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Genesis One and the Church Today

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   January 29, 2001   |  Type: Articles

The Bible begins with the sweeping declaration, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This statement sets biblical religion against many false teachings, among them: that there are many gods, that matter is eternal or that the world evolved without design or a designer. The Christian doctrine of creation, summarized in Genesis 1: 1, is critical to our understanding of God, of man, of man's calling in this world, and of the fellowship between God and man.

In light of the importance of the biblical doctrine of creation and because of the attacks on that doctrine often parading as modern science, it is very understandable that Christians have been very concerned about the true doctrine of creation in the last two hundred years. Much energy has gone into the study of the Bible and of science to understand what each teaches and how each teaching should be related to the other. As Reformed Christians we have always rightly insisted that the Bible is our ultimate authority against which the conclusions of human science must not be set. But we have also always said that all truth is God's truth and that ultimately a true reading of the Bible and genuine conclusions of science will be compatible.

For the last 10 to 15 years a growing number of conservative Christians – both within and outside of the Reformed community - have become convinced that the defense of the Bible and the defense of the Christian doctrine of creation requires interpreting Genesis one as teaching creation in six twenty-four hour days. Such an interpretation is certainly the majority interpretation in the history of the church and so we can rightly call it the traditional view. But the insistence that it is the only view that should be tolerated is rather new. Such an intolerant view would exclude from the Reformed churches some of the most notable and orthodox theologians of recent times. Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, EJ. Young, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, to name only some; each dissented in one way or another from the six twenty-four hour view insisted on today.

The new intolerance seems interestingly parallel to elements of the fundamentalist controversy in the 1930s. In the face of the very real threat of liberalism, many fundamentalists came to believe that the one biblical doctrine that could be a litmus test of orthodoxy and an impenetrable bulwark against modernism was the doctrine of pre-millennialism. Many orthodox Christians who were a-millennial were accused of liberalism because they had abandoned a "literal" interpretation of the Bible. So today some seem to believe that the idea of creation in six twenty-four hour days will protect the authority of the Bible and a literal approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures. But we must not become too defensive in the face of the very real attacks on biblical religion that we face in our time. We must seek to remain balanced rejecting both the pretentious claims of human reason and the temptation to retreat into anti-intellectualism.

We need to be very clear what a literal interpretation of the Bible actually is. The literal interpretation is the meaning intended by the author and carried by the words of the text. It stands in contrast to a spiritualizing interpretation, which finds the meaning of the text in a hidden significance entirely unknown to the author. As an example think of Isaiah's reference to the arm of the Lord in Isaiah 59. Is the literal understanding of that text the Mormon understanding, that God actually has a physical body and also a physical arm? No! The literal meaning of the text, which Isaiah intended, is that the arm is a metaphor for the power of God.

So when we come to Genesis one, what is the literal meaning of the six days of creation? One interpretation that has much to commend it is that the days are twenty-four hour days. But honest exegesis must recognize that there are problems with this view. First, how do we harmonize such a view with Genesis 2:4, "This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven" (NASB). If day always means day, and the meaning is obvious, then there is a contradiction in the Bible. Is the day of Gen. 2:4 or the day of Gen. 1 the literal day? Did God create in one day or six days? Second, we should consider the matter of light in Genesis one. Throughout the rest of the Bible the assumption is that the lights (sun, moon, and stars) are the source of light. Rev. 22:5 implies that something very new occurs at the end of time when light no longer has any source except the Lord himself: "There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light." Now the light of day one in Genesis is created by God through the word of his power. That light cannot be some uncreated illumination from the being of God because it is a created light. But day one does not tell us what the physical source of that light is. Day four does tell us that the physical source of light is the lights. Is it not possible, or even likely, then from the internal evidence of the Bible alone that days one and four are describing the same act of creating light from different perspectives? Third, when Gen. 2:2 tells us that God rested on the seventh day, does the literal interpretation mean that God was tired out and had to recuperate? And if God was not tired and only presented himself as resting to teach us to rest, is it possible that he presented himself as working over six days to teach us to work six days? We must not turn the God of the Bible into Zeus, a big man in the sky made in our image. Rather we must together study the Bible carefully and answer such questions as these fully.

Since the traditional view is not so obvious and unproblematic as its defenders like to claim, should we not allow a measure of toleration for different interpretations of Genesis one? If we all agree that the Bible is inerrant, that Genesis is real history, that God created all things out of nothing, that man is not a product of evolution, but an immediate creation of God from the dust of the earth, is that not enough to safeguard the orthodoxy of the church? If we agree that we must seek the literal sense of the test and the meaning the author intended by comparing Scripture with Scripture, have we not protected sound principles of biblical interpretation? If we are agreed about so much, we should also agree with Bavinck's wise statement: "Something similar is true of the days in which the earth was formed and made into an abode for humans. At all times people have entertained different opinions on that matter, and Thomas rightly affirms that in the things which do not belong to the necessity of faith various opinions are permitted. Augustine believed that God created all things simultaneously in a single instant, so that the days of which Genesis 1 speaks make known to us not the temporal but only the causal order in which the parts of the work of creation stand to each other. And in obscure matters, he warned believers against taking such a firm stand in favor of a certain interpretation of Scripture that, when a clearer light should dawn over a passage, we would rather shine in defending our own opinion than fight for the meaning of Holy Scripture." We might ask of Bavinck, what things do belong to the necessity of faith? How can we draw the line between the doctrines the church must require and doctrines where we can have a measure of difference? The answer to that question is the confessions of the church present that dividing line. The confessions state those doctrines that we all agree on together. For that reason we call our confessions our forms of unity. They unite us in the essentials of the truth. Where they are silent, the church should tolerate a variety of views.

In the history of the Reformed churches serious harm has been done to our unity by synodical efforts to impose extra-confessional views on the churches. In my opinion neither the distinctive teachings of Klaas Schilder nor those of Herman Hoeksema should have been condemned by Reformed synods. (Nor should the views of those men be imposed on the churches!) Rather we ought to uphold vigorously the teachings of our confessions and allow latitude for disagreements on issues not clearly spoken to by our confessions. Such confessionalism should be the hallmark of the United Reformed Churches in particular. That federation of churches was born out of a conviction that the synod of their former connection had imposed unbiblical and unconfessional views and practices on the churches. The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches was written to prevent any form of synodical tyranny and to insure a quite decentralized church life. Notice that the ecumenical task of the URC is to pursue churches that "demonstrate faithful allegiance to Scripture as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity" (Church Order article 34). It is not agreement in all that the Bible teaches which is required, but agreement on those teachings of the Bible summarized in the confessions. The confessions, not ecclesiastical power politics, are to unite us. It is strange and sad to see some of those who most criticized the abuse of synodical power, now suggesting that synods be used to impose new doctrines upon the church.
The confessions of our churches are not museum pieces testifying only to what our forefathers believed. They are the living testimony of the churches. If brothers are convinced that a doctrine needs to be added to the confessional position of the church, let them act in a proper way to amend our confessions. Let the church study the matter with care and be sure that we are in fact wiser than those who came before us.

In the meantime let us study the Scriptures together as brothers, earnestly seeking the mind of God. Let us not be arrogant, unwilling even to listen to one another. Let us follow the good example of Louis Berkhof. In hi s Systematic Theology he vigorously rejected the particular framework interpretation of Genesis one proposed by Professor Noortzij. But in doing so, he first of all presented a thorough knowledge of the position with which he was disagreeing, second, presented a carefully considered argument for his own traditional interpretation, and third, never suggested that Prof. Noortzij was not a brother whose views should be tolerated. We need also to remember in the midst of our discussions about days, that the main purpose of Genesis one is not to teach us the age of the earth or the length of time that God took to create. The main purpose is to teach us the splendor, power and wisdom of our God and the character and responsibilities which he has given to man. God teaches us that we, as the only creatures made in his image, must work for God for six· days each week and must rest in order to have special fellowship with him one day a week.

It is ironic indeed that some insist on twenty-four hour days, but reject the biblical teaching of a Christian Sabbath. We must pursue all that Genesis one has to teach us, but in the process we must remain humble and teachable before the Word of God. As John Calvin wrote in his study of Genesis: "It is in vain for any to reason as philosophers on the workmanship of the world, except those who, having been first humbled by the preaching of the Gospel, have learned to submit the whole of their intellectual wisdom (as Paul expresses it) to the foolishness of the cross" (I Cor. 1:21). Nothing shall we find, I say, above or below, which can raise us up to God, until Christ shall have instructed us in his own school.”

Previously published in Christian Renewal, January 29, 2001

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