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Defending the Authority of Scripture

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November 10, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's video features John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video “Conversation” John Walton, professor of Old Testament History at Wheaton College, discusses the content of Genesis 1 and how it should be read. The account in Genesis is not intended to be an account of material origins, says Walton. Therefore, if that is so, the Bible has no narrative of material origins—and if that is so, we don’t need to defend the Bible’s narrative of material origins against science’s narrative of material origins. This point makes a difference in terms of what we as Christians need to defend.

What the Bible does offer us is a theology of material origins. It tells us that whatever there is, God made it. But that is a different thing from saying Genesis offers us a scientific narrative.

So what part of the story do we have in Genesis? An account of functional origins, says Walton. Genesis tells us how the world works—specifically, how it works for us. It tells us that God made it for us and he makes it functional. The Israelites also would have understood the text this way.

God is responsible for the manufacture of matter, but that is not the story of Genesis 1.

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Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.

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Tim - #39387

November 11th 2010

Continued Response to Jon,

I would add one further note to the above.  As you report Dr. Walton advocates for a material view of creation in his earlier 1989 text, I would expect he viewed, at that time, the materially creative acts as factual when “properly understood.”  I believe advances in Dr. Walton’s scholarship since that time no longer afforded a continued view of such material creation being a tenable position within an inerrantist framework.

normbv - #39398

November 11th 2010

Tim said in regard to Walton … “However, what I am saying is that he maintains an inerrantist hermeneutic that serves to a priori limit what sort of conclusions he’s willing to accept.”

Tim I find this dichotomy that goes on in the scholarly world and amongst us all a most fascinating issue. It brings to mind the conflict of opinion that Pete Enns ran across and was confronted with by G. K. Beale concerning his book “Inspiration and Incarnation”. Beale wrote a book in something of a refutation and Pete wrote an extensive reply. The issue is complex to be sure and at first I tended to side with Pete but then I started reading Beale’s work and realized that cutting the baby in two would not work either but it was probably a synthesis of both views. I haven’t studied Beale enough to know his position on Genesis but I assume he is a materialist based somewhat on a traditional inerrant viewpoint, if I’m mistaken I would sure appreciate some insight on Beale. 

I believe Enns is correct in that we do need to synthesize the mythic ANE background into our understanding but the question becomes how much and in what manner. That’s a difficult one to answer and is I believe the crux of our problems concerning Genesis.

normbv - #39399

November 11th 2010

Beale’s work though throws significant light on the subject especially his intertextual study of Gen 1:26-28 as foundational of Gen 1’s Temple creation Goal.  If we take Genesis 1-3 and approach it with fresh eyes trying to understand the second Temple and eschatological end game of the NT we may start to see the big picture that is being drawn for us there. That appears to be the reality and expectation of those that developed the NT.

In my opinion if we are not versed in the eschatological NT view of the change from old covenant to the new covenant we are tackling Gen 1-3 with one arm tied behind our back.  There seems to be a disconnect in that scholars often don’t see the prophetic nature of Gen 1-3 as fully as the original authors probably intended and get hung up on comparing the ANE aspects to the detriment of following the prophetic nature of the writings.  Paul explains a theology that reveals a Holy Spirit lead understanding of Adam and the surrounding text of Genesis.  When we understand Paul’s and John’s perspective we have taken a big step in grasping what the writers of Gen 1-3 were trying to impart. If we choose to ignore it we loose a significant piece of the puzzle.

John VanZwieten - #39400

November 11th 2010


Thanks for your very thoughtful response to Walton.  I do wonder to what degree your (and my) reading of ANE creation accounts are colored by our inbred materialist ontology. 

We read the account of the splitting of Tiamat and think, “Hmmm, so they really believed when they looked into the sky they were looking at the remains of a dead goddess?”  But perhaps though the language seems material to us, the message of the story is “merely” functional as well.

Granted, that separation between language and message could also be seen to move in the direction of Lamoureux’s “Message-Incident” hermeneutic.

Jon Garvey - #39401

November 11th 2010

@normbv - #39399

I’ve not read Beale. but it looks essential reading. But it seems to me that as pretty well as soon as one sacrifices Biblical inerrantism that denial tends to become ones controlling hermeneutic.

The prophetic view you describe presupposes both specific inspiration of the texts and - what is worse for modern thinking - an overarching Biblical theology starting at Genesis 1, which dips its feet in Sumerian myth even if one puts it at a late date, the prophets and the apostolic writers. I fear that’s too much like “specific-inspiration-of the text”, and too little like “vague-inspiration-behind the text-(maybe)” for many here.

Jon Garvey - #39403

November 11th 2010

@John VanZwieten - #39400

John, I agree with you. it seems to me that much of the approach to Genesis from those embracing it as “myth” retain enough materialist ontology to devalue it because it *isn’t* dealing with the materialist agenda accurately. In other words, it becomes “just myth”, with lip service paid to its containing general theological truths like the creatorship of God.

Yet the Babylonian myths functioned successfully as descriptions and explanations of their specific cultural setting: to separate Enuma Elish or Atrahasis from their history, cities, rulers and temples and concentrate on their cosmology (which is largely theogony anyway) is to misunderstand them profoundly.

One illustration of this is the version of Enuma Elish in which, as Tiamat expires, men weep and mourn etc. This would seem bizarre as mankind is to be produced from her, but presumably makes perfect sense in Marduk’s temple in Babylon.

normbv - #39407

November 11th 2010


Thanks for the reply. 
I believe that we develop our inerrant view of the scripture from how they are presented in their own context and not from an outside manipulation of them. There’s a lot of debate on that point though and the fundamentalist side has IMO gone too far and the liberal side misses the mark also.

Jon if I understand you correctly are you saying as an example that Paul’s interpretation of Gen 2:24 in Eph 5:31-32 would have no historical base for him to interpret it as intended prophetically by the author of Genesis pointing toward Messiah?

If so how does one validate the NT apostles and Paul reading their interpretation into OT scripture such as Genesis? Was the Genesis author/’s not cognizant of the prophetic nature of their writing toward the messiah?

Jon Garvey - #39409

November 11th 2010

@normbv - #39407

Well, me, I hold a high view of Scripture and say that God spoke these words about marriage in Genesis because faithfulness in marriage was indeed based on his own faithfulness - and even on a mysterious reflection of Christ’s faithfulness to his people.

But “those of whom I speak” would, by logic, say that since the detail of Genesis 2 is not historical (the “real meaning” being merely that man acts selfishly and is subject to death) then Paul is in error by using the verse to teach about the Church. Or about marriage. Which, by extension means that his teaching about both the Church and marriage are suspect, as is evidenced by our present “knowledge” that marriage is a flawed institution that is often better ended, if not ignored altogether.

I’d be virtually certain that the writer of Genesis (you believe there was one?) had no idea whatsoever of the use Paul would make of it, though he may well have seen the key link between faithfulness in God’s covenant and in marriage, especially if he’d read Hosea. More specifically, he saw God’s covenant-love reflected in the first marriage, personally enacted by God himself, and taught about marriage from it, even if he was not being consciously prophetic.

normbv - #39412

November 11th 2010


My assertion is that indeed the writer did understand the application of what he wrote pointed toward, and how it should be interpreted. Gen 2-3 is written with allegory and much prophecy such as Gen 3:15 and includes Eve as the “mother of all the living” (eternal life not biological). These chapters smack strongly of a prophetic understanding.

Gen was very likely written toward the end of the first Temple say 6-700 BC if not later. The prophecy of the messiah was heavily permeating this era of prophetic writing and Gen 2-3 are simply a highly stylized version of corporate Israel represented through Adam. These ideas did not just fly out of a vacuum to only just one individual but would have been scrutinized by their peers if not indeed penned by a group who were in accord. 

Paul stated that he taught nothing but the law and prophets and if that is correct then his teachings should reflect accurately the purpose and intent of Genesis especially. To get around this statement of Paul’s we are going to have to come to the conclusion that Paul’s interpretation of Genesis does not reflect the prophetic intent of the writers. This is the dilemma that too much emphasis upon the material ANE view ignores IMO.

conrad - #39426

November 11th 2010

I rely on science for the best account of material origins.
But when you know the scientific account and then reread Genesis you find that Genesis gives that same account.
But you would never have been able to visualize the actual process from reading Genesis.

But the Genesis account and the scientific account DO FIT TOGETHER PERFECTLY.

Of course if you are like many of the Biologos writers and you say that you CAN visualize the actual process from reading Genesis ,..... and furthermore you say that Genesis describes   [A.] a mud ball with , a dome over it,..... at the very start,........ then you are so fouled up that you have to start blathering about the writings of the Ancient Near East and first century interpreters of the Bible to distract people from your confusion.

We go through that here every week.

If you read from George Smoot or Arno Penzias or any of several other Nobel Prize winners you might get a different view of ACTUAL processes WHICH STILL MATCHED THE BIBLE.

But here that is referred to as “off topic” commenting.,.. of “cryptocosmology” by my friend Jon.

conrad - #39427

November 11th 2010


An Eve is the mother of all living today.

No other mitochondrial DNA line exists.

[She was not the mother of all who were living in her day. She BECAME the mother of all [still] living when other lines died off.]

The prophetic statement became true. [“That is how prophecy works.]
That is why they call it ‘PROPHECY” and not a “factual statement”.

normbv - #39438

November 11th 2010


The statement Eve is the mother of all the Living is strickly about eternal Life not biological.

The writers of Genesis designated her as the mother of the church old and new. Look at the descendants of Christ and follow the lineage of Seth.  The image is similar to Sara who brought forth Isaac from whom the promise flows through. Paul interprets who were the true born of Sara and the promise in Rom 9:7-9.

Rom 9:7-8 ESV and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  (8)  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Eve represents figuratively the church or the woman. Consider the manner in which Paul interprets Sara and Hagar in Galatians.

Gal 4:24 ESV Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.

Paul gives us a demonstration on how to interpret allegorical stories in Genesis.

normbv - #39442

November 11th 2010

To clarify my above statement it would have been better stated as … “look at the descendants of Seth preceding Christ as Luke outlines His and Israel’s genealogy back to Eve”.  (Gen 4:25)

Also notice the clear distinction of Seth’s lineage leading to Abraham and Moses with Long lives illustrating their eternal station in life in the redemptive story.  The further we get from Adam the further the life spans decrease illustrating the continuing corruption of man in need of Eternal Life.  This is allegorial just as Pete illustrated with the Jubilees 4 quote. This is also why when John in Revelation says those in Christ lived and reigned a 1000 years the Jews would understand the allegorical meaning of eternal life through Christ.  Redemption has been completed and no longer would those in Adam’s body of Death lack eterernal completion under the thorns and thistles of the works of the Law. 

The Woman representing the church is still fleeing satan in Rev 12 and she is a picture of Israel still bearing the sun and moon and 12 stars representing the 12 tribes.

Rev 12:1 ESV And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

conrad - #39453

November 11th 2010

Yeah well there is one mitochondrial Eve.

Google it.

Tim - #39470

November 12th 2010

Revisit to my response to Jon Garvey (39369),

Jon, I read through the relevant portions of Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context that you referenced, and what I see happening is Dr. Walton conceptualizing something that constitutes a “creative act” as involving the creation of something out of nothing, ex nihilo.  As I noted in my above review of Dr. Walton’s book, drawing a dichotomy between functional (or organizational) creation and ex nihilo creation seems to me a false one.  In any event, you can see how his thinking on this issue flows on pg. 26:

“Even in Enuma Elish we are hard pressed to find something created by Marduk.  In tablet IV:138, he uses the corpse of the vanquished Tiamat to form the sky.  In the same tablet, line 145, he establishes Esharra as a canopy.  Third, in V:12 he causes the moon to shine.  Each of these could be seen as creative acts, though they do not stress the actual creation aspect so much as the organization aspect.  This corroborates the earlier suggestion that the Babylonians believed in the eternality of matter, as Alexander Heidel finds mentioned in Diodorus Siculus.  This constitutes a major difference between Hebrew and Babylonian thinking.”

Rich - #39481

November 12th 2010


Agreed.  Dr. Walton is using a narrow and non-standard definition of “creation.”  He takes “creation” to mean “bringing something to be out of nothing.”  But the word is broader than that in general usage, and applies to any account of how the present structure of the world came into being.

But even if they aren’t “creation” accounts, accounts which involve “organizing” the stuff of the world are still accounts of the physical origin of the world as we know it.  And it’s simply misleading to suggest that the ANE people didn’t have such accounts, by saying that they weren’t interested in “material origins.”  Dr. Walton confuses by speaking of “material origins” when he means “the origin of matter.”

Finally, the Genesis account bears thematic resemblances to some ANE accounts.  True, in Genesis the account is “demythologized” to some extent.  But there is still the reorganizing of matter into earth and seas and sky and the making of the heavenly bodies and the placing of them in the sky and so on.  Genesis answers the same sort of questions that the mythological ANE accounts do, about how the various components of the world came into being and came to be organized as they are.


Rich - #39482

November 12th 2010

Tim (continued):

Of course, Dr. Walton makes an important point about creation out of nothing; it’s true that this distinguishes mainstream Jewish and Christian thought from most ancient thought.  But he could have made that point in a much clearer way.  Instead of saying that the ancients were interested in “functional accounts” rather than “accounts of material origins,” he could have said that both the Biblical writers and the other ANE writers were quite interested in the question how the world came to exist in its present form, but that the Biblical writers differed from the pagan writers in that they taught that not only form but also matter was created by God.

Of course, even that is questionable, because we tend to back-read Jewish and Christian orthodoxy into Genesis.  Some Biblical scholars have argued that Genesis 1 takes for granted the existence of a watery chaos (whose origin is not explained in the story), and understands God’s role as ordering the chaotic material into a cosmos.  The debate over this gets complicated and technical, and I don’t propose to take sides here, but Dr. Walton appears not to have dealt with it.  But perhaps he does, somewhere in his book.

Marshall - #39563

November 12th 2010

Hi Rich,

Yes, Walton deals with that in his Genesis commentary. (The Lost World contains little that is not also in the commentary.) He takes the “some Biblical scholars” view you mentioned, suggesting that Genesis does not teach creation ex nihilo. He goes on to say that some New Testament texts do, and we don’t need every Old Testament text to affirm every doctrine we receive in the New Testament. (On that issue, I agree with him.)

But, like you, I agree with Tim’s critique regarding the dichotomy between an ex nihilo creation account and no material creation account. Genesis may not be ex nihilo, but it does describe material creation (though in the idiom and understanding of the time).

Mike Beidler - #42517

December 4th 2010

There is much to be said for Walton’s emphasis on the functional aspect of Genesis 1, but I don’t believe for a minute that Genesis 1 isn’t discussing the material origin of the cosmos. Ironically, in trying to defend the Genesis 1 account from the false dichotomy of either “de novo” creation of everything or evolution, he creates an entirely new false dichotomy of either material creation or functional creation. Why can’t it be both in this case? Because Walton is worried that if Genesis 1 actually does touch on the material origin of things—despite the ANE emphasis on function—that the Bible’s authority has been damaged. I don’t believe this to be the case, especially if one truly understands the principle of accommodation.

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