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The Genesis of the problem

The church can debate the question of creation without creating new divisions

Issue: "The Man Behind the Duck," July 26, 1997

The question of the antiquity of man has of itself no theological significance. It is to theology, as such, a matter of entire indifference how long man has existed on the earth.... The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one in which the theologian as such has no concern."

Who said that? The latest evangelical to capitulate to the pressures of unbelieving science? No, it was the greatest defender of biblical inerrancy in the history of the American church, Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, who also wrote: "The church is bound to confess all that God has lovingly revealed to her as his truth. What the Bible teaches, not what is convenient, undisputed, or likely to put us to the trouble of defending, is the proper measure of the contents of our credo."

At least since the days of Augustine the church has wrestled with how to interpret Genesis 1 and 2. To be sure, the question has become more acute and the debate more intense since Darwin, as is evident in the writings not only of Warfield but of his fellow Princetonians Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen. But the difficulty has faced the church always.

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There are three approaches to Genesis 1 and 2 among evangelicals:

The "literal" view, which takes the days to be six consecutive 24-hour days. Suppose you took a seven-day vacation and reported it in a book of seven chapters, each devoted to a single day. Your report makes it clear that your vacation lasted exactly seven ordinary days and that, while you may not have reported every detail, you did follow a strictly chronological sequence both from day to day and within each day. This is the "literal" approach.

Its strength is its reading of the creation account in a way that strikes many Christians as the natural way to read it-as a straightforward historical account of how the world was created.

The "day-age" view, which takes the days to be equivalent to successive ages of undetermined length. Suppose you took a long vacation reported in a book of seven chapters, each devoted to a phase of your vacation. Your concern is to report your vacation in an orderly fashion.

Thus, the chapters are in roughly chronological order, but the chapters do not necessarily record periods of equal length. Nor can any more be said of the material in each chapter than that it belongs to the period reported. This is the "day-age" approach.

The strength of this view is that it records creation as a chronologically ordered account while allowing for the earth to be as old as it appears to be to most scientists.

The "literary" view or "framework hypothesis," which takes the days to be "snapshots" of God's multi-faceted creative work. Suppose you took a long vacation and reported it in seven chapters. Your theme is "a good time was had by all" but the chapters are organized around beach experiences, mountain experiences, amusement park experiences. So the "literary" approach reads Genesis as a polemic against polytheistic paganism organized around the theme "the Lord God made them all" but unconcerned about sequence or chronology.

The strength of this view is that it reads these two chapters of Genesis in a way that to many Hebrew scholars as well as ordinary readers seems to fit Moses' purpose and style and removes Genesis from certain aspects of the alleged "Bible-science conflict" as not having been written to settle those questions.

The point of this brief review of the views is to say that all are held by theologians and Christians who believe that the Bible is the Word of God, infallible and inerrant in all it teaches. We need an ongoing, open discussion of three questions: What does the text teach? What does science seem to show? How are theological and scientific insights to be integrated? My theology professor of 25 years ago has written regarding the days of the creation: "Though we may have strong convictions regarding this question ... we do not have enough information to settle it definitively. We should refrain from judging fellow Christians who differ with us on this particular question."

What we need, to turn the words of a country song, is "a lot more talk and a little less action." More discussion, less defensiveness. More debate, less denouncement.


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