If Walton is Right on His Function-Only View: Some Implications | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

Note: This is the third post in the companion blog series to our spring book club based on The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. If you are interested in the book club, it's not too late to sign up! Note: Walton's book is organized into 18 "propositions", which are the equivalent of chapters.

If Walton is Right on His Function-Only View: Some Implications

As we come to Propositions 11-12 in this serial review of John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis 1, we arrive at a major transition point, not unlike a sermon’s transition from exposition to application. The “exposition” refers to the first nine propositions, in which Walton establishes his case for the “functional cosmic temple” view. Given that the cosmology of Genesis 1 should be read in light of its ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural context (Proposition 1), the creation account is best understood as purely functional rather than material (Propositions 2-6). The pronouncement of the functions—through six “literal” twenty-four-hour days—brings into existence God’s cosmic temple (Propositions 7-9). The first part of Proposition 10 (“The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins”) is a summary of the first half of the book.

The rest of the book (the “application”) refers to several implications of Walton’s view for the hot-button issues of the origins debate—hermeneutics, theology, metaphysics, and even public science education. Therefore, in many ways, Walton is saying that his view is not only more correct than other views; it also offers a better “payoff” in the end concerning ways to resolve issues in the origins debate that often come to a standstill.

Proposition 10 already promotes the benefits of Walton’s approach. For example, Walton claims his function-only view of creation avoids “significant obstacles” (p. 94) facing any view that sees Genesis 1 concerned with material creation and makes the question of the age of the earth a non-biblical one. Also, in congruence with orthodox Christianity, Walton affirms that God materially created all that exists, but this is derived from “theological logic” (p. 97) and some NT references, rather than Genesis 1.

Given Walton’s strategy, I will first consider Propositions 11-12 assuming (for the sake of argument) that Walton’s thesis is correct. Then I will return to a “what if” question: what are the implications if one accepts a large proportion of Walton’s thesis but is not convinced of all of it?

If Walton is Right, Then…

While Walton’s interpretation is very different than most, in Proposition 11 (“‘Functional Cosmic Temple’ Offers Face-Value Exegesis”) his respect for “authorial intent” is quite conservative. He rejects “reducing Genesis 1 to merely literary or theological expressions” (p. 107)—maneuvers often interpreted by those from a more literalist perspective conservatives as compromising the biblical text in order to “bypass difficult scientific implications” (p. 103). Walton’s view, committed to authorial intent by taking seriously the ancient (human) author and ancient audience, “bypasses” the science questions de facto since the text makes no scientific claims. Rather, it is the “concordist approach” which “attempts to read an ancient text in modern terms . . . of physics, biology, geology and so on into the biblical text” which is “a repudiation of reading the text at face value” (p. 104).

I find Walton’s line of argument here sound and his approach a brilliant debate tactic. If Walton is right that the ancient Israelite would have understood the creation account of Genesis 1 in function-only terms and with no sense (from the rest of the Bible [see p. 106]) that there’s any additional divine meaning intended, then questions of materiality—the purview of science—are irrelevant. On one hand, this distances Walton from the conservative criticism of those who seemingly downplay the text’s “plain meaning” and thus compromise biblical authority. On the other hand, Walton goes on the offense, accusing the traditional “literalist” of methodological inconsistency.

This dual critique is then applied to standard evangelical views on origins in Proposition 12 (“Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough”). Walton has already alluded to these views throughout the book, but here he contrasts them directly with his own position. Following on the heels of Proposition 11, his criticisms here are obvious. While commended for their desire to uphold the biblical text, these other views all assume the text is about material origins and thus their attempts to reconcile science with the Bible inevitably fail. The popular (i.e., concordist) varieties of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and Old Earth Creationism (OEC) go “too far,” assuming that the Bible should be read scientifically and thus seek to find compatibility between the text and science. YEC does so by offering alternative scientific theories to mainstream science; OEC does so by reading advanced scientific content into the text. To Walton, the Framework Hypothesis goes “not far enough.” Without questioning the literary and theological conclusions of this view, Walton thinks it “risks reductionism and oversimplification” (p. 112). Other views are given quick dismissals: the once-popular “gap theory” that allowed for an old earth is rejected for its exegetical weakness (i.e., reading Gen 1:2 as “The earth became formless and void”); proposing a multi-million-year gap between Genesis 1 and 2 to allow for some sort of human evolution is considered theologically problematic.

I found Proposition 12 logically straightforward, even if a little underwhelming and underdeveloped. There are more views of origins than those Walton addresses in these six pages, leaving lagging questions. Read together, however, Propositions 11-12 throw quite a monkey wrench in the status quo of the origins debate.

But What If One Is Not Fully Convinced?

Before this book, John Walton was already a well-known and well-respected figure within the world of biblical scholarship. For evangelical scholars especially, Walton is held in high esteem as one who does top-level scholarship without sacrificing a high view of Scripture. He also has been one of the go-to experts among evangelical scholars concerning the ANE world. It’s a true delight, therefore, to see his name and work more broadly disseminated among non-specialists.

Part of Walton’s recent prominence in the discussion of origins is his ability to present his biblical biblical and theological theological ideas with relentless, methodical logic—as I sought to demonstrate above. It is no surprise, then, to find Evangelicals with a scientific background or interest—especially those impressed by mainstream scientific theories and disillusioned by more traditional creationist models—jump on the “functional cosmic temple” bandwagon.

But there’s a nagging problem for evangelical Old Testament scholars: we’re not fully convinced of Walton’s function-only reading of Genesis 1 (of course I’m generalizing). Most agree with the ANE contextualization of the biblical text, and seeing creation as a cosmic temple seems to be gaining mainstream support. With much thanks to Walton, many also see the functional orientation as the primary point of the creation account. But, as David Buller noted in his review of Propositions 7-10, the field is not convinced that the functional is the only point in exclusion of the material.

For Buller and others, holding on to a both-and (functional and material) approach is a mere caveat. In their view, one can appreciate and basically adopt Walton’s view, even if you think Genesis does speak about material creation.. I’m not so sure this is a mere caveat. At least, Walton’s own reasoning doesn’t make this a foregone conclusion. Walton’s argumentation (in Propositions 10-12) is quite binary: if you accept his functional reading, all these other problems go away; if you accept a material reading (even alongside a functional reading), these same problems remain.

Walton makes an intelligent, compelling case for his view. He’s convinced some; and many who are not fully convinced nevertheless respect his work and consider it worthy of discussion. Perhaps Walton (or someone else) might in the future provide counsel or clarification to those who like his views but still have questions. Does maintaining a material component alongside the functional in one’s reading of Genesis 1 make one an anti-Waltonite? I hope not.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/if-walton-is-right-on-his-function-only-view-some-implications

(Norman Voss) #3

Some of the best text that we encounter that help illustrate the functional application of the OT & NT authors is Gen 1:14, Isaiah 65:17 and Rev 21:1-24. If we dare read OT and NT eschatological language with a discerning eye then perhaps the theological unity may be seen. In the Temple creation account of the 1st Heaven and Earth in Genesis 1 we encounter the functional assignment of the Greater and lesser lights as useful for signs, seasons and days and years. This illustrates the Old covenant practice of governing systematically Temple worship via set times for festivals Sabbaths and so on. However by the time we reach Isa 65 we see a new cosmic creation looming in the future horizon as expected via a coming messiah. Finally we reach Rev 21 where that New Creation of the messianic H & E is considered to be upon the faithful.

What we have here is a cosmic reordering of the Heavens and Earth in which some of the functional assignments that were given in Genesis 1 for the Old Covenant are being functionally unassigned from this new H & E cosmic order. First we have the elimination of the “Sea” and for those who are familiar with Temple symbolism should realize that the Bronze Seas of the Temple represented the people/gentiles outside of Judaism. So now the Temple is devoid of a wall of separation of the two entities of humanity because through Christ the two are formed into one new humanity. Eph 2:15 …create in himself one new man in place of the two,…

However what Christ has instituted has now brought God down to dwell with men establishing the Temple in our Hearts of Flesh. Therefore the author says that there is no longer a need for the lights of Genesis 1:14 because the New Heavens and Earth established through Christ receive their light through the Lamb of God.
So we have seen the Old Covenant H & E assigned with the trappings of physical Temple worship while the new cosmic ordering un-assigns them functionally or de-creates them. The problem is that we tend to read Rev 21 as a picture far off in the reaches of Heaven. The language used is simply applying Jewish 2nd T Symbolism to illustrate the reality of what Christ has established by removing the trappings of the Old Covenant practices. The early Church was expecting the demise of Physical Temple worship as confirmation of Christ rightful establishment of this new order.

Gen 1:14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years,
Isa 65:17 "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
Rev 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. …"Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, …22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk…

In summation then IMO it is following the wrong patterns to attempt to read theologically symbolic literature that is dealing with an ancient world view of a cosmic reordering of walking with God as a modern guide for scientific exploration. Walton I believe is correct in his basic understanding of Temple creation and de-creation language. However I don’t believe Walton follows the theological logic of this literature to its best application as he like all of us are wrestling with inherited artifacts of our evangelical upbringing. That job will likely fall to the upcoming generations of biblical scholars as they learn to grasp perhaps more consistently how 2nd T OT and NT authors were embracing the language of the Scriptures. Most of us today have to cast off the last 1900 years or so of acquired theologies that we have been bequeathed and go back to our origins to gain a better view.

(Paul ) #5

I would love to see this aspect of Walton’s work receive more attention from Biologos…that is how do other academic Old Testament theologians see his work? In science one speaks of peer reviewed articles. So how do Walton’s peers see his thesis? I have the highest respect for Walton. I love his Old Testament Survey and have read a few of his books on ANE. But I would also like to see how Goldingay, Waltke, Brueggemann, Sailhamer and Christopher Wright…among others…have treated Walton’s functional analysis. I understand that truth is not “voted on”, but by the same token idiosyncratic readings are something I normally try to avoid…even if the idiosyncratic reading is done by a specialist whom I greatly respect.

(Brad Kramer) #6

We have something along these lines in the works right now. Stay tuned!

Walton has interacted with critics in the past on the blog: http://biologos.org/blog/john-walton-responds-to-vern-poythress

(Matthew Winegar) #7

@BradKramer John’s response to vern poythress sums up pretty well I think how he would answer concerns that others who might want to read material alongside (but secondary to) functional ontology for creation account. The issue really seems to be that, although writer and intended ancient audience, may have had some material understanding of the cosmos in mind, and indeed this is used in the account, this is not what is most important, and it is incidental. The material aspect is not something that the Bible affirms; rather it is something the Bible assumes (and this is not revelation in the sense that it is shared with other ANE cultures). If material ontology of the account is assumed to be part of the revelation, then the fact that this cosmology is false, everything, from hard firmament with windows to earth revolving around the sun becomes a problem.

(Brad Kramer) #8

I totally agree. I think it really comes down to your comfort level with ancient, pre-modern cosmology in the Bible. For an awful lot of evangelicals (including a younger version of myself), this is at odds with the inerrancy of the Bible, as well as the concept of verbal inspiration (that the whole Bible represents the exact, dictated words of God). What’s interesting is that there are so few OT scholars (even at conservative evangelical schools) who actually hold to this context-less view of biblical authority.

(Preston Garrison) #9

I can’t find that Biologos has ever done anything on the material in Adam’s Ancestors by David Livingstone. It might be interesting for people to know that the possibility of “Pre-Adamites” has been around in Christian history since long before Darwin, motivated by certain problems in Genesis and by the early encounters with the people of other continents during the voyages of exploration.

(system) #10

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