November 25, 2014

How Can the Six “Days” of Creation Not be Literal Days?

I like to think I’m an intellectually honest man­. Truthfully, I’ve wrestled plenty with the question of the literalness of the Six Days of Creation in Genesis 1-2. To be frank, apart from scientific investigation of the universe, there is no obvious reason not to take the six days literally—as 24-hour-long days. A cursory, Bible-alone interpretation of Genesis 1 tends more naturally to a literal creation week. Is that honest enough? So, the obvious question to answer is, “How can I—or anyone—feel that a nonliteral, Day-Age interpretation of Genesis 1 is justifiable and does not mangle the meaning of the creation account?” The answer involves the study of scriptural interpretation (i.e. hermeneutics), the nature of God and His revelation, and the place of human reasoning and investigation.

I was taught that Scripture should be taken literally, if at all possible. If a literal interpretation was not “ridiculous” then it was the preferred interpretation. However, I no longer accept this hermeneutical rule without further qualifications. [1.] The genre of a passage should influence the interpretive approach. Prophecy and poetry, for instance, are treated much differently than narrative, with plenty of figures of speech and symbolic language. In the case of poetry, literal interpretation is not as preferred. So, it is important to understand the literary form of the creation account. [2.] The original cultural context of biblical writing needs to be considered when interpreting the Bible in cases of historical literature. Modern, Western, Space Age thinking is far different from the ancient, Eastern, Bronze/Iron Age thinking. I suspect that modern Americans are more bent on literalism than perhaps any previous cultures. For this reason, I believe that the Bible is often less black-and-white than we might initially think. The biblical phrase “whole earth,” for instance, is demonstrably not speaking of the whole sphere of Earth in various places (e.g., Romans 1:8; Daniel 2:35). To get the most natural interpretation of narrative or historical literature, it can be helpful to understand the original audience, culture, and—especially—language of the writer. We should not think that God’s Word has been equally as plain in all languages and ages, for such a thing is not even possible. [3.] A Bible passage must always be interpreted in light of the rest of the Bible. A literal interpretation of a passage may become less justified due to another relevant passage that is shown to be nonliteral. Again, “whole earth” is a perfect example. Several passages use this phrase obviously in a nonliteral sense, making it become clear that anywhere this phrase is used it could be similarly a relative phrase speaking of a large region of the Earth.

I am confident that to the original audience of ancient Hebrews, the length of the days in the creation account was wide open to interpretation. As various scholars have noted, the Hebrew contains subtle, but significant clues all throughout Genesis 1 and 2 that point to longer, non-calendar “days” (e.g., Genesis 2:4 ESV; Genesis 1:11).

Now we come to the nature of God. God is fully honest, but He is also a God who does not reveal everything—certainly not all at once. He retains “secrets” to Himself, as the Bible clearly indicates (e.g., Deut. 29:29; Mt. 13:35; Dan. 8:26; Acts 1:7; Prov. 25:2; Job 11:7). When God speaks of a time before Man existed on Earth, we might be reasonable to assume that God withholds some significant details about what all happened (cf. Ecc. 3:11; 8:16-17). In fact, we might not even have wanted for God to tell us everything. (It would probably take a trilogy to tell us it all.) God’s special revelation to us is primarily about Him: His nature, His Salvation, His glory, His plans, and His relationship to Man. If the creation of the universe and life on Earth was incredibly complex, you would expect God to only give a rough outline of events, I believe.

Lastly, we must understand the place of human reasoning in God’s plans for our understanding of the universe and its history. Young-Earth creationists (YECs) like to say that the Bible is all-sufficient, and so it is when it comes to spiritual matters and our knowledge of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17). They like to say that the Bible alone can be trusted to give us knowledge of the formation of the universe, the Earth, and terrestrial life. However, they misunderstand one small thing: God Himself has shown us that the universe is a form of revelation (e.g., Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20-21) and that we should employ our “fallen” reasoning (e.g., Rom. 14:5; Is. 1:18; Acts 18:4; 24:25). It is fully consistent with biblical teaching that we apply our reasoning to discern truth about the universe and its history.

What do we Christians have to fear? We believe that biblical revelation will coincide with nature’s revelation. If the Bible is true then there will be no contradictions. God, I believe, wants us to see and know that His Word is true, and studying Creation gives us some measure of assurance of the validity of it. Our faith must be a reasonable faith that we can intellectually defend. Do we think that God tells us, “Believe My Word even if it contradicts so many things you see in Nature”? We should not think so poorly of God! No, what He tells us is perhaps something closer to: “Believe My Word and see how trustworthy it is in light of the revelation in Nature” (cf. Mark 16:20; Deut. 18:20-22).

YECs mistakenly pit Nature against the Bible in that they believe God’s Word is so much more easily interpreted (contradicted by 2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Cor. 2:14) than the evidence of Nature. However, as noted in previous posts, various ideas of the universe derived from a hyper-literal interpretation of the Bible—stemming from overconfidence that the most literal, straightforward reading of the Bible is the best interpretation—have been overwhelmingly overturned by evidence from Nature, such as geocentricity (cf. Josh. 10:12-13; 1 Chr. 16:30; Ps 19:6; Ecc. 1:5), the idea that the moon is a light source (cf. Is. 13:10; 60:19; Gen. 1:16), or that male sperm is fully human (i.e., needing no other components to develop into mature humans; cf. Heb. 7:5,10). Regardless of who held these positions, they are ideas that would seem to be the “plain reading” of Bible passages related to the natural world. When it is convenient, YECs do concede that overly literal readings of the Bible can be incorrect, though not known to be incorrect until science elucidates the matter.

What they are unwilling to admit is that God would ever use any poetic flare—or otherwise less than absolute literal language—when telling us about how He created our world. Why would God seem to speak of a literal six-day long process of creation, if it were billions of years and we weren’t there to see it happen? Doesn’t He know that we’d be confused by His Word? Doesn’t He want us to trust His Word more than our research of His creation? To these questions I answer that God expects us to search out His creation and His Word and discern His works of ancient times (e.g., Ps. 111:2). He expects us to believe His Word, but not to be presumptuous that a hard, wooden, literal interpretation is the best interpretation. He expects us to be humble enough to reconsider our understanding of the Bible when mountains of evidence in creation point to a better interpretation of His Word. This is not abandoning the Bible; it’s reevaluating our presuppositions about how God speaks to us concerning His creation. If strong evidence in the universe points to an old universe and earth, we should not question which is correct: the “plain reading” of the Bible or the plain interpretation of evidence in Nature. No, we consider if God’s Word amply allows for a less-wooden interpretation of long ages in Genesis 1.

In this way we honor God’s Word and the revelation coming to us directly from His creation. We must wisely discern when to abandon a fully literal interpretation of the Bible when the evidence of Nature consistently points to a less literal interpretation. If we are unwilling to receive the overwhelming witness of Creation about its age, because we think we’re honoring God’s Book by trusting the simplest possible meaning, then there could be a hint of pride or self-righteousness in that position that mistakes the purposes of God and His desire for us to grow and learn by employing sound reasoning. We do not honor God by portraying a blatant discrepancy between His natural revelation (Creation) and His special revelation (the Bible).

For these reasons, I no longer feel disturbed that the most literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 may not be the correct interpretation. Certainly, God has not deceived us! He has simply withheld fascinating secrets that only in modern times are being revealed by careful study of His Word and Creation—study that He Himself wanted and encouraged in His Word. For perhaps hundreds of years, the absolute literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 was accepted as orthodoxy, but from that there was no detriment to our understanding of God and our human nature. The lack of understanding was regarding the universe and the universe alone. An old universe changes nothing about our understanding of who God is or what His relationship is to us. And, for these reasons, I am not troubled that the Creator would speak of what sounds to modern ears like a young universe, or that He would not tell us the processes whereby He created life on earth.

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