The opening chapters of Genesis are a very beautiful description of the beginning of time. Who can forget the time that the crew of Apollo 8 read the first 10 verses of Genesis 1 as they orbited the moon. The idea that God is the creator of all that exists is a fundamental Christian doctrine. However, the beginning chapters of Genesis have been a source of controversy both within and outside the Christian church. There have probably been more books and articles written about the creation account in Genesis than any other portion of scripture.
The creation account is obviously in conflict with the view held by many in our society who believe that there is no creator and that nature is all there is. However, the creation account has also generated considerable controversy within the church. The controversy here centers primarily on the timing of the creation events and whether the account should be interpreted literally or as a literary form.
In this paper I will try to summarize the major interpretations of the creation days in Genesis 1 and to point out areas where they differ. I am not writing as an advocate of any of these positions. There are intelligent and committed Christians advocating each of these positions and each one is deserving of our consideration.
I have been professionally involved in science as a mathematician for more that 40 years. I am also a Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God. It is my belief that it is profitable to debate the theological and scientific issues involved in the Genesis creation account as long as we do so with respect for other Christians holding differing views. This has not always been the case. My hope is that we may come to see that other Christians can have a different viewpoint on the time-scale and method of creation and still hold to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible as God's word. The following quote by John Stott presents this idea very well:
There are two particular principles which Paul develops in Romans 14, which, especially in combination, are applicable to all churches in all places at all times. The first is the principle of faith. Everything must be done ‘from faith’, he writes (14:23). Again, `each one should be fully convinced in his own mind' (14:5). We need therefore to educate our consciences by the Word of God, so that we become strong in faith, growing in settled convictions and so in Christian liberty. Secondly, there is the principle of love. Everything must be done according to love (14:15). We need therefore to remember who our fellow Christians are, especially that they are our sisters and brothers for whom Christ died, so that we honour, not despise, them; serve, not harm, them; and especially respect their consciences.
One area in which this distinction between faith and love should operate is in the difference between essentials and non-essentials in Christian doctrine and practice. Although it is not always easy to distinguish between them, a safe guide is that truths on which Scripture speaks with a clear voice are essentials, whereas whenever equally biblical Christians, equally anxious to understand and obey Scripture, reach different conclusions, these must be regarded as non-essentials. …
In fundamentals, then, faith is primary, and we may not appeal to love as an excuse to deny essential faith. In non-fundamentals, however, love is primary, and we may not appeal to zeal for the faith as an excuse for failures in love. Faith instructs our own conscience; love respects the conscience of others. Faith gives liberty; love limits its exercise. No-one has put it better than Rupert Meldenius, a name some believe was a nom de plume used by Richard Baxter:
- In essentials unity;
- In non-essentials liberty;
- In all things charity.
The days of creation are an interesting topic for discussion among Christians, but no interpretation of these days should be considered an essential of the Christian Faith. Therefore, we need to exercise love in the form of humility and respect when discussing this issue.
To set the stage for what follows I would like to make a couple of general observations.
- I think we can all agree that the creation account given in Genesis is not an eye-witness account. There was no one present except God when these events took place. This leaves open the possibility (not necessity) of a non-literal interpretation of the creation account.
- The Genesis creation account was not written exclusively for our generation. It was meant to be read and enjoyed by people of every age. Therefore the language employed is not scientific or technical in nature. We have to be careful not to read more into these passages than is really there.
I begin this paper with a discussion of the differences between the Genesis creation account and other ancient creation stories. This is followed by some historical background information relating to the controversy. Next I discuss some of the language and scientific difficulties involved in interpreting the Genesis creation account. Following this I outline the major viewpoints on the creation days along with some of the major arguments for and against each one. I conclude with a statement of some truths about creation that hopefully all sides of the controversy can agree on.
There are a number of good references containing much more extensive presentations than are given here. The ones I have found to be most useful are listed in the reference section.