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Vibrant Dance 2: Breakout #1: John Walton

{RJW Note:  The last session Friday night was a breakout, with a separate room where each speaker led a Q&A about their plenary talk. I was a “teaching assistant” for Dr. Walton, which basically meant I made sure he got to the right room at the right time, and all needs were met. As his needs were few, I was able to take good notes. I do not have any info on the other breakout sessions, but CD’s, MP3’s and even DVD’s of the entire conference can be found at Since it was a Q&A session, the topics jump around a bit. I will try to make each bit clear either by giving the question then answer or making the topic obvious from the context.

As a reminder, Walton’s position was that the Genesis Creation account was viewed by the ancient Hebrews as the story of inaugurating or consecrating the temple of Creation from chaos to order, with Eden effectively being the Holy of Holies and how God’s Sabbath rest was an active concept that meant He was situated to reign over a Creation brought under His order and control, not a passive kick back and eat Nachos in front of an NFL game in His Lay-Z-Boy.}

The Cosmic Temple Inauguration view is trying to understand/explain how the ancient world actually thought, what their ‘scientific’ understanding was. It in no way says or implies that the Hebrews borrowed from pagan mythology. This is because what the Canaanites believed about deity was different than what the Jews did, but how the Hebrews viewed science was extremely different from us and closer to the Babylonians, much as a modern Hindu’s scientific understanding of the world is much closer to ours than it is to that of ancient Hindus. From ancient near east (ANE) mythology we get information about their understanding of reality. There was a common understanding of reality but different explanations, as given by the different mythologies.

WE believe in a material ontology, which goes back originally to the Greeks, and sees the world in a material sense. Essentially, we believe an object exists if it has mass and volume and/or energy. We are so immersed in this ontology we don’t realize another exists, just as a fish doesn’t realize it’s wet. Science is our culture’s understanding of reality, and naturalism is our culture’s mythology.

Functionality or functional ontology is how they understood reality, but the mythologies varied. Functional ontology means that object only have value to the extent they have function. In fact, an object without function essentially does not exist to the ANE mind.

Furthermore, understanding their concept of the Temple is also critical. The temple was considered the center of a deity’s sacred space, the capitol of their rule, with zones of decreasing sacredness as one went out from the altar into the world. The ANE mind sought order out of chaos, and the temple represented the highest order, the highest and greatest functionality in its furnishings and rituals. Closely related to this order was the concept of rest. When a temple is established and consecrated, it represents the establishment of that deity’s reign over the land. It’s enemies have been conquered, and so there is political and spiritual stability (order) that has triumphed over the chaos of conflict. Thus, ‘resting’ was an active concept indicating that now that order was established, the work of ruling and achieving one’s agenda could begin, that real life could now commence. ANE civilizations would have all recognized Genesis 1 as a “temple text,” describing the consecration of sacred space. We don’t because we don’t think of temple and rest together

“High context” is where the speaker and audience have the same reference points, so they can skip a lot of fundamental explanatory stuff. Conversely, “low context” is where the speaker and audience have different reference points so they have to take more time to set up definitions and assumptions. Thus, we are in low context with Genesis 1, but the ANE was in high context. We make the very poor assumption that the Bible is always high context for all people, especially for us. {I wonder if remaining ‘primitive’ or isolated tribes on the planet might not get even more of the ANE sense of Scripture than we do, and thus might have some profound things to teach us about the very Scriptures we introduce to them.}

There are two main features of Walton’s position, the ANE functional worldview, and that the Genesis 1 genre can be classified as a temple text. These lead to issues between high and low context. So to put his position into some modern contexts, he drew the following analogies. When an unincorporated area is annexed, nothing of the material of the area has changed, but zoning/function/designations have changed. Likewise, when God is doing the creation work of Genesis 1, He is incorporating it into temple zoning, and to the ANE that was what was important. Thus, in this context, ‘good’ is not a moral evaluation, nor a statement of perfect design, but a functional one. “It is good” is like a final check list of completeness of functionality.

What about the New Testament authors’ context and their references back to Genesis 1? Hellenism is in full bloom, so how does that change things? The New Testament Jews still have a largely functional mindset. For example, “all things visible/invisible” from Colossians and in Hebrews, the author talks of functionality.

What about serious conversation with other viewpoints—Jack Collins engaged with Walton’s theories seriously and disagreed with them some, but still difficult to wrap one’s mind around them? Walton has privilege of immersing himself into ANE literature, and that makes it easier for him.

What other very different ontologies exist in the world currently, and how might they interact with Biblical interpretation/understanding? Walton said he was not sure, not aware of others.

Walton made it abundantly clear that he came to a functional understanding of Genesis 1 by reading Genesis 1, not from the other ANE myths. In fact, it didn’t dawn on him until one day he was actually in class teaching students about Genesis 1—it was kind of a V-8 moment.

What about Genesis 2 and connection with Genesis 1? Genesis 1 brings order to cosmos, and Genesis 2 brings order to human civilization on a terrestrial level putting in sacred space and ordering relationships between man and animals. ANE intermix the two levels of order.

Our modern worldview has four types of causation-divine, natural law, random, and human. The ANE only had two:  divine and human—cosmic laws and human laws. Thus, 7 days is mode of cosmic level in Genesis 1, but 7 day model is not used in Genesis 2 because it wasn’t needed.

How does Walton decide which passages are authoritative and which aren’t? (In his plenary talk, he maintained that some bit of the text are details that do not carry the weight of divine inspiration.) Some details are not vested with authority, but all passages are. There is a difference between the framework for communication versus the message itself.

How do we differentiate between what is framework and what is message? Some we can tell because we learn they aren’t true, so all Scripture is considered invested authority until we find out it wasn’t. There still will be some gray areas. {My concern is with the number of times we believed there was something not true in the Bible, only to discover later once we had new information that it actually is.}

What about the historicity of Adam & Eve? Walton believes in their historicity because Paul does.

Then would you vest the historicity of Adam & Eve in Genesis 2 or in Paul? The historicity of them is different than reading Genesis 2 as a material account, so a passage can simultaneously be functional and historical. Walton continued, saying that Genesis 2 is archetypal:  the fall destroys the center of sacred space, so God pulls His presence away from Earth, removing its status as the center of sacred space, and then begins to reveal both Himself and the nature of sacred space until the tabernacle built and God’s redemption of sacred space is complete, giving us a progression of revelation and redemption through the entirety of Scripture:  Eden > tabernacle > temple > incarnation > human heart >  new creation. Furthermore, Psalm 132 is very clear in communicating this temple theme.

What about the serpent? Satan is not identified with the serpent in the Old Testament, only in New. He is a chaos creature. Adam & Eve were priests placed to guard sacred space from…chaos. God did not eliminate all chaos in Genesis 1—not all disorder is sin or evil, and we were given the task of expanding sacred space by conquering disorder and chaos in the “subdue and have dominion” commands. Thus, the serpent tries to tempt them to find order on their own, not according to God’s direction.

Why is Genesis 1 only a functional viewpoint and not a combination of material and functional ontological layers? We can’t use a material view as the default. He challenged us to look for material evidence in account, maintaining that it isn’t there to be found. {I’m still not entirely convinced.}

So if Walton believes in a literal Adam & Eve, where did the people, say in the city of Nod come from? He has a problem with trying to mix science and Bible. The ANE didn’t have a high view of humans, so none of the other ANE mythologies have individual human creation. The gods created people to be slaves, so Adam & Eve are unique in ANE literature. God provides for humans, not humans for God—so the Bible provides a radically different anthropology compared to its contemporaries. {That doesn’t seem to directly answer the question asked…}

So, if Walton’s theories are true, then how/when does the Bible transition from functional perspective to historical? He’s not sure, but the nature of the genealogies is unique to ANE so lends historical credibility to a functional narrative.

In Genesis 1 there are two words used for ‘create,’ bara and asah. According to Walton, bara is best understood to impart function to something. How then should we understand asah? Asah does mean material creation (Genesis 2:1:  “In the day God created the heavens and earth”):  to do or to make, so which meaning used when? In Exodus 20—“do” for 6 days and then rest because God ‘did’ work in 6 days and then rested. Also, in Genesis 2:1-2—the heavens and earth completed, so He rested from the asah of barah (the doing of the imparting function).

How much of this are your ideas and how much is from others? He can footnote each point of his theory to someone else, but he assembled it. His assembly is the only popular form out and has only been around for about two years. But it is having good support from lots of areas. Some examples include the fact that the Tanzanians don’t have names for things they don’t use—functionality is inherent in their linguistics. Also, ‘separating’ and ‘naming’ are important creation words in the ANE. Also, the idea that Creation is a gift to Christ and that Christ gives it back to the Father in a redeemed is not an OT concept, yet fits with the temple cosmology of increasing and reclaiming order until a final rest is achieved.

Walton suggested that this view has pastoral implications:  what does this do for us theologically? Creation gains continuity through ruling and maintaining it—God’s roles as Creator and Sustainer blends together. Also, we regain idea of the cosmos as sacred space; Third, we get a better sense of Sabbath (and rest), and you don’t have to worry about questions about the ‘8th day’—so Sabbath not just for relaxing, but recognizing his rule—worship is when we cease our work because we realize it is his work. Finally, we see that the new creation is the culmination and finishing of the work started in Genesis 1-2.

Day 10 Praise:  The Holy One is slow to anger and quick to forgive, and still delights to share His work with us that we may partake in His Creation of sacred space and working to a true rest from enemies and strife, that Real life can truly begin.


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