RE-VISITING THE DAYS OF CREATION, ... AGAIN!
Once again Reformed churches in North America of different traditions are struggling with the question of how to interpret Scripture and more specifically, how to interpret the creation account given in Genesis 1 and 2. The positions of those who have attempted to answer that question vary but primarily three distinct approaches to the relevant texts are discernible. There are those who argue that the text is not to be taken as historical narrative but it is to be interpreted as one might interpret poetry or a parable. Others argue for a literal interpretation but wish to keep open the possibility, or even argue a strong case that, the "days" of Genesis chapter 1 are long periods of time. Then there are still others who press for a literal interpretation, including a literal interpretation of the word "days" in the creation account.
These three groups can be identified as: the "non-literalists", the "day age group" and the "strict literalists". It is the latter position, that has been historically held by the reformed churches but once again, the church is being challenged to re-evaluate that which she has historically held to be true. The PCA and OPC churches have, and continue, to struggle with the question and unfortunately, also now within the URCNA there is no unanimity on the matter. At present a variation of the "non-literalist" view, known as the "framework hypothesis", has found favor by some in the URCNA and those who endorse that view, challenge the URCNA to accept that "non literal" view alongside of the traditional "strict literalist" view. A number of churches have already drafted overtures for their Classis, asking the churches to respond to the challenge.
But, there are differences of opinion about how the churches should respond to the challenge. Some believe that: since the Three Forms of Unity do not specifically address the matter of the "days" of creation, that therefore the "framework" view should receive equal credibility as does the "strict literalist" view. They argue that neither view is spelled out in the confessions and therefore both views are equally valid and should both be accepted in the churches. Then there are those that are prepared to argue that the "strict-literalist" view is the correct understanding of the text, that the "framework theory" is not, but that the "non-literal" framework view may be held but not taught in the churches. Then there are still others who believe that the "framework theory" involves an approach to Scripture that must be refuted and vigorously condemned and they argue that the matter is not a question of the length of the days of creation perse" but it is a matter of hermeneutics. They argue that the "method" of interpretation used by the "frameworkers" is different from that method historically accepted by the church and they hold that this new method can only have the most tragic of consequences for the church. They believe that the long term spiritual well being of the church is inextricably connected to this question of hermeneutics and consequently they argue that the "framework theory" presents a serious threat to the spiritual well being of the church. I find myself among those who have taken that position and this article attempts to explain why.
DEFINITION OF THE FRAMEWORK HYPOTHESIS
First of all it will be necessary to properly define the "framework hypothesis". I use here the definition of three men, two of whom are opposed to the theory (Dr. Pipa & Rev. Walker) (a) and one who is in support (Rev. Irons). (b) They are essentially in agreement about the definition of the theory.
Dr. Joseph Pipa writes that the framework theory:
" asserts that Genesis Chapter 1 is not to be taken as a literal, chronological account of creation, but rather a topical account which asserts God created all things." (1)
Frank Walker writes:
The framework hypothesis holds that the "days" of creation have nothing to do with time, but are simply "forms" or "images" designed by God to help us understand creation. Those who hold to the framework theory find it necessary to interpret the first chapter of Genesis this way, at least in part, because they believe that there are inconsistencies in Genesis 1 that compel a non-literal, non-chronological interpretation and based on those supposed inconsistencies, along with the parallelism of the days, they:
".... reclassify Genesis 1 as a "literary device," "poetry" or "semi-poetic teaching device" from which we are to draw the conclusion that Genesis 1 cannot be accepted at face value as far as its chronology is concerned."
Charles Lee Irons writes:
"I have not been able to determine exactly how the name "framework hypothesis" came into use, but it needs to be said that its advocates do not regard the view as a mere hypothesis. The impression is that we view it as a tentative interpretive suggestion. Far preferable is the label "the framework interpretation." As with all interpretations, of course, the framework is the product of fallible human attempts to understand God"s Word and is therefore subject to correction and amendment in accordance with further exegetical research. In this sense, one might be able to call it a "hypothesis," but the term "interpretation" sufficiently captures the fallible human element inherent in all exegetical inquiry without the ambiguity that attaches to the former term.
What then is the framework interpretation? I do not know of any scholar who has attempted to set forth a formal definition of the framework position, but I will venture to do just that. As I see it, there are two elements essential to the framework interpretation:
(1) The non-literal element: the days of the creation week are not normal solar days, but are part of an extended metaphor that functions as a literary framework for the creation narrative.
(2) The non-sequential element: the eight creative works of God are arranged topically rather than sequentially within that metaphorical framework.
I would argue that anyone who holds to a position that meets these two criteria holds to the framework interpretation. This would be true even it he does not accept all of the exegetical arguments currently used to support the position. For example, (as we will see), the framework view as held by one like Meredith G. Kline entails a rather involved discussion of what he calls the Bible's "two-register cosmology." One may or may not be persuaded of this particular aspect of Kline's argument and still be able to hold the framework interpretation itself". (3)
**NOTE** I call attention to the fact that Irons identifies also the "two register cosmology" as presented by Kline (see Kline's: Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmology, March 1996), as an element of the framework view but he points out that it is not a necessary aspect. Irons further suggests that the term "hypothesis" (theory) does not do proper justice to the position. He argues that the framework view is an "interpretation" and not a "theory". I would agree with him and consequently I have not, in this article, dealt with the "two register cosmology" but have focused on the "interpretation".
ALLEGED PROBLEMS WITH A LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF THE CREATION ACCOUNT
The most noteworthy difficulties with the historic, literal, six day interpretation of the creation account cited by those who hold to the framework theory, can be summarized as follows:
(1) The sun was not created until Day Four (vv. 14-19). Since the sun is the instrument used for measuring "days" there was no way to measure the first three days, consequently they would not have been "ordinary" days.
(2) On the Seventh Day God rested from creation. He has not created anything since then but has rather taken an eternal delight in his work. (Heb. 4). Therefore it is held, the Seventh Day is an "eternal" day and not an "ordinary" day. If the Seventh Day was not an "ordinary" day, so it is claimed, then the possibility must exist that the other six days may also have been something other than "normal" days.
(3) The greatest obstacle to reading Genesis 1 as being literally true according to the framework hypothesis is Genesis 2:5. According to those who hold this view, Genesis 2:5 teaches that ordinary providence was God's mode of operation during the days of creation and beginning with that interpretation of Genesis 2:5, it is then concluded that, since ordinary providence was God's mode of operation, therefore the arrangement of the six days of creation in Genesis 1 must be topical and not chronological.
In an effort to reconcile these alleged "difficulties", it is posited by those who hold to the framework hypothesis that the creation account of Genesis is not to be read literally, nor are the days to be understood as ordinary days nor are we to understand that God's creative activity took place in the chronological order of six days. Rather, the creation account is to be understood as a "literary device" given to teach us that God is the Almighty Creator but it is not to be read as an account that tells us how God created. But that immediately confronts the church with two questions:
1) do these problems actually exist and,
2) is there hermeneutical and exegetical warrant to resolve the difficulties by way of the framework hypothesis approach?
DO THESES PROBLEMS REALLY EXIST?
(1) Can it be argued from Scripture that, since the sun was not created until the fourth Day, therefore there was no way to measure the length of the first three days and therefore they may well have been something other than ordinary days? I think not. Although it is true that the first three days were without the sun, they were not without light. "And God said let there be light and there was light." (Gen. 1:3) This light, whatever it was, was created on the first day. "God called the light "day" and the darkness He called "night." (Gen. 1:5a) It appears from this verse that the light which God had made functioned in a way similar to the sun, in that it was not always to be daytime. Also nighttime was to have its regular place. "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day," (Gen. 1:5b) that is, nighttime and daytime, making one day, separated by the light which God had made. The first day began in darkness with God's work of creation "in the beginning." This darkness was followed by the creation of light. The first day ended with the coming of evening, which was counted with the following day (Gen. 1:8; similarly with the other days, Cf. vv. 13, 19, 23, 31). In view of the way the first day was made, it is understandable that the Bible considers a day from evening to evening (e.g. Lev. 23:32;), but it is not legitimate to discount the first day as an ordinary day simply because the sun had not yet been created.
(2) Can an argument be deduced from Scripture that since God's day of rest is "eternal" therefore the other six days could also have been something other than six ordinary days? I think not. The Fourth Commandment is based on a literal understanding of the seven "days" of the creation week; other wise the Fourth Commandment would make no sense at all. Would it be plausible to suggest that Moses uses "days" in two different senses here and is saying: "Six (normal) days you shall labor and do all your work, .... for in six (varying or undefined length) days the Lord made the heavens and the earth...."? If the command to man to labor six days and rest one day refers to literal days, and no one disputes that it does, then it must follow that the days of the creation week, which were set forth as the basis for man's week, were also literal days. When Moses gave the law to the Israelites, they knew what "days" were. The Fourth Commandment obligated them to follow the pattern for labor that God himself had established at the beginning. If the days of Genesis 1 are not ordinary days, then the Fourth Commandment makes no sense, either to Israel or to us. It is illegitimate to conclude that the day was not an ordinary day on the basis of God's eternal rest.
(3) Can it be argued from Scripture, and especially from Gen. 2:5 that God's creative activity involved only "ordinary" providence? We think that it is at this point that a major exegetical error is made by those who hold to the Framework Hypothesis. The error is that those who advocate this view, interject the considerations of Genesis 2:5 back into Genesis 1, declaring that these considerations of Gen 2:5 control the situation of Genesis chapter 1 but that is an illegitimate exegesis for several reasons.
First of all, Gen. 2:5 follows Gen. 2:4 which begins with an "ELLEH TOLEDOTH, " a phrase which is used no less than ten times throughout the book of Genesis and each time it is used as an introduction to a NEW section of information which builds on the previous information but is NOT a part of it. So too in this instance. Gen.2:5 builds on Gen.1 but functions as an introduction to new information and therefore to interject it back into Genesis 1 is illegitimate.
Secondly: "ELLEH TOLEDOTH" means literally "these are the generations of," meaning "this is the product of, " NOT "this is the source of." The nature of "ELLEH TOLEDOTH" can be found in Gen. 5:1 where the names that follow are clearly given as the descendants and not the ancestors of Adam. Thus to interject the ELLEH TOLEDOTH of Gen. 2:4 back into Genesis Chapter 1 flies in the face of its own meaning. The Special Committee of the RCUS explains it this way:
All this is to say that Genesis 2:4ff. is not a second version of the creation narrative. The account of the creation of heaven and earth concludes with Genesis 2:3. Genesis 2:4 begins with the phrase, "these are the generations". Many years ago, Dr. Young demonstrated that this phrase, which occurs several times in Genesis, always introduces the results of the previous section with a view to toward analyzing some aspect in greater detail. Thus, Genesis 2:4 introduces a new section that concentrates on one part of the completed creation, namely the creation of man. It first considers the environment in which man would appear and then narrates the creation of man and his helper. Thus, Genesis 2:5 functions as a detailed description of an already created world with specific information relating to man's place in that world. This being so, Genesis 2:5-7 anticipates the story that follows. Its function in the narrative is akin to the heading or subheadings of a newspaper article. That is, they provide the basic story, but the details of that story come in what follows afterward.(4)
At the very crux of the objection to the framework hypothesis is the "approach to Scripture" which must be used to support the theory. The hermeneutic that posits the framework hypothesis is a different one than has historically been accepted among the churches and it is this different approach to Scripture that gives rise to the concern. In order for the "days" of creation in Genesis 1 to be "explained away" as something other than ordinary days, the proponents of the framework hypothesis have to maintain that the literary style and structure of Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 demand a "topical" interpretation. In other words, the creation account is argued to be of a different style or "genre" of literature from ordinary historical language or prose. They argue that:
"The literary character of Gen.1:1 - 2:3 prepares the exegete for the presence there of a stronger figurative element than might be expected if it were ordinary prose. This passage is not, of course, full-fledged Semitic poetry. But neither is it ordinary prose." (5)
After having determined that Genesis Chapter 1 is not ordinary prose, the exegete is then free to "reinterpret" the meaning of the "words" in the passage and that is precisely what is advocated by those who wish to maintain the framework theory. They argue that:
"The word "day" must be figurative because it is used for the eternity during which God rests from His creative labors. The "days" subordinate elements, "evening" and "morning", must be figurative for they are mentioned as features of the three "days" before the text records the creation of those lights in the firmament of heaven which were to divide the day from might, ... Purely exegetical considerations therefore complete the conclusion that the divine author has employed the imagery of an ordinary week to provide a figurative chronological framework for the account of His creative acts." (6)
In other words, it is argued that: because God rested for an eternity and not for an "ordinary" day, and because the sun, moon and stars were not created until the fourth day, and because ordinary providence could not have accomplished the things of creation in ordinary days, therefore the "days" of Genesis could not have been ordinary "days" and, on the basis of that conclusion they argue that:
"the word "day" must be figurative, the word "evening" and "morning" must be figurative and the entire creation week must be read as: "imagery of an "ordinary" week to provide a figurative chronological framework for the account of [God's] creative acts." (7)
HERMENEUTIC OF THE DOCTRINE OF CREATION
But those who oppose the "framework theory" are convinced that those principles of interpretation applied to Genesis chapter 1 not only ignore the historical/grammatical method of interpreting the Bible but also, that approach to Scripture does great violence to the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. The opponents to framework theory argue that the church confesses that the things necessary for our learning are so clearly revealed in Scripture that even those of considerably diminished capacity can understand them well enough to be blessed by them and while it is true that not all things in Scripture are equally clear, the doctrine of creation is so essential for our understanding of: origins, the person and work of Christ, regeneration and the last things and, it is referred to so often in Scripture as the basis for so many other doctrines that, it strains credulity to believe that a portion of Scripture so vital, could be so difficult to understand that such a theory as the framework hypothesis must be applied before it can be correctly understood. They would say that if the framework approach to Scripture is successfully argued as a legitimate, acceptable approach to the Bible in the reformed churches then the churches would have returned to the pre-reformational position of Rome who argued that only the "elite" can understand Scripture. In effect, the "framework" approach takes the Bible back out of the hands of the ordinary people in the pew and gives it back into the hands of the experts. Clearly some essential principles of reformed hermeneutics are being challenged by those who would promote the framework theory.
In defining hermeneutics the Study Committee of the RCUS writes:
"One of the hallmarks of the Reformation era was an insistence on returning to the "plain sense" of a biblical passage. The reformers rejected the allegorical method as it related to interpretation of Scripture and placed the emphasis back to the grammatical and historical meaning as the foundation of Biblical interpretation. The fundamental principle was that a passage of Scripture has a single, simple sense, arrived at grammatically and historically before outside principles influence one's understanding of that meaning. This exclusion of outside intellectual influences is one of the defining features of the Reformation hermeneutic, and it is a feature whose goal and objective is to allow the authors to speak for themselves." (8)
Louis Berkhof defines it this way::
"there is an oft-repeated hermeneutical rule, that the words should be understood in their literal sense, unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity." (9)
John Calvin remarks in his Commentary on Galatians 4:22
"Scripture, they say, is fertile and thus produces a variety of meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure may assign. Let us know then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning". (Emphasis added.)
What is being argued in these quotes from our brothers and fathers is that the words of Genesis chapter 1, including the words: "day, evening", & "morning", must be understood in their literal sense unless such interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity. Following that principle, if we apply the grammatical & historical method of Biblical interpretation to Genesis 1 then the words must be understood to mean exactly what they say unless there are internal (Scriptural) indicators to the contrary. In short, unless there is clear and convincing evidence from Scripture to indicate that the meaning of the words or the genre of the text is something different from the natural, obvious sense, then the words, and the text are to be understood to literally mean what they say.
THE DAYS OF GENESIS ONE
The ultimate question in this entire matter then hinges upon interpretation of the "words" in Genesis chapter 1. If we can interpret the words correctly, then we can answer the question: "Did Moses give to us the account of creation as a literal account of the historical events, or does Genesis chapter 1 give us a truth that lies hidden beneath the literal text which must be extracted for us by the experts?" Admittedly there has, and continues to be much controversy about this point but in order to address it, one thing must be clear. Decisive for us is: what the Scripture says about it? We must turn to the Scripture to interpret the meaning of the word "day" in Genesis chapter 1. Dr. C. Van Dam (professor of Old Testament at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches) addresses the question this way:
The meaning of "day"
"If we turn to Genesis 1 and 2 and read these chapters carefully, we notice that the term "day" is used in different ways in these chapters but the context makes them clear. In Genesis 1:5, "day" refers to the time that it is light. "God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night." However, in Genesis 2:4, "day" refers to a longer period of time, namely, the six days of creation. "This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the Day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens." So we see two different meanings of the word "day." But what about each day of the creation work of God? The first, second, third, fourth day etc.? What is meant by "day" then? The answer must be that there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that these days were anything other than days, as we also reckon days, days that include daytime and night time.
Reasons for this position
In the first place, six times we read the words : there was evening and there was morning, followed by the number of the day (Genesis 1:5, 8 13,19, 23, 31). This formulation shows that the author wanted there to be no doubt about how these days were to be interpreted. These are days that had an evening and a morning and in this respect were normal days. It will not do to try to drive a wedge between the first three days and those that followed; that is the three days that were without sunlight and those with sunlight. Whatever the exact source of light was for the first three days, Genesis 1 makes it clear that all the days are to be perceived as the same. They are all days with an evening and a morning, days as man still experiences them.
Secondly, whenever "day" is modified by a number, (and that happens over one hundred times in the first five books of the Bible alone), it always refers to a literal day. From a purely grammatical point of view, it is therefore unlikely that the days of the creation week would have been anything different from what we normally consider a day. Consequently, standard Hebrew dictionaries of our day give the meaning of "day" in the passages under consideration as a regular day and not as long undetermined periods of time. Similarly scholars commenting on the text, irrespective of whether they value Genesis as the Word of God or not, recognize that there is no justification for seeing eons of time referred to.
Thirdly, the fourth commandment reads: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work .... for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them and rested on the seventh day" .... (Exodus 20:8-11) It would make little sense to understand the term "days" in one part of the commandment literally (work days and rest on the seventh) and to understand it figuratively in another part (for in six days [millions of years])" the LORD created." In this context it is noteworthy that nowhere in the Old Testament is "days" (the plural) used in any but a literal sense. If the days of the fourth commandment (in six days the LORD created) are actually ages or the like then this is a unique use of the word without any explanation or hint that it is symbolic for a long period of time.
Fourthly, if Adam lived in part of the sixth day and this day was a long period of time, how old did Adam then become? There is no room for a long period of time. Scripture specifically informs us that Adam became 130 years old (Genesis 5:3). (10)
Clearly then, the six days of creation are to be understood as ordinary days and not long periods of time. They were special, even unique days because they were the days in which the Lord God created the world. The first three days were even without sunlight but nevertheless, they too are identified in Scripture as days with morning and evening; days as we experience them, with nightfall and morning, light and darkness.
THE GENRE OF GENESIS CHAPTER ONE
From all of this I conclude that the word "day" in Genesis chapter one must be interpreted to mean an ordinary day but what then of the rest of the chapter? Is the whole first chapter of Genesis to be understood as a literary device? Did Moses intend the creation account to be read as literary fiction? Again, there is no grammatical, linguistic, literary, or historical reason to think so. As the Study Committee of the RCUS concludes:
"When David personifies the sun, it "is AS a bridegroom coming out of his chamber" and "rejoiceth AS a strong man to run a race" (Psalm 19:5). The grammatical term "AS" signifies for us that this is a figure. Genesis 1 is not in the form of a psalm nor is it called a song. Indeed when Moses records a song he tells us (Exodus 15; Numbers 21; Deut.31). Nor is Genesis 1 a parable; it is not a poem; not a liturgy, not a story, not a simile. In fact as Hasel points out in "the literary structures, the language patterns, the syntax, the linguistic phenomena, the terminology, the sequential presentation of events in the creation account, Genesis one is not different from the rest of the book of Genesis or the Pentateuch for that matter." In a word, Genesis chapter one is prose. There is no system of relations beneath the literal text. The light, the darkness, the day, the night, the water, the land, the sun, the moon, the stars, the plants, the animals, and man are just that: light, darkness, day, night, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and Adam." (11)
SUMMARY and CONCLUSION
I am convinced that the interpretation of the creation account known as the "framework hypothesis" lacks substantial exegetical foundation. There are no Scriptural (internal) indicators to suggest that Genesis 1 is anything other than ordinary prose giving us a sequence of historical facts of a creation, ex-nihilo by God in a time of six ordinary days in a chronological order. There is no grammatical warrant for any other argument and the approach used by those who support or embrace the framework hypothesis insufficiently apply the grammatical historical approach to the text and introduce us to another method of interpretation. The deficient hermeneutic used not only fails to do full justice to the grammatical/historical rule, it also undermines our confession with regards to the perspicuity of Scripture and there are no clear limits to that hermeneutic. If the so-called inconsistencies and literary devices warrant such a radical reinterpretation of Genesis chapter 1, what is to prevent us from doing the same with Genesis 3? The same problem (and solution) can then be applied to the account of the flood, the tower of Babel and even the miracles of Christ can be dismissed on the same basis. In fact, as E. J. Young argues, against this hermeneutic, even the resurrection of Christ cannot stand. ( "Studies in Genesis One" 1964, pp 100-101). Once the door is opened to this approach to Scripture, there is nothing to hold it back.
I am acutely and painfully aware of the potential for tension that my argument against the "framework theory" may bring with it and I sincerely would regret that, and I pray that it may be prevented. I have no desire to be unkind or uncharitable and I have no reason to suspect the motives, the sincerity nor the integrity of those who have embraced this approach to Scripture. I esteem each of them highly and I hold them in the highest respect. I pray that my brothers who disagree with me will respond in kind, but it will not do to simply plead for "room or tolerance." It is very true that the whole question is a matter of interpretation but the plain fact is that every doctrine is a matter of interpretation, but that does not alter the fact that the church has a God-given responsibility to determine which interpretation it believes to be in harmony with the teaching of Scripture. We do this with Christology, theology proper, soteriology and eschatology and we now need to do it with respect to the doctrine of creation. The standard that the church has generally held down through the ages and the interpretation that is in accordance with the most natural reading of the text is being called into question by those who would offer alternative interpretations and that matter must be addressed by the churches.
Rev. Mark Zylstra
(1) Dr. Joseph Pipa, From Chaos to Cosmos: A Critique of the Framework Hypothesis (page 1)
(2) Frank Walker, A Critique of the Framework Hypothesis (page 2)
(3) Excerpt from a paper, The Framework Interpretation Explained and Defended, by Charles Lee Irons, February 4, 1998, pages 2 and 3.
(4) Report of the Special Committee of the Reformed Church in the United States: The Days of Creation
(5) Meredith Kline, Because It Had Not Rained, WTJ, vol. 20, 1957-58 page 155
(6) Meredith Kline, Because It Had Not Rained, WTJ, vol. 20, 1957-58 page 157
(7) Meredith Kline, Because It Had Not Rained, WTJ, vol. 20, 1957-58 page 157
(8) Report of the Special Committee of the Reformed Church in the United States: The Days of Creation page 3ff
(9) Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation page 85
(10) Dr. C. Van Dam, Creation Printed in Clarion, March 24, 1989
(11) Study Committee of the RCUS - The Days of Creation - page 6
(a) Frank Walker is an ordained minister serving the RCUS (Reformed Church of the United States)
(a) Dr. Pipa is President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville
(b) Rev. Charles Lee Irons is an ordained Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church