Is Genesis 1 only about functional creation?
Analyzing the claims of Old Testament professor John H. Walton
Published: 16 May 2020 (GMT+10)
Today’s feedback deals with the eccentric claims of Old Testament scholar John H. Walton, who maintains that Genesis 1 does not describe God’s creation of material things. CMI’s Keaton Halley responds to the following inquiry directed to him.
I came across your article on Walton’s latest book too late to comment, but there is an aspect of Walton’s approach that needs to be further considered and criticized. It is exemplified in his view that Genesis is “exclusively about functional origins, making absolutely no reference to material origins.”
This is a distinction without a difference. He has attempted, perhaps unwittingly, to make God communicate two ontologies at once. One of the features of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it establishes a unified ontology of relationship: and that demonstrated by God moving and working in creating within the continuous ontology of our being.
The ‘means’ of creation, the ‘how’, reveals the ‘why’. They cannot be sundered. If there is a different real ‘how’ (ie materialistic evolution), then the ‘why’ is different. God does not make several ontologies each with a different demonstration of what is real, he’s made one and demonstrated a unified reality of his will, action, creation and it’s personal and moral significance.
If evolution really happened, then we are an assembly of particles explicable in material terms for whom there is no significance beyond particles. Thus there is no objective moral truth, only personal (or group power) preference.
The philosophical incoherence of the compromised world that Walton espouses, along with [N.T.] Wright and many others, destroys the unified ontology and theology of Genesis 1 and 2 being about God creating a real world for real fellowship between him and man. … thus the ‘days’ are of critical importance.
Keaton Halley of CMI–US replies:
Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this. We have published a number of responses to John Walton, many of which have briefly touched on his ideas about functional creation. Here are some of the things we have written already, which you may find helpful.
But I agree that Walton’s specific claims about functional creation deserve a more extensive treatment. So here goes.
What does Walton mean by functional ontology and functional creation?
First, let’s make sure we have an accurate understanding of Walton’s claims. I would not call his contrast between functional creation and material creation a “distinction without a difference.” Walton says that cultures of the ancient Near East (ANE) conceived of ‘existence’ very differently than those of us who have been influenced by modern ways of thinking. That is, he claims there is a difference in our concepts of ontology (what it means to exist). Walton says we moderns, who have been influenced by centuries of Hellenistic and Enlightenment ideas, think that something exists if it is a material object with “material properties that can be detected by the senses.”1 By contrast, he says, “cosmic ontology in the ancient world was a functional ontology—that is, everything exists by virtue of its having been assigned a function and given a role in the ordered cosmos.”2
Applying this to Genesis 1, Walton says that God’s creative work is really about assigning functions, not making material things. In this view, God brings it about that the cosmos is ordered and prepared “to function as sacred space … for people in God’s image.”3 Walton clarifies that these are not functions that serve God or nature, but “the focus of the designed functions is … on humanity.”4 So, when God made the greater light according to Genesis 1:16, He was assigning it a role that “has nothing to do with the sun functioning as a burning ball of gas”, but has to do with the sun’s service as a light-giver and time-keeper for image-bearing man.5
Walton argues that the functions described by Days 1–3 are, respectively: time, weather, and food, and that Days 4–6 describe the “functionaries” which carry out these functions or their own functions. One might be tempted to think, therefore, that Walton believes Genesis 1 describes the actual beginning of time, weather, food, and other functions, or at least the actual beginning of humanity so that these functions could relate to them. But, actually, Walton’s view is even more radical. He believes that mankind was already present and had experiences with time, weather, and food even before Creation Week. So, it is a little challenging to understand what Walton means when he says that God’s creative acts were to assign these functions. He claims that the only real differences caused by Creation Week were that humanity was now in God’s image and that God now indwelt the cosmos as His cosmic temple,6 and that the cosmos now began to function as “sacred space.”7 Consequently, I take Walton to mean that, in Genesis 1, God declared that these previously operating functions would now take on a sacred role, to serve the needs of the people newly designated as His image-bearers.
Walton offers an analogy for his understanding of Genesis 1—the adoption of a new vision and mission statement by a school. He says that the school could have been already been up and running in its present form for decades, and the new statement does not change how the school operates. “But it articulates a purpose and identity that may not have been realized or present before and proclaims that as its purpose. Genesis 1 is doing something similar.”8
So, Walton’s proposal is that Genesis 1 has nothing to do with God manufacturing or manipulating any physical object, but is about God assigning the world a new identity—namely, to serve purposes related to the ordered lives of His image-bearers. Walton insists that God’s creative work had no effect on anything material, so that one could not detect it by looking at the physical world before and after Creation Week. In material terms, it looked the same before and after. To think that material things were brought into existence during those six days, Walton says, is to impose our material ontology on Genesis 1, and to fail to understand that functional creation was the author’s true intent.
Burden of proof
Of course, this is radically different from the way Genesis 1 has been historically understood. The one making a claim carries the burden of proof, so Walton must supply adequate evidence for his assertions. It would not be enough for him to show that functions are highlighted or even emphasized in Genesis 1. His burden is to show that the weight of evidence favors the view that every creative act only envisions an assignment of functions, and that these never entail changes to the material world.
But the arguments Walton has offered are insufficient to support that burden. Furthermore, I think it can be demonstrated that Genesis 1 clearly does envisage changes to the material world. Below I will first critique the arguments Walton makes in support of the functional creation view, and then I will present a few additional problems with his position.
Did the ANE have a functional ontology?
Walton’s case for interpreting Genesis 1 as a functional account of origins depends on his claim that it is common in ANE texts to find this functional view of existence. But the texts he cites do not clearly support this claim, and often suggest the opposite.
For example, Walton reproduces a passage from Egyptian Papyrus Insinger, which includes this list of things said to be created by a male deity.
He created light and darkness in which is every creature.
He created the earth, begetting millions, swallowing (them) up and begetting again.
He created day, month, and year through the commands of the lord of command.
He created summer and winter through the rising and setting of Sothis.
He created food before those who are alive, the wonder of the fields.
He created the constellations of those that are in the sky, so that those on earth should learn them.
He created sweet water in it which all the lands desire.
He created the breath in the egg though there is no access to it.
He created birth in every womb from the semen which they receive.
He created sinews and bones out of the same semen.
He created coming and going in the whole earth through the trembling of the ground.
He created sleep to end weariness, waking for looking after food.
He created remedies to end illness, wine to end affliction.
He created the dream to show the way to the dreamer in his blindness.
He created life and death before him for the torment of the impious man.
He created wealth for truthfulness, poverty for falsehood.
He created work for the stupid man, food for the common man.
He created the succession of generations so as to make them live.9
From this, Walton concludes, “Examples such as this demonstrate that, across all periods, in Egypt the components of the real world convey a functional view of reality, not a material view”.10 But one wonders how Walton arrived at this conclusion. He offers no specific analysis of this text to demonstrate that all of these created things are merely functional and none are material. Granted, it is obvious that not every item in the list is a material object. But surely some are. Sinews and bones, for example, are objects. Of course, Walton could always speculate that the author conceived of a bone in terms of its functions—a giver-of-firmness to structure the body, perhaps. But it is doubtful that bones were defined in this way, since a bone was not thought to cease existing if it became detached from the body and no longer served its original function. This is significant because even one clear-case example of an item not defined purely by its functions is sufficient to demonstrate that the ANE view of existence was not exclusively function-based.
Furthermore, Walton’s conclusion treats the functional and material views as though these are stark alternatives. But these categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.11 Walton does at times acknowledge the possibility that an item could be both material and functional, but then the onus is on him not just to find functions but to rule out materials. Unfortunately for Walton, the above list includes ambiguous items, like food. It may be that, in this context, food was conceived of as a material object, or it may have been intended as a synonym for sustenance, or both ideas may be loaded into the term (food as a material sustenance-giver). Since the context is too vague to make a definitive judgment, this item does not support Walton’s conclusion that the list is exclusively about functional creation.
In addition, Walton may be trying to exploit the fact that this text describes many functions performed by the created things. But having a function is not the same as being defined by a function. For example, it is likely that the author conceived of wine as a tangible object which can serve the purpose (function) of ending affliction. Wine is not just a bundle of functions, but an object that has functions. It doesn’t cease to be wine when it sits on a shelf and fails to quench a man’s thirst or alleviate his suffering, so it is not strictly defined by the functions it performs.
Walton should not assume that the functions ascribed to the non-material items on the list support his view either. For instance, according to the text, wealth was created to bless truth-tellers, in contrast to poverty which was created to punish liars. But were wealth and poverty thought to be defined by these roles? That seems highly doubtful.12 More likely, wealth and poverty were defined by the total worth of one’s possessions—the same way we define these terms today. If Walton should claim that this is also a functional way to conceive of wealth and poverty, then so be it, but this would mean that Walton must be mistaken to claim that we have a material ontology today, since we would then be using the same function-based definitions as the ancients. Nevertheless, I would argue that wealth is not defined so much by what it does or by what role it plays in society, but by what it is (a condition). This same is true of all the non-tangible items on the list, such as darkness (a condition), a month (a unit of time), summer (a season), birth (an experience), coming and going (activities), a dream (an experience), work (an activity), and the succession of generations (a process). None of these items require a functional ontology, and Walton has certainly not shown that they were so understood.
Another passage that Walton cites comes from a document about the founding of the city of Eridu. In this portion, the setting is first given before various creative acts are described.
No holy house, no house of the gods, had been built in a pure place;
No reed had come forth, no tree had been created;
No brick had been laid, no brickmold had been created;
No house had been built, no city had been created;
No city had been built, no settlement had been founded;
Nippur had not been built, Ekur had not been created;
Uruk had not been built, Eanna had not been created;
The depths had not been built, Eridu had not been created;
No holy house, no house of the gods, no dwelling for them had been created.
All the world was sea,
The spring in the midst of the sea was only a channel,
Then Eridu was built, Esagila was created.13
The language used here clearly refers to material activity. The text is not merely speaking of temples and cities that were yet to function as operational religious and social centers. Rather, the explicit references are to construction and other actions involving materials. It speaks of building, laying bricks, and so forth. It is baffling that Walton can read texts like this and come away thinking they support a functional ontology.
Several scholars familiar with the ANE literature have also taken issue with Walton’s claims about functional vs. material ontology. One example is the late Noel Weeks, who said,
“I can give two instances, which, it seems to me, point to an ability to conceptualize existence without function. One is the test that was put to the god Marduk where he had to show the ability to destroy a constellation and then recreate it, both by simply speaking.[ref.] Surely the point here is the existence of the constellation rather than its function. The second is the drunken competition between the gods Ninmah and Enki where the test is whether one can create a human so deformed or restricted that the other cannot assign a role to that specimen of humanity.[ref.] Surely here there is a conceptual distinction between existence and function.”14
Likewise, Richard Averbeck cautioned,
“Driving a wedge between material creation as over against giving order to the cosmos by assigning functions or roles is a false dichotomy that cannot bear the weight of the text. And this does not stand up under scrutiny in ANE creation accounts either. … The point is that material creation was of great concern in the ANE as well as in ancient Israel.”15
Hebrew verb bara (“create”)
Turning to the biblical text, Walton also devotes a good deal of space to an analysis of the Hebrew verb bara and claims that it supports his functional interpretation. At times, he makes it sound as though bara itself has an inherently function-oriented meaning, as when he says, “The nature of the governing verb (bārā’, “create”) is functional.”16 But elsewhere he accurately says that the term itself just means “to bring something into existence.”17 So, the way he reasons that bara involves functional creation is that, first, he says the ANE had a functional view of what it means to bring something into existence. I have already critiqued this claim above. Second, Walton lists every direct object of bara in the Old Testament (see Walton’s table reproduced below) and concludes,
“grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the text is objectifying them. … no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, though many are ambiguous.[ref.] In contrast, a large percentage of the contexts require a functional understanding.”18
However, much like we saw with the ANE texts above, Walton has a remarkable ability to draw conclusions opposite to the evidence he presents. The majority of instances in his list are easily identified as material objects, like the heavens and the earth, stars, creatures, and mankind. But I see no reason to think that any object of bara must be functionally defined, including the non-material ones. Once again, Walton’s categories are false alternatives. They are inadequate to account for the range of things that can be created. For example, in Isaiah 45 the objects of bara include darkness and calamity—both created by God. These are not defined as material objects, but neither are they defined functionally (by operations they perform or roles they play in society). They are circumstances, which God creates when He causes those circumstances to occur. Darkness is created when light actually goes away, not when God proclaims the purposes of darkness and gives it a new identity. Otherwise, the point of the passage would be lost that God is taking credit for the things people actually experience in the real world. So, contrary to Walton, none of the objects of bara require a functional ontology, while some explicitly defy it.
Does creation begin with a non-functional world?
Walton also maintains that Genesis 1:1 is not the first event which precedes all the other events in the chapter. He says that it is an introductory statement that summarizes the activity of the entire seven-day period. Consequently, he believes verse 2 discloses the setting prior to God’s creative work, and begins with matter already in existence. Walton claims this is meant to describe a non-functional state of affairs rather than the absence of material objects. Therefore, he says, creation involves assigning functions, not making material things.
I will not go to great lengths to critique this argument here, but there are numerous reasons to reject this reading. One problem is that it makes little sense for verse 2 to begin with the conjunction “and” (Hebrew waw) if verse 1 is a summary.19 Vern Poythress has offered additional arguments against the summary view in a helpful paper that defends Genesis 1:1 as the first event.20 If this is correct, then verse 1 is about the creation of the universe from nothing (which involves material creation), and verse 2 is not describing a situation prior to any creative work, but a circumstance after the work of creation had already begun.
Creation Days—was the material world unaffected?
Another serious test for Walton’s view is whether it can make sense of the details given on each day of Creation Week. In various writings, Walton examines those details and concludes that none of the days clearly involve material creation. Dismantling each of his arguments would require more space than is possible here, so I will merely explore Day 3 as a test case.
Walton mentions that, on Day 3, Genesis describes the water being gathered, the dry land appearing, and the land producing vegetation. Amazingly, again Walton arrives at the opposite conclusion to what one would expect, saying, “No new material objects are formed on day 3.”21 Furthermore, this alleged lack of material creation is used to support his broader claim that someone observing “the material cosmos” during Creation Week “would not have seen anything different happening.”22 These creative acts allegedly caused no material changes whatsoever.
On the contrary, the face-value reading is that the waters were materially repositioned to form seas for the first time. The language about “gathering” into “one place” is unambiguously physical language. It’s hard to even imagine what else this could mean if it does not describe the rearrangement of material things. The earthy material was likewise repositioned with respect to the water to become exposed as dry land for the first time. Plants also sprouted, involving material growth. “The earth brought forth vegetation” as a result of God’s command (Genesis 1:12). If plants are simply receiving a new identity as food-for-image-bearers, it is quite confusing that such material-oriented verbs like sprouting and bringing forth are used.
About the only support Walton gives for his claim that no new material objects are formed on Day 3 is to point out that the dry land is only said to appear and, “therefore,” Walton says, “it already exists”.23 But this is insufficient to establish his point. The landmass called earth previously existed, but it was formerly underwater. It did not become “dry land” until the water subsided and exposed it. If dry land was not present before this event, and it was present afterward, it is incorrect to say that the dry land already existed or that no material change was required.
Perhaps Walton can get around all this by admitting that Day 3 is describing material events, but then claiming that they are not one-time events or the first instances of any events—only recurring processes. This may, in fact, be his understanding. After all, he compares the appearance of dry land on Day 3 to Egyptian myths in which the emergence of a primeval hillock “reflects the yearly reality of the fertile soil emerging in the aftermath of the inundation of the Nile.”24 Also, he says, “From a functional perspective, the soil, the water, and the principle of seed-bearing are all very much related as essential to the production of food.”25
But if Walton’s view is that Day 3 only refers to recurring processes related to food, this goes against the grain of the text as well. God named the dry land “Earth” because it was newly made. The assigning of a name does not seem appropriate if God was commanding fertile soil to keep emerging again and again, after every episode of rain or flood, as it had already been doing for some time. Also, the waters were gathered to become “Seas”, which are not connected to plant growth. If this day were all about food, the emphasis on the formation of seas would be out of place. It is far more consistent with the context to understand that the formation of land, seas, and plants occurred by material changes that world underwent for the first time.
There are many other difficulties with Walton’s functional creation view, a few of which I will mention in brief.
Naming—not the same as creating
Walton claims that assigning a name in the ANE was “a significant part of something’s existence, and therefore of its creation.”26 If so, why are things repeatedly said to exist before they are given a name? When Adam named the animals and called his wife “Eve”, for example, all were acknowledged to exist before they received their names. So, more likely, naming was loosely associated with a thing’s origin because so often a name is given to something when it is new. But unnamed things were still thought to exist.
OT references to creation
The Old Testament is filled with references to creation, some of which articulate the concept in ways that cause problems for Walton’s view. A sampling includes Psalm 102:25: “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.” This verse describes the creation of the universe using metaphors of construction and craftsmanship or artistry, which suits a material view much better than a functional view.
Another passage is Proverbs 8:22–31, which personifies wisdom as a woman who tells of her existence prior to creation. The creation language used undoubtedly includes effects on the material realm. Mountains are shaped (v. 25) and the sea is constrained from encroaching on the land (v. 29). Prior to creation there is an absence of hills (v. 25) and dust (v. 26). It is outlandish to think that hills and dust were only thought to exist because of some function they performed (what were those exactly?), rather than because they were objects that could be experienced through the senses.
NT references to creation
Finally, Walton admits that the New Testament writers affirmed creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing).27 Passages such as John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16–17; and Hebrews 11:3 are quite clear about this. But the reason the NT authors believed this is because their thinking was shaped by the OT. Walton cannot affirm that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was derived from Genesis because, according to him, the concept is not to be found there. Yet the NT passages about creation repeatedly allude to Genesis. For example, they often speak of creation by God’s spoken command or word (e.g., John 1:1), an idea which is connected to the “Let there be” refrain of Genesis 1. So, the NT writers were not advancing creation ex nihilo as a new idea. They were reflecting truths already revealed in Genesis.
The way I see it, Walton’s functional creation view is confronted by insurmountable difficulties. Unfortunately, despite the above problems many theistic evolutionists have latched onto Walton’s functional creation view since it purports to remove the contradictions between Genesis and evolution. Playing off a line from Richard Dawkins, one such writer even claimed that “Walton’s book helped me become a biblically fulfilled evolutionary creationist.”28 But, to mix metaphors, these theistic evolutionists have hitched their wagons to a sinking ship. It is high time the ship be abandoned.
Table 1: Comprehensive list of the objects of the Hebrew verb bara (“create”). Reproduced from Walton, J.H., The Lost World of Genesis One, pp. 40–41.
|Gen 1:1||heavens and earth|
|Gen 1:21||creatures of the sea|
|Gen 1:27||people||male and female|
|Gen 1:27 (2)||people||in his image|
|Gen 2:4||heavens and earth|
|Gen 5:1||people||likeness of God|
|Gen 5:2||people||male and female|
|Ex 34:10||wonders||parallel to asa (made/did)|
|Num 16:30||something new (debatable)||earth swallowing rebels|
|Ps 51:10||pure heart|
|Ps 89:12||north and south|
|Ps 89:47||people||for futility|
|Ps 102:18||people not yet created||to praise the Lord|
|Ps 104:30||creatures||renewing the face of the earth|
|Ps 148:5||celestial inhabitants||to praise the Lord|
|Is 4:5||cloud of smoke|
|Is 40:26||starry host||called by my name, kept track of|
|Is 40:28||ends of the earth|
|Is 41:20||rivers flowing in a desert||to meet the needs of his people|
|Is 42:5||heavens||stretched out|
|Is 43:1||Jacob||= Israel|
|Is 43:7||everyone called by my name||for my glory|
|Is 45:7||darkness||parallel to forming light|
|Is 45:7||disaster||parallel to bringing prosperity|
|Is 45:8||heavens and earth||to produce salvation and righteousness|
|Is 45:18||earth||did not create it to be (tohu)|
|Is 45:18||heavens||to be inhabited|
|Is 48:7||new things, hidden things|
|Is 54:16||blacksmith||to forge a weapon|
|Is 54:16||destroyer||to work havoc|
|Is 65:17||new heavens and new earth|
|Is 65:18||new heavens and new earth|
|Is 65:18||Jerusalem||to be a delight|
|Jer 31:22||a new thing||woman to surround man|
|Ezek 28:13||king of Tyre|
|Ezek 28:15||king of Tyre|
|Mal 2:10||covenant people|
References and notes
- Walton, J.H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, p. 23, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 2011. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 24, emphasis in original. Return to text.
- Walton, J.H., Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds, Biologos.org, 3 April 2015. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 170. Return to text.
- Ref. 3. Return to text.
- Walton, J.H., The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 96, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2009. Return to text.
- Ref. 3. Return to text.
- Ref. 3. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 39. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 39. Return to text.
- Immaterial substances (like souls, angels, and God Himself) would qualify as another category. Since I believe in such things, it is a misdiagnosis to label my ontology as a material one. Return to text.
- Surely, the text is speaking proverbially. It’s not as though the author thought a wealthy liar was an impossible contradiction in terms. Rather, he meant that liars often come to poverty as part of a divine plan. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 108. Return to text.
- Weeks, N.K., The Bible and the “Universal” Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton, WTJ 78:11, 2016. Return to text.
- Averbeck, R., The Lost World of Adam and Eve: A Review Essay, Themelios 40(2):235, 2015. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 96. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 132. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 41. Return to text.
- Copan, P., and Craig, W.L., Creation out of Nothing, p. 42, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2004. Return to text.
- Poythress, V.S., Genesis 1:1 is the first event, not a summary, WTJ 79:97–121, 2017. Return to text.
- Ref. 3. Return to text.
- Ref. 3. Return to text.
- Ref. 3. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 57. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 57. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 29. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 96. Return to text.
- Applegate, K. and Stump, J.B. (eds.), How I Changed My Mind About Evolution, p. 118, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2016. Return to text.