Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Reaction to Dr. John Walton's Adam and Eve—Part One

A few years ago, someone asked me what I thought about heaven, specifically how time might work there. The scenario was this: What if a husband passed away decades before his bride? Wouldn't he miss her in those intervening years? And if there's not supposed to be sadness in heaven, how would that work? 

I thought I had the perfect answer—an insight that would alleviate the problem while showing off my theological skills. I reasoned that since God is not bound by time, neither must we be in His presence. Perhaps when we die and go to heaven, all of the time between that moment and Jesus' return to earth flashes by in the blink of an eye. In that way, the earliest Old Testament saint and the final end-times martyr would approach the culmination of history at once. 

I thought I was brilliant. I had solved the problem and given everyone present something interesting to think about. And I thought I was actually correct. Until the woman who asked the question responded: "But the book of Revelation teaches that the martyred saints cry out to God, asking how long He will delay His judgment."


Though she didn't cite chapter and verse, she apparently knew the Bible well. She was referring to Revelation 6:9-11, in which John sees such a scene play out in heaven. There, murdered saints clearly feel longing and, in some sense
, the passage of time. My answer just wouldn't do justice to this passage, nor would it do justice to the other times Scripture pulls back the curtain between heaven and earth. 

I was wrong, and I was caught doing some clever theological hopscotch to avoid dealing with the text. I don't know the answer to this woman's original question. We know there is no sorrow in heaven because Scripture clearly teaches us this is so. But how exactly will this be? I am not sure. I can only trust God's Word on the matter. 


Something like my theological hopscotch that day is at work in Kevin Emmert's interview with Dr. John Walton in this month's issue of Christianity Today. Admittedly, many of the questions Dr. Walton attempts to answer in his books, The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve, are among the most difficult in the realm of biblical studies and theology. But I'm afraid that some of Dr. Walton's answers do obvious damage to the biblical text. At times, he undermines doctrines clearly taught by Scripture in order to shed light on questions the Bible simply doesn't address, at least not directly. What I highlight here are simply a few of the most troubling scenarios he presents in CT. 

Dr. Walton makes a distinction between Adam as a prototype (the first of his kind) and an archetype (the representative of his kind). In fairness, the distinction is a good one, for Scripture demands that we see Adam as an archetype of the human race. Dr. Walton rightly points out that Paul has this in view, specifically in Romans 5:12. But Adam being an archetype of humanity does not rule out his being the prototype as well. Paul affirms this in 1 Corinthians 15:45, where he refers to Adam as "the first man," and he does so again while addressing Athenians philosopher on Mars Hill when he says, "[God] made from one man every nation of mankind" (Acts 17:26). 


Walton argues against the apostle Paul, however, when he says that Genesis 1 speaks of God creating a group of people, while Genesis 2 zeroes in on Adam and Eve, who may or may not have been part of that original group. He writes, "If I want to know whether Genesis 1 is talking about two individuals or humans as a whole, I look at ancient Near Eastern accounts. Sure enough, they always emphasize people as a whole" (43). I agree that the language of Genesis 1 describes people in general, but it does not specify how many people humanity began with. It is only when we get to Genesis 2 that we get the answer to that question:


When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Genesis 2:5-7 ESV; emphasis added).

If Dr. Walton's premise were correct—that Genesis 1 and 2 describe two different creation scenes and that God created a group of people in Genesis 1 prior to the events of Genesis 2—then the biblical text is wrong, or at best misleading, when it says "there was no man to work the ground" (v. 5).


But Dr. Walton also takes aim at the Bible's description of Adam being formed from the dust of the earth (v. 7). He writes, "[W]hen the text says Adam was formed from dust, it's not saying that guy was formed from dust, and the rest of us are born of woman. It's saying we all are dust" (44; emphasis original). Again, I think Dr. Walton has a point. Scripture teaches that we are to see ourselves as being made of dust. As the book of Job says, "If [God] should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust" (Job 34:14-15; cf. Genesis 18:27; Psalm 103:14; Ecclesiastes 12:7). But that doesn't mean that Adam was not literally formed of dust. 


Scripture tells us that Adam's creation was unique. As the first man, how could it not be? The overwhelming witness from the patriarchs to the apostles is that Adam was formed by the very hands of God from the dust of the earth in His own image. Being made "not by human hands" is such a theologically heavy concept, it's painful to hear Dr. Walton brush it aside in favor of some evolutionary compromise to avoid putting Adam at the head of the human race. It's meaningless to declare an historical Adam, as Dr. Walton does, if Adam is stripped of his place in biblical history as the first human being. 

Paul says, "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:47). But if Walton is right, and the description of Adam being formed from dust is merely a literary device (I would argue it is that AND so much more), then why should we believe that Christ's being from heaven is any more literal? Perhaps the apostle John and the other New Testament writers were simply making the point that once we identify with Christ, we should seek to live as though we, too, are citizens of heaven. But the power of our citizenship in heaven lies in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God who came from heaven. So, too, our unique creation by God among all the living things of the universe depends on our being hand-formed by Him and infused with life by His breath/Spirit (Genesis 2:7). 

The literary power of being formed of earth loses all of its strength if that's all it ever is—a literary device. There must be some point, as we look back in time, that God's hands got dirty. Even in writing this, I recognize the complexities created by the anthropomorphism of God having hands; my point is not to alleviate all the potential problems of a difficult text like this one but to respect appropriate boundaries—those that Scripture provides. 

We need scholars like Dr. John Walton who reexamine the text of Scripture in light of other ancient Near Eastern texts, cognate languages, and so forth. But to do so without letting Scripture first speak for itself is a dangerous proposition. 

The issues that I bring up today are not the greatest problems I see in Dr. Walton's reimagining of Genesis, but I'll save those for my next post.

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