Twenty-Four Hours or Not?
Raising the question of the “days” in Genesis 1 might seem unthinkable for many believers. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that “the doctrine of creation has proved vulnerable because it works in territory where the rights of Christian theology to operate have been subject to sustained challenge, first by natural philosophy and more recently by natural science” (McGrath 1993, 95). Most Fundamentalists appear to hold to the view of six literal twenty-four-hour days of creation. Closely aligned with the literal view is the young earth theory. Divergent views are often associated with either liberal views of Scripture, which deny inerrancy, or with atheistic, Darwinian evolution.
Young, who does not believe in literal twenty-four-hour creation days, admits that “the almost universal view of the Christian world until the eighteenth century was that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Not until the development of modern scientific investigation of the Earth itself would this view be called into question within the church” (Young 1982, 25). Calvin declared “that six days were employed in the formation of the world; not that God, to whom one moment is as a thousand years, had need of this succession of time, but that he might engage us in the consideration of his works” (Calvin 975, 105). Often it is claimed that non-literal views are an accommodation to modern science. However, Young reminds us “the modern view that the Earth is extremely old was developed by Christian men who believed wholeheartedly in creation and the Flood and who were opposed to evolution” (Young 1982, 66). Yet we must ask the question: is there only one biblical view of the days of creation?
One of the major interpretive questions is the use of the Hebrew word yo-m, which is translated “day.” The literal view holds to creation accomplished in six twenty-four-hour days; the epochal view understands that the days as representative of long periods of time; and the poetic view (or framework view) dechronologizes the creation account while not denying creation by divine cause. Literal view proponents advance the theory of a relatively young earth, about six to twelve thousand years old, as the result of a recent creation. Advocates of the epochal and poetic viewpoints theorize an old earth in the distant past counted by millions or billions rather than thousands of years.
The literal view of creation days sustains that God created the world in six consecutive “morning and evening” twenty-four-hour days and that the earth is relatively young (albeit with the appearance of age). John Davis recognizes that the word yo-m is used in four ways in Genesis 1-2. (Davis 1975, 51). However, although he admits that yo-m can also be used metaphorically, he asserts that “it is doubtful that yo-m ever signified a period of time extending into millions of years, which the day-age theory generally requires” (53). Henry Morris notes that the “Biblical record itself makes it plain that the days of creation are literal days, not indefinite ages… . Even though it may occasionally be possible for the Hebrew word for “day” (yo-m) to mean an indefinite time, the specific context in Genesis 1 precludes any such meaning here” (Morris 1976, 54). Other advocates for the literal view of creation days include Allen Ross (Ross 1988, 104), J. Ligon Duncan, and Davis Hall (Duncan and Hall 2001, 22). Proponents of the literal view are convinced that their interpretation gives justice to the normal meaning of the word day and often appeal to the history of the church’s interpretation to demonstrate that this traditional view should not be abandoned in the face of modern science.
The epochal view of creation days regards the six days of creation in Genesis 1 as geological ages of unequal length. These ages are required to accommodate the supposed scientific evidence of an earth several billion years old. Millard Erickson surveys several views and recognizes that “the biblical statement seems quite straightforward. God created the earth in six days” (Erickson 1995, 380). Nevertheless, after elaborating the strengths and weaknesses of the competing theories, he confesses that “the view which I find most satisfactory is a variation of the age-day theory,” which “fits quite well with the geological record” (382). Gleason Archer likewise asserts that “on the basis of internal evidence it is the writer’s conviction that yo-m in Genesis 1 could not have been intended by the Hebrew author to mean a literal twenty-four-hour day” and concludes that “the sequence set forth in the Hebrew account is in harmony with that indicated by the data of geology” (Archer 1979, 186-87). James Boice (1982, 68) and Hugh Ross are other prominent proponents of this view (Ross and Archer 2001, 123).
The poetic view of creation days does not concern itself with explaining time-bound events but with the literary structure in which the account was written, “more a matter of logical structuring than of chronological order” (Erickson 1995, 381). For advocates of this view a literal interpretation is not only unnecessary but unwarranted. The creation account has a theological emphasis on the creator God and was not intended to answer scientific questions concerning the age of the earth or historical days. Bernard Ramm’s progressive creationism may be assimilated to what is often known as the “poetic view” or “literary view.” He distances himself from the literal view and the gap theory and maintains that “Genesis 1:2 is not referring to ruin and destruction but to vacancy awaiting informing” (Ramm 1954, 116). He further holds the necessity of this view in light of the fact that “conservative Christianity is caught between the embarrassments of simple fiat creationism, which is indigestible to modern science, and evolutionism, which is indigestible to much of fundamentalism” (117). Davis Young, commenting on the seventh day, asserts that “the divine week has therefore not ended. Insomuch as the seventh day is seen as a long, indeterminate period (it is really a figurative day), there is no pressing reason to conclude that the six creative days were other than long, indeterminate periods of time” and the “creation week is best seen as a figurative week, a figurative divine week which serves as the pattern for man’s ordinary, repetitive 168-hour week” (Young 1977, 86). Gordon Wenham (Wenham 1987, liii, 39-40), Lee Irons and Meredith Kline (Irons and Kline 2001, 217, 235, 252) are other noteworthy proponents of this view.
In his foreword to The Genesis Debate, Norman Geisler points out that there are several lessons to learn. 1) “The creation-day debate is not over the inspiration of the Bible, but over its interpretation,” 2) “The creation-day debate is not one of evangelical authenticity but of evangelical consistency,” 3) “The time of creation is not as important as the fact of creation,” 4) “The Church needs to shift its focus to the real enemy—evolutionism—not to other forms of creationism that remain true to the historicity of the events recorded in Genesis,” and 5) that “just as the issue is not one of orthodoxy, so it is also not one of morality” (Geisler 2001, 11-12).
Though the Bible does not claim to be a scientific textbook, when and where it speaks, it speaks with God’s authority. That authority extends to the veracity of the Genesis account of divine creation whether in the recent or distant past. That authority does not extend to all interpretations of the creation event and to the methodology used for determining the age of the earth. On the one hand we must refuse to capitulate to the changing waves of scientific theory and conflicting viewpoints within the scientific community. On the other hand we must not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6). The Bible clearly teaches that creation is the work of God’s hands and offers no refuge to those who seek a compromise with biological evolution. According to Hebrews 11:3, we affirm that “we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.” There can be no question as to what God did. There may be no resolution among Christians about the “how” and “when.”
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|Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.