Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1)

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As the book clubs have been working through The Lost World of Genesis One and as people have been reading the associated blogs on the BioLogos site, as well as possibly other blogs and reviews, one question emerges more often and more urgently than any other. It has been at the core of negative reviews and critiques of my position, and it has been held as a reservation for many who are otherwise positively inclined:

Why can’t the account of creation account in Genesis 1 be both functional and material?

Before we address this question, it would be of interest to explore what drives this question. I can think of several possibilities, and there are probably more.

1. We feel a need for Genesis 1 to address the making of things or the material world because this is an important doctrine for Scripture to address.

2. We feel a need for Genesis 1 to address the making of things because we need to counter the atheistic worldview of how the cosmos came into being.

3. We view the world through a post–Enlightenment, western civilization lens which sees the material as most important, so we assume God would be addressing that in Genesis 1.

4. We are most comfortable with traditional ways of understanding Genesis 1 as a material account. 

5. We feel that the Bible provides not only revelation about God but revelation about our world, so we look for scientific and historical information in its pages.

6. We have studied the text with this question in mind and come to different conclusions. 

Any or all of these are possible; some could be held simultaneously, and some may be held subconsciously. Different people will have different reasons for wanting Genesis 1 to be about both material and functional origins, but it is worthwhile to identify those reasons.

In this post, I am going to offer four points that address hurdles that people have encountered. Then, in the next, I will identify four reasons why the origins account of Genesis 1-2 should be considered an origins account pertaining to function and order, rather than material origins, and why it should not be considered “both/and.” As an opening caveat, it must be admitted that, hypothetically, it could be both. But we cannot afford to focus on what the text could be. In a biblical narrative we are looking for the focus that the author intends to incorporate into the text. Any consideration of the material aspects of the account has to be supported by the evidence of the text.

Hurdles people encounter in understanding the concept of functional origins

1.Materialistic presuppositions inherent in our culture. It is very difficult to resist encumbering the text with our modern issues, our pressing questions, and our worldview. We are intractably materialistic in how we think. We also have to acknowledge how extremely difficult it is for our modern minds to even begin to grasp the concept of an order/function-focused origins account. It makes no sense because it does not yield to western/modern logic. If we try to reason through it and defend it with western-style thinking, we are bound to remain confused. We cannot even resort to the logic of classical Greek thinking—that too is very different from what is found in the world of the ancient Israelites. In fact, people who come from or work in non-western cultures generally find it easier to grasp a function/order understanding.

2.Material Objects non-functioning. Some have contended that the account must be both material and functional because it makes no sense for material objects not to be functioning or because making something to function requires a material object on which to act. People question if the celestial bodies are simply sitting there inert or if animals are in a comatose state. This sort of misunderstanding about what God is doing as he makes things functional (see point 3) oftens leads to a misrepresentation of my views. The activity of giving order and function to creation that God performs in Genesis 1 is not possible to define materially, naturally, or scientifically. The work of the six days is to order the cosmos as sacred space and to prepare it to function as sacred space (“it was good”) for people in God’s image. It has nothing to do with the sun functioning as a burning ball of gas or the animals hunting for food or giving birth to their young. The cosmos can only function as sacred space once God has inhabited it and people in his image are there. God is declaring purpose for the cosmos as an ordered space for people and as sacred space where he will dwell. This is what defines the divine activity.

3.What happened in the seven days? What did God do? Another hurdle that some people have to viewing the text functionally is that they can’t picture what actually happened in the seven days. The answer is: the cosmos began functioning as sacred space. Someone whose only interest was the material cosmos would not have seen anything different happening. But with the completion of the seven days, what is now happening has a newly defined reason and purpose—decreed by God. It all has a new identity. This new identification was associated with seven 24-hour days just as the inauguration of the temple was. A good example of this can be found in the way we use a vision statement or a mission statement for institutions. Recently Wheaton Graduate School inaugurated a vision statement and a mission statement. The graduate school has been in existence for many decades and has had its present shape and programs for a number of years. Adopting and promoting a vision and mission statement will not change how the institution 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. It is articulating a purpose through a mission statement (people living out their designated role as the image of God) and a vision statement (seeing the world around us as sacred space where God is living among his people and being in relationship with them). It provides the opportunity for people to have an expanded view of the program and to understand the program in ways that they have not previously been able to do. This is true for the ancient Israelites who are being drawn out of ancient Near Eastern cultural ways of thinking, but it can also be true for us as readers of Scripture as we are drawn out of our common cultural ideas. Finally, it is also an accurate description of what temple inaugurations do in the ancient world and the Bible.

4.The importance of ex nihilo. Some believe that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in material terms lest we forfeit the important doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This is not true. The first observation to be made is that other passages in the Bible affirm God as Creator of the material world and either imply or affirm that creation happened ex nihilo. Secondly, the initial formulation of the theology of ex nihilo creation did not have to do with the material world. Rather, it served as the way to argue against Platonic assertions about the eternal existence of the soul. The opposite position, that eventually won consensus in the church, was that the soul is created “out of nothing” when each person comes into existence. It was only much later that the term was applied to the material cosmos. Consequently we can conclude that even though church doctrine in recent centuries has focused on the importance of material creation ex nihilo, it would not be appropriate to drive that doctrine back into the world of the Old Testament. That was not a big issue in the ancient world. Consequently, we need to recognize that there is no question that God is the one who created the material cosmos, and at some point at the beginning of that process he did it out of nothing. Other biblical passages confirm this, as do I—it is essential theology. So we don’t need to try to make this important theological point (God’s non-contingency) with Genesis 1, if this is not an issue it intended to address. After all, just because we have an origins text in Genesis 1 doesn’t mean that it has to offer a comprehensive account of everything that God did at every level. We need to inquire as to what aspects of origins Genesis 1 intends to address.

Next Friday I will discuss four reasons why the origins account of Genesis 1-2 pertains exclusively to function and order rather than to material origins, and why it should not be considered “both/and.”




Walton, John. "Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1)" N.p., 3 Apr. 2015. Web. 21 January 2019.


Walton, J. (2015, April 3). Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1)
Retrieved January 21, 2019, from /blogs/archive/material-or-function-in-genesis-1-john-walton-responds-part-1

About the Author

John Walton

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his popular book, The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP Academic, 2009). He is also co-author of Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective (IVP Academic, 2018).

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