I Didn’t Come With A Label…

05 Mar

…at least I don’t think so. My mother never spoke of any kind of label affixed to me when I was born. Yet, we all insist on and persist in putting labels on people. Christians, like everybody else, are also fond of this. We have our own set of them.

Some of the Labels

It could be the big three: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Maybe it’s a denominational label: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Non-Denominational, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Methodist, Mainline, and so on. Or maybe it’s a doctrinal one: Orthodox, Liberal, Post-Liberal, Conservative, Post-Conservative, Fundamentalist, Heretic, etc. etc. Not to mention your theological labels: Calvinist, Armenian, Open Theist, etc. It could also be one of these words (whatever they might denote): Evangelical, Post-Evangelical, Missional, Emergent, Progressive, Biblical, Incarnational, Spiritual, Mystical, the list could go on.

But I didn’t come with a label. I came into this world with nothing and I leave with nothing.


Now it’s true, that labels of these sorts can be helpful, in a shorthand sort of way, in describing what one thinks or how one lives. Like saying, “I’m Lutheran.” That’s pretty simple.

The problem is that what one person thinks Lutheran means may be different than what another person thinks Lutheran means. Sure, we could have a debate and settle once and for all what Lutheran means. Maybe we could do that with each of the terms (and debates are out there). But even if we did decide, does the term ever describe a person? No.


More often, it seems, labels are used to make us feel better about ourselves. “Oh, he’s a liberal.” Now we know can put that person to one side, think we know them, and feel better that we’re not them. To know we’re on the “right” side and they are on the “wrong” side.

It’s a way for us to distance ourselves from the other and to exert a measure of control over them. It keeps us safe and comfortable.

This seems problematic to me. Does it to anyone else?

I didn’t come with a label and neither did you. Let’s keep that in mind.


John Walton on the Creation Act and Functional Ontology – Part Two

20 Feb

Last time, if you can remember that far back, we talked about how John Walton, in his work The Lost World of Genesis One, sees the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of ontology as functional. Namely, for something to exist it must be functional within the system.

Now that my head is back in the game (so to speak) this time we want to see how he makes the leap from the Ancient Near Eastern understanding to the Genesis story. This is actually where he spends his time for the bulk of the book. Today we’ll look at his examination of the first couple verses of Genesis. We’ll get into some of the Hebrew, but, as is his book, there is no technical understanding required to engage this subject. So, be not afraid!

Genesis 1:1 – Create

The Hebrew word used in the first verse of Genesis is the word bara. Walton examines this word as its used throughout the Old Testament to find its meaning. Being a verb, he examines the subjects that perform it, the objects it is performed upon, and contextual clues (related terms). He argues that while the evidence is not entirely conclusive, it nonetheless points in favor of a functional understanding.

Create as Functional?

The subject is always God, the objects never require a material understanding and often require a functional one, and the activity never uses any material substance in its performance. His conclusion is that bara is a divine activity (nothing new here) that creates something in functional terms rather than creating something material out of nothing (ex nihilo). (Ex nihilo as a theological construct he suggests finds support elsewhere, but not here.)

Genesis 1:2 – Formless and Void


Walton wants to understand the initial state of the creation story and see if there are parallels with other Ancient Near Eastern initial states. Finding these parallels provides evidence that the Genesis story holds a similar ontological perspective. To this end, he examines the terms which are typically translated as formless and void.

In examining the usage of the Hebrew words tohu and bohu he finds that these terms have nothing to do with material substance. He suggests that they rather deal with something that is “non-functional” or “unproductive”.

Cosmic Waters

The appearance of the cosmic waters in the second verse of Genesis, for Walton, adds to the idea that the pre-creation state was not without material. Many other Ancient Near Eastern stories include the presence of these cosmic waters, adding to the force of his argument. If the author had wanted to describe the origins of materials, then why start with the existence of waters? If the author wants to describe the origins of functions, then it makes sense the author would have a similar material state as other cosmogonies of the day.

It was Good

Adding support for a functional approach, he finds the clause “it was good” that occurs often in the chapter refers to the fact that something was now functional. This conclusion is drawn from an example given in the following chapter of Genesis where God says it is “not good” that man is alone. This is not good in the sense of non-functional, that is that man alone does not function in the system God setup.

Absence of Function?

He suggests this means that the pre-creation state of Genesis, like that of other Ancient Near Eastern stories, is one that has an absence of functions, not material. tohu and bohu point to a functionally non-existent situation. Even with the English renderings of formless and void, we can grasp the idea of without function rather than without material.

Next Time

We’ve only covered Walton’s examination of the opening couple of verses of Genesis. We’ll look at how he handles the first six days of creation next time and see if we can draw some tentative conclusions about how we ought to understand the Genesis story. But before we do, feel free to leave your thoughts on where we’ve come so far.


Russian Novels and Humanity or What I like about Dostoevsky & Tolstoy.

08 Jun

One thing I appreciate about Russian novels (and I’m thinking here of Tolstoy & Dostoevsky) is that they are real. They present realistic portraits of people, not one-dimensional flat characters. They take situations that people experience and make them understandable. Let me explain.

We often say to ourselves, upon hearing of something someone has done (usually horrific), “I can’t believe they did that!” by which we mean, “I don’t understand that person and I would never do that!” It seems that in order to understand them we have to either have a similar experience, or know the person so intimately that we can “experience” it ourselves.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have a way of making option two come to life for their readers. They force us to understand how people get to the point in their lives where they do the things they do (horrific or otherwise). By allowing the reader to experience this they can relate to other people better. In fact, the reader can, if they are open enough, begin to see how they themselves are not that far off from doing the same things they once said they did not understand and could not do.

Have you read these guys? What do you think? Here’s a few of their most popular works, each highly recommended.

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John Walton on the Creation Act and Functional Ontology – Part One

02 Jun

The Giant’s Chair, Natsworthy for SX7280

What does it mean for a chair to exist? A computer? A business? Does something exist merely when its material components exist? Can a chair can be said to exist when all of its parts have just come off the factory line, or do they need to be assembled and working before a chair exists?

Another Way to Understand Existence

Contrary to what the opening paragraph might suggest, this article is not a philosophical argument about a specific ontological position. John Walton, in his work The Lost World of Genesis One, suggests that existence can be understood in other ways than merely by material presence. That is to say, it is possible to understand that something’s existence is not necessarily based solely on the fact that its material is present. He suggests this, not to argue that we ought to revise our own materialist ontological assumptions (although a case might be made for that), it is instead to show that other possibilities exist, namely functional ontology. Existence can be understood in terms of functionality.

Ancient Understand Existence in terms of Functions

He argues that the ancients held to this sort of a functional ontology. For something to exist, it not only needs to have a material aspect, but more importantly, it needs to have a function. He argues persuasively in his second proposition, through the literature of the ancient near eastern peoples, that, for them, non-functioning things are non-existent. A barren landscape, to them, is non-existent land. Their creation stories deal with making the world a functioning place out of a non-functioning one.

What Does This Have To Do With Genesis?

This is extremely important in developing an understanding of Genesis. If all ancients held this view of existence, and for something to be created meant that something is given a function rather than given material substance (implying the material substance is required, but not part of the act of creation), then this could change our understanding of what Genesis is trying to convey. What if the act of creating is more literally understood as an act of making the world functional, rather than making its materials?

Next Time

We’ll examine how Walton proposes to make the leap from how non-Hebrew ancient near eastern people viewed creating to how Hebrew ancient near eastern people viewed creating through the evidence from Genesis.


C.S. Lewis, Myth, and Christ

28 Apr

So last time, if you can remember that far back, we talked about the connection between C.S. Lewis’s idea of myth and truth. Today I want to explore that connection in light of the fact that Christ described himself in the New Testament as “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.” So if Christ is the Truth, then logically there would be a connection to myth.

Christ and Myth?

At first this sounds ridiculous since we know Christ was a historical figure and not a mythical one. However, Lewis’s definition of myth did not allow for such a harsh dichotomy between historical and non-historical. He wanted, instead, to suggest the idea did not carry a necessary historical component at all. It seems, rather, that the connection shows that Christ is ultimate myth. For, since myth is truth communicated within reality, and Christ himself is described as the truth, then Christ is the ultimate communication of truth since he is embedded in reality (as a person, not simply a story). Lewis describes this as myth become fact.

Myth Became Fact

Lewis writes, in his article Myth Became Fact, “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history” (God in the Dock, p. 66. Italics his). While Lewis himself is referring to the stories and events surrounding Christ and the incarnation, I think it goes slightly further to include Christ himself as we have seen above. That is my own logical extension of what Lewis’s idea of myth implies, I’m not sure if Lewis himself would draw the same conclusion.

So, what does this mean?

For one, I think this deepens my understanding of Christ and his place within reality and his connection to it. I think it may also help us gain a deeper understanding of the Bible itself. I’m still thinking through all the implications of this, but I want to know what you think. So, what do you think it means?

This post is part of a series of posts on C.S. Lewis and his idea of Myth


Books I Directly Used (they go into more depth):