Creation and Evolution (Part 10)

June 24, 2013     Time: 00:35:16

We have been looking at the Functional Interpretation of Genesis 1 according to which Genesis 1 is a description, not of the material creation of the biosphere, but simply God’s assigning functions to various things in the world so that the world or the cosmos becomes his temple in which he takes residence finally on the seventh day.1

I have argued against the plausibility of a purely functional interpretation of Genesis 1 and of the idea that God’s Sabbath rest is meant to be simply a residing of God in his cosmic temple.

I do need to make one correction, though, to something I said last time. I believe last time I said that the seven days in Genesis 1 should not be interpreted as a reflection of the seven days of dedication of Solomon’s temple because this was a motif that was common in ancient creation myths. In fact, I misstated that. The seven day motif is not common in ancient creation myths, but it is a very common motif throughout the ancient world used in many different ways so it would be a mistake to point to the seven days of dedication of Solomon’s Temple in particular as the source of this seven day motif. This point was made well by Miller and Soden whose view we are going to consider next. This is what they write, “There is no known record of any other society framing creation in seven days.” – though seven days might be involved, for example, in the creation of man or other aspects of the creation story. They continue,

There is no known record of any other society framing creation in seven days, so the use of it in Genesis 1 does not appear to be directly dependent on Israel’s ancient Near Eastern mind-set. The use of a seven-day period of time, however, commonly appears in ancient Near Eastern mythology, legend, and cultic practice. For example, it occurs to describe an appropriate approach to the gods; it provides a framework for a divinely ordained and successful mission; to find a royal wife to bear a son; it describes a seven day waiting period in which the anticipated event occurs on the seventh day. The number seven was also frequently used for many other things in ancient texts and even in the Hebrew Old Testament and was not always intended to be a literal number. Instead, it carried symbolic significance being generally understood to express the ideas of completion, perfection or fulfillment.2

So given the widespread use of this seven day motif in the ancient Near East, I think it would be a mistake to simply assume that it refers to this seven day period of temple dedication preceding Solomon’s inaugurating the temple. In fact, quite the contrary, that seven day waiting period would itself be a reflection of the very widespread and symbolic use of the number seven throughout the ancient Near East.

In summary, I find the Functional Interpretation of Genesis 1 to be quite implausible. It seems to me that the account in Genesis 1 is most naturally taken to involve what Walton calls both material creation and functional creation - both creating the entities described as well as assigning their functions.

We want to wrap up our discussion of the Functional Interpretation by seeing Walton’s response to this suggestion. He raises the question “Couldn’t it be both material creation and functional creation?” He gives four reasons for rejecting that view. I think, however, these four reasons can be answered very quickly in light of what we’ve already seen.

First reason he says is that days 1, 3, and 7 have no statement of creation of any material component. By way of response I would say this, of course, isn’t surprising for day 7. That is God’s day of rest on which he ceases from creation. But on day 1, light is created.3 So that certainly involves material creation. On day 3, vegetation and fruit trees are created. So it seems to me simply false to say that material creation isn’t involved on days 1 and 3.

Number two, he says day 2 has a potentially material component, namely the firmament, but he says, “If this were a legitimate material account, then we would be obliged to find something solid up there.”4 There would have to be this solid dome up there and there isn’t. Well, by way of response, I would say again this is concordism as we saw. If the ancient Israelites thought that the firmament was solid then they would have no problem relating an account of its material creation. It seems to me that this second reason is not a very good reason for interpreting it purely functionally. He is letting scientific concordism guide his exegesis which he himself admits is illegitimate.

His third reason is that days 4 and 6 deal explicitly with material components only on a functional level. By way of response, I would say that might be the case for the sun, moon, and stars where their functions are specified for marking days and months and seasons and years. But it is clearly false with regard to the animals. The text says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures.” It is also probably false with respect to man. The text says, “Let us make man in our image”. Since man wasn’t included among the animals – he wasn’t already there – therefore the making of man would imply the material creation of something new. So it seems to me again false that days 4 and 6 deal with these material components only functionally. It does envision, I think, their coming into existence.

Finally, his fourth reason is that on day 5, functions are mentioned and the word bara (“to create”) is used. By way of response, we’ve seen that bara involves efficient causation – producing the effect in being. The material origins of birds and sea creatures on day 5 are clearly in view. So it is just simply false that this is purely functional. On day 5, the birds and the sea creatures are created by God.

So I don’t think any of these reasons are at all persuasive to suggest that the account in Genesis 1 should not be read as both material creation and functional creation as well.

There is a good deal more I would love to say about Walton’s book but I have taxed your patience already I suspect. I think that this is sufficient to show that the Functional Interpretation is not a very plausible option for the interpretation of the opening chapter of Genesis.

Question: I have a question in general about this. You have spent a lot of time on this and I think you have done a good job of picking apart the theory, but I wonder why? Is this because this is something that is starting to catch on at an academic or popular level?

Answer: There are two reasons that I shared right at the very beginning. One is because I have just read Walton’s book and so it is very fresh in my mind and I got all worked up about it! If, maybe in two years time, I would cover this section, maybe I wouldn’t spend so much time on it, but the freshness of it in my mind is one reason, frankly. But in addition to that, this interpretation is one to which a certain segment of evangelical theology appeals in order to reconcile science and religion.5 Perhaps you have heard of Francis Collins – the head of the Human Genome Project who is a theistic evolutionist, or as he prefers, creative evolution. His BioLogos Foundation6 is attempting to provide an alternative to Young Earth Creationism. They get a lot of funding from the Templeton Foundation which wants to promote the dialogue between science and religion. The book carries an endorsement on its rear cover from Francis Collins. I think that this interpretation is one that is increasingly influential in the evangelical community as a way of reconciling science and religion. If the meaning of Genesis 1 is purely functional, then there can’t be any conflict with science because it is not about how these things came into existence. It is just about God saying, “This will be for that purpose and this will be for that purpose.” As Walton says, the dinosaurs and everything else could have been flourishing and existing long before Genesis 1:1 began. So I do think this is a very important interpretation in that sense as well as the next one that we are going to talk about which is also now very much in the mix of this discussion.

Question: I have read some of the writings of Francis Collins, Karl Giberson and others who seem to have no problem at all with scientific concordism.

Answer: I don’t think that is right. Let’s define again what we are meaning by concordism. I don’t like the word but it has become standard terminology today in these sorts of discussions and so one uses it simply because you want to make sure you are all talking on the same page. Concordism does not mean that science and the Bible are in concord with each other – that there is a harmony between science and the Bible. I think we all hope that that is true – that there is concord between science and religion! But when these scholars talk about concordism, this is descriptive of a certain hermeneutical approach to the text which says you use modern science to guide you as you read the text and you try to interpret the text in light of modern science. I think the most obvious example of this kind of hermeneutic would be Hugh Ross. Hugh Ross reads the text in light of modern Big Bang Cosmology and evolutionary theory. For example, when the Scripture says that God stretched out the heavens, Ross interprets that to mean that this is the expansion of space that is predicted in the standard Big Bang model. The metaphor of stretching out the heavens is meant to be literally the expansion of space. He will read other elements of the scientific picture back into the text. What people like Walton and Blocher and many others are protesting is that that is not a legitimate hermeneutical approach to the text. The proper way to approach a text is to try to discern what the original author meant when he said it and how the original audience to whom it was written would have understood it. That is the correct way to get at the text. Otherwise, you run the risk of importing all kinds of things into the text. Indeed, each successive generation would import its science back into the text and the text would constantly be changing in its meaning as each successive generation tries to read its modern science into the text. Instead, you should let the text stand on its own and try to understand it within its original horizons so to speak – how would its author and its audience have understood it. I think that is correct. I think that that is the right hermeneutical approach. So, in that sense, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson are not concordists. Quite the opposite, they would say we shouldn’t try to read the text in light of modern science.

Followup: Thank you for that. That clarifies a great deal.

Question: I always get confused when we talk about what the original author meant and what the original audience would have interpreted this when we talk about revelation in the Bible.7 I would like to distinguish forensic science (this is what probably happened in the past that we cannot replicate over and over again) from science that can be a theory that can be proven and replicated. I think there is a different standard between those two. So what I keep coming back to is this – isn’t the Bible written for us today? God’s intent, when he directed the writing of the Bible, was to be a communication to us today.

Answer: Well, certainly. But not just to us today. It is written for all persons of all times and cultures. In order to interpret it properly, you would need to try to understand especially the original literary genre in which it was written. For example, if you approached the book of Revelation as a book of history, then you think that in the future there is going to be giant seven headed sea monsters crawling up out of the ocean and sort of like Godzilla attacks New York. It is going to look like that in the future. But if you understand Jewish apocalyptic literature, you understand that these are symbols. In apocalyptic literature, you have all of this symbolic representation of political entities and so forth. It isn’t to be taken as though it were a kind of grade-B horror movie with all of these monsters and so forth. Similarly, when you read poetry in the Old Testament like the Psalms, you need to interpret them according to the proper literary genre. On the other hand, if you are reading the book of Acts, that would be historical writing. There you would want to understand it as such. Though again, importantly, you would need to see how do ancient historians write because there are significant differences between ancient history and modern history. For example, ancient historians didn’t always emphasize the chronology of events. They felt free to group the events thematically and so move them around and not necessarily narrate them just in chronological succession. So I think it is important to remember that although the Bible is written for every generation and is inspired by God, it is written through the instrumentality of human beings who reflect their time and culture and thought forms. So in order to interpret them correctly, we need to put ourselves back in their shoes and ask how would a 1st century Jew have read, say, the book of Revelation or the book of Genesis. So the Bible is for every generation, that is right. But we need, nevertheless, to exercise care in how we interpret it.

Question: I wonder why we have to map that with Aristotle’s framework. Can we not map it with material creation, functional creation and purpose behind the creation? The seventh day is God entering into rest and in Hebrews chapter 4 it says very clearly that God promised us to enter into rest. So, purposefully, we are to enter into rest with God.

Answer: Function is really what Walton means by purpose. The function of a hammer is to pound nails. The function of a knife is to cut. So when he talks about functional creation, he means specifying the purpose. With respect to material creation, the only reason I appeal to Aristotle there was for a clarification of terminology.8 That is all. Just the terminology I found confusing because when you think of the words “material creation” that sounds like the creation of material things. So when Walton sees how the word bara is used sometimes in the Old Testament, it is talking about the creation of things that are not material objects like “create in me a pure heart, O God.” It is not asking him to make some organ inside of your body. Or when it says, “God creates disaster” or “God creates north and south.” These are not material entities. So Walton thinks, “A-Ha! This isn’t material creation. This is functional creation.” Well, that is because he has misunderstood what material creation really is. It means efficient causation. When God creates a chair, he brings the chair into being. When he creates disaster, he brings disaster into being. When he creates a pure heart, he is the efficient cause of your having a pure heart. So I was simply eager to clarify the terminology because I think, because of the misleading terminology, he is led to a misinterpretation or a misunderstanding of the word bara as not involving efficient causation. It seems to me very evidently that it is efficient causation – God brings into being heavens and earth, the sea creatures on day 5, man on day 6. So that was the reason I appealed to Aristotle’s terminology – simply because I thought it could bring some clarity. But I like your point about God’s resting on the seventh day. Certainly, the remainder of the Old Testament and the New Testament interpret God’s resting on the seventh day as his ceasing from creative activity. That is why Israel rests on the Sabbath. They don’t do any work on the Sabbath day. The seventh day isn’t the day in which God comes to reside in his cosmic temple, it is the day on which he ceases from his creative work and that establishes the basis for Israel’s Sabbath practices, too.

A follow-up comment goes off on a tangent which Dr. Craig says is not concerned with what is currently being discussed

Hebrew Creation Myth Interpretation

Let’s go on to the next interpretation which I am going to call the Hebrew Creation Myth Interpretation. Miller and Soden in their new book, In the Beginning… We Misunderstood (2012), lay out this interpretation of Genesis 1. Though they do not use that title for it, they don’t really give a name of their view, but this is what my characterization of their view is. Just as there are pagan creation myths in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so this is an example of a Hebrew creation myth.9 They would say Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not to be taken literally. They would rehearse the evidence against a literal interpretation of the text that we have already been through when we talked about the Literal Interpretation. They present those same considerations that lead them to think that this text is not to be taken literally. Rather, they say that the key to correctly interpreting Genesis 1 is to compare it to Egyptian creation myths. They also examine Mesopotamian and Canaanite myths, but they find that these bear very few resemblances to the text of Genesis 1 and therefore are not really profitably consulted. There are few points of similarity between Mesopotamian and Canaanite creation myths and the story in Genesis 1. But, they observe, Israel was in Egypt in bondage for four hundred years and during that time the Israelites had come to worship the Egyptian deities. Moses had to wean them off of these Egyptian deities and announce to them who the true God was – Yahweh, he was the real God. Even after they left Egypt in the Exodus, many of them were still keeping Egyptian gods and worshipping them. Egyptian religion had made deep inroads into the nation of Israel. They believe that when we compare Genesis 1 to Egyptian creation myths, very significant similarities, as well as significant differences, emerge. The differences will help us to see how Israel sought to reject or correct these pagan myths that they had received while in Egypt. The similarities will show the connections with Egypt, but the stark differences will show the way in which Israel attempted to correct these pagan creation stories.

Miller and Soden point out that it is unfortunately very difficult to reconstruct just what the ancient Egyptian creation myth was. We have no single text as we do of Genesis 1 which lays out the Egyptian view of creation. Rather, the Egyptian view of creation has to be cobbled together from all sorts of different texts over a couple thousand years in order to try to sort out a coherent view. They write,

There is no single Egyptian account known to date that describes the complete Egyptian perspective on creation. Instead, we have to put together a mosaic of bits and pieces recorded in various documents. These documents represent a mixture of times and theologies (covering more than two millennia), many of them in tension with one another, a situation that did not seem to bother the Egyptians. . . . For the most part, Egyptian creation documents consist of brief statements and allusions, scattered among many inscriptions (Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead, and other inscriptions).10

So we don’t have a single, coherent Egyptian creation myth. Rather, this is a reconstruction that scholars have made based upon a diversity of brief snippets and inscriptions over thousands of years. But on pages 78-80, they attempt to summarize the outlines of the Egyptian creation myth.11 I will read this passage to you:

Before the beginning of creation, there was only an infinite, dark, watery, chaotic sea. There was nothing above the sea or below the sea – the sea was all there was. Immersed in the sea, Atum (or Re or Amun or Ptah), the creator god and source of everything brought himself into existence by separating himself from the waters. Egyptian cosmologies that view Amun as the creator, or even as one of the four initial qualities of the precreation matter (watery, unlimited, dark, imperceptible) from creation emerges, would then also understand the wind to be present in the water, because Amun was also the god of wind. Since Atum, Amun, and Re are all connected with the sun, light was then in existence, even though the sun itself had not yet risen. While several means of creation are used interchangeable in the Egyptian accounts (including sneezing or spitting and masturbation), in many accounts Atum (or one of the other gods noted above) spoke the universe into existence. This new creation (or the “universe” as conceived by the Egyptians) began with the separation of the waters to create the atmosphere (a bubble of air, known as the god Shu, in the midst of this endless mass of water). Atum’s command separated the surface of the waters in the sky from the earth. The waters receded and the first mound of earth appeared. The sun, already in the waters before the separation of the atmosphere, rose for the first time as the main event of creation. And so the basic universe was formed – a bubble of light, air, earth, and sky in the continuing infinity of dark, motionless water. The universe was actually composed of thousands of gods (all of which were part of Atum) in the Egyptian understanding, because “all the elements and forces that a human being might encounter in this world are not impersonal matter and energy but forms and wills of living beings – beings that surpass the merely human scale, and are therefore gods.” Into this universe, Atum commanded the creation of plants and animal life, Re formed man as his image, or Khnum fashioned man on a potter’s wheel with the breath of the god giving life to the image. In some accounts, man springs from the tears of the eye of Atum (the sun). After speaking into existence the “universe” and its millions of gods with their towns, shrines, and offerings, Ptah rested with everything in order. In Egyptian theology, all of creation was done in a single day, which was called “the first occasion.”12

I think you can probably see from that account certain similarities as well as enormous differences between the Egyptian creation myth and the account found in Genesis 1. There are points of similarity – one thinks of, for example, the primeval waters, the darkness over the deep and then the spirit of God or the wind moving over the surface of the water. But there are significant differences as well. What Miller and Soden maintain is that the goal of the author of Genesis is not to correct so much the physical descriptions found in these Egyptian creation stories as in correcting their theology of creation. For example, you’ll notice how the author of Genesis completely demythologizes the natural world. He gets rid of all of these gods and goddesses and instead has this single creator God who is the source of everything and is not himself self-created or comes out of the water but is sovereign and transcendent. So what the goal of the narrative is is not to correct the physical description so much as to correct the theology. This is what they write,

in most cases, the biblical writer uses common motifs to demonstrate the stark differences in the Hebrew presentation of God. In other words, the considerable differences show that Genesis is not copying but recasting the events of creation in order to argue strongly for a different theology.13

Next time, I will describe for you that theology as Miller and Soden understand it and show the ways in which the theology of creation in Hebrew understanding differs from the theology of creation in these Egyptian creation myths.14

1 See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)

2 Johnny V. Miller, John M. Soden, In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), pp. 155-56.

3 5:00

4 Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 94.

5 9:54


7 15:08

8 20:05

9 24:58

10 Miller and Soden, In the Beginning, pp. 78, 82.

11 29:37

12 Ibid., pp. 78-80.

13 Ibid., p. 98.

14 Total Running Time: 35:16 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2013)