The Creation Days in Genesis: Introduction and Historical Background
by Dr. George Benthien
The beginning chapters of Genesis in the Bible have been a source of controversy both within and outside the Christian church. The creation account is obviously in conflict with the view held by many outside the church who believe that everything in the physical universe can be explained by undirected natural causes. However, the creation account has also generated considerable controversy within the church. The controversy here centers primarily on the timing of the creation events and whether the account should be interpreted literally or as a literary form. In this paper I will try to summarize the major interpretations of the creation days in Genesis 1 and to point out areas of disagreement. I am not writing as an advocate of any of these positions. There are intelligent and committed Christians advocating each of these positions and each one is deserving of our consideration.
I have been professionally involved in science as a mathematician for more that 40 years. I am also a Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God. It is my belief that it is profitable to debate the theological and scientific issues involved in the Genesis creation account as long as we do so with respect for other Christians holding differing views. This has not always been the case. My hope is that we may come to see that other Christians can have a different viewpoint on the timescale of creation and still hold to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible as God’s word.
To set the stage for what follows I would like to make a couple of general observations. (1) I think we can all agree that the creation account given in Genesis is not an eye-witness account. There was no one present except God when these events took place. This leaves open the possibility (not necessity) of a non-literal interpretation of the creation account. (2) The Genesis creation account was not written exclusively for our generation. It was meant to be read and enjoyed by people of every age. Therefore the language employed is not scientific or technical in nature. We have to be careful not to read more into these passages than is really there.
I begin this paper by presenting some historical background information. Next I discuss some of the language and scientific difficulties involved in interpreting the Genesis creation account. Following this I outline the major viewpoints on the creation days along with some of the major arguments for and against each one. I conclude with a statement of some truths about creation that hopefully all sides of the controversy can agree on. There are a number of good references containing much more extensive presentations than are given here. The ones I have found to be most useful are listed in the reference section.
Much of the controversy concerning the creation account in Genesis centers on the meaning of the word “day”. Some consider it to be a normal 24-hour day, others say it refers to a period of time of unspecified length, and still others treat it as part of a literary form. This controversy at times has become very bitter. There didn’t appear to be this divisiveness in the early history of the church. For the first 1600 years of the Christian church there seemed to be a tolerant attitude toward differing views on the meaning of the creation days. Probably most adhered to the 24-hour day viewpoint, but there were a number of exceptions. Here are some quotes by two early church theologians
As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think — let alone explain in words — what they mean. Augustine (354–430 A.D.)
the ‘days’ of Moses’ account … are not to be equated with the days in which we live. Anselm (1033–1109 A.D.)
Augustine seems to have believed that creation was instantaneous and that the days should not be interpreted literally. The major church creeds took no definite position on the length of the creation days 4. This would seem to indicate that the timing of the creation events was not considered to be of primary importance. The Apostle’s Creed simply states
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
The Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) limits its statement on creation to this
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) states the following
God created them [man and woman] good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with him in eternal happiness for his praise and glory The eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence …
All creatures are so completely in his [God’s] hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.
The Belgic Confession (1566) has this to say about creation
We believe that the Father created heaven and earth and all other creatures from nothing, when it seemed good to him, by his Word — that is to say his Son. He has given all creatures their being, form, and appearance, and their various functions for serving their Creator. … He also created the angels good, that they might be his messengers and serve his elect.
We know him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word.
The Westminster Confession (1646) makes the following statement
It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.
Only the Westminster confession even mentions a time period for creation, and it merely repeats, without explanation, what is recorded in Genesis. It is known that many of the Westminster divines supported the calendar-day interpretation, but there is considerable disagreement on whether they were applying that restriction here. Calvin used the same term “in the space of six days” to counter Augustine’s instantaneous creation idea, but did not elaborate on the meaning of “days”.
The seeds of controversy were planted in the mid-17th century by two British scholars, John Lightfoot and James Ussher. In 1642, just 31 years after the completion of the King James translation, Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor John Lightfoot published his voluminous calculation of the exact date for the creation of the universe: September 17, 3928 B.C. Eight years later, James Ussher, Anglican archbishop of Ireland, corrected Lightfoot’s date. His copious commentary and calculations changed it to October 3, 4004 B.C. Not to be outdone, Lightfoot adjusted Ussher’s date to the week of October 18–24, 4004 B.C. with the creation of Adam occurring on October 23 at 9:00 A.M., 45th meridian time. From the 18th century onward, the King James Version incorporated Ussher’s chronology as margin notes or even as headings of its various editions.
In the 1800s, scientists Charles Lyell, John Phillips, Lord Kelvin, and John Joly each independently (using sedimentation rates, earth’s cooling rate, and the rate of salt accumulation in the oceans) came to believe that the earth’s age must be at least in the tens of millions of years. The rise of Darwinism in the late 1800s caused many to question the 24-hour day interpretation since Darwinian evolution involves a gradual transformation of lower forms of life into higher forms over a very long time period. Most scientists today believe that the earth is very old. Current estimates for the age of the earth are about 4.5 billion years. Although there are some questions relating to the methods for estimating the age of the earth, these estimates are generally accepted.
One attempt to accommodate a long time period for creation is the so-called “gap theory” 6. This interpretation is based on an alternate rendition of the phrase “the earth was without form” in verse 1 of Genesis. Another possible translation is “the earth became formless”. The gap theorists claim that there was an earlier civilization, ruled over by Satan, which was destroyed by God. This destruction caused the earth to become empty. The remaining verses of Genesis describe a re-creation by God. There is an unspecified time gap between the two creations. This interpretation was popular in the 1800s and early 1900s. It was contained in the notes of the popular Scofield Reference Bible. In this form it has very few adherents at present. However, there are some today who do believe that there may be time gaps both before and between the creation days.
In 1860 there was a famous debate between Samuel Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford) and a young biologist Thomas Huxley (later known as Darwin’s bulldog). The subject was Darwin’s theory of evolution. Wilberforce, who had limited training in science, made a number of blunders during the debate that were seized upon by Huxley. In frustration, Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley, “Was it through your grandmother or your grandfather that that you claim descent from a monkey?” Huxley supposedly replied “I would rather be descended from a poor chattering ape than from a man of great talents who would appeal to prejudice rather than to truth.” This exchange has caused many scientists, even today, to associate Christianity with prejudice, deception, ignorance, and blind opposition to science.
The growing acceptance of Darwinism was seen by many in the church as a major threat to the authority of the scriptures. Between 1910 and 1913, American laymen Milton and Lyman Stewart published and distributed a series of small booklets entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. They asserted that there were five fundamentals of the faith:
- The Deity of Jesus Christ
- The Virgin Birth
- The Blood Atonement
- The Bodily Resurrection
- The Inerrancy of the Scriptures.
I think that the word “fundamentalism” today has a somewhat negative connotation. However, I doubt that many Christians would object to the five fundamentals stated above. The essays by the Stewart brothers that addressed Genesis 1 asserted the importance of recognizing these events as actual historical occurrences, fundamental to everything in scripture, but left open the question of the creation days’ length. However, at a 1919 conference in Philadelphia, fundamentalism became an organized movement with the founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). This group considered the question of what qualifies a person to be a true Christian. Since they perceived Darwinism to be the great evil of the day, they adopted Ussher’s chronology as a necessary belief. They believed that this was the only way to counter the rise of godless science.
One of the most outspoken critics of Darwinism in the early 1900s was a Seventh-Day-Adventist layman and amateur geologist name George McCready Price. In 1923 he published a book entitled The New Geology. In this book he claimed that the fossil record and all the earth’s geologic features could be explained as the result of the Genesis flood. Price was an excellent speaker and became a spokesman for the fundamentalist movement.
This series is courtesy of Dr. George Benthienand can also be found at his website.
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