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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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Pete Enns - #4296

February 11th 2010


I wonder if what John meant was that the days in Gen 1have nothing to do with physical reality? Having said that, I have never seriously doubted that Gen 1 is speaking in terms of normal days, and having days before the heavenly bodies is an statement of God’s might. I am not sure, though, that most commentators, at least evangelical ones, would agree with us on the nature of the days. My experience is that a lot of ink has been spilled to argue that the writer never intended that. As far as I am concerned, that is an apologetic move to keep the biblical writer from speaking nonsense from the point of view of contemporary thought. I certainly agree with your “anti-cponcordism ” in your last paragraph.

Norm Voss - #4303

February 11th 2010

Craig, I thought you might find these Hebrew understandings of Day interesting. The quote from Jubilees is quite revealing as it may be dated 150 years before Christ and is commentary on the DAY that Adam died (Genesis 2:17) and states that Adam died DURING THE YEARS OF THIS DAY. The phrase later in the first century is picked up by Peter and the Barnabas author so it appears to be an understanding of Day not equating to 24 hours in Hebrew literature.

Jubilees 4: 29 … Adam died, … And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; FOR ONE THOUSAND YEARS ARE AS ONE DAY in the testimony of the heavens and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge: “ON THE DAY that ye eat thereof ye will die.” For this reason he did not complete the YEARS OF THIS DAY; for HE DIED DURING IT.

2Pe 3:8 But forget not … that ONE DAY IS WITH THE LORD AS A THOUSAND YEARS, and a thousand years as one day.

Barnabas 15: Give heed, children, what this meaneth; He ended in six days. He meaneth this, that in six thousand years the Lord shall bring all things to an end; for THE DAY WITH HIM SIGNIFYETH A THOUSAND YEARS; and this He himself beareth me witness, saying; BEHOLD, THE DAY OF THE LORD SHALL BE AS A THOUSAND YEARS.

John Mulholland - #4306

February 11th 2010

Maybe we can focus on the main claims of Walton’s book that Genesis 1 has nothing to do with modern science, and everything to do with the religious ideas & imagery available to the writer & his theological goals.  The Sabbath and the Temple are the key religious ideas & symbols of that day.  Could there be a better idea, image, for telling of YHWH’s intentions & power than 6 “days” of creation leading up to the Holy Seventh, Sabbath,  rest & celebration that God is indeed in His Holy Temple of His entire cosmos?

We draw closer to putting Walton & his book into conversation with the larger unbelieving world, justifiably amused by a theory of a 6 day creation 6000 years ago.  Walton has helped us understand the original intent of Genesis 1 & the audience for which this was composed, so we need not tie ourselves in knots thinking this ages old text was intended to explain what we now know about the cosmos from reasoned scientific study. We are better able to heed Augustine’s centuries old warning, & then encourage those who do not believe to consider the Bible and Jesus’ Good News and take the claims of Christ seriously.

Nick Altman - #4308

February 11th 2010

In response to Craig Robinson - #4254

Okay, fine and well, except as art said (the post immediately after mine) Genesis 1 doesn’t fit. Who was there to observe the “dry land separating from the waters” other than God and perhaps dame wisdom?

So while Dr. Poythress may be able to employ this distinction say for Joshua 10 (sun standing still) it doesn’t hold weight for Genesis 1 unless you confuse the two categories (hence my post).

So if no one had yet been made with ears to hear it, did creation make a sound? - well I can’t be sure it didn’t, but it seems like a really shaky ground to begin theological exegesis.

Pax Christi…Nick

threegirldad - #4309

February 11th 2010

We draw closer to putting Walton & his book into conversation with the larger unbelieving world, justifiably amused by a theory of a 6 day creation 6000 years ago.

The larger unbelieving world is justifiably amused by a theory of a man actually rising from the dead.

Craig Robinson - #4312

February 11th 2010

Norm, I believe the text of the Bible is inspired. I don’t care about the text of Jubilees. Obviously there is debate on the place of outside literature in understanding the Bible. I personally do not believe it is helpful.

In terms of day or yom, yes of course, “day” can often mean something other than a 24 hour period. Many words have multiple meanings. That does not mean they have multiple meanings everywhere they are used. Context determines the meaning. Throughout the Bible “day” often has the normal meaning of 24 hours and you would not dispute that. For instance a passage could talk about a 3 day journey. You would not assume that meant a 3000 year journey. A passage could talk about the first day of the week. In that context it can only mean one thing. Similarly, when looking at the creation week, I believe the way day is used conforms to the typical meaning we would associate with a 24 hour day.

Craig Robinson - #4313

February 11th 2010

John, even if Walton is 100% correct, that does not mean that there is “broad consensus.” There isn’t.

Norm - #4314

February 11th 2010


I just thought you might be intersted in how Jews and Christians understood “Day” symbolically and how there appeared to be an inclination 2000 years ago to use it in interpreting Genesis Days since that has been under discussion here. I guess the question could be asked when it comes to application of the context of Day who would be more likely to have a closer understanding those 2000 years ago or modern’s who are far removed?  Just some things to think about.

Craig Robinson - #4316

February 11th 2010

Norm, the fact that we can take something symbolically does not mean it was symbolic in its original usage. In fact, we would like a symbol to first be grounded in some sense of reality. To speak of a day as 1000 years is to first understand day as 24 hours to begin with. Otherwise the contrast and symbolism is not meaningful.

Also, sorry, but we probably have a philosophical difference on whether or not those living 2000 years ago had an advantage understanding the Bible. I don’t believe they did. It is not as difficult as we sometimes make it out to be. I really don’t feel that it is that difficult to understand Gen 1. The problem is not in understanding what it says. The problem is that once understanding what it says, it doesn’t seem to conform to our scientific understanding of origins.

Norm - #4317

February 11th 2010


That’s Ok but let me give you an example. Symbolism is an everyday product of the scriptures and appears the writer’s intent demonstrate they’re comfort with it. Maybe its culture or who knows but it appears to be a reality of the scriptures. Notice that King Neb is compared to a tree and those animals and birds dwelled under his dominion. These weren’t animals and birds they were his subjects and it’s the same in Ezekiel where the great Nations of Assyria, Egypt are also described as trees with animals living under their dominion. Where can we develop a reason for why animals represented Gentile peoples from your idea of reality? There is no reality because it is not much different than you would find in an Aesop’s fable and it fit their purpose.

Dan 4:21 Whose leaves were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all; under which THE BEASTS OF THE FIELD DWELT, AND UPON WHOSE BRANCHES THE FOWLS OF THE HEAVEN had their habitation: 22 It is thou, O king, that art grown and become strong: for thy greatness is grown, and reacheth unto heaven, and thy dominion to the end of the earth.

Christ compares his Kingdom to a tree from Ezekiel 17:23 in which the Birds of the air will find their rest.

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.

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