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John Walton's View of Genesis, Part One

October 14, 2019     Time: 21:54
John Walton’s View of Genesis, Part One


In his Defenders Class, Dr. Craig has been discussing Genesis, including the controversial views of Dr. John Walton

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, whenever I see an article that starts off, “William Lane Craig is my number 1 all time favorite Christian philosopher and apologist,” I usually see a big “but” coming. Evan Minton talks about your criticisms of the cosmic temple view of Genesis.[1] He goes on to say,

He is the one Christian Apologist whose views most closely align with my own concerning Arguments for God’s Existence, the methodology of using the minimal facts to establish the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, . . . Molinism . . . I scarcely find myself uttering the words “William Lane Craig is wrong about X”. Craig has had the biggest influence on the intellectual role of my walk with Christ, and I was, am, and continue to be blessed by his books, podcasts, and Q&A articles. With all of that said, there are a few areas where I think Craig has missed the mark, and interpreting Genesis 1 is one of those areas.

He's talking about the cosmic temple view of Genesis 1 that John Walton has offered. You’ve been discussing this on the Defenders class, and so people can get further information on what the cosmic temple view is.[2] Do you want to give us a summation of the cosmic temple view of Genesis 1?

DR. CRAIG: The odd thing about this blog by Evan is that it's not about Walton's cosmic temple view of Genesis 1 or 2 and 3. The cosmic temple view is Walton's thesis that God has created the universe as a sort of cosmic temple in which he can rest or dwell or reside. This is supposed to be on the model of the pagan deities of the Ancient Near East which were thought to reside in temples. Since God cannot be contained in any physical building, the notion here is that Genesis 1 is teaching that the whole world – the whole universe – is God's cosmic temple in which he comes to dwell. Walton interprets God's resting on the seventh day – the day of the Sabbath later – as God's coming to reside in his cosmic temple. Well, in my view, this is reading between the lines. I see nothing in Genesis 1 to suggest that the universe functions as a cosmic temple in which God comes to dwell or that his resting on the seventh day is not his ceasing from the works of creation and no longer working but rather taking up residence somewhere. This is a relatively minor interpretive point concerning Genesis 1, and it's not, in fact, what Evan’s blog is about. What his blog is about is a much, much more important issue of Walton's functional interpretation of Genesis 1. It's not about his view of the universe as God's cosmic temple. It's about his view of creation as not involving the material origin of the things that God creates, but rather God simply specifying their functions.

For listeners who aren't familiar with this distinction, Walton gives a very good example of the beginning of a restaurant. When does a restaurant begin to exist? Does it begin to exist when the building is constructed? Well, not necessarily. Maybe it was a warehouse which was later renovated into a restaurant so that the restaurant begins to exist when it has a license and opens and begins to function as a restaurant. So the restaurant began to exist when it began to function as a restaurant. But that's not when the building began to exist. The creation or the beginning of the restaurant didn't represent the material origin of the building.

Walton interprets Genesis 1 as involving not God’s creating plants and dry land and the sun and the stars and the moon and sea monsters and animals and man as organisms or concrete entities; rather what Genesis 1 is about is simply specifying the functions that these things will fulfill. Now, certainly you do have a specification of functions in day 4 where it says, Let the lights in the heavens serve to mark days and times and seasons and years. Their function is specified. But we shouldn't think that the specification of functions is mutually exclusive with material origins of these things. Typically God would create something with a function so that these aren't mutually exclusive with each other. And yet Walton is very adamant on interpreting Genesis 1 as being exclusively about the specification of functions so that he doesn't believe that Genesis 1 describes how God brings things into reality over these days but rather how over these six days he just specifies the function that they will fulfill.

KEVIN HARRIS: So they were already there. Light was already there. The moon and stars were already there. But Genesis describes when God inaugurated or brought about the function.

DR. CRAIG: That's exactly right. As crazy as it sounds, when the Bible says that there was just the dark primordial ocean with the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the waters, actually there were dinosaurs and trees and people and the sun and the moon – all those things were already about. It's just that their functions hadn't been assigned. So it's a really, really radical view of Genesis 1 – that none of this is to be interpreted as the literal coming into being of these concrete objects, but rather they're already there and sometime in the finite past over about six days God declared what each of them would be for – what their functions would be.

KEVIN HARRIS: Evan mentions your objections, and we will look at each objection and we’ll hear his response. But let me ask you quickly: do you and John Walton agree that you should read Genesis in the context of the ancient world, the Ancient Near East?

DR. CRAIG: Absolutely.

KEVIN HARRIS: Is that what he is trying to do with the temple?

DR. CRAIG: That’s what he is claiming to do. Walton is claiming that when you read Genesis against the backdrop of Ancient Near Eastern mythology, particularly Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology, then this functional creation view emerges. I think it's important for our listeners to understand how idiosyncratic this view is. Virtually everyone disagrees with Walton on this. These myths describe how the gods bring these things into existence.

KEVIN HARRIS: “Objection 1: Walton Needs To Prove That Genesis 1 Is ONLY Talking About The Creation Of Functions” That's your objection.

DR. CRAIG: Here he looks at the use of the word bara in Hebrew – “to create.” Walton gives about 50 examples of how bara is used in the Old Testament and claims on this basis that bara does not refer to the creation of material objects. I would simply invite our listeners to look at the list, and I think that they will find (as I did) that most of them refer to the creation of material objects. Almost all of them talk about material objects. There are some that don't, for example that God creates the north and the south. That isn't a material object. But the vast majority of them are material objects. Moreover, none of them refers to specifying a function even when God is said to do things like create a clean heart or create north and south. That isn't the specification of a function. Walton's fundamental error here, I think, is trying to focus on word studies apart from the use in context. Words can have multiple meanings. The way the word is used in a context will be determined by the context. The claim here for material creation is not, as Walton and Evan seem to think, that from the word bara itself you can derive as an implication the creation of a material object. Nobody thinks that. The claim is not that the verb bara implies or entails material creation. Rather, what will imply material creation is the noun of the object that is said to be created. So when it says that God created, say, the mountains or the stars or the heavens and the Earth, it's those terms referring to those concrete objects that show it's material creation, not the verb. Similarly when it says God creates north and south or some other non-physical entity, it's not the verb, it's the referring term that will determine whether material creation is involved. In Genesis 1, over and over again the word is used of material objects – organisms like sea monsters and man and so forth. So the idea that this is just the specification of functions, I think, is quite wrong and cannot be supported simply by an analysis of the meaning of the verb itself. Evan says in his conclusion here: “So, from the Old Testament usage of “bara”, we can see that it does not have to, have to, have to, refer to material creation.” Right. We agree to that. It's not derived from the verb. It's from the thing that is said to be created.

What's interesting here is how he defines material creation – bringing something from material non-existence to material existence. For example, if I am a carpenter and I create a chair, I create that chair out of wood which is not itself a chair, and a chair then begins to exist. I create a material object – that chair. But it doesn't imply creatio ex nihilo. It doesn't imply that the chair is created out of nothing. Sometimes I wonder if Walton hasn't confused material creation with creation ex nihilo – out of nothing – and thinking that because bara does not entail creation out of nothing that therefore it doesn't entail material creation. Evan seems to make this mistake himself. I noticed later in the blog he says,

Craig admitted “well there are exceptions where bara doesn’t mean creation out of nothing” (paraphrase) and I’m just like “That’s the whole point!” That’s what Walton is saying.

Well, if that's what Walton is saying then his functional creation view collapses because nobody thinks that all of the things that God is said to create in Genesis 1 are created ex nihilo. On the contrary, it says that man in Genesis 2 was created out of the dust of the Earth. So I think there's a real confusion that's present here as to just what we mean by material creation. It's often conflated with creatio ex nihilo which is a conceptual mistake.

He then goes on to say,

Craig objects that Walton needs to show that only functional creation is present in the text, rather than not both material and functional. In other words . . . “Why not both?”

Then he responds to this peculiarly: “John Walton explicitly admits in his books that, theoretically, it could be both.” He doesn’t give a footnote here, and I think that's simply a mistake. Walton is very clear that Genesis 1 is exclusively about functional creation. It doesn't have anything to do with material creation. In so saying he has set himself against the vast majority of Old Testament commentators and interpreters.

John Collins, who is a very eminent Old Testament scholar at Concordia University, writes as follows, “I agree with almost everyone else that Genesis records some sort of ‘material origins,’ and I do not grasp exactly why Walton keeps making a disjunction between material and functional.”[3] It is both-and. If that's the case then that means that in Genesis 1 you have God creating a series of material objects and organisms with their specified functions.

KEVIN HARRIS: “Objection 2: [Ancient Near Eastern] Texts Assert Material Creation”

DR. CRAIG: When you read the ancient creation myths of Egypt and Mesopotamia I think it's very evident that these ancient myths account for the origin of things like the Earth, human beings, cities, agriculture, and so forth. These are described as the creations of the gods. Evan’s response is:

Dr. Craig here is assuming that creation is a material activity, that existence is material, so that when The Babylonian Founding Of Eridu says that no house had been built, no reed had come forth, and so on, it is saying that these things are materially absent.

That’s right. It says there were no such things until the gods created them. But Evan responds:

But notice that in this creation myth, there is material already present! Namely, the seas. “All the world was sea” the text says. . . . The sea is already there when the activity of creation begins. If this were a material account, shouldn’t we expect it to begin with no material?

I hope that you can see there so clearly the conflation once again between material creation and creatio ex nihilo. He's absolutely right that these ancient myths do not teach creation out of nothing. That is found uniquely in the Hebrew stories. There is always some sort of primordial matter or gods or something out of which then humanity and world and the animals and so forth are made. That's right. It's not creatio ex nihilo, but it is the origin of these physical objects and organisms that is described, and before their creation there just weren't any – there weren't any people before Marduk, the Babylonian God, created them. There weren't any cities. There was just this primordial sea. So I think that Evan is guilty again of conflating material origins with creatio ex nihilo and thinking that because the texts don't teach creatio ex nihilo it doesn't teach that these material objects came into being through the creative activity of the gods.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. One more quick thing. I've heard several young scholars, and Evan does as well, talk about that Genesis 1 should be interpreted differently than what we have traditionally interpreted. They think that it needs to say, when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was formless and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep. I don’t think that will ever happen because “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” is the way most translators translate it. But have you heard that?

DR. CRAIG: This is commonly discussed. Evan says,

We have good textual reasons to believe that Genesis 1:1 [which, remember, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”] is not the beginning of matter, energy, space, and time. Rather, since Genesis 1:1 lacks the definite article, it should be translated “When God created the heavens and the earth”.

This is a very poor argument. The word “beginning” (bereishit – “in the beginning”) doesn't need to have a definite article in order to represent an absolute beginning. Elsewhere in the Old Testament you have similar constructions. So the lack of a definite article is insignificant here. Evan doesn't interact with, and perhaps is unaware of, the lecture I gave in Defenders class[4] where I explained on the basis of Claus Westermann’s magisterial commentary on Genesis 1 why Genesis 1:1 is best taken to be a main clause and not a subordinate clause. As my colleague Paul Copan shows in our book Creation Out of Nothing the majority of scholars today take Genesis 1:1 to be a main clause. It is not a subordinate clause. It is appended or prefixed to the creation story by the author of Genesis as a way of declaring God's absolute transcendence and creation of the material order. So while this verse may not explicitly state “out of nothing,” I think that is the implication of it. There is no pre-existing, co-eternal matter alongside God out of which he makes the universe. In this, as I say, most Hebrew scholars and translators agree. It's not a subordinate clause as Evan claims.

Let me conclude by saying something about Egyptian myths since Evan also appeals to those. These are especially clear that material origins are in view. The driving question behind Egyptian mythology is the ancient philosophical question of the One and the Many. That is to say, what is the underlying unity behind the multiplicity and diversity that we observe in the world? The Egyptian answer to that question was metaphysical monism. That is to say, reality is at its fundamental base One – an undifferentiated, characterless unity out of which multiplicity then emanates and flows. So these describe in mythological terms how the original god arises out of the primordial sea and then creates the other gods who in turn give birth to various entities like the sun and the Earth and the atmosphere and so forth. All of these things draw their origin from the primordial One. So to say that this is just the specification of functions is to fundamentally misunderstand Egyptian metaphysics.

KEVIN HARRIS: The next objection that Evan addresses is your objection, “How could things exist for eons without function?” We’ll pick up that question next time on Reasonable Faith.[5]


[3]            Denis Lamoureux, John H. Walton, C. John Collins, William D. Barrick, Gregory A. Boyd, Philip G. Ryken, Four Views on the Historical Adam, (Zondervan Academic, 2013).

[4]            See Defenders 3, “Doctrine of Creation,” part 1 - (accessed October 14, 2019).

[5]            Total Running Time: 21:54 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)