Genesis Chapter 1: Functional Creation vs. Material Creation

Genesis 1:5What if taking the Bible “literally” doesn’t mean what you think it means?

In The Lost World of Genesis One, Dr. John Walton of Wheaton college affirms that Genesis 1 is talking about a literal seven days of creation—but he also argues that “creation” might not mean what you think it means.

“When someone insists that Genesis 1 should be interpreted literally,” Walton says, “It is often an expression of their conviction that the interpreter rather than the author has initiated another level of meaning.”

The problem, of course, is that reading the Bible in English creates layers of interpretation before we ever see the words on the page.

Related post: Outsiders: Reading the Bible Out of Context

We have to look at what the Hebrew text says if we really want to determine exactly what the English text says. “It does us no good to know what ‘create’ literally means,” Walton says. “We have to know what bara literally means.”

If you aren’t fluent in Hebrew, don’t worry. When it comes to language, usage determines meaning. This means that even without knowing the language, we can see how Hebrew scholars have determined bara was used in every instance it appears in the Old Testament.

Walton considers functional creation to be the moment purpose is established, whereas material creation is the moment physical shape is formed.

So does bara pertain to material creation, or functional creation? Can we even determine that for certain?

Genesis 1:16

“If all occurrences [of bara] were either material or ambiguous,” Walton says, “We could not claim support for a functional understanding. If all occurrences were either functional or ambiguous, we could not claim clear support for a material understanding. If there are clear examples that can be only functional, and other clear examples that can only be material, then we would conclude that the verb could work in either kind of context, and ambiguous cases would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case-basis.”

In the 50 or so occurrences of bara in the Old Testament, “grammatical subjects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them.” Walton goes on to clarify, “That is, no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, though many are ambiguous.”

Is Genesis 1 talking about functional creation?

In The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton uses a number of analogies to highlight the difference between functional and material creation. Consider the creation of Solomon’s temple.

“We must draw an important distinction between the building of a temple and the creation of a temple,” Walton says, “. . . a temple is not simply an aggragate of fine materials subjected to expert craftsmanship. The temple uses that which is material, but the temple is not material. If God is not in it, it is not a temple. If rituals are not being performed by a serving priesthood, it is not a temple. If those elements are not in place, the temple does not exist in any meaningful way. A person does not exist if only represented by their corpse. It is the inauguration ceremony that transforms a pile of lumber, stone, gold and cloth into a temple.”

In other words, with functional creation, the act of bestowing a purpose on the materials is what actually determines the moment of creation. To many Christians, an explanation like this will almost immediately sound like an attempt to accommodate modern science, or to use science to interpret Scripture.

The problem, Walton argues, is actually the other way around—some Christians try to use the Bible as a science textbook. But when you look at what mattered to the ancient Hebrews, when you look how the ancient cultures around them describe creation, the functional creation of the earth is what was most important. The material creation was inherently assumed—it didn’t need to be explained in a step-by-step process.

Related post: 5 Questions to Ask When You Encounter New Ideas in Bible Scholarship

Genesis 1:27

Here’s the paragraph that I think best encapsulates Walton’s argument in The Lost World of Genesis One:

“If the seven days . . . concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not a conclusion designed to accommodate science—it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point is not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth. If it were to turn out that the earth is young, so be it. But most people who seek to defend a young-earth view do so because they believe that the Bible obligates them to such a defense.”

He is not suggesting that we cannot disagree with the scientific community—and in fact, he frequently suggests that we should disagree when the scientific community attempts to use what we know about the material world to “disprove” the spiritual world or determine the purpose of the material world (in other words, why we exist). But the biblical obligation to defend the material creation of the earth as “defined” by Genesis 1, Walton argues, simply does not exist.

“We need not defend the reigning paradigm in science about the age of the earth if we have scientific reservations, but we are under no compulsion to stand against a scientific view of an old earth because of what the Bible teaches.”

Now you may be wondering, “So if Genesis 1 isn’t about the material creation of the earth, when did that happen?”

Make no mistake: Walton absolutely believes God is the material creator of the earth as well, and he suggests (as I’ve quoted above) that the ancient Hebrews would have inherently understood God’s role as functional creator to also imply his role as the material creator.

Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple,” Walton says, “does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.”

Genesis 1:31

Why is Genesis chapter 1 so important?

For me, like some of you, interpretations of Genesis 1 have a very personal significance. To some, suggesting that Genesis 1 is talking about anything other than the material creation of the earth undermines the reliability of all of Scripture. Regardless of what Bible scholars say about Old Testament genres, to them, Genesis 1 must be taken literally. But as Walton suggests, in order to understand what the Bible is literally saying, you have to know what it was saying to the people it was originally written to.

On the other side of the spectrum, the church is bleeding—we regularly lose people to the perceived divide between religion and science. My brother and his wife both left the church after pursuing their biology degrees at a private Christian university—in part because they couldn’t reconcile what they were learning to be true about creation with the church’s inability to consider if that were in fact true.

My brother and his wife have M.A.’s in ecology and biology. I have a B.A. in English literature. My brother now works in a lab at a university, researching the human genome and studying the biology of Neanderthals. The conversation about functional creation vs. material creation in Genesis 1 doesn’t matter to me because I want to compromise Scripture for the sake of science—it matters to me because I love my brother. I want to use the best available apologetics as a conversational tool to point him to Jesus. And if the Bible doesn’t ask us to defend a particular position here, why create additional walls for unbelievers to overcome?

Walton addresses people caught in the middle of this perceived divide: “It seems to many that they have to make a choice: either believe the Bible and hold to a young earth, or abandon the Bible because of the persuasiveness of the case for an old earth. The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice. The Bible does not call for a young earth. Biblical faith need not be abandoned if one concludes from the scientific evidence that the earth is old.”

Again, Walton is not saying that one cannot make a case for a young earth. He’s saying that if Christians truly take Genesis 1 literally, the Bible doesn’t call for us to make that case.

How do I learn more about Genesis 1?

While there are certainly lots of incredible commentaries on Genesis out there, this is the perfect time to take advantage of Logos’ Free Book of the Month Plus One. All through February, you can get John Walton’s Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology for $1.99. (Though you should certainly check out The Lost World of Genesis One for yourself as well.)

In Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, Walton focuses less on the implications of Genesis 1 for the origins debate, and more on how ancient cosmology comes into play here. There is, however, a lot of overlap in the conversation.

Drawing heavily from ancient near eastern literature, Walton says, “My intention, first of all, is to understand the texts but also to demonstrate that a functional ontology pervaded the cognitive environment of the ancient near east.” In other words, he says, “I posit that, in the ancient world, bringing about order and functionality was the very essence of creative activity.”

After building his case for this pervasive functional ontology, Walton spends the second half of the book showing how this ontology affects our understanding of Genesis 1.

Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

You can get Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology for $1.99 all through February.

Comments

  1. Glen Tattersall says

    If I am reading this book summary correctly, then this book looks like another attempt to compromise the Bible with evolutionary theory. To those to the original readers, they would have understood that on Day 6 God created Man. The author seems to be suggesting that we might allow that through a process of millions of years of directed (theistic) evolution then human beings came into existence, but then “functionally” it occurred on one day – Day 6!

    There is good evidence to show that the evolution of man (either naturalistic or theistic) is a flawed concept; it is a pity that those who profess a belief in the Bible are ashamed of what it actually teaches and seek ways and means to compromise its message.

    I have no doubt that Moses, Jesus and the apostle Paul would have found making a difference between functional creation verses material creation a strange and false idea.

    • Ryan Nelson says

      I would say you’re reading the summary *mostly* correctly, but there are a few things missing here—and it’s entirely possible that it’s missing because of me—this is a 1,500 word article, not a 170 page book (the book really is a quick read, if you want to know if your objections can stand up to Walton’s arguments).

      The Lost World of Genesis One does not “compromise” the Bible with evolutionary theory. Walton argues that whether or not evolutionary theory is correct has no bearing on whether or not the Genesis 1’s account of creation is correct.

      Your assertion that the original readers would have understood that on day 6 God created man is missing Walton’s key arguments:

      1. The verb we translate as create had a different connotation than what us modern readers assume—this being evidenced by every other use of the verb in the Old Testament, none of which are definitively used to describe the process of material creation.

      2. Walton’s expertise in ancient near-eastern literature allows him to demonstrate that ancient cultures surrounding the Hebrews (the ones that constantly influenced the Jewish people, and whose worldviews the Old Testament was “up against”) described the functional creation of the world, not the material. This, he argues, indicates that ancient cultures in general were more preoccupied with the purpose of the world and everything in it—they didn’t need to answer the “how did we get here” questions beyond “God made it,” or else this other pagan thing made it. Our material, Western-modernist perspective is what brings up these “How did God ___” questions, and it often leads us to substitute the worldview Scripture presents for our own.

      Walton would agree with you that the ancient Hebrews would have inherently understood God’s role as functional creator to also imply his role as the material creator, but he’s written numerous articles and these books to explain why Genesis 1 is not telling the story of the material. It’s not telling the ancient Hebrews how God *built* the earth, it’s telling them the purpose of everything he built, mirroring the inauguration of a temple.

      I’m hardly an expert on Walton’s scholarship, but I would highly encourage you to see what Dr. Darrell Bock says we should do when we’re reading ideas like this (there are a lot of parallels here): https://blog.faithlife.com/blog/2015/09/5-questions-to-ask-when-you-encounter-new-ideas-in-bible-scholarship/

      • Remington says

        Regarding 1: What could have been materially created besides the universe? Seems to me all post-ex nihilo creation of matter must involve, by necessity, Walton’s notion of functional creation.

        2. It’s not Walton’s access to the facts of ANE cosmology that people have called into question. It’s his *interpretation* of those facts. Indeed his argument relies more on imposing a conceptual description and conceptual distinctions belong in the domain of philosophy, not ANE scholarship per se. This is why Walton has been heavily critiqued by analytic philosophers (like Lydia McGrew, which I linked to below, and William Lane Craig). Although he has also been critiqued by Bible scholars (like Collins – http://www.scribd.com/doc/143005290/Review-of-John-Walton-The-Lost-World-Of-Genesis-One-by-C-John-Collins#scribd).

        • Ryan Nelson says

          Thanks for sharing that review, Remington. It seemed to me that Collins’ largest frustration was that Walton bit off more than one can chew in a 170 page book, and that’s certainly fair.

          1. This is a fair question. Walton’s point about the use of bara is that we cannot definitively say, “this certainly means material creation”, to which he then adds his interpretations of what we know about ANE literature (bringing in your second objection).

          I believe what you’re saying circles back to the relationship between the functional and the material. Emphasizing one does not imply the nonexistence of the other—a point which is not lost on Walton as he explains that the ancient Hebrews would not have separated God’s role as the functional creator from his role as the material creator. If I understand correctly, your objection is that Walton is implying that functional and material creation can occur independently?

          It is a little confusing how material “creation” would work post-ex nihilo—when we “create” a building, or anything, we are in a sense simply assigning purpose to the materials that already exist. But it seems to me that this is what’s so tricky about cosmology. The building we create has countless *potential* functions, just as the materials we used to create it did, but it is not a school or a company until each piece of it has been assigned its purpose and begins to serve that purpose. There are plenty of flaws with the analogy, but my point is that the relationship between the functional creation and the material creation is complicated, and as you’ve pointed out, it is difficult to conceptually separate the two post-ex nihilo.

          I think, as Collins points out, I would need to read a longer treatment of Walton’s views and how he arrived at them in light of opposing views before I could say he has correctly or incorrectly applied ANE cosmology to Genesis 1.

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Chip Fields says

    I guess the question is (assuming a young earth for the moment): what would God have said in Gen 1.1 if He wanted the reader to assume a young earth?

    • says

      Walton explains clearly that the writer of Genesis 1, and thus God as the inspirer, doesn’t address the age of the earth and isn’t concerned with our interest in how or when the material universe came into existence. The point of Genesis 1 isn’t to address the age of the earth or the creation “out of nothing” of the cosmos. The point is how God established a functional cosmic temple.

      Because of our worldview and centuries of traditional interpretation of scripture, we want to impose our concerns (evolution/creation) onto the text. But that wasn’t the concern of the Genesis writer or God as the inspirer at all. Walton suggests we read the text as the Ancient Hebrew read it. Doing so, and you’ll conclude that establishing God’s Kingdom functionally in the cosmos is what Genesis 1 is all about. Later biblical authors like Paul were more concerned about the “ex nihilo” position, but the Genesis 1 writer and his first audience was not. I also recommend this book.

      • Remington says

        Doug,

        You’ve missed the point of Chip’s question. Chip is asking, given Walton’s hermeneutical or exegetical lens, how the author of Genesis could have possibly communicated the idea that God materially created in six days?

        If Walton’s hermeneutic has made it virtually impossible for the text to say something it plainly seems to be saying then Walton’s hermeneutic loses touch with reality. Walton’s system at this point is, ironically, sort of like the claim that the earth was created 5 minutes ago. There’s nothing we could say to disprove it.

      • Chip says

        Yes, I understand what Walton believes the writer of Gen 1 intends to convey (or, not convey). What I am asking is, assuming a young earth for the moment, if the writer of Gen 1 wanted to lead the reader to assume a young earth, created in six 24-hour day, what would the writer have said?

        • says

          I think the question would have been so baffling to the writer and so foreign to his worldview, he wouldn’t have been able to formulate a response aside God’s question to Job’s, “Where were you?” God’s point: it’s purposely unknowable and not at all the point of the Hebrew Bible. The creation of Israel is the point of the Hebrew Bible , not the creation of the material universe. And like Israel, God used a process over time. Perhaps he used 6 seconds, or perhaps he used 6 billion years. Who cares? Time is relative anyway, and irrelevant to what scripture is all about: God’s plan to convert the universe to his cosmic temple full of his presence and administered by his imagers in Christ Jesus.

          • Steve says

            It appears to me that much learning doth bring about confusion. The writer is not the creator of his words that he has written. It is God. And He has transcribed them full of His own meaning. Ancient writers do not have to understand what God tells them to write, nor do we have to believe that the Words of God in Genesis are simply for an uneducated, ancient simple-minded person. They are full of life and meaning. Therefore, God wrote those things for us to read and simply understand, not get PhD’s.

  3. says

    There was of course creation before God formed (bara) our planet. For example angels like Satan, the fallen angel, existed before. What if God created our planet and took it later to do all things in six days through his son, and rested on the Sabbath after all he had done? Fact is he did all things in literal days, from evening to evening. It was very good. And it is till now, although things went wrong.

    • John says

      I’ve thought that perhaps the reason the sun doesn’t show up until mid-way through Gen 1 Creation is to make sure thousands of years later people do NOT try and make the Genesis story into a science. Clearly a solar day could not have been the answer if sol was not yet there. So clearly there is another angle to this that as the author seems to suggest, we have lost along the way

  4. Brett Jones says

    It matters little what men say about Genesis 1 but it matters much what the LORD says concerning it. He has made His thoughts quite clear. Exodus 20:8–11 (NLT)
    “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.”

    When Scripture ceases to be the authority, one has no authority.

    • says

      Everyday is the Sabbath because we rest in Jesus Christ. He is the Sabbath. Under the Mosaic Law the Hebrews were to obey that because Jesus hadn’t been born. When Jesus was born He became our Sabbath. We don’t have to obey “laws” anymore. What we do have to do is believe in Christ and what He accomplished on Calvary. It’s by His blood sacrifice that took care of “sins dominion” over men. The Father sees His righteousness not ours. In Romans 8:1 it says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh (Law), but after the Spirit.” What does this have to do with “material Creation or Functional Creation? Everything! Hebrews 11:3 “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Faith that the Triune GodHead and this Scripture that says it all: Colossians “For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him:” and John 1:3 “All things were created by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made.”

  5. says

    I see the following difficulties with Walton’s approach.
    1. He assumes that comparative studies provides an accurate window to the worldview of the biblical authors. But arriving at the correct interpretation of the biblical authors’ views is complicated by the number of assumptions that are in play. For instance, there are no ancient texts from Palestine that reveal what Palestinian cosmology was. The assumption is that they would be similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian views, but even within Mesopotamian culture there are multiple cosmologies. In addition, comparative material requires interpretation just as much as Scripture does. Interpretations based on new discoveries in background material are not necessarily more reliable than traditional interpretations derived from careful study of the text of Scripture. Misreading background material is not uncommon. Many of the alleged parallels between customs at Mari or Nuzi and biblical texts have turned out to be false.
    2. Walton has to adopt a troubling approach to inerrancy to make his view work. Walton holds that the authors of Scripture believed a solid dome held back the waters above, while we know that no such dome exists. In an attempt to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy, Walton appeals to speech act theory in The Lost World of Scripture: “Inerrancy and authority are related to the illocution; accommodation and genre attach to the locution. Therefore inerrancy and authority cannot be undermined, compromised or jeopardized by genre or accommodation.” As he further explains, “So, for example, it is no surprise that ancient Israel believed in a solid sky, and God accommodated his locution to that model in his communication to them.” But here Walton imposes the recent development of speech-act theory onto the doctrine of inerrancy. This modern imposition seems contrary to Walton’s methodical preference for understanding texts in their original cultural and historical context. This stands in contrast to Warfield who held that while the authors of Scripture may have held erroneous views, and while Scripture on certain points could be vague enough to accommodate both correct and incorrect views of the world, Scripture never expresses an incorrect view of the world. In fact, though Walton uses the language of inerrancy, his position is closer to the infallibalist position, which teaches that the Bible is trustworthy in matters pertaining to salvation and Christian living but may contain errors in historical, geographic, or scientific detail.
    3. Walton’s insistence that comparative studies is necessary to rightly understanding Scripture undermines the doctrine of sola scriptura. When the Reformers challenged medieval views of tradition they not only rejected the idea that tradition stands alongside Scripture and contributes new revelation but they also rejected the view that tradition provides no new information but does provide the correct interpretation of Scripture. This latter view seems similar to Walton’s approach to comparative material. ANE background stands over Scripture and determines the right interpretation. The Reformers actually valued tradition a great deal, and we should value ANE comparative material a great deal, but just as the Reformers rejected assigning tradition an authoritative role in the interpretation of Scripture, so we should reject assigning comparative materials an authoritative role in the interpretation of Scripture.
    4. Walton’s view struggles when it comes to affirming the doctrine of original sin. His is open not only the possibility of death before Adam, but he is also open to the possibility of human death and even human sin before Adam. In addition, he argues that Adam and Eve were created mortal. Disobedience to God did not result in a new state of affairs in which death reigned. Instead, it simply means Adam and Eve were denied the antidote to death. Walton’s new theory about Genesis 1 not only affects the Christian doctrine of Creation, but it also results in significant alterations to the doctrines of the Fall and of Redemption. Al Wolters notes in Creation Regained, “The first three chapters of Genesis are crucial . . . Genesis 1 and 2 speak of the good creation and mankind’s task within it; Genesis 3 tells the story of the fall and its consequences. The importance of this sequence lies in the fact that there is no corruption of the earth before the fall—an unstained creation is possible. The good creation precedes, and is therefore distinct form the fall and its effects. Evil cannot be blamed on the good creation, but only on the fall.”
    5. Finally, I think Walton’s thesis that Genesis 1 is about the dedication of the cosmic temple is exegetically shaky. Not only does Walton concede that the idea of the cosmos as a temple “difficult to document in the ancient world,” but Daniel Block has recently critiqued the idea that Eden/the cosmos was viewed by the authors as a temple in an essay in From Creation to New Creation (that the tabernacle/temple was to represent the cosmos is, I think, clear; it is not clear that one can conclude the reverse from this). More significantly, even if the cosmos is viewed as a cosmic temple, Walton struggles to demonstrate that Genesis 1 is about a functional dedication rather than about a physical creation. Walton makes this claim due to the fact that many ancient Near Eastern temple dedications lasted seven days. Yet Walton must concede that ancient temple dedications were not uniformly seven days in length. Perhaps those that were simply reflect the fact that a full week is an appropriate length of time for something as significant as a temple dedication. Walton’s argument would be more impressive if Moses had emphasized a seven day tabernacle dedication in a way that made clear connections to Genesis 1. If Moses intended the readers to understand the creation week as a temple inauguration, it would make sense for him to reinforce this with the tabernacle narrative. Thus its absence there is striking. The best Walton can do here is note that the Bible does not say whether the events in Exodus 40 took place in one day or over multiple days. He tries to bolster his case by noting that it did take place in connection with the new year (Ex. 40:2, 17), and in Babylon the new year was often a time for reenacting the temple inauguration (the Akitu festival). This observation does not help much, however, since there is no evidence that Israel had yearly inauguration reenactments. Thus Walton is forced to speculate: “The Bible contains no clear evidence of such festivals, but some see hints that they think point in that direction. It would be no surprise if they had such a festival and would be theologically and culturally appropriate.” This seems more like wishful thinking than marshaling convincing argumentation.
    So in the end, Walton is asking us to accept a shaky exegetical reading of Genesis 1 and 2, based on disputed readings of comparative materials, with the result that we must reconfigure our doctrines of inerrancy, sufficiency of Scripture, original sin, creation, and possibly even redemption. That sounds like a very high cost to me.

  6. says

    I should grant that there is an attraction to the apologetic value of Walton’s approach. I don’t think Walton is out to compromise the faith. I think he has a genuine concern that Christianity will lose its plausibility for many people unless there is some way to reconcile Genesis 1 and 2 with evolutionary science.
    But in coming up with an interpretation of Genesis 1 that serves as an apologetic to the major scientific objection to Christianity, Walton (and others) end up harming the apologetic defense against the major philosophic objection to Christianity: the problem of evil. Many philosophers, Christian and otherwise, think that Alvin Plantinga has provided a cogent defense regarding humans and the problem of evil (the free will defense). The discussion has now shifted to the problem of animal suffering and death. Michael J. Murray, in Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Suffering, notes the common objections: “In light of the evolutionary carnage, Kitcher finds it incredible that theists can sustain belief in an all-wise, benevolent creator: ‘[Were we to imagine] a human analogue peering down over a miniaturized version of this arrangement—peering down over his creation—it’s hard to equip the face with a kindly expression.” Murray notes that Darwin himself recognized the problem when he notes that “‘the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time’ are apparently irreconcilable with the existence of a creator of ‘unbounded’ goodness.” He represents the view of philosopher William Rowe, “What kind of God, he asks, could possibly permit preventable suffering in an animal that lacks moral responsibility, if, as seems to be the case, that suffering exists and serves no purpose?” Though C. E. M. Joad was willing to grant the free will defense to the problem of evil, he then says, “But now I come to a difficulty, to which I see no solution; indeed, it is in the hope of learning one that this article is written. This is the difficulty of animal pain, and, more particularly, of the pain of the animal world before man appeared upon the cosmic scene.”
    The classic solution to the problem of natural evil is to tie its entrance into the world to Adam’s fall. Yet this approach is not available to those who adopt Walton’s thesis. John Feinberg, the evangelical theologian who has spent the most time wrestling with the problem of evil, finds the problem of natural evil is so significant that he believes it is one of three theological reasons for rejecting old-earth theories.
    How to address the scientific objection to Christianity. I would note that in the past Christian apologists felt under a great deal of pressure to accommodate the opening chapters of Genesis to Platonic and Aristotelian views of science. In a thousand years, no doubt Darwinism too will have been replaced by another paradigm. So the question comes down to which is more trustworthy: revelation from God or shifting scientific paradigms. This is, doubtless, a more difficult case to make than you can have the Bible and evolutionary science too. But it is a case that the Holy Spirit has effectively made in the hearts of numerous scientists.

  7. Remington says

    For a critique of Walton’s nearly incoherent argument see here:

    http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/03/review_of_john_h_waltons_the_l.html

    Another criticism I’ve raised is this: Walton says he still believes in creation ex nihilo, he just doesn’t think it’s taught in Genesis 1. So *where* is the idea taught in Scripture then? Any verse that Walton attempts to cite (e.g., Heb. 11:3) I can apply his functional/material distinction to it and raise skepticism that this verse is about *material* creation. Thus, we could never arrive at the doctrine. Now it might not be problematic, per se, to say that the Bible does not teach creation ex nihilo… but the problem is in the hermeneutical lens Walton introduces which makes it virtually impossible for the text to say that God created ex nihilo.

  8. Glenn Hawkins says

    I haven’t read either book yet. I just bought them and plan on devouring them-meaning that I want to thoroughly go “Berean” on them.

    One thought I have, and the lens I look at this subject through, is that death was not part of the original creation. Death entered the world through the sin of Adam, and in reality, ultimately through Lucifer’s rebellion. Therefore, if science is to “help us” understand cosmology, origins, specifically, have to be explained sans death. If one can hold to an old earth theory in this way, I’m definitely open to embracing it.

    Second, I’ve always had questions about Gen 1:2, where right after the overarching statement of God creating the heavens and the earth, the “picture” switches to an already created unformed “mass” of waters and darkness. Why the picture switch? Why didn’t Genesis 1:2 say something to the effect, “And God said, “let there be waters and let there be darkness over the waters” before the declaration that Moses made in Genesis 1:2? Could this lend credence to Walton’s functional ontology idea?

    My point in this, and what I’m eagerly anticipating Walton’s take on this, is, am I, as one who tenaciously holds to the innerancy of Scripture, guilty of some diachronic viewing of the creation narrative? I’m convinced that the heart of so much of our problems in the church today is that we allow our opponents to diachronically view Scripture–and we accept their premise, and thereby buy into their conclusion that the Bible is outdated, i.e., slavery. But if we would in convincing fashion present a synchronic approach to those same issues, then things might not be so caustic when proclaiming biblical truth to a given issue, and perhaps non-Christians might be open to their need for the gospel, which is, of course, also based on Scripture.

    If Walton is presenting a view of Christian cosmology that insists we view Scripture synchronically and the resulting understanding of the worldview of the original recepients of Genesis, i.e., they were not asking for a step-by-step understanding of how things came to be (isn’t that approach the daughter of the scientific method?), then it seems to me, again, not having yet read the book, that Walton has done a great service to the church, and particularly the pastors who are charged with preaching the WORD and rightly dividing the word of Truth, instead of what could amount to an unwarranted theological bias.

    • David says

      Your comment: ” a view of Christian cosmology that insists we view Scripture synchronically and the resulting understanding of the worldview of the original recepients of Genesis, i.e., they were not asking for a step-by-step understanding of how things came to be (isn’t that approach the daughter of the scientific method?), ” seems to paint with an enormously wide brush. The width of that assertion invites the response that sequential narrative is not necessarily a product of the so-called scientific methodology. The grounds, morphological, grammatical & otherwise for discussing Genesis 1 as an ordered narrative are not quite that easily laid aside. (The linguistic markers in Gen 2’s narration allow for many more pluperfects in translation than Gen 1…)

  9. Philip Fisher says

    Well, I can’t buy all this. I am a young earth creationist. For the last 68 years that I have been alive, I have been reading and teaching God’s Word from the KJV to a number of the new translations and been introduced to the languages in seminary believe with all my heart and soul that this is God’s Word faithfully delivered to us in this generation. First, I do not believe that we have to reconcile evolutionary theory to God’s Word. Secondly, I believe as scripture implies in 2 Tim 3:16-17 that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. Growing up I accepted Genesis 1-2 verbatim. But the time I went off to a Christian college in my late 20’s and seminary in my early to mid 30’s I had reconciled the creation story by accepting theistic evolution. It was not until I heard someone preaching on the creation and begun to research the evidence that I returned to what the Word of God says. The problem today is people are listening to the world and not to God’s Word. I have an open mind, but not on this.

    • Ryan Nelson says

      Dr. Walton isn’t asking Christians to abandon YEC or suggesting that the Bible argues against it. Each of your points here are addressed in the book, but perhaps I could have done a better job explaining Walton’s position on each of these points in the blog post.

      1. Walton is not suggesting that the Bible has been improperly translated. He is suggesting that we have assigned meaning to the text that wasn’t there for the original readers or writers. Whether or not this is the case in this particular instance, we cannot deny that we do this as modern readers studying an ancient text out of context.

      2. Walton is not trying to reconcile evolutionary theory. He is starting with Scripture and the worldview of the people who first wrote and read it.

      3. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that your citation of Timothy 3:16–17 is suggesting that if Genesis 1 is not explaining the material creation of the earth, it would no longer be valuable for teaching or training in righteousness? This verse isn’t even saying the Bible is infallible—just that it’s God-breathed and useful—and Walton isn’t even arguing against the infallibility of Scripture, so I’m not sure I understand what you mean here.

      You say, “The problem today is people are listening to the world and not to God’s Word,” but Walton is arguing that the problem is actually that we are reading Scripture through the eyes of a modern world, and that has led us to believe that the Bible says things that it does not.

      Brian and Remington have brought up a lot of valid questions/critiques of Walton’s argument in the comments above, but it isn’t valuable to any of us if we argue without knowing what someone else is actually trying to say.

  10. Rick Taillefer says

    The 4th Commandment is based on a literal understanding of Genesis 1. God rested on the 7th literal day of Creation, therefore, He told Israel to remember the Sabbath.

  11. Keith Moncrief says

    Seems that if you interpret Gen. 1 in a way that allows for evolution (i.e. death before God pronounces the curse on Adam and Eve and the Creation as a result of Adam’s disobedience), that you have effectively destroyed the foundation on which much of the rest (of the most fundamental) of Christian doctrine rests. You end up having to reinterpret Gen. 3 along with many other portions of Scripture. That’s profoundly problematic for me. I believe that the interpretation of any particular section of Scripture needs to be in harmony with (not at odds with or contradictory to) the clear teaching of the rest of God’s word. If it isn’t, its time to put on the brakes and reconsider it.

    • says

      How so? Of course there was death before Adam’s sin. Plants died. Bacteria died. Insects died. Animals outside the garden died or were dying. If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Life, they would of died. Adam’s sin caused them to be banished from the ToL and so they eventually died because they were rendered mortal. Mortality = death. We sin because we are mortal flesh, which is why we die as Christ and now must consider ourselves immortal in Christ. That’s why we are free from sin: we don’t consider ourselves mortal anymore thanks to Jesus.

      Walton’s point, which so many in this discussion have missed, is the ancient writer wasn’t concerned with evolution/creation of the material universe. It’s not an attempt to “compromise”, but an attempt to understand what the ancient writer was interested in: God creating his government on earth, i.e., establishing the Kingdom of God. That’s the whole point of Gen 1. The most important creative acts in the Bible are not the creation of the universe, but of the creation of Israel, and the creation of God’s Temple on earth… again… this is ultimately what Gen 1 is all about: temple cosmology and the point of why Jesus came, to establish the Kingdom. Walton’s “Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology” is much needed for the greater Body to understand its role on earth and I highly recommend it.

      When we moderns want to read science into Genesis – whether you read YEC or Day-Age or Old Earth or whatever – you are applying a foreign concept to the biblical text. In other words, it has nothing to do with evolution or creation of the material universe. It has to do with organizing the existing chaotic material into a functional cosmos of God’s temple.

  12. John says

    Not having read Walton’s book, I like the premise. My view of Genesis has been that it is a story of WHY and WHO and not about actual creation of the universe. The son showing up mid way through creation is a perfect proof. If Genesis is intended as a scientific account, then we obviously can not have a 24 hour solar day in the absence of sol (the sun). Perhaps having the sun late in the process is to help those of us now thousands of years removed from the writing to avoid trying to make a scientific treatise out of a spiritual account. My thoughts have long been that Christ taught in parables and he did so often, and with that in mind many of the issues with Genesis can be resolved by viewing it in that vein. I just don’t think that God created a universe filled with tricks to confuse us into thinking it’s old when it’s not.

    Walton sounds like he has an even better analysis. if the original writing was designed to talk about the laying of the Spirit of the Lord onto and over and within his creation such that man now had God in him and the account is one of spiritual origins etc. If that is supported by his assessment it seems a better answer than mine and I like it. Basically, he is saying… The Bible never intended to state that the material universe was created in seven 24 hour days…. that is modern man losing subtleties that ancient man understood as they were part of that eras thought processes. He’s not taking anything from the Bible…. he’s merely suggesting that we may be adding meaning based on a scientific modern world view that really was never there.

  13. says

    I certainly dont have a masters degree in literature or hermenuetics, but seems clear the ancients did not seperate genesis into chapters. I think it a very liberal reach to say that the genealogy of genesis, which includes the first created man (definitely not evolved man) leaves no account for millions of years. The days are clear. Genesis nor the bible in whole was written as a science textbook nor as a book of poetry or complete world history…. But clearly, whatever the bible says on the subject of science must be true, same for history… If the Bible is anything other than TRUtH on whatever subject it addreses we ALL have a major problem. I have enjoyed the discussion, but nothing new here. Genesis stands in its accurate english interpretation and understanding does not require a secret code or masters degree. Even simple guys like me can discern the truth.

  14. says

    The argument, either way, is not the cornerstone of the truth and validity of creation or faith. Jesus summed up the real question when He asked His disciples, "Who do you say I am?" If one answers this correctly most other questions, issues, dogmas can be "negotiated." If one answers this question wrong then none of the rest matters. Many doctrines of denominations and directives divide earnest people of faith; yet, the simply statement: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!" should draw the Body together, despite all else!

  15. Tony Cheung says

    May I suggest that Logos would also publish, if possible, “Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation” (Ed. J D Charles). This book gives different views on reading/interpreting Genesis including John Walton’s functional view. It would be better for the readers to weigh between the various views and come to their own conclusion.
    I personally would rather read Genesis 1-3 in light of John 1.

    • Ryan Nelson says

      Great idea, Tony. You can suggest new resources by emailing suggest@logos.com. We do our best to offer a wide array of perspectives and currently offer over 55,000 resources for you to select from. If we don’t have a book you want, it’s likely that we are still in the process of negotiating the license to that resource with the publisher (it takes a lot of work to tag resources and integrate them with Logos features), or it simply hasn’t been brought to our attention yet.

      In the meantime, we also have The Genesis Collection—125 volumes of works about Genesis, including modern, classic, and ancient commentaries. It represents the perspectives of 116 authors and 68 publishers. You can learn more about it here: http://bit.ly/1Q9iXIf

      I certainly hope that you will always come to your own conclusions based on careful study, and that the blog continues to be a place where you can encounter ideas or resources without feeling obligated to accept them as the only perspectives.

  16. Dr Chibueze Ukaegbu says

    I believe that verses 1 and 2 of Genesis Chapter one holds the answer to the seeming confusion between material creation and functional creation as the author posists. Genesis Chapter1:1,2 says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void; and the darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water”. From what follows in verse 3, it is clear that this first creation is independent of the six days creation. Darkness and waters were not created in the six days. Earth was not created in the six days creation. God asked the waters under heaven to gather together and the dry land that appeared from that command, HE called earth. See verse 9. The age of the waters and the dry land was not specified. They were already in existence, created by God before the six days creation. No one can say if it was days, months, years, thousands of years or millions of years that those existed before the six days creation. Science does therefore not take away anything from God’s creation of the earth. Genesis chapter one encapsulates the totality of God’s creation over all that exists, either in the six days creation or early creation before the six days.

  17. Randy says

    No where in the scriptures does the bible actually stipulate that this world is only approximately 6000 years old. Where most Christians go wrong in reading Genesis chapter one isn’t necessarily in the use of the word “created” (Or bara), it’s that in most English translations, the word “was”, as used in chapter 1 verse 2 (“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”) should be translated “became”. When it is first used in the verse, the word “was” in the original Hebrew manuscripts is actually “hayah”, which means “became”. It’s important when reading the bible to always “rightly divide” it (II Timothy 2:15), and to be able to do that, we need to know it as a whole. It’s easy to just point the finger at this verse, and say that God made the world as a void and empty place from the get go some 6000 years ago, but again, that would be misunderstanding the Word as a whole. There are a number of scriptures in the Bible that declare that God in fact didn’t create the world as a formless and void place in the beginning. Something happened to make it “become” that way, and that event is know in the Hebrew as the “Kataballo”, which means the “Overthrow/Casting Down”. The first sin that was committed is usually thought to have been murder; Cain murdered his brother Abel. Though it’s true that was a grave sin, that was by no means the first sin committed. Pride (and coveting) was the first sin, and this was committed by Satan (the Devil). God would punish Satan by casting him out of heaven, to the earth, and this event in the scriptures is called the Kataballo. “In the beginning” God truly made the world a wonderful and perfect place (Isaiah 45:18-19-He created it NOT in vain, but he formed it to be inhabited), but unfortunately Satan’s pride got the better of him, and he coveted (wanted) to sit on the very throne of God. For this sin he was “cast down”, and this is where our gap between verses one and two comes in. Verse three now actually picks up after the Kataballo, and through the rest of the verses in the first chapter, God goes through putting the world back in “order” after the overthrow and fall of Satan. The rest of the verses mostly pick up in history around 4000B.C, and this is why a lot of Christians believe the world to be only 6000 years old (4000B.C.+2000 A.D.=6000 years old). This present “age” may only be around 6000 thousand years old, but through looking into the scriptures a little deeper, one can begin to see that the Bible states that the world is much older than that. This is why science and the Bible really do line up a lot, if you know where to look in the Word. After all, we are finding Dinosaur bones and fossils all over the world that we can date back to being millions of years old, and if we understand that there was an “age” before the Kataballo, this becomes much easier to align with the Bible.

    I’m definitely not supporting evolution. I’m just making the point that the account of “creation” as given in the beginning of the book of genesis isn’t actually talking about the very beginning of God’s creations on the earth. The earth was probably created millions of years before Genesis 1:2 picks up the story.

    I think Dr E.W. Bullinger’s appendix 146 in his work on The Companion Bible explains the subject really well; to quote his appendix here:

    “The Foundation of the World”

    “To arrive at the true meaning of this expression, we must note that there are two words translated “foundation” in the New Testament: (1) themelios, and (2) katabole.
    The Noun, themelios, occurs in Luke 6:48, 49; 14:29; Acts 16:26. Romans 15:20. 1Corinthians 3:l0, 11, 12. Ephesians 2:20. 1Timothy 6:19. 2Timothy 2:19. Hebrews 6:1; 11:10. Revelation 21:14, 19, 19. It is never used of the world (kosmos) or the earth (ge). The corresponding Verb (themelioo) occurs in Matthew 7:25. Luke 6:48. Ephesians 3:17. Colossians 1:23. Hebrews 1:10 and 1Peter 5:10. The verb is only once used of the earth (ge). Hebrews 1:10.
    A comparison of all these passages will show that these are proper and regular terms for the English words “to found”, and “foundation”.
    The Noun, katabole, occurs in Matthew 13:35; 25:34. Luke 11:50. John 17:24. Ephesians 1:4. Hebrews 4:3; 9:26; 11:11. 1Peter 1:20. Revelation 13:8; 17:8; and the corresponding Verb (kataballo) occurs in 2Corinthians 4:9. Hebrews 6:1; and Revelation 12:10.
    A comparison of all these passages (especially 2Corinthians 4:9, and Revelation 12:10) will show that kataballo and katabole are not the proper terms for founding and foundation, but the correct meaning is casting down, or overthrow.
    Consistency, therefore, calls for the same translation in Hebrews 6:1, where, instead of “not laying again”, the rendering should be “not casting down”. That is to say, the foundation already laid, of repentance, etc., was not to be cast down or overthrown, but was to be left and progress made unto the perfection.
    Accordingly, the Noun katabole, derived from, and cognate with the Verb, ought to be translated “disruption”, or “ruin”. The remarkable thing is that in all occurrences (except Hebrews 11:11) the word is connected with “the world” (Greek kosmos. Appendix 129 .1), and therefore the expression should be rendered “the disruption (or ruin) of the world”, clearly referring to the condition indicated in Genesis 1:2, and described in 2Peter 3:5, 6. For the earth was not created tohu (Isaiah 45:18), but became so, as stated in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:2 and confirmed by 2Peter 3:6, where “the world that then was by the word of God” (Genesis 1:1), perished, and “the heavens and the earth which are now, by the same word” were created (Genesis 2:4), and are “kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment” (2Peter 3:7) which shall usher in the “new heavens and the new earth” of 2Peter 3:13.
    “The disruption of the world” is an event forming a great dividing line in the dispensations of the ages. In Genesis 1:1 we have the founding of the world (Hebrews 1:10 = themelioo), but in Genesis 1:2 we have its overthrow.
    This is confirmed by a further remarkable fact, that the phrase, which occurs ten times, is associated with the Preposition apo = from (Appendix 104. iv) seven times, and with pro = before (Appendix 104. xiv) three times. The former refers to the kingdom, and is connected with the “counsels” of God; the latter refers to the Mystery (or Secret. See Appendix 193) ¹ and is connected with the “purpose” of God (see John 17:24. Ephesians 1:4. 1Peter 1:20).
    Ample New Testament testimony is thus given to the profoundly significant fact recorded in Genesis 1:2, that “the earth became tohu and bohu (that is to say, waste and desolate); and darkness was on the face of the deep”, before the creation of “the heavens and the earth which are now” (2Peter 3:7).”

  18. says

    Danny, you are so close. Jesus did ask "Who am I?' and this is the critical question. He also boldly proclaimed; "I AM the way, the TRUTH and the Light!" For this He was crucified. The question goes back to Genesis because it is the question that establishes why we need a savior in the first place. The book of Genesis establishes that God is the creator, man is the created. God has revealed Himself through His creation in general and more specifically through His Word. The foundational question Adam and Eve failed to give the right answer to is who is the created and who is the creator? Mankind has been trying to skirt that question to some degree or another ever since that historical event. First, we know the time of the event from the clear description of days and years in the TRUE historical account. Second, we know that TRUTH comes from the creator, and LIES come from the attempts to subvert truth. Science is man's knowledge. Wisdom is God's right application of knowledge. Science that seeks the TRUTH about God's creation is good, it could even be termed worship; seeking after Gods general revelation. Like most disciplines, men (kind) subverts the worship of God and the acknowledgement of WHO HE IS when science proclaims to know TRUTH that denies Him as author of truth. All men (kind) fall short of answering the question of who is the creator, that is why we need the Love and Grace of Jesus. God has given us a second chance to the answer the question correctly. Jesus pleaded with Philip to recognize the Father in Himself. May God bless you, YOU ARE ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION AND SEEKING THE RIGHT ANSWER IN THE RIGHT PLACE.

  19. says

    Mark Barr, rest assured I have answered it, my brother. One can say creation took six days; another can say it took x-number of years. I'm good with that! The Creator spoke the word and the Creator was the Word. It seems to me that this happened in the "mind" of God. The rest was just the details! Chicken before the egg; egg before the chicken? It all "hatched" through the Word!

  20. says

    I don’t understand why no one has heard of the polemic interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. It seems so clear to me.

    Genesis wasn’t a historical description of how we came to be nor was it a purely made up story. It was a polemic against other ancient creation accounts. I’m writing a series on creation/evolution and have a post detailing the polemic interpretation of Genesis (see part 4 here: http://practical-christianity.com/).

  21. Molly Crocker says

    “My brother and his wife both left the church after pursuing their biology degrees at a private Christian university—in part because they couldn’t reconcile what they were learning to be true about creation with the church’s inability to consider if that were in fact true.

    “My brother and his wife have M.A.’s in ecology and biology.”

    I’m going to suggest here that THIS is the crux of the article. Because why try to offer a path to an older earth? Having God pick six separate days to perform those creative acts is not any different than having God do it in six consecutive days. Evolutionary ‘science’ supports neither view.

    I’m going to suggest that it was NOT science that drew your brother and his wife away from Christianity. There are LOTS of stories of scientists who became believers in God/creationism, or had that belief reinforced BECAUSE of their study of science. These include astronomers and molecular biologists. I hesitate to name them here for fear of getting them fired from their jobs as researchers and professors.

    No, I’m afraid your brother and his wife left their faith because science allowed them to do so. Science became their god, and evolution its prophet. A deep study of their science is likelier to win them back sooner than a waffly interpretation of ‘day’.

    • Ryan Nelson says

      I suppose that’s what I get for sharing a piece of my personal life, but no, Dr. John Walton of Wheaton College has not been discussing this for decades because my brother and his wife abandoned their faith for science. And yes, of course their were other factors, all of which deeply matter to me.

      From your explanation about the six days, it seems like you missed the point of Walton’s argument. He is not suggesting that the material creation occurred on six separate days. He is suggesting that Genesis 1 is not discussing the material creation of the earth, and that while God did obviously materially create the earth, Genesis 1 is not that story. There are plenty of scholarly objections to Walton’s interpretations, but those are based on an accurate understanding of his actual arguments. His interpretation of “day” was not even part of the discussion. His contribution to the conversation is not that the Bible is talking about literal days (he says it unquestionably IS talking about 24 hour days), but that “create” didn’t mean to the Israelites what it means to us.

      Saying there are “LOTS” of stories of scientists who became believers in creationism because of their study of science is a relative statement. In the professional scientific community there is a nearly unanimous agreement on evolution. There are far more examples people who reject their faith specifically because of the conflict the church and the handful of scientists whose stories are held up as examples of “true Christian scientists” create. Creationists certainly do hold positions in the scientific community and make contributions to science, but the fact that creationists are vocal does not mean they are widely represented. There are far more Christians in the scientific community who accept evolution, and yes, their expertise in understanding the truth of God’s creation does affect how they understand God’s Word. God’s Word and his creation are both true. What we know about one can inform our understanding of the other, but our interpretation of one does not dictate the truth of the other. That goes both ways.

      If we as the church are creating these barriers between science and Scripture, not the Bible, then the works of scholars like Dr. Walton absolutely matters. Scholarly objections to his works matter as well, because it is all part of the larger conversation as we seek truth. If there are biblical objections to our understanding of the truth, we should hear them—whether that serves to alter our beliefs, or to reinforce them.

  22. says

    Gen 1 is obviously the functional creation of the earth as God's temple. If we go all the way to Rev we see a new temple which I believe the text demands us to understand the new earth, where Heaven and earth colide. John I believe saw the world as a fallen temple of God and the cross and resurrection along with the second coming was the remaking of that temple which we first hear about in Gen 1.
    Gen 1 is not giving us a time table for material creation as much as it is giving us the account of the ordering of God's temple.
    When God rested on the the seventh day, he did not stop working! He simply stopped building the temple. He then set at rest on His throne and ruled.

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