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Genesis and Beyond: Friday Night Summary

The Adventist Forum (publishers of Spectrum) Conference, “Genesis and Beyond: Celebrating Faith in a Polarized Age” began on Friday night. The speaker was John Walton, Ph.D., Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. I have attended these conferences since 2004, and this appears to be one of the best attended. The topic may have something to do with that — the play of science and faith, particularly surrounding the meaning of Genesis, and its teaching and impact on Seventh-day Adventist belief certainly has already come up in conversations I had with attendees as they arrived at the hotel. Speaking of the location, I will return to a report on the evening meeting, but let me digress for a moment.

The conference is at its most urban and urbane location — the W. hotel on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Given the party reputation for W. hotels (here’s a post about swimming with Lindsay Lohan at Hollywood’s W. on Sundays) it was a little head snapping to watch practical shoe-clad Adventist Forum couples mixing in the lobby next to bachelor party-bound bros and bachelorettes beelining for the in-hotel Bliss spa. But on the thirty-third floor where the meetings take place a temperate party atmosphere reigned as the Seventh-day Adventist academics and professionals in attendance greeted old friends and turned virtual blog connections into reality. 

 The Friday evening meeting began with a musical prelude before conference organizers — Brent Stanyer, Brenton Reading, and Graeme Sharrock — welcomed us. Then we all sang “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” a fitting lead into Brian Bull’s introduction of the speaker. John Walton has experience teaching at both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College and his approach to the hermeneutics of Bible and science fits right into the debate over how science and theology will be integrated in Adventist education. In the 1990s “science faculty were required to sign a statement that they reject human descent from hominid ancestors. Initially, those who declared they were ‘unsure’ whether or not humans had evolved were given one year to change their mind before facing dismissal; this was later relaxed, and scientists were allowed to stay on as long as they did not endorse human evolution.”

John Walton began with a slide summarizing his point for the evening — the only way to read Genesis is with ancient eyes. Of course a joke about the age of the audience and trifocals flows easily from that. But his point was serious and direct, as he stated: the Bible was written for us, but not to us. To get the truth of the Bible, we have to get as close as we can to reading the text as the ancient Hebrews read it. 

Carefully laying the logical guidelines for this basic hermeneutic for understanding the Bible, Walton pointed out that any communication — whether between humans or between the divine and human requires that the speaker and the hearers share a context so that words and concepts have meaning. When speakers and audience have much in common (a graduate level discussion of theology), the communicators can assume a lot — this is high context communication. On the other hand, low context communication occurs when speaker and audience have little in common (a discussion of God in kindergarten Sabbath school). The point is that this applies to God’s revelation to humans in Genesis. As Walton, and most Biblical scholars point out, there is nothing about the material world (science) that the rest of the Ancient Near Eastern world didn’t already believe. The Bible writers, readers, and mostly hearers believed in a flat earth, geocentricity, that the waters of the heavens were held up by a solid sphere, that the sun and the birds occupied the same space, and that core of thinking happened in one’s entrails (gut). That verse about loving God with your heart, soul and mind really means, in the original language: love God with your entrails. 

God is not revealing physiology in the Bible. And it is presumptious to believe that God was using our understanding of the physical world in 2011 when talking to the Bible writers 2500 years ago. Walton asked: why not a 15th century understanding of the physical world or a 25th century understanding? He emphasizes that God is not revealing science, but is using a culture’s understanding of themselves to explain something greater — the connection between the natural and the supernatural. Staying true to scripture means to continue this relationship, taking the best contemporary understanding of the physical world and looking for connections to the metaphysical. That’s eternal, even spiritual meaning-making. Natural explanations don’t obviate a divine role because God transcends our always changing understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. As Walton mentioned in a slide “observation of natural cause and effect does not remove God from the picture.” He cited Psalm 139:13 “for you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  It would be absurd to conclude that an embryology class should be deemed unscriptural because it contradicts the psalmist’s translator’s “God as knitter” metaphor. Yes, the process of human cellular development is a little more complicated that a reverse stockinette stitch. Likewise, God separating light from darkness or heaven from earth are metaphorical statements about divine power shared by all Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Contemporary physics of light and space, which contradict the Genesis narrative, are merely a new paradigm echoing the always present Eternal questions about divine-human relationship.

Loma Linda University’s Rick Rice and La Sierra University’s Fritz Guy offered responses praising the main ideas and also positively engaging Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

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