"The Lost World of Adam and Eve" by John H. Walton, Ph.D. A Review
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The origins of the cosmos, and more particularly, humankind, has been at the forefront of the Evangelical sphere for decades. In the past it was one of the distinguishing marks, out of several, that defined a person or institution as Evangelical in distinction from mainline Christian denominations. But that differentiating feature is being steadily challenged from within the Evangelical ranks. One of those contesting voices is John H. Walton, Ph.D., professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School and former professor of Old Testament at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He has recently produced a 256 page paperback, “The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate,” that outlines his opposition to the traditional position of human and cosmic beginnings, proposing to build his case from Scripture itself. And to add weight to his proposal he has enlisted the aid of N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham and now research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, who penned a short, thought-provoking excurses for the book.
“The Lost World of Adam and Eve” unfolds through a series of twenty-one constructive proposals, each building on the previous. The author recognizes that some readers may be unfamiliar with his premise, and so in the earlier chapters he walks through material that appears to be in his other compositions to help catch everyone up to speed. Personally, I have only read his contribution in “Four Views on the Historical Adam,” and was grateful we were presented with the “backstory” before he brought us to the main point.
In the earlier propositions in “The Lost World of Adam and Eve,” Walton walks the reader through the initial chapters of Genesis, stressing that Genesis 1 is not about material formation, but about God establishing functional order in a pre-existing cosmos. He likens the scenario to a house being changed into a home, where new owners move in, unpack, arrange and then finally “rest” in their new habitation (46-7). The author rightly shows, to my mind, that days one through six flow toward achieving the aim of the seventh day, “day seven is the climax of this origins account. In fact, it is the purpose of this origins account, and the other six days do not achieve their full meaning without it. Rest is the objective of creation” (46). But this rest has to do, not with relaxing or napping, but with flourishing in God’s refreshing order. The seven day format leans into the theme that God was establishing sacred space where he could place people who would thrive in relationship with himself (48-52); this is the “rest” in view.
“The Lost World of Adam and Eve” moves forward in the remainder of its propositions to address Adam and Eve. The author carries forward his idea of functionality, rather than materiality, as he explains Genesis 2-3. Walton sees the Biblical story employing Adam and Eve as archetypes. He assures the reader several times that he thinks Adam and Eve were real people; nevertheless what unfolds in these two chapters of Genesis is not about what happened to them as individuals. Instead the story is picturing them as representatives of all humankind, and so what happens here “is true of all humans” (62). In Walton’s words, the “core proposal of this book is that the forming accounts of Adam and Eve should be understood archetypally rather than as accounts of how those two individuals were uniquely formed ( . . . )”, and an “archetype embodies all others in the group.” For the author, this works out in very noticeable ways. First, Genesis 1:3-2:3 happened before Genesis 2:4-25. Therefore, Adam and Eve may not have been the first humans, but “could have come after an en masse creation of humanity in Genesis 1 ( . . . ), though Adam and Eve should be considered as having been included in that group” (183). Therefore Adam is “the first significant human and the connection to God because of the very particular role that he had” (188-9). Second, the forming of Adam and Eve are actually about identity rather than material origins. Adam formed “of the dust” has more to do with humankind’s mortality than his making. And Eve formed from Adam’s side is much more about Eve’s ontological relatedness to Adam than how she was constructed. Thirdly, Genesis 2 is describing the function of Adam and Eve in God’s Temple-Garden as priests who, together, are guardians and mediators “with the task of preserving, protecting and expanding the sacred space” 111-2).
The reader is then briefly guided through Genesis 3 to see what actually happened and what did not happen. Based on the “broader cognitive environment” (124) of the story writer, the ancient Israelite perspective which comes from within the ancient Near Eastern outlook, one should see the serpent as neither a malign, malicious or maleficent being. Instead it should be looked upon as a “chaos creature” (133) with “less of a thought-out agenda” (134), a creature more closely associated with “non-order” rather “than disorder” ( . . . ) “simply the disruptive, ad hoc behavior that chaos creatures engage in” (136). This brings Walton to posit that, since people were already “mortal, and pain and suffering were already a part of a not fully ordered cosmos” (144), then Adam’s and Eve’s tragic caving into the serpent’s wit did not initiate “a situation that was not already there; it is that they failed to achieve a solution to that situation that was in their reach. Their choices resulted in their failure to acquire relief on our behalf. Their failure meant that we are doomed to death and a disordered world full of sin” (145). The fall had less to do with paradise lost, as with paradise ungained, for we “did not lose paradise as much as we forfeited sacred space and the relationship it offered, thereby damaging our ability to be in relationship with God and marring his creation with our own underdeveloped ability to bring order” (Ibid.). Walton recognizes that his suggestion upsets loads of apple carts, especially traditional western views of Original Sin; yet he appears to be content with this, and even attempts to pin his view on the 2nd Century Christian pastor and theologian, Irenaeus (156-7).
For a brief moment in “The Lost World of Adam and Eve” there arrives a short excurses by N.T. Wright toward the latter pages of the book. Many of Wright’s themes surface as he seeks to pull in Walton’s thesis. In his masterful style, he gives a great summary of Walton’s postulations, showing how, for him at least, they can work with the Pauline patterns of Adam and the kingdom of God; the parallel vocations of Adam and Israel; and finally, Christology and the project of new creation.
“The Lost World of Adam and Eve” is “focused on what the biblical claims are regarding biological human origins” and concludes that the Scriptures make no such claims (181). Walton strives hard throughout the volume to base his findings on Scripture, many times approaching his subject with an almost fundamentalist rigidity. And he boldly challenges us to “be cautious about reflexively imposing our cultural assumptions on the text” (25); to set aside our own cultural assumptions and to take in the Scripture’s “broader ancient Near Eastern cultural context to determine in which ways the Bible shows a common understanding and to identify ways in which God’s revelation lifted the Israelites out of their familiar ways of thinking with a new vision of reality” (Ibid). Yet he seems to me to be so concerned with present cultural assumptions that he wants to open the door for our accepting evolution (not big “E” evolution, but little “e” – to take a point from Wright’s excurses), or at least being much friendlier to fellow Christians who have come to accept it.
What will become quickly obvious to the more classic Evangelical reader is that there are heavy consequences to his position. For example, to embrace Walton’s position would be to embrace a creation that included evil at its inception – even unrecognized moral evil; thus evil is part of the DNA of the created order and humanity even before Adam’s fall, “anthropological evidence for violence in the earliest populations deemed human would indicate that there was never a time when sinful ( = at least personal evil) behavior was not present ( . . . ) that even though any human population possibly preceding or coexisting with Adam and Eve may well have been engaged in activity that would be considered sin, they were not held accountable for it ( . . . ) the sin of Adam and Eve would be understood as bringing sin to the entire human race by bringing accountability” (154-5). I find it disturbing that Walton’s conclusion is dangerously close to Gnosticism (especially Manicheanism). The list of other casualties to Walton’s theories would include the Biblical paradigm for husband-wife relationships; Original Sin; the lack of human solidarity; eschatology; the image of God; atonement; etc.
In the end, “The Lost World of Adam and Eve” was an intriguing exercise and foray into a world that seems to me to be other-than what the Scriptures posit or what Evangelicals and faithful believers have normally held to. Sometimes I was alarmed, and at other times I was made to pause and think. Walton takes the careful, steady College professor’s approach that makes the material graspable and comprehendible. It would be a good introduction for anyone desiring to see what some voices inside Evangelicalism are saying to challenge and question the standard position on human origins.
Many thanks to IVP Academic for the free copy of the book used for this review.
(Feel free to post or publish this review; but please, as always, give credit where credit is due. Mike)
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For further evaluation of John H. Walton's thesis you might want to follow the trail over to these three posts by Lydia McGrew, Ph.D.:
"Why do human origins matter? Part I of a review of John H. Walton's The Lost World of Adam and Eve"
"Part II of a Review of John H. Walton's The Lost World of Adam and Eve"
"Part III of a review of John H. Walton's The Lost World of Adam and Eve"