The Genesis Debate: Three Views on Days of Creation

The following is the product of an assignment I had for class in which I interact with the essays in The Genesis Debate: Three Views on Days of Creation. The twenty-four hour view is by Ligon Duncan III and David W. Hall; the day-age view is by Hugh Ross and Gleason Archer; the Framework view is by Lee Irons and Meredith Kline.

I came to this text not particularly interested in the subject matter, but became more interested as I read along. As with most perspective books, the quality of the essays is uneven. The twenty-four hour view is not well represented as it tediously refers to church history ad nauseum (and in my opinion engages in a reverse form of chronological snobbery). The day-age view often deviates from the immediate context of Genesis One to exposit all the ways the natural sciences are compatible with it, which is kind of interesting (but it ends up being thin on exegesis). The proponents of the Framework view provide an excellent case for a more figurative reading and respond to the critiques adequately. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality and think that it deserves a wide reading.

The 24-Hour View 

Summary. The 24-hour view, plainly enough, understands the creation days to be twenty-four hours in length, normal days we are all familiar with, each marked by “evening” and “morning.” This view is derived from a straightforward reading of the text in conjunction with a reading of the references to the creation event throughout the canon; in every case, the biblical writers are thought to be intending to say that creation took place over a six-day period. While it does not affirm an instantaneous creation (contra Augustine), it affirms creation ex nihilo in “unmediated” events over the six day time span. This longstanding interpretation endured for centuries only until recently with advent of modern science, so we should be slow to depart from the faith handed down to us. 

The strongest and weakest arguments for this view. The strongest argument for this view begins with an epistemological claim that if the Genesis days are not normal days of which we are all familiar, then we do not know what they are. Defining them as unspecified “ages” is uninformative and vague. Thus, we are faced with a dilemma: either the creation days are normal days or they are unknown to our common experience (p. 30). It is highly unlikely that the writers of Scripture intended to refer to something unknown to us, so we should interpret the creation days to be normal, twenty-four periods of time. We can test this inference by imagining the opposite is true. If the authors intended to communicate lengths of time unknown to us, then they were incompetent communicators who misled God’s people for thousands of years. But inspired writers are not incompetent communicators; therefore, the opposite isn’t true and they intended the creation days to refer to normal days of which we are all familiar. This explains why Church tradition, at least before the nineteenth century, has so often interpreted the days to be twenty-four hours in length, which should lend support to the plausibility of the view in general.

The weakest argument for this view depends on a faulty understanding of science and how it relates to biblical interpretation. Time and time again, the proponents assert that a time-honored interpretation of Scripture ought to be preferred over  “transient,” “novel,” or “fluctuating” scientific theories (23-34). But this is a mistake, because the data of science, not only its theories (meant to explain the data), are also relevant in the process of interpretation, and they are not the sort of things that are taken to be “fads.” By “data” I mean that which is observed by scientists through empirical inquiry. Such things as distant gamma ray bursts, the ‘turn-off’ points of red dwarves, and the properties of microwave background radiation point to an old universe of some thirteen billion years. Other data from potassium-argon and uranium-lead dating methods, as well as natural time recorders like Antarctic ice cores, reveal that the age of the earth is greater than one-hundred thousand years. This is contrary to the implication of the twenty-hour view: an age that is less than one-hundred thousand years. Thus we have a conflict on our hands, which cannot be dismissed just because we have had epistemic access to one set of data (contained in the Bible) longer than the other (contained in nature). One thing we have learned from church history is that scientific discoveries can help clarify our reading of the text by clearing away certain assumptions that aren’t necessarily required by the text. This is was precisely what the Church learned when Copernicus demonstrated that the earth went round the sun; his and Galileo’s discoveries came to clarify the Church’s interpretation of texts that initially appeared to support geocentrism. This is why we should reject the belief “that extrabiblical considerations are insufficient to convince us to depart from the faith handed down” ( p. 24). While we can admit the twenty-four hour view has a degree of plausibility to it, we are warranted in seeking alternative explanations of the passage that are compatible with our scientific knowledge.

Two other lapses in the essay are worth mentioning. First, the proponents of the twenty-four hour view include the strange belief that the word “created” must mean that God use no mediated processes to bring about his creatures. For example, they interpret Genesis 6:7 as echoing the creation language of Genesis 1,which seems interesting enough, but then they go on to claim that those who were about to be wiped out “were created by the same process used during the creation week described in Genesis 1” (p. 36). What process was that? One that is “powerful enough to do so instantly without assistance from other forces” (p. 36). I hope this is a slip of the pen, otherwise they are saying that everyone from Adam to Noah was either created out of the dust of the earth or from a man’s rib, which is absurd.

Second, they claim that “the post-Flood world seems to have changed in basic ways from the pre-Flood world, thus raising significant questions about assumptions of uniformity” (p. 30). Suppose they are right about this: the way things are now are not similar to the way things were. Why, then, should we assume that the days of the creation week are anything like the days we are familiar with today? Perhaps they can rescue the twenty-four hour interpretation by appealing to Exodus 20:9, but if that is the case, then this is contrary to their assumption that the world has changed in its “basic ways.” In any event, either uniformity is true or it is not, and if it is, then our current scientific data can be taken into account when interpreting the text; and if it’s not, then the days could have been longer than twenty-four hours.

The Day-Age View 

Summary. The day-age view holds that the creation days literally refer to unspecified, lengthy epochs of time in which God correspondingly creates and orders his creatures from the simple to the complex according to the chronological sequence of the days. 

The strongest and weakest arguments for this view. The strongest argument for this view comes from an inductive inference that concludes that it would have taken longer than twenty-four hours for Adam to fulfill his assignment to name all the soulish animals on the sixth day. In addition, he discovers that none of them are a suitable complement to him, and in the course of the “day” God creates the woman to help him rule over creation. Afterwards, the pair of them are instructed to care for the space in which God has placed them, all on the same day. It is hard to imagine all of these events occurring in a twenty-four hour time span, and given the fact that the semantic domain for the Hebrew word for “day” includes ‘a long period of time,’ one should interpret the sixth day as being an instance of such.

Another argument of interest contends that the seventh day of God’s “rest” from the work of creation is ongoing, which obviously negates the twenty-four hour view, and seems to lend support to the day-age view. The primary reason for this interpretation is that the seventh day lacks the typical ‘even and morning’ statements to mark off the time boundaries of each day. In support of this view, is the connection the author of Hebrews makes from the ‘Sabbath rest’ of God to the ‘rest’ God’s people are called to (Heb 4:4-11). Nonetheless, the day-age advocates go too far when they assert that John 5:16-18 supports their view. In this passage, Jesus justifies his act of healing on the Sabbath stating, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” Apparently, in the authors view, the Sabbath is such that God is able to be ‘always at work’ and still honor it by “ceasing from the work of creating” (p. 145). The text simply does not require or suggest such a bifurcated reading (Besides, doesn’t the act of healing require some form of re-creation? Dead cells, perhaps?).

The weakest argument for this view presupposes that Genesis 1 was written to give its readers a testable creation model. If this is the case, then it fails badly, because as critics point out, the sequence of the days put the origin of reptiles (day six) after the origin of birds (day five), and the origin of fish (day five) after the origin of seed-bearing plants (day three); in both cases, the scientific findings have it the other way around. The insistence on scientific concord pushes its proponents so far as to interpret Genesis 1:14-16 to be saying that God made the heavenly bodies visible to earth-dwellers on the fourth day, not that he made the heavenly bodies themselves. Besides being implausible, this reading is contrived only to save the day-age theory from the appearances of Scripture, not exegete the meaning of the text. In essence, it is simply dubious to suppose that Genesis 1 was written to give us a testable creation model that the empirical sciences could adequately scrutinize thousands of years after it was written. 

The Framework View

 Summary. The Framework view is one that takes the creation days to be figurative insofar as they refer to a literary structure that narrates the creative works of God in a topical, rather than chronological, order. Those who hold to the Framework view do not deny the history of creation; rather, they interpret Genesis 1 to be a record of non-sequential events that occur on non-literal days. The reason for this is that the author had theological and kerygmatic themes in view, rather than a chronological history in which a natural scientist might be interested. Those themes include topics like the primacy of the Sabbath, the covenantal vice-regency of humanity, the eschatological hope of God’s ‘rest,’ and a clear distinction between the creature and Creator. With respect to science, the Framework view takes no position on the age of the earth, and allows for liberty to interpret the scientific evidence wherever it might lead; nevertheless, it gives hermeneutical priority to Scripture where it plainly speaks. 

The strongest and weakest arguments for this view. The strongest argument for the Framework view comes from the interpretation that the first three days describe “kingdoms” God creates, and the last three days, the “creature kings” that inhabit them (p. 224). The seventh day functions as the telos for previous six, in which God completes his creation with a day of rest.

Creature kingdoms Creature kings
Day 1: Light Day 4: Luminaries
Day 2: Sky; seas Day 5: Sea creatures; winged creatures
Day 3: Dry land; vegetation Day 6: Land animals; Man

The Creator King: Day 7: Sabbath

 The second ‘triad’ (days 4-6) parallels the first (1-3) in that the second ‘recapitulates’ the history of the first; as couplets, the days highlight different aspects of the historical record in a topical framework. The primary strength of this view is that it brings order to the puzzling chronology of the luminaries: they are made after the creation of light, but before vegetation. This is a better explanation than positing a supernatural nonsolar light source (the twenty-four hour view) or interpreting the “let there be lights” language as referring to ‘preexisting’ stars that are merely made visible on the earth (the day-age view). In the former, the light source that God declared “good” ends up being replaced by something else (something better?); and in the latter, it is the context in which the Hebrew word haya appears, not its range of meaning elsewhere in the cannon, that determines its meaning.

Another strong argument for the Framework view comes from the interpretation of Genesis 2:5-6, which can be translated,

Now, no shrub of the field was yet in the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not yet caused it to rain upon the earth (and there was no one to work the ground). So a rain-cloud  began to arise from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground (p. 231).

The proponents of the Framework view argue that this indicates that God used normal providential means to bring about vegetative life on the earth, and they go on to apply this insight to the rest of creation history. Thus, they dispense with views that depend on ad hoc miracles to fill in the gaps of their creation history (though they do not doubt that God could order creation in supernatural ways). Nor do they depend on a replaced supernatural mechanism that produced light before the luminaries (the twenty-four view) or speculative hypotheses to accommodate the chronology of plants appearing before sunlight (the day-age view).

The weakest argument is the one that is supposed to specify what the creation days are. The Framework proponents believe that Genesis 1 introduces a two-tiered universe in which there is an “upper register” and a correlative “lower register,” and the latter analogically images the former. Thus, Genesis 1:1’s talk of God creating “the  heavens” and “the earth” is taken to speak of a two-level cosmology, which is metaphorically referenced throughout Scripture (see Is. 66:1). What does this tell us about the creation days? We are told that they belong to the upper register, and that the Hebrew word for “day” is used to metaphorically describe the progress of heavenly time where God and the heavenly court dwells (p. 238). But is this plausible? It depends on what we assume the nature of the upper-register is like. If it is a portion of a reality that is metaphysically distinct from ours, then the days are wholly unknown to us; critics are right to press this point. Against this criticism, the proponents argue that, “The upper register is a real part of the space-time creation” (p. 246). But if this is the case, then not only is it metaphysically possible for earth-dwellers to travel there (!), there is also no reason not to think that the creation days are either twenty-four hour periods or long epochs of time. Either way, the Framework view seems to collapse into modified versions of the twenty-four hour or day-age view. Even if God were an ‘extra-dimensional’ deity inhabiting our space-time continuum, we would still have no idea what the ‘days of heaven’ are like. Why not just take them as metaphorical literary devises the way the authors of Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 seem to do?

The Superior View

I found the Framework view to be superior overall because it satisfies certain desiderata for good interpretation. First, it does not insist on a strong view of biblical-scientific concord; views like the day-age view go too far in the effort to harmonize all scientific data with the text, as if it were written to be a testable creation hypothesis. Nonetheless, the Framework view is compatible with a weak view of concord which allows one to bring scientific evidence into the process of interpretation and follow it wherever it might lead, especially on matters in which Scripture is silent. Unfortunately, the twenty-four hour view fails to even accommodate this much, which forces it to reject broad swaths of scientific knowledge. This explains why the proponents of the twenty-four hour view are so hostile to the natural sciences and view them with a hermeneutic of suspicion. While I agree that they have what appears to be the simplest explanation of the text, they take on the enormous burden of having to explain why there is so little scientific agreement with their position even among conservative Christian scientists. I acknowledge their consistency as they remain non-committed to the research of creation science, but this only reinforces my opinion that they are hostile to science in general (why not accept creation science’s findings?). If that is what is required of Christians who hold this view, then we disrespect God’s natural revelation and the image of God created in us, which includes the capacity for proper empirical inquiry.

Second, the Framework view has a high view of normal providence that makes use of ordinary means and secondary causes to bring about God’s creative work. The twenty-four hour view is committed to a whimsical ontology replete with baffling supernatural acts that yield curious results. For example, gamma ray bursts that would normally travel billions of light years to reach us are thought to be created in transit, yet still providing evidence of events that never occurred. The day-age view fairs somewhat better, but curiously, it holds that God created several species he intended to go extinct, and then replaced with entirely new species (p. 138-39). The interventional character of this view implies that for a very long time, the created order had little functional integrity and required several miracles to keep going until God rested from creation. While this is not outside the realm of possibility, the virtue of the Framework view’s theology of providence is that it does not isolate supernatural action to the miraculous; God’s concurrent providence through secondary causation is precisely what we would expect of an orderly creator.

Third, the Framework view makes sense of the textual chronology of creation events. The other views are saddled with the problem of accounting for the ‘light before the sun’ and only offer solutions that are odd or implausible. The ‘kingdom-to-king’ framework provides an elegant solution that unifies this disparate data and comports with the exegetical themes of function and hierarchy in created order. Related to this is how Romans 5:12 and 8:21 are treated as references to the spiritual death of humanity and the corruption of death in lives of believers; they are not vague references to the Curse that somehow spread to animals and disrupted the uniformity of nature.

While aspects of the framework view are not perfect, I think it is the most promising way to interpret Genesis 1. To be sure, it is a recent proposal that conflicts with the history of tradition (as the twenty-four hour proponents remind us), but changes in how we interpret the Bible in light of scientific knowledge is not unprecedented. With respect to the age of the earth, the church has most certainly encountered another ‘Galileo moment’ in its history of interpretation, and we are warranted in taking a second look at the text to see if we our reading of it is correct. By deploying traditional, ordinary means of biblical interpretation, the proponents of the Framework view emerge as a serious contenders that, at least in the context of this discussion, offer the best of the three options available.

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