NOTE: This article has received above-average interest. For that reason I wanted to provide a link to a Deeper Waters podcast in which John Walton defends his view with my friend and fellow Christian apologist Nick Peters. For that audio, click HERE.
Whether the average Joe in church is aware of it or not, conservative evangelical Christians interpret the first chapter of the book of Genesis in a number of ways. Over the past nine years of preaching in a number of churches of various denominations it has become clear to me that the common lay understanding is that either one believes that God created everything in six literal days or the Bible can't be trusted and evolution is true. There are actually a number of views that church folks often miss. There are young-earthers who believe that God created the universe, and everything in it, between six and ten-thousand years ago (and believe that the six days of creation were literal 24hr days). There are also old-earthers who do not believe in evolution anymore than their young-earth counterparts and have a high view of Biblical authority (i.e. they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture). Then there are theistic evolutionists (progressive creationists as they are sometimes called) who believe that evolution is true and is a part of God's creative plan. Among old-earthers, some believe in the gap theory (that there is a period of billions of years not recorded between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2), day age theorists (who believe that the six days represent long periods of time), literary framework theorists (who believe that Moses was describing creation in a non-literal way by giving the Israelites a model of creation that they could understand) and others. One thing that I wish those on all sides would agree about is this - the Bible does not intend to teach the age of the universe in Genesis 1. That's just not the point. For more on the various views, check out my Trinity Radio podcast here. Nevertheless, one scholar has emerged over the past several years with a "revolutionary" explanation. Namely, that Genesis 1 doesn't describe God "making" anything.
John Walton is an Old Testament scholar and professor at Wheaton. He's classically been considered to be theologically conservative (though now that's a subject of great debate). His book The Lost World of Genesis One has received much attention. I should note that listening to Walton is enjoyable and educational. There are far more things Walton says with which I (along with other scholars) agree than there are things with which I disagree. You can check out one of his lectures in the youtube window at the bottom of this page. However, his claims regarding Genesis 1 go too far for my comfort.
Walton's theory relies on his interpretation of one of the hebrew words for creation - "bara." Though traditionally Christians have understood this to refer to God's bringing things into existence (or forming them anew from the materials he brought into existence in Genesis 1:1 - though some will argue that forming from previous existing material is the subject of the hebrew term asah), Walton surmises that bara refers to what he calls "functional creation" rather than "material creation." That is to say, when the Bible says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (a statement that Walton sees as a mere heading or title for what follows), it means God declared the functions of the heavens and the earth. Moreover, the chapter describes God declaring the functions of the things mentioned rather than bringing them into existence. Thus, nothing gets made in Genesis 1, but instead its function is proclaimed. Now it is important to point out that Walton has repeatedly affirmed that he does believe that God created all things from nothing, he just doesn't believe it on the basis of Genesis 1.
Walton's understanding of bara is based upon the fact that sometimes when the word is used in the Old Testament it is not referring to material objects. Summarizing the use of the word, Walton records how many times and to what the word is applied:
Cosmos (10, including New Cosmos)
People in general (10)
Specific groups of people (6)
Specific individuals or types of individuals (5)
Components of cosmic geography (3)
Condition (1: pure heart)
With this list in mind, Walton divides the idea of creation into two categories: Material and Functional. Material creation refers to bringing something into existence. Functional creation deals with declaring or giving a function to something. He claims that the above list demonstrates that bara refers to functional rather than material creation since some of the things above are not material objects. Instead they are the application of a function - such as categorizing an existing group of people as a people for God's purposes. With this definition for bara, Walton then understands Genesis 1 to be teaching that God declared the functions of the things in the world rather than that He created those things.
Thus, some understand the state of affairs Walton is describing to mean that if one was present for the six days of creation, one would not see anything actually happen. Lydia McGrew points out that Walton indicates this indirectly when he states the "main elements lacking in the 'before' picture are therefore humanity in God's image and God's presence in his cosmic temple" (p. 97). He describes the six days of creation thusly, "The observer in Genesis 1 would see day by day that everything was ready to do for people what it had been designed to do. It would be like taking a campus tour just before students were ready to arrive to see all the preparations that had been made and how everything had been designed, organized and constructed to serve students." (p. 99) William Lane Craig further simplifies the implications of Walton's view explaining, "In other words, everything would have looked [to an eye witness] 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" (emphasis mine). Is this the picture given to us in Genesis?
Some time back I wrote an article called, How Not to Read the Bible. In it I explained my practice of pushing back from the text and occasionally asking, "what's really going on here?" In that article I said,
Unfortunately, the lust for that holy grail of theology leads to some strange things. Theologians can end up looking less like scholars and more like mad scientists in a lab mixing and stirring various scriptural texts together in an attempt to find some way of elucidating a "truth" that is not there. Alchemy. Often it is in such moments that the Scientist needs to remember the hermeneutical principle of asking, "What is really going on here?"
First, when considering Walton's view I think we should push back from the text and ask whether this looks like the mixing and stirring of chemicals in a lab to produce something new and interesting, or whether it looks like what is actually going on. For me, when I push away and consider it, without my theolo-geek hat on, it looks like mad-science. Nevertheless, let's consider the word bara.
Even though the word bara doesn't always refer to a material object in the Old Testament. It does always refer to something coming into existence. When a group of people are organized into "the people of God," Walton is right that they are given a function, but it is also true that something has come into existence. when a new state of affairs, a new organization or a new phenomenon occurs we rightly say that it has been created. We do not mean that it has merely been given a function, but also that it has come into existence. Thus, what Walton's critics have said is true. It's not that Walton is wrong that Genesis 1 describes God declaring the functions of things, but that it is describing both His bringing them into existence and declaring their functions.
So why is this perspective getting so much attention? One reason is that it is seen by many to be the silver bullet in the debates regarding Genesis 1. If Walton were correct, then Genesis would give us no information regarding the age of the universe, the truth or falsity of evolution, or whether Adam and Eve were historical figures (one subject in his new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve). For this reason, theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins have cheered him on.
I remain unconvinced. But here is what I like. Christians need to examine the Word of God and attempt to limit their biases. We should be attempting to discover the truth of what the Bible is telling us rather than believing something just because "we were raised that way." I don't fault John Walton for examining these things from a different perspective. I just don't agree with him. I also don't think that his view is "true for him" and my view is "true for me." There is THE truth about this matter. If Walton is genuinely trying to get to THE truth, then I'm all for him. I just think he missed it.