This is an essay I did on the origins debate for a past course, Issues in Science and Religion. I decided to post it to the blog since there is often a lot of heated polarization surrounding the relationship between evolutionary and biblical accounts of the origins of life, and integrative approaches tend to get little attention in the media. The view I present in the essay is perhaps best described as “evolutionary creationism.” That said, I mostly explore some of the interpretive issues involved in integrating the Genesis creation stories with evolutionary science.
Controversy has become commonplace in contemporary debates surrounding the origins and development of human life. The question is, can the biblical story of creation be legitimately reconciled with the scientific story of the evolution? The late Christopher Hitchens wrote that “religious faith … wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos.” Richard Dawkins said that “religion, as a scientific explanation—it is a competing scientific explanation—it’s so dull, it’s so boring, it’s so petty, and it’s also wrong… If we can get people to believe that, it should be easy to convince people that evolution is true because the evidence is so strong.” Both of their statements imply that the biblical and scientific explanations of origins are fundamentally in conflict. Their comments capture the basic assumption held by many today, including both atheists and theists, that it is only possible for either evolutionary science or biblical creation to be true.
While the “conflict thesis” has gained widespread popularity, there are other ways of understanding the broad relationship between religion and science, as well as the specific relationship between the biblical teachings on creation and biological evolution. A great number of religious individuals and groups see no necessary or legitimate conflict between religion and science, or the Bible and evolution. Members of “Reform and Conservative Judaism, the Catholic church, and most of the mainline Protestant denominations,” generally consider “the Big Bang and subsequent evolution as God’s way of creating.” This begs the question: can the creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis legitimately be reconciled with evolutionary science? Evangelicals who hold a high view of the Bible are often the Christians who insist that a literal interpretation of Genesis does conflict with biological evolution. However, John Walton, an evangelical Old Testament scholar, persuasively argues that a literal reading of Genesis—including its teachings on the status and purpose of human beings—does not actually conflict with evolutionary science. I will henceforth outline the broad strokes of Walton’s position on this issue and its implications for the meaning of the creation stories in Genesis. First, I will present some relevant principles of biblical hermeneutics as well as explore the nature of ancient cosmology. Second, I will argue that Genesis 1 is broadly telling a story of the functional, not material, creation of the universe as a cosmic temple. Third, I will argue that the forming accounts of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 have archetypal, not material, significance that concerns the nature of the universal human condition.
Some essential principles of biblical hermeneutics need to be established in order to understand the literal meaning of the Genesis creation accounts. First and foremost, it must be established that even if the “Old Testament … was written for us,” we should nevertheless recognize that “it was not written to us.” The books contained in the Hebrew Bible were first “written to Israel.”4 Accordingly, those who would affirm that the Bible’s message is inspired and timeless must nevertheless acknowledge “the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors at a specific point in ancient history, using their languages, literary conventions, and ideas, including their conception of the natural world.” This is absolutely crucial. It is also evident that the biblical writings contain Old World science and ancient worldviews. So “if we are going to interpret the text according to its face value, we need to read it as the author would have intended and as the ancient audience would have heard it.” Otherwise modern interpreters risk subjecting the Bible’s message to “cultural imperialism” by anachronistically reading their particular assumptions and concerns into its texts. Moreover, if the goal of biblical interpretation is exegesis, not eisegesis, then the interpreter must carefully attempt to understand the intended meaning of biblical writings within their ancient settings. Indeed, despite widespread misconceptions, understanding the intended message in a piece of writing, while also respecting the unique literary genres, conventions, and devices used by its author, is what constitutes a “literal” interpretation in biblical hermeneutics.
With these interpretative guidelines in mind, it is quite clear and even unsurprising that “Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology.” This simple but significant truth implies that the text “does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.”9 On the contrary, “if we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology.” This raises the question, what is the nature of ancient cosmology? Of the numerous features that could be mentioned, one of the most important qualities of ancient cosmology is that it predominantly has a functional orientation, not a material orientation. Grasping and appreciating this difference requires nothing less than a mental paradigm shift in science and ontology. As modern people who have been profoundly influenced by the standards and assumptions of modern science, we typically hold a material ontology of existence, and thus naturally assume that something or someone “exists” by simply possessing material properties. However, “in a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties.” For an ancient person, it is therefore possible for something to have material properties and yet still not “exist,” in the fullest sense, if it does not have a functional purpose. The implications of this for interpreting the creation accounts in Genesis are tremendous. Though what is most essential is, in ancient cosmology, “creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition… Consequently, to create something (cause it to exist) in the ancient world means to give it a function, not material properties.”
What kind of story, then, does Genesis 1 convey? In the context of ancient cosmology, it tells the story of the functional creation and inauguration of the universe as a cosmic temple. The pre-creation state is accordingly nonfunctional, not nonmaterial. As such, the story describes God creatively forming the cosmos and everything within it by establishing its functions and installing its functionaries. Many interpretive issues are resolved when the text is read with a functional orientation towards creation. For instance, day three of the story is puzzling to some interpreters because God apparently does not create any new material things on this day. But this is not puzzling from a functional perspective since God still establishes functions. Indeed, from a functional orientation it becomes apparent that “on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; day three the basis for food”—the “three great functions” that “are the foundation of life,” which also happen to frequently appear in ancient cosmologies.
A creative shift develops over days four through six in the story. The difference is that “God is not setting up functions as much as he is installing functionaries.” The creation of human beings has special significance in the account. Humans are given multiple important functions: they are to “be fruitful and increase in number,” they are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and they are to share intimate social relationships as male and female. Human are also created “in the image of God,” and thus given a significant function in relation to God.20 Moreover, humans are “delegated a godlike role” on earth: they are given the task of being priests who represent and mediate God’s presence to everyone and everything around them, and the task of being “vice regents” who responsibly rule over, care for, and cultivate the created order.20 Again, the primary focus throughout the creation of human beings is evidently on establishing functions, not making new materials. As significant as day six is, day seven is the powerful climax in the story. In the ancient world, “deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple.” The significance of God “resting” on the seventh day, then, would have been obvious to the ancient reader: by resting, God has made the cosmos his place of residence, his temple, thus establishing it as sacred space. “In a material account day seven would have little role, but in a functional account … it is the true climax without which nothing else would make any sense or having any meaning.”
The seven-day layout of the story resembles a cultic program of an ancient temple inauguration ceremony. It is even possible that the Israelites used the story as a creation liturgy, perhaps on an annual basis, though there is no clear historical evidence that confirms this. Regardless, the story of Genesis 1 is pregnant with theological meaning when it is read as the functional creation of the universe as a cosmic temple. “The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence.” It is sacred space wherein humans live and work with one another and with God. Human beings are given a special status and role within the world as God’s priests and caretakers of creation. They live in a place where all things are sacramental. Sin and evil are not just arbitrary acts of disobedience in this context either, but rather anything that brings disorder and dysfunction into the world. This reading also completely removes any apparent conflict between the creation story in Genesis 1 and biological evolutionary accounts of human origins. Simply put, “Genesis 1 is affirming nothing about the material world,” because it is “not an account of material origins.”
Do the forming accounts of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, however, conflict with the science of human evolution? These stories do not either, because they make “archetypal claims” that concern the universal human condition, “not claims of material origins.” On the surface it may appear that God, in an instantaneous creative act, made Adam’s physical body “from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” If this passage were read as a biological account of the material origins of Adam, then it would indeed conflict with evolutionary human origins. But it is possible to determine whether the author intended to make material claims or archetypal claims by considering “a simple question: is the text describing something that is uniquely true of Adam or is it describing something that is true of all of us?” According to other passages in the Bible, it is clear that the account is teaching something that is true of us all: every human being is “formed from dust” (and will “return to dust”), and every human being has received the “breath of life” from God. As an archetype, Adam represents our human frailty, mortality, and dependence on God. Upon a careful reading of the formation of Eve in Genesis 2, it is apparent that her creation account also has archetypal meaning: being formed “from the side” of Adam signifies the close bond, the profoundly intimate relationship, that is meant to exist between mankind and womankind. The archetypal meanings of the creation stories in Genesis 2 therefore do not conflict with evolutionary science, because they do not focus on making “definitive claims about the material origins of either Adam or Eve.”
A careful study of the meaning of the biblical creation stories within their ancient settings reveals that they do not make claims that conflict with evolutionary origins of human life. Indeed, ancient cosmology exhibits a functional orientation and ontology, not a material one. Bearing this paradigm in mind, it becomes evident that Genesis 1 tells the story of the functional creation of the universe as a cosmic temple. The forming accounts of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 primarily focus on these figures as representative archetypes of the universal human condition. As such, “the attempt to find scientific information in Genesis is dubious theology as well as dubious science.” When we try to force the literature to concord with modern scientific categories and concerns, “we tend to neglect both the human experiences that lie behind it and the theological affirmations it makes.”32 The intent of the biblical creation stories is not to provide a detailed description of the natural evolutionary development of life and the cosmos. Rather, their intent is to “locate present human experience in a framework of larger significance” by revealing “the essential structure of reality and our place in it.” Given their distinct yet related claims, I personally think that the theology and anthropology of the biblical creation stories is compatible with the science of biological evolution. Integrating their respective accounts does result in a teleological (meaning purposeful and goal-oriented) view of evolution, instead of a dysteleological (meaning purposeless and accidental) view of evolution. This, of course, constitutes a metaphysical difference, not a scientific conflict. Indeed, even Charles Darwin thought it would be “absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.”
 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007), 4
 Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, The Unbelievers, directed by Gus Holwerda, (United States: Black Chalk, 2013), Netflix, 3:19-4:49.
 Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1997), 71-105.
 Ibid., 203.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 7.
 Denis O. Lamoureux, “Evolutionary Creation: Moving Beyond the Evolution Versus Creation Debate,” Christian Higher Education 9, no. 1 (2009): 34.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 17.; Denis O. Lamoureux, “Evolutionary Creation: Moving Beyond the Evolution Versus Creation Debate,” Christian Higher Education 9, no. 1 (2009): 36-38.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 102.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 21-35.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 84.
 Gen 1:1-2; cf. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 52.
 Ibid., 53-70.
 Gen 1:9-13; cf. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 57.
 Ibid., 58-61.
 Ibid., 62.
 Gen 1:26-31; cf. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 67.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 71-84.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 86-91; cf. 1 Kgs 8:65, 2 Chron 7:9
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 90.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 56.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 70.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ps 103:14; Ecc 3:20; Job 27:3, 32:8, 33:4, 34:14-15; Is 42:5; cf. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 76.
 Gen 2:22; cf. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 80-81
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 81
 Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1997), 202
 Ibid., 214
 Denis O. Lamoureux, “Evolutionary Creation: Moving Beyond the Evolution Versus Creation Debate,” Christian Higher Education 9, no. 1 (2009): 28.; John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 115-117.
 Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12041,” accessed on 16 March 2016, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-12041.