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