You’ve likely heard of the old earth versus young earth debate among Christians. Key within this controversy is the six-day period of creation spoken of in the book of Genesis.
Let’s look at three common interpretations of the Genesis creation story, evaluate how significant the issue is to the Christian faith, and examine how a similar controversy several hundred years ago was resolved in a way that fulfills the commands of both Christ and the Apostle Paul in regard to Christian unity.1
The three basic interpretations are young earth creationism (YEC), old earth creationism (OEC), and allegorical approaches.
Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
The historical interpretation of Genesis is that the seven days of creation are seven 24-hour periods—like our current days.2 When combined with the simple addition of the years provided in the Bible genealogies, the math results in a 6,000-year-old universe with the human race—starting with Adam and Eve—appearing on day 6.3
While some YEC advocates attempt to develop scientific evidence for a recent creation (known as creation science), others view the entire scientific enterprise with skepticism.4 Those who reject science either view scientific assertions of a 4.5-billion-year-old earth as a theory meant to cause Christians to doubt the Bible or as an impossible pursuit because of the flawed thinking of fallen humans.5
YECs assert that a natural reading of the Bible indicates that God intended that readers interpret the days of creation as ordinary 24-hour periods. With that said, it should be noted that some YECs would agree that the earth appears to be very old. However, they would argue that God created the earth with simply the appearance of age, just as he probably created Adam as a mature man, not an infant.
Old Earth Creationism (OEC)
OECs6 advocate a literal Genesis account, but they interpret the word “day” to be an era or some other kind of longer period of time.7 Another term used for this position is “Day Age.” That is, each day signifies an epoch of time, much as English speakers might refer to the “Day of the Pioneers” or the “Day of the Dinosaurs.”
Most OECs believe God supernaturally created the universe out of nothing and that Big Bang cosmology provides powerful scientific support for this. These OECs are “progressive creationists” in the sense that they believe God supernaturally intervened over the course of the six long periods of time to create the various plant and animal life-forms (the “kinds” mentioned in Genesis).
OECs oppose Darwinian evolution but not necessarily microevolution (minor changes within a species).8 Like YECs, OECs place a high value on biblical inerrancy. Most OEC advocates will admit that a natural reading of the English versions of Genesis lead to a YEC position, but they also point to Scripture that is supportive of an old-earth interpretation.9
This third category includes all Christians who do not believe that the Genesis days signify time periods of any sort. They maintain that the Bible is not intended to be read as either history or science.
A group of Christians who go by the name “evolutionary creationists” or “theistic evolutionists” (TEs) believe that God created Earth with the potential for life to unfold by naturalistic methods. Advocates of TE fall into the category of non-literalists.10
Historically, there have been other allegorical approaches that are not tied to either science or the issue of Darwinian evolution. One of these is called the “analogical approach,” which contends that Moses told the Genesis story in a way that the seven creation days would parallel the workweek, with God resting on the seventh day.11
That God created the universe—as opposed to some form of causeless self-creation—is a major Christian doctrine, along with original sin, the Virgin birth, the Trinity, the atonement, the resurrection, and salvation by grace through faith. These beliefs, among others, are set out in the various creeds and most doctrinal statements of evangelical Christian churches.
If the doctrines stated above are primary to what it means to be Christian, the issue over when God created is perhaps tertiary. While tertiary issues often set apart one Christian denomination from another, most Christians agree on the primary issues found in the historical creeds.
Resolving the Issue
In the early days of the Christian Church, disagreements of this sort were resolved by church councils. In more recent times, two such councils composed of conservative Bible scholars addressed the issue at hand. Both the Council of Biblical Inerrancy and the leaders of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) agreed almost unanimously to reject the inclusion of a young earth as criteria for inerrancy.12
We may want to take a lesson from a great seventeenth-century scientist who was also a devout Christian. Facing a heated controversy—which ultimately resulted in his excommunication from the Church—over whether Earth was the center of solar system (geocentrism) or revolved around the sun (heliocentrism), Galileo Galilei appealed to what is called by theologians as God’s “Dual Revelation.”
This doctrine, articulated in the Belgic Confession of the earlier Protestant reformers, says we can know God through 1) what we see in the created order (general revelation) and 2) what God reveals through Scripture (special revelation).13 Both the facts of nature and the words of God have the same author, argued Galileo, and therefore both must be true. This requires that our interpretation of Scripture and our interpretation of the facts of nature work together to inform each other.
Today, Christians do not divide themselves over heliocentrism versus geocentrism. It seems like a quaint controversy from the distant past. So too might the current conflict over the creation days someday. Regardless, some say, we will eventually have an opportunity to resolve this issue by asking the One who made it all. My guess is that, if this is true, being in the very presence of God will make the issue seem so irrelevant that no one will remember to do so.
- One of Christ’s calls for unity is recorded in John 17, the so-called high priestly prayer. One of the Apostles’ calls for unity is found in Ephesians 4:2–5 and another in 2 Corinthians 1:10.
- Historically, the critical beliefs of the Christian faith have been articulated in creeds. None of the great Reformation creeds—such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Confession—deal with the length of the Genesis days, although the who, how, and even the why questions of creation are addressed. See Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2004), 51–57.
- Bishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and later John Lightfoot (1602–1675) developed very detailed chronologies of the events occurring in the Bible. Lightfoot, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, proclaimed that “heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant” and that “this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 B.C., at nine o’clock in the morning.” Excerpts of both Ussher and Lightfoot’s calculations can be found at http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/ussher.htm.
- The term “creation science” began in 1961 with the publication of John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris’s The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1961). Following its publication, ten scientists formed the Creation Research Society to promote “creation science.” The gist of The Genesis Flood is that all of the geologic changes that appear to have occurred over millions of years were actually created in a few months during the flood in the time of Noah.
- Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, argues that 2 Corinthians 11:13 likens the attempt to clarify the age of the earth by bringing in science to the way the serpent deceived Eve with his craftiness. Both corrupt and distract from the simplicity that is in Christ. See Dr. Andrew Snelling, “How Old Does the Earth Look?” Answers in Genesis, May 12, 2009, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2009/05/12/how-old-does-earth-look. Other YECs say that our ability to reason has been so affected by the Fall that we can only trust the clear teaching of Scripture rather than rely on evidence and reasoning. While this is not the traditional Christian view of applying reason and logic, this theory stems from an interpretation of Scripture that relates the Fall to “total depravity” in which all human undertakings are corrupted, including science. Calvin, who popularized the notion of total depravity, clarified that he was not referring to truth derived from certain scientific disciplines but rather the way in which humans can pervert the truth to evil ends. See “What Do the Protestant Reformers Mean by ‘Total Depravity’?” Systematic Theology I, http://victorshepherd.ca/what-do-the-protestant-reformers-mean-by-total-depravity.
- A leading OEC organization is Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org).
- Genesis was originally written in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “day” is “yom.” As discussed in the following online article from Old Earth Ministries, “yom” has an extensive use in the Bible for periods of time other than a 24-hour day, including epochs. See Greg Meyman, “Word Studies: Yom,” Old Earth Ministries, March 16, 2005, http://www.oldearth.org/word_study_yom.htm.
- A good discussion of the differences between the well-documented and uncontroversial “microevolution” (primarily the rearrangement of genetic information resulting in small changes within a species) and the theory of “macroevolution” (the large-scale addition of new genetic information such as an amphibian evolving into a reptile) is found in the online article “What is the difference between Microevolution and Macroevoltuion?” by S. Michael Houdmann on GotQuestions.org. Available at http://www.gotquestions.org/microevolution-macroevolution.html.
- Old earth creationists point out that one of the biblical (as opposed to science-based) arguments made to support the old earth viewpoint includes the fact that the author of Hebrews 4:3–11 speaks of the seventh day of creation as an ongoing period of rest and exhorts us to enter into God’s rest. This is underscored by the fact that the author of Genesis (traditionally attributed to Moses) omits the Hebrew phraseology “and there was morning and there was evening” on day 7 (which follows each of the preceding six creation days). The reasoning follows that if day 7 is an ongoing epoch of time, there is no reason the other six days can’t also be epochs (that have been completed). Another biblical argument for long creation days deals with day 6, which is elaborated on in Genesis 2. During this sixth day, God created living creatures; God created Adam; God planted a garden; God put Adam to work in the Garden; Adam named all of the animals; and God created Eve from Adam’s side. Once Adam recovered he observed that “at last” he had a helpmate (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version © 2001, Genesis 2:23).
- Such an approach is taken by the organization Biologos (http://biologos.org/).
- The analogical approach, the Gap theory, and other approaches not currently in vogue among evangelicals is discussed in Vern S. Poythress, Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1 (Philadelphia: Westminister Seminary Press, 2013). Full text available at http://www.frame-poythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/2013ChristianInterpretationsOfGenesis1.pdf.
- During the 1990s, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—a conservative, evangelical denomination—addressed the age-of-the earth issue by convening a special Creation Study Committee of esteemed Bible scholars. Following two years of debate and investigation, the committee published a ninety-one-page document that rejected an attempt to make YEC the only acceptable position. See “Report of the Creation Study Committee,” June 2000, http://www.pcahistory.org/creation/report.pdf. Earlier, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy convened over a ten-year period to define what should be included in the belief of biblical inerrancy. The Council concluded that “adherence to six consecutive 24-hour days is not essential to belief in biblical inerrancy.” Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2004), 242.
- The Belgic Confession of 1561 was an attempt by reformers to carry forward the creedal statements of the early church. It consists of thirty-seven articles. Article 2 is entitled “The Means by Which We Know God.” See below for excerpts from Article 2. Full text available at http://www.prca.org/bc_index.html. “We know him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book. . . . Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.”
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