The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church
Rev. Peter J. Wallace
Some historical context may be useful for helping us understand what is happening in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (and throughout the evangelical churches) today. It is perhaps to be expected that much of the historical discussion has focused exclusively on the debate regarding the nature and length of the days of creation, which has led some to claim that the issue is of relatively recent origin (since around 1800). But this approach neglects the fact that the debate surrounding the nature and length of the days of creation participates in a much larger context: the discussion of the relationship between general and special revelation–or perhaps more accurately, the relationship between our understanding of creation and our understanding of scripture. The very historical texts cited for their relevance to the discussion of the nature and length of the creation days frequently reveal far more about these larger issues than they do about what the fathers, schoolmen, or reformers thought about the days of creation.
Section One: Conservatism and Concordism
Throughout the history of the church, two general principles have remained fairly constant: 1) conservatism: the church has tended to be very wary with respect to the science of the day; and 2) concordism: the church has tended to read Moses in terms of the current scientific paradigm–conservatively embraced. A few examples may be useful.
1. Four Elements?
Patristic and medieval commentators frequently interact with the science of the day, objecting to such philosophical views as the eternity of matter and the notion that the visible heavens are so perfect that there could only be one heaven. But while rejecting these doctrines on exegetical grounds, they affirm the traditional Greek description of the universe consisting of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. John of Damascus speaks of the four elements as follows: “Our God Himself, Whom we glorify as Three in One, created the heaven and the earth and all that they contain , and brought all things out of nothing into being: some He made out of no pre‑existing basis of matter, such as heaven, earth, air, fire, water: and the rest out of these elements that He had created, such as living creatures, plants, seeds. For these are made up of earth, and water, and air, and fire, at the bidding of the Creator.” This understanding was nearly universal among Christian commentators from the early church through the reformation, and remained the dominant paradigm throughout the seventeenth century among Reformed theologians. George Walker, one of the Westminster Divines, followed the patristic and medieval tradition by distinguishing between God’s act of absolute/immediate creation in Genesis 1:1, and God’s acts of secondary/mediate creation in the six days. He further distinguished between the first three days which narrate the creation of the four elements: fire (light), air (firmament), water (seas), and earth (land); and the second three days which narrate the creation of things out of those elements (noting that man’s body is formed through mediate creation, while his soul is through immediate creation). Only with the rise of Descartes’ corpuscular theory did an alternative theory rival the four-element theory of the Greeks, and by the early eighteenth century the Reformed tradition no longer claimed that God had created the four elements on the first three days of creation.
The lesson of this example is how easy it is to read a certain scientific viewpoint into the Mosaic narrative. It is very easy to suggest that the first three days of creation refer to the creation of earth, water, air, and fire–and that therefore these must be the four elements of Greek philosophy. If the Bible seemed to support the science of the day, the church proclaimed that the Bible taught that science. Genesis 1 does not actually teach the four elements, but to those who were familiar with the four-element theory, it certainly appeared to do so. Therefore the Christian church taught Greek physics from the Bible for nearly 1700 years, and only stopped doing so when Descartes (and especially Newton) demonstrated that the physical world was more complex.
2. Round or Flat?
There is a common myth that says that the church rejected Greek science and insisted that the world was flat. It is true that some theologians taught this, but the actual discussion was more complex. It does appear that the earliest fathers taught that the world was flat. Theodore of Antioch, who provided the first commentary on Genesis 1 around 180, declared that “by "earth" he means the ground and foundation, as by "the deep" he means the multitude of waters; and "darkness" he speaks of, on account of the heaven which God made covering the waters and the earth like a lid.” This account follows the traditional Jewish understanding of the earth as a flat disc, established on the waters, with a solid dome, or tent, over it. This understanding seems to have prevailed in those areas of the early church that were least influenced by Greek thought. Therefore many Syrian commentators insisted that the earth was flat–such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Ephrem the Syrian. In the West, Cosmas Indicopleustes (early sixth century) argued for an oblong earth (east-west) surrounded by an ocean with Paradise beyond the ocean. Rejecting the geocentric spherical universe as a “fictitious hypotheses of the Greeks,” Cosmas argued for the traditional understanding against the modern science of his day. But from the fourth century a different strand of thought had developed, claiming that Greek science had demonstrated that the traditional view was not possible. By the end of the fourth century Basil of Caesarea had agreed with the Greeks that at least the heavens were spherical, and argues in such a way that it appears that a spherical earth would not be a problem for him. John of Damascus reported in the eighth century that the church had not yet agreed upon a single understanding of this matter. Some believed that the heavens were spherical and that the earth was a sphere at the center of the universe (following the concentric spheres of the Greeks), while others argued that the heavens were hemispherical, and sat as a dome over the earth. But it is interesting to note that John gives only philosophical reasons for a spherical heaven, while he provides exegetical reasons for a hemispherical heaven.
During the middle ages, the church became convinced of the Ptolemaic model, and virtually every medieval commentator assumes the spherical nature of the heavens and the earth. In expounding the work of the six days of creation, Robert Grosseteste (d. 1235) explains the Mosaic text in terms of Ptolemaic science.
It remains the case, however, that the Christian church had been originally reluctant to adopt the idea of a spherical earth, largely due to their reading of scripture. Nothing in the scriptures predisposed them to the spherical doctrine, and much of biblical teaching seems to assume a flat earth. Once again, the church was wary of importing contemporary science into their interpretation of scripture–but once that science was accepted, it became incorporated into their exegesis so that Robert Grosseteste can write as though scripture teaches the Greek spherical model.
3. Is the Raqi’a Solid?
While the Bible does not speak directly to the question of whether the earth is flat or spherical, there is much more material that deals with the nature of the raqi’a (generally translated firmament or expanse). All patristic and medieval commentators agree that whether spherical or hemispherical, there is a dome-like or tent-like structure in the heavens that keeps the waters above from flooding the earth.
Theodore of Antioch (ca. 180) taught: “The heaven, therefore, being like a dome‑shaped covering, comprehended matter which was like a clod. And so another prophet, Isaiah by name, spoke in these words: "It is God who made the heavens as a vault, and stretched them as a tent to dwell in."” Basil of Caesarea (ca. 375) goes further and describes the firmament as a “strong body.” While refusing to define its physical structures, he points out that scripture speaks of it as holding back the waters above it, so whatever its physical composition, it must be strong. With this basic premise, the entire patristic and medieval tradition is agreed. Some, with Augustine, could at times emphasize an allegorical meaning for the waters above the heavens, but even Augustine affirmed the literal existence of a solid firmament, holding back literal waters. John of Damascus nicely summarizes the various opinions regarding the nature of the raqi’a: “And its nature, according to the divine Basilius, who is versed in the mysteries of divine Scripture, is delicate as smoke. Others, however, hold that it is watery in nature, since it is set in the midst of the waters: others say it is composed of the four elements: and lastly, others speak of it as a fifth body, distinct from the four elements.” Since scripture didn’t explain its physical composition, there was considerable difference as to the nature of the raqi’a, but since scripture affirmed its existence, the existence of a “strong body” in the heavens that held back the waters above was unquestioned until the reformation.
It was only in the sixteenth century that anyone challenged the traditional interpretation of the raqi’a. John Calvin was one of the first exegetes to suggest that the raqi’a was simply the air (what we now call the atmosphere). The entire Christian tradition had previously affirmed that the raqi’a was a firm boundary between the air and the waters above. Calvin was also one of the first to reject the traditional translation of raqi’a as firmamentum, claiming that since the raqi’a was simply the air above us, it should be translated “expanse” rather than “firmament.” Calvin also rejected the entire Christian tradition by arguing that the water above the firmament was simply the clouds. Calvin’s argument is instructive:
“I know not why the Greeks have chosen to render the word sterewma, which the Latins have imitated in the term firmamentum; for literally it means expanse....Moses describes the special use of this expanse, ‘to divide the waters from the waters,’ from which words arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere....[T]he waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive....We see that the clouds suspended in the air, which threaten to fall upon our heads, yet leave us space to breathe....Since, therefore, God has created the clouds, and assigned them a region above us, it ought not to be forgotten that they are restrained by the power of God, lest, gushing forth with sudden violence, they should swallow us up: and especially since no other barrier is opposed to them than the liquid and yielding air, which would easily give way unless this word prevailed, ‘Let there be an expanse between the waters.” 
Calvin here insists that scripture does not teach astronomy–and so therefore he is forced to take what astronomy teaches as a distinct discipline and demonstrate how scripture is consistent with it. Since the astronomy of his day had begun to challenge the traditional interpretation of the raqi’a (as comets were seen passing through the supposedly “solid” spheres of the heavens) Calvin attempts to give an interpretation of the raqi’a that will be immune to scientific challenges. Calvin did not embrace the Copernican revolution (no Reformed theologian of note adopted the new perspective until the end of the seventeenth century), but his exegesis reflects the beginnings of the shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican understanding of astronomy.
During the seventeenth century, the question of the raqi’a continued to trouble the Reformed tradition. We have so far only found two of the Westminster Divines who commented upon the question, but both affirm something like Calvin’s view. George Walker claimed that most recent divines taught that the firmament is that airy region that “reacheth from this globe of the Earth and the Sea, to the starry heavens, even to the sphere of the Moon,” and that “this firmament is the place where waters are engendered in the clouds and which from thence descend and water the earth.” John White concurs, suggesting that the meaning of raqi’a is only the spreading out, not the firmness, of the heavens. He claims that the term firmament sometimes means the whole aerial heavens up to the sphere of the stars, and sometimes means just the lower regions between the earth and the clouds.
The various advocates of this view offer no exegetical grounds for their claim that sometimes the firmament means the whole aerial heavens, and sometimes only the lower portion, but this is the only way to account for the firmament as the scientific worldview was in the middle of its shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus. Once again the Christian tradition is demonstrating both its basic conservatism, as well as its basic concordism. While maintaining a wary distance from the cutting edge of modern science, once a particular scientific perspective was embraced, the church usually attempted to demonstrate that Moses taught that particular scientific perspective.
4. Does the Earth Move?
While it was relatively painless to reinterpret the raqi’a in such a way as to allow astronomers the freedom to reject the solid dome theory, it was much more difficult for the Reformed to alter traditional interpretations of the stability of the earth. Prior to the sixteenth century, this was so obvious (both exegetically and scientifically) that few even bothered to defend it. Calvin spoke of how “the heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion–no disturbance in the harmony of their motion....How could earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God’s hand? By what means could it maintain itself unmoved, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?”
Geocentrism remained the dominant position in the Reformed tradition throughout the seventeenth century. John White insisted upon the stability of the earth in 1656, and Francis Turretin taught the rotation of the sphere of the heavens around the earth as late as the 1670s. It was only after Newtonian physics made the Ptolemaic position look absurd that the Reformed tradition passed wholesale into the heliocentric model. And given the fact that there is no passage of scripture that refers to the earth moving around the sun, there were plainly no exegetical arguments in favor of the heliocentric model.
5. Where Does the Moon Get Its Light?
Calvin claimed that the light of day one had been in “lucid bodies” which then coalesced into the sun. While admitting that the moon borrows light from the sun, Calvin insisted that “the moon is a dispenser of light to us. That it is, as the astronomers assert, an opaque body, I allow to be true, while I deny it to be a dark body. For, first, since it is placed above the element of fire, it must of necessity be a fiery body. Hence it follows, that it is also luminous; but seeing that it has not light sufficient to penetrate to us, it borrows what is wanting from the sun. He calls it a ‘lesser light’ by comparison; because the portion of light which it emits to us is small compared with the infinite splendour of the sun.” Because the text declares that the moon is a light (and because of his assumption of the Greek doctrine of the four elements), Calvin insists that even though we cannot see it from earth, the moon must give off light of its own. Here we see both the conservatism and the concordism of the Christian tradition at work. Had he been a pure conservative, he would have rejected astronomy outright and insisted that the moon gives off its own light. But Calvin recognized the value of astronomy, and insisted on harmonizing the two: “For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God...Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience?...Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendour of the night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.”
Lessons for the Church
For centuries biblical interpreters assumed that the scripture spoke of a flat, unmoveable earth with a solid dome/tent over it, along with a moon that gives off light of its own. No one ever questioned these interpretations until new scientific views clashed with traditional biblical interpretations. As the case of the four elements indicates, sometimes the church has made the wrong decision, aligning her interpretation of scripture with a false scientific theory.
What lessons should the church learn from this? First, both conservatism and concordism toward science are deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition. Neither should be eliminated. But the tendency to make Moses teach the received science of the day (whether Ptolemaic or Newtonian, whether evolution science or creation science) is dangerous. As Stanley L. Jaki has suggested, the “greatest peril” of our interpretation of Genesis 1 is “the ever recurring temptation to make that magnificent chapter appear concordant with the science of the day in order to assure it cultural respectability.” Rather than harmonize at the level of exegesis, we ought to refrain from bringing the scientific questions into the equation until after we have ascertained what the text says. We may debate whether Moses presents the raqi’a as a solid dome or simply as an expanse–or we may find that there is simply not enough information to be certain. But it is only after we have determined what Moses said that we should worry about the question of harmonization. We may decide that Moses speaks of the raqi’a in the same way the scripture speaks of the sun rising or standing still (Joshua 10:12). It may be simply the language of ordinary observation. Or there may be a theological point to the raqi’a. Perhaps God wishes to communicate something to us about how the creation is a reflection of the heavenly temple–the earth is created as a tabernacle where God dwells with his people (see Isaiah 40:22, Psalm 78:69, and Psalm 150:1). In other words, harmonization should not happen at the point of exegetical theology, but at the point of systematic theology.
Second, in all of the historical debates regarding the relationship of science and theology, science has taken the lead in provoking theologians to reconsider their exegesis. The quest for harmonization with science has led theologians and pastors to reject the theories of a lucid moon and a solid raqi’a, and adopt theories of the four elements, a spherical earth, heliocentrism, and Day-Age and Gap theories of the creation days. In none of these cases did the transformation begin with exegetical work. Exegetical arguments have invariably followed from philosophical and scientific arguments that caused the church to reconsider her traditional exegesis.
Third, differences of opinion based upon shifting scientific paradigms have never been made a test of orthodoxy. Even though John of Damascus cites scripture to show that the heavens are hemispherical (the flat earth position) and only cites philosophical reasons to show that the heavens are spherical (the round earth position), he claims that both views are within “the orthodox faith.” In the seventeenth century, the Reformed theological faculty of Leiden, following Gisbertius Voetius, declared the Copernican model of the universe to be contrary to scripture, but the Reformed churches wisely refused to follow their example.
Section Two: Historical Opinions on the Days of Creation
The Days of Creation before Westminster
There is no need to rehearse what every individual said, since David Hall and Robert Letham have provided sufficient details. Letham shows that Augustine’s instantaneous creation argument had a number of defenders throughout the middle ages (Anselm’s statement of “the majority” refers to theologians, not necessarily parish pastors, who sided with Augustine). While very few actually use the phrase “twenty-four hours,” Hall is probably correct that the general assumption was that the days of creation were not very different in length from our own. At the same time, there is also a general agreement that there is a difference between the days of creation and our own. Augustine, who tended to think that the creation was instantaneous, declared that “these seven days of our time, although like the seven days of creation in name and in numbering, follow one another in succession and mark off the division of time, but those first six days occurred in a form unfamiliar to us.”
Basil of Caesarea, who is one of the plainest in speaking of the days as being twenty-four hours in length, also speaks of the first day of creation as being entirely different in nature from our own:
Why does Scripture say "one day the first day"? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says "one day," it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty‑four hours fill up the space of one day‑we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty‑four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there. Thus, every time that, in the revolution of the sun, evening and morning occupy the world, their periodical succession never exceeds the space of one day. But must we believe in a mysterious reason for this? God who made the nature of time measured it out and determined it by intervals of days; and, wishing to give it a week as a measure, he ordered the week to revolve from period to period upon itself, to count the movement of time, forming the week of one day revolving seven times upon itself: a proper circle begins and ends with itself. Such is also the character of eternity, to revolve upon itself and to end nowhere. If then the beginning of time is called "one day" rather than "the first day," it is because Scripture wishes to establish its relationship with eternity. It was, in reality, fit and natural to call "one" the day whose character is to be one wholly separated and isolated from all the others....Thus it is in order that you may carry your thoughts forward towards a future life, that Scripture marks by the word "one" the day which is the type of eternity, the first fruits of days, the contemporary of light, the holy Lord's day honoured by the Resurrection of our Lord. And the evening and the morning were one day.
Thus, besides the Augustinian view of instantaneous creation (which seems to have had significant support for a thousand years) there was not much discussion regarding the length of the creation days. But length is not the only issue. Virtually every commentator followed Basil in acknowledging that the creation days were not identical to ours in their nature. To simply point to the general uniformity of the Christian tradition regarding the length of the days of creation bears no more weight than the same uniformity that exists regarding the existence of a solid firmament which holds back the cosmic waters. It wasn’t an issue. Only when early modern astronomy challenged the traditional interpretation of the firmament did Calvin suggest a different interpretation. Likewise, only when modern geology challenged the traditional interpretation of the length of the creation days did anyone suggest a different interpretation.
The Westminster Divines on the Days of Creation
From the work of David Hall and others, it is apparent that all of the known references from the Westminster Divines on the nature and length of the creation days are consistent with the view that says that the days were twenty-four hours in length. There are certain exceptions. Prior to the Assembly, William Perkins made it clear that the first three days could not be solar days. While opposing the instantaneous view of Augustine, he does not speculate as to their length, but declares that the days are “distinct spaces of times.” At least one member of the Assembly, John Lightfoot, argued that the first day was 36 hours, and that the seventh day was everlasting.John Lightfoot, “A Few, and New Observations, Upon the Book of Genesis”, The Works of the Reverend And Learned John Lightfoot D.D., Vol. 1, (London, 1684) 691, 693. But the simple fact remains that they did not put any of these matters in their confession. The phrase “in the space of six days” is not equivalent in meaning to “in six twenty-four hour days.”
In private writings some of the Divines use the language of 24-hours. They chose not to incorporate that language in the Confession. (??) LOOK FOR 24 language in the Minutes of the WA
Since there is no evidence to the contrary, let us assume that the Westminster Divines all believed that at least most of the days were twenty-four hours in length. Does this mean that the unanimous opinion of the Westminster Divines renders their understanding of the nature and length of the creation days binding upon the church? If it does then their understanding of “the world, and all things therein” (IV.1) should also be binding. They believed that “the world” consisted of an unmoveable earth and a rotating heavens. We have demonstrated above that the extant writings of the Divines indicates that they rejected the Copernican view of the universe. If the understanding of the Westminster Divines is binding upon the church, then all who reject geocentrism should have to take exception to the Confession.
One of the most salutary effects of David Hall’s work is that it conclusively proves that the Westminster Divines did not intend to make the twenty-four hour view a test of orthodoxy. In his detailed research he never uncovers a suggestion that the nature or length of the creation days was considered a test of orthodoxy. When the Westminster Divines sought to exclude a position (e.g., Arminians, Socinians, Independents or Baptists) they were careful to use language that would be impossible for the errorists to adopt. The phrase “in the space of six days,” taken in its plain grammatical meaning, does not obviously exclude any of the positions discussed in this report.
2. The Days of Creation in the Modern Era
By the end of the eighteenth century, the findings of geologists were raising questions about the age of the earth. The work of geologists such as the Scot, James Hutton (1726-1797), suggested that the present geological structure of the earth could not have been formed in the six thousand years allowed by the traditional interpretation of scripture. Various proposals regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1 arose in response. By the 1840s (more than a decade before Darwin’s Origin of Species) several alternatives had been embraced by various Reformed writers.
Among orthodox Presbyterians, there were two common alternatives to the traditional interpretation. The Day-Age view was articulated by believing geologists Robert Jameson (1774-1854), Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), and Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864). Many, like Scottish Presbyterian Hugh Miller (1802-1856), defended the Day-Age view, arguing that the days of Genesis 1 corresponded to the geological ages of earth’s development. In America, ruling elder Dr. S. Annan published a lengthy series on geology in the Presbyterian Advocate in 1841 arguing that the geological data indicated that the earth underwent “a gradual preparation for the reception of [man],” and suggested that all his readers would come to this conclusion if they would “examine the subject with an unprejudiced mind.” But relatively few were persuaded by the Day-Age view due to the difficulty of making “day” mean “age.”
The more favored theory was the Gap theory, which suggested that there was an indefinite period of time in between Genesis 1:1 and the six days of creation. Lewis Green, president of Hampden-Sydney College, suggested that the six literal days of creation were a microcosm of the ages that preceded it. One author in the Watchman of the South claimed that we learn from scripture of the creation of man a few thousand years ago, and that we learn from nature of the creation of the world several million years before. Another writer in the Princeton Review agreed–claiming that Moses was concerned “only with the history of man, he enters not into any account of the length of time which the earth lay without form and void, or how long the darkness was upon the face of the deep before the sun and moon were called into existence, and the land and water were separated and both fitted for the habitation of those beings who now occupy them.”
A variation on the Gap theory was suggested in 1851 by the retired Old School minister Sayrs Gazlay. He concurred with Miller that “the earth existed for a long time prior to the Mosaic period of creation....[and that] the history of creation was revealed for a specific object, even our faith, leaving the details of physical science to human investigation.” But Gazlay had a different explanation than others, claiming that before Genesis 1 the earth “was a planet of another solar system; and that in those periods, its coal and other fossils were matured and deposited in the earth; that at the beginning of the creation recorded by Moses, the earth was brought here, its former dynasties destroyed, and its whole surface reduced to a chaotic state of earth and water commingled, over which silence and darkness brooded.” Indeed, Gazlay was confident that further scientific investigation would demonstrate that the earth did not originally belong to this solar system.
One of the most well-known opponents of the geological theories was the Rev. Gardiner Spring. Spring rejected both the Day-Age and Gap theories as forcing the text beyond the bounds of plausible interpretation. “If human science is inconsistent with the sacred record, so much the worse for human science.” But those who opposed the old earth views never suggested that other views should be excluded from the church. Instead they confidently declared that true science would vindicate Moses from the claims of the geologists. While the 24-hour view seems to have remained the majority position among Old School Presbyterians, the most frequent reason given was that the science seemed too new to require any change.
One writer in the Princeton Review thought that the Day-Age theory was “forced and unnatural,” but preferred to wait for further study and discussion before committing himself to one view or another. “The only thing which weighs with us in settling this controversy is the exhibition of facts which are totally incompatible with the belief that the material of the earth was created only a few days before man....If such facts are clearly made out, we will promptly receive the inference without a single fear either for the truth or the plenary inspiration of the sacred record.” He concluded by warning both sides:There is not, we confidently believe, the smallest probability that geology will ever make good its demand for a greater change in the received interpretation of the scriptures, than did the Copernican system of astronomy: nor have harsher denunciations been dealt out against modern geologists, than were poured upon Galileo by the misguided friends of religion. Let us profit by the instructions of history. Before we lay down our pen, we wish to suggest a similar caution on the other side of the question. Philosophers, we are compelled to think, show a strong tendency to generalize too hastily, and to speak too confidently of the truth of their hypotheses.
Unlike most modern writers, our forefathers understood that the geological questions of the nineteenth century were related to the astronomical questions of the seventeenth century. By adopting a literal, historical interpretation of scripture, Protestants also encouraged a literal, historical interpretation of nature. No longer was the investigation of scripture bound to church tradition–and no longer was the investigation of nature bound to church authority. Conservative concordism remained the order of the day, but as science progressively freed itself from traditional authorities, many Presbyterians became more and more nervous.
Herman Bavinck, writing around the turn of the twentieth century, suggests that there were four basic theories respecting the creation days, which he categorized in two groups: harmonizing theories and antigeological theories. In the harmonization camp he found three basic types: 1) the ideal theory–“The six days are not seen as chronologically ordered periods of longer or shorter duration but only different perspectives from which the one created world can be viewed”–advocated by Philo, Origen, Augustine, and more recently Zollman, Dillman, and others; 2) the restitution theory–which placed a gap between Gen 1:2 and 1:3 and claimed that the original creation was laid waste–advocated originally by the Remonstrants, Episcopius and Limborch, but developed more fully after 1800; and 3) the concordist theory–commonly known as the day-age view–which he claimed had been hinted at by Descartes in the seventeenth century, but was fully worked out by Hugh Miller in the 1830s and had been advocated by Delitzsch, Ebrard, Zockler, and others. The anti-harmonistic view, what Bavinck called the antigeological theory, emphasized the flood as the means of explaining geological features. Bavinck pointed out that flood geology was a novel position, since exegetes had debated partial versus universal flood since the patristic era: “the flood acquired geological significance only after Newton.”
But Bavinck did not name this last theory accurately. It was not anti-geological, nor was it anti-harmonistic. It is true that it rejected the discoveries of modern geology, but it still attempted to harmonize science with scripture, and claimed that Moses taught the same thing as modern science, so long as science was rightly understood.
Conservatism and Concordism Today
Two modern examples of this approach can be found in two of the most popular positions among evangelical Christians today.
1) Hugh Ross tries to integrate progressive creationism with the Mosaic account, arguing that Genesis 1-2 is perfectly consistent with a scientific investigation of the order of creation. Claiming that Genesis 1 is the ultimate example of the scientific method, Ross argues that the biblical text teaches that the days of creation were long ages. He concludes that the 24-hour view fails to “withstand rigorous testing” either exegetically or scientifically, emphasizing the evangelistic and apologetic value of his approach.
2) While most defenders of the 24-hour view find this approach repulsive, most of those who hold the 24-hour view wind up doing exactly the same thing. The difference is that rather than try to harmonize modern geology with the Mosaic narrative, they are harmonizing modern astronomy. The Bible presents the earth as motionless, and portrays the sun going around the earth. In Joshua 10:12 Joshua commands the sun to “stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” The text then declares that “The sun stood still, and the moon stopped” (Joshua 10:13).
So in different ways, both creation science and progressive creationism are trying to find modern science in the biblical narrative. While they may vigorously disagree about what science teaches, they are in perfect harmony with each other in their concordist approach.
The solution may be to refuse to allow modern scientific theories any place in our exegetical work. Harmonization at the level of exegesis is potentially fatal to a true understanding of the biblical text. If we find that the scripture portrays the sun as going around the earth, we should not seek to repress this, but acknowledge that this was the scientific model of the biblical authors–which accurately expresses not only the ordinary observation of humanity, but the biblical teaching that the earth is the center of God’s purposes in the universe. Likewise, if we determine that the raqi’a is portrayed in scripture as a solid dome or tent, then we should acknowledge that this was the common observation of ancient thinkers, and that it expresses the biblical teaching that the world was formed as a tabernacle where God is worshiped. In the same way, if we discover that the days of creation are portrayed as ordinary days, we should acknowledge that this expresses the biblical teaching that God’s pattern of six days of work and one day of rest forms the pattern for our labors. We should not seek to harmonize our exegesis with modern science. If we seek to harmonize exegesis with science, and make Moses teach our present scientific theories, then we put our grandchildren in the awkward position of having to alter our exegesis in order to fit the science of the twenty-second century. The place for harmonization is at the level of systematic theology. We may seek to demonstrate that scripture is consistent with various scientific views, but we should not seek to make scripture teach one particular scientific theory.
In addition to the primary sources listed below, there are several useful historical studies that look at various aspects the doctrine of creation in the history of the church. The two most useful works are Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 Through the Ages (London: Thomas More Press, 1992). See also John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (New York: Doubleday, 1960); Christopher B. Kaiser, Creation and the History of Science (Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1991); Christopher B. Kaiser, Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science (Leiden: Brill, 1997). The closest thing to a full study of the history of the doctrine of creation that we could find is Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator (Edinburgh University Press, 1998), who focuses on the relative lack of a Trinitarian understanding of creation throughout much of the medieval and modern periods.
Basil, Hexaemeron 3.3 NPNF Series 2, vol 7. Basil asks: “Are there two heavens? The philosophers, who discuss heaven, would rather lose their tongues than grant this. There is only one heaven, they pretend; and it is of a nature neither to admit of a second, nor of a third, nor of several others. The essence of the celestial body quite complete constitutes its vast unity. Because, they say, every body which has a circular motion is one and finite. And if this body is used in the construction of the first heaven, there will be nothing left for the creation of a second or a third. Here we see what those imagine who put under the Creator's hand uncreated matter; a lie that follows from the first fable....When grave demonstrations shall have upset their foolish system, when the laws of geometry shall have established that, according to the nature of heaven, it is impossible that there should be two, we shall only laugh the more at this elaborate scientific trifling....As for myself, far from not believing in a second, I seek for the third whereon the blessed Paul was found worthy to gaze. And does not the Psalmist in saying "heaven of heavens" give us an idea of their plurality?”
Basil, Hexaemeron 3.5. “The essence of fire is necessary for the world, not only in the economy of earthly produce, but for the completion of the universe; for it would be imperfect if the most powerful and the most vital of its elements were lacking. Now fire and water are hostile to and destructive of each other. Fire, if it is the stronger, destroys water, and water, if in greater abundance, destroys fire. As, therefore, it was necessary to avoid an open struggle between these elements, so as not to bring about the dissolution of the universe by the total disappearance of one or the other, the sovereign Disposer created such a quantity of water that in spite of constant diminution from the effects of fire, it could last until the time fixed for the destruction of the world.”
John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.5 NPNF Series 2 Vol 9. See also Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 1:14.1; 15.1 (in Andrew Louth, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11 [Downers Grove: IVP, 2001] 8-9); Robert Grosseteste On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaemmeron by C. F. J. Martin. (Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1996) 102-3.
Calvin speaks of the four elements in his Commentary on Genesis 1.15.
George Walker, The History of Creation (London, 1641) 1-7.
The Cartesian method was defended at Leiden in 1670s, “and was generally supported by theological followers of John Cocceius (1603-69), who sought a purely scriptural basis of theology that complemented Descartes’s procedure of separating natural philosophy from theology. In Calvinist Geneva, Francis Turretin (1623-87) took a positive interest in Descartes’s natural philosophy and only objected to the application of his methodological doubt to theological issues.” Christopher B. Kaiser, Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science: the Creationist Tradition from Basil to Bohr (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 220.
The myth is promoted in many textbooks, such as Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Fabric of the Heavens (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961) 154.
Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2.13 (ANF vol 2)
See Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 through the Ages (London: Thomas More Press, 1992) chapters 1 and 2. Whether or not scripture actually portrays the world in this way, the rabbis were convinced that it did–and no one questioned that interpretation until the rise of Greek science.
Basil, Hexaemeron 3.4.
John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.6.
Robert Grosseteste (bishop of Lincoln, c. 1230-1235), Robert Grossteste: On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaemmeron by C. F. J. Martin. Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1996–especially books III-V.
Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2.13.
Basil, Hexaemeron 3.4.
Augustine, Confessions 15.18.
Augustine, Confessions 15.16. Grosseteste also cites Augustine as saying: “‘However it may be that those waters are there, and of whatever kind they may be, let us not have the slightest doubt that they are there. The authority of this text of scripture is greater than that of all the power of human ingenuity.’” III.3.7–from the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 2.5.
John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.6.
Commentary on Genesis 1:6. It should be noted that in this interpretation of the raqi’a Calvin fails to deal effectively with Psalm 148:4, 8. In his Commentary on the Psalms 148:4, Calvin says: “He calls rains, the waters above the heavens. There is no foundation for the conjecture which some have made, that there are waters deposited above the four elements; and when the Psalmist speaks of these waters as being above, he clearly points at the descent of the rain. It is adhering too strictly to the letter of the words employed, to conceive as if there were some sea up in the heavens, where the waters were permanently deposited; for we know that Moses and the Prophets ordinarily speak in a popular style, suited to the lowest apprehension.” But if Psalm 148 calls rain “the waters above the heavens” in verse 4 (when dealing with praise from the heavenly realm) then why does verse 8 call upon “fire and hail, snow and mist” to praise God from the earthly realm? Calvin seems to be using his own scientific paradigm to interpret Genesis and Psalm 148, and fails to understand the scientific paradigm of Moses and the ancient Hebrews.
Calvin’s 1847 century translator, the Rev. John King, adds a footnote: “Doubtless Calvin is correct in supposing the true meaning of the Hebrew word to be expanse; but the translators of the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and our own version, were not without reasons for the manner in which they rendered the word. The root, rq’, signifies, according to Gesenius, Lee, Cocceius, &c., to stamp with the foot, to beat or hammer out any malleable substance; and the derivative, raqi’a, is the outspreading of the heavens, which, ‘according to ordinary observation, rests like the half of a hollow sphere over the earth.’ To the Hebrews, as Gesenius observes, it presented a crystal or sapphire-like appearance. Hence it was thought to be something firm as well as expanded–a roof of crystal or of sapphire.” (p79)
George Walker, The History of Creation (London, 1641) 119.
John White, A Commentary upon the First Three Chapters of Genesis (London, 1656) 40. Turretin concurs wholeheartedly with this approach–see Institutes of Elenctic Theology 5.6.8-11.
Among the few we have found who mention the stability of the earth in passing (as an obvious truth) are John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.6. Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaemmeron 1.16.3.
Commentary on the Psalms 93:1; see also Commentary on Joshua 10:12, and Psalm 148:3.
John White, A Commentary upon the First Three Chapters of Genesis (London, 1656) 42.
Turretin, Institutes V.vi.8.
Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 1.15.
Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 1.16.
Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 through the Ages (London: Thomas More Press, 1992) 31.
John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.6.
Dillenberger, John, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988/1960) 101. Dillenberger points out that virtually all of the Lutheran and Reformed universities in Germany prohibited the teaching of the Cartesian system during the seventeenth century. By the end of the century, however, things were changing. Leiden became one of the leading centers of Cartesian philosophy by the 1670s following the lead of Johannes Cocceius. See Christopher B. Kaiser, Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science: the Creationist Tradition from Basil to Bohr (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 220.
David H. Hall, Holding Fast to Creation (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 2000) and Robert Letham, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 149-174, provide significant excerpts from numerous theologians from the early church through the seventeenth century.
Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, John Hammond Taylor, trans. (New York: Newman Press, 1962), 1.125
Basil, Hexaemeron homily 2.
Robert Letham, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 149-174.
The Workes of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the Universitie of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins (London: Iohn Legatt, 1612) 1:143-144, cited in Robert Letham, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 171.
David H. Hall, Holding Fast to Creation (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 2000);
And likewise, since the condemnation of usury and unjust enclosures in Larger Catechism 142 assumes a pre-capitalist economy, perhaps all free market capitalists should take exception to the Confession–due to the original understanding of the Divines regarding these terms.
Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (Edinburgh, 1788) was one of the first books to argue for an ancient earth.
All three were prolific writers in the field of geology and the earth sciences. Jameson, a professor at Edinburgh University, translated Cuvier’s Essay on the Theory of the Earth (Edinburgh, 1813), adding his own preface. Cuvier (a Frenchman) seems to have been one of the first to propose the Day-Age theory, whereas Jameson suggested that the earth’s rotation may have been incredibly slow, causing one rotation of darkness and light to last for millions of years. Benjamin Silliman, a professor at Yale, wrote An Introduction to Geology (New Haven, 1833). The only significant attempt by an Old Testament scholar to defend this position in the 1830s was George Bush, Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Genesis; Designed as a General Help to Biblical Reading and Instruction (New York, 1839). Bush, a Princeton Seminary alumnus (1823), was professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature at New York City University.
Miller, who published several volumes defending the evangelical party in the Church of Scotland, and later the Free Church, articulated his geological views in The Old Red Standstone (Edinburgh, 1841), Rudiments of Geology (Edinburgh, 1845), and The Footprints of the Creator (London, 1849). Miller’s views were encouraged in Scotland by many leading ministers, including David King, Principles of Geology (New York, 1851). The Princeton Review applauded such efforts: 23:1 (January 1851) 164.
Dr. S. Annan, “Geology” Presbyterian Advocate 3.49 (Sept 2, 1841).
“Science and Revelation” Watchman and Observer 6.24 (March 27, 1851) 130. Thomas Chalmers and other leading Scottish Presbyterians defended this approach. Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 through the Ages (London: Thomas More Press, 1992) 226.
“Antiquity of the Earth” Watchman and Observer 6.8 (Oct 3, 1850) 32.
“Cory’s Ancient Fragments,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 11.4 (October 1839) 483.
Sayrs Gazlay, “The Bible and Geology” Presbyterian of the West 6.31 (April 24, 1851) 122.
Gardiner Spring, “God’s First Work. Geological Theories” Watchman and Observer 6.29 (May 8, 1851). 153.
John G. Morris, a Lutheran friend of the Old School champion Robert J. Breckinridge, had translated K. C. von Leonhard’s Popular Lectures on Geology (Baltimore, 1839) which had advocated a version of the Day-Age view. Breckinridge published a refutation of this position in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine 5.12 (December 1839) 529-562; 6.2 (February, 1840) 79. Nominis Umbra, “Geology and the Bible--the Six Days' Creation” St Louis Presbyterian 14.28 (Jan 14, 1858).
“Days of Creation” Presbyterian 9.45 (November 16, 1839) 178; A Layman, “review of Geological Cosmogony” Presbyterian Advocate 5.52 (Sept 27, 1843).
“The Relation between Scripture and Geology,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 13.3 (July, 1841) 368-393. Quotations from page 384 and 390.
Peter Harrison argues persuasively that the rejection of the allegorical method of the middle ages had effect not only on biblical hermeneutics, but also on the interpretation of nature. “The literalist mentality of the reformers thus gave a determinate meaning to the text of scripture, and at the same time precluded the possibility of assigning meaning to natural objects. Literalism means that only words refer; the things of nature do not. In this way the study of the natural world was liberated from the specifically religious concern of biblical interpretation, and the sphere of nature was opened up to new ordering principles....It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible. In this book I shall suggest that the reverse is the case: that when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world.” Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998) 4.
It is worth noting that the Princeton Review was occasionally chastised for its support for various geological theories. In the nineteenth century Princeton Seminary was considered the most “progressive” seminary in the Old School on scientific issues–and yet it remained the most orthodox seminary in the 1920s. While some have tried to argue that the adoption of progressive scientific views was the bane of American Presbyterianism, the example of Princeton would seem to suggest that a more nuanced argument is necessary.
Herman Bavinck, In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999) 114.
Ibid., 114-118. Bavinck cited the case of Thomas Burnet who in 1682 suggested that the flood was virtually a recreation, so nothing from the antediluvian era remained–which was vehemently opposed by Spanheim and other orthodox Reformed theologians. Also see Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998) chapter 4.
Hugh Ross and Gleason L. Archer, “The Day-Age View,” in The Genesis Debate, David G. Hagopian, ed. (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001) 153.
Such harmonistic efforts can be regularly seen in the work of the Creation Research Institute.