Evaluating Christian views of origins (1)
Ever since the time of Darwin, there have been debates among Christians about how Genesis (and in particular chapters 1-11) should be interpreted.
Should we search for harmony between Genesis and modern scientific accounts of origins? And, if so, what are the options available to us?
In fact, these debates had been raging for over 100 years before Darwin came along, because of the demands being made by geologists for increasingly long periods of pre-human history in their understanding of geological phenomena.
While theological liberals have been content to relegate Genesis to the status of pre-scientific myth, those holding more conservative views of the Bible have tended to seek complementarity with science, in one form or another.
In this article, we will evaluate four such popular solutions to this problem.
Theistic evolution (sometimes called evolutionary creationism) is the idea that God worked through natural evolutionary processes to create things.
This view was cautiously adopted by some Reformed Christians after Darwin (including the Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield), although it was rejected vehemently by others (such as the Southern Presbyterian Robert Dabney).
Most theistic evolutionists accept the conventional view of origins in its entirety, from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago to the evolution of man from ape-like ancestors within the last three million years. Some, however, allow for special creation at key moments.
Today, there is a spectrum of views among theistic evolutionists about how the Genesis account of creation is to be understood. Some suggest that it contains a core of historical elements. Denis Alexander, for instance, identifies Adam as a Neolithic farmer living around 6000-8000 years ago.1
Others suggest that to read Genesis as an historical account is to miss its purpose altogether. Recently, John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, argued that Genesis 1 is not about the origin of the material universe at all, but rather a tract about how God orders his world based around the traditional seven-day inauguration of the Jewish temple.2
Old earth creationism
This (sometimes called progressive creationism) is the idea that God supernaturally created the major groups (or even species) of living organisms, but that he did so by intervening periodically throughout earth history.
This has been a popular view in evangelical circles, probably because it allows Christians to reject evolution while accepting the billions-of-years timescale. Many, but not all, of those associated with the intelligent design (ID) movement are in this category.
Old earth creationists typically interpret the days of creation as long ages of time representing the epochs of earth history, or as days of revelation (not actually the days on which God created, but rather the days on which God revealed to the writer of Genesis what he had already done over long ages).
One of the most influential old earth creationist books in the UK was Alan Hayward’s Creation and evolution,3 even though its author was a Christadelphian.4
From an evangelical perspective there is John Lennox’s Seven days that divide the world.5 Perhaps the best known old earth creationist in the USA is Hugh Ross of the Reasons to Believe organisation.6
The gap theory
The gap theory (sometimes called the ruin-restoration theory) is the idea that there was an earlier creation that was destroyed when Satan rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven.
This original creation is said to be described in Genesis 1:1, after which there is an indefinite time gap before the recreation of the world — in other words, the world in which we are now living — in Genesis 1:2 and following.
The gap theory was popularised in Reformed circles by the theologian and founder of the Free Church of Scotland, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), and still retains considerable popular support among the Brethren, as a result of its advocacy in a footnote in the revised Scofield Reference Bible.7
Gap theorists reject evolution, and usually attribute the rocks and fossils to the destruction of the former creation. There are few scholarly proponents of this view today, although the writings of Arthur Custance were widely read in the past.8
Young earth creationism
This (sometimes called recent creationism) is the idea that God made everything in six ordinary days, that death entered the world following the sin of Adam, that God judged the world with a global flood in the days of Noah and that all humans are descended from Adam through Noah’s sons, whose descendants were then scattered from Babel.
In other words, young earth creationists understand Genesis 1-11 as a straightforward historical record.
This view has probably the longest pedigree in the Christian church, and major aspects of this position are reflected in the writings of many (though not all) of the Church Fathers and Reformers.9
By the time Darwin came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century, young earth creationism had been largely eclipsed, although it has undergone something of a revival in modern times, following the publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’ seminal book, The Genesis Flood, in 1961.10
So how should we evaluate these four popular positions on the question of origins?
Christian debates about origins often focus on questions such as the literary genre of the book of Genesis. Is it poetry? Is it an allegory? Is it straightforward history?
Or they focus on controversial aspects of the account in Genesis 1, such as the meaning of the days of creation. Are they ordinary days? Do they represent long periods of time? Are they merely a literary device?
Now those are all interesting questions, but they are not the most important issues to be addressed. Often these questions set up a false antithesis. They suggest that Genesis 1 must be regarded as either history or poetry. But in fact history can be accurately conveyed in poetic form. Tennyson’s Charge of the light brigade is a good case in point!
Nor does literary structure preclude real history. Other parts of the Bible, the Gospels included, are full of literary structure, but we do not set that structure against the historicity of the events they describe.
But perhaps of even greater significance, the most serious area of theological conflict concerns the original goodness of creation, not the length of the creation days. This is a matter that has much wider implications than even how we are to interpret Genesis 1.
In order to understand this, we need to consider what we might call the redemptive story-line of the Bible.11 It can be summarised like this. In the beginning, God made mankind as his deputy to rule over and care for his creation. But the first man, Adam, rebelled against God, bringing down God’s curse upon mankind and leading to his death.
As descendants of that first man, we have inherited his sinful nature and are likewise subject to God’s righteous judgement. But God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, as a perfect human being to die as our substitute, to take the punishment that our sin deserved. And Jesus rose again from the dead as the firstfruits of a new creation that will be completed when he returns.
The Flood in the days of Noah also plays a pivotal role in this story-line. The New Testament portrays the Flood as a turning point, in which an old world was destroyed and a new world began (2 Peter 3:3-7).
In this way, it anticipates the future judgement when Christ returns, after which there will be a new heaven and earth.
Evangelicals are increasingly recognising the importance of emphasising this biblical ‘plot-line’, particularly in evangelism, because it’s only in this framework that the good news about Jesus Christ makes sense.
I want to suggest that this is also the context in which we need to evaluate the different positions on origins. We need to ask: how compatible are they with this overall story-line?
To be concluded
1 D. Alexander, Creation or evolution: Do we have to choose? Monarch, 2008, p.241.
2 J. H. Walton, The lost world of Genesis One: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate, InterVarsity Press, 2009.
3 A. Hayward, Creation or evolution: The facts and the fallacies, Triangle, 1985.
5 J. C. Lennox, Seven days that divide the world, Zondervan, 2011.
7 W. W. Fields, Unformed and unfilled: A critique of the gap theory, Burgener Enterprises, 1976.
8 A. Custance, Without form and void, Doorway Publications, 1970.
9 T. Mortensen and T. H. Ury (eds.), Coming to grips with Genesis: Biblical authority and the age of the earth, Master Books, 2008.
10 J. C. Whitcomb and H. M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The biblical record and its scientific implications, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961.
11 I am indebted to Dr Stephen Lloyd for developing this point. See: S. Lloyd, ‘Christian theology and neo-Darwinism are incompatible: an argument from the resurrection’, in: G. Finlay, S. Lloyd, S. Pattemore and D. Swift (eds.), Debating Darwin, Paternoster, 2009, pp.1-29.