I’ve mentioned John H Walton’s contribution to the interpretation of Genesis several times before on this blog. I won’t explain his thesis again in any detail, but in essence it’s the understanding than the creation account of Genesis is intended to be literal, but literal concerning principally the function of creation rather than its material existence. It is about how God organised the Universe as his temple, with man as his image (in the sense of temple-image) and priest. This privileged calling for man is reflected in the fact that creation’s function is described in relationship to humanity’s needs – the heavens as his calendar for planting, the vegetation as his food, the animals as his subjects and so on.
Because of this, the Genesis account cannot be said to be opposed to scientific findings because it is not describing the same things – or more properly, it is describing the same things, but from a radically different viewpoint. Walton even allows Genesis to describe a literal, chronological week – though not one in which God forms all matter de novo (he does this – but not in the Genesis account), but one in which he assigns everything its function and order.
Not surprisingly The Lost World of Genesis 1 has gained some support from theistic evolutionists, and particularly from those like me of a biblically conservative bent. It gives a coherent sense of the inspiration and truth of Scripture, but avoids the intellectual somersaults of creation science and gives one the freedom to assess biological theories on their scientific merits. It was very liberating for me in that way.
However, in some ways this approach to Genesis cuts straight across a major aspect of what many theistic evolutionists believe, insofar as they have imbibed the metaphysic that is so strongly associated with, and perhaps inherent to, the Darwinian paradigm. For if one takes a look at any of the science-related writings of TEs – and the BioLogos website is a good place to start – there is much talk of random mutation, of junk DNA, of parasitic transposons, of poor design, of meaningless suffering and many other features supposedly found in life. In the hands of materialist biologists these are evidence for the purposelessness and undirectedness of evolution. In the hands of TEs … sadly they are much the same, their inclusion in discussion being intended to confirm the truth of science against Creationist or ID claims. There is, of course, an implicit belief that God’s hand is in there somewhere, but on the longest recent thread on the site I was unable to gain very much in the way of clarification of this from more than one or two TEs. For many, as I have discussed at length before, this is because God deliberately keeps his hands off creation in the name of “freedom”.
But the functional view of Genesis, which is faithful to the ANE background and respectable scholarship, refutes such woolliness, and the naturalist metaphysic that informs it, simply because it is functional. In Walton’s view, the central truth about creation is that God shows his power, wisdom and goodness by taking the chaotic proto-matter of Genesis 1.2 and enduing every aspect of it with function in relation to himself and, more particularly, to humanity and its mission in the world. The sabbath rest of the seventh day is when God takes his seat in his temple and begins to administer his rule over a now fully-compliant, fully-functional cosmos.
In such a Universe everything has a role and purpose (much as the now much maligned and misunderstood mediaeval Christian worldview assumed). Everything now means something, whether God assigned that meaning when it first came to be or at some later historic moment. You simply cannot talk about “junk DNA” without blaspheming against the picture of God in Genesis 1. One might argue that non-coding elements began as junk, in the days before God ordained their function. But even that view is a false one – because before the Genesis 1 creation even coding DNA either had no function or did not exist at all. Function of some sort it certainly has now, whether it is coding or non-coding DNA, because otherwise one is claiming that big chunks of the Universe were not, in fact, created by God in that functional sense.
So Walton’s reassessment of Genesis 1, I would argue, gives focus to the entirely orthodox concept that the whole Universe has its being in God. In the light of it, this cannot simply mean that everything merely exists through God’s continuing agency. Rather, it implies that everything which exists is also suffused with the creative function and meaning he has put there. More than that – he endowed it with such purpose in relationship to our own, human, existence and role in his world.
Theistic science, when it is studying creation, ought to be looking at God’s purpose, as well as tracing his handiwork.