According to USTO, understanding the Bible on origins requires an understanding of the broader Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought-context. This method has been championed at length by one of the contributors, John Walton, in his other writings. This method is related to his view of the authority in the Bible. In USTO, Walton and his colleagues write that, in the Bible, God has vested authority in the human authors. Consequently, “the message of the author carries the authority of God.” But also: “our only access to the message is through the human author” (10).
But where does the Bible teach this about itself? Shouldn’t the Bible be our starting point for how we read and understand the Bible? This misstep has massive implications. The opening chapters of Genesis are treated as if they are any other ANE text. They are treated as human writings bearing a divine message, rather than as writings inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the rest of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21). As a consequence, instead of going to the rest of Scripture for illumination on points requiring explanation, USTO goes to the ANE context.
This approach compromises on what we call the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130). The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in ANE studies or the Hebrew language. In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not. Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.
If we heed USTO, Christians today need background in ANE studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1. In fact, with this approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark. To the contrary, there is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light. Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16. However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage. Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it. It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.
Creation Without Compromise has previously featured work done by the late Dr. Noel Weeks on John Walton’s views of biblical background:
The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)
Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)
The work of Dr. Weeks goes into much more detail and I commend it to you for your further study.
USTO’s Interpretation of Genesis
This brings us into a more detailed consideration of the arguments for how to understand the Genesis account of origins. USTO argues that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology. In the ANE thought-context, things comes into existence by reason of their function. Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use (102).
We should note the false dilemma presented between material and functional. Genesis could be working with both categories. In fact, if we maintain the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might well be our conclusion. Recognizing the functionality of what is described in Genesis 1 does not rule out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days. Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession. God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”
Related to the foregoing false dilemma, USTO overstates its case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’. They argue that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature: “The verb bara’ does not intrinsically refer to materiality….” (106). However, readers should know this is a disputed claim. This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:
Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13). More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18; 51:10; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.). (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).
In fact, NIDOTTE states that John Walton’s view (which is what we encounter in USTO) is “somewhat misleading.”