The relationship between scientific accounts of origins and the account found in Genesis is a controversial issue, and has been at least since the Scopes Monkey Trial. Every now and then it spills into the news here in the United States, when people who are firmly entrenched on either side come in conflict with one another.
But what if there is really no conflict at all? That’s what Old Testament scholar John Walton argues in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. The main argument of the book is that the creation account in Genesis 1 is intended to communicate functional origins, not material origins. Since Genesis 1 is not concerned with material origins, we don’t need to be concerned about whether the universe was materially created in six days, however long those days might have been. Of course, the Bible as a whole does communicate that God materially created all that exists; it’s just that this isn’t the point of Genesis 1. Instead, according to Walton, Genesis 1 communicates that God brought order and function to a non-ordered and non-functioning cosmos, that the cosmos is God’s temple, and that God’s “rest” on the seventh day consists in his taking up residence in that temple and directing its functions.
Walton admits this can be a hard pill to swallow for most people, but he claims this is because of the cultural presuppositions we bring to the text: “Most interpreters have generally thought that Genesis 1 contains an account of material origins because that was the only sort of origins that our material culture was interested in. It wasn’t that scholars examined all the possible levels at which origins could be discussed; they presupposed the material aspect” (43).
In the latter part of the book, Walton explores the ramifications of his proposal (which he calls the “cosmic temple inauguration” view), including showing how it stacks up against other theories of origins, like Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism, and asserting that public science education should be neutral regarding purpose (151–160).
This book is short (172 pages, plus endnotes) and accessible to a non-specialist audience, but it is powerful. I would even go so far as to say it is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the origins debate. It doesn’t answer all the questions readers might have, but I think it goes farther than a lot of other theories toward explaining what is being communicated in Genesis 1.