Genesis One 4

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.

One reason why this book will be read, digested, and influential is because Walton chose to take one theme per chapter, keep his chps short, and make the point clear. Each chp then has a proposition.

Proposition 4: the beginning state in Genesis 1 is nonfunctional.

You will recall that Walton’s big idea is that creation in Genesis 1 is not from nothing (or out of nothing) into something material, but from nonfunction into the functional. His contention in chp 4 is that the famous tohu va-bohu, or “formless and void,” statement of Genesis 1:2 means that God turned the nonfunctional into the functional. Things took order — things that were already in existence.

Walton provides a chart on p. 48 of all the uses of tohu (bohu occurs rarely, and only with the other term), and concludes: “… nothing in these contexts that would lead us to believe that tohu has anything to do with material form” (49). He thinks the word refers to things that have no purpose or to nonfunction. [I think he says more than can be said here; I’m not sure we can say with clarity that “nonfunction” is the point each time. I can see how he sums it up this way and each instance can be read this way, but his point requires that each instance connotes “nonfunction.” I would think “waste” or “chaos” or “desolate” are involved, but I’m not sure the point is “nonfunction” each time. But I do think the word does not refer to materiality.]

This means that God’s “it was good” means “it was now functioning properly” or it now has its clear and set purpose in an ordered world.

Ancient Near Eastern texts confirm this. The point of ancient creation ideas was not a process whereby materiality came into being but instead of bringing order and purpose and function from primordial nonfunction.

Is it fair to say of Walton’s thesis that primordial elements, hence some kind of primordial, disordered materiality, were brought into functional order?

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  • I haven’t finished the book and it may be that this question gets answered later in the volume. I have been tracking with the idea that Gen. 1 is about ordering and assigning function. The idea that tohu means non-functional also makes sense.
    My question is: why would God leave earth in a tohu v’bohu state for an extended period of time?
    I guess in my previous readings, thinking of Gen. 1 from a young earth model, I always assumed the tohu v’bohu state was extremely brief. A long history of a non-functioning or desolate earth is hard to understand and is part of the reason I can’t theologically grasp evolutionary history as a God-ordained process.

  • Derek, I wonder, how long does a period have to be before it becomes telling? What is the “barren” or non-functioning period was 10 years, would that be OK? What about 1000? 100000? If nothing was alive in the universe, then to whom would it have mattered.
    If there was an era like this, I can’t see it matters how long it went on for.

  • Peter

    And does this insinuate that creation ex nihilo has no foundation in the creation narrative?

  • I had to work on that one, but I think he demonstrates his case well, and in thinking through the days of creation, I think it ends up being clear that it is functional and not material creation, it is referring to.
    And it’s quite intesting, as I recall, the one passage he translates differently to demonstrate this, as well as the thought that how Bible translations translate at certain points reflects the bias that what is spoken of here is material creation. Though he certainly does not deny God created material, but that was taken for granted to the ancients and their concern was how it all fit together to make what we have now- day and night, etc.

  • Hi Derek, Phil:
    I think if we start talking about the timing of the functional assignment, we may be missing the point – just like many in the Church in the past (including myself) missed the point when using a materialist hermeneutic and timings for Gen 1.
    I think the crucial point is this: God has an overall purpose for his creation; he also has purposes for individual components of that creation (eg. stars, earth, biodiversity on earth, humanity, Israelites, Moses, Apostle Paul, you, me). At certain points in time he assigns that function (eg. creating humanity in his own image) or maybe lets a person know his function “Saul: stop persecuting me & spread the Gospel”. BUT, we shouldn’t say that prior to that assignment no purpose existed eg. 1) the development of life that led to humanity “had no purpose or function” or 2) that God had no idea or plan for Saul prior to his conversion. God absolutely knew what he was doing and what was going to be accomplished from the very beginning. Who are we to criticize his timings? (And as his children, he does understand when we cry out “How long oh Lord?!” – but his answers are not always what we’d like to hear).

  • Thanks, Steve (#5). If I understand rightly, you are saying the pre-functional period was a necessary step in God’s plan to develop an ordered world.
    I’m not committed to any view as yet. I’m just mulling it all over. I guess we could talk about whether the pre-functional period was bad or not. Maybe I am erring in thinking of it as bad (or less than good).
    From my earlier days of theological training, I remember one of the main arguments against evolutionary theory from the creationist camp was that this mechanism does not seem to reflect God’s character: ordered, good, loving life and not death, etc.
    So, as I mull this over, I’m wondering how a pre-functional age fits with God’s character. I understand that we have limits to our knowledge and we can’t reject positive evidence for evolution just because we don’t understand how it all fits. I’m just being honest about my questions as I go along.

  • BenB

    Peter @ 3,
    I think that from my (limited) experience and reading, it would seem that in response to your question the answer would be “yes, Genesis 1 does not give us a foundation for creation ex nihilo.” That being said, this doesn’t mean that there is no Biblical basis for creation ex nihilo. Other texts have to be mined and discussed in dealing with the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.
    The lack of support for the doctrine in Genesis 1 is a major reason why many Christian Process theists feel they can Biblically reject the doctrine. I’ve read many propositions and never seen any of them deal with John 1:3.
    But it certainly doesn’t appear that removing creation ex nihilo from Genesis 1 necessarily removes it from our Bibles.

  • BenB

    I meant to also say that it appears from a couple of comments in the first two Genesis 1 posts that Walton deals with creation ex nihilo later in the book, and shows that while it is not present in Genesis 1, may have been simply assumed by the Israelites at the time. I wish I had the book now!

  • dopderbeck

    It seems to me it would be a mistake to think of a “non-functional period” as some “time” before which God assigned functions to the cosmos. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Walton’s point is to suggest that, at some point in the history of the universe, God made a series of declarations that rendered the universe “functional.” I think his point is that the “days” of Gen. 1 are a literary device used to communicate the theological truth that the material universe has functionality assigned by God. I think Walton would follow the flow of other Biblical creation texts, such as John 1, in which the wisdom and Logos of God proceed from God’s eternal council before the material world is even created. So, in a real sense God’s assigning of function to the material universe is “timeless” — it is part of God’s transcendent will. Gen. 1 tells communicates this truth in a form that echoes, amplifies, and challenges extant cosmologies, and isn’t intended to suggest that the assigning of function “happened” a at a specific “time” in the physical history of the universe. (Or maybe I’ve misunderstood what John is saying, in which case I personally would tend to view it more this way).

  • John H. Walton

    Note pages 50-51: Functions are not abstract functions or scientific functions–they are functions for people. By definition the cosmos is not functioning in this way until people in the image of God are in it.

  • Patrick O

    This is interesting to me as I’ve been looking a lot at the concept of holiness recently, working with Pannenberg’s concept of sin and holiness as being essentially about wrong and right functioning in regards to our identity. Holiness is not as much about being somehow set apart, as it is about being put back into a divinely reflected rhythm. Our source of identity becomes again the only ultimately valid source of identity–God. Right functioning, it seems, is being put into the right order–engaged in a shared purpose for which all things should be interwoven and contributing to each other part.
    Each part is materially integrated into a cohesive goal, and holiness is not about religious isolation or legalism but rather about participating increasingly in this “good” functioning. This would seem to have very strong arguments for having a very holistic understanding of holiness as participation in and with this world, for this world, as God intended and intends.

  • RJS

    Is the point that the intent of the author is to use this as a literary device – or does it matter that the intent of the (human) author was? Does it matter what the human author thought about creation?

  • John H. Walton

    RJS 12
    I do not look at this simply as a literary device and I do think that it is important what the human author thought about creation because the divine author is communicating something meaningful through the human author to his audience.

  • AHH

    John #13,
    Can you clarify “I do think that it is important what the human author thought about creation”?
    Since as you say Genesis 1 is not at all about *material* creation (the details of cosmology, whether it happened over 6 days, whether it involved evolution, etc.), surely you would not say it is important what the human writer might have thought about those issues of material creation (which were not his subject)? Do you just mean that it is important what the writer thought about God’s status as assigner of functions to bring order out of chaos?
    I guess another way of getting at my clarifying question — it seems from your book as though you are saying that part of “what the human author thought” was a cosmology of the Ancient Near East. We now know that such a cosmology is incorrect (you use the term “accommodation”). Is it “OK” for the human author to think (and employ) incorrect material cosmology in a case like this where material cosmology is peripheral to the message being conveyed?

  • RJS

    The divine author is communicating something meaningful through the human author to his audience. On this I agree completely. But I have two questions that then arise: (1) what is the divine author communicating? and (2) how is he communicating it?
    So I don’t think that it matters if the human author thought that the stars were smaller than the sun, or that waters were held above the sky, or that animals were produced fully formed. In this sense what the author thought was used by the divine author to convey an intended message.
    So it seems to me that the human author wasn’t enlightened with unnecessary divine knowledge but was in relationship with God and communicating the insight from that relationship.
    But this is part of what I find appealing in much of this book – it concentrates on the message and the cultural form used in an interesting way, well worth thinking about.

  • John H. Walton

    AHH 14
    What I meant to convey is that when we read the Bible we are interested in understanding the author’s intention. It is always true that the author works under the limitations of his time and culture, but I believe that those do not hinder God’s intended revelation. In the case of Genesis 1 I believe that his intended revelation concerned the functioning ordered cosmos, not the material cosmos. In that sense, God is not offering an account of material origins, and we would expect the author to think like people of his time–and that is no hindrance to what God is communicating. At the same time, the author understands well what God is communicating it and it matters that he does so.

  • Brian in NZ

    Is it being suggested here that when God created function, that we humans gained a soul, which prior to that, didn’t exist? In a sense, similar to the TMA in 2001: A Space Odyssey which when touched, imparted a higher level of awareness to the apes.

  • John H. Walton

    17 Brian in NZ
    No, that is not at all the direction that i go

  • Derek (#6)
    Re: “pre-functional” period, I agree with David (#9) for the most part (and he may have articulated it better than I did). On the other hand, if we separate “function” from “purpose”, maybe we can talk about a “pre-functional” time. God has defined his purposes from the very beginning, and that he will accomplish those purposes is assured. However, some of the functional parts of creation required for those purposes come later in the creation timeline.
    So, for example, until humanity was created in the image of God, there was no creature assigned to care for the rest of creation. Thus, the time before humanity may have not had the “creation care” creature to carry out its function and maybe you could call this period “non-functional” (from a creation care perspective), but I would definitely disagree that the time before this was purposeless.

  • I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say what he says from here on out, but it seems to me as if the argument has less to do with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo itself as whether the creation narrative in Genesis 1 presupposes or argues for it, which it most likely does not.
    Issues like “how long did this nonfunctional state exist before God put it in order” are probably not in the purview for the Genesis author – since “In the beginning,” or “In the initial period” doesn’t seem to conceptually leave a lot of room for there being such a thing as “time” before the creation act. In other words, it’s a bit of a nonsense question to ask about anything in terms of “how long” before the beginning.
    In fact, I think questions like that turn the focus away from the concern of the Biblical text, which is articulating a creation narrative within the context of the ancient near east, towards more modern, materialist types of concern. It turns the reader’s attention back to creation ex nihilo instead of towards the more pertinent questions in Genesis, which have to do with how God put the world in order, and into what kind of order God put it.

  • Barb

    John Walton,
    thank you for joining in and answering questions. I’ve read the book and I’m just seeing what others are saying and asking. My backgound is that I’m the daughter of a geneticist (Dad would be 102 now if he hadn’t died at 96) and I guess without really knowing it my view of Genesis 1 has alway been just about what you propose. So I’m interested to see what others ask about it.

  • BenB

    Dr. Walton,
    I want to echo Barb and say that I too thank you for your participation. It’s always nice to have a scholar join in the discussion of their book, it helps with understanding so much. Thank you for taking your time and energy to help us!

  • Brian from NZ

    If the universe is 14 billion years old as predicted by the Big Bang theory, and if humans developed through a process of evolution, then when did we become spiritually aware. Did God step into history or did we naturally develop to the level where we became sentient and spiritual?
    Does it matter either way?
    I don’t have a formed opinion either way, and am interested to read comments by others who have probably given this much more thought than I have.

  • Josh

    The big bang and evolution theories remind of the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. (Belief in the theories representing the clothes in the story.)

  • Brian from NZ

    Josh @ 24, how so? To a non-Christian, Gen 1-3 might seem to be the “clothes”

  • #23 Brian
    It is interesting question to ponder. What does it mean that God formed man from the earth and breathed life into him? Was there a first couple that God created distinct from all other species? Did we evolve to a point and God one day God “breathed” conscious life into a first couple? Was it something else? I suspect it will remain a mystery.
    The theological truth is that humanity is in a state of rebellion against God and in need of redemption. There are lots of things about which God does not reveal the specifics. While its fun to speculate and probe, mystery is okay too. From a science and history perspective it would be fascinating to know. From the biblical angle, I’m not sure it matters.

  • Danimal

    Just a general comment, not a specific reply to anyone. I find it very interesting that in the discussion of the book many (myself included) seem to have a very difficult time putting aside the view of Gen 1 as material creation. I think it nicely demonstrates the naturalistic bent in our present culture (not that I think it’s entirely bad, just that it’s there). Even though Walton persuasively shows that Gen 1 is about function we still have the urge to speculate and/or attempt to reconcile with Gen 1 the mechanics of material creation.

  • Norman Voss

    #23 Brian
    The question also needs to be raised concerning why God chose to employ His Covenant promise only through one man Abraham and not to all mankind at once around 2000 BC? Why Israel is just as profound a question as why Adam. Then the question arises why Christ the second Adam after 2000 years from Abraham?
    Step back and think theologically and notice that both Adams’ were in Covenant with God and were New and profound modes of existence within Covenant. Adam # one was an attempt through his own strength but Adam # two brought us to God through His strength. Apparently God felt that man needed to demonstrate to himself for all of humanity the futility of attempting relationship through our own works so that it would be forever etched upon us that we have been there and done that to no avail. There needed to be an extensive demonstration over a period of time in God’s wisdom for us to embrace the higher calling of Spiritual existence.
    Rom 5:20-21 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, (21) so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • Josh

    Brian @25
    True, but from my first hand experience (this observation is based off of a 27 year old growing up in the Midwest) if talking with friends or co-workers believers in evolution are assumed as more intellectual or intelligent and believers in the creation story were looked at as unintelligent or “old fashioned”. Also if you question how the big bang theory or evolution is a proven fact, the response is always something like “well how is God a proven fact?” This is avoiding the question. That’s the reason it reminds me of the emperors new clothes story. When you ask how these theories are facts you can never get an answer.
    And I agree with Michael at #26 it will probably remain a mystery. Especially as long as the only tools we have to find this out is perception based off of our 5 senses.