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I am not even close to being well versed in the latest debates among evangelicals about how to relate Genesis to the hypotheses and perspectives of modern science. However, in light of our series in Genesis, for those who may be even less familiar than me I thought I would provide some of the Biblical interpretations of Genesis 1 that have been proposed as well as how they relate to the observations of scientists related to the earth and its history.
1. Literal 24-Hour Day View (Full Disclosure: this is my view)
This approach views the Genesis chapter one account as describing literal 24 hour days. Normally, proponents would argue that this takes the plainest meaning of the passage, the meaning most likely to have been understood by the original recipients. They also challenge some Old-Earth, evolutionary-process-led-to-modern-species view on the point that this would require death to predate the fall of Adam and Eve, rather than be a consequential implication. They also question the Old Earth/Evolutionary view regarding the theological implications of mankind descending from multiple evolutionary progressions (a lot of ape-like animal species developed over time into mankind) rather than the single historical couple of Adam and Eve, which seems to be the assumption of the rest of Scripture. Obviously proponents of this Literal view must explain the appearance of age in the modern scientific dating of the earth, as well as fossil records that indicate species progression.
My opinion is that the dating age of the earth/Literal Day view is set up as a false dichotomy. Aspects of the earth’s materials may contain certain physical indicators that, if no supernatural influence ever changed the physical conditions or processes of the earth, would indicate age. But of course to eliminate the possibility of supernatural suspension of normal physical process is to eliminate a belief in the Biblical God at all. This does not mean that observing normal physical processes is wrong, merely that to deny God’s right to suspend or alter their normal progression is to deny the definition of God’s sovereignty and authority over his own creation. I am also not persuaded by arguments that question God’s integrity on this point–why would God deceive us into making it seem old?–since such a “deception” does not seem to take into account the very plain and straightforward fact that God said exactly how creation was made in the first chapters of Genesis.
I imagine a scenario in which a modern athiest says to God, “You tricked us! You made the earth seem old and fossils to indicate species progression!” and God responds, “No, I did alter the normal physical progression multiple times, but I also wrote very specifically how the universe was created. I also gave you the Bible which says very clearly that I have the right to suspend normal physical “laws” so that whatever you scientifically observe should be seen as conditioned on my sustaining its normal pattern. What should surprise you is that I altered it so little and allowed it to be consistent enough to the point where you could count on it as being normally definable. I was under no obligation to make the universe consistent at all. It is my universe after all.” Of course, God doesn’t actually have to answer mankind like this, and, as I’ll say below, it is possible that the earth is very old and that God did use some limited, directed evolutionary processes–such views do not necessarily contradict a high view of God and Scripture. I know that the explanation above is described as the “God of the gaps” view in which every scientific mystery is explained away by God’s power. My distinction would be that I view all scientific study and research as good and attempts to describe the earth using normal scientific processes as usually good, but I also assume that some supernatural “gaps” do indeed exists, whether they are the “gaps” we are seeing currently in our research or not. The basic point is, it is possible to have a high view of scientific observation and a high view of a supernatural God and believe in a Literal 6 Day creation.
2. Day Age View (Coupled with the long gap between Genesis 1:2 and 1:3)
This view is held by many conservative theological evangelicals–men and women with a high view of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. This view holds that the “days” referenced in Genesis 1 refer to “ages” of indeterminate time. This view, in its best presentations, is based on the legitimate exegetical point that the Hebrew word for day can mean either a literal day or an age/period of time. Though I do not personally hold this view, I do not believe it contradicts the authority of Scripture or undermines the ascription of creation to God. Obviously, this view renders moot any alleged inconsistency between Genesis 1 and modern scientific earth-dating. The earth seems old because it is old. The long gap referenced above is a modification of this view in that God first created the earth in a formless state and allowed it to exist for eons of time before progression through the creation described in the rest of the chapter.
Sometimes, but not always, proponents of this view also hold that God directed the evolutionary process described by modern science as the way in which he brought about the creation of the world. God is still attributed with the creation of the world; evolutionary process is merely the means. It is possible that the evolutionary process held by proponents of this view is limited in scope and may or may not include the evolution of mankind.
3. Literary Framework View
Genesis one is considered in this view as an intentionally symbolic literary passage describing the truth of creation but not intending to describe a literal historical process. Proponents would indicate the symbolism of the passage and the parallelism seen between the days of creation and would hold that this is an excepted genre of Scripture (consider Old Testament Allegories or New Testament Parables for example) in which a story is told to indicate truth that has no intention describing an actual historical account.) In my view, this perspective faces a high burden of proof exegetically, and certainly must not be used as a doorway to undermine other passages of Scripture that are undeniably historical in nature, but need not necessarily undermine a high view of Scripture, or the historical events described in Scripture. Much as I appreciate the literary beauty, parallelism, and theological accents of the passage, however, I am not persuaded by the view that this passage is not intended to be read as historical description. Obviously, this view also renders moot any alleged contradiction with modern scientific observations.
4. Theistic Evolution
This view is not necessarily separate from the preceding two, since it may coincide with a Day Age view or a Literary Framework view. Put simplistically, this view holds that God directed creation in the evolutionary process as described by much of modern science. The proponents of this view with a reverence for Scripture would draw a distinction from Darwinian evolution in saying that God initiated and directed each stage of the process–not the random mutation or natural selection advocated by Darwin. Some proponents of this view may also hold that Adam and Eve were not necessarily the only biological ancestors of the human race or that Adam and Even were not historical at all, so much as a representative description of mankind described in the Bible to make a theological point. To my knowledge, proponents who would generally subscribe to this view have a significant divergence of theological perspectives amongst themselves, such that it would be unwise for me to categorize the position definitively or categorically. However, even in its basic tenets I believe this position is fraught with theological challenges at best, and contradictions at worst. I find this position the least Biblically tenable and potentially could have strong disagreements with the theological implications of some who hold it. (For example, I view it as a crucial theological position that death followed the fall of Adam and Eve.) Of course, some who would generally subscribe to this view might hold it in such a general way, and might maintain certain personal theological caveats, that we could remain in agreement about many crucial Biblical doctrines.
Well, this is already a long blog post! I will close by restating my caveat. I am not an expert on the cutting edge theological discussions in these categories nor in the latest debates among theologians who specialize in a study of Genesis one or the implications of reconciling scientific theory and evangelical theology.
(Incidentally, anyone who is an expert, (or who simply knows more than I do!), should feel free to write me to challenge or correct any of my representations here. If I have erred in my simplistic descriptions above please let me know! You can write to firstname.lastname@example.org, attention Jon Payne. )
That being said, I hope that any readers of this post who are curious about these topics will find at least, a few bits to chew upon. Some points that all Christians with reverence for Scripture must agree on are:
1) There is one all-powerful God who made everything in the universe
2) All of creation reflects the limitless power and creativity of the Lord.
3) Every human being belongs to the Lord and owes him love, obedience, and worship.
4) The world, as God originally made it, was very good.
5) All Christians should yearn for the day when God will provide a New Heavens and a New Earth, for the joy of his people and the glory of his redemptive power and grace.
In the end, the God who created all things and who is beyond our understanding, limitless in power, and sovereign in authority will receive all glory, power, dominion, honor, glory and blessing. Amen!