I have mixed feelings about the work of John Walton. While I don’t object to much of what he writes about how to interpret Genesis, I don’t like the way he applies his knowledge to defend the project of TE/EC.
Take his latest column on BioLogos, “Natural” and “Supernatural” are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones. I would ask the reader here to read that column first, before reading what I write below.
Being myself a scholar of Hebrew Bible by training. I take Walton’s point that the language of “natural” versus “supernatural” is not Biblical — for the very simple reason that there is no word for “nature” in most of the Bible — neither in the Old Testament nor the greater part of the New Testament. However, it would be unwise to make too much of that.
Many times either the Biblical narrator or a Biblical speaker makes it clear that certain deeds or events are so extraordinary that they are signs of special divine activity. Thus, while the Bible doesn’t say, “This couldn’t have occurred through natural causes, but must have been done by supernatural power,” it surely indicates that God sometimes acts in special ways which go beyond the normal order of things.
We would not expect, given the orderly presentation of the cosmos in Genesis 1 (reaffirmed in Genesis 9), with its regular signs and seasons and harvests and seedtimes, etc., that an event such as the parting of the Red Sea would occur. That is an extraordinary event, and one which suggests a special activity of God above and beyond God’s normal activity in making the sun rise and set, making rain fall, etc. Indeed, the whole lead-up to the Red Sea, the Ten Plagues and so on, is concerned with extraordinary events. In saying this I am not imputing to the Bible — as Walton fears that people do — a “Deistic” notion of the relationship between God and nature. (Disappointing that Walton would resort to the crude “Deism” shibboleth of his BioLogos colleagues, but let’s move on.) I am not saying that the Bible teaches that normally God lets nature run like a machine and ignores it but once in a while jumps in to break some laws “supernaturally.” I grant that the Biblical writers understood God’s hand to be found in even in habitual actions such as seasonal rainfall and plant growth. But this concession must not allow us to be blinded to the startling character of certain of God’s actions.
The point is that ancient people (and ancient writers!) thought they could tell the difference between a routine event and a darned unusual one, and when that darned unusual one resulted in the saving of Israel from certain death (either from thirst in the desert or at the hands of Pharaoh’s troops) they were inclined to see in that deed or event the special action of God. There is a big difference between rain in the desert and manna in the desert, and there is a big difference between Pharaoh’s chariots getting bogged down by mud caused by rain, and Pharaoh’s chariots being destroyed by an event in which the waters of a sea behaved as they never had before and never have since. The Biblical writers did not see these things as wonders merely because of the timing of the events, which of course was to the benefit of Israel; they saw them as wonders also because of their character — because what was done was far out of the ordinary “way” of things. (And while there isn’t a Hebrew word for nature, there is one for “way.”) In their mind was the thought: “Only God, the Creator of the world, could have engineered this action, since the things which he created do not have the power to do such a thing.”
Walton is worried about modern categories of thought being back-read into the Bible. Well, so am I. But if we are going to speak of modern attitudes that are being back-read into the Bible (and into contemporary evangelical Christian theology generally), I would speak of the modern prejudice that would have God act (in the case of origins) always through natural causes.
We know from the historical record that the great early modern scientists such as Newton, Boyle, and Kepler did not endorse a thoroughgoing naturalism about origins; that thoroughgoing insistence on naturalism in origins was inspired by later developments — and not developments in Biblical exegesis, either, but in philosophy, theology, and methodology in natural science. Slowly cosmology (Kant), geology (Lyell) and finally biology (Darwin) adopted naturalistic origins accounts — accounts which no Christian theological tradition had previously demanded and which were required by no Creed or Council decision. And only later — once it looked to many people as if naturalistic origins accounts were irrefutable — did Christians suddenly become interested in arguing that the Bible depicts God as creating the world wholly through natural means, or at least that the Bible is neutral on the question whether or not God employed supernatural means.
We see such creative historical rewriting in the case of modern admirers of Aquinas who are also evolutionary creationists. Thomist theologians on BioLogos and elsewhere have tried to make a case that Thomism implies a naturalistic account of origins, but in fact, as Vincent Torley has proved by exhaustive analysis of passages, Aquinas did not believe in a naturalistic account of origins, but believed that man and even the higher animals were directly created by special actions of God, not the lawlike working of purely natural causes. And it is not just Aquinas’s belief but his reasoning that is significant: Aquinas says that special actions of God show his glory in even greater measure than do his general actions. So modern “Thomists” who say the opposite — who say there is nothing special about God’s miraculous deeds above nature in comparison with his ordinary deeds through nature — are not in line with the teaching of their own master.
From time to time BioLogos and other TE/EC writers have tried to imply, by the use of a few (very few) passages from famous Christian authors (notably Augustine and Calvin, and it’s the same two passages every time, suggesting one could deeply embarrass a TE/EC by asking him for a third example), that the great historical theologians endorsed naturalistic origins accounts; but this is the same “eisegetical” procedure employed in the case of modern Thomist readings of Aquinas. The modern Thomists really respect Aquinas and don’t want him associated with “creationism” which they find socially embarrassing, and the BioLogos people, with their Pauline-Augustinian-Calvinistic evangelical roots, respect Augustine and Calvin and don’t want them associated with “creationism” either; but this sort of partisan concern is illegitimate to bring to the scholarly study of past texts. As scholars we are to determine what Calvin, Augustine, Paul, Exodus, etc. intended; it not our duty to read them in such a way that their views will not clash with our preferred modern harmonizations of theology and science.
So I would submit that the prejudice in favor of wholly naturalistic origins accounts is very modern; I would also submit that this prejudice is much more distortive — in its effects on Biblical interpretation — than the language of “supernatural” versus “natural”. Whereas the supernatural/natural division is a technically incorrect characterization of Biblical thinking, it does not take one far from the spirit of the Biblical stories; but the constant desire to show that what might seem like a special action of God is really only a case of application of general natural laws is an Enlightenment prejudice from the get-go.
Contrary to what Dr. Walton might charge if he reads this, I am not “using the Bible to rule out scientifically describable processes” regarding origins. Nor am I saying that the Bible is incompatible with certain natural explanations, or that Genesis 1 should be read as a photo-chronicle of ancient events. I am theologically indifferent to God’s use of special actions or gradual natural processes. But I think that railing against the natural vs. supernatural distinction, out of a putative interest in getting Biblical thought straight, is counterproductive if it ends up leading to what I might (throwing Walton’s charge back at him) call the BioLogos version of “Deism”: the view that God has limited himself, in the creation of the world, to natural processes, and that the universe, because of its original properties, needed no special divine action in order to produce life and man. I do not think that such a view of origins comes anywhere near the “feel” of the Old Testament accounts of creation. One feels in every case — whether in Genesis 1, or Genesis 2, or the Psalms, or Isaiah, or Job — that God is very “hands-on” in creation, and that special divine action, not just action delegated to natural laws and properties of matter, is involved.
Thus, in attacking a conceptual error — the error of thinking that the Bible employs the technical distinction between natural and supernatural — Walton lends his prestige as an Old Testament scholar to a worse error — i.e., that the Bible not only makes permissible, but even perhaps tacitly supports, a wholly naturalistic account of origins in which God is present in creation, not as a special actor, but only insofar as he creates and sustains the natural laws. I don’t think that’s the Biblical teaching of origins at all. I therefore think that the traditional natural/supernatural language is less distortive than the attempt to bring the Bible close to modern Enlightenment and naturalistic thinking.
One distinguishing characteristic of American “evangelical” Christians used to be that they were skeptical of certain naturalistic explanations of origins, and highly inclined to read the Bible to support a “supernatural” notion of origins. It is only in very recent decades that it has become fashionable in some evangelical circles to take up the cause of wholly naturalistic origins. I myself have nothing against a doctrine of evolutionary creation, in general terms, and I adopt no reading of Genesis that would make evolution impossible; nonetheless, it is very plain that these “updated” evangelicals are operating under cultural pressure and cultural influence when they push hard for naturalistic origins accounts in their science and strain in their Biblical exegesis to remove any sense of special divine action in creation (while allowing without a blink, as Walton does, special divine action in the case of many Gospel miracles). The vast majority of past Christians would have seen a strong parallel between the “creation out of nothing” involved in making water into wine and the creation of matter, or life, or even man, out of nothing (or out of crude matter which by its own powers would never have produced anything so refined). The history of ideas makes this plain: it’s all quite visible in the texts from Patristic times to the present. The current prejudice in favor of naturalistic origins was almost nonexistent in evangelical circles until after WW II, and almost nonexistent in Christian theology generally until the era of the Enlightenment.
In trying as hard as he does to clear the Biblical way for wholly naturalistic accounts of origins, Walton is serving a modern agenda. I don’t of course mean that all or even most of what he says about the interpretation of Genesis is wrong, but when he moves out of his field of excellence (which is Biblical exegesis) into the broader area of science and Christian theology, he seems to me to be toeing the TE/EC party line. Walton the Genesis scholar I admire; Walton the apologist for TE/EC, not so much.