John Walton, Evangelical Old Testament scholar: Neither Ham nor Nye got the Bible right

Of the numerous analyses of the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate earlier this week, one of the best is that of Old Testament scholar John Walton that was published as part of a larger review on the Biologos website (Ham on Nye: Our Take). Walton, author of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, adeptly gives reasons why there are serious biblical and theological problems with young-Earth creationism. YEC isn’t just bad science, it involves a highly questionable reading of the Hebrew text of Genesis.  Here are some excerpts:

In general I appreciated the cordial and respectful tone that both debaters evidenced. Most of the debate was about scientific evidence, which I am not the one to address. The only comment that I want to make in that regard is that it was evident that Ken Ham believed that all evolutionists were naturalists—an identification that those associated with BioLogos would strongly contest.


I commend Ken Ham’s frequent assertion of the gospel message. His testimony to his faith was admirable and of course, I agree with it. I also share his beliefs about the nature of the Bible, but I do not share his interpretation of the Bible on numerous key points. From the opening remarks Ham proclaimed that his position was based on the biblical account of origins. But he is intent on reading that account as if it were addressing science (he truly believes it is). I counter by saying that we cannot have a confident understanding of what the Bible claims until we read it as an ancient document. I believe as he does that the Bible was given by God, but it was given through human instruments into an ancient culture and language. We can only encounter the Bible’s claims by taking account of that context.

One place where this distinction was obvious was that Ham tried to make the statement in Genesis that God created each animal “after its kind” as a technical statement that matched our modern scientific categories. We cannot assume that the same categories were used in the ancient world as are used today (genus, family, species, etc.). Such anachronism does not take the Bible seriously as what it “naturally” says. In the Bible this only means that when a grain of wheat drops, a grain of wheat grows (not a flower); when a horse gives birth, it gives birth to a horse, not a coyote.


Bill Nye repeatedly returned to the idea that the Bible was a book translated over and over again over thousands of years. In his opinion this results in a product that could be no more trusted than the end result in the game of telephone. In this opinion he shows his lack of clear understanding of the whole process of the transmission of texts and the textual basis for today’s translations.


[Ham] believes that there could be no death before the fall because he has interpreted the word “good” as if it meant “perfect.” That is not what the Hebrew term means. Furthermore, if there was no death before the fall, people would have little use for a tree of life. What is a “natural” interpretation—our sense of what it means or the sense that an ancient reader would have had? Ham actually made the statement that we have to read the Bible “according to the type of literature” that it is. Yet it was clear that he has done no research on ancient genres and how parts of the Bible should be identified by the standards of ancient genres.


When Ham was asked what it would take to change his mind, he was lost for words because he said that he could never stop believing in the truth of the Bible. I would echo that sentiment, but it never seemed to occur to him that there might be equally valid interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis, or maybe even ones that could garner stronger support. He stated that no one can prove the age of the earth, but he believes that the Bible tells us the age of the earth. Nevertheless, it is only his highly debatable interpretation of the Bible that tells him the age of the earth. What if the Bible makes no such claim? There are biblical scholars who take the Bible every bit as seriously as he does, who disagree that the Bible makes a claim about the age of the earth.

There is a lot more to the creation account in Genesis 1 than what one will hear from the young-Earth creationists. One can be fully committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture and not come to the same conclusions or interpretations that the my-way-or-the-highway young-Earth creationists come to.

Grace and Peace

HT: Internet Monk

6 thoughts on “John Walton, Evangelical Old Testament scholar: Neither Ham nor Nye got the Bible right

  1. I have been interested in the Young Earth/Old Earth creation debate for nearly three decades and my thoughts have evolved from being convinced by YEC evidence to being convinced by OEC evidence and some YEC evidence. What we need is a thorough understanding of the process of creation and there are several verses throughout the OT which gives hints of this. I have gathered these and knitted them together with strands from science to form a tapestry that gives ME a clear picture of HOW God may have created the Universe and the Earth. Sharing this with others has not been easy however. This may be because it challenges some YEC and OEC ideas. My book on this is available as a rather expensive paperback in the US and England and also as an e-book for anyone who can keep an open mind on this problem.


  2. Robert Byers

    These are tired old criticisms . Ham got it right and how most bible believing christians have always seen it.
    Death only happened after the fall. The tree of life affirms there was no death NOT disproves it.
    Its clear the whole thing is about life not dying till there was evil. Death is evil and unnatural and Christ defeated death. Thats the whole point.


  3. Christopher

    I find it interesting when people want to keep an “open” view of Genesis by which they start out with understanding Genesis as the ancient culture would have understood it then and that this is not written about refuting science.

    Such statements already show a bias against the YEC interpretation and immediately let you know the person making such “open” view statements is really trying to find a back door to anything other than a YEC interpretation. I wish when people used this whole “let see what the ancient people would have thought creation meant…” would at least be honest enough to come out and just say YEC is wrong. That is essentially what they are coming at but with a polished statement to seem as though they are neutral on its interpretation.

    Showing a necessity of there being a Tree of Life does not mean that death existed before the Fall. It only meant that creation was not eternal as God is eternal. Thus, God would have to sustain his creation and he did so via the Tree of Life. As a means of grace and mercy God barred Adam and Eve and from eating of that Tree of Life after the Fall so that they could not live on in their sin and rebellion but would have to acknowledge that their sin did in fact cost them something far greater than even their own life.


  4. geochristian

    Christopher — It sounds like you are saying that we should not try to understand how ancient people would have thought about the text.


  5. I hear very little about the existence of evil prior to the fall. Iniquity and rebellion were present long before Adam and Eve fell. It existed in the heart of Lucifer and acted upon. Therefore, death was a spiritual reality prior to the physical reality experienced ultimately in humankind. If death were not a pre-existent reality, the serpent would have had that as his goal. Of course, we can assume that was not his goal! Just a thought to this wonderful dialogue!


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