If Walton is Right on His Function-Only View: Some Implications

The rest of the book (the “application”) refers to several implications of Walton’s view for the hot-button issues of the origins debate—hermeneutics, theology, metaphysics, and even public science education. Therefore, in many ways, Walton is saying that his view is not only more correct than other views; it also offers a better “payoff” in the end concerning ways to resolve issues in the origins debate that often come to a standstill.

Proposition 10 already promotes the benefits of Walton’s approach. For example, Walton claims his function-only view of creation avoids “significant obstacles” (p. 94) facing any view that sees Genesis 1 concerned with material creation and makes the question of the age of the earth a non-biblical one. Also, in congruence with orthodox Christianity, Walton affirms that God materially created all that exists, but this is derived from “theological logic” (p. 97) and some NT references, rather than Genesis 1.

Given Walton’s strategy, I will first consider Propositions 11-12 assuming (for the sake of argument) that Walton’s thesis is correct. Then I will return to a “what if” question: what are the implications if one accepts a large proportion of Walton’s thesis but is not convinced of all of it?

If Walton is Right, Then…

While Walton’s interpretation is very different than most, in Proposition 11 (“‘Functional Cosmic Temple’ Offers Face-Value Exegesis”) his respect for “authorial intent” is quite conservative. He rejects “reducing Genesis 1 to merely literary or theological expressions” (p. 107)—maneuvers often interpreted by those from a more literalist perspective as compromising the biblical text in order to “bypass difficult scientific implications” (p. 103). Walton’s view, committed to authorial intent by taking seriously the ancient (human) author and ancient audience, “bypasses” the science questions de facto since the text makes no scientific claims. Rather, it is the “concordist approach” which “attempts to read an ancient text in modern terms . . . of physics, biology, geology and so on into the biblical text” which is “a repudiation of reading the text at face value” (p. 104).

I find Walton’s line of argument here sound and his approach a brilliant debate tactic. If Walton is right that the ancient Israelite would have understood the creation account of Genesis 1 in function-only terms and with no sense (from the rest of the Bible [see p. 106]) that there’s any additional divine meaning intended, then questions of materiality—the purview of science—are irrelevant. On one hand, this distances Walton from the conservative criticism of those who seemingly downplay the text’s “plain meaning” and thus compromise biblical authority. On the other hand, Walton goes on the offense, accusing the traditional “literalist” of methodological inconsistency.

This dual critique is then applied to standard evangelical views on origins in Proposition 12 (“Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough”). Walton has already alluded to these views throughout the book, but here he contrasts them directly with his own position. Following on the heels of Proposition 11, his criticisms here are obvious. While commended for their desire to uphold the biblical text, these other views all assume the text is about material origins and thus their attempts to reconcile science with the Bible inevitably fail. The popular (i.e., concordist) varieties of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and Old Earth Creationism (OEC) go “too far,” assuming that the Bible should be read scientifically and thus seek to find compatibility between the text and science. YEC does so by offering alternative scientific theories to mainstream science; OEC does so by reading advanced scientific content into the text. To Walton, the Framework Hypothesis goes “not far enough.” Without questioning the literary and theological conclusions of this view, Walton thinks it “risks reductionism and oversimplification” (p. 112). Other views are given quick dismissals: the once-popular “gap theory” that allowed for an old earth is rejected for its exegetical weakness (i.e., reading Gen 1:2 as “The earth became formless and void”); proposing a multi-million-year gap between Genesis 1 and 2 to allow for some sort of human evolution is considered theologically problematic. [1]

I found Proposition 12 logically straightforward, even if a little underwhelming and underdeveloped. There are more views of origins than those Walton addresses in these six pages, leaving lagging questions. Read together, however, Propositions 11-12 throw quite a monkey wrench in the status quo of the origins debate.

But What If One Is Not Fully Convinced?

Before this book, John Walton was already a well-known and well-respected figure within the world of biblical scholarship. For evangelical scholars especially, Walton is held in high esteem as one who does top-level scholarship without sacrificing a high view of Scripture. He also has been one of the go-to experts among evangelical scholars concerning the ANE world. It’s a true delight, therefore, to see his name and work more broadly disseminated among non-specialists.

Part of Walton’s recent prominence in the discussion of origins is his ability to present his biblical and theological ideas with relentless, methodical logic—as I sought to demonstrate above. [2] It is no surprise, then, to find Evangelicals with a scientific background or interest—especially those impressed by mainstream scientific theories and disillusioned by more traditional creationist models—jump on the “functional cosmic temple” bandwagon.

But there’s a nagging problem for evangelical Old Testament scholars: we’re not fully convinced of Walton’s function-only reading of Genesis 1 (of course I’m generalizing). Most agree with the ANE contextualization of the biblical text, and seeing creation as a cosmic temple seems to be gaining mainstream support. With much thanks to Walton, many also see the functional orientation as the primary point of the creation account. But, as David Buller noted in his review of Propositions 7-10, the field is not convinced that the functional is the only point in exclusion of the material. [3]

For Buller and others, holding on to a both-and (functional and material) approach is a mere caveat. In their view, one can appreciate and basically adopt Walton’s view, even if you think Genesis does speak about material creation. I’m not so sure this is a mere caveat. At least, Walton’s own reasoning doesn’t make this a foregone conclusion. Walton’s argumentation (in Propositions 10-12) is quite binary: if you accept his functional reading, all these other problems go away; if you accept a material reading (even alongside a functional reading), these same problems remain. [4]

Walton makes an intelligent, compelling case for his view. He’s convinced some; and many who are not fully convinced nevertheless respect his work and consider it worthy of discussion. Perhaps Walton (or someone else) might in the future provide counsel or clarification to those who like his views but still have questions. Does maintaining a material component alongside the functional in one’s reading of Genesis 1 make one an anti-Waltonite? I hope not.

Notes & References

Ken Turner
About the Author

Ken Turner

Ken Turner (PhD, Old Testament Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of Biblical Studies at Bryan College, with concentration in Old Testament, Hebrew, and Greek. His scholarly publications focus on Deuteronomy. He contributed a chapter, “How to Teach Genesis 1 at a Christian College,” in J. Daryl Charles, ed.,Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation (Hendrickson, 2013). Ken’s interest in origins stems from his background (including a Bachelor’s degree in Physics & Math Education, Arizona State University), his interaction with college students, and his involvement in the homeschool world (he and his wife homeschool their five children).