Much of the controversy concerning the creation account in Genesis centers on the meaning of the word “day”. Some consider it to be a normal 24-hour day, others say it refers to a period of time of unspecified length, and still others treat it as part of a literary form. This controversy at times has become very bitter. There didn't appear to be this divisiveness in the early history of the church. For the first 1600 years of the Christian church there seemed to be a tolerant attitude toward differing views on the meaning of the creation days. Probably most adhered to the 24-hour day viewpoint, but there were a number of exceptions. Clement of Alexandria (150--215 A.D.) was an early Christian convert and theologian. He believed that the creation was instantaneous and that the days of Genesis 1 were used to show the priority of created things but not the timing. Here are some quotes by two other early church theologians
As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think — let alone explain in words — what they mean.
the ‘days’ of Moses' account … are not to be equated with the days in which we live.
Augustine seems to have believed that creation was instantaneous and that the days should not be interpreted literally.
The major church creeds took no definite position on the length of the creation days . This would seem to indicate that the timing of the creation events was not considered to be of primary importance. The Apostle's Creed simply states
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
The Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) limits its statement on creation to this
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) states the following
God created them [man and woman] good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with him in eternal happiness for his praise and glory.
The eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence …
All creatures are so completely in his [God's] hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.
The Belgic Confession (1566) has this to say about creation
We believe that the Father created heaven and earth and all other creatures from nothing, when it seemed good to him, by his Word — that is to say his Son. He has given all creatures their being, form, and appearance, and their various functions for serving their Creator. … He also created the angels good, that they might be his messengers and serve his elect.
We know him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word.
The Westminster Confession (1646) makes the following statement
It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.
Only the Westminster confession even mentions a time period for creation, and it merely repeats, without explanation, what is recorded in Genesis. It is known that many of the Westminster divines supported the calendar-day interpretation, but there is considerable disagreement on whether they were applying that restriction here. Calvin used the same term “in the space of six days” to counter Augustine's instantaneous creation idea, but did not elaborate on the meaning of “days”.
The seeds of controversy were planted in the mid-17th century by two British scholars, John Lightfoot and James Ussher. In 1642, just 31 years after the completion of the King James translation, Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor John Lightfoot published his voluminous calculation of the exact date for the creation of the universe: September 17, 3928 B.C. Eight years later, James Ussher, Anglican archbishop of Ireland, corrected Lightfoot's date. His copious commentary and calculations changed it to October 3, 4004 B.C. Not to be outdone, Lightfoot adjusted Ussher's date to the week of October 18–24, 4004 B.C. with the creation of Adam occurring on October 23 at 9:00 A.M., 45th meridian time. From the 18th century onward, the King James Version incorporated Ussher's chronology as margin notes or even as headings of its various editions.
In the 1800s, scientists Charles Lyell, John Phillips, Lord Kelvin, and John Joly each independently (using sedimentation rates, earth's cooling rate, and the rate of salt accumulation in the oceans) came to believe that the earth's age must be at least in the tens of millions of years. The rise of Darwinism in the late 1800s caused many to question the 24-hour day interpretation since Darwinian evolution involves a gradual transformation of lower forms of life into higher forms over a very long time period. Most scientists today believe that the earth is very old. The current estimate for the age of the earth are about 4.5 billion years. Although there are some questions relating to the methods for estimating the age of the earth, these estimates are generally accepted.
One attempt to reconcile these scientific estimates of the earth's age with Ussher's chronology was made by Philip Gosse (1810–1888), a British preacher and self-trained biologist. He proposed that God created the world with the appearance of age, i.e., trees were created with growth rings in place, coral reefs were created fully-developed, and rocks were created with fossils in them. Although popular for a while, this view has few adherents today.
An attempt to accommodate a long time period for creation was the so-called “gap theory” . This interpretation is based on an alternate rendition of the phrase “the earth was without form” in verse 1 of Genesis. Another possible translation is “the earth became formless”. The gap theorists claim that there was an earlier civilization, ruled over by Satan, which was destroyed by God. This destruction caused the earth to become empty. The remaining verses of Genesis describe a re-creation by God. There is an unspecified time gap between the two creations. This interpretation was popular in the 1800s and early 1900s. It was contained in the notes of the popular Scofield Reference Bible. In this form it has very few adherents at present. However, there are some today who do believe that there may be time gaps both before and between the creation days.
The growing acceptance of Darwinism was seen by many in the church as a major threat to the authority of the scriptures. Between 1909 and 1917, American laymen Milton and Lyman Stewart published and distributed a series of essays entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These essays were written by such prominent Evangelicals as C.I. Scofield, Benjamin Warfield, James Orr, and R.A. Torrey. They asserted that there were five fundamentals of the faith:
- The Deity of Jesus Christ
- The Virgin Birth
- The Blood Atonement
- The Bodily Resurrection
- The Inerrancy of the Scriptures.
I think that the word “fundamentalism” today has a somewhat negative connotation. However, I doubt that many Christians would object to the five fundamentals stated above. The essays that addressed Genesis 1 asserted the importance of recognizing these events as actual historical occurrences, fundamental to everything in scripture, but left open the question of the creation days' length. Here is a statement by R.A. Torrey, one of the editors of The Fundamentals
Anyone who is familiar with the Bible and the way the Bible uses words, knows that the use of the word ‘day’ is not limited to twenty-four hours. It is frequently used to denote a period of entirely undefined length …. There is no necessity whatsoever for interpreting the days of Genesis 1 as solar days of twenty-four hours length.
However, at a 1919 conference in Philadelphia, fundamentalism became an organized movement with the founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). This group considered the question of what qualifies a person to be a true Christian. Since they perceived Darwinism to be the great evil of the day, they adopted Ussher's chronology as a necessary belief. They believed that this was the only way to counter the rise of godless science.
One of the most outspoken critics of Darwinism in the early 1900s was a Seventh-Day-Adventist layman and amateur geologist name George McCready Price. In 1923 he published a book entitled The New Geology. In this book he claimed that the fossil record and all the earth's geologic features could be explained as the result of the Genesis flood. Price was an excellent speaker and became a spokesman for the fundamentalist movement.