There are three big takeaways from John H. Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve. All three are positive developments for the church, though one will be controversial with many quarters.
1. Authority of Scripture
The first strong emphasis from Walton comes from his affirmation of the authority of Scripture. This has been a central tenet of Christianity at all times, but especially since the Reformation and its emphasis on sola scriptura, which came out of Luther’s insistence that the Bible ought to have the last word in matters of faith and practice.
Sola scriptura is a key for all Protestant traditions (except Anglicanism and Methodism) because it ostensibly provides a definitive test for all church doctrine. That is, if someone comes up with a wacky belief, we ought to be able to compare it with the Bible and judge whether it fits or not.
Sounds good in theory. But in practice, it’s a little tricky.
The Bible, it turns out, is not a depository of doctrinal proofs. Rather, as Walton reminds us, the Bible is a collection of ancient documents that are intimately tied to their original culture, as all writing is. This is not to say that the Bible is somehow irrelevant to contemporary cultures. Far from it. It simply means that if we are to properly understand and apply the authority of the sacred texts we hold dear, we need to do the hard—and ever evolving (oh no! I said it!)—work of understanding the ancient cultures in which they were written and read.
Here’s an illustration: I remember in high school being assigned A Tale of Two Cities for summer reading one year. Dutifully, I read it and understood hardly a word. That is, I knew the meanings of the individual words and sentences I was reading, but I didn’t really get the story. Fifteen years later I picked it up again and gave it another shot. Having learned a bit more about the French Revolution and its horrors, along with some of the English critique, Dickens’s masterpiece suddenly came alive to me. The lesson? I needed to know something about the culture in which the book was written in order to properly understand its full meaning.
The Bible is no different in this sense, and Walton is keen to remind us. Genesis—along with the rest of Scripture—is an ancient document, and we will best understand it the more we grasp ancient cultures. Without that understanding, he warns, we are making our own modern interpretations of the Bible the authority, rather than the Bible itself. And that is dangerous business.
2. Focus on Function
Another of Walton’s great achievements in this book is his persistent focus on function. Whether he is discussing the creation account of Genesis 1 or the various aspects of Adam and Eve, Walton again and again brings us back to the central question for an ancient culture? What are we here for?
Just this weekend, my pastor made this statement: The two most important days of your life are, first, the day you were born, and, second, the day you figure out why.
Think about it. Every person ever has wondered at this fundamental question. Every last one. Why? Because it has massive implications for how each of us will pursue life. Or, if we find that our answer to this central question turns negative or meaningless, we quickly find that the pursuit of life no longer seems worthwhile. Defining humanity’s purpose sounds like a subject of biblical importance.
Where all the stuff came from? Well, that seems like a distant question, in many ways. Whatever your theories on material origins, the stuff is all here and we need to figure out what we’re supposed to do with it. Discovering purpose is a far more primal question, appropriate for the beginnings of ancient Israel’s foundational stories.
3. Faith Makes Nice with Science
This last point is essentially a derivative of the first two. Once we begin to take the Bible on its own terms and once we concentrate our energies on the kinds of questions the Bible is keen to answer, we discover we have fewer and fewer reasons to quarrel with scientific inquiry.
Let the geologists continue to explore Manson Crater, a dimple in the earth 24 miles across, thought to have come from an asteroid whacking into the Hawkeye State 74 million years ago. It’s fascinating stuff and could teach us wonders about our own planet and the wider galaxy. But it won’t fundamentally alter the story of Genesis 1-3, intended to teach why we’re here.
Let the biologists continue to dig into the human genome. It may lead to medical advancements or clearer understanding of our biological ancestry. But it won’t touch the fact that Adam, as the ancient Israelites understood him, was the first person uniquely called by God to a special task, presaging both Israel’s and the church’s own calling.
Science is not the Bible’s enemy.
I hasten to add a pastoral note to this last point. When our churches pit the Bible against science, broadly, we place the scientifically minded among us into a potentially impossible choice between their vocational calling and their faith commitments. In effect, we hang a sign on the doors of our churches reading, “We Don’t Serve Scientists”. Ew.
Anyway, all this is to say that The Lost World of Adam and Eve is a worthy addition to the church’s ongoing rediscovery of these ancient narratives. If we are wise enough to grapple with Walton’s study, we will all be the stronger for it.