Yesterday evening, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of The American Scientific Association's Wheaton-Naperville chapter. The ASA is an association of Christians in science who take both their faith and science seriously. The speaker for the event was Dr. John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He spoke on his book, The Lost World Of Genesis One. I have not yet read the book (I hope to do so in the near future), but if the book substantiates the claims Walton made during the talk, it could prove to be, for evangelicals, the single most important book of the decade.
I will give a brief outline of the main points he made during his talk but first we have some matters of definition to deal with. The basic issue is whether Genesis 1 recounts material creation or functional creation. Material creation is God making stuff (e.g.., I created a chair - meaning I took pieces of wood and built a chair). Functional creation is God assigning already existing things function (e.g., 'create in me a pure heart' - purity is not a material item, it's changing the way we function, creating purity in us). Walton's contention is that the account of Genesis 1 is an account of functional creation. I'll hit just a few of his points that I thought were convincing
1. Genesis 1:3-5 describes God creating light. Verse 5 is odd. God names the light day and the darkness night. Why doesn't God name them light and dark? Why name light, 'day?' What God is naming is not light as a physicist would describe it. He's naming a period of light, namely what we call day. Thus verses 3-5 are assigning light and darkness a function; keeping time. Walton makes similar types of arguments for each day of creation.
2. The verb "bara'" - 'create' in Hebrew, never unambiguously refers to material creation. On many occasions it refers unambiguously to functional creation. There are several cases where it is ambiguous, but the lack of clear cases where "bara'" means materially create militates against understanding Genesis 1 as an account of material creation.
3. Another very helpful point Walton brought up was comparisons with Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature. Creation is functional in other ANE texts. For example, in the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation account, nothing is physically made. Thus not only does the verb "bara'" not suggest material creation, the ancient Israelites' cultural context points away from it. Ancient people were not very interested in material origins. They were more concerned with functions. Who made things work the way they do? The answer according to Genesis 1 is Yahweh. God gave function to the heavens and the earth so that he could reside in the cosmos, his temple (c.f., Ps. 132:13-18), but the cosmos is created in such a way that it functions that it does not serve him alone, it's set up to be functional for us as we steward his creation.
Why is this so important? If Genesis 1 is not an account of material creation, then no such account exists in the Bible. This means that Genesis 1 does not prohibit Bible believing Christians from accepting the scientific evidence in favor of evolution, for God can work through a long slow process like evolution if he wanted to.