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Lecture Notes: “Genesis and the Genome” with John Walton and Dennis Venema

April 9, 2013

click for an audio recording of the lectures

A few weeks ago at the church I pastor we hosted a pair of lectures under the banner: “Genesis and the Genome: What Two Ancient Texts Reveal (and Don’t Reveal) About Human Origins.”

At this event not only did Prof. John Walton (Wheaton College) give a very clear presentation of his main proposals in The Lost World of Genesis One, but he also provided us some substantial insight into the forthcoming follow-up volume on Genesis Two (which is anticipating completion in 2014).

In turn, Prof. Dennis Venema (Trinity Western University and Biologos) also presented us an entry-level view into the world of genetic biology and shared with us the discoveries and theories regarding human ancestry which require further scientific and theological attention in our day.

The event went very well and I am happy to share the audio recordings of the lectures here. The recording breaks down into Introduction and Hermeneutics (0-26th min), Genesis (27th-63rd min), Genome and Q&A (64th min – end).

Unfortunately due to scheduling restraints we ran out of time for as much Q&A as we would have liked. But for me the take-away came in three main areas:

1)  John Walton did a magnificent job presenting the first few chapters of Genesis as theological literature rather a pre-ordained presentation of modern scientific claims (which, presumably, would skip the cosmology of the ancients and take the form of whatever we deem to be scientifically credible today). Walton was articulate in upholding the view that Genesis has been provided for us today as the Word of God, and was apt to explain how it is, as such, a word heard through its original direct address to an ancient audience. Once we grasp this we can understand that Genesis inhabits the cosmology of its day without apology, while achieving its theological aims.

This was only the preamble, but it remains an important one for evangelical audiences today. Walton gives as clear a presentation of it as I’ve ever heard. But he also goes on to explore the meaning of the Genesis 1 creation narrative as an account of ascribed functions rather than material origins, providing an evocative view of it as a presentation of God’s preparation of creation to be a place for divine in-habitation. It is the set up for God with us.

2) Dennis Venema also excellently explained his work in the field of genetics. He showed us how they can not only trace the human genome back to close relationships with other animals, but along the way can also trace the alterations of the genome back to find key ancestral “partings-of-the-way” between what are now ethnic diversities within the human species. In the course of explaining all of this, Dennis was able to show us why many geneticists today are coming to the conclusion that the original group of human genomes from which all our diversities have sprung would have numbered about 10,000.

This is obviously more than the pair of humans Genesis 1-2 would lead us to expect if we took it to be a modern scientific account of our material origins (which John Walton argued we should not). Interestingly, however, this would be about the scenario that Genesis 4-6 would lead us to expect, if we took seriously its suggestion that there were more humans on earth than those on whom the narrative has focused our attention. Dennis’s presentation certainly opens up some questions of biblical interpretation and theological understanding, but at the end of the lectures it was clear that, on his and John Walton’s reading at least, the “ancient texts’ of Genesis and the genome are not necessarily in irreconcilable conflict.

3) That said, when we add it up we realize that if we want to track with the scientific theories and findings espoused then we are faced with a domino-reaction of questions to explore on the biblical-theological level. That goes for us even if  we accept John Walton’s argument that Genesis 1-2 is not a materialistic account of how things came to be but a theological account of why and what for. Some of those questions might include:

* If the first humans numbered 10,000 or so, then how do we understand the “image of God moment” which sets them apart from the animals? In other words, who are Adam and Eve and what do they stand for?

* If the material outworking of creation is not six literal earth-days but a manifold sequence of cosmological epochs (which need no detailed correlation with the figurative use of creational “days”); and if the human species is the result of what science calls genome “mutations” or genome-inheritance “mistakes”–then how do we as Christians perceive those “mutations” and “mistakes” within the understanding that God not only intended them but called them “good” and “very good”?

* If the creation of life on earth took place over a long period of evolution, then that evolution involved plant and animal death leading up to and prior to the point when a certain species is not only believed to have been made  the “image of God,” but also to have subsequently done something to incur death. Thus the big question is how we understand that death inherent in a good creation, and that death inherent in a fallen one. This obviously takes us beyond Genesis 1 to Romans 5 and beyond. Some may be further ahead than I on this, but there is certainly work to be done here. To me, once one has grappled with the work of John Walton and others on the first chapters of Genesis, this question proves the one more pressing and difficult (and yet perhaps full of unexpected suprises!) going forward.

There are more questions, and there may be better ways to pose them, but those are a few of the ones that I observed as we sat together a few Saturday mornings ago and pondered today’s intersection of biblical faith and modern science. It was well worth our time, I thought, and I can’t recommend these two speakers highly enough. Feel free to give the lectures a listen, and look forward with me to more from them in the future.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kevin Davis permalink
    April 10, 2013 12:55 am

    Looks great. I’m excited to listen to it. I especially appreciate your questions/concerns at the end — there is indeed theological work to be done.

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