Creation and Evolution (Part 8)

June 10, 2013     Time: 00:28:52

We have been talking about different interpretations of Genesis 1. Last time we began the Functional Creation Interpretation of John Walton.1 You will remember this interpretation says that Genesis 1 is not a narrative of what Walton calls God’s material creation of things in the world – that is to say bringing these things into existence where they didn’t exist before. Rather, he argues it is a matter of what he calls functional creation. His claim is that creation in the Ancient Near East in general and in Genesis 1 in particular is functional creation – simply specifying the various functions that things will fulfill in an orderly system that God has in mind.

Last time we began our assessment of this view by pointing out some terminological problems with Walton’s view of material and functional creation. I did this by comparing it to Aristotle’s analysis of causation in terms of:

· Efficient causation, which is the cause that brings into being its effect – the productive cause of some thing.

· Material causation, which is the stuff out of which some thing is made.

· Formal causation, which is a sort of pattern or information content of the effect.

· Final causation, which is the end or the goal or purpose for which some thing is created.

I pointed out that when Walton talks about material creation, although you might at first think this is material causation, it is not. It really is talking about what Aristotle called efficient causation – producing the effect in being or bringing something into existence. Whereas functional creation would be specifying the final causes of things – the ends for which they exist. Walton’s terminology, I argued, can be confusing, misleading and inaccurate because you might think in order for something to be the object of God’s material causation that God has to create that thing ex nihilo – he has to create the matter out of which something is made and that is not the case. In efficient causation, there may well be a material cause as well. When a carpenter creates a chair, for example, the lumber – the wood – is the material cause but the carpenter is the efficient cause. And there is also a final cause – the chair is made for someone to sit on, for example. And it has a formal cause – certain information that is embodied in that chair. So I am not saying that Aristotle and his analysis is correct and that Walton is somehow to be measured by his approximation to Aristotle. No, I am simply saying that Aristotle gives us a more subtle and nuanced analysis of causation and it is helpful to see exactly what kind of causation Walton is talking about when he says functional creation. That is clearly final causation – the end or the purpose for which something is created. When he talks about material creation, he is really talking about efficient causation.

So what Walton has to show is that Genesis 1 is concerned exclusively with functional creation – or final causation – and that is has nothing to do with God’s efficient causation of the dry land, the vegetation, the fruit trees, the animals, the sea creatures and man; that it is purely and exclusively final causation. Otherwise it could be both material creation and functional creation. Walton wants to maintain that that is not the case. It is not a both/and, it is exclusively functional creation.

Question: Walton would say that Genesis just doesn’t address the material causation. Is that right? It only addresses the functional?

Answer: Yes, that is right.2

Question: Does Walton believe that matter is eternal?

Answer: No. He believes, as a Christian, that God created the world ex nihilo.3 He is an evangelical Christian. But, he does not believe it on the basis of Genesis 1. So he would believe that on other grounds, but he doesn’t think that Genesis 1 teaches creatio ex nihilo. It would be consistent with Genesis 1 to say that matter is eternal in the past.

Having made that terminological clarification, I want to move on to a discussion of ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Walton claims that when we look at the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, we find that “people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.”4 Does the evidence bear out this claim? I think that the answer is clearly “no.”

Walton points out, “Nearly all the creation accounts of the ancient world start their story with no operational system in place. Egyptian texts talk about a singularity” – not in the modern scientific sense, but he says in the sense, “– nothing having yet been separated out. All is inert and undifferentiated.”5 Creation in these ancient Near Eastern myths often begins with the primeval waters out of which the dry land or the gods emerge. You will remember that when we talked about creatio ex nihilo, we said that the typical pattern of these ancient creation myths was “when ____ was not yet, then God (or the gods) ____” and you fill in the blanks. A good example of this is a text that Walton himself furnishes on the founding of the city of Eridu. Here is what this ancient creation myth says,

No holy house, no house of the gods, had been built in a pure place; no reed had come forth, no tree had been created; no brick had been laid, no brickmold had been created; no house had been built, no city had been created; no city had been built, no settlement had been founded; Nippur had not been built, Ekur had not been created; Uruk had not been built, Eanna had not been created; the depths had not been built, Eridu had not been created; no holy house, no house of the gods, no dwelling for them had been created. All the world was sea, the spring in the midst of the sea was only a channel, then was Eridu built, Esagila was created.6

Here you see this typical form of these ancient Near Eastern myths – when “blank” was not yet, then “something-or-other” was created. We find this typical pattern in Genesis 2:5-7 where Genesis says, “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up . . . then the LORD God formed man . . .” Genesis 2:5-7 has that typical form of these ancient creation myths.

The descriptions of the primordial world in pagan myths were not descriptions of a world of material objects in which the animals and the plants and the buildings and the people existed but they lacked a function. Rather, they are descriptions of a state in which distinct material objects of any sort do not exist at all. As Walton says, it is an undifferentiated inert state from which distinct things had not been separated out.7 Therefore, the creation of an orderly system of functioning objects most certainly did involve the material creation of those objects – not just the specification of functions for material objects that were already present. So when Walton’s concludes “consequently, to create something (cause it to exist) in the ancient world means to give it a function, not material properties”8 he is drawing a false dichotomy which is foreign to these ancient texts.

When it comes, then, to Genesis 1, in order for this text to feature only functional creation, you must imagine that the dry land, the vegetation, the trees, the sea creatures, the birds, all the animals, and even man were all there right from the beginning but they weren’t functioning in an ordered system. It seems to me that such an interpretation is implausible not to say ridiculous. It would require us to regard as literally false all of the statements about the darkness, the primeval ocean, the emergence of the dry land and separation of the seas, the earth bringing forth vegetation and fruit trees, the waters bringing forth sea creatures, the earth bringing forth animals and God making man.

Notice that Walton cannot say, “Well, these things cannot exist apart from an orderly functioning system.” Because the minute you say that, then you admit that functional creation involves material creation as well and that is the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 – that God both brings these things into existence and he specifies their functions in an orderly system.

Just how bizarre Walton’s interpretation is becomes evident from his statement that the material creation of the biosphere could have gone on for eons prior to Genesis 1:1 then he thinks at some time in the relatively recent past there came a literal period of seven consecutive 24-hour days during which God specified the functions of the various things existing at that time.9 Walton claims that he is giving a literal interpretation of Genesis 1.10 But this is the farthest thing from a literal interpretation of the text that you can have. It would imply that all of the descriptions of the world that are given at the beginning of and during that relatively recent week are all literally false. If you ask, “What would an eyewitness have observed during that week?” Walton either begs off answering the question or he says the answer is that the world before those seven days would have lacked only 1) humanity in God’s image and 2) God’s presence in his cosmic temple.11 In other words, everything would have looked exactly the same except that the people who existed then would not have been functioning as God’s vice regents here on earth and God had not yet specified the function of the cosmos to serve as his cosmic temple. An eyewitness during that week would not have observed, and in fact did not observe, any change whatsoever in the world.

Question: I think it is interesting that the Tolidoth theory of who wrote Genesis says that the first chapter was written by God up to chapter 2 verse 4 because the Tolidoth statement is this is the account of the heavens and that declares the author of that first part of Genesis 1 and the first part of Genesis 2. So the first written by Adam is Genesis 2:5 and that is similar to the format of the ancient Near Eastern myths.12

Answer: Yes, that is correct and you will remember when we talked about creatio ex nihilo we talked about how Genesis 1:1 is so different from the ancient creation myths in that it breaks that pattern. It has this absolute statement “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So I will refer you back to the notes when we discussed that.

Question: Did you say that John Walton does deny that Adam is the progenitor of the human race?

Answer: I don’t know Walton’s work apart from this book, The Lost World of Genesis One. So I am only interacting with his views as expressed in this book and in this book, he doesn’t say anything to suggest that. I don’t know what his views are in general.13

So if we are to adopt a reading of the text which is so at odds with its surface interpretation, or its prima facie descriptions of the world, it seems to me that we would need to have very powerful evidence for adopting such an interpretation. The question is then what evidence does Walton give in favor of this interpretation of Genesis 1 apart from the evidence of ancient Near Eastern cosmology in general?

That brings us to the next area – the discussion of the world bara as functional creation. bara is the Hebrew word for “create.” Walton’s first argument for his view is that the Hebrew word bara, for create, concerns functional creation only. In the book, he provides a chart which lists the approximately fifty passages in the Old Testament where bara is used. The objects of the verb bara in the Old Testament include things like the heavens and the earth, sea creatures, human beings, the starry host, a cloud of smoke, Israel, the ends of the earth, north and south, a pure heart, disaster and so forth. Incredibly, from this list, Walton concludes “This list shows that grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them.”14 Now when I looked at this list, I thought precisely the opposite was true! Most of these objects are easily identified as material objects. A cloud of smoke, the stars, human beings, sea creatures – these are clearly material objects. Now, true, some of them are not material objects; for example, a pure heart – “create in me a pure heart, O God.” This is not a material object – not the anatomical heart that is in your body. Or the nation of Israel. Or north and south. They are not material objects. But those are the exceptions in the list. In particular, the three objects of bara in Genesis 1 – the heavens and the earth, man, and the sea creatures (especially the sea creatures!) – seem to be clear cases of the creation of material objects, not just specifying functions.

But, leave that point aside. Walton’s more fundamental mistake is that he fallaciously infers that because the objects of bara are not material objects therefore bara does not concern material creation. Here I think we see how Walton’s misleading terminology comes home to roost.15 What is material creation? It is not material causation, it is efficient causation. What Walton is talking about is efficient causation. While he would be right that the creation of immaterial entities, like a pure heart or north and south or disaster, is not a case of material causation, nevertheless, they are certainly a case of efficient causation. It is God who is said to be the cause of disaster or who creates in you a pure heart. In virtually all of these cases in the list, the object of bara is an object of which God is the efficient cause. God is the efficient cause of the object that he is said to create whether that is a material object or something immaterial.

Walton finds confirmation of his interpretation of bara being purely functional in the fact that bara is never used in conjunction with a material cause of the object. He takes this to support the idea that only functional creation is involved. But that conclusion just doesn’t follow. From the absence of a material cause, all you can infer is that material causation is not always involved. God could create something ex nihilo when he brings something into being but it doesn’t mean that efficient causation is not involved. Indeed, in functional creation as Walton understands it, the object already exists; it is just given a new function. But none of the objects of bara in the Old Testament that he lists, with the possible exception of the nation of Israel, is a case of an existing thing that is simply given a new function. What I mean there is the people could already exist as material objects but God would create the nation of Israel by, say, calling these people and constituting them as a national state or political entity. That would not involve the efficient creation of the people. But in every other case in the list, it is clearly a case of efficient causation and therefore material creation.

Walton says that the reason the functional interpretation of Genesis 1 is “never considered” by other scholars (which I think is itself a telling admission) is because they have been misled by cultural influences of our material culture.16 Well, I think that is going too far. Such a claim would impugn the scholarly credibility of other scholars of the ancient Near East – Egyptologists and other students of ancient Near Eastern cultures. I suspect that the reason that no one has ever interpreted Genesis 1 this way is because it is just such an obvious misreading of the text that other scholars haven’t adopted it.

Question: I read Walton slightly differently and I would like to get your comments on it. Basically, what I understood him as saying is just that the people in the ancient Near East asked different questions than we did. Like when we say God created the universe, we think of stuff. If somebody asks “Who made it have its purpose for what it does?” we would answer “of course, it is God.” That is just assumed. In the ancient Near East they did just the opposite. “Who purposed it?” “God.” “Well, who made the stuff?” “Duh! God.” So when he is talking about functional creation, they would not have asked the material question. So the Genesis account, as I am reading him, could work either with a Young Earth view or an Old Earth view. The material could have been created at that moment simply because they are asking different questions.

Answer: See, what I am trying to say is that because of his misleading terminology, using material creation to talk about what is really efficient causation, it has nothing to do with the creation of the material. When a carpenter makes a chair, he is the efficient cause of the chair. The chair doesn’t exist until he makes it. But he doesn’t make it out of nothing. He makes it out of lumber.17 So it is really misleading to think that the question is “Who made the material out of which this stuff exists?” That is not the issue. The issue is, in these ancient Near Eastern myths and in Genesis 1, did these ancient people think that this was just specifying the functions of things or did they think that God was actually bringing these things into being. Walton is very clear. He will not allow a both/and interpretation. He says it is not both/and. He is quite happy to say that all of this stuff existed prior to Genesis 1:1; that the sun was shining, the dinosaurs were flourishing, and things were going on. But then, relatively recently, God went through this seven day period of saying what the function is of everything. He is definitely trying to exclude efficient causation from being contemplated in Genesis 1 and think of it as purely functional. If he is going to maintain that, he has got to show that not just final causation is involved, he has got to show that efficient causation is not involved.

Question: What does Walton say if there was no function to material prior to God giving it function in Genesis, what did they do if there was no function? Did you just have roaming animals? If the sun had no function, I don’t think you can have that. It doesn’t make sense.

Answer: Exactly. I think you are right. I think this is a deep incoherence in his interpretation. When you look at these ancient myths, it is not as though you could have these animals and plants and human beings running about without any function. That would be crazy. It seems to me that material creation and functional creation go hand-in-hand. It is hand-in-glove. It is both/and, it is not either/or. Yet, he has to try to say that Genesis 1 is not both/and, it is purely functional. As I say, he actually says that the material creation of these things may have preceded Genesis 1:1.

Followup: But they had no function?

Answer: Yeah! Right! The function start getting specified in verse 2 which is, I think, incoherent. I think he would recognize that that would be a misreading of these ancient creation stories. In these Egyptian myths, it is very clear they do have these primeval waters and it is not as though there were people and animals and things going about but they were just functionless in an undifferentiated state. What happens is God creates things and gives them functions at the same time. It is as Aristotle saw – it is a both/and.

Next time we will look at Walton’s argument that creation in Genesis 1 in fact begins only in verse 2 and consists in specifying the functions for the things that God creates.18


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

2 4:59

3 Walton says, “If we conclude that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not thereby suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 44.)

4 Ibid., p. 26.

5 Ibid., p. 31.

6 Ibid., pp. 78-79.

7 9:58

8 Ibid., p. 35.

9 Walton says that prior to day one, “The material phase nonetheless could have been under development for long eras . . .” He also claims, “Prior to day one, God’s spirit was active over the nonfunctional cosmos; God was involved but had not yet taken up his residence. The establishment of the functional cosmic temple is effectuated by God taking up his residence on day seven.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, pp. 98, 85.)

10 Walton says, “I believe that this is a literal reading. . . . I believe that the reading that I have offered is the most literal reading possible at this point.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 170.)

11 Walton says, “The main elements lacking in the ‘before’ picture are therefore humanity in God’s image and God’s presence in his cosmic temple. Without those two ingredients the cosmos would be considered nonfunctional and therefore nonexistent.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 97.)

12 15:06

13 In his book, Walton does appear to affirm a historical Adam and Eve when he says, “Whatever evolutionary processes led to the development of animal life, primates and even prehuman hominids, my theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 139.)

14 Ibid., p. 43.

15 19:55

16 Walton says, “This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered. . . . Most interpreters have generally thought that Genesis 1 contains an account of material origins because that was the only sort of origins that our material culture was interested in. It wasn’t that scholars examined all the possible levels at which origins could be discussed; they presupposed the material aspect.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 44.)

17 25:01

18 Total Running Time: 28:52 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)