I recently got the question put to me, “What’s your opinion on Young, Old and all the other forms of Creationism?” It’s a huge question, a controversial question, and one that I honestly have not spent a lot of time pondering. There are people I know (at both ends of the spectrum) who’d judge me for answering this differently than they. Fortunately my current church environment is either diverse enough or non-dogmatic enough on this issue that I haven’t been put on the hot seat before. Nevertheless, I ought to move towards some sort of positive statement, rather than resign myself to a position of indifference.
So what I’m going to do is this: in this post I’ll list a bunch of theories regarding how creation happened. Depending on who you are, you may find some of them silly, heterodox, or just plain strange. I’ll comment on each of them as briefly as I can, and then in a future post I’ll focus in on more positive statements towards a more systematized theology. The creation theories I’d like to mention are: six 24-hr-days creation, the Gap theory, the Day-epoch theory, St. Augustine’s one-day theory, the Framework hypothesis, and Deistic evolution.
Six 24-hr Days
This is the whole deal of Young Earth Creationism. In six 24-hour days, God created everything, including Adam & Eve, and shortly after the 7th day they sinned, were cast out of the garden, and human history moved on. Following the biblical genealogies from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses, scholars can then extrapolate the approximate age of the universe to a few thousand years. Geology, cosmology, paleontology, and all the other scientific disciplines that describe things in terms of millions of years are therefore either faulty or a devilish plot. Fortunately, the people I knew in my childhood who believed this usually went for the “faulty” critique rather than the “devilish plot” critique. More on the sciences at the end of this post.
Also, when I was a kid I thought that this and evolution were the only two options when it came to creation. Both seemed kind of extreme: one takes the Bible into account, one seems to ignore the Bible. Proponents of this creation theory usually insist that it is “the literal interpretation.” At risk of coming across as overly picky, I must point out that the definition of literal is being abused here. (N. T. Wright has a great two-minute explanation of how literal means according to authorial intent, rather than according to the words on the page.) This is my primary argument with Young Earth Creationists and “literal 24-hr day” folks, because they’re claiming to be the only perspective that takes Genesis 1-3 literally. In reality, the “literal” reading of the creation accounts is the reading that Moses intended, and since we can’t get inside his head we have to approach Scripture with an open mind to see what it says, not with a theological predisposition with the intent of protecting our sacred book from the heathens in some liberal church somewhere. The Bible is the word of God, it’s been around for a while, it’ll speak for itself as long we’re listening to the Holy Spirit.
There are probably several variations on the Gap Theory. The basic idea is that between verses 1 & 2 of Genesis 1 there is potential for a lot of, shall we say, unreported activity. Billions of years could’ve passed by as the universe was created, eventually yielding our sun and our planet. Only then do the six days kick in, which in turn might be read as strictly 24-hour days or according to a different reading, such as the Day-epoch theory which I’ll address next.
The end result of the Gap Theory is that it provides an Old Earth that doesn’t conflict with the general movement of the scientific community, while not yielding to the theory of evolution.
Verse 4 of Psalm 90 (as well as Peter in his second letter) remind us that God has a different relationship with time than we do. By saying “a thousand years are like a day” and vice versa, the Bible reminds us that we are subject to time, being created within it, while God created time, and is not subject to it at all. In that spirit, the Day-epoch theory is the idea that the six days of creation represent different epochs of history. This is not to say that each represents exactly 1,000 years of time, but more generally just long periods of time.
This is another way of drawing out an Old Earth biblical model, and potentially allowing for some room for evolution along the way. It does, however, still conflict with the scientific community’s view of the age of the human race, so there are various ways that different people address that.
St. Augustine’s One-Day Theory
This is not a major thing today – in fact, I doubt anybody talks about creation this way anymore – but it’s an interesting example of how a prominent Christian theologian from the early 400’s AD understood Genesis 1. I recently came across this in Book Eleven of City of God. He wrote creation is “recorded to have been completed in six days (the same day being six times repeated), because six is a perfect number – not because God required a protracted time, as if He could not at once create all things… but because the perfection of the works was signified by the number six” (XI,30). What he means by six being a perfect number is that it’s mathematically perfect, the sum of its factors.
He explains earlier, in chapter 7, that we measure time by the passage of days and nights, not mornings and evenings, so when Genesis 1 repeats “morning and evening,” it’s not referring to a 24-hour day, but an indefinite period of time (as the Framework hypothesis also says). Next, he points out that the “light and darkness” created on day 1 are not material creations, unlike all the other days, and thus it describes something different: “under the name of light the holy city was signified, composed of holy angels and blessed spirits…. Yet in some respects we may appropriately speak of a morning and evening of this day also. For the knowledge of the creature is, in comparison to the knowledge of the Creator, but a twilight, and so it dawns and breaks into morning when the creature is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator; and night never falls when the Creator is not forsaken through love of the creature.”
In short, each “day” is actually a description of the different parts of creation fulfilling its role within the created order, and glorifying God within their various functions. St. Augustine does not read Genesis 1 as an historically-ordered list, thus leaving ample room for other possibilities of how creation happened.
This is a more common perspective which addresses the six days of creation from a literary standpoint. Rather than taking the six days of creation as an historical order (and timing), they’re viewed as a framework:
Day 1 – day & night –> Day 4 – lights in the sky to govern the days & seasons
Day 2 – water & sky –> Day 5 – fish & birds to occupy the waters & sky
Day 3 – land & plants –> Day 6 – animals & humans to occupy & rule the earth.
In short, the Framework hypothesis (similar to St. Augustine’s view) suggests that the creation narrative was written to show the orderliness of creation – what God did rather than how God did it. A “day” in this reading, then, is not understood to be a 24-hour period of time, but a generic reference to an unspecified period of time, such as in the phrase “this is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This perspective of Genesis 1, then, is compatible with a very wide range of possibilities, such as Deistic evolution.
This is the belief that evolution happened, and God was directing it, guiding it, making it happen. The specifics still vary – some people accept evolution wholesale, others accept it on more limited terms, such as allowing for low-level species diversification but believing that God’s supernatural creative act was/is required to create the larger-scale distinctions like birds, bacteria, reptiles, plants, fungi, etc.
The primary point of this perspective is that the sciences need not conflict with the biblical Christian faith. Thus, to these folks, theories like the framework hypothesis are usually accepted as the best interpretations of Genesis 1. This is, I suspect, an increasingly popular standpoint among Christians in reaction to the “alternative sciences” of Fundamentalist Christianity which took off in the 1920’s to prop up six 24-hr day creation to oppose the theory of evolution. Entire institutions have been formed to re-explain a science surrounding the waters of creation involved in creation and in the flood, the apparent age versus the actual age of the earth, the question of fossilized fish on mountaintops, the existence dinosaurs, and all sorts of other questions. To a degree, I respect the integrity of those who strive to find rational explanations for these difficult questions presented in the six 24-hour day creationist standpoint, but at the same time, I find it difficult to accept a set of “alternative sciences” that conflict with the vast majority of professional studies conducted by Christians and non-Christians alike.
At the same time, the way many people defend evolution is equally ridiculous. Some of the scientific evidence raised against evolution is pretty significant: can genetic data be gained by mutation rather than just altered or lost? Are we putting too much faith in the countless “missing links” in the evolutionary tree? Why doesn’t the fossil record match the “diversification of species” concept? Not that I’m about to argue that these questions “blow evolution out of the water” or anything (an amusing expression for this instance, come to think of it!). I’m not a scientist, just a reasonable person who hasn’t read a lot of science books. In my humble opinion, evolution is still a theory in progress, and will undergo a great deal of revision, expansion, and explanation over the next few centuries. That’s how science works, really. People get a new idea which is both groundbreakingly brilliant and groundbreakingly naive, and over time the kinks are worked out and the rough edges shaved away until eventually something sensible and reliable emerges. As long as people stop acting so gosh-darn sanctimonious about how evolution explains everything, we’ll have the scientific open-mindedness needed to continue to develop the theory in a rational manner that more accurately reflects the data we have and will continue to uncover.
Not that science will ever reach a final answer for everything, but it does tend to yield useful and reliable explanations for a lot of the how’s and what’s of the universe. The Bible’s usefulness, in the meantime, will never fade in the more important questions why and what for.
So those are the main perspective around creation. I’ve mostly revealed my opinions along the way: I don’t buy the extremes of “six 24-hour day creationism” and wholesale “deistic evolution.” The Gap theory strikes me as little more than an interesting speculation, the day-epoch theory doesn’t answer many questions for me, and St. Augustine’s single-day thing strikes me more of a spiritual lesson drawn from the creation account, rather than a primary explanation of what Genesis 1 is talking about. The framework hypothesis is the best way to account for the text of Genesis 1 that I’ve heard so far. It doesn’t touch the how of creation, though, and that’s where I am personally rather foggy. I’m not averse to the Big Bang model – who better to set that off than God? I’m not averse to the concept of evolution – God is creative not just at the start of a project, but all the way through! But the full theory of evolution seems a little too stretched for me to accept as it stands, so I’m content to wait this out and see what happens when the dust settles and the scientists actually get back to work (rather than put all their energy into this really annoying Evolution vs. Intelligent Design debate).