In this book I propose that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture. In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society. In theory, this way of thinking could result in something being included in the "existent" category in a material way, but still considered in the "non-existent" category in functional terms ... In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties. Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not "exist" if it has not become functional ... Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist. Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is,what stage is defined as "creation"? [John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL, 2009), 24-5]
Q: Why can't Genesis 1 be both functional and material?
A: Theoretically it could be both. But assuming that we simply must have a material account if we are going to say anything meaningful is cultural imperialism. We cannot demand that the text speaks to us in our terms. Just as we cannot demand a material account, we cannot assume a material account just because that is most natural to us and answers the questions we most desire to ask. We must look to the text to inform us of its perspective. In my judgment, there is little in the text that commends it as a material account and much that speaks against it. (Ibid., 170)
On the issue of origins, John Walton has came up with a variant reading of the Genesis creation account, one which he claims is the natural reading of the text as interpreted in its ANE (Ancient Near-East) context. Whereas others have interpreted the Genesis account either as literal, analogical, or framework, Walton claims that the actual interpretation of the Genesis account is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the material creation. Rather, it depicts the inauguration of the cosmic-temple of the world, the world's "functional ontology" rather than its "material ontology." Walton has one major argument to support his thesis: Ancient cosmology, and Genesis, thinks in terms of function not matter. But does his thesis actually stand up to scrutiny?
I have posted on the issue of ancient cosmologies before. As I have said, there is a certain idea of the ANE as one of general backwardness, in the sense of the ancients creating myths to explain the world, myths which are not based on true transcendental truths but just created to explain what they had experienced. Now, at least some historians will hasten to add that the ancients do believe those myths to be in fact true, but it only compounds the problem of people creating fiction, and then believing the fiction they have just created to be true. The only religion that fits this idea of "myth" is Scientology. Other religions claim some measure of transcendentality, whether they be true or not is besides the point as to how they see their claims as squaring with reality.
Right from the start therefore, there is prima facie evidence to distrust any sort of "ANE context" that supposedly changes the teaching of the Genesis account that has been held to for most of the history of the church. We agree that the modern world is very much different from the pre-modern world, such that the difference between Europe in the 15th century to the modern world is much much greater than the difference between that 15th century Europe and the ANE, but just because the modern world is different does not necessarily means our understanding of what constitutes a plain reading is suspect; one has to prove and not merely assert a qualitative hermeneutical difference between ancient and modern times, and not assume that just because there is a real qualitative difference between ancient and modern times. In fact, since ANE studies are most modern, one has to wonder which view is actually imposing an alien hermeneutic on the text. Josephus for example is no modern person, yet his interpretation of Genesis sounds nothing like the supposed "ANE contextual" interpretation that those like Walton proposes. Surely Walton isn't going to accuse Josephus of engaging in "cultural imperialism"?!
So now we go into Walton's argument itself. Walton claims that the Genesis account is about functional existence, not material existence. Creation is all about purpose, not just the bare fact of a thing existing. First of all, I really want to know where this language of "functional ontology" comes from. The goal or purpose of a thing is its teleology, not its ontology. "Ontology" is the nature of a thing, what a thing IS. To speak about a "functional ontology" seems to me to be a conflation of separate philosophical concepts. If Walton has in mind the distinction of creating something for a purpose as opposed to creating something without a purpose, then the former ("functional ontology") is merely ontology with teleology, while the latter is dysteleological ontology. Ontology exists independent of teleology, for water is still ontologically water whether it sits in a basin, or whether it is used ("functionally") to wash a wound.
As part of his promotion of of his category of "functional ontology," Walton asks what the ontology of a curriculum is (p. 23). Since a curriculum has no "material ontology," but is created for the purpose or function of teaching, therefore he states that there is such a category as "functional ontology." But ontology is not just about "material things," but just "things." The ontology of a curriculum consists of a lesson plan, student handouts and a list of materials (e.g. books) for students to acquire, while its teleology is for the purpose of guiding a student's education. Looking at another example, the ontology of a committee is a group of men and women gathered with a telos, and that telos is to have a meeting to deal with indicated subject(s) of interest. Walton seems absolutely confused over philosophical concepts, and limiting ontology to material things is one of the most egregious errors in this regard.
So the modified question raised by Walton concerns not whether the Genesis account is about "material ontology" or "functional ontology," but rather whether an account of something being created for a purpose precludes a material creating. In other words, can one describe only teleology without ontology? First of all, as a modified supralapsarian, I believe that God does EVERYTHING with a purpose, including the ordering of the divine decrees. Thus, to state that God has created something with a purpose does not prove anything, for everything God has created has a purpose. Therefore, Walton, in proving that the Genesis text speak about how everything has a telos doesn't prove that the text is speaking only about teleology and not ontology, since for God, all created things have a telos.
Back to the question: Can one describe only teleology without ontology? Theoretically, I do not see any reasons why one cannot do that. But saying this does not mean that Walton is vindicated, for he has shown us no proof that the Genesis account ever intends to be not about ontology. Since I have stated that all things to God have a purpose, proving that God has a purpose in creating, or just that the created things have purposes period, proves nothing. Literarily, the material parts and the function parts are both found in the Genesis account, thus there is no reason whatsoever to say that the Genesis account is purely teleological and not also ontological. As with regards to the other ANE stories, there is no reason likewise to think they are sincerely believed fictions instead of stories sincerely believed to correspond to reality, which brings us to the problems with seeking an "ANE cultural" context — it seems to be most modern rather than pre-modern in construction.
Walton's arguments therefore falls flat at its source, his ignorance of philosophical concepts showing. Since the historic Christian view speaks of ontology WITH teleology, it is the onus of those who disagree to prove their alternate hypotheses, like saying that Genesis is about teleology apart from an ontology. With all the ontological features mentioned in the biblical text, that does seem a most unlikely hypothesis.