Thoughts on the Creation Days of Genesis, Part 3
In the previous post I addressed some cautions and exhortations to OEC (“Old Earth Creationist”) believers. In this post I will address some cautions and exhortations to YEC (“Young Earth Creationist”) believers. I apologize to the reader in advance for the length of this post, but there was much territory to cover, and so I beg the reader’s patience and careful consideration.
SOME CAUTIONS AND EXHORTATIONS FOR THE YEC
1. Understand that many who hold the OEC position seek to offer strong exegetical arguments for their belief that the “days” of Genesis 1:1-2:4 are either to be understood as non-literal “days,” or as allowing room for an ancient earth.
YEC believers often argue that the “plain, ordinary sense” of Genesis 1:1-2:4 requires a literal, days-of-ordinary-length interpretation of those days. But the more one studies this seemingly simple, straightforward passage of Scripture, the more majestic and complex it reveals itself to be. YEC interpreters will not agree with the exegesis of OEC interpreters, but I believe they should at least respect the fact that many OEC are trying to wrestle responsibly with this text of God’s Word.
Some of the factors that have led some godly, learned Bible scholars to adopt an OEC interpretation of the Genesis creation days include the following:
(1) The meaning of bara (“create”) in the Genesis account: While the Bible clearly assumes and teaches throughout the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) in the very beginning, the word “create” as used in Genesis chapter one does not of itself necessarily mean “create out of nothing.” It can also mean “form from pre-existent stuff.” In his thought-provoking book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009) evangelical Old Testament professor John Walton says, “…the verb could be broad enough to include either material or functional activity.” (p. 39) The point? In the context of the six days of Genesis one, the “creation week” could be more concerned with the forming of creation and assigning of functions to the creatures than with material origins per se. Walton suggests that the author of Genesis one (whom I believe to be Moses, by the way) was showing how God shaped the universe into a “cosmic temple” for His dwelling, and that His “creation” as recorded in the early chapters of Genesis is concerned more with the assigning of functions to the creatures than it is with material origins. In addition, “create” does not in itself necessitate “instantaneous production.” God “created” Israel as His covenant nation, but this was a process that required significant time. It is not “instantaneousness,” but “inevitability” that is implied by the term.
(2) The meaning of “earth/land” and the phrase “the heavens and the earth/land.” Dr. John Sailhamer in his book Genesis Unbound (Multnomah Books, 1996) argues that we must understand the primary purpose of the opening chapters of Genesis is not to give us scientific knowledge of the cosmos, but to introduce the story of Israel and its redemption (i.e., the opening chapters of Genesis are intended as an introduction to the Pentateuch). The word most English translations translate as “earth” is misleading. When we think of the “earth,” we think of a globe hanging in the heavens. When ancient Hebrews thought of the “earth,” they thought of the soil, the “land” — in particular, the promised land. Dr. Sailhamer accepts a type of “literal six day” interpretation, but he argues that the creation week of Genesis one is chiefly concerned with God preparing the promised land for His people (originally the first Eden, and then eventually the “new Eden,” the promised land of Israel), not cosmic origins.
(3) The ancient near eastern context: Seven-day literary structures were common in the ancient near east among Israel’s pagan neighbors, often used symbolically for the concept of completeness or perfection. (See Christian geologists Davis A. Young and Ralph P. Stearley, ch. 7, pp. 184-210 in their book The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (IVP Academic, 2008), where they document examples from ancient near eastern texts.) The seven-day structure seemed to have been a highly-stylized literary convention in the ancient near east, one which would have been familiar to Moses and the ancient Hebrews. Perhaps the Holy Spirit led Moses to adopt this literary device to communicate the orderliness and completeness of His creative work.
(4) There is no article in front of numeric sequences of the creation days: Unlike some English translations which read, “the first day,” “the second day,” etc., there is no article in the Hebrew. Thus, a more literal translation would be something like “day one,” “day two,” or “a first day,” etc.
(5) Genesis chapter two seems to be a more detailed description of what God created on the sixth day. The vegetation had not grown because God had not caused it to rain (Gen. 2:5). Implied is the ordinary providential process of seed growth, which takes more than 24 hours. In addition, the naming of all the animals, and Adam’s reaction to the creation of Eve, “now at last this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (indicating Adam had existed long enough to feel lonely) would seem to indicate that he had been around for more than just 24 hours.
(6) The non- chronological correspondence between the various creation “days”: While YEC interpreters argue that the numerical sequence and the repeated clause “and there was evening, and there was morning” indicate that literal, sequential days of ordinary length are intended to be understood, at the same time even YEC advocates (such as Presbyterian theologian Dr. Joseph Pipa of Greenville Seminary) recognize that, from a literary standpoint, Genesis 1:1-2:4 employs highly-stylized, “exalted prose.” This is seen in the way that the days correspond to each other, but out of chronological sequence. For example:
– Day one corresponds to Day four: On day one God creates the light (Gen. 1:3-5). On day four God creates the light-bearers (vv. 14-19).
– Day two corresponds to Day five: On day two God creates the expanse/firmament, separating the waters above from the waters below, thus creating both the sky and the seas (vv. 6-8). On day five God fills the sky with birds and the seas with sea creatures (vv. 20-22).
– Day three corresponds to Day six: On day three God creates the dry land and the land vegetation (vv. 9-13). On day six God fills the land with land creatures, including “beasts of the earth” and man himself (vv. 24-31).
This highly stylized way of presenting God’s work of creation has led some scholars to conclude that the author of the creation account does not intend his readers to understand the creation “days” in a woodenly-literal sense.
(7) The seventh “day” has no end (Gen. 2:2-3), because it lacks the “and there was evening, and there was morning” formula; thus indicating that the other days may be understood in a literary or non-literalistic way. Indeed, a good case can be made that the primary concern of the Genesis creation account is to ground the sabbath day in creation.
Those committed to a YEC view will probably not be convinced by the above considerations. The YEC interpretation may indeed be the correct one. If it can be proven to be correct, then we believers are obligated to embrace it with confidence, knowing that God’s Word never deceives; and we may well expect that the current mainstream view of an ancient earth will eventually be overturned. However, I do hope that the detailed list above will show YEC believers that most of their OEC brethren are not trying to “twist Scripture” or treat the Bible irresponsibly.
2. Beware of YEC misuse of Scripture.
One of the things I have noticed about some YEC literature is that it has a tendency to misuse certain texts of Scripture to support its interpretation of the scientific data. For example, it is common among YEC interpreters to point to the fact that God is said to have created His creatures “after their kind” as an evidence that the Bible denies biological evolution. Now, let the reader please understand that I do NOT accept the theory of biological macroevolution. But at the same time, I believe YEC interpreters misuse Scripture when they claim that God’s creation of His creatures “after their kind” is somehow of itself a refutation of biological evolution. As Reformed scholar Dr. C. John Collins has pointed out (for example, see p. 44 of his introduction to the Book of Genesis in the ESV Study Bible), when the Genesis account says that God created His creatures “after their kind” it is simply stating that God created the various categories of creatures. The Hebrew term “kind” of itself says nothing one way or another about the theory of biological evolution, and such modern scientific theories are nowhere in the purview of the author’s consideration. The term does not indicate how God created the various categories of creatures, whether instantaneously through a miraculous act or gradually through a slow, providential process. It simply affirms that all the various categories of creatures were created by God Himself (and not by the pagan pantheon of deities worshipped by Israel’s ancient neighbors). To use such poor exegesis is to illegitimately treat the Bible as a science textbook, and thus to abuse Scripture and denigrate its redemptive message.
3. The YEC dogma of “no animal death before the fall” should be questioned.
YEC advocates often point to passages like Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death…” ESV), Rom. 5:12-21 (the parallel between Adam and Christ) and St. Paul’s reference to the “groaning” of creation due to human sin (Rom. 8:19-23) as evidences that there was no animal death before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, and thus originally no carnivorous activity within the animal kingdom in the pre-fall world. But that is not what those texts teach. The Bible certainly teaches that human death is the wages of sin, for human beings were created in the image of God and were thus not intended to undergo death. But the idea that there was no animal death before the fall and thus no carnivores before Adam ate the forbidden fruit is fraught with both biblical and scientific problems. One biblical problem with the “no animal death” view is that there are Scripture passages which extol God’s majesty as revealed through His carnivorous creatures (for example, the young lions seeking their prey – Psalm 104:21). If carnivorous activity among the animal kingdom is itself a sign of God’s curse upon His creation, why would Scripture speak positively about carnivorous beasts seeking prey from God, and use powerful carnivorous creatures as example of God’s creative and providential majesty? And the scientific objections to this view are also compelling, since many creatures appear to be designed for carnivorous activity. Futhermore, if Adam and Eve had not sinned, would that mean the animals too would live eternally? Would there have been immortal cockroaches, immortal ants, immortal frogs, immortal giraffes, etc., if Adam and Eve had not sinned? Scripture indicates that death is a punishment for human sin, but since animals are not capable of sin, their experience of death is not in any way a punishment for sin, as it is in the case of mankind, God’s image-bearers.
4. One’s views on how to interpret the “days” of creation should not be a boundary marker for orthodoxy.
While our Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms) state that God created all things “in/within the space of six days,” the OPC has never insisted that this terminology require church officers to adhere only to the YEC position. OPC church officers solemnly vow at their ordination to uphold the church’s “system of doctrine,” but the OPC as a whole throughout its history has never judged that non-literal interpretations of the creation days of Genesis somehow violates the Reformed system of doctrine summarized in the doctrinal standards of the church. As I stated in an earlier post, Dr. J. Gresham Machen and numerous others in the founding generation of the OPC accepted non-literal views of the creation days of Genesis. Creation is an important issue, but when the issue of how to interpret the days of creation in Genesis get so associated with the gospel that holding to a non-literal view makes one’s orthodoxy suspect, I think that is taking matters way too far. I would hope my YEC brethren would agree.
5. YEC proponents should consider how their position erects a potential roadblock keeping scientists from seriously considering the Christian faith, and how it may even contribute to apostasy among the covenant youth of the church.
I quote below from Young and Stearley’s book, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth:
“Many young Christians have been reared to believe that this concept of creation is a virtual article of faith that represents ‘the’ biblical teaching. Those young Christians then go off to college, to a museum or to another source of knowledge where they may be exposed to legitimate geology and are stunned by the force of geologic evidence for Earth’s antiquity. They have been personally confronted with an intellectual and spiritual fixed great gulf that is far wider than the Grand Canyon, between their newfound scientific understanding and the religious views of their youth. Not having been equipped to handle the resulting intellectual and spiritual stresses, they all too often conclude, because the geologic evidence is so persuasive, that what they were taught about creation must be incorrect. To them, the Bible now becomes a flawed book. Sensing that they have been misled about creation by the religious authorities of their youth, they lose confidence in the rest of their religious upbringing. Such students may suffer severe shock to their faith. They were not properly taught the truth about creation, nor were they equipped to deal with challenges to their faith. Christians who are professional scientists have all heard far too many accounts of individuals whose spiritual journeys sound much like the scenario just described. Let’s have no shipwrecks of the faith of young, vulnerable, unprepared Christian youth that can be laid at the door of the pseudo-science promoted by Christians.” (pp. 476-477) ”
““Proving” the Bible or Christianity with spurious scientific hypotheses does not honor God and can only be injurious to the cause of Christ. We must not defend God’s truth by arguing falsehood on its behalf. In fact, Christians must be very cautious in using even legitimate science as an apologetic device. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Scripture is more reliable or trustworthy if it is backed up at every point by scientific evidence. Nor should we suspect that Scripture may be untrustworthy if science does not back it up at every point. Scripture stands on its own self-attesting authority.” (p. 481)
Of course, many YEC proponents teach the YEC view precisely because they are motivated by a desire to reach scientists with the gospel and to retain the church’s youth when they leave home and go off to college or into the work world. But at the very least I think it can be said that the way some YEC organizations present their case is scientifically unconvincing to many, and thus may end up being a stumbling block to faith.
In conclusion, let us remember that YEC and OEC believers alike are committed to the authority of Scripture and to the gospel message. While vigorous dialogue and debate about the important issue of how to interpret the “days” of Genesis is certainly appropriate, let us also be sure to engage in such a discussion in a spirit of unity, peace and brotherly love.
In a future post I plan to list both YEC and OEC resources for those readers who may wish to dig deeper into this debate.