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Vern Poythress Responds to John Walton

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February 10, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Vern Poythress Responds to John Walton

Today's entry was written by Vern Poythress. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

John Walton’s 2009 publication of The Lost World of Genesis One has attracted a significant amount of attention. Walton alerts readers to the importance of the ancient Near Eastern context for properly understanding Genesis 1. A central point of the book is that the biblical text is not concerned about material origins, but with assigning function to the various elements of the created order. In other words, Genesis 1 is not about the creation of the material world, but about ordering chaos.

In August of last year, Dr. Vern Poythress (Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) offered a response to Walton’s book in World Magazine. It was not a positive review and Walton was concerned that it had not been a fair treatment. He responded in a BioLogos post last Thursday. We asked Poythress if he would be willing to submit a response and we are pleased to post it today unedited. Poythress raises new issues and and Walton will be responding with his own rejoinder, which we expect to post soon.

I appreciate Biologos's invitation to respond to Dr. Walton's comments on my review in World Magazine. I also appreciate that Dr. Walton endeavored to respond graciously. I am grateful in particular that Dr. Walton recognized that my short review did not have space for full explanations. My own views on Genesis 1 and the Ancient Near East can be found in Redeeming Science (Crossway, 2006). In the limited space that I have here, let me focus on one issue, namely the distinction between material and function. I believe there is an unfortunate ambiguity.

Dr. Walton thinks that I have misunderstood him. After reading his response, I regret to say that I believe he has not understood me. He says that I have "not given clear evidence or explanation of these 'equivocal meanings.'" It appears to me that he has not absorbed what I said about the shift in meaning in the word "material." So, at the risk of repetition, let me try again.

The word "material" can denote material composition or physical appearance or both together. The "material" composition of a college building is the concrete, wiring, piping, and other pieces that make up its structure. The "material" (physical appearance) for a college is the buildings, landscaping, and parking lots that compose its campus. We can describe a college on at least three levels, (1) its material composition, (2) its physical appearance, and (3) its human purpose of learning. Likewise we can describe the world by (1) its material composition (the sun is composed of hydrogen plasma), (2) its appearances (the sun moves in the sky), or (3) its services to human beings (the sun enables us to mark the passage of days).

Dr. Walton and I agree that Genesis 1 does not address area #1, material composition. We also agree that it does have information about services to human beings (#3). My difficulty arises with area #2, physical appearances.

For example, I believe that Genesis 1:9 implies that the dry land appeared. Likewise, Genesis 1:11-12 implies that plants appear on the land. It is not so clear what Dr. Walton believes about these passages. He seems to imply that they have nothing to say about the "material" aspect, which could denote either area #1 or area #2 or both.

In his response Dr. Walton has clarified his meaning by saying that with the term "function" he did not mean that the functions are narrowly religious, but the functions are "anthropocentric." I appreciate this clarification. Unfortunately I find that I still have the same difficulties. What counts as "anthropocentric"? The word can describe what we do when we say that the sun rises and sets. We are describing how things appear from the point of view of ordinary human observation. An "anthropocentric" view includes both the appearance of the sun moving in the sky and the "functions" of the sun, such as giving light and marking the passage of days. If "anthropocentric" includes appearances, it includes area #2, and we are in agreement. If it includes only human services (3) and not appearances (2), we are not in agreement.

My difficulty arises particularly with pp. 92-99 in Walton's book, where he seemed to me to use the wider denotation of "material." The "material" now seemed to me, in the words of my review, to include "all aspects of physical appearance" (area #2). By contrast, the earlier part of his book mustered evidence to show that Genesis 1 did not address material composition (#1). I agree with this earlier evidence. But Dr. Walton has given no evidence that Genesis 1 implies nothing about physical appearance (#2). And Genesis 1 appears to me to include evidence the other way, such as the language about the dry land appearing (1:9) and the plants growing on the land (1:12).

Dr. Walton's argument in pp. 92-99 is plausible because he appeals to valid evidence with respect to material composition (denotation #1), but his readers may not notice that we need positive evidence with respect to physical appearances (denotation #2).

I believe therefore that there is a genuine ambiguity that needs clarification. Once the ambiguity is clarified, we still have to deal with the implications of verses like Genesis 1:9. Does this verse imply that the dry land appeared? And if so, are we obliged to believe that the dry land appeared? And if so, what relation does our belief have to scientific accounts of the origin of dry land on earth? Dr. Walton's book takes an interest in modern science, but we need to clarify ambiguities before we can assess the validity of the book's claims.

In view of Dr. Walton's claim that I have misunderstood him, my safest response is to say that I am no longer sure what he is saying. That is a shame, because the book wants to address important questions with respect to modern science. People are offering various options. Some would say that Genesis 1 is automatically in accord with science, because it does not address appearances. Some would say that it does address appearances, but that we do not have to believe that part, but only the part about God's purposes. Some would say that it does address appearances, but on an ordinary human level, which does not contain more technical information such as modern science seeks. Some would say that science and Genesis 1 are in conflict, and that the Bible is outmoded. These important questions are best addressed when we have developed a clear understanding of what Genesis 1 is implying about appearances, such as the appearing of the dry land.

I am sorry if I have disappointed Dr. Walton by a single-minded focus on one strand of his book (the "material"), when there were many other issues to be discussed. I have focused on that one strand because I think it is flawed, and the flaw has to be repaired to address carefully the concerns with respect to science.

Vern Poythress has been a member of the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary for almost 34 years, where he is currently Professor of New Testament Interpretation. He obtained a BS in Mathematics from California Institute of Technology at age 20, and four years later earned a Harvard PhD in mathematics. He went on from there to obtain four degrees in biblical studies and theology, including a D.Th. from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of many books including the 2006 Crossway book, Redeeming Science.

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Craig Robinson - #4320

February 11th 2010

Norm, I have no problem with the use of symbols in the Bible. They are used everywhere. Symbols are extremely powerful. Just like a picture is worth a 1000 words, so is a symbol. BUT, we can not assign arbitrary meaning to symbols. They have to be grounded in some sort of reality or they become meaningless. Just because “day” can mean a long period of time, does not mean it never means 24 hours. Just because “day” can be a symbol for 1000 years does not mean it is always is a symbol for 1000 years. Context must determine it. There is nothing within Gen 1 that suggests “day” is being used as a symbol.

As for Dan 4:21-22, I disagree that animals represent gentile peoples. I believe the symbol involves the whole picture. Just as God gave Adam complete rule over the animals, so God has given King Neb complete rule over the animals to the ends of the earth. The whole kingdom is a picture of Adam’s kingdom. While he certainly reigned over the gentile nations, the animals don’t necessarily symbolize them.

Also, sometimes a symbol is not a symbol until it is designated as such. Here Daniel specifically designates the tree as a symbol so we don’t have to guess.

Chris Donato - #4321

February 11th 2010

But wouldn’t describing the physical and sudden appearance of, say, dry land and sprouting vegetation, require by its very nature an eyewitness testimony? (Kind of like in order for me to describe the physical appearance of a college campus?) And of course the author of Gen 1 wasn’t standing there watching a “material creation” taking place? Or is the suggestion that the author had this kind of information dictated to him?

I’ll admit that I completely missed Dr. Poythress’ concerns because I’m reading the text as theological literature, i.e., Day 3 simply serves as the literary parallel to Day 6, and both, while containing material components, are only spoken of on a functional level; the “physical appearances” only set the stage. As I walk through Lost World, the idea that Gen 1 says something literal (as in a “sudden appearance” of dry land) about the physical appearances of certain material components of creation hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Bob Raese - #4323

February 11th 2010

threegirldad (4309)

Your point is very perceptive. Expand your feelings about how “the larger unbelieving world” understands the context of the current discussion.

Bob R

norm - #4331

February 12th 2010


Then I guess the Tree in the Garden of Christ Kingdom with all the birds nesting in it were just plain birds then?  And the animals seen by Peter in the vision of the sheet were just plain animals and had no symbolism to imply that they indicated Gentile peoples as the Jews surmised. You know I could go on and on concerning these animal symbols but I think I have given enough food for thought.

This is what the problem is IMO concerning a modern literal reading of scriptures. One needs to be receptive to what the reality of the scriptures define themselves to be. This is simply a difficult venture for many to accept coming from our modern fundamentalist environment and so resistance to the ancient reality is very strong because it may challenge us in new ways of thinking.

Craig Robinson - #4332

February 12th 2010

Norm, Not sure what you mean by “Tree in the Garden of Christ Kingdom.”

Within Peter’s vision the symbols are explained for us. I have no problem with unclean animals representing gentile nations, as long as the writer develops that symbol. But just because Peter sees unclean animals as gentile nations does not mean that every time we encounter unclean animals in the Bible they are only symbols for gentile nations. Sometimes they are just unclean animals.

Some people make the error of taking everything in the Bible literally. Others make the error of taking very little literally. I just want to discover the intent of the author.

Again, just because a word is used as a symbol one place in the Bible does not mean it is used as a symbol everywhere else. And, somehow or somewhere a word needs to be grounded in its real normal dictionary meaning or else the symbolism attached to that word becomes meaningless.

Norm Voss - #4333

February 12th 2010


Figurative language is used throughout the scriptures and one simply has to learn the contextual meaning of those symbols as they are consistent in their employment. This helps tell the story and adds dimension and continuity throughout the scriptures. That is why you find the same metaphors and symbols used in Genesis, Ezekiel, the Gospels and Revelation binding everything together. The Jews were not all over the place in their symbolism and if you study them you start to see these patterns.

Mat 13:31-32 He put another parable before them, saying, “The KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.  (32)  It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all THE GARDEN PLANTS AND BECOMES A TREE, SO THAT THE BIRDS OF THE AIR COME AND MAKE NESTS IN ITS BRANCHES.”

Eze 17:22-23 Thus says the Lord GOD: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. … On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and BECOME A NOBLE CEDAR. AND UNDER IT WILL DWELL EVERY KIND OF BIRD; IN THE SHADE OF ITS BRANCHES BIRDS OF EVERY SORT WILL NEST.

Craig Robinson - #4335

February 12th 2010

Norm, thanks for the discussion, but I am no longer sure what point we are debating. We both agree that symbols are used extensively in the Bible. Obviously we may disagree on what is a symbol and what isn’t. But so does everyone.

Norm - #4357

February 12th 2010


Here is the point:  scriptures identify a covenant established with animals and then we have domestic clean animals lying down with the unclean wild animals at the time of the establishment of the Messiah.  It’s pure biblical symbolism having nothing to do with animals as reality.


Isa 11:6-10 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard SHALL LIE DOWN with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together …  (7)  And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones SHALL LIE DOWN TOGETHER: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox …  (10)  And IN THAT DAY there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: …

Now look at the animals in Genesis 1.

Gen 1:30 And to every BEAST OF THE EARTH AND TO EVERY BIRD OF THE HEAVENS AND TO EVERYTHING THAT CREEPS on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.

Craig Robinson - #4363

February 12th 2010

Norm, still don’t know what you are trying to convince me of. I already agreed that animals can be used as symbols. That does not mean they are always used as symbols. Are you saying the unclean animals that Noah brought into the ark are gentile nations?

The fact that “day” can refer to a long period of time, or be symbolic of a period of time, does not mean that it can never be used as a literal 24 hour day. Absolutely nothing you’ve said comes anywhere close to addressing that point, much less refuting it.

Edward T. Babinski - #4673

February 17th 2010


Do either WALTON or POYTHRESS believe that the description in Genesis 1 of “dry land appearing” and “plants appearing on the land” has anything to do with science? 

1) According to science the earth arrived relatively late on the cosmic scene, after billions of galaxies and stars had already arisen.

2) When the earth first arrived it was not “watery” in the least but blazing hot.

3) The first life on earth was not “plant life,” and certainly not “fruit trees,” per Genesis. It was single reproducing cells, most likely something even more primitive than bacteria. (Neither did the creation of fruit trees precede the creation of fish and birds a la Genesis 1) 

4) When the first plant species arrived on the scene they did not “appear on dry land,” they appeared in water, i.e., the earliest known single-celled plant organisms that contained chlorophyll, probably arose in water, and the earliest known plant fossils are mats of algae, i.e., stromatolites.

Nick Altman - #4929

February 19th 2010


Not sure what Poythress would say, but I think Dr. Walton’s book is an attempt to avoid concordist views of scripture and science.

Pax Christi…NIck

dopderbeck - #5098

February 22nd 2010

Wish I hadn’t come to this discussion late, but .... it seems to me that Drs. Walton and Poythress are still talking past each other.

I understand Dr. Walton’s book to argue that Gen. 1 does not offer any “observational” evidence about the creation of the earth, period—whether from a “literal” or a “phenomenological” view.  I take Dr. Walton to be saying that Gen. 1 is a theological commentary on the functions of the cosmos, and that this is consistent with the ANE mindset.  It would not, then, even comprise a “phenomenological” description of what the earth looked like as the creation was unfolding.

I take Dr. Poythress’ question to suggest that Gen. 1 offers at least a “phenomenological” description of what appeared to be happening as the earth was being created.  If this is so, Dr. Poythress seems to suggest, we must interpret the evidence from the natural sciences in a way that is at least consistent with this phenomenological description.  This strategy is exactly the one employed by progressive Old Earth creationists such as Hugh Ross.

dopderbeck - #5099

February 22nd 2010


Unfortunately, (a) the “phenomenological” approach strains the plain reading of the text way past the breaking point (as in Hugh Ross’ explanation for why the “sun” appears on the third day);  (b) the evidence from the natural science can’t be made to concord with even a phenomenological reading (e.g., for the reason a commentator gave about when and why plants “appeared”); (c) a phenomenological reading seems to make no sense if there was in fact no human observer around to record, for example, the “appearance” of the dry ground from the waters—Gen. 1 is a “God’s eye” perspective, not the account of a human observer, since according to the text there was no human observer during “days” 1-5.

I’d like to ask Dr. Poythress:  why do the distinctions you want to draw matter?  Does the doctrine of inspiration demand that these texts be “literally” or at least “phenomenologically” accurate?  I’m afraid this seems like the same-old problem of applying foreign, modern categories to the ancient text.

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