The Biblical Idea of Creation: Form and Function

If anyone has been reading this blog for any amount of time, it is probably clear that one’s cosmology, how one looks at creation, one’s world view, is prior to one’s interpretation of Scripture. If this is the case, then one needs to take a good look at one’s cosmology, and see what it is, and from where one got it. From there we must begin the long process of adapting a truly biblical world view and cosmology so that we can be true to Scripture and not our own grid that selects what we see in Scripture, and discards notions that may seem strange to our way of thinking when in fact they are true.

The very basic cosmological idea is the idea of creation. I have been teaching creation all my professional life. It is often here at the beginning of our OT sequence in Genesis 1 and 2 that students begin to shed their modern western questions and forms of thinking. Recently a friend and former student sent me a wonderful little book titled “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John Walton (IVP). It admirably brings together much of the scholarship in OT theology on creation over the last 40 years or so. This scholarship is focused on how the ancients thought and what the ancient texts are actually saying, rather than looking at the texts through our cultural eyeglasses.

For us in our culture, since the Enlightenment, and particularly since the advent of the theory of evolution, the whole of western thinking has shifted to the question of origins specifically from a material point of view. The nagging question is where did material come from? Since the culture has become materialistic, this is completely understandable. The Church has joined this viewpoint, partly in that it had to respond to the challenge of evolution, and naturally went to the ancient texts to prove specifically that God created matter, and it was assumed that this was the primary aim of Genesis 1.

Now, we must say here at the outset that the Bible teaches us that God created matter. Matter is not eternal like the pagans thought. The question before us is whether Genesis 1 is specifically teaching us that God created matter (which every Hebrew would know anyways), or if it is trying to tell us something else that we in our culture, because of the questions we have been asking or failing to ask, have missed. Walton tells us that the latter is the case, and I am certain he is right.

What Walton is telling us is that Genesis One is displaying how the cosmos was created functionally, not materially. In other words, the ancients were very concerned with how everything got its form and function, not creatio ex nihilo (how something came from nothing). Something was considered to have existence not because of its material, but because it has received a certain form and function.

To help us with this, let us consider any beautiful thing in creation, whether a flower, or the beauty of a human person. What makes beautiful things beautiful is not the material with which they are made, but how the material takes shape and fulfills specific functions. The ancients were not interested in the material per se or where it came from (they knew that it came from God, and there is not much more one can say about this), but in what makes things what they are. For instance, when we take apart a human being to its basic parts all the way down to cells and basic matter, what we have is something absolutely gross. The Hebrews would consider this mass of cells non-being for it has no form or function. It is chaos.

We are going to spend some time in the creation narratives to see how this fundamental assumption can completely remake the way we look at the ancient texts, and indeed, the world we live in.

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