John H Walton and the undermining of Darwinian metaphysics

I’ve mentioned John H Walton’s contribution to the interpretation of Genesis several times before on this blog. I won’t explain his thesis again in any detail, but in essence it’s the understanding than the creation account of Genesis is intended to be literal, but literal concerning principally the function of creation rather than its material existence. It is about how God organised the Universe as his temple, with man as his image (in the sense of temple-image) and priest. This privileged calling for man is reflected in the fact that creation’s function is described in relationship to humanity’s needs – the heavens as his calendar for planting, the vegetation as his food, the animals as his subjects and so on.

Because of this, the Genesis account cannot be said to be opposed to scientific findings because it is not describing the same things – or more properly, it is describing the same things, but from a radically different viewpoint. Walton even allows Genesis to describe a literal, chronological week – though not one in which God forms all matter de novo (he does this – but not in the Genesis account), but one in which he assigns everything its function and order.

Not surprisingly The Lost World of Genesis 1 has gained some support from theistic evolutionists, and particularly from those like me of a biblically conservative bent. It gives a coherent sense of the inspiration and truth of Scripture, but avoids the intellectual somersaults of creation science and gives one the freedom to assess biological theories on their scientific merits. It was very liberating for me in that way.

However, in some ways this approach to Genesis cuts straight across a major aspect of what many theistic evolutionists believe, insofar as they have imbibed the metaphysic that is so strongly associated with, and perhaps inherent to, the Darwinian paradigm. For if one takes a look at any of the science-related writings of TEs – and the BioLogos website is a good place to start – there is much talk of random mutation, of junk DNA, of parasitic transposons, of poor design, of meaningless suffering and many other features supposedly found in life. In the hands of materialist biologists these are evidence for the purposelessness and undirectedness of evolution. In the hands of TEs … sadly they are much the same, their inclusion in discussion being intended to confirm the truth of science against Creationist or ID claims. There is, of course, an implicit belief that God’s hand is in there somewhere, but on the longest recent thread on the site I was unable to gain very much in the way of clarification of this from more than one or two TEs. For many, as I have discussed at length before, this is because God deliberately keeps his hands off creation in the name of “freedom”.

But the functional view of Genesis, which is faithful to the ANE background and respectable scholarship, refutes such woolliness, and the naturalist metaphysic that informs it, simply because it is functional. In Walton’s view, the central truth about creation is that God shows his power, wisdom and goodness by taking the chaotic proto-matter of Genesis 1.2 and enduing every aspect of it with function in relation to himself and, more particularly, to humanity and its mission in the world. The sabbath rest of the seventh day is when God takes his seat in his temple and begins to administer his rule over a now fully-compliant, fully-functional cosmos.

In such a Universe everything has a role and purpose (much as the now much maligned and misunderstood mediaeval Christian worldview assumed). Everything now means something, whether God assigned that meaning when it first came to be or at some later historic moment. You simply cannot talk about “junk DNA” without blaspheming against the picture of God in Genesis 1. One might argue that non-coding elements began as junk, in the days before God ordained their function. But even that view is a false one – because before the Genesis 1 creation even coding DNA either had no function or did not exist at all. Function of some sort it certainly has now, whether it is coding or non-coding DNA, because otherwise one is claiming that big chunks of the Universe were not, in fact, created by God in that functional sense.

So Walton’s reassessment of Genesis 1, I would argue, gives focus to the entirely orthodox concept that the whole Universe has its being in God. In the light of it, this cannot simply mean that everything merely exists through God’s continuing agency. Rather, it implies that everything which exists is also suffused with the creative function and meaning he has put there. More than that – he endowed it with such purpose in relationship to our own, human, existence and role in his world.

Theistic science, when it is studying creation, ought to be looking at God’s purpose, as well as tracing his handiwork.

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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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11 Responses to John H Walton and the undermining of Darwinian metaphysics

  1. Cal says:

    I’m still looking to read Walton’s book one of these days. However, what’s your opinion of the Wiseman thesis of the Creation account? I know its a minority but still interesting. He also has very fascinating opinions on the formation of Gensis, and the role of Joseph acting as bridge between patriarchs and Moses and the israelites.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    I wanted to go with Wiseman’s idea when I first read it. On balance I’m not convinced by the central idea about what the colophons cover. But I agree with Harrison that it draws attention to a genuine middle eastern context as opposed to the still reigning documentary hypothesis, which in my humble opinion tells us more about Victorian metaphysics than the origin of the Pentateuch.

    As to the Joseph bit, don’t you think the trouble with so much modern Biblical reconstruction (even a conservative one like Wiseman’s) is that it speculates beyond the evidence, like the Darwinian just-so stories?

    That’s one of my main beefs about the documentary theory and its offspring – Josiah’s priests finds a document: ergo it must have been Deuteronomy and they must have written it themselves. Ergo that’s when Judaism really starts.

    It looks like literary preferences for “Yahweh” and “El” are all mixed up? Maybe the Persian kings insisted the antagonistic northern and southern Israelites pool their ideas in order to be recognised as a legit religion. So maybe they got together and invented the Torah as a cut and paste job. There’s absolutely no evidence either way – so that’s what happened, and we can safely date both the Pentateuch and Judaism to the Persian period.

    At least the idea of Joseph as the bridge from Abraham to Moses is inherent in the text that actually exists, rather than a speculation from texts that have never been shown to exist!

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    The idea that we can express God’s providence by merely saying that He keeps everything in being (as the less theologically astute TE/EC folk say) misses fully HALF the traditional doctrine of providence. It is not only preservation but also government. Where is God’s government of entities & events in the scheme apparently favored by the TE/EC people I have in mind? I still can’t work out what’s so horrid & objectionable about the Divine Government aspect of providence, unless it is simply hatred of God’s sovereignty – but one hopes for a better rationale! Otherwise we end up with a theodicy that says “The nasty aspects of the universe are not God’s fault because He isn’t in control anyway.” To me this is theodicy by divine suicide. I wonder which Bible some folks are reading….

    But there we are, I’m obviously in my Angry Young Man (or Angry Middle-Aged Man) persona today.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman – that theodicy is popular Arminianism writ large (God answers prayer, but doesn’t do earthquakes, cancer etc which “just happen”). Open Theism just carries that to the logical extreme of God keeping his hands off everything. The alternative would be the unthinkable – returning to a Reformed and Biblical view of Proividence, but that’s apparently as unthinkable as a materialist allowing God a foot in the door.

    I’m not sure about the lack of astuteness of the TEs you mention. On the one hand, they seem to want God’s providence to have enough teeth to produce mankind, protect the faithful etc – having done a complete dental clearance beforehand on every means he might use. On the other, as the recent thread on BioLogos shows, they’re astute enough to skate round what they actually believe, presumably because they know the negative implications that many believers will deduce.

  5. Avatar photo penman says:

    Ah well, that’s POLITICAL astuteness. But I know what you mean. I confess I have a strong suspicion that genuine old-fashioned theological Arminianism (a la Arminius & Wesley) had a much more robust doctrine of divine government than either modern pop-Arminianism or Open Theism. But I can’t prove it without doing further research….

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    It occurred to me yesterday that Wesley’s habit of casting lots presupposes a significant recognition of God’s involvement in material matters.

  7. Cal says:

    Well done to the both of ye:

    Perhaps on the issue of earthquakes, one could say that God created a world that has earthquakes, lions and giant waves, but in the act that they wipe out a good portion of people, it is not necessarily God’s will that it occurred. Yet even in it, He is moving to pull the ultimate good. However, in one sense, one could say that He made such things and thus responsible, in another, it is just the mechanics of nature.

    I don’t want to come off as Open Theistic at all, but do you understand what I’m saying?

    I believe that God’s will is to listen to the voice of His Son, to Obey (literally in Greek ‘sit at the feet of’) Jesus. Everything else that happens, God is working to bring us into a stronger relationship or draw us to Him.

    I agree with both that the typical TE (and I’ll use that instead of Evolutionary Creation to denote the deistic feel of it) is theologically at odds with what is presented from Scripture

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Christians have always said that God, though omnipotent and omniscient, is incapable of evil. That leaves, inevitably, a God of mystery when it comes to his ultimate role in bad stuff – a mystery God revels in in the Bible in phrases like “His ways are higher than our ways.”

    The problems come when, to demystify things, systems are constructed to let God off the hook. They either fail to do so (if you design something bound to go wrong you can’t blame the product), or end up denying, or rendering implausible, God’s transcendant nature.

    I’d rather have a God I can’t understand than one who can’t or won’t do anything, however benign.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    But regarding this:

    I believe that God’s will is to listen to the voice of His Son, to Obey (literally in Greek ’sit at the feet of’) Jesus. Everything else that happens, God is working to bring us into a stronger relationship or draw us to Him.

    It’s really fundamental, isn’t it? If we truly regard the big purpose of the Universe to be the uniting of everything under Christ, then it’s pointless in the end doing theodicy, or theistic evolution, from any other viewpoint.

    And Deistic Evolution doesn’t even begin to go there.

  10. Cal says:

    Agreed with all what you said. Systemics are useful to a point but become quickly obsolete. I’m not trying to rationalize but there is something buried in the statement that “God works all things for good for those who love Him” that doesn’t necessarily mean He causes but He is within it, moving and drawing more people to the cross, and into the Resurrection.

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