26 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 4

On to propositions 5–6 and the six days of creation . . .

Proposition 5: Days 1–3 establish functions
  • Day 1: “light” (not a material thing) is not “day”; so what gives in v. 5? The obvious: the “light” spoken of is a “period of light,” i.e., “day”. Thus “light” is a metonymy (“God called the [period of] light Day, and the [period of] darkness he called Night.”)
  • So, working backward to v. 3 we see that God is here creating the basis for time. A function is given (a material is not created) to serve humans. “God said, ‘Let there be [a period of] light.’” But how could there have been light w/o Day 4’s sun? The order of events concerns function, not material creation.
  • Day 2: a solid expanse to hold the waters above the earth? Well, the Hebrew does literally mean firmament/expanse. But this question is beside the point, since the creation account (by deliberate intent) is not concerned with material origins but with functional origins. “[Their taken-for-granted] material cosmic geography is simply what was familiar to them as was used to communicate something that is functional in nature” (57).
  • Twofold role of the expanse: 1) created space for people to live; 2) ordered the weather. Rain=grain=life. Too little or too much meant disaster. How the original audience thought this was accomplished by God (a solid dome) is beside the point. It does not change the fact that the Creator “established the functions that serves as the basis for weather” (58). He created the basis for weather and sustains it.
  • Day 3: If an account of material creations, why is this day included? Nothing is materially created on this day. But if the account revolves around functions, we do see that functions were assigned on this day.
  • The act of separating continues: dry land is differentiated from the sea. Herein God creates the basis for food. Time, weather and food are the foundation of life. More important than the Creator’s building the material world is his bringing together all these materials in such a way that they work. In this lies wonder. Functions are far more important than materials.
  • It should be no surprise that other ANE literature highlights these 3 major functions: “The Old World science in the Bible offers the perspective of the earthbound observer. …God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography—he revealed his creator role through the cosmic geography that they had, because the shape of the material world did not matter” (61–62). He set up the functions and he keeps them going, regardless of how we envision the cosmos’ material shape (which changes, incidentally, from generation to generation).

Proposition 6: Days 4–6 install functionaries

These days are parallel to Days 1–3, but that framework is secondary. The real point is that God is installing items to carry out the functions he previously delineated.
  • Day 4: the functionaries are assigned to carry out the task of Day 1—functions that are pertinent only to humans. Note “seasons” refers to planting and harvesting, etc.
  • Important to recognize that the spoken words also are creative acts. The words/decrees of the creator God initiates the functions and gives the functionaries their roles.
  • Excursus on the Hebrew word translated “made” (‘āśâ), p. 65. It doesn’t refer inherently to material process; it can mean “do” as much as “make.” In this case, “doing” the work of establishing functions for the two great lights (v. 16) so that they would govern as intended.
  • “It was good” indicates that whatever God is creating (assigning functions to) is all prepared to function for the human beings that are about to be installed in their place.
  • Day 5: the functionaries simply fulfill their own functions—being fruitful and multiplying their respective realms (sea and air). Note that the sea creatures, which were antithetical if not enemies in the ANE (because the sea was itself antithetical to the ordered system), are here depicted as part and parcel of God’s ordered system; they are under his rule. There is no war here. God subdues all.
  • Day 6: As in Day 5, these functionaries carry out their own functions in their respective realms. God made them to also be fruitful and multiply.
  • v. 24 “land producing creatures”? Rather, “creature’s life comes from the land”; not to be taken as an indication of evolutionary process (a lá Morton), etc.
  • Humanity: the big difference here is not only do humans have their own functions to fill their respective sphere, they also are to function in relation to the rest of creation—subdue and rule. They function as God’s image bearers and to each other as male and female.
  • God’s image is central in this functional focus, though. All of creation serves in relation to humanity, and humanity serves in relation to God, as his vice regent. Simply put, this means that humanity is delegated a godlike function in the world in which they are placed.
  • Creation, in a sense, is therefore anthropocentric—set up to serve humanity, who represent God (imago Dei) to all of creation (68ff.). This is unlike ANE, where creation is all about serving the gods, supplying their needs. “The focus moves from the divine realm, through people, to the world around them” (69).
  • But doesn’t Gen. 2 give an account of material origins for humanity? ANE texts do give all kinds of accounts about what materials were used to create humans. Genesis follows suit, except that only one couple is in view here.
  • But the individual Adam’s being fashioned from clay is to be understood archetypically. All humans are from the dust (and to dust they will return, Gen. 3:19). It is not a statement of chemical composition; it is indicative of human destiny and mortality, and therefore is a functional comment, not a material one (70). The same holds true for the creation of the Woman.
  • Thus, they are primarily archetypal, which doesn’t preclude historical, of course (see n. 5, 179). The fact is, they are regularly treated as such by other writers of Scripture. “Humankind is connected to the ground from which it is drawn. Womankind is connected to mankind from whom she is drawn. [Both are] connected to God in whose image all are made. As such they have the privilege of procreation, the role of subduing and ruling, and a status in the garden serving sacred space.” All of these functions are for all humans. “Neither the materials nor the roles are descriptive only of the first individuals.” The creation account of Genesis therefore “gives people their identity and specifies their connectivity to everything around them” (71).

Thoughts? Concerns? Criticisms?

Survive. Read Part 5.

21 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 3

Here's Part 3 of this walkthrough of The Lost World. Note that by the end of this post my thoughts took on a more "outline" form, which will continue on through the remainder of this series. (Bah, prose. Who needs it?)

Proposition 3 takes a good look at the Hebrew word bārā’ (“create”), where Walton seeks to make the case that it concerns (primarily) functions. The verb is used about fifty times in the Old Testament and in every case, deity is always either the subject or the implied subject. Virtually all Hebraists agree on this point. Apparently few, however, discuss the objects of that verb. According to Walton, though some examples are ambiguous, a large percentage of the contexts require a functional understanding (he provides a helpful table on p. 42). Thus, “if the Israelites understood the word bārā’ to convey creation in functional terms, then that is the most ‘literal’ understanding that we can achieve” (p. 43). Walton does provide a caveat at this point: Just because he deems Genesis 1 to not be an account of material origins does not mean that he thinks God is not responsible for material origins. But that question is not in view here, so Walton.

He then applies this to Genesis 1:1 with the following results (after briefly looking at the adverb beginning, arguing that it typically introduces a period of time—in this case, the seven days—rather than a point in time—some time prior to the seven days): “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.” In short, verse one serves as the establishment upon which the subsequent eleven tôlědôt sections of Genesis rest. Genesis 1 therefore recounts the seven-day period in which God is “naming, separating and assigning functions and roles in an ordered system” (p. 46).

The beginning state in Genesis 1 is nonfunctional, Walton argues in Proposition 4. He does so by looking closely at the description of the earth in verse 2: tōhû and bōhû. After a brief word study through the Scriptures (see Table 2, p. 48) and taking into account the previous propositions about functional ontology, Walton concludes that the two words “convey the idea of nonexistence…that is, that the earth is described as not yet functioning in an ordered system. (Functional) creation has not yet taken place and therefore there is only (functional) nonexistence” (p. 49). A few glances at other ANE creation narratives back this up—that the ancient world conceived of existence in functional terms. Materiality is irrelevant at this point. Indeed, “the evidence of matter (the waters of the deep in Gen. 1:2) in the precreation state…supports this view” (p. 53). Thus the earth was without function and unproductive; its pre-creation state (primordial waters—“the deep”) opposed (“darkness”) the function-giving Spirit of God who hovered over it (v. 2).

“Function” was understood as "purpose" in ANE, 50 bottom; focused on the gods who created, but in the OT YHWH needs nothing, and his creation focuses on the needs of the crown of his creation—people. “Functionality cannot exist without people in the picture” (51).

More theological impetus for a Christian humanism?

Read more—Part 4.

11 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 2

I might have unnecessarily tainted these series of posts, revealing as I did in the previous post my general indifference to whatever theories scientists come up with to explain the material origins of the universe. This mindset does not drive Walton's book. His concern is, emphatically, hermeneutical and exegetical. To be sure, the reader may deduce certain motivations on his part that wag the exegetical dog, but the only one he explicitly reveals is a desire to handle God's Word rightly.

It just so happens that I appreciate the way he handles it because it frees me up to continue thinking as I always have throughout my adult life—that whatever theory the scientific community puts forth is worth entertaining precisely because it has no bearing, by definition, on what the creation narrative of Genesis 1 conveys.

There, I've shown my hand. Let's start surveying the eighteen propositions Walton proffers.

Proposition 1 discusses how the cultural ideas behind Genesis 1 exhibit an ancient cosmology. “That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions” (p. 16). Even though this book doesn’t purport to promote any one particular view of how God created the material universe, it’s clear that in this first proposition Walton intends to cut off at the knees any view that argues modern science is embedded in Genesis 1 or that the biblical text dictates what modern science should look like (ibid.). This approach to the text, called “concordism,” ends up changing the very meaning of the text itself, since it attempts to make the text say something it never intended for it to say. This view also suffers from the assumption “the text should be understood in reference to current scientific consensus, which would mean that it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century” (p. 17). But science, by its very nature, is in a constant state of flux. Thus, “if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would be unintelligible to people who live prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time” (ibid.). Rather, God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood. In short, God accommodated himself to the exact culture that received his revelation (incidentally, I know there's some kind of recent rowe "out there" that revolved around a guy named Peter Enns, but I'm fairly ignorant of the controversy, and so I'm not sure how connected this discussion is to it. When I read Prof. Poythress' review of Lost World, I did get the impression [in the last few lines of the article] that this book raises similar concerns for some readers—but more on that later).

As another biblical example of God accommodating himself to the exact culture that received his revelation, Walton mentions how the ancients thought “the seat of intelligence, emotion and personhood was in the internal organs, particularly the heart, but also the liver, kidneys and intestines” (consider too how our English Bibles render “entrails” as “mind,” etc., p. 18). This was not metaphor but physiology; thus, God didn’t see the need to revise his audience’s ideas of physiology when he talked to them about such things. “Instead, he adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood” (ibid.). Denying this, Walton suggests, would lead to folks trying to construct a physiology for our times that would explain how people think with their entrails.

I’ve spent the time and space explaining this first proposition in detail because of its foundational nature to the rest of Walton’s book. Those whose views lean in more “concordist” directions, then, can see how their presuppositions are at odds with Walton’s on a basic, hermeneutical level.

The rest of this chapter (prop. 1) attempts to challenge the tendency to read back into the text the modern dichotomy between natural and supernatural. It is not something most Christians will deny; still, it helps to be reminded of this so that they too can avoid assuming this dichotomy when engaging the text. Walton mainly does this to keep us asking the appropriate questions from the text (alas, he tells us, “we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today’s dialogues,” p. 21).

In Proposition 2, Walton simply argues that the ancient cosmology of Genesis 1 is “function oriented.” That is, the meaning of existence in the ancient world had less to do with material ontology and more to do with functional ontology. “Something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system” (emphasis original, p. 26). Walton contends that we know this from both the biblical text and from other literature of the ancient world, which he proceeds to unpack throughout the rest of this chapter. In short, to “create,” to cause something to exist, is to give that something a function, not material properties. According to Walton, “we tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom” (both of which are defined according to their functions, pp. 35–36). In other words, the ancient world defined existence in terms of having a function in an ordered system.

If not, why not?

Go on to Part 3.

04 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 1

When I arrived at seminary on the cusp of a new century, the conservative Reformed world seemed abuzz with discussions about cosmology. In my partial ignorance, I found this odd, that churches would formulate opinions on things about which they were clearly not experts. Coming as I did from a home not too terribly concerned with how God created but that he simply did (which was only reinforced at my conservative Christian college and an evolutionist professor of biology), I found this doubly odd. But I soon recognized my blind spot and saw that the main issue revolved around hermeneutics—the meaning, in this case, of the creation narrative in Genesis, which of course lies well within the purview of the church.1

John H. Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, spends its space on essentially this task—how to read the story of creation—and it should find a welcome home, though not without qualification, in the church. The book is short and accessible, and is arranged in eighteen brief propositions (which I will walk through in the coming days), followed by a summary conclusion and a helpful FAQ.

Walton starts in his Introduction laying down important hermeneutical groundwork. The book of Genesis was, obviously, written in a language that most do not understand, and therefore it is translated. But that’s not all that needs translation: “Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully” (p. 9). This is where other literature of the ancient world comes in, for it serves to help the reader enter into the culture of the biblical text by elucidating ancient categories, concepts, and perspectives. Walton is careful of course not to expect similarity at every point between Genesis and other ancient texts, but neither does he expect differences at every point (p. 12). In short, it ought not surprise us that Israel shared a common conceptual worldview with their neighbors. The point is decidedly not that they borrowed or copied from ancient, pagan myths, nor is it about discerning whether Israel was even influenced by them—“they were a part of that world” (p. 14), in much the same way we moderns are a part of our own (and thus take for granted a whole host of modern notions). Like many of the ancient myths (not unlike science for us today), which were deeply held beliefs in the cultures that gave rise to them, Genesis 1 offers explanations of Israel’s view of origins and the world’s operations. Most importantly, though, the beliefs represented in Genesis 1 are “not presented as [Israel’s] own ideas, but as revelation from God” (p. 15). And thus we who put our faith in the God revealed in Scripture today also receive this text as an explanation of origins and how the world operates.

1 Happily, the response from at least the PCA (of which I am not a member) did not choose the exclusionary path: “Since historically in Reformed theology there has been a diversity of views of the creation days among highly respected theologians, and, since the PCA has from its inception allowed a diversity, [the Creation Study Committee recommends] that the [28th] Assembly affirm that such diversity as covered in this report is acceptable as long as the full historicity of the creation account is accepted.” The report went on to discuss four (acceptable) views that the majority of folks in the PCA hold (it then lists six subsequent views “that are probably represented in the PCA”). See the full report.

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