Genesis One 3

Walton.jpgWe are in a conversation and discussion about John Walton’s (professor at Wheaton) new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

(By the way, if you’d like a wonderful and God-shaped exposition of Genesis 1-3, I suggest the brand new book by Marva Dawn called In the Beginning, God: Creation, Culture, and the Spiritual Life
.) Now back to John Walton …

Proposition 3: “Create” concerns functions.

We return now to the question we also asked Wednesday: What does the word “create” mean? Does it mean “bring something into material existence” or does it mean “give something a function in an ordered world”?

Chp 3 examines what the Hebrew word bara (“create” — Genesis 1:1) means. Walton examines the meaning of the word bara in the Bible and comes to these two conclusions:



1. The Subject of bara is always God: creating, then, is a divine activity and only a divine activity.

2. The Object of bara is never unambiguously material reality but probably only and always functional reality. “No materials for the creative act are ever mentioned, and an investigation of all the passages [in the Bible] … substantiate that claim” (43).

3. The idea then that “create” means creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, is imposed on the Bible from a materialistic ontology. The Bible isn’t, Walton argues, talking about material ontology but about a functional ontology.

4. “In the Beginning” (Genesis 1:1) refers to the 7-day period of creation in Genesis 1:2ff.

His translation: “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it” (46).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Samuel

    hmmm..So it seems that we are not explicitly told, biblically, how the heavens and earth were “created”. It is thought-provoking and at the same time a bit frightening in the face of current arguments. I think it will be tough for many to go from God “created” (with the idea of creatio ex nihilo) to “Well, the Bible doesn’t actually say…”

  • http://divinesatisfaction.com Daniel

    The literal 6 day Creation of the universe – being unscientific by nature (not observable, or repeatable)- will always have its skeptics. No, God, through his Word, “doesn’t actually say” how God created…nor do I think we would be able to wrap our finite brains around it if He did. Instead, we have in Genesis 1 all we need to know. 6 days, 2 literal humans…and the ride of life begins.
    That being said, Walton’s translation isn’t that bad. Very diplomatic I suppose. One can read 6 literal days into it, and others can read death and disease before the fall of man into it….er…millions of years.

  • JKG

    I like the implications of this approach for what it may imply theologically.
    Logically, however, functions do not exist independent of the objects to which they are assigned. I can conceive of a function before it is materially implemented, but there has to some substance in, on, and through which it functions before the operations of that function can be demonstrated.
    The hair is split well, but it is still being split. I do not think you can completely separate the creation of the function (as rendered in the original language) from the creation of the material through which is it implemented (as we understand it in our cultural context). The scriptural text may not say it this way, but it is indeed creatio ex nihilo.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    JKG #3
    Couldn’t Genesis 1 simply presume the existence of things and then begin talking about how God gave them their functions? I assign functions to things in my physical environment all the time without having created them. I don’t think this is hair splitting.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Daniel #2
    “Instead, we have in Genesis 1 all we need to know. 6 days, 2 literal humans…and the ride of life begins.”
    Who is included in “we?” :-) If “we” is “humanity,” I’m guessing that folks 3,000 years ago would beg to differ and that “6 days, 2 literal humans” would have been meaningless. I’m actually not sure why it should be meaningful to me.

  • JKG

    Michael,
    But then where did the material come from? Do we have to presume a separate creation for the material? If so, what function did that material serve?
    If the material “always existed,” what was its relationship to the creator prior to the investment of function?
    Genesis might presume the pre-existence of things, but that won’t satisfy 21st-century western minds.
    Either our God is the Creator God, and that creation includes both function and material… or we have an even more difficult set of theological questions to answer.
    This cannot be reduced to an either/or choice. It is a marvelous insight to see the act of creation as revealing function, but it would be disingenuous to try to set aside the questions surrounding material creation on that basis.

  • Scot McKnight

    JKG, I haven’t read the whole book, but Walton is talking about the function of already existing things which God created … the text, though, is not about a material ontology but about a functional one. Walton clearly affirms creatio ex nihilo, but is concerned with exegeting this text in its ANE context. It’s about function.

  • AHH

    JKG #6,
    Walton deals with your question at several places in the book. He fully agrees that God is ultimately the creator of material things, and that the audience and writer of Genesis 1 would have believed that. He is just saying that Genesis 1 is not at all about those material origins — God as the originator of the material creation would have been taken for granted in the context so there was no need to write about it.
    Here’s a quote from Chapter 10:
    Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple 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.

  • JKG

    Scot and AHH,
    Thanks for the clarification. I have not read the book and was trying to respond to earlier comments… not to Walton directly.
    It is exciting to be gaining this new understanding, but I wonder how many will be satisfied by it. It leaves the material creation to presumption, which will antagonize both the literalists and the skeptics.
    Blessings to all, and thanks for the dialogue.

  • Danimal

    JKS #9
    I think this is a step in the right direction in relating to skeptics.
    If Genesis 1 is more about God’s creation of a functional world and humanity’s role in that world and less about mechanisms of material creation, it may open the door for a skeptic to accept the creation account who was previously under the impression that to accept creation meant accepting 6×24 hour periods of material creation.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Danimal #10
    Several folks are mentioning the possible positive implications for YEC or concordists, and I think many of them are correct. However, I don’t have the sense that Walton’s mission is to develop a scheme that gets us past an impasse … that he is beginning with a predetermined outcome and working backward to find a translation that supports it.
    Walton is beginning with the text and following where it leads. That it may get is past an impasse is bonus.

  • http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com Steve Martin

    I’m wondering if the “functional ontology” hermeneutic can (or should) be tied to the NT references to “New Creation” as well. Certainly when Paul is talking about the New Creation (eg. 2 Cor 5:17), he isn’t talking about anything material. I realize that that most (maybe all) NT references to New Creation were written in Greek and not Hebrew, but is there any parallel here? Did the infant church (a group of people influenced by both Greek & Hebrew thought) view Creation much differently than the ancient Hebrews? I’d be very interested in others’ thoughts on this parallel or references to other comparisons between Creation theologies in the OT and NT.

  • Norman Voss

    Steve,
    I think you are asking the right questions. The NT is not a new concept for those like Paul and in fact he says that he teaches nothing but the Law and the Prophets and builds extensively from the OT. The creation of the New Covenant was not exactly a new Heavens and Earth but more accurately was a renewed Heavens and Earth. The function of the Heavens and Earth are being refined from an Old Covenant fleshly mode of existence with God through yearly sacrifices and Temple worship to a purely spiritual Covenant with the faithful and the Temple now in their hearts. Works verses Grace if you will.
    I alluded to some of these concepts on the previous second installment. # 22 and #45 post.
    The scriptures inherently attribute all of physical creation to God which is assumed. The idea that we somehow have to have detailed physical account of the material creation to placate the modern mind is unfounded and unnecessary for the purpose of establishing a functionary purpose for God’s people.
    Daniel #2 and Michael #5
    As a side point it might be worth noting that the translation for man in Gen 1:26 -27 (aw-dawm) may be better understood as a collective meaning instead of an individual man and women consideration. In other words the gist of the meaning may be better translated (humankind or mankind) in the collective sense. That would have a significant bearing upon the context of that meaning contrasted to in individual creative idea that many attribute to those verses. Going along with that idea is that the OT usage of (aw-dawm) appears to support the idea of only mankind in Covenant with God and is not typically descriptive of mankind at large such as inclusive of pagan Gentiles. Genesis One is a functional description of God’s people and not necessarily functional for humanity at large which would entail some form of Universalism if read in that manner. I think that is one of the great errors of reading Genesis One in a literal sense without understanding fully the Hebrew language and its implications.

  • dopderbeck

    Michael (#11) said: Walton is beginning with the text and following where it leads. That it may get is past an impasse is bonus.
    I respond: I know John says this and I respect the integrity of this claim. However … I don’t think anyone just begins with any text (in the Bible or otherwise) and simply follows where it leads. We all bring our presumptions and concerns to any text. It seems more straightforward to me to say, “the obvious dissonance between presumed ‘literal’ readings of this text and the many facts of natural history learned in the past 200 years have prompted the community of Biblical scholars to dig deeper into its inspired meaning.”
    This is one of those pesky methodological questions I keep raising here. I really like John’s approach. But let’s be honest — it involves, in part, interpreting the inspired meaning of the text in light of the phenomena of the text. This is just the point at which rationalistic inerrantists differ with “postmodern” interrantists — e.g. Paul Helm and Greg Beal’s disagreements with Pete Enns. Personally, I think this is necessary to some degree and that it always happens no matter what we think we’re doing.

  • Brian in NZ

    Here is a serious question from a non-theologian: Why is it important to know whether God created materially or functionally?
    And a second question: How does it impact on our faith in God?

  • AHH

    Brian #15 asks about the importance of all this and its impact on our faith.
    I would agree that knowing the details of God’s creative activity should not be of much significance for our faith.
    Unfortunately, there are many who push the doctrine that God must have created in certain ways at certain times, and must *not* have created in certain other ways (notably via evolution), in order for our faith to be true. Maybe Brian does not encounter that much in NZ, but it is a serious problem for the church in the U.S.
    So, if Evangelical scholars like John Walton (Peter Enns, Gordon Wenham, etc.) can help the church understand that Genesis really isn’t teaching what these “creationists” say it is, and if the Evangelical church can be weaned from its devotion to these doctrines that elevate secondary matters to primary, it will be a help to the witness of the Gospel, at least among the scientifically literate who often won’t even consider Jesus because they think being a Christian requires them to believe things about the natural world that are about as credible as a flat earth.

  • Norman Voss

    Brian # 15 … “Why is it important to know whether God created materially or functionally?
    And a second question: How does it impact on our faith in God?
    It would appear that to understand scriptures properly we should understand their contextual application as accurately as possible. If Adam’s creation account is one of assigning functionality and not one about being created materially Ex Nihilo then it has huge ramifications for a proper theological application. This would be extremely important in understanding Paul’s application of Adam in his NT writings. Adam being created functionally as the first Covenant Head of faithful men is a much different argument than his creation as a biological creation for the entire human race.
    1Co 15:45 ESV Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
    Thus If one does not understand the Hebrew background of Adam then they may think that the above referenced verse is about biological life instead of a Covenant mode of existence. It may go over their head that Adam’s mode of relation with God as a Covenant creation was less than desired. That was until Christ functionally finished creating faithful man in the Spiritual mode of existence with God.
    There are many inherent misapplications concerning NT meanings because there is a misunderstanding from reading the Genesis account as a material story instead of a Covenantal and functional one. These misapplications are generally not healthy in regard to understanding the New Covenant spiritual applications which has ramifications for the vibrancy of Christianity. A prime example would be Paul’s explanation in Romans chapter 8 in which he contrast the spirit led life with the fleshly life. The Spirit led life is from Christ while the “fleshly” led life emanates from the first Adam. It is helpful to understand why that discussion emanates from Adam as the first Covenant head to help properly discern Paul’s meaning and contrast.


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