The Lost Word, and the Lost World

John H. Walton. The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 253pp. $17.00

In 2009, John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, challenged the evangelical world with the publication of his The Lost World of Genesis One. He argued that contrary to a traditional, literal reading of Genesis, essential clues to understanding the first chapter of Genesis were found in ancient Near Eastern literary and cultural contexts: "the key... is to be found in the literature from the rest of the ancient world" (p.10). Claiming that Genesis 1 was written in a way shaped by ancient Near Eastern temple inauguration, Walton argued that the text spoke of God ordaining functions for creation as his temple, rather than describing creation's material origins. According to Walton, Genesis simply does not address material origins, aside from the first verse. This "long lost understanding" of the Genesis text, Walton argued, helpfully removed obstacles to a rapprochement between contemporary mainstream scientific interpretations of the past and the Christian faith.

In a 2012 Zygon article, Walton reflected that his interpretation of Genesis allowed an easy harmony with "evolutionary creationism" or theistic evolution, describing the "dust" and "rib" as "archetypal affirmations about the nature of humanity... the focus is on all womankind and mankind."[1]  Around the same time, Walton embarked on a seven month global tour to promote his new hermeneutic, speaking at evangelical seminaries and colleges from New Zealand to the United States.[2] Biologos paid the bill.

It is no surprise then, that in The Lost World of Adam and Eve (2015), Walton moves forward in the Genesis text, seeking a comprehensive application of this hermeneutic to the Genesis text narrating humanity's creation. Like his previous volume, Walton arranges his chapters as "propositions," most of which build on those prior. He also includes an excursus on Paul's use of Adam by N.T. Wright.

Walton is well aware that a key part of the battle of persuasion on Genesis and human origins in the evangelical world lies in creating theological and exegetical space for his hermeneutic. In his introduction he reassures the reader that he retains, "the broad spectrum of core theology" of Genesis:
[T]he authority of Scripture, God's intimate and active role as Creator regardless of the mechanisms he used or the time he took, that material creation was ex nihilo, that we have all been created by God, and that there was a point in time when sin entered the world therefore necessitating salvation (pp.13-14)
It is worth pausing here to consider what Walton is offering us. Discerning readers will realize that this "core theology" of the early Genesis narrative is a substantial diminishment from that of traditional evangelical orthodoxy. In his broad spectrum of core theology, he actually offers us less from Genesis, not more. Walton tells us that his is a "Bible-first approach (in contrast to a science-first or even extra-biblical-first approach)" (p.14). At the same time, he notes that his impetus in writing lies in being "prompted by new information from the ancient world and new insights by modern science."(p.14) This motivated his return to the biblical text, "to see whether there have been options that have been missed or truths that have become submerged under the frozen surface of traditional readings" (p.14)

Walton goes on to explain a key element for his "ice-breaking" approach to early Genesis: a view of divine accommodation in inspiration requiring extra-biblical contextualization for readers living in subsequent eras. "God has accommodated the communicator and immediate audience," meaning that "when we read the Bible, we enter the context of that communication as low-context outsiders... we have to use research to fill in all the information that would not have been said by the prophet in his high-context communication to his audience. This is how we, as modern readers must interact with an ancient text" (p.16-17)
The variance of Walton's doctrine of accommodation from that of historic, Reformed orthodoxy becomes clearer as we examine his exegetical warrant for this claim, and the subsequent application he provides: is no surprise that Israel believed in a solid sky and that God accommodated his communication to that model in his communication to Israel. But since the text's message is not an assertion of the true shape of cosmic geography, we can safely reject those details without jeopardizing authority or inerrancy. Such cosmic geography is the belief set of the communicators... the framework of their communication, not the content of their message (p.20)
Walton's reference here to the solid sky rests on a particular, and narrow, delineation of the meaning of "expanse" (raqiya') as a hard "firmament" in a way which does not cohere well with the overlapping use in the Old Testament of the term "heaven" (shamayim, cf. Genesis 1:8, 20; Psalm 8:8, 79:2). [3] Walton's argument is not new. Keil and Delitzsch engaged with and rebutted this in 1861. In the 1930's, Valentine Hepp also responded:
If they confine themselves to the historical books [of Scripture], to which the literal method must be applied, they cannot even find enough fragments for a construction of a[n ancient Near Eastern] biblical world-image. Their dome of heaven crashes down, for the firmament in Genesis 1 only brings separation. We cannot think here of permanent partition, for God also made separation between light and darkness, between sea and land [4]
While critiquing Walton's mis-definition of raqiya' may seem mere wrangling over semantics, the more pressing concern is the application that Walton draws from this and two ensuing mis-definitions (the "heart", and the "waters above"). Having reshaped the doctrine of accommodation, he now redefines inerrancy so that Scripture is not to be understood as making scientific affirmations, particularly in the realms of cosmology, anatomy, and physiology (p.20). While on the one hand Walton claims a firm hold on Scripture's authority and inerrancy, on the other he surmises that God communicated using an errant description of his creation, allowing us "to safely reject those details" of the text of Genesis (p.20). Why? Because what really mattered to God was that the primitive people of that day understood God's core message in a familiar mode of communication. Walton's propositions on this point appear remarkably similar to the "kernel theory" of inspiration proffered by modern theological liberalism from the 19th century onwards--engaged and rebutted by confessional and conservative evangelical Protestants all along the way, but now repackaged, and subsumed under the term "inerrancy". The result is even more problematic than a flat out rejection of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy; Walton takes the language of inerrancy and redefines it contrary to the explicit wording:
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science [5]
If Walton's proposal on accommodation and inerrancy is accepted, one would be hard pressed to explain why it ought not be applied to other Old Testament and New Testament descriptions of historical events involving the natural order, including plagues, healings, and Christ's bodily resurrection.

Having adjusted the doctrines of accommodation and inerrancy, Walton moves to establish ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature as foundational for and essential to the interpretation of Genesis. This is a significant step beyond stating that it may have a subservient, helpful role. Walton states that an accurate reading of the Genesis text requires the assistance of ancient Near Eastern literature: "this is what provides the basis for our interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis as an ancient document" (p. 23).  But what will be the sure guide for the interpretation of ANE literature? Does the Holy Spirit guide us into all of the "truth" of ANE writings as he does with Scripture? Or do we take this role? What if ANE origins and temple literature is actually a derivative pagan distortion of biblical truth? Who will discern, "the clues to [the] cognitive environment [that] can be pieced together from a wide variety of ancient literature"? (p. 22) Who will decide what the balance of interpretative authority between text and extra-biblical ANE context is?

According to Walton, not everyone is capable of such interpretation, but only "those who have the gifts, calling and passion for the study of the ancient world"--ostensibly like himself. Walton argues that this "is not a violation of the clarity of Scripture propagated by the Reformers," and in a sense he is right, as his arguments here first of all conflict with the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.[6] Though he has stated that his is a "Bible-first" approach, Walton's approach at least means that prayerful, Spirit-reliant, exegetical study of the text within the context of the whole Bible is insufficient to accurately understand its meaning. 

So how do these theological and hermeneutical moves play out in Walton's exposition of Genesis on human origins in The Lost World of Adam and Eve? First, we see that he reiterates his earlier assessment that ancient Near Eastern origins and cosmological literature is concerned with functional, rather than material origins. As several critics have noted, while Walton speaks with a high degree of certitude, this reconstruction of ancient Near Eastern "worldview" is less than compelling.

The basis for Walton's case rests on a weak assessment of extra-biblical ancient Near Eastern literature. Walton claims that concern with the establishment of functions is the common theme of ancient Near Eastern worldview, as expressed in its origins literature. There are two major issues with the claim. The first is documentary: even if Walton had amassed primary sources, extant ANE writings remain fragmentary and limited, representing scattered bits of evidence from a large historical period and geographical region. To compare it to the last two thousand years of European history, Walton's citations are akin to taking selections of writing from pagan writers of the late Roman Empire, medieval Irish monasticism, 19th century Polish intellectuals, and Foucault, and then weaving them together to hypothesize a unified "European" belief on origins. 

But the problem is more significant than this. Walton's reconstructive theory of the primacy of "function" not only rests on a paucity of source citation, but also does not cohere with a comprehensive reading of existing extra-biblical ANE source materials. Richard Averbeck describes Walton's approach this way: "Driving a wedge between material creation as over against giving order to the cosmos by assigning functions or roles is a false dichotomy that does not stand up under scrutiny in ANE creation accounts... material creation was of great concern in the ANE."[7] Reading the Enuma Elish alone makes this abundantly clear.

Even more pressingly, the mainstream Christian history of the interpretation of Genesis has always held that in his Genesis description of his work of creation, God is telling us his bringing into being both the material order and the functionality of that order (as well as non-material aspects of the created order, such as souls). Walton realizes that he faces challenges here, and carves out as much semantic range wiggle room as possible, both in Hebrew and in translation, in order to exegetically justify his claims--moves which necessarily rest on his ANE interpretive hypothesis. What becomes clear over and over is that by emphasizing the functional, partly by laying claim to typological understandings which are part of the history of the literal interpretation, Walton's effective exclusion of the "material" offers us less from Genesis, not more. This of course is a key selling point: a Genesis which does not speak of material origins solves the thorny issues of conflict with evolutionary biological models of origins. 

Walton not only argues that the text of Genesis indicates less than we have believed, but he also concludes that it teaches other than we have believed. In his 11th proposition, Walton states that Adam and Eve were real historical persons. A naïve evangelical reader might breathe a sigh of relief here, feeling all must be well, especially with Walton's claims of his commitment to Scripture's "authority" and "inerrancy." But Walton's description of Adam and Eve is markedly different from that of historic Christian orthodoxy.[8] According to Walton, not only does the text not tell us that Adam and Eve were without ancestors and the biological ancestors of all humanity, but it also indicates that Adam, in his sin, failed to achieve immortality for an already existing humanity, and as the archetypal man, brought them under accountability for their sin, through the influence of the serpent or "chaos creature."[9] Adam was a failed priestly savior for a pre-existing, contemporaneous, "disordered" humanity. N.T. Wright joins in in his excursus seeking to affirm the same, proffering a reinterpretation of Romans with a substantial shift of emphasis--away from historic, Protestant orthodoxy on the doctrines of sin, grace, and Christ's person and work. Walton and Wright's proposals are wide-ranging and troubling, closely echoing the shifts Carl Trueman explored in his essay, "Original Sin and Modern Theology."[10]

In seeking to reconstruct The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Walton has not only lost the rich reality of the traditional reading of Genesis, but the authority, perspicuity, sufficiency, and  inerrancy of the Word, along with much else. Where Walton's earlier work was helpful, his direction in the Lost World series is troubling. Some reviewers, like Lee Irons and Richard Averbeck at the Gospel Coalition and Themelios, have mingled praise with criticism of The Lost World of Adam and Eve, but the errors are too critical and extensive to commend the book, even in part. Only when we lose the Word do we lose the world of Adam and Eve, and find ourselves trying to reconstruct it from other sources.

William VanDoodewaard (PhD, Aberdeen) is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister serving at Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan


[1] Walton, "Human Origins and the Bible," Zygon 47, no. 4 (December 2012): p. 889.

[2] Walton, "Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3: John Walton's World Tour, Part 2," Biologos Foundation (September 18, 2013), 

[3] Walton's perspective on the Hebrew echoes that of Paul Seely's articles in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1991, which Seely wrote as a critic of the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. 

[4] Valentine Hepp, Calvinism and the Philosophy of Nature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930), p. 162.

[5] The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article XII. 

[6] WCF 1.9, "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." WCF 1.10, "The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, and opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."

[7] Richard Averbeck, "The Lost World of Adam and Eve: A Review Essay" in Themelios 40 (2015) 2:235. 

[8] See William VanDoodewaard, "What Difference Does it Make?" in The Quest for the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), pp. 281-312, for a fuller engagement with the issues created by adopting a historical Adam and Eve of evolutionary origins.

[9] cf. Walton, pp.98-115, 128-139, 140-148.

[10] Carl Trueman, "Original Sin and Modern Theology" in Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves, eds., Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 167-188. A number of the other essays in this volume provide helpful material in engaging current departures from the doctrine of original sin.