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A Test Case for Evangelical Hermeneutics

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

There is a debate going on between professing Bible-believers about the meaning of Genesis One and the six "days" recorded therein. Is the cosmos about six thousand years old or is it many billions of years old? Was the universe six days old when human life came into existence or did human life begin billions of years after the "big bang"? How one can and should go about finding the answer to such questions is arguably more important than the answer itself.

The purpose of this paper is to 1) establish some ground rules which both sides of the debate should agree on, and 2) clarify the relationship between modern science, general revelation, and Genesis One.

Evangelical Christians profess that they must believe what God has revealed in the Bible. If God has spoken on the issue of the age of the universe, then He must be listened to, not only because He was there at the time [1], but because He is infallibly truthful and because He speaks with authority. We ought to accept His testimony about everything of which He has spoken.


Nevertheless, a couple of further points need to be admitted by all sides of this debate. First, the Bible often states things that aren’t literally true. Prophecies contain many examples of this. For example, when God inspired Deborah to praise Jael for deceiving and killing Sisera, He moved her to exult:

Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head; And she shattered and pierced his temple. Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay; Between her feet he bowed, he fell; Where he bowed, there he fell devastated (Jud 5:26b-27; NASB).

If one were to read chapter five of Judges and not look at the previous chapter, one would think that Jael caught Sisera off guard and, while he was standing before her, slew him with spike and hammer, so that he fell dead at her feet. But Sisera was sound a sleep when Jael attacked him and nailed his head to the ground (Jud 4:17-21). He didn’t fall anywhere. Deborah used "poetic license" in her song of triumph, probably in order to portray Sisera as being raped in return for raping the Israelites [2].

Such nonliteral language becomes quite common in prophecy. Isaiah predicts that Edom will become a burning waste and that "its smoke shall go up forever" (34:10; NASB). Edom was judged, but there is presently no burning crater where the land used to be. Furthermore, Isaiah goes on to state that the land of Edom will become a haunt of wild animals (34:11-15). Either Isaiah is promising God will make asbestos suits for ostriches and jackals (34:13), or He does not expect them to be in a literal fire.

One must pay attention not only to what words the Bible uses, but to what God is using the words to say. Learning the Bible’s literary genres and modes of communicating is all-important.

Second, one should not simply treat the Bible as an "airtight" message. One cannot be told not to eat from "that tree" unless one can observe what a tree is and where a particular specimen is located. Nor does one learn Greek and Hebrew by studying the original texts of the Bible without any previous knowledge of the languages. General revelation and special revelation are mixed. If we try to totally separate the two forms of revelation in order to give priority to Scripture, we will end up undermining Scripture itself; for we only see the words on the pages of the Bible the same way we see the words on the pages of any other book. General revelation and special revelation involve one another and support one another.

Due to the authority of general revelation, the findings of empirical investigation can and should affect the debate over the meaning of Genesis One. John Frame states the matter well:

Sciences will sometimes lead us to reconsider the truth, not of Scripture but of our interpretations of Scripture. Galileo and others led the church to reconsider its view that Scripture taught geocentrism. In my opinion, that was a good thing, something that the church should have done earlier, rather than disciplining the heliocentrists. Geologists who believe in an "old earth" have led theologians to reconsider their exegesis of Genesis 1-2, convincing some evangelical and Reformed scholars to interpret the temporal indications in these chapters figuratively. At this moment, I do not know where the truth lies on that matter. But the discussion is a proper one. The geologists may turn out to be wrong (as the Creation Research Society argues), but until that is proved to the satisfaction of most Christians, we ought to consider at least the possibility of a revised exegesis [3].

One further thing should be mentioned: In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), our standards declare that God created the world "in the space of six days." Does this mean that all debate must cease within the denomination? Not as long as the PCA acknowledges sola scriptura. If our understanding of Scripture changes because of better information than what was available to the Westminster Divines, then we are free to acknowledge our disagreement with the point in dispute[4]. As long as we submit these differences to the presbyteries where we are applying for ordination, there should be no integrity issue. It is up to the Church courts to decide how seriously to treat a disagreement with a particular point in our standards.


Having cleared the ground, what are we to make of the message of Genesis One? In my opinion the text quite clearly states that God made the world in six days, roughly 144 hours [5]. As alluded to above, there are many places in the Bible where taking the text literally will result in completely misunderstanding the meaning of the passage. There are also many places where the meaning of the passage is incredibly difficult to discern. Genesis One is not one of those passages [6]. It is a simple history of a series of miracles by which the physical universe was created [7].

Space will not permit me to respond point by point to all the arguments presented for the opposing view. I have yet to hear an argument that strikes me as even possessing prima facie plausibility. What seems to be going on is that many have already decided that the world was not made in six days, and that we must, therefore, find a way to somehow generate a nonliteral meaning from the passage. Some might even justify such a procedure on the grounds of general revelation mentioned above.

Therefore, the rest of this paper will consider what modern science has to say about our interpretation of Genesis One. My objective is, I hope, constructive. If non-six-day-creationists want to convince six-day-creationists that their view is tenable, let alone correct, they need to use arguments that do not seem to openly beg the question or deny Biblical authority.


One can tell the age of a tree by cutting it down and counting its rings. The basic requirement for this to work is: for every tree one cuts down, it has grown a ring each year. By knowing that every tree grows a ring every year, one can extrapolate that the number of rings in a tree equals the number of years it has existed.

Now this process is obviously related to general revelation, but it is not simply identical to it. General revelation does not guarantee that all inferences must be true. General revelation guarantees that everyone knows God (Rom 1:18ff). This applies to all people at all times. It includes the infantile and the senile as much as the academic and the intellectual. It does not depend on one’s ability to go through a process of reasoning. While the claim that we can discover the age of the stars may be true, that is not what the Bible promises. The Bible promises that we cannot help but discover the glory of God from the stars (Ps 19:1-6).

To understand the relationship between general revelation, special revelation, and inference, let’s consider the life of Abraham. Abraham’s trust in God’s revelation is fundamentally important to Christianity. As philosophy professor, Dewey Hoitenga explains:

The trust becomes explicit in the account of the fourth recorded appearance of the Lord, in which Abram asks the Lord concerning his childlessness. The Lord responds that Abram’s own son, not his servant Eliezer, will be his heir. "And," continues the narrator, "he believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). Abram then asks the Lord, "How am I to know that I shall possess it [that is, the land to which he has come, which the Lord has promised him]?" In answer God gives Abram a mysterious sign, adding another verbal assurance… To assure him, God gives him a sign-the sign, in ancient near Eastern cultures, of a covenant (verse 18). Thus, all Abram really has to go on is God’s word. What would ordinarily count for what Abram is to believe seems to be lacking, because the land is occupied by Canaanites, and Abram and Sarai are childless. If anything, the weight of the normal evidence available to him counts against his belief [8].

Like every human being who has ever been confronted by special revelation, Abraham was confronted with both general revelation and special revelation. Indeed, Hoitenga argues that general revelation undergirds the special revelation given to Abraham. Some people have obscured this point. Martin Luther, for example, claimed that, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham had to decide whether or not God’s special revelation to him was actually a demonic delusion [Ibid, p. 49]. But according to Scripture, Abraham faced no such dilemma. As Hoitenga states:

There is no hint in any of the Abraham stories that Abraham wonders whether it is God who speaks. Indeed, when he doubts, as his laughing at the promise of Isaac’s birth suggests he does (Gen 17:17), what he doubts is that he and Sarah shall have a child (i.e. he doubts God’s word), not that it is God who promises (i.e. the identity of the speaker). Later, when Abraham has withstood the trial of sacrificing Isaac, God commends him for his obedience to his command, not for the correctness of his judgment that it is indeed God himself whose command he has obeyed (Gen 17:12, 16) [9].

Hoitenga concludes that Biblical faith is "neither believing that God exists… nor believing that it is God whose voice one hears, but believing God when he speaks" [Ibid, p. 50]. So how did Abraham know that God had spoken? Hoitenga argues that the Bible presupposes that Abraham already knows God through what "is very much like an immediate and direct acquaintance with God" [Ibid]. This direct acquaintance is the result of general revelation. "The Biblical picture, as I see it, is that such knowledge is natural, not revealed [10], or, as we come upon the story of Abraham, perhaps a mixture of both, but with a natural knowledge as the base [Ibid, p. 51 (emphasis added)].

This excursus into "Reformed epistemology" is important, because it clearly demarcates the difference between the general revelation of God provided in nature, and the inferences that Abraham was tempted to make. Abraham was tempted to think that his wife would never have a son. After all, she had been barren all her life and now she was old. All the evidence "said" (!) that Sarah would die childless. But God said that Abraham would have a son by Sarah, forcing Abraham to choose between God’s Word and the evidence.

This Biblical antithesis is recorded over and over again. Noah tells the people that God is going to destroy the entire world in a flood [11]. But everyone knew that there was not enough water on earth to do that. Joseph told Pharaoh that God had determined that there would be seven fat years followed by seven years of famine. Amazingly, Pharaoh gave up his belief in naturalistic, automatic cycles of Nile flooding and believed God’s word. Joshua and Caleb told the people of Israel that God would give them Canaan. But the people "knew" that they weren’t capable of conquering giants. Jesus said that, after dying on the cross, He would rise again on the third day. Instead of believing Him, His disciples extrapolated from their experience with corpses (forgetting Lazarus and others) and inferred that Jesus was going to rot in the grave.

The Bible teaches that the cosmos, as we know it, will end supernaturally at the second advent. Scientists today, however, discuss how many billions of years are left before the universe either collapses on itself or disperses until all the stars die. The Apostle Peter writes of a similar situation:

Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation." For they are willfully ignorant of this fact, that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water (2 Pet 3:3-6; NASB).

If Abraham had told God that general revelation "said" to him that Sarah couldn’t have a son, then he would have been guilty of unbelief. One can imagine an antediluvian telling Noah that he has studied creation, and creation "says" that a flood is not possible. But Abraham, and every other hero of the faith, knew that, because God created and upholds the world, He can be trusted in His predictions about the future-so that they should leave what seemed secure for that which seemed insecure but was supported by God (Heb 11:1-3, 7-12, 17-19, 24-26, etc).

The Biblical point is simple: equating one’s inferences about present natural processes with general revelation is idolatry. When God tells us something we’re supposed to believe Him no matter what seems to be the case. We’re even supposed to believe Him when the people telling us to disbelieve him work miracles-"for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut 13:3b; NASB).


What applies to inferences about the future also applies to inferences about the past. Scientists infer that the universe is billions of years old because they believe in uniformitarianism-that the same natural processes we observe now always worked in the same way. Now the Bible, as I understand it, claims that the world came into being through supernatural miracles (Gen 1) and that it was fundamentally altered in significant ways by some further miracles (Gen 3:14-19; 7:6-8:22). This may or may not be a correct interpretation of Scripture, but invoking science simply begs the questions. To assert that we can extrapolate natural laws backward in time is to assert, from the outset, that miracles could not have taken place. The Bible claims that light was created and established in a pattern with darkness corresponding to day and night. Three days later, sun, moon, and stars were created and fit into the pre-existing pattern of light and darkness.

Some Christians claim that we "know" that light always came from stars and that, therefore, the Genesis account can’t be literally true. Again, this is simply question-begging. There’s no reason to believe that God is under some sort of obligation to create stars and then light, or to create them simultaneously. To say otherwise is to flatly deny God’s omnipotence. It may be true that the assertion in Genesis is not meant to be taken literally, but such a case must come from the text itself, not from transparently imposing naturalistic assumptions on what seems to be an account of a supernatural miracle [12]. Hopefully, our above discussion of Abraham demonstrates that it is not cogent to invoke the authority of "general revelation" to establish that light could not have existed before stars.

Attempts are made to get around such difficulties by claiming that, since the world "appears" old, God is being deceptive unless He has made it old [13]. Six-day-creationists have probably lent credibility to this view by promoting "apparent-age" arguments. But the argument does not depend on saying that the world was created to appear old. To say such a thing is to impose our own values on the situation at the beginning of creation.

To see this, lets try to put ourself in Adam’s mindset when he was first created. Adam is now what we call a mature man, but he would not think of himself as mature. He would be surrounded by trees that seemed old, but he would not think so. There would be no reason in the world for him to come to any conclusion about the "age" of the garden. He would have no experience with how the world is going to providentially bring about trees in the future which he could impose on the trees around him.

When Adam learned that he and Eve were going to have children, he would not have known how he could produce a new man. Would God take a rib from Eve’s side and build another man out of it, "full-grown" like Eve had been (though Adam would not think of growth)? Only God could tell him these things [14]. He would have no way of knowing otherwise. When his first child is born, Adam sees a creature that he has never seen before. What is this thing? Twenty years later, he knows: it was a proto-man, a child. God created Adam and Eve as archetypes for other people He was going to make. But He makes these new people differently than he made the first two. He uses human parents to do it this time, and causes the person to develop slowly. Instead of making "mature" humans instantaneously, God’s ordinary providence takes years. Only after witnessing this process, could Adam have possibly thought back and determined that he was created with "apparent age."

What applies to Adam and trees applies to rivers, animals, and the universe as a whole. God created archetypes miraculously and instantaneously, and has since created their successors providentially and gradually. There’s no reason to think that the trees in the Garden lacked rings inside them or that the four rivers lacked soil deposits on their banks, though they had not yet deposited anything on them. Adam named chickens that had never hatched from eggs. The trees and rivers and chickens were the miraculous models that God would later match by providential means. Trees would grow rings each year; rivers would build up and cut away at the soil around them; chicks would hatch from eggs and grow up to be chickens.

If I am to be convinced that this all constitutes a cosmic deception, someone needs to explain to me why Jesus was not sinning by turning water into wine. I’ve always assumed that the master of the feast changed his mind about where the wine came from once he was told what Jesus had done (John 2:10). But perhaps he died in unbelief insisting that God would never work a miracle that would "deceive" his ability to discern the age of wine. After all, does not wine come from grapes and fermentation? How could Jesus, in good conscience, cause such a deception? To ask such a question is to answer it. Knowledge of providence is not enough for making judgments. One also has to listen to what God says.

And believe Him.


What about the scientist who needs to be "unfettered" in his discipline? An argument often used to defuse those who believe that the Genesis account teaches six-day-creation, is to claim that geologists, astronomers, etc, must be free to pursue truth without worrying about persecution from theologians. But what about the theologian who wishes to be free to believe what he understands the Bible to be saying? If geologists and astronomers have the authority to say how old the universe is, then they have the authority to tell exegetes what they may and may not interpret Genesis One to say. Theologians and scientists live in the same world. There is no way to avoid the fact that their claims about reality affect each others’ interpretive activities.

Of course, theologians need to consider what scientists have to say. But their interpretation of what the Bible says must be supported from the Bible itself. To simply say, "Well, the Bible seems to teach that the world was created about six thousand years ago, but we know better because geologists have told us differently," does not constitute letting "empirically-gained knowledge affect our interpretation of a given passage," [C. John Collins, p. 114] but rather using (allegedly) empirically gained knowledge to deny what a given passage is telling us [15]. What we need, if we are faithful Christians, is an argument from the text.


Of course, no Evangelical non-six-day-creationist claims that his interpretation of Genesis One is based on what he wants the passage to say, rather than what it says. Thus, this whole argument was ostensibly a waste of time and paper. I don’t think it would be at all difficult to pull quotes and demonstrate that my argument gets to the heart of the matter, but I’m not interested in making this discussion more heated than it is. This paper is the sincere evaluation of a Christian convinced, at this point in his life, that Genesis One teaches that the world was made in six days. It is offered to anyone on the other side of this debate who would like to consider how they might improve their argumentation to persuade me. Do Evangelical arguments for a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis One really work without invoking the alleged authority of modern scientists to predetermine what the Bible can and cannot say?

Naturally, everything I wrote at the beginning of this paper still holds. True Christians can honestly disagree on this issue. There is no prima facie obligation to take Genesis One literally because God often does not speak literally. Nor is it wrong to reconsider a literal reading if one finds scientists disagreeing with the outcome. All I’ve asked is that the final outcome of such reconsideration rest on exegesis, not simply on the presupposition that the Bible cannot say that which the evidence contradicts.

I hope I can be forgiven for concluding this paper with a bit of intellectual autobiography. I grew up disbelieving in a young earth and in God creating it in six literal days. I changed my mind my senior year in high school because I realized 1) I was taking the word of others about the evidence for an old universe; and 2) whatever arguments there might be for a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis One, I was not aware of any of them. So I decided I ought to believe in a young earth until I discovered why I should believe otherwise. It was a provisional shift and, in principle, it still is. I only believe in a young earth because that’s what the Bible seems to teach. As soon as I find it teaches otherwise, I’ll shift back.

In the past few years I’ve known a few people (some seemingly more liberal than myself) who also took for granted that the world began billions of years ago. They too eventually decided that there was no reason to take Genesis One nonliterally or to disbelieve the account. Neither they nor I came to this position by interacting with the Institute for Creation Research [16] or being raised by fundamentalists [17]. We simply wanted to deal honestly with Scripture.

From what I’ve read, both recently and in general, arguments for a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis One have not been aimed at people like myself, nor dealt with the concerns I raised in my paper. I leave it to the reader to decide if my appraisal is accurate.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.


1. Contra those, including Augustine (c.f. C. John Collins, "How Old is the Earth?" Presbyterion, Fall 1994, p. 125), who would argue that God’s eternality bars Him from doing things "in time." This would not only mean that God did not create the world in six days, but that He did not do it in any length of time. Indeed, it would mean that nothing in the Bible is true. God did not promise Abraham a son after He saved Noah through the flood. It would also mean that God does not answer our prayers. It would render belief in the incarnation as an event in history impossible. To put it mildly, this argument against the literalness of Genesis One proves too much.

2. James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), p. 104-105.

3. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), p. 314-315.

4. This was the position of A. A. Hodge on the Westminster Confession’s affirmation of six-day creation. Whereas the Divines simply took Scripture at face value, we now know that creation took much longer. Hodge felt no need to make the Confession say something that it did not say in order to justify himself. His creedal integrity is an example worthy of emulation. See The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1953), p 82.

5. The word "roughly" here is meant to cover changes in the speed of the earths rotation that might occur. There is no claim to precision in Genesis One, only a claim that God made the universe in six days. Whatever the vagueness of the message, it is not enough to slip in billions of years, light originally coming from stars, simple land animals preceding the existence of birds, etc.

6. Nor is Exodus 20:11. The Scottish Covenantor, Thomas Boston (1677-1732), in his commentary on the Shorter Catechism, while discussing the statement that God made all thins "in the space of six days," cites this verse to prove that both the spiritual realm and the physical realm were created in six normal days (Complete Works [Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980], vol. 1, p. 173-174). I’m not quite as dogmatic as he was about either Genesis One or the Exodus passage guaranteeing that angels were created in the same week as everything else. What I think is absolutely clear is that the physical universe was made in six days.

7. Hopefully, it will become clear why this conclusion does not conflict with my quotation from John Frame. The point to remember is that Frame says science can and should make us reconsider our interpretation of Scripture. He does not say we should simply alter our interpretation just to make it fit with what scientists are saying today. I have reconsidered my interpretation many times, but it seems obvious to me that the text teaches something contrary to what modern scientists teach. As I see it, I can either believe modern scientists or believe Scripture.

8. Faith & Reason from Plato to Plantinga: An Introduction to Reformed Epistemology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991), p. 37.

9. Ibid, p. 49. While Hoitenga’s point here, like his entire book, is excellent, he does tend to slightly overstate his case. He ends up arguing that Biblical faith has nothing to do with believing that God exists, but only with believing what He says. However, if God is necessarily truthful, then disbelieving God does seem to entail denying that He exists-in a sense, denying His deity. I believe Hoitenga’s overall point will stand even without his overstatement of his case.

10. Confusingly, Hoitenga, though obviously talking about general revelation and special revelation, does not seem to be acquainted with such terminology. Instead, he speaks of "natural knowledge" and "revealed knowledge" respectively.

11. Unless, of course, it was a local flood. I point this out because all modern geology uniformly claims that a worldwide catastrophe never took place. Thus, if anyone argues that science demands a nonliteral reading of Genesis 1, they have accomplished nothing unless the carry the nonliteral interpretation to at least Genesis 9. In other words, even if I totally agree with "the framework hypothesis," I am still a yahoo and a know-nothing as far as the world is concerned. I have achieved zero scientific credibility. Anyone who argues for a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1 without discussing the flood problem has completely missed the point. In light of the fact that the first book of the modern "creationist movement" was entitled The Genesis Flood (Henry Morris & John C. Whitcomb, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1961), it is rather frustrating to see this obvious claim repeatedly ignored. This was not done in a corner.

12. It ought to be noted that this natural/supernatural distinction is only used because it is so commonplace. It can be quite misleading. Modern man thinks of natural processes as things that happen automatically. Supernatural miracles, in this view, occur when God "breaks into" or "interferes with" this impersonal mechanism. It would be better to speak of "ordinary providence" and "extraordinary providence" respectively. God personally makes people whether he molds clay and then breathes into it or if he uses a mother and a father to conceive a child. In either case, it is God, not "nature," who produces a person.

13. Though, as fellow-student Jeff Steel has pointed out to me, why is it "deceptive" for the world to appear old, but actually be young, but honest for the world to be old even though God verbally says to us that it is young? Again, only a convincing argument from Scripture itself can establish that the world is older than 6000 years. Otherwise, this line of argument is only notable for the "chutzpah" it displays.

14. Though, he probably made inferences from the animals. Inferences are fine as long as we don’t believe them more strongly than we believe God.

15. As far as I can tell, this is virtually the argument of A. A. Hodge (The Confession of Faith, p. 82).

16. Though I thought Dr. Collins dismissal of six-day-creationist scientists by simply citing non-six-day creationists (Presbyterion, p. 111) was a rather suspicious way to deal with the debate, I have never had much respect for creationist science. Eschatologically, their assumptions are radically pessimistic and, in my opinion, theologically wrong. For a discussion of the problem see Gary North, Is the World Running Down? Crisis in the Christian Worldview (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1988). My difficulties with the "creation scientists," however, have nothing to do with my belief in six-day creation. The issue is what the Bible says, not whether or not the speed of light is decelerating, the sun is shrinking, or there is not enough dust on the moon.

17. Come to think of it, I’ve always sneered at fundamentalists until this semester at Covenant Seminary when I suddenly began to feel like one.

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