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What did the Reformers believe about the age of the earth? (2)

May 2014 | by Joel Beeke

One great effect of the 16th century Reformation was to return the church to the literal sense of the Bible.

Though God worked through many Reformers alongside and after Luther, none is so well known as John Calvin (AD 1509–64). Like Luther, he read Genesis as ‘the history of creation’.

He believed that ‘the duration of the world . . . has not yet attained six thousand years’ (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.14.1). He also rejected Augustine’s belief that creation was completed in a moment, writing, ‘Moses relates that God’s work was completed not in a moment, but in six days’ (Institutes, 1.14.2).

Atheistic sceptics

The Reformers were not naïve; they too faced atheistic sceptics. We should not think that only in this modern age have people tried to explain the origin of the universe and biological life without giving glory to the Creator.

Calvin knew that the Bible’s teaching of the relatively young age of the earth would provoke some to laugh and sneer, but realised that profane men will mock at almost every major teaching of Christianity (Institutes, 3.21.4).

He was aware that some people taught that ‘the world came together by chance’, as ‘tiny objects tumbling around’ formed the stars, the earth, living creatures, and human beings. Calvin believed that the excellence and artistry of the smallest parts of the human body showed such theories of random creation to be ridiculous (Sermons on Genesis: chapters 1:1 – 11:4). Calvin attributed such views to a form of atheism he associated with the teachings of Epicurus (341–270 BC), an ancient Greek philosopher.

God revealed that he created the world in six days, about six thousand years ago, to protect the church from pagan fables about our origins, to glorify himself as the only Creator and Lord, and to call us to submit our minds to God’s will and Word (Institutes, 1.14.1-2).

Calvin regarded the early chapters of Genesis as ‘the history of the creation of the world’ and delighted in them because creation is ‘the splendid mirror of God’s glory’ (Commentary on Genesis, 1:xlviii).

To be sure, the Bible does not reveal all the facts that can be discovered by astronomy — though Calvin said that astronomy is ‘pleasant’ and ‘useful’ for Christians (Ibid., 1:79). Scripture records creation in words that ordinary people can understand, not technical, scientific language (Ibid., 1:86-87).

Still, the Bible is true, and Genesis is real history. Foolish men may ridicule God’s ways, but the humble know better: ‘Since his will is the rule of all wisdom, we ought to be contented with that alone’ (Ibid., 1:61).

Inspiration

If someone objects that Moses was not alive at creation and so could only write fables about it, Calvin replied that Moses was not writing thoughts he invented or discovered himself, but ‘is the instrument of the Holy Spirit’.

That same Spirit enabled Moses to foretell events that would happen long after his death, such as the calling of the Gentiles to Christ. Furthermore, the Spirit helped Moses to make use of traditions handed down from Adam, Abraham, and others (Ibid., 1:58).

Someone else might object that it makes no sense that God created light on the first day, before he created the sun on the fourth day. Here too, Calvin helps us by saying that God has an important lesson for us in this: ‘The Lord, by the very order of creation, bears witness that he holds in his hand the light, which he is able to impart to us without the sun and moon’ (Ibid., 1:76).

Thus the order of the creation week reveals that God can meet all our needs, even without the natural means he ordinarily uses.

Calvin was aware that some people said that the six days of Genesis 1 were a metaphor. But he believed this did not do justice to the text of Scripture. He wrote: ‘For it is too violent a cavil [objection] to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction.

‘Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men’. He went on to explain that God ‘distributed the creation of the world into successive portions, that he might fix our attention, and compel us, as if he had laid his hand upon us, to pause and reflect’ (Ibid., 1:78; see also Sermons on Genesis, p. 19).

Joseph Pipa writes: ‘Calvin’s commitment to six days and the order of the days stands in bold contrast to modern theories, such as the framework hypothesis and the analogical view of Genesis 1.

‘He emphatically insists on the order of the six days as both advantageous to man and instructive about the character of God’ (‘Creation and providence’, in A theological guide to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback; P&R Publishing, p.129).

Reformed confessions

The Reformation was a time of tremendous rediscoveries of biblical truth. To show their faithfulness to the Scriptures and pass these truths on to future generations, evangelicals published their beliefs in confessions and catechisms.

The doctrine of creation was not a major point of disagreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the evangelical churches of the Reformation. Therefore, it did not receive much attention in the Lutheran confessions, except to affirm briefly that one God created all things.

The major Reformed confessions of the 16th century offered more developed statements about the creation of the world, angels, and mankind, but did not address the time of creation.

The Belgic Confession (Article 14) does say that ‘God created man out of the dust of the earth’. Thus it confessed a literal understanding of Genesis 2:7, which logically contradicts the modern notion that man evolved, by a natural process, from other forms of life over millions of years.

Girolamo Zanchi (AD 1516–90) was a professor of Old Testament and theology who taught at Strasburg and Heidelberg. A few years before he died, Zanchi published a detailed confession of faith, which said that God created the world ‘in the space of six days’.

He also published a massive book entitled Concerning the works of God in creation during the space of six days, where he argued that Genesis 1 clearly says God created the world in six literal days.

James Ussher (AD 1581–1656), Bishop of Armagh, is now best known for his biblical history of the world, where he famously calculated the date of creation as 4004 BC. In 1615, he led a gathering of church leaders in Dublin to adopt the Irish Articles, which say, ‘In the beginning of time, when no creature had any being, God by his Word alone, in the space of six days, created all things’ (Article 4, sec. 18).

Westminster Standards

These words come directly from Ussher’s Principles of Christian religion, which he wrote around 1603. Ussher was invited to participate in the Westminster Assembly, and, though he declined, his writings still influenced the documents written there.

Meeting from 1643 to 1649, British Reformed theologians wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Shorter Catechism (WSC), and Larger Catechism (WLC). The Westminster Standards continue to serve as the confessional declarations of Presbyterian churches around the world.

The WLC (Q.17) taught a literal view of Genesis 1-2 by stating: ‘After God had made all other creatures, he created man male and female; formed the body of the man out of the dust of the ground, and the woman of the rib of the man’ (Q.17).

The confession and both catechisms state that God created the universe in ‘the space of six days’ (WCF 4.1; WSC Q.9, and WLC Q.15). This same language also carried over into the confessions of the Congregationalists and Particular Baptists when they adapted the WCF for use in their own churches.

What do the Westminster Standards and their daughter confessions mean by creation in ‘the space of six days’? Why did they not simply say ‘in six days’?

First, by using the word ‘space’ they made it clear they were talking about a definite span of time, not just a metaphor with six parts.

Other books from the 17th century used the words ‘the space of six days’ to refer to the duration of six ordinary days. Thus one book printed in 1693 talks about how a king conquered an entire region ‘in the space of six days’ (The history of Polybius the megapolitan).

Six days

Second, in taking up the language of ‘the space of six days’, the Westminster Assembly declared that it stood with previous theologians in affirming a literal six-day creation. The expression has its roots in at least four previous theologians whom the Westminster divines knew. As we have seen, the words ‘in the space of six days’ appear in the writings of Bonaventure, Calvin, Zanchi and Ussher.

Zanchi’s Confessions may have influenced the Westminster divines, for it was a prime example of early Reformed orthodox confessions from which to draw. Certainly the Irish Articles of Ussher influenced the WCF.

Research into the writings of several members of the Westminster Assembly has confirmed that they believed in a relatively young earth and a literal six-day creation (David W. Hall, ‘What was the view of the Westminster Assembly divines on creation days?’ in Did God create in six days?; ed. Joseph A. Pipa Jr, and David W. Hall; Southern Presbyterian Press, pp. 41-52).

In 1674, Thomas Vincent wrote the following in his explanation of the WSC: ‘In what time did God create all things? God created all things in the space of six days. He could have created all things together in a moment, but he took six days time to work in’ (on WSC Q. 9).

Thus, we have good reason to conclude that the WCF, WSC and WLC teach us to regard Genesis 1 as a real week of time in history. Some godly men who love the WCF disagree with me, arguing that

‘the space of six days’ is ambiguous and it was only meant to exclude the idea of creation in an instant. But the Westminster Standards do more than reject instantaneous creation. They also affirm creation over a specified period of time — ‘the space of six days’.

Conclusions

Though all Christians believe that God created the world, through the history of the church a literal reading of Genesis has competed with an allegorical reading.

In the Reformation, Luther and Calvin embraced the literal reading of Genesis, with the result that they believed in a six-day creation some six thousand years ago. We also find evidence of the literal view in the Belgic Confession, the Confession of Faith by Zanchi, the Irish Articles, and the WCF.

But in this modern era, an increasing number of evangelical and Reformed Christians are turning back to the old error of embracing a symbolic view of Genesis, albeit often in new forms.

I believe that we face a double danger. First, we are in danger of losing our confidence that words can clearly communicate truth. There seems to be a hermeneutical issue at stake here, namely, the perspicuity of Scripture.

It is fascinating that, generally speaking, the same Reformed scholars who argue for some kind of allegorical interpretation of the plain and literal words of Genesis 1 tend to reinterpret the plain and literal words of the WCF when it states that creation took place ‘in the space of six days’.

If plain words can take on allegorical or alternative meanings so easily, so that they do not mean what they plainly state, how do we know what anything means? The resulting uncertainty that such interpretations convey leads into the second danger, that of doctrinal minimalism.

If we cut back the meaning of our confessions by saying their statements merely stand against some specific error, then we lose the richness of what the confessions positively affirm. Similarly, if we reduce Genesis 1 to the bare truth that ‘God created everything’, then we lose the richness of what God reveals in the whole chapter.

An uncertain and minimalist approach to the doctrine of creation opens the door for serious errors to enter the church, such as the evolution of man from animals or the denial that Adam and Eve were real, historical people. Happily, a robust doctrine of creation provides a strong foundation for our faith.

Dr Joel R. Beeke

The author is minister of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, where he is also Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics.

Author’s note: I thank David Clayton and Paul Smalley for their research assistance with this article from The New Answers, Book 4 — over 30 questions on creation/evolution and the Bible; edited Ken Ham, 414 pages; Master Books; ISBN: 978-0890517888.