Genesis 1 as functional creation, not structural days

Posted: 30th April 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

HT to Steve (Undeception) who provided a link to a 2003 presentation on “Genesis and Cosmology” by Dr. John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Walton presents the position that Genesis 1 does not describe structural Creation (physical things), but instead describes functional Creation, the concepts that organize and drive the universe:

Those who take the Bible seriously as a document of their faith have struggled over the last centuries trying to reconcile what they read in their Bible to what they read in the scientific literature (popular or professional). While scientists have been positing an old age for the cosmos, many traditional Christians have considered such a conclusion contradictory to the account of Genesis 1. The discussion has often been premised on the presupposition that God created all matter in seven days. Consequently, various camps have arisen offering diverse explanations of how long the seven days were and where those seven days ought to be located in time vis a vis cosmic history in order to accommodate this premise. In this paper we will reevaluate the premise that the Bible teaches that matter was created in seven days (of whatever length) and propose a new reading of Genesis 1 based on an ancient worldview (rather than the common concordist approaches) seeking to discover what the chapter proposes concerning the seven days of Genesis. Our findings will help us to reconsider what the Bible demands concerning the age of the cosmos.

For Walton, Genesis 1:3-5 is not about the creation of physical light, it is about the creation of time as an organizing principle of the universe. Similarly, Day 2 (1:6-8 ) is the basis of weather and Day 3 (1:9-13) is the basis of vegetation. These three functions (time, weather and vegetation) are the primary ways that God created how life worked.

For the entire presentation (~50 minutes, followed by a Q&A session), including Walton’s discussion of Days 4-6, the nature of God’s rest and the function of the created cosmos as a representation of the ANE temple (including the garden of Eden), click this link, then click on the photo of John Walton (bottom left). Walton speaks fluidly to his audience and obviously has command of this topic.

** Update ** John Hobbins has written a response to Dr. Walton’s position in which he rebuts the argument that “Genesis 1 is concerned only with the assignment of functions to things” and is “not concerned with the formational history of the things of which the universe is made.” Click here for John’s discussion.

** Update ** John has posted a formal reply by Dr. Walton to the previous post on Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

  1. TC says:

    Elshaddai, I have to listen to the lecture and O&A before I dive in. Besides, I have Dr. Walton commentary on Genesis. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Steve says:

    I want to emphasize that although Dr. Walton’s presentation is excellent, this is not a Walton original. In fact, I was so jazzed about it a few years ago, I described the schema to a grad student in ancient history and he basically yawned and said, “Yeah, although there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it.” He confirmed that most ANE scholars would agree with that understanding of the mindset of the ancients and the purpose of Genesis 1 as redefining the old views in terms of the Israelite God. Walton’s in a special position, because he’s at Wheaton and he’s very conservative about Scripture. In fact, he expresses his dislike of the idea of evolution in his NIV commentary on Genesis; by no means is he just some liberal academic.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. This perspective really changed things for me, especially Walton’s theological critique of the modern era that mistakenly believes that function is a consequence of structure – this is materialism – when in fact the ancient understanding was that function is a consequence of purpose. I think it’s both, but Christians so often fall into lock step with materialism that says, “If we find a physical cause, we remove God from the equation.” That’s just not true. God’s purpose for the universe is primary (He wants it to rain), even while enacted through structural means (a cold front comes through).

  3. Dave says:

    This is a good presentation.

    I would agree with Steve (for once!) that Purpose gives rise to Function isn’t mutually exclusive of Structure giving rise to Function. I think that all 3 would have to be present for a full understanding of how things work and why. I believe thats what the early scientists (who were largely Christians as well as what we would now call YEC’s) would have thought when they set out to investigate the world. Otherwise, without structure, purpose, and function all tied together; everything would be chaotic and not study-able.

    I also agree that the original creation is like the ANE temple, or more appropriately, the ANE temple is a type of the original creation, which parallels nicely with Revelation and the new heavens/new earth.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this concept, I believe I originally heard of it from CMI (Creation Ministries International), I’ll try to find the article if I can (no luck yet).

    Still, however, I don’t think this truly offers much to determine whether the YEC or theistic-evolutionist view of time is correct, as I think this could dovetail with either.

    Just my $0.02

    Dave

  4. Steve says:

    I would agree with Steve (for once!)
    -For once? My, you must be wrong a lot! 😉 j/k, Dave!

    Still, however, I don’t think this truly offers much to determine whether the YEC or theistic-evolutionist view of time is correct, as I think this could dovetail with either.
    -You are correct. It is completely independent. The important thing is that it takes one passage back from the camp that overextends the literalist hermeneutic with reckless disregard for genre. And I would agree that this understanding of the importance of purpose over physical structure carries beyond Genesis 1, and has major implications for the eschaton.

  5. @TC & Steve: Despite being based on the NIV :>, it sounds like Dr. Walton’s commentary on Genesis is worth picking up, especially if he presents this vein of discussion.

  6. Steve says:

    It’s excellent. And ElShaddai, Walton is a Hebrew scholar, so you can expect him to correct all its gross errors. 😉

  7. Dave says:

    Steve wrote: “For once? My, you must be wrong a lot! j/k, Dave!”

    You don’t know the half of it! 🙂

  8. Sirius says:

    This is a sodding cop-out. It does not take into account the original intent and understanding of Genesis by traditional Judaism. Nor does it seem to say much for God’s ability to communicate with his creation.

    This is disappointing.

    –Sirius Knott

  9. It does not take into account the original intent and understanding of Genesis by traditional Judaism.

    Perhaps you can fill in the gaps? And what/when do you mean by “traditional Judaism”? Mosaic period, pre-exile kingdom, post-exile, post-AD 70 rabbinical?

  10. Steve says:

    Actually, Sirius is right. It goes back further than the Jewish understanding, and therefore the latter is disregarded.

  11. Bryan L says:

    ElShaddai,

    Walton also gave a similar talk at Calvin College with a q&a session as well. A few really take him on in that session for this particular view and raise a number of objections and concerns with his idea of function.

    Here’s the link:
    http://www.calvinseminary.edu/lectures/archive2558.ram

    I think his Genesis commentary is great. It’s actually one of my favorite books (and not just for commentaries).

    Bryan

  12. Since trackback links from TypePad posts don’t seem to work very well with WordPress, I’ll just add a comment that John Hobbins has written a response to Dr. Walton’s position in which he rebuts the argument that “Genesis 1 is concerned only with the assignment of functions to things” and is “not concerned with the formational history of the things of which the universe is made.” Click here for John’s discussion.

  13. Mike Beidler says:

    Bryan,

    The link to Walton’s lecture at Calvin College doesn’t seem to work, and I ran a search on the parent website with no results. Any chance you can locate it again?

  14. Bryan L says:

    Mike,
    I just tried it again and it worked fine. It opened up in Real Player with no problem at all. Maybe it was just down when you tried it or maybe it’s some weird internet or service provider issue. Anyone else have trouble with it?

    Bryan

  15. Bryan, I’ve been having trouble getting RealPlayer installed so I haven’t been able to test the link – when I try to save the .ram file directly to disk, I get a file that’s only 78 bytes, so I don’t know if that’s the issue.

  16. TC says:

    Elshaddai, here’s what I got from Dr. Walton:

    Because our scientific worldview is keenly interested in material structure and natural causality, we often go to the biblical account looking for information on its physical makeup and laws. In this area, however, the biblical worldview is much more like its ancient Near Eastern counterparts in that it views function as a consequence of the purpose of divine agency.” (“Genesis,” in NIVAC, p.83)

    Btw, the good doctor spends 31 pages (78-109) on vv. 3-5. It’s a very rich read.

    Here’s something else I found helpful:

    “In our worldview, function is a consequence of structure, and a discussion of creation therefore must, of course, direct itself to the making of things. In contrast, when an Israelite asked “How does the cosmos work?” he or she was on a different wavelength, because in the ancient worldview, function is a consequence of purpose.” (Ibid, p. 85)

    This is what I gathered from Dr. Walton, if we’re going to really get Genesis 1, we need an approximate the worldview of the ancients.

  17. Thanks, TC! I suppose Genesis can now be read as an ANE version of Rick Warren, i.e. “The Purpose-Driven Temple”…

  18. TC says:

    I think we need to reread Genesis, and adopt the Purpose-Driven model.

    Btw, that’s a good one.

  19. Bryan L says:

    ElShaddai,
    You probably aren’t getting a big file when you try to download it because the .ram file is sort of just a pointer file that links to a larger one. Try entering the url into a program like NetTransfer or Orbit or one of those download manager programs and it will probably download the larger file which will likely have an .rm extension.

    That’s my guess anyway.

    BTW if I didn’t mention it, the lecture is in video so it will be rather large file.

    Bryan

  20. Ah, thank you, Bryan. I figured it was something like that – I’ve just never had a lot of luck with RealPlayer – something’s always goofy with it… I’ll try to get it installed again.

  21. Tim Olson says:

    I wish I was fully smart enough to follow all that is being said. I’m just a simple youth pastor. I had the privilege of eating breakfast each morning for 2 years with Dr. Walton (at Moody Bible Institute). I should have learned more from him. I knew he was amazing then. I have watched his lecture online about Genesis and creation – and wish I knew more. One thing I really appreciate about him is his intellectual honesty. It’s fascinating to hear you smart people discuss this. I’m enjoying it.

    Since I know little, I can only side with Dr. Walton.

    Tim

  22. I wish I was fully smart enough to follow all that is being said.

    Me too. The continuing discussion at Ancient Hebrew Poetry here and here makes me feel very, very ignorant, but it’s fascinating to read.