Old Testament scholar John Walton affirms a historical Adam—but says there are far more important dimensions to Genesis.
In recent years, John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has been both lauded and criticized for his interpretation of Genesis 1–2. In his 2009 landmark book, The Lost World of Genesis One (InterVarsity Press), he argued that to rightly understand Genesis 1—an ancient document—we need to read it within the context of the ancient world. Read alongside other ancient texts, he says, Genesis 1 is not about how God made the world, but about God assigning functions to every aspect of it. In 2013, Walton contributed a chapter in Four Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan). There he argued that Adam was a historical person, but also that Adam’s primary function in Scripture is to represent all of humanity. For Walton, Genesis 1–2 is not concerned about human material origins, but rather about our God-given function and purpose: to be in relationship with God and work alongside him, as his image bearers, in bringing continued order to our world.
By arguing that the Genesis creation account is not about material origins, you run against 2,000 years of interpretive history. Does that give you pause?
I respect interpreters and theologians of the past. Many of my ideas can be found in the church fathers, and I try to bring out some of that in my research. But we also have information today that most historical interpreters didn’t have, like ancient Near Eastern documents.
Throughout history, theologians responded to the challenges of their day. Today we have different issues on the table. So it’s no surprise that I talk about things they didn’t address. Even though my exegetical conclusions are different from what many people have heard, I’m not calling into question any basic doctrines. I’m still essentially conservative theologically, and I’m firmly evangelical in my approach. I want to maintain and articulate the authority of Scripture.
Still, I feel that this is such an important discussion that it’s worth stepping out and taking risks.
You interpret Genesis in a way that most Christians don’t grasp using a “plain reading.” How did you come to your conclusions?
I mainly look carefully at what the Bible claims. So I ask: What does Genesis actually say about origins? We have to go beyond a casual reading to ferret that out. That means we need to understand the Hebrew language and the ancient Near Eastern world. So I delve deeply into the meanings of Hebrew words and phrasings, and how the ancients thought about origins.
We’ve bundled together certain things that don’t necessarily need to be. Issues like the image of God, the origin of sin, the historical Adam, and human origins are all important. They clearly overlap, but people have assumed that if you believe in a historical Adam, for example, you believe in a particular view of material human origins [a literal 6-day creation]. Or if you believe in original sin, you believe in a historical Adam. What I’ve found is you can deal with them individually, without jumbling them. You can affirm a historical Adam, but that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological human origins that are often assumed…