We shall now begin proper with the review of Walton’s views of Genesis as delineated in his book The Lost World of Genesis One.
Genesis 1 as a Functional Account of Origins
Walton self-styles his views as the “cosmic temple inauguration view” (CTI), but its central piece is really the interpretation of Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins, not material origins. It is only the latter case that may result in Genesis 1 being read as a scientific account of origins that conflicts with mainstream science. According to him, thinking of Genesis as concerning material origins is fundamentally incorrect, as the ancient Israelites would not have understood the passage that way. Walton methodically expands his view by defending a series of 18 key propositions. I will not go through each here, but will try to weave together elements of his defense of his view.
The first question we ask is, what is the difference between functional and material origins? Walton explains this by appealing to a series of analogies. A computer can be accounted for in terms of both material and functional origins. In the former, a computer comes to materially exist through a series of industrial manufacturing processes that produce the raw material, reshaping it into the processor, hard drive, monitor, motherboard, and so on. After this process is finished, software might be installed on it. It is ready for use. But in the absence of a user, a computer has no functional existence. It just sits there with no purpose nor meaning, until its owner designates a purpose and a user to interact with the computer and make its existence functionally meaningful.
In the same way, Walton views Genesis 1 as describing not God’s acts of material creation, but instead God’s acts of installing already existing material entities into his order of the cosmos. In Walton’s understanding of the six days, days 1-3 of creation establish the primary functionaries in the cosmos. Light, used to demarcate time, is one of them; the sky (day 2), used to demarcate the weather, is another one, and so are the plants on Earth, which are crucial for establishing agriculture. Days 4-6 also concern functional creation, but of objects that function entirely within the spheres established on days 1-3: the sun and moon (day 4), land and sea animals (day 5), and human beings (day 6).
Such a reading helps to illuminate certain difficulties apparent in a traditional material reading. So for example, regarding the first day of creation we have:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
(Genesis 1:3-5, NIV)
and the fourth day is described as
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, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
(Genesis 1:14-19, NIV)
Now, how could God create morning and evening on the first day if he did not create the sun until the fourth? In Walton’s functional reading, in day 1, God is designating light as having a functional purpose of demarcating time. On day 4, he is installing the sun and moon as being instrumental to that purpose. The difficulty is thus abated.
Another good example is in 1:24, where God commanded the land to “produce living creatures.” Quoting a passage from the ancient myth The Exploits of Ninurta, Walton argues that this would normally be understood as delineating a functional relation between the land and the living creatures: “Let its meadows produce herbs for you. Let its slope produce honey and wine for you…” Here, the word “produce” clearly does not spell out any specific process by which the herbs grow from the meadows, only the general relation between the two entities: one comes out from the other.
So, why would we want to read Genesis 1 this way? Is this merely a weak compromise to satisfy evolutionists and cosmologists? Walton argues that this is in fact, the way Genesis would have been understood among peoples of the Ancient Near East. They were not concerned too much about material origins of things, and did not demarcate between natural and supernatural as modern peoples do. They viewed origin stories as explaining the whole picture, including the purpose or function of something, as opposed to just its “natural” part of material origins. This argument is bolstered by looking into other creation myths (such as Sumerian and Egyptian), which tend to start with a materially existing but non-functional cosmos.
Walton then argues from a etymological viewpoint. He asserts that the word bara, usually translated into English as “create,” refers in Genesis 1 to functional, not material creation. He has a systematic table of the ~50 instances where the word is used in the Old Testament, pointing out that in the majority of instances, the object of bara is not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are material, from context they often seem not meant to be objectified. Another piece of the argument is that the adjectives tohu and bohu, used to depict the state of the cosmos in the beginning (usually translated as “formless and void”), is also used more often in the OT as referring to non-functionality – “having no purpose and generally unproductive in human terms” (p. 48), not a lack of material existence. Walton’s etymological argument is of course crucial to developing a proper hermeneutics, but on its own I believe it is insufficient, as the word analysis seems approximate and full of uncertainty, at least in the way it is presented in this admittedly non-scholarly work. He does not rigorously analyze every single instance of the use bara, tohu, and bohu. So to me it is only a piece of confirming evidence, not persuasive evidence.
The Seventh Day as the Climax of Creation
In the middle parts of the book, Walton expands on his argument by outlining his larger interpretation of Genesis 1, to show that it forms a coherent picture that makes sense – an indirect argument, but in my opinion more persuasive than simply debating etymology of words, or even comparing with other ancient myths. Perhaps this kind of perception is more common among physicists – in physics, physical model can “win out” by managing to explain more things in a coherent overall framework, not necessarily because the experimental evidence we currently have narrows down the possible interpretations to the model. (I think that this is essentially what people are saying when they state that a certain theory is more “beautiful” and “elegant” than others.)
Incredibly, Walton believes that the “days” (yom) in Genesis are 24 hour days. There have been multiple debates about the word yom in the creation/evolution controversy, with almost all theistic evolutionists that I’ve read so far strenuously arguing that yom can refer freely to very long “days,” lasting even millions or billions of years. For Walton, however, this conservative interpretation of yom does not create a problem, due to the functional interpretation delineated previously. What is freshly innovative is his proposal that the seventh day of creation, often understood to be a day when God took a rest and “did nothing,” is actually the climax of the whole creation account. In Walton’s interpretation, days 1-6 encompass God setting up the already-existing material cosmos in preparation for him to “take over the controls” as the Great Operator and Sustainer on day 7 – like the assembly and setting up of a computer followed by the user commencing its use.
The inauguration of Solomon’s temple is another example. In 1 Kings 7 we get an account of the material creation of the temple, consisting of its assembly from various materials (wood, bricks, and metals). But after this, the temple is only an empty building. Only in the next chapter do the priests start entering, the people of Israel assemble around it, Solomon prays for it, and God officially takes up residence in it. It is at this point that the temple, having been inaugurated, is now functioning as a temple. Walton argues that the Genesis creation account also concerns the inauguration of a temple – the cosmic temple, where our Universe is the temple where God resides and controls all things. Thus, this view of Genesis actually gives a more involved role for God – he has not only created the universe materially, but also established himself as its its dynamic Creator and Sustainer. Most Christians like to believe that God has some current involvement with the normal functioning of the cosmos, but in a YEC account the precise nature of this involvement is unclear. In the cosmic temple inauguration (CTI) view, this involvement is understood to be explicitly spelled out by Genesis.
CTI is concerned with teleology – imparting a meaning and purpose to the material cosmos. According to Walton, the essential difference in the cosmos before and after functional creation is “humanity in God’s image and God’s presence in His cosmic temple” (p. 96). Before, the universe had material existence, with all physical laws operating as usual. But this is only a “rehearsal” for the real thing, which only happens after the functional creation. In my understanding, another way to view it is that before functional creation, all the different parts of the material universe operated mindlessly according to the laws God had established. The functional creation introduces the presence of minds and agents in the cosmos – God and humans. The presence of minds is what makes meaning, purpose, value, and significance possible. These attributes cannot be reduced to mere equations.
“Function” – a Non-rigorous Concept?
CTI is an interpretation of Genesis that is attractive due to linguistic and historical evidence and even more due to the coherence of its overall framework. However, one possible weakness is in Walton’s understanding of functional existence. While he uses many effective analogies to convey what the concept means, it is never rigorously defined, and it is confusing to apply the concept to the whole universe, as opposed to just a computer, company, or physical temple. We have seen above that functional creation definitely has something to do with the establishment of teleology (purpose), and I would say that it also has something to do with meaning and significance, derived from fitting the material aspects of the universe into God’s active plan for the universe.
This view is attractive because it seems to result in no significant material implications for a functional creation, which leaves a lot of room for science to discover that without conflicting with the Bible. Still, function seems deeply intertwined with material properties and origins, putting certain limits on material origins, although without describing all the details of the material process. So if Genesis had said, “Humans were created to be immortal,” it would be wrong, because the physical makeup of humans is such that they are not immortal. But saying “Humans were created to be mortal,” that is consistent with the physical knowledge we have now. Now this is quite comforting, as there doesn’t seem to be anything in Genesis which cannot be liberally interpreted to be in harmony with modern scientific findings. However, a skeptic would say that it makes Genesis say very little at all about the material cosmos. It becomes a series of broad, imprecise statements that you would say to comfort a young child – such as “The police are there to protect us.” “The land has been good to us.” And so on.
I would agree, but this is only the case if God were not there. Then indeed, the statement “Let the land produce living creatures” would mean very little. But the fact that it was God who said the statement establishes teleological significance. So functional creation is not completely separate from the material order. It is like an official proclamation of the decisions that God made about the material universe a long time ago – how they fit into God’s overall plan and order. So the CTI view still retains its significance despite this objection. That being said, I think more precise philosophical work can be done on the concept of functional existence, to properly delineate the possible material consequences for a statement about functional existence. Once such a theory is developed, we can apply it to Genesis and “rigorously” show that it is in harmony with what we know about the physical cosmos.
There is one curious aspect of Walton’s interpretation that crops up when he is discussing the implications of CTI on New Testament understanding of Christian salvation. The verse discussed is Romans 5:12:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…
(Romans 5:12, NIV)
This verse is a focal point of debate on the historicity of Adam and Eve. As Walton’s next book (The Lost World of Adam and Eve) explicitly addresses this issue, I will not spend much time speculating on the implications of CTI for it. However, Walton does make the curious point that due to this verse, while death existed before Genesis in the material cosmos for animals and plants, as part of the physical laws that God had materially created, it must not have existed for humans – humans must have had a miraculous antidote that made them immune to physical death for a little while before the fall, thus saving the notion that death came to the world through sin (pp. 99-100). (Other theistic evolutionists have in the past insisted that Romans 5:12 refers to a sort of spiritual instead of physical death.)
While believing this might seem ridiculous and contrived to a skeptic, it is actually still harmonizable with historic-scientific evidence if the period of immortality was very short so as to elude contemporary discovery through fossils and other evidence. This, of course, also requires interpreting the creation of humanity in God’s image to be purely functional without significant material implications – the creation act would be God imparting his image on pre-existing but “mindless” hominids. There is still some room for material events – we might be creative and speculate that “death spread to all men” indicates a physical plague spreading among humanity that resulted in complete erasure of the miraculous antidote for immortality. Of course, this is very fanciful and speculative; I do not know yet if it would be approved by Walton (we shall see in my reading of the next book). But it seems to be promising, even if I personally do not feel yet that there is a compelling reason as a Christian to accept the existence of the period of immortality.
Conclusion: Fresh and Innovative, but Still Needs Work
John Walton’s CTI view of Genesis is unlike anything I’ve read before. It is literally a literal interpretation, or rather a reinterpretation of the word “literal.” Its main strength is its ability to resolve various problems inherent in a material reading, while retaining a powerful role for God’s involvement in the cosmos, and that it offers a coherent, overall framework that imparts more meaning and significance to concepts in Genesis (namely, the oft-glazed-over seventh day of creation) instead of stripping them away to mere literary or theological parable. In fact, Walton explicitly criticizes a super-liberal reading of Genesis as merely an allegory, metaphor, or parable – CTI refers to an actual, concrete one-week period where God made a meaningful difference to the universe.
What is still lacking in CTI is a rigorous definition of functional existence, especially with regards to its material consequences, if there are any. Another point is that Walton’s interpretation is simply radical from an OT scholarship point of view, and based on some reviews by theologians and professional scholars, not all are convinced that ancient peoples really did view creation myths purely in terms of functional origins. Of course, Walton would argue that even if they did, that belief was not necessary, and not required by Genesis. But did the author of Genesis mean it that way? Since a crucial component of Walton’s argument is what the original intention of the author was (hence his claim that CTI offers a “face-value exegesis”), this becomes a possible serious weak point in the overall argument. But Walton’s bolstering of his interpretation using his word tables makes it clear that his view is not just a contrived piece of speculation.
Overall, CTI provides a new path for Christians to understand Genesis in harmony with the findings of modern science. Of course, this should not be the main motivation for our reading in Genesis. The Bible, being the inspired and infallible word of God, should be verifiable as infallible without having to twist meanings to fit science. (In fact, Walton underlines the point that CTI does not compel one to accept any particular scientific viewpoint – you can be a YEC and believe in CTI as well, assuming that you arrived to the former viewpoint through purely scientific considerations.) Of course, if you change your views on Genesis after being faced with the evidence for evolution (like I did), you are vulnerable to this criticism no matter which view of Genesis you choose. But the fact that Walton is an OT scholar and not a scientist improves the situation a little. Add that to the fact that CTI makes us think deeper about the spiritual and metaphysical implications of God’s creation of the cosmos – far deeper than a simple understanding that God is responsible for its material origins (which is also true).
As an afterthought, I think it would be interesting to compare the metaphysical implications of CTI with the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas’ thought, one of the other principle thinkers about the relation between God and the physical universe. A few months ago I read Edward Feser’s lucid guide to Thomistic thought, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (which I might review here in the future). Feser’s exposition details the centrality of teleological thinking in Thomistic thought, which is crucial in understanding Aquinas’ famous Five Ways arguments for the existence of God. Thomistic metaphysics in the way Feser explains it was also very compelling to me, as it gave such a complete picture of how God’s attributes fit into the overall structure of all things. I don’t know much about what the Catholic understanding of Genesis requires, but it would be tempting to see how it measures up to the metaphysical implications of CTI.
This would be work for the future. For now, I am glad to say that I feel CTI is persuasive for me, although I would not yet consider myself fully a disciple of Walton’s views due to the reservations outlined above. CTI is of course tempting because of how easy it is to integrate with my scientific sensibilities. I think this is points to the need for caution and restraint. Nevertheless, CTI is a breath of fresh air – a breakthrough different from the usual panoply of Genesis interpretations, and wonderful in that it is both theologically sophisticated and effortless in its integration with scientific evidence. It will be interesting to see how Walton’s views are developed in his book about Adam and Eve. Stay tuned for the next post in this series!