THE GENESIS DEBATE: How Old is the Earth?

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

March 28, 2016

One of the greatest debates behind church doors is regarding the first book of the Bible. Christians are split regarding what the author’s original intent of the first three chapters of Genesis really was. Are these “creation days” supposed to be taken literally? In the book, “The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the days of Creation,” three teams of theologians committed to the inerrancy of Scripture debate what the author of Genesis was really trying to communicate. In this article, I will not be taking a position, but rather, merely reporting the differing views that fit within evangelical Christendom.

PART ONE: THE 24-HOUR VIEW

J. Ligon Duncan III, and David W. Hall, make a case that the days of Genesis are supposed to be taken as literal 24-hour days. These theologians recognize this issue is far too important to ignore. They argue this is a vital topic to give our best thought, study, and hermeneutical considerations towards because how we interpret Genesis will ultimately influence many other of our doctrines.

Right off the bat, they clarify that although they are making a case for six literal creation days, they say, “We take no position on the age of the universe precisely because that question is not directly addressed by the canon. The use of day, by contrast, is addressed and, thus, is our focal point.” Therefore, if one is committed to a literal interpretation of Genesis, they can still hold the universe is billions of years old.

The Big Picture

Duncan and Hall begin by asserting the debate over these “creation days,” is a fairly recent one. They write, “While one may find in the record of historical theology a small smattering of orthodox theologians who approached the days of Genesis as something other than normal days, he will not find detailed debate over this matter until the sixteenth century.” They argue since the historic church has believed the days of Genesis should be interpreted as literal 24-hour days, then they must be literal 24-hour days. Moreover, since John Calvin rejected this view, so should we:

When a revived form of Augustine’s instantaneous creation view made its appearance among select guild theologians in the Western Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries John Calvin, and the later Puritan divines dealt it a swift deathblow. Not until certain theories in modern geology, biology, paleontology, anthropology, and physics gained wide acceptance in various Western intellectual communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did debates about the Genesis days begin to roil the Church.

An Exegetical Debate?

Duncan and Hall state quite clearly that this debate is not purely exegetical; rather, it is a hermeneutical and theological debate too. They make this claim because they say, “compelling exegetical evidence for reading the creation days as anything other than normal days is lacking.” Moreover, these theologians assert the intent of the author of the first two chapters of Genesis is so obvious that it is “beyond dispute.” They claim that they can make the case that the literal 24-hour creation day account was held through the entire Old Testament, and New Testament canon, and only after recent scientific discoveries (they assume are false) have been made contradicting a literal interpretation of Genesis, has the Christian Church reconsidered their historical beliefs. They sum up this debate by saying, “In short, it is not only about the text, but also context.”

The Creation Narratives & Normal Creation Days

In this section, Duncan and Hall claim to prove the creation narratives in Genesis clearly teach these “days” were normal days. They offer “exegetical markers” as evidence of their position. These makers, they claim, do not justify a nonliteral interpretation of the days in Genesis.

The first marker is one in which all of the authors agree: God is the author of creation! They reference the first two verses of the Bible – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2). Duncan and Hall claim that many theologians argue that Moses was not trying to give a literal discourse of the universe’s or earth’s origins; rather, Moses was giving an apologetic response to the many pagan beliefs of the day. Namely, God exists, God creates, and God brings order to his creation (as opposed to pagan beliefs). These opposing beliefs of the authors of the 24-hour day view claim that since Moses is not writing in “historical narrative mode,” that the creation days of Genesis should not be taken literally.

Duncan and Hall counter this by stating that this conclusion does not follow. They state, “The mere presence of an apologetic in the narrative does not compromise the cosmogony it contains. Indeed, the cosmogony is the apologetic!” These authors believe one cannot take God’s creation from nothing literally and simultaneously hold the creation days as figurative.

The Pentateuch & Normal Creation Days

Duncan and Hall argue that not only does the beginning of Genesis affirm literal 24-hour periods, but so does the rest of scripture for that matter. They contend that Genesis 5:1-2 summarizes the first four chapters and asserts, “In the day when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God…. and named them Man in the day when they were created.” They assert passages like this clearly show that God did not create via “long ages” or that creation came about by any secondary causes like evolution.

Duncan and Hall reference Exodus 20 as further confirmation that the Old Testament writers understood the days of Genesis to be “normal days.” They conclude, “God gave no modifiers or extenuating qualifiers in the text to indicate any thing other than a normal day.” Moreover, they declare Deuteronomy affirms the same. They offer Deuteronomy 4:32 as Moses is comparing the true God to those of false religions. In this passage Moses writes, “From the day God created man on the earth.” Duncan and Hall believe this text is evidence that man was created in one literal 24-hour day period as opposed to an “age, eon, or era.”

Duncan and Hall go on to make similar arguments to support their case throughout their essay. Basically, they assume that when the Bible refers to the word “yom,” or day, in regards to creation days, it means it literally and not figuratively. Moreover, they believe their assumptions are correct because the majority of church leaders throughout history have also held the same beliefs.

PART TWO: THE DAY-AGE VIEW

The second essay offered in the Genesis Debate is written by Hugh Ross and Gleason L. Archer. These theologians admit there are many different models and interpretations of the day-age view; however, they are committed to defending only one of these views. This specific view is based on a model Hugh Ross and his team at “Reasons to Believe” have crafted. They have constructed their model based on the conviction that God’s Word (The Bible), and God’s work (nature) will never contradict each other. If they seem to, then, either the interpreters of Scripture or the interpreters of science have gotten it wrong. They admit that their model is based on a presupposition; namely, that “truth is knowable, consistent, and, although sometimes paradoxical, never contradictory.”

Although Duncan and Hall disagree, Ross and Archer contend that they hold to a literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. They write, “Our day-age interpretation treats the creation days literally as six sequential, long periods of time.” They state that even though the creation events reported in Genesis are not to be taken as 24-hour time periods, they are in the correct order. They go on to say that these are “scientifically defensible.”

They believe Genesis is to be taken literally in the sense that the long age of the“seventh day” continues still to this day. Therefore, God is still “resting” as far as creation goes. Even though they believe that God is “resting” in this aspect, they insist God is still miraculously working in our lives and intervening in human affairs “as he sees fit to fulfill his divine purposes.”

Ross and Archer believe both the Bible and scientific data suggest the days of creation spoken of in Genesis began in earth’s primordial past. Furthermore, they state the creation of humanity (on the “sixth day”) seems to be a fairly recent event. They write, “Both the biblical texts and scientific inquiry lead us to conclude that all humankind, homosapiens, descended from Adam and Eve, who suddenly appeared no more than a few tens of thousands of years ago.”

Why the Creation-day Controversy?

Ross and Archer are convinced that this debate and controversy continues today because most Christians are hindered from resolving this controversy because they are scared to integrate science and Scripture. They assert many Christians are scared the study of science will “shatter their confidence in Scripture, and others because they fear that science will shatter their excuse for ignoring Scripture.” They believe most Christians will deny this fear exists, or that they would rather ignore it, or drown it out in “noisy debate,” but they contend this fear not only exists, but is a “stranglehold” keeping Christians from clear thinking and calm dialogue.

Ross and Archer assert these frightened churchgoers believe rejecting a literal 24-hour day interpretation of the days in Genesis is a slippery slope, ultimately allowing too much room for naturalism, and negating Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Moreover, what seems to be the biggest fear is that it opens the doorway to Darwinian evolution. They contend that because many Christians live in fear and seem to ignore the accepted scientific data, they make for an easy attack, especially since they do not offer a “coherent, (scientifically) testable creation model.” Ross and Archer believe they do have a model that can pass these tests.

Multiple Literal Definitions

Much of this debate centers on what the literal meaning of Genesis is supposed to be. The proponents of the 24-hour view proclaim that they alone hold to a literal interpretation of the creation account. Ross and Archer disagree. In fact, they contend that their interpretation is literal, and moreover, supported by the linguistic data.

For example, they offer facts regarding the languages of Hebrew and English. Biblical Hebrew has a very limited vocabulary of less than 3,100 words (not including proper nouns), whereas, English has well over 4,000,000 words at its disposal.  Considering this fact, they demonstrate that Hebrew nouns must have multiple “literal definitions,” and therefore, we should not be surprised that the Hebrew word for “day” has multiple literal meanings and is not held captive by the “24-hour view.” Ross and Archer write:

The English word day most often refers either to the daylight hours or to a period of 24 hours. As in “the day of the Romans,” it is also used for a longer time period. English speakers and writers, however, have many words for an extended period – age, era, epoch, and eon, just to name a few. The Hebrew word, yom similarly refers to daylight hours, 24 hours, and a long (but finite) time period. Unlike English, however, biblical Hebrew has no word other than yom to denote a long time span.

Moreover, Ross and Archer go on to give numerous examples found in Scripture in which the word “yom” is used to indicate long periods of time. Therefore, they contend one need not be committed to a “young earth” or 24 hour days.

A Model Emerges 

In their essay, Ross and Archer go on to address many things from evolutionary theory, the old age of the universe, death before the fall, etc. However, the thrust of their case is built upon their scientifically testable creation model:

  1. Creation, by fiat miracle, of the entire physical universe (space-time dimensions, matter, energy, galaxies, stars, planets, etc.).
  2. Planet Earth singled out for a sequence of creation miracles. At its beginning, Earth is empty of life and unfit for life; interplanetary debris and Earth’s primordial atmosphere prevent the light of the sun, moon, and stars from reaching the planet’s surface.
  3. Clearing of the interplanetary debris and partial transformation of the earth’s atmosphere so that light from the heavenly bodies now penetrates to the surface of Earth’s ocean.
  4. Formation of water vapor in the troposphere under conditions that establish a stable water cycle.
  5. Formation of continental land masses and ocean basins.
  6. Production of plants on the continental land masses.
  7. Transformation of the atmosphere from translucent to occasionally transparent. Sun, Moon, planets, and stars now can be seen from the vantage point of Earth’s surface.
  8. Production of swarms of small sea animals.
  9. Creation of sea mammals and birds.
  10. Creation of three specialized kinds of land mammals: a) short-legged land mammals, b) long-legged land mammals that are easy to tame, and c) long-legged land mammals that are difficult to tame—all three specifically designed to cohabit with humans.
  11. Creation of the human species by God’s fiat miracle.

Ross and Archer are confident their model not only makes sense of the creation days of Genesis, but that it is also scientifically testable via the fossil record. In contrast to young-earth creationists (who hold to the 24-hour view), their models fail when compared to the scientific data. The Framework view, on the other hand, is similar to Ross and Archer’s view; however, they complain that this view does not provide a model that can be scientifically tested. Therefore, they maintain, “Only the day-age interpretation provides a straightforward reconciliation of the established scientific record and a literal reading of Genesis 1.”

PART THREE: THE FRAMEWORK VIEW

The third and final view offered in The Genesis Debate comes in an essay written by Lee Irons, with the help of Meredith G. Kline. This interpretation of Genesis is called, “The Framework View.” Accordingly, the proponents of the framework interpretation are not bound to any particular view regarding the universe/earth’s age because a careful exegesis of the biblical text (correctly interpreted) demonstrates that scripture is silent regarding how much time has elapsed since the beginning of creation. Therefore, since scripture is silent regarding the age of the universe and earth, we are free to study God’s work (nature) to come to the best conclusions.

The authors admit most holding to the framework interpretation are also persuaded the universe is old. However, if the scientific evidence should change, this view allows the freedom to be convinced by the scientific evidence wherever it leads.

Definition & Exposition 

So what exactly does a framework advocate believe? Irons and Kline clarify their view:

What then is the framework interpretation? It is the interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3 which regards the seven day scheme as a figurative framework. While the six days of creation are presented as normal solar days, according to the framework interpretation the total picture of God’s completing His creative work in a week of days is not to be taken literally. Instead it functions as a literary structure in which the creative works of God have been narrated in a topical order. The days are like picture frames. Within each day-frame, Moses gives us a snapshot of divine creative activity. Although the creative fiat-fulfillments (e.g., “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ [fiat]; and there was light [fulfillment]”) refer to actual historical events that actually occurred, they are narrated in a nonsequential order within the literary structure of framework of a seven-day week. Thus, there are two essential elements of the framework interpretation: the nonliteral element and the nonsequential element.

In other words, Irons and Kline are adamant that Moses’ intent in recording the creation of the earth was not supposed to be taken as 24-hour days. They are convinced that he was writing figuratively.

The Nonliteral Element

Irons and Kline make it clear that this approach to the creation days of Genesis is not some retreat of Christianity due to the recent advancements in modern science. In fact, they reference many early Christian theologians who held a nonliteral interpretation such as Augustine, Anselm, and Peter Lombard. These theologians lived hundreds of years before Darwin. Therefore, nonliteral views of Genesis are not a retreat from the supposed onslaught of modern science; rather, such views have deep roots in historical Christianity.

Irons and Kline are quick to make a clarification regarding the historicity of the events written in Genesis. Although these authors hold to a figurative view of the creation days of Genesis, they do assert the events written in the first book of the Bible are historical. For example, they affirm a historical creation of the space-time universe (ex nihilo), a historical Adam, and a historical fall.

The Two Registers

The authors make a careful distinction regarding their “two register cosmology,” consisting of an upper and lower register. “The upper register is the invisible dwelling place of God and His holy angels, that is, heaven. The lower register is called ‘earth,’ but includes the whole visible cosmos from the planet Earth to the star-studded sky (Col. 1:16).” They go on to cite many scriptures supporting these “two registers” of creation.

Irons and Kline go on to appeal to these two-registers to determine the nature (literal or figurative) of the seven daytime frame of these creative acts in question. In particular: “If the days are figurative frames providing a literary framework for the creation narrative, what do these days refer to?”

The authors maintain the days of Genesis 1 are referring to the “upper register.” The detractors of the framework view typically presuppose that when the framework advocate denies the literal 24-hour earth (lower register) day, they relegate these days into a mere set of ideas with no grounding in reality. However, Irons and Kline purport that they do take the word days as literal; however, these days belong to the upper register of God and His dwelling place. These days are just as real, even though they do not belong to earth and the lower register. They conclude:

We have demonstrated that two-register cosmology is an important element of the framework interpretation. It explains what these nonliteral days refer to. It demonstrates that while the days are not ordinary solar days, neither are they simply a literary figure having no referential connection to objective reality because they are as real as the upper register of which they are a part.

Irons and Kline believe that when all of the literary, thematic, and theological aspects of the creation narrative are taken into account, the framework view stands out among the other views offered. They believe the author’s original intent of the creation days of Genesis is not to teach 24-hour creation days. Instead,they contend that the text of the creation account in the text of Genesis teaches “the chief end of creation is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

Conclusion

I have reported on three possibly correct manners in which to interpret the creation account in Genesis. While there is certainly disagreement within the Body of Christ as to which interpretation is to be preferred, it is vital to remember that we are still the Body of Christ! Every theologian referenced in this report believes that God created the universe, that humanity is infected by sin, and that it is only through the atoning life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that humanity can be saved and reconciled to God.

That is essential Christian doctrine and the heart of the gospel! After all, Paul made it clear: “… if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Paul never said, “If the earth is billions of years old then your faith is meaningless!” As Christians we need to keep our eye on the ball. We are free to lovingly disagree on which interpretation of the creation account in Genesis is the best, but it is not something the church should split over. As Lee Iacocca once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!” 

In Christ alone,

Tim Stratton

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim is currently enrolled at North-West University pursuing his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics, history, and biblical data.

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