Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Denver Seminary's slightly odd review of John Walton

Readers who follow my writing at What's Wrong With the World know that I wrote a looong, detailed, multi-part, and strongly negative review of two books by Old Testament scholar John H. Walton. Those posts are here, here, here, and here.

Someone sent me the link to this much shorter review of Walton's The Lost World of Adam and Eve by Sara Evans, writing on-line for Denver Seminary. The review is a rather surprising mix of positive and negative, and what concerns me most is the way that the negative intersects with the positive.

First of all, I have to say in passing that I really, really wish that people would not feel that they have to say things like this:

There are many commendable elements to Walton’s work. He offers a well thought out view of how the Ancient Near Eastern mind would have received and understood the story of creation. It is a helpful reminder that the ancient Israelites did not think of the world on our terms, and so the text should not be forced to support views with which it is not concerned. His comparison with other ancient creation narratives (Babylon, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Assyrian) offers good insight in the similarities and distinctives of the Genesis account.
Actually, not. Walton does not offer a well-thought-out view of how the ANE mind would have received and understood the story of creation. He offers a tendentious, exaggerated, and poorly argued view, supported mostly by the Bellman's rule of repetition--If I say over and over again that the ancients wouldn't have understood a creation narrative to have any material meaning, it must be true.

Therefore, this is not a "helpful reminder" of anything, because it's just going to confuse people. For example, in the long, long comments thread on my reviews, various commentators tried to press a view similar to Walton's by arguing that the ancients did not have our concepts of "natural laws." As I pointed out there, however, this does not support Walton's bizarre suggestion that they had no concept of a miracle. Walton's alleged insights into the ANE mind repeatedly take the form of defining some view incredibly narrowly and then arguing that, since the ancients didn't have that highly specific view, they had no concept at all in the vicinity. If they did not know modern chemistry or have a concept of molecules, it does not follow from this that they would never have thought that man was actually made from some other substance, such as earth or the blood of the gods. It isn't necessary to have a modern chemical concept to think that one type of physical thing is made from another type of physical thing. Yet Walton will make that non sequitur. From the fact that the ancient Israelites didn't think that the sun is a giant ball of flaming gas or that they thought of it as a "light," it doesn't follow that they didn't think that it is a physical entity. Yet Walton will make that non sequitur. And so forth. So he is just creating confusion, not giving helpful reminders or offering good insights.

Be that as it may, it may be inevitable that many people who don't feel they can criticize Walton's unusual views (and I stress that his views don't even represent the mainstream of OT criticism, if you care about that kind of thing) because they lack credentials might say such things in a review.

Moving on, the review actually says some very negative things (and rightly so) about Walton's theology:

Perhaps the most obvious of these [problematic areas] is the idea that Adam and Eve were not a “first pair” biologically. Though Walton offers various arguments why this is an unnecessary belief, many will find his views unconvincing especially as they relate to the inheritance of a sin nature. Similarly, Walton fails to adequately examine the doctrine of the imago Dei. When and how humanity came to image God is an essential underpinning for arguments related to human dignity: euthanasia, abortion, or the H+ movement, to name a few. (emphasis added)

Along this same fault line is the entrance of sin and its results. Walton’s treatment of theodicy is lacking, at best, and at times is grossly negligent. Yes, the world is broken due to sin and subsequent disorder. However, even Walton’s distinction between good and perfect does not seem to allow for hurricanes, violence among humans, and other dramatically destructive forces before the fall. Even the Eastern Orthodox, who believed Adam and Eve were created as immature, childlike-beings with the purpose of growing and maturing, would still affirm immortality and lack of death in the original created order. (emphasis added)
To say that Walton's notion of the imago dei is inadequate and that his treatment of theodicy is grossly negligent is a pretty strong indictment, and well-deserved, in my opinion. Evans is to be commended for bringing out these points.

But there is something strangely diffident in her criticisms in the light of these theological problems with Walton's work. For example, the lead-in to the paragraph about the sin nature and the imago dei is,
There are, of course, problematic areas and many things that will make conservative Evangelicals uncomfortable.
That wording is ambiguous precisely as to whether the fault in such a case lies with Walton's theology or with the "conservative evangelicals" who would be "made uncomfortable" by his views. Later in the paragraph we get the statement that many will find his views unconvincing. That seems to imply that his views are unconvincing but again is a rather passive and roundabout way of stating this. The paragraph as it goes on eventually seems to criticize Walton in Evans's own voice ("fails to adequately examine"), but there is surprisingly little of such criticism in the review overall. One really has to look hard to find the couple of sentences of criticism that don't have some distancing phrase or concept such as a statement that this will make conservative evangelicals uncomfortable or that this isn't even in line with the somewhat looser Eastern Orthodox views or that many will find this unconvincing.

But the review ceases to be merely diffident in criticizing Walton and gets really strange at the end.
A final and primary point of contention within Walton’s book surrounds the subtitle: the human origins debate. Walton does not make explicit arguments in favor of an evolutionary understanding of human development. However, he in no place takes pains to deny that this not only fits his position but is better suited to it than six-day-creationism. He dances around the issue rather carefully by arguing that the Bible is not a scientific book and so makes no claims related to science. However, his leanings are obvious, despite his attempt to stand on neutral ground by reading “only” the text. Many will find the open attitude to evolution cause for alarm (if they even give the book a chance!). Others, however, will find it a welcome comfort. I think of today’s (Christian) youth especially, such as college students who feel they must choose between a fossil record and their faith. Walton’s book does them a great service by offering another way of believing: one that affirms God’s control, his creative intent, and his consistent working in creation before, during, and after the Fall. Even with its pitfalls, that is commendable. (emphasis added)
I find this paragraph extremely difficult to figure out. On the one hand, Evans is completely right that Walton "dances around the issue" of the human origins debate and is less than forthright about his own leanings. No doubt Walton himself (who seems rather good at getting his feelings hurt) will have his feelings hurt by that implication if he reads the review. Good for Evans for saying it. But in the very same paragraph she moves on to implying that 1) those who are more theologically conservative than Walton are too biased to "give the book a chance," 2) Walton's book is "commendable" (she commends it unequivocally here) because it "does a great service" to today's Christian young people. It does this "service" by giving them "welcome comfort," and it offers that comfort by telling them that they can believe what Walton believes about human origins while remaining true to the Christian faith.

Now, I find this last implication strange in the extreme. Scholars should not be in the business of offering comfort, for goodness' sake! Nor should scholars be commended for "offering comfort" if their views are tendentious, theologically wrong-headed, and poorly argued. Scholars should offer good scholarship and a guide to the truth about their subject. Truth, remember? It's what we used to be concerned about before sociological categories like "offering welcome comfort" became a motivation for scholarship and for commending scholarship.

So here we have a scholar who, by Evans's own statement, has a flawed anthropology (view of the imago dei), which is a very serious matter (hopefully she realizes that) and a grossly negligent theodicy, but he's to be commended because his book offers "welcome comfort" to Christians who feel unhappy about the clash between Christian doctrines and the consensus of contemporary evolutionary scientists? That is a gravely irresponsible evaluation. Nobody should be evaluated on that basis.

By the way, it might also be a "welcome comfort" to point out to these poor, tense, young Christians that the science is not as settled as they are being told. I recommend the work of Casey Luskin, Ann Gauger, and others not, however, because it offers "welcome comfort," but because I think they are right that the claim of "settled science" concerning human origins owes more to propaganda than to decisive scientific argument. I also point it out because Walton's treatment of intelligent design and of the alleged scientific evidence is woefully inadequate. But the point is that we should pursue the truth about both science and theology.

It is troubling to see anyone commending a book with the problems that Walton's book has on the grounds that it is going to make people feel good. What if it's wrong? As in, incorrect? Then it's making people feel good based on falsehoods. Worse, if it's incorrect and also promulgates bad theology, then the theology of Walton's audience will have been confused on the basis of inaccurate conclusions about human history, but they will now feel more comfortable, so they will be less likely to change their minds or to look at the evidence objectively. This is not the direction that evangelical scholarship or evaluation of scholarship should be going.


John said...

I can't help but see similarity in Baylor U's decision to lift its ban on homosexual acts. Their statement: "These changes were made because we didn't believe the language reflected Baylor's caring community,"

Are we reaching a new zone in postmodernism where truth no longer matters at all or anywhere, and the new category of "caring" is now trump card? Or, is postmodernism now passé, and we must define a new philosophical category to define not only modern America, but modern evangelicalism?

Lydia McGrew said...

I definitely thought of postmodernism in connection with this notion of a work of scholarship that offers "welcome comfort." To me that concept is so alien. Even though Walton's books are written as scholarship at a popular level, I find it incredibly off-putting that someone would look at them from that perspective. In this case, the reviewer actually sees some of the objective problems with the book, and notes those, but then says that "whatever its pitfalls" it is commendable to offer "comfort" to Christians who feel caught between science and Christianity. Something is askew there. Obviously, the review isn't _overall_ postmodern, but that ending itself is to some extent a substitution of sociology and psychology for the importance of truth.

It is interesting that Walton takes offense if one suggests that he is motivated by a desire to make Scripture consistent with the consensus of modern science, yet throughout the books he expressly says that this is his motivation! His wording of that is something like, "Science can prompt us to go back to the text and ask additional questions" and the like, and of course he is insistent that he really has _found_ these interpretations in the text, but he pretty much puts the bias right out there front and center. It's just that nobody else is permitted to note it as a negative thing. In fact, I didn't even bring it up in my reviews, because I wanted them to be strictly and solely directed toward the contentful arguments of the books. But it's impossible to ignore. He spends an entire chapter at the end of one of them going on and on, preaching at young earth creationists and telling them how they are driving young people away, driving scientists away, and how they should consider changing their minds because of these terrible consequences of their view, because they can't "minister to" young people and scientists. Well, that's a really bad argument. I don't happen to be young earth, but if I were, that type of guilt-tripping _shouldn't_ move me. In fact, very much the same things were said a hundred years ago about affirming the Virgin Birth--you're driving away the scientists away.

John said...

I have somewhat followed your discussion of Walton, and find your observations cogent and have not the slightest doubt that your understanding and representation of his views are on point. The whole notion that untruth and falsity should get a pass in order to attain some higher virtue of "caring" is thoroughly modern. I mean post-modern. I mean, sheesh, something new in our day the likes of which would have been set straight (not given a pass) in any prior age. The progressive decay of "critical thinking" has devolved to this. Ever see Idiocracy?

And "caring", as I'm sure has not escaped you, in the present day seems to mean caving to political correctness and excusing that under the guise that your motivation is to be nice to someone who, in any previous day, would land on yonder side of truth, right, and morality. At the end of the day, it hardly seems caring.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Lydia - trenchant stuff as always.

Evolution is often relegated to the "side issue" category in my evangelical circles, so I'm perplexed as to where to begin in investigating the issue.

You mention Gauger and Luskin - could you elaborate a tad and recommend both a quintessential primer in addition to your favourite work that grapples intelligently with the current "settled" science?


Lydia McGrew said...

Anon, I know that links don't show up as well as would be nice in blogger posts. I did put a couple in the post, but they may not be showing very clearly. I did an entire post on the question of the "settled science" surrounding Adam.

That goes into a lot of detail and follows up on the book I am recommending into various debates on the Internet where some have tried to refute the work _Science and Human Origins_.

That is here:

If you look at this post of mine about the alleged "leftover" gene in humans that supposedly is "the same as in mice" and causes human fetuses to have a "tail," you will find more links to more of Casey Luskin's work on allegedly "leftover" genes.

These kinds of things are used as supposedly irrefutable evidence for human evolution from an ape-like ancestor.

The archives at Uncommon Descent have tons of articles on so-called "junk DNA."

A lot more is found at "evolution news and views," and their search box seems to work pretty simply on terms like "vestigial" "common ancestry," etc.

Lydia McGrew said...

I was just re-reading the comments on my "atavistic tail" post and found them particularly interesting, with additional links. Some of them discuss the increasingly tenuous nature of the "junk DNA" hypothesis.