Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cosmos as Divine Temple: Applications for Evangelicals

I recently became aware of a book that came out in May of this year. It is by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and it is titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009). The interesting thing about this book for me is that it looks at the literary and cultural context of the ancient Near East and what the Genesis creation narratives would have said to the Hebrews as it reflected their cultural context. This cultural and literary perspective provides the foundation for Walton's argument that the Genesis creation stories are functional rather than material in nature, and that this results in a portrait that is painted of the cosmos as a divine temple.

This volume includes a number of ideas that evangelicals will no doubt find provocative, but are nevertheless worthy of reflection. Consider this intriguing excerpt from Chapter 1, "Genesis is Ancient Cosmology":
Deity pervaded the ancient world. Nothing happened independently of deity. The gods did not "intervene" because that would assume that there was a world of events outside of them that they could step into and out of. The Israelites, along with everyone else in the ancient world, believed instead that every event was the act of deity -- that every plant that grew, every baby born, every drop of rain and every climatic disaster was an act of God. No "natural" law governed the cosmos; deity ran the cosmos or was inherent in it. There were no "miracles" (in the sense of events deviating from the "natural"), there were only signs of the deity's activities (sometimes favorable, sometimes not). The idea that deity got things running then just stood back or engaged himself elsewhere (deism) would have been laughable in the ancient world because it was not even conceivable. As suggested by Richard Bube, if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist. There is nothing "natural" about the world in biblical theology, nor should there be in ours.
I take away from this a few observations. Although Walton and most evangelical readers will consider this thesis in light of the creation/evolution debate, and I think this makes an important contribution in this arena, I would like to see evangelicals make application in two other areas. First, the idea of the creation narratives as a discussion of God's cosmic temple is a reminder of our neglect of a creation theology, including God's temple indwelling of his cosmos and our responsibilities as stewards of the creation. Second, I believe Walton's thesis presents a point of contact for Christian-Pagan dialogue.

I encourage evangelicals to entertain Walton's thesis with an eye toward a number of applications.

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