Wednesday, December 24, 2014

John Walton and the blurring of creation and providence

The Bible to some extent offers the idea that creation is ongoing and dynamic. So theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann believes that God's creative work is not just the static work of the past, but that it is dynamic as it continues in the present and into the future. This suggestion merits consideration, but key to the discussion is the extent to which what happens after the beginning could still be called creation, or if it is something else (e.g. "sustaining"). ..

I contend that there is a line between the seven days of Genesis 1 and the rest of history, making Genesis 1 a distinct beginning that is located in the past. If we see this as an account of functional origins, the line between is dotted rather than solid as the narrative of Genesis 1 puts God in place to perpetuate the functions after they are established in the six days. In this way, day seven, God taking up his rest in the center of operations of the cosmos, positions him to run it. This continuing activity is not the same as the activity of the six days, but is the reason why the six days took place. ...

... Maintaining relates to the material and the physical existence. Sustaining relates to the functional and operational. Consequently, when we take the functional approach to origins and the theological position of God's continual sustaining work, both originating and sustaining can be seen as variations of the work of the Creator, even thought they do not entirely merge together. Genesis 1 is in the past, but the continuing activities of the Creator in the future and present are very much a continuation of that past work. In contrast to the first extreme [of seeing creation as finished -DHC], creation is not over and done with. [John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL, 2009), 120-2]

One of the beliefs that Christianity has almost unanimously held is the belief that creation is finished. God is not creating ex nihilo anything today, for creation is complete and God now is operating through providence. It is almost such an axiomatic belief that I can't even think of anyone in church history who has ever claimed that God is still continually creating.

Enter OT Professor John Walton, who has decided to change terms to his liking. Redefining creation to be "functional," Walton reasons that there is no reason to restrict creation to the past. In his own words, while the "seven days of Genesis 1" are separate from the "rest of history," the line is "dotted rather than solid." In other words, there is not a phase of history called "creation," and the other phases that are clearly not creational. Rather, for Walton, the difference between the "seven days of Genesis 1" and "the rest of history" is quantitative not qualitative, a matter of degree rather than of kind.

In one sense, Walton, because of his redefinition of creation as being "functional," is not promoting a continuous "material" creation today. However, in another sense, this blurring between creation and providence is extremely problematic because God's role of Creator is cast almost as purely "functional" and thus, while the material is not denied, it is as it were erased from sight. Since when we looked at the issue philosophically, we see that the term "functional ontology" is nonsensical, the correct nature of Walton's thesis is that God is only the God of teleology and not ontology, or at the very least we are agnostic about God's creation of ontology. (And for consistency's sake, Walton should interpret all creation passages including the one in Colossians 1 as speaking of "functional ontology.") So after Walton has interpreted Genesis 1 as speaking about "functional ontology," upon what basis can he claim that God is the God who has created all matter ex nihilo? How is he able to refute (or does he refute) a person who claims that God does not create matter but rather mould what is already present? In other words, if someone claims that matter is eternal and that God is only in charge of moulding it into functional things, where in Scripture can (or will) Walton go to refute that?

The blurring of creation and providence should naturally flow over into the line of new creation, or the Eschaton. If biblical creation concerns function while being agnostic about matter, then recreation or the Last Day should be about function as well and also similarly agnostic about matter. Since the difference between pre-creation and creation in Genesis is the communication of function, then the line between the present time and the new creation in Revelations should also be the communication of function, not material changes. If Walton is consistent with his "functional ontology," then the Eschaton should be interpreted likewise, especially since Revelation is in the apocalyptic genre. At the return of Christ, there is no real burning up of the elements by fire (2 Peter 3:12), for that ought to be interpreted "functionally" not "materially." The new heavens and the new earth is merely functional modification of the current existing heavens and earth, which means Walton shouldn't be expecting a paradise without earthquakes and human death by natural disasters in the new heavens and earth. And the parallels can go on, for the difference must be quantitative only not qualitative.

Such is the logical conclusion of Walton's reinterpretation of Genesis 1 as being about "functional ontology." If Walton does not go there, that is only because of blessed inconsistency, not because his theory does not lead there. One must apply the same hermeneutical principles consistently to the text, so if a text that has the form of historical narrative is interpreted as being about "functional ontology," there is no reason why passages that are parabolic (Prov. 8) or hymnic (Col. 1) should be interpreted "materially." While certainly I have no reason to doubt Walton's sincerity, his hermeneutic and "exegesis" runs contrary to the Christian faith and must be rejected.

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