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Until approximately the mid-nineteenth century, most Christians understood the Creation account of Genesis to mean that God created “the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them” in six 24-hour days. But under the pressure of new geological theories maintaining a very ancient age of the earth, and later in response to Darwinian theory that required vast ages to make macroevolution “possible,” large numbers of true evangelical scholars began to re-interpret the six days to mean something like six long ages. This, they hoped, might remove unnecessary conflict between the Genesis account, which posits an earth a few thousand years old, and new views of science that aggressively required a cosmos that had existed for millions of years.

The great Charles Hodge of nineteenth-century Princeton, for instance, first followed the equally great Thomas Chalmers of Scotland in holding the “gap” theory and later shifted to the “day-age” theory. Many eminent Calvinist scholars have followed this day-age theory, from the magisterial J.H. Bavinck of Holland, who held a variation of it—the “analogical-day” theory—to significant contemporary thinkers.

This theory basically teaches that the Genesis text does not speak of six days of 24 hours each. Rather, it means six vast ages, which could have lasted billions of years, thus removing the necessity of defending the hopeless position of a young earth in the face of the strident claims of most modern chronology.

By removing this offense to the temporal claims of the reigning scientific paradigm, Christian thinkers hoped to preserve the redemptive message of the rest of the Bible. Their intention was honorable, but the time has come to put two honest questions to their methodology and its results.

First, and foremost, precisely why did good scholars suddenly decide, after some 1,800 years of church history, that the Genesis text did not mean what it traditionally was thought to have clearly stated: that God created all things within six solar days? Why did they attempt such tortured modes of interpretation to make references to a normal calendar day mean millions of years? Why did conservative professors, who otherwise carefully exegeted the Holy Scriptures, all of a sudden begin dealing with Genesis 1–11 in a very different way from the traditional histori-co-literal sense to which they were elsewhere (from Gen. 12 to Rev. 22) committed?

On the surface, at least, many of them argued that study of Scripture itself led them to do so. For instance, they noted that the Hebrew word for “day” (yom) is employed in various ways in the Bible. Certainly it is true that writers of Scripture sometimes refer to “the days of the judges,” “the day of the Lord,” and that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). But in all of these cases, a finite number of days is meant (never vast ages) and the immediate context makes clear that the normal 24 hours is not intended.

Until approximately the mid-nineteenth century, most Christians understood the Creation account of Genesis to mean that God created “the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them” in six 24-hour days.

More recently, some have stated that the absence of the concluding formula—“So the evening and the morning were the sixth day”—for the termination of the seventh day suggests that the sabbath has not ended. Therefore, it is an age, and so the first six days may be ages also. One has to say charitably that proponents of this view are “trying hard” with this one! A different concluding formula probably indicates simply that the special sabbath day of rest is of a different quality, though not of a different quantity than the other six days. This is the more convincing as we note in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:11) that the seven days are given to humankind as a pattern for our lives on earth: six days of work and one day of rest, to the end of time. If the sabbath day has not yet ended, how can humans fulfill the command to work for six days on a weekly basis during this vast, still-lasting sabbath age?

Day-age proponents also have argued that since the sun was created only on the fourth day, the first three days could not have been 24-hour solar days, and hence may well have been eons of time. But as John Calvin says in his commentary on Genesis, God Himself was already the source of created light. Thus, He provided the regular alternations of evening and morning on the first three days. There is nothing in the Genesis text to suggest that there is the slightest difference in length between the first three days and the last four. And Exodus 20 confirms the equality of length among them all as the structure of human existence in the weekly rhythm of six days of work and one day of rest.

Nearly always (unless the immediate context of the passage requires it) the Bible uses day to mean a 24-hour period. One has to engage in a sort of exegetical casuistry to make it mean otherwise in Genesis 1 and 2.

Some day-age scholars have appealed to Saint Augustine as a forerunner of their position. Augustine actually theorized that God created all things in a split second, and that the six 24-hour days that followed were a time of contemplation for the angels. He calculated the creation of Adam as having occurred some 2,262 years before the Flood. But the church did not follow this good man in his peculiar theory.

Why then such a different interpretative principle with Genesis 1 and 2 by otherwise sound evangelicals? Is it not a fair observation that it must have been something from outside the text of Scripture that made them go to such lengths to evacuate the plain Biblical meaning of the word day? What else but the intellectual intimidation they felt from the supposedly “scientific” dogma of an ancient cosmos as the only suitable womb for the process of macroevolution? In fairness, most of them did not accept full-blown Darwinian evolution. However, some came close to it in the theory of “theistic evolution” or the later theory of “progressive creation.”

There is a second question we must ask about the day-age theory: Was this almost wholesale accommodation of the plain teaching of Genesis concerning day to the chronological theories of the evolutionary scientific paradigm helpful to the advancement of truth? Far from impressing the proponents of an ancient, evolving cosmos, the church’s failure to sound the trumpet of Scriptural truth about Creation and its chronology with “a certain sound” probably made its confused witness the easier to ignore.

The recent encouraging redress of the bias for evolution and against Creation has come from scientists, not theologians. They have had to split with both secular evolutionary dogma and confused evangelical accommodations. The door is now open for faithful interpreters of Scripture to speak as plainly and as truthfully about Genesis 1 and 2 as they are accustomed to doing with the rest of God’s Word. God will not fail to bless such truth telling.

Out of Order

Dear John:

Keep Reading A Day in the Life of the Universe

From the July 2001 Issue
Jul 2001 Issue