Even though Ken Ham may say that the intent of good Bible interpretation is to get to the original, intended meaning of a text, he in fact does not do that. In the case of understanding Genesis 1-11, he completely discounts the historical context in which Genesis was written. As far as Ken Ham is concerned, there are really only two “starting points” when forming a worldview. I quote from his article, “Not Ashamed of a Biblical Starting Point”:
- There is someone who knows everything about everything, who has always been there, who never tells a lie, and who reveals to us the information we need to know to come to right conclusions about this universe.
- Fallible man, who doesn’t know everything, who hasn’t always been there, who doesn’t always tell the truth, has to figure out the universe.
Now, both statements are true: God does know everything, and human beings do not, but the way Ken Ham uses these two truths is where he takes his followers off course. When he comes to Genesis 1-11, he concludes, “Since God was there at creation, and we weren’t, we need to believe what Genesis 1-11 is scientifically, historically, factually true.” That, he claims, forms the basis of the biblical worldview.
But wait a minute—do you see where his own assumption creeps in? He is assuming, right from the start, that Genesis 1-11 is addressing modern scientific questions. He is assuming that since God cannot lie, that Genesis 1-11 has to be a scientific, eye-witness account. Why does he assume that? Because his real presuppositional worldview is that of the Enlightenment, where “truth” has to equal “scientific/historical facts.” Ham’s two statements do not form his worldview. The way he applies those two statements reveals the real worldview he holds, that of the modern, Enlightenment Worldview that hails science as the sole arbiter of truth.
Let’s Do Some Exegesis: John Walton’s Book
So let’s ask the question, “Does solid biblical exegesis support the assumption of young earth creationists that Genesis 1-11 is addressing modern, scientific questions regarding the origin of the material universe?”
To do good biblical exegesis, you have to essentially look at the given passage within its literary context and its historical context. And since none of us were there at the time any given passage in the Bible was written, there are probably some things we’re going to miss from time to time. Yes, God is inerrant, God has inspired Scripture; but we aren’t inerrant, and we have to do the best we can to get to the original meaning of a given passage, and we need to have faith that as the Holy Spirit guides us within the context of the Church, we will come to a clearer understanding of the truth.
John Walton, a professor at Wheaton College, has written a number of books, trying to help the non-academic lay Christian get a better handle of the world of ancient Israel: The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, and The Lost World of Scripture. The goal of these books is to get the reader to understand the early chapters of Genesis within the historical context of the ancient Near East. Walton’s basic point is that the other ancient Near Eastern “origin stories” (like The Epic of Gilgamesh) were not trying to tell of the “scientific origins” of the material universe. The ancient Near East was a pagan culture, not a modern-scientific one.
Therefore, the issues and questions those “origin stories” were addressing were not scientific questions; they were rather questions of the purpose and function of the created order; they were questions like, “Who/What are the gods like? What is the purpose of mankind? What is the purpose of creation?”
Walton shares his scholarly opinion on a number of specific things in the early chapters of Genesis, but his basic point is that the people of the ancient Near East were not asking modern scientific questions–therefore, when we come to Genesis 1-11 and consider the historical context in which it was written (i.e. the time period of the ancient Near East), we should expect Genesis 1-11 to be addressing the questions the ancient Near East was asking, not what we in the modern age are asking.
It should come as no surprise that if you take historical context seriously, if you take the inspiration of the Bible seriously, if you agree that God had an intended, inspired message directed to the people at the time when Genesis 1-11 was written, then you have to come to the conclusion that God did not inspire Moses to write Genesis 1-11 as a means to refuting evolutionary theory. When the Israelites first heard Genesis 1-11, they did not think, “O wow! This totally contradicts Charles Darwin!”
No—they probably thought, “Wait! There’s only one God, not many? He’s a good God interested in justice, not like those vengeful other gods of our neighbors? This creation is good, and not the rotting carcass of a dead, loser god? And we human beings are made in God’s image? We’re not to be the mere slaves of evil gods?”
Now that is a revolution in worldview. That’s what taking the historical context in consideration does. It gets you to understand the text better. It’s not that Moses tried to give a scientific account of origins and “got it wrong,” because “science has now proven he wrong.” No—it’s that Moses wasn’t addressing modern scientific questions in the first place. What we need to realize about Genesis 1-11 is that God used the cultural language and literature of the time in order to reveal truth about Himself, His creation, and humankind. Genesis 1-11 was the revolution in worldview that introduced the whole concept of monotheism to a pagan, polytheistic world.
Answers in Genesis Doesn’t Like John Walton
Unfortunately for Ken Ham, that would mean admitting the early chapters of Genesis aren’t meant to be read as a modern, scientific historical “eyewitness account” of the creation of the material universe. And since his entire organization is based on that assumption, it’s no surprise that Ken Ham doesn’t like John Walton. Walton, along with men like Francis Collins, N.T. Wright, Timothy Keller, Millard Erickson, Norman Geisler—the list could go on—are all, according to Ken Ham, “compromisers” who are undermining the authority of the Bible. Why? Because they don’t believe Genesis 1-11 is insisting that the universe is 6,000 years old.
And so, the people at Answers in Genesis decided to write an analysis of Walton’s book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. There main “beef” with Walton’s book can be summed up in the following quotes:
- Walton has given a magisterial authority to the ANE mythic texts in order to interpret the Genesis accounts.
- Walton’s stated position is that the ANE texts provide the basis for understanding Genesis. Other scholars are opposed to such methodology and reject that the ANE texts are an interpretative grid for determining biblical meaning. They are not a “basis” but they enhance our understanding of the historical background applicable to the truth that is already evident in the text.
- Walton has provided an example of what happens when one gives extra-biblical texts magisterial authority over the text of Scripture.
Want a basic translation? Here it is: they criticize Walton for reading Genesis 1-11 within its historical context. Even though Ken Ham says that in order to understand a biblical passage one has to understand the historical context, when it comes to Genesis 1-11, when John Walton actually reads and interprets these chapters within their historical context, Ham’s verdict on Walton’s book is, “If the church is going to maintain orthodoxy, the ideas in this book must be rejected.”
And why is Walton’s book to be rejected? Because Walton argues that we have to understand Genesis 1-11 as a response to and a challenge of the pagan worldview at that time. But that’s the point! That’s why you read a passage within its historical context—to understand the original, inspired meaning of a passage!
Yet Ham rejects this! Why? Because reading Genesis 1-11 in its historical context completely obliterates Ken Ham’s entire life’s work of trying to convince people that Genesis 1-11 really should be read as something addressing modern, scientific questions. But he can’t come right out and say, “Don’t consider historical context,” because he knows that is what is needed for good biblical exegesis. So what does he do?
That’s right! He appeals to…Biblical Authority! Look again at quote #2: [The ANE texts] “are not a ‘basis’ but they enhance our understanding of the historical background applicable to the truth that is already evident in the text.” That sentence is complete gibberish. When you consider the historical context of a text, that historical context is the basis on which you go about trying to interpret the text. Ham is rejecting the historical context of Genesis 1-11 because it conflicts with what he “already knows” is true about Genesis 1-11.
Incidentally, how does an ANE text like the Epic of Gilgamesh, “enhance the understanding” of the truth “already evident” in the Noah story, especially when Ham will say that it is “already evident” that Noah hired workers (who mocked him) to build the ark, and that Noah had access to a kind of technology that was arguably ten times more advanced that the technology we have today? Make no mistake, the above quote is just a clever way of saying, “We don’t have to consider the historical context of Genesis 1-11. We already know what it means! It’s addressing modern, scientific questions! We know this because of ‘biblical authority’ for us means that Genesis 1-11 has to be scientific and historical fact…because we are beholden to the modern, Enlightenment worldview, even though we don’t realize it.”
Breath-taking. Simply unbelievable. That is what Ken Ham’s hermeneutic is. I loved John Walton’s books. I learned a great deal from them, but I didn’t agree with every single one of his arguments. That’s okay, though. He would tell you that he’s doing the best he can as a scholar, and that even though he obvious thinks he’s right, he could be wrong in a few areas. That’s why he wrote the book—to get people in the Church studying and talking about these things, in the hopes that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in all truth.
Scholarship, much like with scientific inquiry, amounts to doing the best you can with the information you find, and trying to make the most sense out of a given passage. It’s not a matter of making authoritarian, dogmatic statements. This is what Ken Ham doesn’t get. He thinks he has the sole grasp of the truth of Genesis 1-11, and that this is a “war” between “secularists” and “compromised Christians.”
Quite frankly, he doesn’t believe the Holy Spirit needs to guide the Church in all truth, because he already knows what it is. If you don’t agree with him, he will condemn you on his blog, call you to repent, and order you to submit to the authority of the Bible…but in reality, he wants you to submit to his own authority. If you don’t just cave, if you try to reason and talk with the likes of Ham and his ilk, they will have none of it. They will call you a wolf in sheep’s clothing, accuse you of speaking with the voice of the serpent, and banish you.
That’s Ham’s hermeneutic for you: a power play, a manipulation of texts, an ignoring of historical context…just really bad biblical exegesis. For some good biblical exegesis, let me suggest the following….