John Walton: “The Lost World of Adam and Eve”

Theistic evolutionists are no longer a minority, even among the most conservative evangelicals. Despite conferences, books, and public court hearings intended to bring about a revival in creationist thought, it appears that more and more Christians (especially younger ones) are not seeing the conflict between science and faith others once suggested. But where geology, paleontology, and genetics have all failed to support the creationist cause, there has been and is one bastion left of defense for creationism: the existence of Adam and Eve. This issue is, for many people, the sole reason for rejecting common ancestry. Simply put, if evolution is true in the sense that modern biology speaks of it, what in the world do you do with Adam and Eve? And the massive evangelical interest in getting to the bottom of this is reflected in the titles of books which have all come out on this topic in the past four years: The Evolution of Adam (Brazos: 2012), Did Adam and Eve Really Exist (Crossway: 2011), Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin (Baker: 2014), Reading Genesis 1-2 (Hendrickson: 2013), Five Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan: 2013). The most recent–but most certainly not the last–title to come out on the topic is John Walton’s long awaited The Lost World of Adam and Eve (IVP: 2015). walton

Walton is a veteran Old Testament scholar, a thoroughgoing evangelical, and a capable translator of scholarly literature to popular rhetoric. Walton’s most famous book, The Lost World of Genesis One, completely reshaped the ways that many evangelicals (including myself) approached the first chapter of Genesis and, even more so, the “conflict” between science and Scripture. The Lost World of Adam and Eve is no different here and it may prove to be as helpful to the evangelical community.

Walton’s main task throughout the book is to critique the idea that one must choose either a historical Adam and Eve or reject them in light of evolutionary theory. Walton obviously fears–something he pointed out in Genesis One–that when we force people into an either/or situation regarding Science and Scripture, we end up doing damage to both and potentially create needless casualties. In other words, people are becoming convinced of evolutionary theory and, by the choice forced upon them by evangelicals, unconvinced of Scripture’s testimony. This is a dangerous choice and it is an unnecessary one. Scripture and science can co-exist, faith and reason can be amicable neighbors, and Adam and evolution can get along just fine!

But for this to be true, Walton thinks a re-thinking of Adam and Eve is needed. For Walton, Adam and Eve, while historical individuals, are treated in the texts primarily as archetypes for humanity, not as the initial progenitors of the human race. Genesis was never written to be a scientific document and as such, the responsible exegete will recognize it as an ancient document written to an ancient audience using ancient conventions within an ancient worldview (21) and Walton takes great pains to show how ancient creation stories often utilized their main characters in archetypal ways (63-81), much less various images like “dust”, “rib”, “serpent”, and “tree.” Adam and Eve are symbols for humanity, telling the story of our corporate identity.

Walton draws on earlier work in his Genesis One and the reader of that will automatically know how important the two terms “function” and “order” are for Walton. If Genesis 1 is not about material creation (i.e. the Big Bang, literal days, order and process of creation, etc.) why should we suppose that Genesis 2 is meant to be taken literally as a description of materiality? Walton suggests that, like Genesis 1,to create means to give purpose. That is, in Genesis and throughout most of the Old Testament, existence is functional, not material (28). In this sense, to speak of Adam and Eve coming into existence is to speak of human purpose and function, not of biology.

But what is that function? Walton contends that Adam’s primary function is to serve as priest within the sacred space of The Garden of Eden and that as a priest, his main role would be the “preservation of sacred space” (108). If, as Walton argued convincingly regarding Genesis 1, that the “cosmos” was meant to be “sacred space” or God’s cosmic temple, then Eden was where everything was centralized, much like the holy of holies (117). The garden was where God’s presence was and it was the point where fullness of life emerged and where cosmic order was centralized. The function of Adam and Eve–and by implication, Israel–was to serve as God’s priest, to care for the sacred space, and tend it so that it could expand its reach into the non-ordered world. God had set up his temple, given everything a function (including man), and now there was work to do. This last point is absolutely huge, for it leads us to the realization that Genesis does not say that all of creation was “perfect” and then man messed it up. To use Walton’s analogy, the house was built and the command center in place, but now He (and we) had the business of making the house a home. But, of course, we messed it up. We didn’t take the perfect world and create chaos and disorder. We let the chaos and disorder into the world that God was in the process of perfecting.

This is where Walton is extremely helpful. Walton suggests that our thinking of both Original Sin and The Fall need help. Anthropology teaches almost as a first premise that the evolution of humans was messy, dirty, and violent. For creationists this offers an obvious problem: if evolution is true, how do we account for Original Sin and death? If Adam brought death into this world, how can we speak of it existing long before him? And if he was the first one to sin, what do we do with hundreds of generations of humans before him that acted–pun intended–like animals?

According to Walton, Augustine’s theory “has become so deeply entrenched in the history of theological thought and development that it has taken on a life of its own almost independent from its essential roots” (156). Those roots are the 1) the nobility/perfection of Adam and 2) that sin is passed on from the father to offspring (hence, because Jesus lacked a human father, he was born without sin). Both of these points, Walton notes, go beyond what the biblical text states and wouldn’t have been the starting point of either Jesus or Paul in their conception of sin. Rather than thinking of “The Fall” as the moment where Adam and Eve sinned and, therefore, all humanity was born accursed and already guilty, Walton proposes the Irenaean model where “The Fall” is more or less polluted the world (158) and our natures.

Walton reminds his readers multiple times that the Genesis text does not assume the world was made perfect and that there was no death prior to “The Fall.” Indeed, the text actually presumes that there was death and non-order beyond the Garden. Recall the Tree of Life? What purpose would the Tree of Life have had if man was created with inherent immortality? Why eat of it? Rather, the tree gave immortality and it precluded what the rest of the natural world would succumb to. Indeed, it was after the sin of Adam and Eve that God saw it as necessary to ban them from the Garden to bar them from access to the tree, presumably because if they had access to the Tree they could continue to be immortal, despite the fact that they had made themselves the center of sacred space. Thus the saying, “from dust you have come and to dust you will return” is not a statement of biological origins (chemically, we are not made of dust) but of mortality and this is a statement of humanity’s condition. By making ourselves the center of sacred space, rather than God, Adam and Eve removed the anecdote and therefore brought death to all of humanity.

Of course, this proposal makes perfect sense when one places it alongside both the vocation of Israel and the vocation of Jesus. Indeed, whether or not the story goes back to Moses or the Babylonian exile, it is obviously written for Israel as they reflected on their own identity and calling. Israel was meant to install the Sacred Space (recall the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple) and serve as God’s priests, and, like Adam and Eve, they found themselves in disobedience and exile. And like Israel, Jesus saw himself as the very embodiment of what God was doing, his response to chaos and evil, and the center point of all sacred space. Thus, death came to all by one man because of disobedience, Adam, and life comes to all by one man because of obedience, Jesus (Rom 5). Jesus becomes, in a sense, the Garden, the place where the rivers of life come, where one can regain access to the Tree of Life, and where order replaces non-order and disorder.

There are a lot of positive elements to Walton’s book and some very helpful discussions. Like earlier works, Walton arranges his material in propositions (21 to be exact) and it would be impossible to address all such propositions adequately here. It should be said that Walton has a command of the ANE literature in a remarkable way and builds his case of the Garden as “sacred space” very compellingly.

That said, there are two major criticisms I want to offer. First, Walton tries too hard to balance his proposal within the framework of biblical inerrancy. This framework, to be sure, is not the same as inspiration and authority. It is more narrow than that. Walton has written a previous book defending inerrancy (The Lost World of Scripture) but here, as there, it seems as if he’s stretching it a bit. Occasionally, Walton seems wary of infringing on inerrancy and so his opinions seem a bit forced in trying to unify both the literary and theological meaning of the text and historical elements (like, maybe there really was a serpent and two trees). Secondly, I don’t think Walton has dealt enough with why Adam and Even must exist historically rather than archetypaly. Granted, he thinks that they did, but why is it necessary (or is it necessary) that they did? Is a one-time event really necessary for making sense of our current human condition? And what would that event look like if the trees, the serpent, and the Garden are solely archetypal symbols? That is, why if these elements are primarily literary symbols for bigger realities, should we also insist that they are real historical elements as well?

Still, at the end of the day, Walton has succeeded in moving the conversation forward in a way which many or most evangelicals would be incapable of doing, and primarily because he does it in a way that is not forceful, offensive, or “too progressive.” Walton places himself, as he so often does, in the middle of extremes. No doubt, individuals on both sides will find passionate reasons to reject his proposal, but my guess is that the majority of evangelicals who are looking for a way to hold onto an Adam and Eve and, yet, not discount both other ANE mythology (admittedly, Walton doesn’t like the term myth…I do) and biological evolution, will find a voice in Walton. And it is a reasonable voice.