Wednesday, March 25, 2015

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

Reading my last post, one might draw the conclusion that I'm a strict traditionalist—someone who blindly upholds older interpretations of Scripture for tradition's sake. But actually, I hold (however loosely) some fairly novel beliefs regarding some of the most familiar passages of the Bible.

For example, I am energized by Ben Witherington III's hypothesis that Lazarus (not John) was the Beloved Disciple who wrote the fourth Gospel. I believe, based on recent comparative linguistic studies, that the "still, small voice" Elijah heard in 1 Kings 19 was neither still nor small. And I think there's strong evidence in the original Hebrew that "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6 ESV) should really be rendered "Train up a child in the way he will go ..." With that sense, it's actually not a word of advice to parents, but a solemn warning.


I hope that any conclusion I draw is based on the text itself. I want Scripture to inform my understanding of Scripture. And I hope that I'm never so convinced of a new idea that I let it blind me to the plain and clear teaching of God's Word. This is why I'm so concerned about Dr. John Walton's views on the book of Genesis, as presented in a recent Christianity Today interview. I'm afraid that in his attempt to shed some much needed light on the creation account(s) of Genesis 1 and 2 using other ancient Near Eastern texts, he's placed himself at odds with what Scripture plainly tells us.

For example, Dr. Walton believes we jump to the conclusion that Adam and Eve were created immortal. This is not so, he says:

The fact that God provided a Tree of Life suggests to me that there was death before Adam and Eve. Sin is the reason we lost access to the remedy and are therefore subject to death. It’s not like death came into existence when Adam and Eve sinned. I don’t know if we can even talk about death “existing.” And it’s not that animals, plants, and cells did not experience death. Death at the cellular level is required for development. For those who are willing to accept evolutionary theories, death prior to the Fall is not a problem (44).

For Dr. Walton, death is inevitable; the fall makes no difference. But he's muddying the waters a bit with his insistence that death, at a cellular level, must take place for there to be development in living organisms. As he noted in the interview, "When Paul focuses on why humans are subject to death, he’s not concerned about death at the cellular level" (44). I would submit that nowhere in Scripture is anyone concerned with the death of cells. Dr. Walton is introducing a modern scientific concept and imposing it on the ancient book of Genesis. And he does this, apparently, so he can play fast and loose with the concept of death. 

Every ancient reader of the Bible would have known what Scripture means by "death." Those of us who have seen a loved one die, or have had to put a pet to sleep, or have even mismanaged a houseplant know what it is for something or someone to die. Paul says that "sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin" (Romans 5:12). But according to Dr. Walton, what's really meant here is not that death came into the world through sin. Death was actually already quite at home. Instead, the only thing that changed when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was that Adam and Eve were judged. Mankind lost access to their temporary remedy for death—the Tree of Life. 

It's hard to imagine that Paul holds such a narrow view of death, at least the death he's discussing here. The power of his statement is all but washed away, and it does not match the cosmic view he takes just a few chapters later when he says that creation longs for the day when it "will be set free from its bondage to corruption" (Romans 8:21). In Dr. Walton's view, everything God created as "very good" (Genesis 1:31) was subject to death before the fall, so corruption is hardly a new or different reality for the natural world. Paul, however, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, seems to believe otherwise.

But there's a deeper problem with death reigning before sin entered the world. As I showed in my previous post, Dr. Walton believes that Adam and Eve were not the first or only people God created in the beginning. They are just the only ones God allowed in the Garden. He writes:

[Adam and Eve] are the ones given entry to sacred space as representatives, just like priests serve in sacred space. Not just anybody could wander into the temple. Priests serve in sacred space, and they represent the people there. A priest’s role is not reduced to performing rituals. Priests are given access to God’s presence, and they mediate revelation. That’s what I believe Adam and Eve did (44).

On the one hand, I am grateful to Dr. Walton for highlighting the Garden of Eden as a temple, for that is how it functions in the story of redemption. However, by assuming there were other people created alongside or just before Adam and Eve, he's painted himself into a very awkward theological corner. 

Dr. Walton imagines Adam and Eve as mediators between God and those not chosen by God for access into the Garden. They were to deliver fruit from the Tree of Life to those who dwell outside of God's presence, passing it through the bars of the fence, so to speak. Problematic as it might be to imagine a two-tiered humanity (Jim Crow in the Garden, as it were), there is a tempting literary parallel here between the Old Testament high priest who entered the Holy of Holies to mediate between God and His people and the scenario Dr. Walton envisions here in Genesis. However, Dr. Walton's hypothesis begs the question: If there is no real sin in the world, why does mankind need a mediator?

Doesn't it seem more likely that the state of humanity before the fall would mirror in many ways the state of humanity after redemption? All believers are a priesthood (1 Peter 2:5). Jesus Christ, God Himself, is the only mediator we need (1 Timothy 2:5). If there were a temple today, you and I would have access to the Holy of Holies (signified in the temple veil being torn in two at the death of Jesus; Matthew 27:51). But Dr. Walton's imagined "others" create the need for a much more complicated scenario. 

Isn't it more likely that Adam and Eve constituted the entire human race in the beginning and, therefore, all people had access to God's presence—that they were a priesthood of believers as we are today? That Adam and Eve were priests does not mean there were others who were barred from the Lord's good presence—especially since Scripture explicitly says at the time of Adam's creation that there was no one else—"no man to work the ground" (Genesis 2:5).

Concerning the Tree of Life, once again, Dr. Walton imagines things that are simply not there. The Tree of Life, according to Dr. Walton, was to preserve the fragile life of human beings. In order to keep on living, Adam and Eve would need to eat regularly of the Tree. However, hear what God says about the Tree of Life:

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken (Genesis 3:22-23).

All Adam had to do, according to the Lord, was to reach out his hand and eat of the Tree's fruit in order to live forever. Living forever in a sinful, separated-from-God state would be a curse, so in His mercy, God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But notice that God is concerned that the man might eat from the Tree at all—just one time—not continually. The Tree of Life appears to be a remedy for death, not a prescription drug that merely keeps its symptoms at bay. In that way, the Tree of Life points forward to Jesus, our Life. It is not necessary to come to Christ again and again to be saved after each new sin. Yes, we "eat" of Jesus regularly through communion, through fellowship with Him, and in our personal confession of sin. But we need only come to the Lord once and for all in order to gain eternal life.

In Dr. Walton's view of things, original creation was like a new car, but a lemon of a new car. It works if we remember to add a quart of oil every 100 miles or so (i.e. eat of the Tree of Life to stave off death). I believe Dr. Walton is right to insist that creation was not perfect from the beginning. The Bible never says it was perfect, only that it was "very good." However, I don't think you need to see the world as broken in order for it not to be perfect. There is a state of goodness in which personal, physical, and spiritual growth are possible. There is goodness in discovering deeper relationships with loved ones and with God. Perfection implies stasis. That's not something Scripture promises us on either side of the fall or on either side of the end of the ages. Thank God.

Before I let this CT article go, there is one more aspect I'd like to consider, and I'll use my next post to do just that.

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