The issue received great notoriety in the Scopes trial of 1925. This trial took place in Dayton Tennessee and was perceived as a showdown between fundamentalist Christianity and science. In a series of scathing newspaper articles H. L. Mencken implied that, under defense attorney Clarence Darrow's cross-examination, William Jennings Bryan was forced to admit that the six consecutive 24-hour periods of Biblical creation must be incorrect. Actually, Bryan went into the trial believing that the Bible allowed for long creation days. The trial actually was more showmanship than a true confrontation between the two positions. The scientists assembled by the defense team were not allowed to testify in the trial. In a strange move Bryan agreed to take the stand and be questioned by Darrow with the understanding that he would be able to question Darrow later. Here is a portion of that interchange .
DARROW: Have you any idea how old the earth is?
DARROW: The book you have introduced in evidence fails you, doesn't it? [referring to the Bible]
BRYAN: I don't think it does, Mr. Darrow.
DARROW: Let's see whether it does. Is this the one?
BRYAN: That is the one, I think.
DARROW: It says B.C. 4004.
BRYAN: That is Bishop Ussher's calculation.
DARROW: That is printed in the Bible you introduced?
BRYAN: Yes, sir.
DARROW: And numerous other Bibles?
BRYAN: Yes, sir.
DARROW: Printed in the Bible in general use in Tennessee?
BRYAN: I couldn't say.
DARROW: And Scofield's Bible?
BRYAN: I couldn't say about that.
DARROW: You have seen it somewhere else?
BRYAN: I think that is the chronology actually used.
DARROW: Does the Bible you have introduced for the jury's consideration say that?
BRYAN: Well, you'll have to ask those who introduced that.
DARROW: You haven't practiced law for a long time, so I will ask you if that is the King James version that was introduced. That is your marking, and I assume it is.
BRYAN: I think that is the same one.
DARROW: There is no doubt about it, is there, gentlemen?
STEWART: That is the same one.
DARROW: Would you say the earth was only 4,000 years old?
BRYAN: Oh no, I think it is much older than that.
DARROW: How much?
BRYAN: I couldn't say.
DARROW: Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
BRYAN: I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.
DARROW: Do you think the earth was made in six days?
RYAN: Not six days of twenty-four hours.
DARROW: Doesn't it say so?
BRYAN: No, sir.
DARROW: All right. Does the statement “The morning and the evening were the first day” and “The morning and the evening were the second day” mean anything to you?
BRYAN: I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four hour day.
DARROW: You do not?
DARROW: What do you consider it to be?
BRYAN: I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter — let me have the book. The fourth verse of the second chapter says, “Those are the generation of the heavens and of the earth, when they were erected in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” The word “day” there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is necessity for considering the words, “the evening and the morning” as meaning necessarily a twenty-four hour day in the day when the Lord made the heavens and the earth.
After the questioning the defense pled guilty, ending the trial. Darrow was primarily interested in appealing the case to a higher court. Thus, Bryan didn't get to question Darrow or to present his final summation. The trial was broadcast on radio and received nationwide attention. In the period following the trial there was no general agreement about which side had prevailed. Today, most people's conception of the Scopes trial is based on the play and movie “Inherit the Wind.” This rendition of the scopes trial contains many historical inaccuracies. For a good historical account I recommend the Pulitzer Prize winning book Summer for the Gods by Edward Larson . I have written a summary article on the trial which can be obtained here.
Although the calendar-day interpretation of the Genesis creation days remained the dominant position within the church, there were a number of prominent theologians who believed that Genesis allowed for the possibility of long creation days. These included Charles Hodge (1797–1878), A.A. Hodge (1823–1886), R.A. Torrey (1856–1928), Benjamin Warfield (1871–1921), and J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937).
Further evidence for a very old universe came from the so-called “Big-Bang” theory. George LeMaitre (1894–1966), a Catholic Priest in Belgium, deduced from Einstein's equations of General Relativity in 1927 that the universe should be expanding uniformly in all directions. This was confirmed experimentally in 1929 by Edwin Hubble using the red-shift of the light spectrums for distant galaxies. The results of LeMaitre and Hubble were not accepted immediately by many scientists. This is because their results, if extrapolated backwards, predicted that the universe must have had a beginning. LeMaitre also predicted that there should be a uniform residual background radiation still remaining from this expansion. This background radiation was measured by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs in 1965 (They received the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1978). Most scientists now accept the fact that the universe is expanding and that it had a beginning. Working backwards, Hubble's laws of expansion predict that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.
In 1961 Henry Morris, a civil engineering professor, and John Whitcomb, a theology professor, published a book entitled The Genesis Flood . This book, like the earlier book of Price, argued that the creation period consisted of six 24-hour days occurring a few thousand years ago and that the geological formations we see today are largely the result of the flood described in Genesis. This viewpoint is sometimes called the young-earth view. Unlike Price, these authors had professional degrees. In 1972 the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) was founded in San Diego by several scientists for the purpose of presenting this young-earth view of creation to the public. Through their efforts to legalize the teaching of creation science in the schools, the name “creationism” has come to be associated exclusively with this young-earth view. Morris was very passionate about his views and considered the age of the earth a matter of primary importance. He often spoke very critically of those holding other views. Currently the largest organization promoting the young earth view is Answers in Genesis led by Ken Ham.
In recent years Hugh Ross, a former Cal Tech astrophysicist, and others have lectured and written a number of books advocating the position that the sequence of events described in Genesis is correct, but that the creation days represent long periods of time. This viewpoint is sometimes called “Progressive Creationism”. Progressive creationists generally believe that the creation process is completely under God's control and that God intervenes at specific times with completely new creations. They typically oppose evolution except in the limited sense of small variations within a species. Most also believe in a fairly recent creation date for man (less than a hundred thousand years). They claim that the Genesis account agrees well with current findings in science.
Another form of old-earth creationism is “Theistic Evolution” or “Evolutionary Creation”. Advocates of this position affirm that God is the creator, but that he used evolution to produce the variety of life forms we see today. Some Theistic Evolutionists allow for the possibility that God may have intervened at particular times in the process while others believe that God endowed the original creation with everything that was needed. One of the primary advocates of Theistic Evolution was the French philosopher and Roman Catholic Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955). Recently this viewpoint has been popularized by Francis Collins, the director of the human genome project . Proponents of this view usually don't take a definite position on the meaning of “day”, but they do interpret Genesis 1–2 in a non-literal sense. There is more information related to this viewpoint on the web site www.biologos.org.
Some young-earth advocates have accused these old-earth scientists of being heretics and not Bible believing Christians. I have not found this to be the case. I would hope that in the future this debate can be carried on in a more respectful manner. It is important to hold firmly the fundamentals of the faith, but on non-fundamental matters love should be the guiding principle.
An interpretation of the Genesis creation account that is of fairly recent origin is the “Framework” or “Literary Framework” viewpoint. Although there were some hints of this viewpoint in the writings of Augustine, it was popularized by the writings of Professors Meridith Klein (1922–2007) and the French theologian Henri Blocher. They considered the days to be normal days, but that they should be interpreted metaphorically as part of a literary form. They contend that the creation account is historical, but that the events are ordered the way they are for literary reasons and may not be chronological and could overlap.
In 1977 a group of Biblical scholars formed the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). Initial efforts were focused on defining Biblical Inerrancy, but the council later began looking at specific issues. In 1982 an ICBI summit looked carefully at the role science should play in the interpretation of scripture. They heard presentations by young earth and old earth proponents as well as Biblical Hebrew scholars. The council did not take any position on the age of the universe/earth. Here is the council's statement on the relationship of science and scripture:
It is sometimes argued that our exegesis should not be influenced by scientific observations. We believe this view is mistaken. While the Bible clearly gives more specific information about our relationship to God than one could possibly deduce from natural revelation, it does not necessarily follow that our understanding of the physical world, its origin, etc., will be more clearly deduced from God's revelation in His word than His revelation in His world. Since both are revelations from God, and therefore, give a unified story, it seems quite permissible to consider all of the evidence (scientific as well as biblical) to be significant to the degree that each revelation can be clearly interpreted.
The position statement was signed by everyone in attendance except the young earth advocate Henry Morris.
Attempts in 1990 to force a young-earth view of creation into doctrinal statements and to make adherence to a young-earth interpretation a condition for church membership led both the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and Westminster Theological Seminary to convene panels of scholars to study the question. Both panels concluded that the Genesis creation days could be faithfully interpreted as 24-hour days, long time periods, or as a literary device. Their reports are contained on the web site http://www.reasons.org/.