Strategies for origins

Theologians, as well as scientists, have proposed a wide variety of strategies for uniting the geological record with the Bible. In this brief survey a Ministry editor takes a look at the various approaches.

Warren H. Johns is an associate editor of MINISTRY.

The rise of modern geological studies at the beginning of the nineteenth century indelibly altered our approach to the opening chapters of Genesis. As the earth's crust was first probed in earnest, man discovered a much more complex and extensive history of life than he had ever dreamed possible. Vast thicknesses of sedimentary rock had entombed literally millions of creatures now extinct, and to follow the excavations of the geologist's pick was like entering the fairyland of another world or far-off planet. The challenge to theologians was immediately self-evident: How does one reconcile the findings of geology with the record of Creation as contained in Genesis?

Basically three approaches have been followed: one extreme gives as much credence as possible to the conclusions of the geologist, the other gives as much credence as possible to the Biblical record to the exclusion of the findings of science, and a third attempts to give equal validity to science and Scripture. Of course, many gradations exist between these three broad categories.

The various strategies proposed for harmonizing Genesis and geology can be arranged upon a continuum defined in two ways: (1) the amount of involvement the Creator has in His work of creation and (2) how literally the Biblical scholar wishes to interpret the various facts of the Creation account.

Outline of strategies

Evolutionary theories of origins

1. Materialistic evolution: totally a chance process in which God has no part in the origin of material or biological worlds.

2. Deistic evolution: God's involvement is only at the creation of the first living cell; evolution, apart from God, takes over from that point.

3. Theistic evolution: God is an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process as a guiding force.

Creationist theories of origins (old earth)

1. Progressive creationism: numerous acts of creation throughout geological time, but not in the order of the six days of Genesis.

2. Concordism: numerous acts of creation throughout geological time exactly in the same order as the six days of Genesis.

3. Mosaic vision theory (revelatory days): the six days refer to six visions, each on a successive day, and not to the actual length of Creation.

4. Multiple-gap theory: six literal days of Creation scattered throughout geological time.

5. Multiple catastrophism/multiple creationism: numerous catastrophes accompanied by many successive acts of creation, the last being that described in Genesis 1.

6. Gap theory (ruin-restitution): nearly all of geological history inserted between verses 1 and 3 of Genesis 1.

Creationist theories of origins (young earth)

1. Fiat creationism: the earth and all living things created in a span of six literal days about 6,000 to 15,000 years ago.

2. Apparent age creationism: a literal six-day Creation week that includes not only all living things but also most of the fossil record.

The progression of divine involvement can be seen easily. In materialistic evolution God's involvement in origins is nil, while in deistic and theistic evolution it is very slight, but increasing. All of the old-earth Creationist strategies have periodic occurrences of divine supernatural intervention separated by lengthy periods of evolutionary development that may last several million years. And of the young-earth creationist categories, God is most highly involved in the creative activity described by the apparent-age theory, to the point that He creates practically the whole fossil record some time during the six days of Creation week!

The second continuum is the perceived literalness of the Genesis account. In materialistic evolution it is apparent that Genesis has no literal validity and no inspiration that would set it apart from any of the ancient Near Eastern Creation myths. In deistic and theistic evolution it is often asserted that the Bible tells us that God is Creator, while science tells us that He "created" by an evolutionary process involving chance. In the old-earth creationist strategies greater credence is given to the Genesis record as one moves down the list, so that by the time the gap theory (number 6) is reached it is asserted that the Bible explicitly describes two worlds and two episodes of Creation, the one being the pre-Adamite world of Genesis 1:1 and the other being our present world in Genesis 1:3-31. In progressive creationism and concordism, the six days of Creation are viewed as symbolic of lengthy periods of geological history, while in the Mosaic vision theory the days are viewed as partially literal and partially figurative. Strategies four, five, and six under old-earth creationism all hold to the six days as being literal 24-hour days. The creationist theories advocating a young earth add the additional element missing in all the old-earth creationism strategies; they assert that the Bible tells us how old the earth is, in contrast to the other strategies that allow science the privilege of setting the age of the earth and the subsequent appearance of life.

Evolutionary theories

A closer look at each of the strategies will help clarify where one stands and the reasons why one has taken such a stand. The first three strategies, all of which are evolutionary, suggest the existence of a gulf between science and the Bible. "The Bible is not a textbook of science, nor is the Bible given to answer scientific questions," they assert. Personally, I believe that the Bible does give scientific information and a philosophy of science, because the God who is the Author of Scripture is likewise the Author of science. For this reason the two must agree (see "The Doctrine of Beginnings," p. 18). How ever, the Bible was not written in the precise language of science, and therefore its records must be subject to interpretation and exegesis just as are the rock records.

Creationist theories (old earth)

The first of the creationist strategies, progressive creationism, was prominently held in the days before Darwin's Origin was published. It acknowledges a progression or an order in the fossil record, but holds that this order was by design by distinct creative acts. Its most able spokes man today is Bernard Ramm, who wrote The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). Sometimes it is called the frame work hypothesis, because the six days are viewed as an artificial framework arranged by the author of Genesis and not correlated with the order of the fossil sequence.

While concordism overlaps with progressive creationism on most points, it differs by suggesting that the order in the rocks matches very nicely the order described in Genesis 1. The noted archeologist W. F. Albright notes that the "sequence of creative phases is so rational that modern science cannot improve on it" (cited by Carl F. H. Henry, "Science and Religion," in Contemporary Evangelical Thought, p. 275). One proponent of concordism today is Davis Young, a trained geologist who wrote Creation and the Flood: An Alternative to Flood Geology and Theistic Evolution (1977). The book has been dedicated to his father, the late conservative Old Testament scholar, Edward J. Young. Both progressive creationism and its sister theory, concordism, equate the days of Creation week with lengthy periods of geological time and are sometimes called day-age theories.

It is most difficult to stretch the six days of Genesis beyond their natural interpretation as twenty-four days. The major Hebrew lexica, such as Brown, Driver, and Briggs' Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament and Koehler and Baumgartner's Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libras, view the six days of Genesis 1 as each being twenty-four hours in length. True, the Hebrew word for day (yom) is sometimes applied to an indefinite time in the Old Testament, but whenever it is accompanied by an ordinal number it invariably refers to a time period marked out by one revolution of the earth on its axis. John Skinner, in the International Critical Commentary, states: "The interpretation of yom as aeon, a favourite resource of harmonists of science and revelation, is opposed to the plain sense of the passage, and has no warrant in Heb. usage" (I.C.C., Genesis, vol. 1, p. 21). As Christians, our pattern of six days of labor followed by the seventh day of rest takes on its greatest significance if the first six days of history were literal days. Christ, the Creator, acknowledged this literalness of the Creation days in His life here on earth, as well as in His death (see Luke 4:16; cf. "The Doctrine of Beginnings," p. 18).

The Mosaic vision theory (revelatory days) is an interesting compromise between a literal six days and the day-age theory. It suggests that the days were literal twenty-four-hour days, but that they took place on top of either Mount Sinai or Mount Nebo, not at Creation week! According to this theory, Moses had a vision in which he saw all of God's creative activities compressed in videoscope fashion into six showings, each lasting a day. The main nineteenth-century proponent of this theory was the Scottish geologist-churchman Hugh Miller, whose books were widely read and went through many editions, and, in the twentieth century, P. J. Wiseman, author of Creation Revealed in Six Days (1948).

The multiple-gap theory, like the revelatory days, is also a compromise. It states that the days of Creation are literal but nonconsecutive. Vast periods of geological time are inserted between each. This view finds expression in Peter Stoner's Science Speaks (1953). The problem with both these views is that Scripture gives no hint either that Moses had a vision lasting six days or that the six days should be interrupted by huge gaps of time. They are founded on ingenious speculation.

Multiple catastrophism/multiple creationism was one of the earliest and most widely held views in the early part of the nineteenth century, being advocated by Georges Cuvier, the father of vertebrate paleontology, and Louis Agassiz, the father of the ice-age theory and son of a Swiss Reformed pastor. It suggests that earth history is a succession of global catastrophes leading to mass extinctions among the animals and plants, each of which was followed by a new act of creation. The last global catastrophe—Noah's flood—occurred about 5,000 or 6,000 years ago and has not been followed by further creative activity. However, because further research in geology is found to be out of step with the known facts, this theory has long vanished along with its many catastrophes, which at last count reached more than forty.

The gap theory holds much in common with the previous two strategies, but differs by suggesting just one major gap in the Creation record (inserted between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1), and only one major catastrophe (alluded to in Genesis 1:2). The opening verses of Genesis are interpreted as follows: "In the beginning of geological history God created the heavens and the earth. Millions of years later the earth became formless and empty. Then God said, "Let there be light." Thus the six days of Creation took place a few thousand years ago after a universal destruction of all preexisting life, perhaps due to the degradations of Satan upon this planet after being cast out of heaven. This is also called the ruin-restoration theory, because, according to it, a previous world was ruined, immediately followed by its restitution to a perfect condition. This theory was promulgated throughout the nineteenth century and was popularized in the twentieth among conservative Christians by the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1917, and by Harry Rimmer, who wrote Modern Science and the Genesis Record (1937). The chief problem with this theory is its lack of sound Biblical exegesis. A critique appears in Bernard Ramm's The Christian View of Science and Scripture, pp. 134-144.

Creationist theories (young earth)

Among the two young-earth strategies, fiat creationism has the greatest amount of variation. It may hold to a strict six or seven thousand years for earth history, based on the existence of no gaps in the Genesis genealogies, or it may allow numerous gaps that would extend the earth's age up to fifteen thousand years. The most commonly suggested figure is ten thousand years. It may hold that the whole stellar universe was created a few thousand years ago, that only the solar system was created ex nihilo then, or that only life was created upon a preexisting planet at that time. It may include some aspects of the apparentage theory. For example, most fiat creationists believe that the organic world was created with an appearance of age. This is nicely described by Frank L. Marsh, Life, Man, and Time (1967, p. 69): "When Adam came from the hand of the Creator on Friday he had every appearance of being a mature man at least in his twenties, a man of marriageable age. Fruit-bearing trees appeared to be at least several years old. The great aquatic animals playing in the waters appeared to be sixty to one hundred years old. And the smoothed landscape with its rounded mountains and hills, and broad rivers, and with a vegetated layer of fertile soil over all land areas, from a uniformitarian viewpoint, appeared to be millions of years old."

Some fiat creationists believe that the inorganic minerals likewise were created with the appearance of age. Speaking of soil, which normally takes "centuries of rock weathering" to form, Whitcomb and Morris conclude: "It was created with an 'appearance' of age!" (John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1961, p. 233). Marsh suggests that at Creation a few thousand years ago the radiometric clocks were set to show much older apparent ages. He concludes his discussion by asking, "Would it be unreasonable to assume that the minerals of the earth as well as its organic forms may have been created with an appearance of age?" (Life, Man, and Time, p. 69).

Some fiat creationists disagree with Marsh's interpretation by suggesting that the inorganic minerals are indeed as old as the radiometric dating methods make them out to be. In other words, the earth may have been in a moonlike state of existence for a full 4.5 billion years before the Creator created all living things just a few thousand years ago. They accept the various radiometric dating methods as capable of yielding correct real-time age for nonliving matter but reject all interpretations that yield ages greater than about ten thousand years for anything that was once living. This small but growing segment of fiat creationists has one foot thrust into the door of old-earth creationism strategies, but they part company with gap theorists and others by suggesting that Genesis 1:1-31 describes a recent Creation in its entirety without any suggestion of pre-Adamite activities.

Those who follow the appearance-of-age strategy 100 percent are those who include the entire fossil record in Creation week, in contrast with fiat creationists, who place most of the fossil record in the events of Noah's flood. A prime example is Philip Gosse, who in 1857 published Ompholos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Its title comes from the Greek word for "navel." Gosse asked, Did Adam have a navel? His answer was in the affirmative. And if Adam had a navel, he reasoned, why could not the Creator create fossil forms as if they had once existed, although they never did? Chateaubriand takes this reasoning one step further in his Genius of Christianty: "It was part of the perfection and harmony of the nature which was displayed before men's eyes that the deserted nests of last year's birds should be seen on the trees, and that the seashore should be covered with shells which had been the abode of fish, and yet the world was quite new, and nests and shells had never been inhabited" (cited in A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology, 1965, p. 185). In other words, Adam taking a walk on the first Sabbath of his existence would have seen shells scattered along the sandy beach and empty birds' nests in the trees lining the shores when all these things were less than a week old!

The key problem with all appearance-of-age theories is: Where does one draw the line? Should only animals, plants, and man be included in the mature creation? What about soils and landscapes? or radioactive minerals? or shells and birds' nests? or even the fossils beneath one's feet? Wherever the line is drawn, it is always at an arbitrary point. There is no explicit scriptural support for the idea of appearance-of-age creationism; its only support lies in the mind of the Biblical exegete who wishes to harmonize the Bible record with findings of geology indicating a longer time period than six-thousand years. It often confuses the issue of what God could do with what God indeed did do. Anyone who believes that God is omnipotent will agree that God could have made all the fossils in a microsecond or wound up all radiometric clocks in the same second of time as though they had already been ticking for many billions of seconds. But the safest approach to all mature-Creation speculations is to hold them to oneself until the day when scriptural or scientific evidence is uncovered in their support.

We have looked at a wide spectrum of strategies advocated by a large number of serious Biblical scholars and scientists. The weaknesses in each position have been noted more than strengths in order that the contrast between them may be more vivid. By understanding the reasons why the different views have been adopted we can better understand our own position. Where we stand on the science-religion questions is usually predetermined by how much involvement we wish to allow the Creator in His work of Creation, by how much weight we give to the testimony of scientists, and by how literally we interpret the Genesis accounts.

One final test in determining our stance can be administered: Does a particular view lead us to have more faith and confidence in the accuracy of God's Word, the greatness of God's power, and the saving efficacy of the blood of Christ, our Creator, or does it provide less? A fitting prayer for every committed Christian pastor and scientist is, "Lord, increase our faith."

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Warren H. Johns is an associate editor of MINISTRY.

May 1981

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