Genesis One 13

Walton.jpgIn John Walton’s (professor at Wheaton) new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, we have yet another proposition to discuss:

The difference between origin accounts in science and Scripture is metaphysical in nature.

Many folks, Walton argues, think of the “origins” question as a pie: some pieces are “natural” and some pieces are “supernatural.” The more we learn, one needs to observe, the fewer are the number of supernatural pieces. The problem: the ancients did not distinguish between primary causes and secondary causes, between God at work and between nature at work.

Instead of pie, we need to see it all as a cake with layers. Lower layer: science. Top layer: God. The lower layer then represents secondary natural causation and the top divine causation. Science cannot explain the top layer.

Ultimate causes cannot be determined by science. “Empirical science is not designed to to be able to define or detect a purpose, though it may … theoretically … deduce … that purpose” (116). And “biological evolution can acknowledge no purpose” but neither can it contend that there is no purpose.

Genesis is a top layer account, concerned with teleology (purpose), yet open to all kinds of explanations of the bottom layer.  In Walton’s view, what is the teleology of Genesis 1?

But this is like a fish saying there is only water and that there is no such thing as mountains or air or trees. There is a difference between naturalism (natural explanation) and materialism (that only the material exists).

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  • RJS

    Interesting thoughts here. Many do seem to think of origins as either/or – either it is supernatural (thus we see God) or it is natural (and thus no need for God). The ancients didn’t separate in this way – but they also didn’t have the same kind of concept of “natural” in any fashion.
    Ultimately Gen 1 is not concerned with a description of material origin, but with purpose and the sovereignty of God. We’ve discussed authorial intent on some of the other posts – and I think that we need to view authorial intent as layered as well.
    Authorial intent may have included ANE cosmology, it may have included descriptive history, it may have included a sense of purpose in creation, it may have included a portrayal of creation as the temple of God, it may have included function as primary over material. I think that it is likely that it included all of these layers.
    I do not think that inspiration and authority of scripture requires us to assume the same level of “authority” for all of these layers. Ultimately the purpose of scripture is to describe “metaphysical origins” not material origins. The purpose of scripture is to relate the story of God’s relationship with his people and his creation. This does not – as dopderbeck has noted at times – leave us in a highly relative position with a “wax nose” text. It requires us to assimilate all of the revelation of the nature of God’s creation into a coherent package, and this includes general revelation and the results of scientific inquiry.

  • The “purpose” observation is important as we see God the Creator over and over again attempting to create a covenant with the creation, with us. I would say that is the purpose he envisioned – when that covenant is fulfilled, the creation serves its purpose and great and amazing things flow out of that relationship forged with the Creator.
    So yes, the story of Genesis is little about the physical manipulation of atoms into what we call the “physical universe” and more likely about the initiating of a God-man covenant.

  • Travis Greene

    RJS, what does “wax nose text” mean?

  • RJS

    Travis –
    A text you can mold to mean anything that you want. A term that dopderbeck has used on other posts.

  • Your Name

    There are several things that Genesis 1 and 2 teach us and this is not meant to be the exhaustive list – but it leads us out of pantheism, telling us for example, that trees are different than humans. Genesis tells us there is a world out there that can be studied, vs for example, the existentialists who believe the world exists only when we experience it. These are not supernatural things to be learned from Genesis.

  • BenB

    I really like this thought. I have thought over this question more and more recently – as many of my fundamentalist and more conservative friends are only satisfied with a God of the supernatural. For them, somehow, a God of natural order, a God who doesn’t violate His order, and a God who works through natural processes, just doesn’t seem like the Biblical God. I’ve never understood this line of thinking.
    I really like the way Dr. Walton here talks about the way the ancients viewed this question and how we have to continue to use it to shape the way we speak about things given the more we learn.

  • I’m pretty much with you until this last sentence, which may just be my own confusion:
    But this is like a fish saying there is only water and that there is no such thing as mountains or air or trees. There is a difference between naturalism (natural explanation) and materialism (that only the material exists).
    Is this your criticism of Walton on this point, Scot? Or is this Walton commenting on the issue in some way? Why is this sentence even added? I struck me as a jarring disconnect from the rest of the post. I don’t see how this line follows from what came before it.

  • AHH

    Another aspect worth noting in this chapter is Walton’s recognition of the limits of science and its inability to address metaphysics. Page 118:
    It is not a scientific view of mechanism (naturalism) that is contrary to biblical thinking, but exclusive materialism that denies biblical teaching. Naturalism is no threat – but materialism and its determined dysteleology is.
    The accompanying footnote makes clear that Walton is talking about what others have phrased as the distinction between methodological naturalism (a description of how science works by looking for natural causes) and metaphysical naturalism (a position on the nature of ultimate reality). Endless trouble in science/faith discussions is caused by those who (through negligence or intentional rhetoric) fail to make this distinction, conflating the two in opposing “naturalism”. A few years ago I heard a pro-ID speaker say something like “evolution is a natural process with no reference to God, so Christians must oppose such an atheistic theory” which was a prime example of unnecessarily tying the methodological way science describes things to metaphysics. After all, atmospheric scientists do not leave “room for God” in their theories of weather (even though the Bible says God is the ultimate cause of rain) — to be consistent this speaker should have also condemned those naturalistic meteorologists.
    “Naturalism” is not the only word that causes confusion in these discussions. “Darwinism” (or its cousin, “neo-Darwinism”) is another. To most scientists, these terms simply refer to mechanistic explanations, the bottom layer of the cake Walton describes. But some (particularly in Christian anti-evolution circles) invest the terms with additional metaphysical meaning (absence of any top layer). Unfortunately, in his Chapter 15 Prof. Walton appears to use “Neo-Darwinism” in the latter unhelpful way, tying metaphysical meaning to the science in a way that his own Chapter 13 shows is not necessary.