Friday, 10 January 2014

Evolutionary Creationism: A Guide for the Perplexed - 3

Genesis 1 refers to functional origins, not material origins

To summarise what we’ve covered:

  • Special creationist (and many non-theist critics) make the mistake of reading the creation narratives either as a literal account of creation in six days 6000 years ago, or a strong concordist account which can be harmonised with natural history
  • This is false from both scientific and Biblical reasons, mainly because Genesis 1 reflects ancient cosmology, in which the Earth was flat, fixed and covered with a solid firmament
  • Genesis 1 accommodates this ancient worldview rather than waste time trying to teach modern science to an audience. Genesis was more concerned with declaring who created the universe, rather than obsess over mechanical details unintelligible to the original audience.
 One final reason for rejecting literalism or strong concordism is that both proceed on the assumption that it is referring to an account of material origins. OT scholars however have shown that there is good reason that the ancient Near Eastern world was more concerned with a functional ontology of creation, rather than material origins. In other words, the origin of order, structure and function was of primary concern. Accommodation of pre-scientific worldviews helps us understand the creation narrative with respect to its apparent endorsement of patently unscientific ideas such as a solid firmament. Only by grasping the difference between a material and functional ontology of creation will we finally grasp what the creation narratives are about, and why literalism, and strong concordism have nothing to say about how to interpret Genesis.

In Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, OT scholar John Walton notes:
To create is to bring something into existence that did not exist prior to the act of creation. Consequently, if we are to understand ancient ideas about creation we need to gain an understanding of ancient ideas regarding existence. This puts understanding the cosmic ontology of ancient peoples center stage. Modern cosmic ontology—our cosmic ontology—is primarily material, and the result is that when we think of the act of creation, we think mostly about the origins of matter in its various forms throughout the universe. This way of thinking is not the only ontological option, and I will propose that it is not the option that was current in the ancient cognitive environment…It is clear from the cosmological literature of the ancient Near East that order in the cosmos and the control of the functions of the cosmos were more prominent in the ancient thought world than any consideration of the material origins of the cosmos.[1]

This doesn’t mean that the ancient world had zero interest in material origins, but rather that their primary concern was the origin of order, structure and function. A survey of the ancient Near Eastern world tends to confirm this. Walton again:
  • The precosmic world was understood not as a world absent of matter but a world absent of function, order, diversity, and identity.
  • Depictions of the state of things before and after creation, between which the acts of creation serve as transition, focus on origins of function and order, and the verbs used to describe creation operate in the same semantic realm.
  • The things created in the related realms of cosmos and culture are functions, not objects.
  • In the context of creation, causes are entirely in the realm of the gods and are characterized by a teleological perspective that transcends and virtually ignores the material, physical, natural world.
  • Reality and existence in the ancient cognitive environment are best described as comprising function and order, not matter and objects.
  • The acts of creation were naming, separating, and temple building.
  • In the ancient world, something was created when it was given a function.
  • The functions of the cosmos and culture are all relative to people.
  • The functions of the ordered cosmos were defined first and foremost by the MES, which, unlike the cosmic waters, did not exist prior to the gods’ creative activity; on the other hand, these functions were not instituted by the gods.
  • The operational dichotomy was static (the MES) versus dynamic (the destinies).
  • Decreeing destinies was both functional in nature and at the same time an act of creation and rule.
  • Exercise of control over the destinies and the rule of the world, including both the gods and eventually humans, originates in the temple, which is ordained as the control room of the cosmos.
  • The mes that most frequently describe the functional cosmos—time, weather, and fertility—are generally portrayed as being organized and delegated by the gods.[2]
When we look at Genesis 1, we see that the six days naturally fall into two groups of three days:

Day 1: Separation of light from darkness

Day 2: Separation of waters above from waters below

Day 3a: Separation of dry land from waters

Day 3b: Appearance of vegetation on dry land

Day 4: Appointing of sun, moon and stars to separate day and night and mark time

Day 5: Appearance of birds in the air and sea creatures in the water

Day 6: Appearance of animals on the dry land

Day 6b: Appearance of humans

The existence of this structure alone should have been reason enough to consider whether reading Genesis 1 as a literal account of material origins was the correct way to read the narrative. What we see here is the creation of ‘domains’ in days 1-3 and domain inhabitants in days 4-6. The connection between vegetation and humans in days 3b and 6b may appear forced, but when we recognise that the ancient Hebrews were an agricultural people, this connection becomes meaningful. This is particularly emphasised in Gen 2:5-7 where the origins of humans and rain has a decidedly functional reason:
when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. [3]

Here we see two pre-creation problems: no wild vegetation and no cultured crops. The Divine solution is to provide rain (weather) and humans to cultivate the ground (agriculture). The emphasis is less here on the creation of the rain and humans, but on the functions that they perform.

I’ve referred earlier to the role of Genesis as a polemic, that is, a sustained criticism of existing pagan cosmologies.  YECs and OECs, by privileging a material account of creation ignore the fact that when one recognises the functional ontology of Genesis, the similarities and differences between Genesis and existing cosmologies become meaningful.
Absent in Genesis is any reference to humans being created as corvee labour for the gods, as one sees in Mesopotamian mythology. Rather:

The station of humanity in the cosmos as portrayed in Genesis 1 is, therefore, almost precisely opposite of the picture in Mesopotamian literature, where people are slaves of the gods and thus involved in helping the gods do their work. In Genesis, humanity is a partner in the work of ruling. Furthermore, people are given a role as partners because the functional nature of humanity is identified with its maleness and femaleness, both in the image of God…

The foregoing observations make it clear that Genesis 1 completely restructures the position and role of the participants on the cosmic stage. For instance, in Genesis, humanity is granted a role that is reminiscent of the role of some gods in Mesopotamian literature. In Enki and the World Order, Inanna complains that she has not received any control attributes to administer. In Inanna and Enki, she is given some. Compare this to the Genesis account, in which God transfers some control attributes to Adam and Eve by means of the image of God and the blessing, allowing them to decree destinies within the purview of these control attributes—thus, for instance, naming the animals (= decreeing the destinies?). Humanity is given a subordinate ruling responsibility, similar to the position delegated to the lower gods by the higher gods in Mesopotamia, a role that is eventually also delegated to kings. Thus, Genesis 1 bequeaths to humanity a dignity that is not attested in the rest of the ancient Near East. In Genesis, God is outside the cosmos, not inside or a part of it, and he has no origin. He is responsible for the origin of all the governing principles. Human beings are positioned as rulers in the cosmos, with all of the functions of the cosmos organized on their behalf. (Emphasis mine)[4]

Genesis demythologises the natural world, raises the dignity of humans from slave labour to the very image of God and places the creator outside the natural world. For the ancient Hebrews, the significance of this cannot be overestimated. A crude obsession with material origins completely misses this point.


Evolutionary Creationism in many ways is not the best way to describe how I and others read the creation narratives. Genesis makes no substantive references to material origins, which means that any attempt to reconcile the creation narratives with the natural world (literalism or strong concordism) is missing the point. Rather, the creation narratives:

  1. Describe the origin of functions such as time, weather and agriculture
  2. Are a polemic against ANE cosmology
Of significance is that this completely decouples the narratives from scientific accounts of the origin of the universe, which means that one’s views on the origin of the universe and how the diversity of life does not affect one’s theology of creation.

The question of the literality of Adam is a separate, but related issue. Certainly, comparative genomics and palaeoanthropology completely rule out the possibility of Adam and Eve being the sole ancestors of the human race given the lack of a sharp genetic bottleneck as one would expect from recent universal human descent from two people. However, a sensitive reading of Genesis 4 implies the existence of humans other than Adam, Eve and Cain. Certainly, the text never bothers to explain the origin of Cain’s wife and those whom he feared would kill him. Claims that these people are unnamed children of Adam and Eve represent a decidedly forced reading of the text. Therefore one can affirm a historical kernel to Gen 2-4 with Adam and Eve being the first people with whom God entered into a covenant relationship, rather than the literal ancestors of the human race.

[1] Walton J “Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology” (2011: Eisenbrauns) p, 8.
[2] ibid, 119–120.
[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ge 2:4–7.
[4] Walton. op cit, 177–178.