Order, unorder, disorder

Edward Robinson’s recent piece on The Hump about John H Walton reminds me that we ought to do a proper review of his excellent and important new book, The Lost World Of Adam and Eve at some stage. This does for the Adam and Eve story what his earlier books did for the Genesis 1 creation narrative, whilst updating and expanding his previous ideas in the light of further study and both scholarly and popular feedback.

But here I want to discuss one idea on the general creation theme that’s clarified in the new book, and that is the triple concepts of order, unorder and disorder. I’ve already mentioned this briefly in a comment on Eddie’s piece. If you’re at all familiar with Walton, you’ll know that he concludes from OT studies and Ancient Near Eastern literature that the Genesis creation account is primarily a functional account, and not a material one, of God’s ordering of a rather inchoate material cosmos into sacred space in which mankind, formed in his image, could know him and act as his vice-regent.

To remove any doubts immediately, Walton strongly agrees with orthodox Christian teaching that all things were created by God ex nihilo, and that a number of biblical passages teach that expressly, especially in the New Testament. His emphasis, however, is on what the Genesis accounts (and by extension, the Old Testament literature that grew from them) intend to teach.

This leads us, then, to what is in effect a threefold “staging” of creation. Initially, the world is “without form and void” (tohu wabohu, Gen 1.2), which is best understood as “not functioning as sacred space for man”, and is described in terms of “darkness” and “the deep”. We can call this state unorder. Walton sometimes refers to this as “chaos”, but it’s important to realise that he means this in relation purely to function: it does not imply antagonism to or independence from God, violence or even material incoherence.

This is demonstrated first by the fact that “unorder” is incorporated by God into his order in Genesis 1. Newly created light is separated from primordialĀ  darkness, which becomes day’s essential counterpart, night. The created firmament separates the waters of the primaeval deep into the heavens, God’s abode, and the “atmosphere”, the realm of birds and approach to God. (Incidentally, you may be interested to know that Walton no longer believes that “firmament” [raqia] refers to a solid dome, despite all those confident statements one hears elsewhere about the “obsolete science” of Genesis.) Similarly, God separates waters from land, and the sea becomes a realm for the fish he makes.

In the rest of the Bible, it appears that these unordered elements remain as part of God’s “very good” creation, yet retain an element of wildness. And so darkness retains its imagery as being the state where God is least to be found – although remember God also “dwells in thick darkness”, which may be a reminder that his dwelling place, the heavens, was formed from the dark deep. The sea remains the place of chaos, as in Jonah and Paul’s maritime misadventures, Christ’s stilling of the storm and the banishment of the sea from the new order in Revelation. Desert places are also tohu; though God was to be found in the wilderness, it was a place of trial and transition towards God’s blessing. Note that the creatures of these places – leviathan, the owls, or the serpents – share the character of unorder.

Obviously, the second category, order, is what God brings about through creation. The cosmic temple is both cosmic order in itself, and means by which order is maintained. But Walton’s suggestion that God left this ordering incomplete (as evidenced above), is theologically helpful. The elements of unorder were left so that mankind would be able to participate, as the agent bearing God’s image, in the final ordering of sacred space. We can see this process beginning in the Eden account, though it needs bringing to our blunted modern attention.

For example, for Adam to name the creatures in the garden is (in its ANE context) to assign them functions – it is God’s creative work delegated to Adam. In a comparable way, the “not good” lack of assistance for Adam is remedied through the forming of Eve (which Walton takes, on plausible grounds, to be a visionary revelation of womankind’s equal role in the human vice-regency).

The most significant element of this “progressive” completion of creation is shown in Adam’s failure. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil which, says Walton, is almost certainly an idiom for “the tree of wisdom”, is forbidden to the man until God himself should grant it, as he certainly would in time, for wisdom is a priceless possession in the OT – yet is only achievable through the fear of the Lord. To clutch at it autonomously, as did Adam and Eve, leads to bondage.

The sin of Adam brings about the third category – disorder, or that which raises itself against God, and against its own nature, in rebellion. It cannot be allowed to persist in God’s sacred space. This, of course, is the problem around which salvation history is written, culminating in the Incarnation and Christ’s decisive defeat of sin and its penalty, death. But Walton’s category of unorder gives the story a dynamic nature which, perhaps, helps explain both the world we live in and the world to come. For the sin of the race meant that the intended completion of creation – its complete incorporation into the order of sacred space – was stalled, and remains stalled to this day, although with the victory assured through Christ’s passion and only awaiting his return.

The cosmic element of the atonement, then, isn’t just a return to Eden, but the completion of the unfinished work of bringing unorder to order. This, to me, makes plain the general meaning of that problematic passage (to an old-earth, evolutionary viewpoint) in Romans 8.18ff. For here a careful reading suggests that the disorder (sin) of man has left the creation, which anthropomorphically “hoped” for its full ordering by God, constrained in unorder. The key NIV word, “frustration”, is essentially a Greek translation for the OT word for lack of function, ie lacking a full partĀ  in God’s sacred space). The “glorious freedom of the sons of God” to which it aspires is not freedom from sin, other than from the abusive pollution of man’s sin, but the freedom of being fully a part of God’s order – the job in which Adam failed both humanity and the created order.

Theologically, this approach appears, to me, extremely useful, and true to the thrust of Scripture. But although John Walton’s approach to the creation texts renders much of the controversy about origins, and especially evolution, irrelevant there is still a need, in my view, to see how the concepts of unorder and order, and perhaps disorder too, map on to our modern scientific worldview. I suspect they can provide enlightenment but also, potentially, lead into dangerous theological waters. So I’ll devote another post to some considerations on that theme.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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