and what its ultimate purpose is.

You can scroll down to watch the presentations in their entirety, along with the Q&A session that came after. And make sure you download John Walton’s power point slides as well. His presentation would be hard to follow without them. (He edited out several slides for copyright reasons.)

If you don’t have time to watch all the videos, here’s a quick summary:

1. Hermeneutics

Both speakers began their presentations by talking about hermeneutics. They both wanted to make it clear that they were not (re)reading Genesis 1-2 simply because of modern science and evolution. Instead, they pointed out that believers have had different ways of reading these chapters for a very long time. And they argued that any adequate approach to scripture attempts to read the texts carefully and with an eye toward the people and cultures in which they were originally produced. Otherwise we will simply import modern questions and concepts into the text, failing to see what they are actually about. Walton’s brief introduction to biblical interpretation was particularly good.

2. Creation

Walton contends that any ancient reader would have immediately recognized that Genesis 1-2 is about God coming to dwell in his temple (creation) to manifest his glory. In other words, it’s not about God making the universe, but about God shaping the universe to serve as his temple, and then placing his people in creation to serve as his priests. For Walton, then, the text says nothing about either the process by which or the time during which God actually made the universe. It’s not about making the universe but about shaping the universe to serve a particular function. (Interestingly, in Walton’s approach, Genesis 1 does describe a literal six-day period. But it’s referring to the six days that were required to inaugurate a temple, not the six days of original creation.)

Longman agreed with most of Walton had to say, though his approach to the text is more of a traditional “literary” reading–i.e., we should read these as texts as metaphors intended to communicate important theological truths. So he was far more inclined to read the texts as “theological” and “non-literal.”

3. Evolution

Of course, both speakers addressed the issue of evolution and how this relates to how they’re reading the text. Walton preferred to stay away from the question almost entirely. Since his approach maintains that Gen 1-2 are not about original creation at all, he appears to think that his interpretation has little bearing on whether evolution is “compatible” with a biblical view of creation. Longman was far more willing to engage evolution issues and clearly thinks that his literary approach is compatible with evolution.

4. Adam and Eve

Although both speakers spent the bulk of their time on Genesis 1, they each made a few comments about Gen 2 and the question of Adam and Eve. This is clearly an area in which both speakers are still in process. Interestingly, Walton argued that we should read Gen 2 as happening after the events of Gen 1 (unlike many who see Gen 2 as describing the same events as Gen 1, but from a different perspective). So he’s open to the possibility that the people in Gen 1 are not the same as those in Gen 2. More importantly, he argues that Adam and Eve should be viewed as “archetypes” of humanity. By this, he’s not trying to say that they didn’t exist as individuals, but the focus of the text is what these archetypes reveal about what it means to be human (e.g. God’s priests in creation, made from the dust of the earth, male and female as two parts of one whole, etc.).

Longman spent much more time on the issue, dealing with whether the other biblical authors viewed Adam and Eve as “historical” figures (e.g. in genealogies and in Rom 5). And he argued that the biblical authors use “Adam” as a way of saying that someone is part of the human community. In other words, Adam and Eve are not “historic” individuals. Instead, they are non-literal figures that communicate important truths about humanity as a whole.

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion. I particularly appreciated Walton’s perspective. I’ve read The Lost World of Genesis One, which was his more popular level work, and I’m looking forward to reading Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, his more technical book. I would have liked to hear more from Walton about his “archetype” approach to Adam and Even and how that fits with the rest of the canon. But apparently that’s what he’s working on now.

John Walton, “Reading Genesis 1 with Ancient Eyes”

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Tremper Longman, “What Genesis 1 and 2 Teaches (and What It Doesn’t)”

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Q&A with Walton & Longman

Comments

comments

19 Responses to “John Walton and Tremper Longman on Genesis 1-2 (video)”

  1. Brian LePort April 10, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. C. Stirling Bartholomew April 10, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

    Walton and Longman III are members of the “New” breed …

    Rhinoceros: Eugène Ionesco,

  3. Martyn Link April 11, 2012 at 12:55 am #

    Hi Marc,
    I’ve been following your blog for a while and enjoying reading the posts. I’m disappointed in this article from two “evangelical” theologians who dismiss Adam and Eve as historical figures. From a number of passages, notably about the foundation of marriage, Jesus clearly viewed them as historical figures. Whatever the other arguments for or against an allegorical interpretation, this ought to be enough for an evangelical Christian. It’s a shame that academics seem to think that they need to be clever rather than faithful in the interpretation of Genesis 1 & 2.
    All the best,
    Martyn

  4. Marc Cortez April 11, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    Martyn, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the blog. And I think you’re right that the historicity of Adam and Eve is an important issue in this discussion.

    I should clarify, though, that Walton actually did not reject the historicity of Adam and Eve. His “archetype” argument doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist as historic individuals, only that the focus of the text is on their significance for understanding humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the time to really unpack this. If you skip to the very end of this video (maybe the last four minutes), you can catch everything he had to say on that.

    Longman definitely argued that Adam and Eve were not historical figures. But he disagrees with those who say that later biblical authors thought they were historical and were actually mistaken in that belief. (Apparently that is what Peter Enns argues.) Instead, Longman contends that none of the biblical authors believed them to be historical. The fact that they referred to them as real individuals is no different than us referring to Robin Hood or Hamlet as if they were real people. I have to admit that I’m completely unconvinced by his argument, but at least he doesn’t view people like Paul and Jesus as simply mistaken in their view of Adam and Eve.

  5. Brian LePort April 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    As sympathetic as I am to Longman’s theological exegesis I find it very improbable that the authorial intent included a dehistoricized Adam and Eve. I feel like Longman is trying to make an idea work under the confession of inerrancy that seems to run against inerrancy’s emphasis on authorial intent as influenced by the historical-grammatical hermeneutic.

    This does leave me with a question. If someone was to say, “Sure, the author intended history, but we know it is not historical, yet the ‘theological message’ of this passage as intended by the Spirit remains true and without error” would that person being affirming inerrancy by moving to the theological intent? I assume yes.

    • Brian LePort April 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      I mean I assume “no”, that would not be considered an affirmation of inerrancy…sorry.

      • Marc Cortez April 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

        That’s correct. The term “inerrancy” has some flexibility and will get defined differently by different people. But I’m not aware of anyone who would use the term for the position you’re describing.

        I’m not sure that we should argue too quickly, though, that this is an example of inerrancy forcing a particular interpretation. After all, Longman isn’t shy about offering readings of biblical texts that some would see as being at odds with inerrancy (e.g. his reading of Gen 2 itself). I think this is an example of Longman wanting to be a “generous” interpreter (or, as Walton says, “ethical”). You assume the best of an author and don’t simply assume the author is naive or dumb. For example, if you’re reading a book and an author appears to contradict something he/she said earlier, you don’t just assume the author is an idiot. Instead, you look first for a way of reading the two statements as consistent with one another. (Granted, it’s possible the author is just an idiot. But generous interpretation doesn’t go there first.) Longman applies this same approach to the biblical texts. Since he’s concluded that Adam and Eve are not historical, he’s looking for a way of reading NT references generously (i.e. don’t just assume the NT authors were wrong). So, I’d argue that generosity is the driving principle here more than inerrancy. But I could be wrong.

        • Brian LePort April 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

          I can understand the “generous reader” paradigm (very Gadamer!), but it seems like quite a stretch to propose that the author(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended for it to be a non-literal/historical prologue. While there are many aspects of this passage that are unique theologically in relation to the surrounding culture the basic content seems to reflect the “origins worldview” of that time. Unless we propose that part of the act of inspiration by the Spirit included allowing the author(s) to realize that he shouldn’t believe/assume the historicity of the content that he was framing as “true story” (in language similar to the culture around him) then the most probable answer is that the human author(s) assumed he was writing history. At least that is what seems most probable to me.

      • Nollie December 24, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

        Your post is a tmeliy contribution to the debate

  6. Marc Cortez April 11, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Let’s not extend the discussion all the way to Gen 11 quite yet. The focus here is just on Gen 1-2. I think Longman would follow Walton in rejecting the claim that the cultural context of the ANE was such that the original readers would have naturally understood this to be about “origins.” Indeed, critiquing that paradigm is one of the basic purposes of Walton’s work. Although I’m not convinced (especially since I haven’t yet read his more scholarly work), it does seem reasonable that we have to take his argument seriously and defend the conclusion that ANE cultures did have an “origins worldview” that would have caused them to read the text as referring to the historic creation of the universe.

  7. Matt Weeden April 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    I found John Walton’s argument compelling concerning the 7 days of creation being a type of ‘temple inauguration’ motif. It is worth further research. However, I do not see how it necessarily excludes the 7 days from being literal. Perhaps the practices surrounding ancient temple inaugurations were derived from true creation history rather than vice-versa. Moreover, I am not convinced by Tremper Longman that the days are figurative just because the ‘governors’ (i.e. sun and moon) of the day and night did not exist until the 3rd day.

    Nonetheless, I appreciate the dialog between both of them.

    • Marc Cortez April 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      In the Q&A Walton clarified that he does think the days are literal days. Of course, that’s because he doesn’t think the days have anything to do with actual creation, only the six days of inauguration and the seventh on which God “rests.”

      • Matt Weeden April 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

        Ah ha, that clarifies his perspective. Thanks.

  8. Patrick May 2, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Late here, but, for the record, Professor Walton does believe in a historic Adam and Eve. I’ve attended seminars where this question was asked.

    I disagree with Professor Longman on his mythic view of Gen 1-11, but, the guy is a good man serving God that has a lot to offer scholarship. None of us are perfect and maybe he’s right and I’m wrong.

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