The Gnostic World of John Walton

This post is a sequel to How Did Theistic Evolution Bring 3 Wheaton Students to the Ark? 

The history of the church includes well-meaning scholars who introduce ideas that undermine Biblical authority. This is the case with the gifted Old Testament professor Dr. John Walton.

Dr. Walton teaches at Wheaton College. Last November, in preparation for a campus showing of our film Is Genesis History?, he provided a paper for professors to pass out to students. Entitled “Is Genesis Real History?,” it outlined his unique perspective on how to interpret the book of Genesis. (You can read it here.)

A number of students were troubled by what they read. Dr. Walton seemed to be questioning whether the Bible could be used to know what actually happened in the past. His ideas were complex, however, and some students were not sure what to make of them.

One student asked if I would respond. Although there are a number of observations I can make, his paper should first be placed in context of his prior work and affiliations.

Finding a Lost World

In 2009, Dr. Walton published a slim volume entitled The Lost World of Genesis One. In it he argued that to understand the Bible, one needed to understand the ancient cultural environment in which it was written. One must therefore immerse oneself in the non-Israelite literature written during that period. Using this new knowledge, one could recover the “lost world” of the ancients and properly interpret the Bible.

Tablet V – Epic of Gilgamesh

Although conservative scholars agreed that understanding ancient culture is important, there was strong disagreement with his analysis and conclusions.[1]

For example, Dr. Walton asserted that ancient Near Eastern people focused more on how things functioned than their material nature. This meant that when Genesis 1 describes God forming land, sea, and animals over a series of days, it is not referring to material substances like dirt, water, and flesh appearing at specific times and places. Rather, it reveals the function of these things within the ‘cosmic temple’ of the world.

This unusual construction enabled Dr. Walton to conclude that Genesis 1 “was never intended to be an account of material origins. Rather it was intended as an account of functional origins…. If the Bible does not offer an account of material origins, we are free to consider contemporary origins on their own merits, as long as God is seen as ultimately responsible.”[2]

The Usefulness of a Lost World

Theistic evolutionists quickly recognized the usefulness of this new interpretation. They desired to merge evolutionary history with the Bible, but had always struggled with the traditional interpretation of Genesis: immediate creation in six normal days is the opposite of progressive development over billions of years.

Dr. Walton’s interpretation was the perfect solution. It acted like a hermenuetical blade separating the events of Genesis 1 from actual time, thereby enabling evolutionary events to take their place.

This is why Francis Collins, founder of theistic evolution advocacy group Biologos, is quoted on the book’s front cover saying it is “a profoundly important new analysis of the meaning of Genesis.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Walton is a member of the Biologos Advisory Council.

The mission of Biologos is to convince the global evangelical church to adopt theistic evolution. As they say on their website: “BioLogos invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”

Dr. Walton’s work therefore plays a key part in their strategy. They understand that to change the church, they must first change its understanding of Genesis. In 2013, Biologos funded a seven month world tour for Dr. Walton to speak in dozens of seminaries and universities in the United States and 15 other countries.

Since then, Dr. Walton has continued to apply his ‘lost world’ methodology to other parts of the Bible. In additional books, he redefines the nature of Biblical revelation, that Adam and Eve were ‘archetypes’ instead of the first biological humans, and that the Genesis flood was an unidentifiable local event hyperbolically described as a global catastrophe.[3]

How does an evangelical Bible scholar end up advancing such heterodox ideas?

It is here that Dr. Walton’s Wheaton paper provides unique insight into his thinking. What it reveals is that he has adopted a gnostic view of the ancient world that enables him to reinterpret key sections of Scripture.

Entering a Gnostic World

Dr. Walton reminds me of the third-century theologian Origen to whom he sometimes refers. Origen had one of the most creative theological minds in the early church. Nevertheless, his creativity led him to advocate views that were rejected as dangerous to Christian theology.

That is what students sensed when they read Dr. Walton’s paper. There is a dangerous feel to statements such as:

  • “No such thing as a historian existed in the ancient world.”
  • “Genesis is better understood as narrative rather than as a record of historical events.”
  • “When we accept the truth of such narratives we are accepting the metaphysical affirmations, which transcend the empirical.”
  • “It is impossible to forensically reconstruct events using the information that the Bible provides.”
  • “When we attempt to frame narratives in historical terms we potentially diminish their truth and limit the nature of their reality.”
  • “Genesis narratives are interested in a deep reality that transcends events and history. Their significance is found not in their historicity but in their theology; not in what happened, or even in asserting that something did happen, but in why it happened.”

These statements reveal a modern form of gnosticism.

By ‘gnosticism,’ I’m referring to a philosophical view of the world that thinks special, hidden knowledge is necessary to understand what is true. For Dr. Walton, this knowledge is found in his ‘lost world’; it can only be recovered by scholars like himself. Such knowledge provides true insight into reality.

Gilgamesh and Winged Bull of Khorsabad, Louvre

Reality is thus split into two levels: what seems to be real versus “a deep reality that transcends events and history.” Those who do not accept Dr. Walton’s knowledge as he presents it are dismissed as lacking true understanding: they are misdirected, they use improper categories, they ask the wrong questions.

When one accepts his knowledge, however, it reveals divisions between categories previously assumed to be connected: faith and reality, function and material nature, language and event, theology and history.

Misunderstandings about these things have persisted for centuries in the church due to lack of knowledge. Now that this special knowledge is available, the church can begin to know the truth.

Yet that truth is not captured by a series of propositional statements describing past events (such as the Apostles’ Creed). Rather, it is movement on a pathway measured by one’s acceptance or rejection of this special knowledge.

As one accepts this knowledge, one is able to move past tensions assumed to exist between competing views of origins and history. Instead, when one realizes the Biblical text is describing ‘theological history’ rather than actual history, one is free to accept evolution as the true history of the universe.

According to Dr. Walton, Biblical truth is not dependent on real history. Instead, “truth is found in the narrator’s interpretation, which we accept by faith, regardless of whether or not we can reconstruct the events. His interests are not concentrated on human history but on God’s plans and purposes.”

This is the goal of gnostic thinking: the separation of human history from God’s plans and purposes.

In the first centuries, gnosticism said truth was found in knowing that God could not have entered time as a sweating, laughing, bleeding man. In these latter centuries, gnosticism says truth is found in knowing God could not have created dirt, water, and life in a few days, or formed two people immediately from dust and a rib, or destroyed the earth with a global flood during the 600th year of Noah’s life.

Gnosticism consistently seeks to substitute Biblical history with its own history. In the early church, it looked to the religions of Persia and the philosophies of Greece to provide a spiritual history of the world. In the modern era, it looks to the religion of evolutionary science and the philosophies of the Enlightenment to create a materialist history of the universe.

At its heart, however, gnosticism is at war with God’s real actions in history.

It is a heresy that stands in opposition to the Biblical view that teaches a direct connection between God’s original acts of creation and His absolute control of every event in time. This control includes accurate communication through His prophets about real events which He brings to pass. As Isaiah tells us:

“Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: ‘I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish, who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins.’” (Isaiah 44:24-26)

According to Isaiah, there is no essential division between function and matter, language and event, theology and history. One need only read Isaiah 40-48 to see that God forms real materials for specific functions. He explains His words and deeds in space and time through His servants the prophets. He directly connects theology to His actions in history.

Isaiah, Sistine Chapel

Dr. Nicholas Perrin, a professor of Biblical studies at Wheaton who specializes in gnosticism in the early church, explains this essential connection between God and history:

“God made history and history matters. Apart from the conviction that our faith is a historical faith, we are left only to cast about. But, when we are fully persuaded that sacred history meshes with the history in which we live and move and have our being, that is when biblical faith becomes a real possibility…. The heart-and-mind value of reconnecting the biblical world with the ‘real world’ can hardly be overstated. Somehow in our confused modern-day thinking, we have managed to put asunder what God has joined together.”[4]

Responding to a Gnostic World

Gnostic thinking always seems confusing. This is because it attempts to reorient essential structures in the creation order. Irenaeus observed this in the second century and knew the best way to reveal gnostic errors was to compare them to the Biblical text and to creation itself.

In light of that, here are three assertions we can make in response to Dr. Walton:

1. God designed the world so that people can know the past through language.

The doctrine of creation teaches that God made the physical world using language. He then formed man in His image and gave him the ability to use words to know the world. This includes man’s capacity to record past events and accurately communicate them to others.

Our basic sense of ‘history’ as a record of past events (whether oral or written, simple or complex) is a result of being made in God’s image. It is trait we share with all people who have ever lived.

When we read in the year 2018 AD something that was written in 1440 BC, we instantly cross great distances of time and space. Even when languages and cultures are different, we have the unique ability to effectively translate meaning between them.

After all, God always intended history to be translated across culture and time. Jesus spoke one language, but the gospels were written in another. When Peter preached the first sermon, it was immediately translated into a dozen languages. The Bible itself is a collection of ancient Near Eastern documents written in three different languages over 1500 years by dozens of men from diverse cultures talking about real events in time. It is clear testimony to God’s overwhelming intent to communicate history through language.

Saint Matthew, Ebbo Gospels, Hautvillers, France

In spite of this, Dr. Walton asserts our modern concept of ‘history’ cannot be applied to the ancient world.

He invokes his special knowledge to say that “no such thing as a historian existed in the ancient world” and “that which is important about events in the ancient world is not empirical in nature. They are more interested in what the observer could not see. That is, they are more inclined to use a metaphysical lens for reality, rather than an empirical one as we do…. The ancient world as a whole had a different way of knowing than we do.”

It is important to Dr. Walton’s gnostic interpretation that he separate our way of thinking about the past—even the way we know—from that of the ancient world. After all, if our normal sense of ‘history’ and ‘knowing’ does not apply to the ancients, how can we be sure what actually happened? According to Dr. Walton, we cannot.

This is a radically different worldview than that taught by Biblical authors who lived and wrote in the ancient world. They repeatedly say past events are knowable and communicable to future generations through language.

After the first Passover, Moses told the people to “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place…You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Ex. 13:3,8) And later, as they journeyed toward Canaan, “Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord…” (Num 33:2)

Not only Moses, but Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all understood the concept of history and were fully aware of what they were doing: recording real events so future generations would know they actually happened.

In fact, we who live in the Western world received our unique approach to history from the Hebrews. This is recognized by scholars everywhere. As even liberal theologian Thorlief Boman writes, “put succinctly, it can be said that the Israelites gave the world historical religion.”[5]

Dr. Walton’s claim to special knowledge about the ancient world breaks down when considering the Bible. Yet it also breaks down when considering non-Israelite ancient Near Eastern texts. There are two things to consider here:

First, most people are unaware that the vast majority of ancient texts are administrative documents such as contracts, laws, bills of sale, marriages, inventories, treaties, receipts, and agreements.[6] They present a series of ancient cultures interested in dates, amounts, weights, measurements, costs, borders, names, and numerical accuracy. It is a world that used language in a recognizable, empirical way.

Cuneiform tablet documenting flour deliveries for rent payment, Ebabbar archive, MET

All sorts of basic assumptions about time, space, and language are embedded in economics, politics, and law. A contract records an agreement transacted in the past, a receipt records an item sold in the past, a deed records a piece of land bought in the past. They witness to an essential connection between language and history.

Second, in contrast to the abundance of administrative documents, only a fraction of non-Israelite literary texts exist with which Dr. Walton can draw his particular conclusions. For instance, he mentions monumental royal inscriptions created for pagan kings as a context for understanding Genesis. This is a curious comparison.

Dr. Noel Weeks, former Senior Lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Sydney, examined Dr. Walton’s methods and use of ancient Near Eastern texts, stating: “In summary I am not impressed by the whole approach…. There is no recognition of the difficulty of discerning a uniform mind of the ANE. Individual extra-biblical texts are turned into representations of the whole huge chronological and cultural span. Even more striking are claims that are simply false.”[7]

Dr. Richard Averbeck, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, puts it succinctly: “The point is that material creation was of great concern in the ANE as well as in ancient Israel.”[8]

In sum, Dr. Walton’s gnostic bifurcation of modern and ancient ways of knowing is the opposite of the Biblical witness and the creation order. Both demonstrate that all people were made in God’s image in order to communicate events to others through language across time.

After all, it is through historical events that God reveals Himself to man. This leads us to our second assertion.

2. Biblical narratives are authoritative because God ensured they were an accurate record of His words and actions in time.

The doctrine of revelation teaches that God reveals Himself both through the creation and through language. The former is ‘general revelation’ and states that people from all times and cultures can look at the natural world and perceive God’s power and nature. (Romans 1:19) The latter is ‘special revelation’ and states that God has spoken at different times and ways through His prophets, His apostles, and His Son. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

Throughout the history of Israel, however, false prophets said they were speaking for God. How could one know they were false? Moses provided a simple test: if a prophet spoke in the name of the Lord, but the events he predicted did not happen, he was to be ignored. (Deut. 18:22)

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal, Lucas Cranach the Younger

This test reveals the essential connection between God’s words and history. Since only God controls time and space, only His prophets could consistently predict events in His name. As God explains in Isaiah 42:9: “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”

Accurate verbal reflection of events (past, present, and future) was the basic mark of God’s prophet. But that reflection also included the prophet’s interpretation of events so that those living at the time—as well as their descendants—could understand the theological purpose of those events.

God’s discussion with Abraham in Genesis 18 is an example of this. God and the angels spent many hours with Abraham waiting for a meal to be cooked then eating it together. They would naturally have talked about numerous things. Yet only two are included in the historical narrative: the promise concerning Isaac and the interchange about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.

Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, therefore, prophets writing about the past were led to select certain events, ignore others, emphasize specific actions, and even adjust chronological order to highlight particular points. This control of historical material is what everyone does in some capacity when talking about the past: communication is always selection, emphasis, order. Yet this in no way minimizes the potential accuracy of words to represent events.

In the case of Abraham, the prophet links God’s words to God’s actions in history: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” (Gen. 19:24) and “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” (Gen. 21:1) The truth of the narrative rests on whether there was actually a burning city or a crying baby boy.

In spite of this, Dr. Walton projects a gnostic interpretation onto the Bible when he asserts “the truth or falsity of the narratives has less to do with the accuracy with which they describe the events of the past (often not able to be assessed since we have no independent witness), and more to do with the accuracy with which they describe the state of the present….. Authority is vested in the interpretation of the narrator, not in the event or in our ability to reconstruct or verify the event.”

It is this line of thinking that enables Dr. Walton to conclude Genesis 1 is not about real creation in normal time, that Genesis 2 is not about the first two biological humans, and that Genesis 6-8 is not about a real global flood.

Yet why stop there? There is no exegetical distinction between Noah’s children and Abraham – they are listed in the same genealogy in Genesis 11. And what of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph? Dr. Walton’s blade must cut at the historical roots of all the narratives in Genesis, removing the authority from the event itself and placing it in the interpretation of the author who, apparently, is more interested in the present than the past.

Yet this is the opposite of the Biblical view of authority. As V. Philips Long observes, “divine revelation should be located in both historical events and the interpretive word that mediates those events to us. It also seems to be the approach that is most in keeping with the biblical witness itself.”[9]

But Dr. Walton’s gnostic interpretation of the Bible inserts a gulf between events and the interpretation of those events. He must do this, however, to replace Biblical revelation concerning origins with the contemporary evolutionary history. Authority is therefore taken out of the event and placed only in the interpretation. If events such as the creation of animals or the flood actually happened as the narratives describe them, an evolutionary history of the world is impossible.

Dr. Walton may deny this sort of historical substitution is his intent, but the structure of his books, the repetitive comments within them, and his professional associations tell a different story. He has published an extensive corpus of material that provides clear insight into his views. As Jesus reminds us, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:16)

This, of course, is how we know anyone: by their words and deeds in time. It is the same way God reveals Himself to us.

Ezekiel explains the basic link between God and history when he says: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be performed, declares the Lord God.’” (Ezek. 12:28) “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” (Ezek 37:13-14)

What Ezekiel reminds us is that God structures events in order to embed true theology within human history. This leads to our third point.

3. God embedded theology within the fabric of human history according to His plans and purposes.

The doctrine of providence teaches that God orders all events in history to conform to His divine intentions. As Isaiah explains: “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: ‘Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward,’ says the Lord of hosts.” (Isa. 45:11-13)

God declares that because He created the earth and put man on it, the Israelites can be sure He will raise up a unique man to save them. This is the God who “kills and brings to life,” who “makes poor and makes rich,” who “brings low and he exalts.” (1 Sam 2:6-7) He is the God who molds human history just as the potter molds clay, shaping it both to reveal His redemption and to be His redemption.

As Geerhardus Vos explains, “in not a few cases revelation is identified with history. Besides making use of words, God has also employed acts to reveal great principles of truth…. In these cases the history itself forms a part of revelation. There is a self-disclosure of God in such acts. They would speak even if left to speak for themselves.”[10]

Samson Puts Down the Pillars, Tissot

This is what we see throughout the New Testament. Jesus and the apostles rely on the structure of Biblical history to provide their theology.

Consider Jesus’s reply to the Pharisees about divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt 19:4-6)

Jesus first establishes the authority of the written text as a witness to a real event: “Have you not read….” He then builds His case against divorce on the structure of what happened in time: from the beginning, God created them male and female and intended them to be joined in marriage; as a result, men and women today should remain joined in marriage. Jesus’s entire argument hinges on the reality of Adam and Eve being the first two humans married by God in the garden.

Jesus’s theology is consistently connected to history.

In spite of this, Dr. Walton creates a gnostic separation between real history and theology. As he states: “Reconstructing the event is not the pathway to truth because the target truth is not inherent in the event but in the interpretation of the event. Genesis narratives are interested in a deep reality that transcends events and history. Their significance is found not in their historicity but in their theology; not in what happened, or even in asserting that something did happen, but in why it happened.”

Dr. Walton introduces a false tension between history and theology in order to disconnect real events from their historical-theological implications. This separation between history and theology enables him to replace the Biblical history of the world with a materialist evolutionary history. In redefining man’s history, however, he must inevitably redefine the theology connected to it.

Consider the results of Dr. Walton’s gnosticism if applied to some basic Christian doctrines:

  • How must we redefine special revelation if the words of the Bible do not accurately reflect real events?
  • How must we redefine God’s goodness, wisdom, and power if He used millions of years of evolution and death to ‘create’ animals and men?
  • How must we redefine the fall if universal corruption and death existed before Adam?
  • How must we redefine original sin if Adam and Eve were not the first biological humans?
  • How must we redefine universal judgment if the Flood did not actually destroy all humans and animals on the earth?
  • How must we redefine redemption if Jesus did not come to save us from the effects of Adam’s real sin?
  • How must we redefine the authority of scripture if the authors of the New Testament base their theology on a presumed historicity of past events?

These are dangerous questions to be asking. Yet they are the logical consequence to Dr. Walton’s method. One cannot substitute one history for another without also changing the theology connected to it.

Final Thoughts

The result of accepting Dr. Walton’s gnostic worldview is the slow destruction of the historical foundation upon which Christianity is based. Although he believes he is providing a solution to the origins debate by disconnecting the Biblical text from real history, he is simply falling into the errors that have beset gnosticism since the first century.

Yet Dr. Walton is a professor at one of the most respected evangelical colleges in the world. Such a position gives him remarkable credibility to spread his “new analysis of the meaning of Genesis” to Christians everywhere. As a result, some will be swayed by his methods to adopt his modern form of gnosticism.

That is concerning indeed.

A Postscript on Philosophical Influences

One of my assumptions about creative thinkers is that they try to answer their own questions through their work. You can see it with novelists and filmmakers as well as philosophers and theologians.

I suspect something similar is going on with Dr. Walton. He clearly is a brilliant man and an exceptionally creative thinker. He has developed a unique interpretive structure to solve a particular problem, one he brings up over and over again in his books: the “perceived origins conflict between the Bible and science….”[11]

The goal of his work seems to be to solve that difficult problem.

It is an old problem. Pulitzer-prize winning historian of science Edward Larson opens his series of lectures The Theory of Evolution: History of a Controversy observing that at the start of the 19th century, Genesis 1 was interpreted as God having created all animals and people according to their kinds in just a few days. This is opposite to the view that all animals and people were progressively formed by natural selection and common descent over millions of years. This is the essence of the controversy.

The key problem for Christians has been how to reconcile a religion that clearly is based on historical events (the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the giving of the Law, Noah’s Flood, Adam) with an evolutionary history of the world.

To put it bluntly, how can one affirm evolution and still keep Christianity?

This is the problem faced by Dr. Walton. While his basic solution is to divide the functional and material (as outlined above), he offers an intriguing philosophical rationale for doing so in “Proposition 13” of The Lost World of Genesis One. He states: “The difference between origin accounts in science and scripture is metaphysical in nature.”[12]

This is a revealing statement. In proposing it, he is borrowing a distinction from modern critical philosophy which sees an essential division between the ‘physical’ and the ‘metaphysical.’ He therefore places science and contemporary origin accounts into the physical realm, while God’s activity and ancient origin accounts are placed in the metaphysical.

According to Dr. Walton, reality can be seen as “a layer cake. In this view, the realm of scientific investigation would be represented in the lower layer…. In contrast, the top layer represents the work of God.”[13]  He says that, “Science, by current definition, cannot explore the top layer” which “concerns the realm of theology, or more broadly, metaphysics, and is not the stuff of empirical science…. Genesis is a top-layer account—it is not interested in communicating the mechanisms…”[14]

By placing the two origins accounts in two different layers of reality, he thereby removes the conflict. This is why he can say it is “perceived”; to him, it is not an actual conflict because each describes a different, non-intersecting layer of reality.

This appears to be the philosophical influence behind Dr. Walton’s gnosticism. He takes this modern philosophical distinction and, consciously or not, projects it back onto the worldview of the ancients.

In reading his explanation for ‘Proposition 13,’ I kept feeling as if I had seen this approach to structuring the world before and that there was a well-known problem with it. It wasn’t until a friend better schooled in philosophy observed its similarities to neo-Kantian thought that it hit me: Dr. Walton was employing Kantian critical philosophy to separate the world into two essentially different realms that have no identifiable connection.

Francis Schaeffer saw this type of division as the root problem of modern thinking. He traced its source back to ancient neo-Platonism and used similar language to describe the separation: by dividing the world into an ‘upper-story’ and ‘lower-story,’ one removes God’s actions from the real world. Theology and faith operate in the upper-story while science and reality operate in the lower.

But if this is accurate, how do the two layers connect?  That is the new dilemma.  Schaeffer, of course, denied this separation was real; Dr. Walton, however, has made it the cornerstone of his methodology.

As a result, he takes pains to say that physical mechanisms “were decreed by the word of God,” yet he never identifies how the divine world of metaphysical theology actually intersects with the real world of physical science. Where do God’s actions actually intersect evolution? How does a metaphysical God work in the physical world? What can we truly know He has done if we only have human interpretations of past events?

Dr. Walton’s adoption of a modern philosophical distinction to solve one problem ends up creating countless others.

Interestingly, Dr. Walton invokes this philosophical distinction for reasons similar to that of Immanuel Kant: both sought to establish a solid footing for scientific knowledge. Whereas Kant, however, did not believe in God, Dr. Walton surely does. Yet he has adopted a philosophical blade fashioned by Kant that is dangerous for Christians to wield.

The problem goes back to their view of ‘science’ and ‘knowledge.’

What both Kant and Dr. Walton are mistaken about is that science is somehow epistemologically ultimate. It is no coincidence that scientia is the Latin world for knowledge. (Just as gnosis is the Greek.) What makes science seem to offer absolute certainty is that it seeks to understand something that actually is epistemologically ultimate: God’s creation. Science, however, is man-made, and therefore has all of man’s failings and natural limitations associated with it.

This was what Thomas Kuhn realized: when one studies the history of science, one realizes that man’s scientific ideas are not epistemologically certain. ‘Science’ is a patchwork quilt of pieces and layers that over time are slowly replaced by new ones as men and women seek to create ‘maps’ of a highly complex world.

The process of mapping the physical world actually requires metaphysical skills like rational thinking, mathematics, language, analysis, etc. But how do these intellectual maps connect to the real world?

Non-Christians have no real explanation. One need only read Eugene Wigners’ “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” to realize that the problem remains unsolved; most scientists just ignore it and go back to doing normal science.

The solution is only found in the Christian worldview. To accept it, however, means the rejection of the neo-Kantian view of reality.  It also means the rejection of Dr. Walton’s division of physical and metaphysical as he defines them.

Instead, when one accepts what the Bible reveals about the world, it explains why people can create useful scientific maps (as limited and fallible as they are), and why we can actually know true things about the past.

The solution is seen in the writings of an old man who saw the dangers gnosticism posed to the church. As only someone led by the Holy Spirit could do, he showed how God’s divine metaphysical action led to the physical creation recorded in Genesis 1, and how the God-man Jesus Christ was essentially connected to both:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3,14)

Instead of absolute separation, there is a dynamic connection between God and His creation. God is both transcendent and immanent, and His actions can be known in the real world.

Although a great mystery, Christ is the solution to all of this, as the Creed of Chalcedon states: He is “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”

The reason math works, or we can do science, or we can use language, or we can know the past, is because a metaphysical/physical God made a metaphysical/physical world and put a metaphysical/physical man in it to rule over it, thereby ensuring everything was perfectly interrelated. The metaphysical and physical are different, but connected. As the apostle John observes, there is a real, historical interaction between the two that was designed by God in the beginning and continues to the present.

When man sinned, however, he confused this relationship. We see it when Adam and Eve thought they could cover their physical bodies to hide their spiritual shame. As a result, man began to worship the physical world itself, somehow thinking he could use it to control the metaphysical. Isaiah satirizes this worldview and shows how it always leads to to a lie. (Isaiah 44:9-20).

To solve the problem, God entered the world and became a Man Himself. This demonstrated for all eternity the essential connection between the two realms—as well as His ultimate control over all of history and His right alone to be worshipped.

God then ensured His actions would be written down for all to accurately know. This is what John tells us at the end of his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

Language is what God always uses to reveal His metaphysical/physical interaction to save real people in the space-time world. This is the reason why anyone who looks at the Bible as a whole must also accept that Genesis is an accurate reflection of God’s acts in time. Whether creating everything in six normal days, forming Adam and Eve as the first biological humans, or flooding the entire world, He has always used accurate language to record His actions so that we could know Him.

This is true knowledge.

And so, although I respect Dr. Walton’s brilliance and creativity, his proposed solution to the question of origins only leads to a more serious set of problems. His philosophical approach is a dangerous way of looking at the world.


[1] Specifically Vern Poythress, Noel Weeks, Richard Averbeck, John Currid, Steve Boyd, et al.

[2] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP Academic, 2009) 131.

[3] Respectively in The Lost World of Scripture (IVP Academic, 2013), The Lost World of Adam and Eve (IVP Academic, 2015), and The Lost World of the Flood (IVP Academic, 2018).

[4] Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology (Concordia Publishing House, 2011) xxiv.

[5] Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (W.W. Norton & Co, 1960) 11.

[6] Marc Van De Mieroop, Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (Routledge, 1999), 12.

[7] Noel Weeks, “The Bible and the ‘Universal’ Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton,” Westminster Theological Journal, 78 (2016), 26.

[8] Richard E. Averbeck, “The Lost World of Adam and Eve: A Review Essay,” Themelios 40.2 (2015), 235.

[9] V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Zondervan 1994) 105-106.

[10] Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (P&R 1990) 9.

[11] Lost World of Genesis One, 113.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 114.

[14] Ibid, 114, 115.