Creation and Evolution (Part 7)

June 02, 2013     Time: 00:17:13

Functional Creation Interpretation

Let’s go to our next interpretation of Genesis 1 that is on the table. This is called the Functional Creation Interpretation.

In his recent book, John Walton lays out this interpretation. The title of his book is The Lost World of Genesis One.1 Walton claims that creation in the ancient Near East has been universally misunderstood. He says we, today, understand creation to be about how material things came into existence when in fact in the ancient world creation was really about specifying the functions that material things would carry out. Walton gives the example of a restaurant. When does a restaurant, he says, begin to exist? It is not just when the building is finished and the kitchen is installed and the chairs and tables set up. It is when the restaurant opens for business and begins to function as a restaurant. That is when the restaurant is really created. It is not enough just for the material building to be built for that to be a restaurant. It needs to be functioning in a certain way. When it begins to function in that way, that is the date at which you would say “this restaurant began to exist.” Now, in case that example doesn’t quite resonate with you, let me provide a different example of my own that I think would illustrate this difference. Imagine some South Sea islanders getting together and deciding that they are going to allow a certain kind of seashell to function as currency in their island society. These seashells will have a certain worth that could be used in exchange for merchandise and in doing commerce. So these seashells then become money. Now, the seashells already exist. Those material objects already exist. But they are not money until the islanders begin to invest them with that function. At that point, money is created. When the seashells begin to function as currency then that is when money is created in that society, even though the seashells have already been there. That would illustrate the difference between what Walton calls material creation and functional creation.

His claim is that in the ancient Near East creation was understood purely in terms of functional creation. So, he says Genesis 1 is not, in fact, about God’s bringing the earth and the dry land and the vegetation and the animals and even man into existence. Rather, it is about God’s declaring their functions in the created order relative to humanity. So, Walton believes that the seven days of Genesis 1 are literal, consecutive 24-hour days during which the universe is inaugurated as God’s cosmic temple in which he will dwell. And the seventh day is the climax of this inauguration. When God comes to reside in his temple whose functions have been fully specified over the previous seven days and its functionaries installed. Walton claims that his interpretation of the text is a literal interpretation. It is not figurative or literary as Henri Blocher’s was that we looked at last time in the Literary Framework Interpretation. It is a literal account. It is just that creation, Walton claims, doesn’t mean what everybody today has taken it to mean. Genesis 1 is to be literally interpreted, but it is wholly about functional creation, not the creation of material things.

Walton’s view is a subtle view that requires you to understand his difference between material and functional creation.2

Question: The person who has come up with this theory – is he espousing a pre-existing universe?

Answer: Yes! Yes he is as we will see. He is claiming Genesis 1 is not about creating vegetation and animals and plants and things like that. It is just specifying that they will serve these various functions.

Followup: So the universe has always existed?

Answer: Well, it is already there.

Question: In Genesis 1:1, it says “In the beginning, God . . .” You are in apologetics and you go about proving that God exists. But the Bible accepts the fact that God is. Is that in the same context of what you are speaking of with the creation? They are not out to prove something is – it is just stating that it is.

Answer: What he takes Genesis 1:1 to mean (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) is as kind of a summary of the whole chapter to follow. Here, I refer you back to your notes on creatio ex nihilo where we talked at length about the relationship between verses 1 and 2. Walton does not take verse 1 to be a statement of God’s creating the universe in the beginning. He says this is just a summary; as it were a sort of title of the chapter. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – it is just a title for what follows. So he believes creation actually begins in verse 2. The story really begins in verse 2 with the primordial ocean and then God’s saying let there be light and so forth.

Question: Does this involve God physically interacting with the world? Is that part of Walton’s interpretation?

Answer: It would not seem so, any more than the Pacific South Sea islanders interact with the seashells in declaring that they are going to function as currency. There isn’t any effect at all. They are just declared to function now as money.

Followup: So it actually would be compatible with the idea that the universe is a causally closed system under physics.

Answer: Yes.

By the way, Walton is not some raving liberal. He is a professor at Wheaton College, my alma mater.

Now, I am going to spend what is admittedly a disproportionate amount of time on this view. The reason is twofold. One is that I just read Walton’s book and am so very worked up about it! And the other reason is that this book has become very influential in the whole creation-evolution discussion today. It is endorsed by Francis Collins and several other scholars on the back cover of the book and therefore I think is playing an influential role in the faith and science dialogue today.

What can we say by way of assessment? The first point I want to make is a terminological clarification. Walton draws a firm dichotomy between what he calls material ontology and functional ontology. Material creation and function creation. Unfortunately, I think this terminology is both inaccurate and misleading. I think we can see this by comparing Walton’s terminology with Aristotle’s analysis of causation. Aristotle said that when we consider causes, these causes can be of several different types. For example, there is the efficient cause of some effect. The efficient cause for Aristotle is what brings the effect into being. It produces the effect in existence. So, for example, Michelangelo is the efficient cause of the statue David. Michelangelo sculpted the David – he is the efficient cause of that statue. Causes could also, though, be material causes on Aristotle’s view. A material cause is the matter of which the effect is made. It is the stuff out of which it is made. So, for example, while Michelangelo is the efficient cause of David, the material cause is the block of marble that was quarried nearby and which he then shaped and sculpted into the statue. Thirdly, there is what Aristotle called a formal cause. This would be the pattern or the information content of the effect. The statue David has a certain pattern or structure or information content that determines its shape.3 Finally, there is the final cause. This would be the end for which something is made, or the goal or the purpose for which something is made. Michelangelo presumably had some sort of aesthetic purpose in mind for making the David. That would be the final cause.

Now, let’s talk about Walton’s functional creation. Where would functional creation fit in to Aristotle’s scheme? If Aristotle were talking with Walton, what would he take functional creation to involve? Well, I think it is very evident that it would be final causality. Functional creation specifies the end – the purpose, or the telos – for which something is created. So Walton will say that functional creation is teleological in nature. He explicitly identifies functional creation with specifying the teleology – the end for which something exists or is made. The purpose it serves. That would be final causation. That would be functional creation – final causality. Where in Aristotle’s scheme would material creation be? What would correspond to material creation? Well, it wouldn’t be material cause, would it? The material cause is the stuff out of which something is made and when God creates material objects, he is not the stuff out of which they are made, right? He is not their material cause. God is the efficient cause of material objects. So when Walton talks about material creation, what he really means is God’s efficient causation bringing these material objects into existence or bringing them into being. That is what an efficient cause does – it brings its effect into existence.

Why then does Walton call efficient causality material creation? That seems to be confusing. Why call it material creation? Well, I think the reason is because he has an inaccurate understanding of what it is for a material object to exist. He says, “What does it mean for something say a chair to exist?” He answers, in our culture, “. . . a chair exists because it is material.”4 Now that is obviously wrong. If you were to grind up a chair into bits the same material would still exist but it would not longer be a chair. For a chair to exist, the material has to be arranged in a certain way as a unified object that has certain specific properties. This is very important because the efficient cause of a chair does not have to be the cause of the material out of which the chair is made. When a carpenter makes a chair, for example, he is the efficient cause of the chair but the lumber – the wood – is the material cause of the chair. The question we are interested in with regard to Genesis 1 is whether Genesis 1 is describing God as the efficient cause of the effects that he produces or is it describing him merely as specifying the final causes for objects which are already there.

I think that Walton’s terminology is not only inaccurate but it is also misleading. Walton in his book notes that in some cases the objects which God is said to create in the Old Testament – for example, darkness or disaster or north and south (these are all things said to be created by God) – are not material objects, Walton points out. Therefore he says these passages cannot be talking about material creation, or efficient causation. But I think he has obviously been misled by his flawed terminology. When God, for example, creates disaster, he is clearly the efficient cause of the disaster even though disaster is not a material object and therefore has no material cause. Walton is confused by his own terminology to think that because disaster doesn’t have a material cause, therefore, it can’t be an example of material creation.5 You see how his terminology has misled him. It is an example of efficient causation even though things like disaster, darkness and north and south aren’t material objects. They are still instances of efficient causation.

Finally – here is my last point – I think Aristotle’s analysis can serve to warn us against erecting false dichotomies. It doesn’t have to be either-or, it can be both-and. All four kinds of causation can be involved in a specific instance of creation. Just because a text speaks of God as specifying the final cause for which something exists – specifying its function – doesn’t exclude that he is the efficient cause as well. We should not think of this as either-or. It could be both-and. So what that means is that if Walton is going to show us that Genesis 1 is concerned exclusively with functional creation, he has got to prove that material creation or efficient causation is excluded. It is not enough for him to show that functional creation is involved. He has got to show that efficient causation, or so-called material creation, is excluded – that it doesn’t even come into the picture at all.

So this terminological clarification I think is really critical and as we look next time at Walton’s theory of creation we are going to need to be asking, “Does Genesis 1 think of God as the efficient cause of the objects that he creates?” Is it what Walton calls material causation (misleadingly) or is Genesis 1 simply about God’s specifying the final causes or functions that things serve? That will be the subject that we will take up next time.6


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

2 5:00

3 10:02

4 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 23.

5 15:01

6 Total Running Time: 17:13 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)