GENESIS AND THE REAL WORLD: THE BENEFIT OF LOOKING BACK

It is clear to me as I teach Old Testament each week that many present-day Christian readers of Genesis still want to know how it interfaces with the sciences.  Some will be happy simply to ignore the sciences, while others know little about them, and still others think science and the Bible speak unrelated languages and have nothing to do with one another.  But as soon as I try to skirt the tricky issues and concentrate purely on the theology of Genesis, or its literary features, I am soon reminded that the burning question for at least some students is, “How am I to regard evolution?”, or, “What do the days of Genesis mean?”

These questions are not new.  The first has been firmly on the agenda for two centuries, and the second has been asked and studied from various standpoints throughout Christian history.  I am firmly convinced that a look into the history of attempts to bring the ‘real world’ (as perceived at the time) and Genesis to terms will bring insights into present attempts to do the same.  This conviction motivated my personal research into the history of Christian interpretation of the creation week of Genesis 1:1-2:3.[1]

Days of Creation Book Image

This study has turned out to be a kind of deep-trench archaeological investigation into the history of Christian thought – rather narrow sideways, but very deep.  Most of the leading thinkers of Christian history, amongst their other output, wrote or said something about Genesis 1, and often at great length – up to 800+ pages on this single chapter of the Bible![2]

It is revealing to discover that the most popular schemes of reconciling the Genesis creation week with ‘common knowledge’ about the world’s origin have deep roots.  The Gap Theory or Ruin-Restitution Hypothesis, which posits a vast and geologically eventful period of ancient time after creation but prior to the creation week, lying concealed within the rather indefinite language of Gen. 1:2, is often traced back to a Scot called Thomas Chalmers, speaking in the early 1800s.  In fact, it was a well-recognized option on the continent after about 1750, as related to geological eras, and in a more vague form, as a lifeless early phase of earth history, has roots all the way back past the Renaissance and to the patristic period.

The Day-Age or Long Creation Day concept, too, while it had its heyday around the 1850s and remains a well-recognized method of reconciling Genesis and geology today, is quite identifiable shortly after 1750, is being mooted in more limited forms before 1700, and finds antecedents in the idealist approach to the Genesis days of the Cambridge Platonists in the mid-1600s and prior…although the often-cited precedent in Augustine is greatly overstated.  One interesting factor is that this strategy, which today represents a realist stance regarding the physical world, has its taproot in Platonist, idealist approaches to the creation week.  On the other hand, a second ancestry lies in the very early trend of interpreting the creation week as a prophecy of a 7×1000 year sacred world history.

Idealist approaches to the Genesis days, which arguably include Augustine’s final, ‘literal meaning of Genesis’, ultimately find expression today also in the Framework Hypothesis/Analogical Days stance on the creation week, sometimes with quite a Platonist flavour (as in Meredith Kline’s thought)[3] and sometimes without.  As a final example, not all Young Earth Creationists, taking the creation week literally and associating it with a biblical chronology that leads back from datable ancient events in an unbroken chain to creation itself, would realize that one of the strongest defences of this position was published in the 1850s by Philip Gosse in Omphalos,[4] yet failed to persuade the mainstream scientific world.

It’s a fascinating history, and the more it is studied, the more profoundly relevant it turns out to be.  The history of interpretation of the creation week in Genesis emerges as a crucial case study in Christian thought, the history of western thought, and even the rise of modern science, for interpretation of Genesis was the midwife that oversaw its gestation and birth, though its genetics are partly pagan and classical.

Genesis’ version of creation dominated Western thought for most of the last 2,000 years.  It’s a career that deserves to be narrated.

 

Andrew Brown

June 2014

 

References

Brown, Andrew J. The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3. Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming.  https://www.eisenbrauns.com/ECOM/_43L1FFT2V.HTM

Gosse, Philip. Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. London: John Van Voorst, 1857.  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39910

Kline, Meredith G. “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2-15.

Mersenne, Marine. Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione. Reprint of 1916. Edited by. ed. Vol. Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623.

 

[1] Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3 (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

[2] Specifically Mersenne, Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione (Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623).

[3] Kline, “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2–15.

[4] Gosse, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (London: John Van Voorst, 1857).

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