Creation and Evolution (Part 9)

June 17, 2013     Time: 00:20:18

We have been talking about the proper interpretation of Genesis 1 and in particular John Walton’s Functional Creation Interpretation.1 Last time we looked at the word bara which is used in the Old Testament as the word for “create” and I argued that bara is a species of efficient causation, not functional creation.

Now we want to come to Walton’s interpretation of the chapter and his claim that in Genesis 1 creation does not begin at verse 1; rather, creation begins at verse 2 with the primordial waters and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. On his view, verse 1 is just a summary statement of the entire creation week. It is not an initial act of creation that takes place prior to verse 2. Creation proper doesn’t actually begin until verse 2 with the waters already in place. So creation, he says, in Genesis 1 at least, doesn’t involve bringing matter into being but it just involves establishing functions.

I think it is important to remind ourselves just how radical Walton’s interpretation is. We might think that on his view creation begins with the primordial waters already in place and then over the next seven days God introduces order and function into this world by making the dry land appear and separating it from the seas, bringing into being sea creatures and birds, having vegetation and fruit trees sprout from the earth, bringing land animals into being and so forth. But as I interpret him, that would be a misunderstanding. These things would all be examples of material creation, even if they don’t involve bringing something into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo) just as a carpenter’s assembling a chair would be an example of material creation or efficient causation. If this account is to be exclusively functional as Walton claims it is then all of the plants and the animals and even man have to be there right from verse 2. He simply then establishes their functions over the next seven days. So Walton affirms on page 169 of his book that prior to the seven days of Genesis 1 the dinosaurs and the hominids were alive and well waiting only to be given their respective functions.

Having said that, I have been thinking about the suggestion someone mentioned last lecture that perhaps there is another way of interpreting what Walton wants to say – that he is not denying that there is material creation of these things over the seven days but what he is saying is that the narrative is just focused on functional creation and that is the exclusive focus of the chapter. So we might think, for example, of an Aristotelian author of Genesis 1 who does believe both in efficient causation as well as final causation and we might imagine that this Aristotelian author writes an account like Genesis 1 only thinking about final causation – only focusing on the final causes or the functions that God sets up – but he doesn’t mean to deny that material creation is also going on. He just is ignoring it in the narrative. The problem with that interpretation, I think, first is that it would contradict what Walton says about what an eyewitness would have observed during those relatively recent seven days.2 He says that the dinosaurs were there, the hominids were there, the sun was shining and everything would have appeared just the way it does now except that God would not have yet taken up residence in his cosmic temple and man would not yet have been said to be in God’s image. So I don’t think this is Walton’s view.3

But still we could imagine a view like this. We could say, “What if this is an account that is just focusing on the functions of things?” It doesn’t mean to deny the material creation of these things during that time but it is just leaving it out of account.4 I think the points that I have already made would still be applicable; namely, this isn’t what ancient creation stories are about. Ancient creation stories are about the material creation of things. They begin with this undifferentiated state, like the primordial waters, and then it describes how things came to be – how they came into existence. In Genesis 1, you have the dry land, you have the sea creatures and the birds coming to be, you have the vegetation being brought forth from the earth and then the animals populating the land. This isn’t just specifying functions; it is talking about how these things came into existence. To say this is only focused on functions would make the vast majority of the descriptions of what happened during that week literally false in Genesis 1.

Moreover, the point that I made last week would still hold – bara does not indicate functional creation. As we saw, when you look at the fifty or so instances of bara in the Old Testament, it is talking about efficient causation – about God producing things in being. Whether these are material things or immaterial things (like a pure heart or disaster), nevertheless, God is said to be the efficient cause.

It seems to me that the evidence supports that this account, even if it talks about functions, is nevertheless an account of how these things come to be. That is to say, God is the efficient cause and not simply the one who specifies the final causes of these things.

Even if we agree with Walton that creation proper begins only with verse 2, I don’t think there is anything in the text to suggest that this is just functional creation – that the things aren’t coming into existence. But is Walton right in thinking that verse 1 is just a summary title for the chapter rather than an initial act of creation? I don’t think he is correct about this. Here I would simply refer you back to the lessons that we had on creation out of nothing earlier in this section.5 Walton does not, at least in this book, interact with the arguments that we shared from Claus Westermann6 which showed that verse 1 is not simply a subordinate clause but is a statement of creation out of nothing. If Westermann is correct then I think Genesis 1:1 does begin the account of creation with an initial act of God bringing the universe into being. Then the whole Functional Creation Interpretation just collapses because it hinges on thinking that verse 1 is not the initial act of creation.

Question: Is it possible that Walton is arguing about the priority – whether it is the function that is underlying the material creation versus where the material creation drives the function? Is that the priority?

Answer: I am sure he would say that functions are the priority; that these things are created with a view toward this end. I don’t think we would need to disagree with that. But, as I say, just to repeat myself, it seems to me that the account, though having these functions in mind (the reasons God created them) nevertheless is about God acting as the efficient cause to bring these things into being. That subverts the Functional Creation Interpretation.

Followup: We all know that God’s Word caused creation, so God’s Word defines the function and the function kind of brings about material?

Answer: No, I am not saying the function brings about these things. Think again about the difference between an efficient cause and a final cause. The final cause – the end for which something is created; the goal or purpose – that doesn’t bring the thing into existence. You need an efficient cause to bring the thing into existence. So don’t think that the functions or the final causes are what is responsible for bringing these things into being. There, God is clearly the efficient cause. He is the one who brings these things about.7

Followup: So are you saying that between verse 1 and verse 2 God spoke water into existence except it is not recorded?

Answer: Yes.

Followup: OK. Could it be that verse 1 is setting a limit in human understanding since it is written for human beings? In the beginning, God created his ultimate purpose (humans) then he kind of put in a limit – whatever happened before the first day we are not to know.

Answer: Well, I would refer you again back to the previous lessons where we talked about this. I argued there that the expression “the heavens and the earth” in Hebrew is an expression for the totality of everything. It means the universe. You have this absolute beginning at which God creates – bara – he brings the universe into existence. So it seems to me that verse 1 is most plausibly taken to be an initial act of creation which represents an absolute beginning. There wasn’t anything before it.

Question: Just a quick comment from a paper I did on Genesis 1:1 – the term “heaven and earth,” when it is used at least in the Pentateuch, is used as a single referent – not as two separate referents. “Heaven and earth” is a single package.

Answer: OK. Good. Yes, there isn’t any word in Hebrew for the universe. So this would be an idiom that would encapsulate the whole.

Let me go on to Walton’s next point in arguing for his view which is that days 1-3 establish functions. He argues that days 1-3 serve to establish the basis for time measurement, weather, and food. I don’t think we need to dispute that things are created for these purposes. But that obviously doesn’t imply that the material creation of the dry land, the firmament, and the vegetation is not also affirmed. Walton has a particularly difficult time with the firmament which God creates. He thinks that the ancient Israelites believed that there literally existed a solid dome in the sky – the firmament – which held up the waters which are above the earth. So he says if we take Genesis 1 as an account of material creation, then it implies the existence of something “that we are inclined to dismiss as not part of the material cosmos as we understand it.”8 There is no firmament in other words. He says we can “escape from the problem” by interpreting the text purely functionally.9 It doesn’t really mean that God created the firmament in the sense of bringing this thing into existence.10 Here I think Walton has very clearly allowed modern science to intrude into his hermeneutics. The issue isn’t whether the firmament is part of the material cosmos as we understand it. The issue is whether or not the firmament was part of the material cosmos as the ancient Israelites understood it. Trying to justify a functional interpretation by appealing to the non-existence of the firmament in modern science is an example of concordism, which you will remember is allowing modern science to enter into and guide your exegesis. This is a view that Walton himself rejects.11 I find it tremendously ironic that Walton, after inveighing against concordism earlier in the book, should find himself guilty of this very hermeneutical fallacy himself in saying that because the firmament doesn’t exist according to modern science therefore we should think that this narrative is not about material creation but functional creation. Again, that just doesn’t follow because the ancient Israelites, if they believed it was part of the universe, would not have had any trouble narrating an account of the creation of the firmament.

Let me go on to his next point which is that days 4-6 establish functionaries; that is to say, the agents who carry out these functions.12 Days 1-3 establish the functions and then days 4-6 establish the functionaries. Notice that Walton’s view differs from Blocher’s Literary Framework View.13 In Blocher’s view, days 4-6 is the creation of the inhabitants of the domains created in days 1-3. But on Walton’s view, days 1-3 establishes functions and then days 4-6 is the establishment of the functionaries that will carry out those functions. I think this is an interesting suggestion that I think is more plausible than Blocher’s view. In particular, the sun and the moon do seem to be established as functionaries for time measurement. I think this is where Walton’s interpretation of functional creation is its most persuasive – it is with the establishment of the sun and the moon to carry out the functions of time measurement (marking days and years and seasons and so forth). But, of course, that doesn’t do anything to rule out the material creation of the entities on days 4-6 as well as the establishment of these entities as functionaries. So just saying that it establishes functionaries doesn’t go any distance toward showing that their material creation is not involved in those days.

Let me make one last point. That is Walton’s claim that the narrative involves divine rest in a temple – the universe is God’s cosmic temple in which he comes to reside on the seventh day. Walton argues that in the ancient Near East, gods resided in temples. That is where gods were thought to live –in the temples. So he thinks that God’s resting on the seventh day, indicates that God comes to reside in the cosmos as his cosmic temple. The seven days leading up to this are a reflection of the seven days of dedication that preceded the inauguration of Solomon’s temple. Just as Solomon’s temple had this seven day period of dedication, so we have this seven days of specifying functions and functionaries before God comes to reside in his temple. I think the problem with this suggestion is that there is just no evidence in the text that the author thinks of the world as God’s temple or of God’s resting on the seventh day as his coming to reside in the temple. Walton’s interpretation presupposes that God hasn’t done any creative work on days 2-6 and therefore he doesn’t need to rest on the seventh day! He hasn’t created anything so there is no need for a Sabbath rest. Therefore, he reinterprets God’s rest as merely God’s residing in his temple. Reinterpreting God’s resting from creation as God’s residing in his temple presupposes the truth of the Functional Creation Interpretation. So this can’t serve as evidence for the Functional Creation Interpretation. That would be question begging. This view presupposes the truth of the Functional Creation Interpretation and we haven’t seen any good evidence for that at all. If God is involved in creative work during days 1-6 then there would be a rationale for his ceasing his creative work and resting on the seventh day. There is simply nothing about a temple here. As for the seven day figure, I think this is much more plausibly connected with other ancient creation stories “in seven days.” The seven day motif is common in other ancient creation stories rather than try to connect it with Solomon’s temple – that is a much more distant analogy or parallel than other creation stories over seven days.14 So I don’t find this claim about Genesis 1 being the story of God coming to reside in the universe as his cosmic temple to be a plausible interpretation either.15


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

2 “The material phase nonetheless could have been under development for long eras and could in that case correspond with the descriptions of the prehistoric ages as science has uncovered them for us. There would be no reason to think that the sun had not been shining, plants had not been growing, or animals had not been present.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 98.)

3 In the FAQs section of his book, Walton writes, “Q: Why can’t Genesis 1 be both functional and material? A: Theoretically it could be both.” But he continues, “But assuming that we simply must have a material account if we are going to say anything meaningful is cultural imperialism. . . . In my judgment, there is little in the text that commends it as a material account and much that speaks against it.” So he basically says Genesis 1 could theoretically be both but he doesn’t interpret it as such. (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 171.)

4 5:09

5 See “Doctrine of Creation (Part 1)”

6 See Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11, trans. John Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984)

7 10:03

8 Ibid., p. 60.

9 Walton says, “We may find some escape from the problem, however, as we continue to think about creation as ultimately concerned with the functional rather than the material.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 57.)

10 Walton says, “If this is not an account of material origins, then Genesis 1 is affirming nothing about the material world. Whether or not there actually are cosmic waters being held back by a solid dome does not matter.” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 57.)

11 For the reasons why Walton rejects concordism, see The Lost World of Genesis One, pp. 16-18.

12 15:09

13 This was discussed in “Doctrine of Creation (Part 32).” See also Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (InterVarsity Press, 1984)

14 Dr Craig corrects the preceding point in the next lecture – seven days aren’t common in ancient creation stories. But it is a very common motif throughout the ancient world used in many different ways.

15 Total Running Time: 20:17 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)