Last Monday the seminary hosted John Walton for a provocative discussion on what the Bible, and in his talks specifically Genesis 1-2, says about creation. I think about Walton’s thesis like I think about the New Perspective on Paul—I like what it is for but not what it is against. I gladly add Walton’s functional notion of creation (much like I add the NPP insight on Jew-Gentile reconciliation), but see no compelling reason why I should think that Genesis 1 is not also speaking about the beginning of our material creation (just as, despite its protest, the NPP only confirms my belief that Paul was fighting a type of legalism).
I’m also not sure what the ultimate benefit is of saying Genesis 1-2 is not teaching creation ex nihilo or that Adam was an individual, historical person if we’re going to throw all that back in when we get to Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and 1 Timothy 2. Did Paul invent new beliefs about creation that were not present in Genesis 1-2, or was he merely noting what was already there? Unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, I would think that Paul, who as a first century Jew was closer to the Ancient Near Eastern context than we are, would be a reliable guide to how the first Jewish audience would have understood the opening chapters of Genesis.
Walton is a careful exegete whose work contributes to our understanding of Genesis 1-2 in its ANE context, but I was surprised when he concluded by saying that his reading of Genesis demonstrates there is no conflict between Scripture and evolution. He said that because humans are finite they would die without access to the tree of life, so human death is more natural than we think. Our bodies are inherently mortal.
I was pressed into moderator duties at the last minute (and so unable to participate in the give and take of the panel), but I used my first question to ask about this. I said I was surprised to hear there is no conflict between evolution and Scripture because Scripture says that human death is a consequence of Adam’s Fall while evolution says death is required for natural selection, which is the mechanism that explains how the world evolves.
I said I agreed with his statement that human bodies are inherently mortal and I would even go one better and insist that our souls are also (otherwise we land in Platonism), but I don’t see how that helps his case. It’s true that humans could die without access to the tree of life, but it’s also true that they would not lose this access apart from sin. The possibility of death is always present with finite creatures (we have everlasting life because God sustains us, not because we are inherently immortal), but the actuality of death is a consequence of sin. Walton dismissed the question, saying there are theories of evolution that do not require natural selection (he didn’t elaborate) and repeated his claim that humans would die without access to the tree of life. I’m puzzled by the first part and agree with the last part, though I don’t see how either helps his claim (even if it doesn’t hold to natural selection, is there any form of evolution that claims that death is unnatural?).
There is a conflict between evolution and Scripture, and it’s a big one. This should not surprise us, as there likely will be conflicts between Scripture and any theory of origins. And because they are just theories, we should avoid committing wholeheartedly to any of them, but remaining fiercely loyal to Scripture, use what we learn there to critique them all. Walton’s presentation gave plenty of reason to raise questions about how Christians have traditionally read Genesis 1-2, but it is important to remember that Scripture also pushes back against evolution, and in important ways.
Last week I conducted a funeral, and a big chunk of my message was that my friend’s death was unnatural, not the way it’s supposed to be. And because it is unnatural, there is hope that God will set this right when Jesus returns to resurrect our loved ones. As far as I can tell, any theory of evolution would not allow me to say this. Let’s not prematurely shut down the conversation about creation and evolution, but let’s not pretend there aren’t real, important differences too. This matters, especially when we counsel those who are dying.