Main Theme: Creation / Genesis 1
For People Who: Are interested in the Genesis 1 creation account.
How old is the universe? What is the age of the earth? Does the Bible teach that God made the universe in six, literal, 24-hour periods? What does science tell us about the age of the universe and what impact does that have on the way we interpret Genesis 1? All these questions are part of an in-house Christian debate on how to interpret Genesis 1 and the creation account. How we understand the biblical text and interpret it in light of modern scientific discovery play a large part in the conclusions we draw. John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford and has authored other works that interact with science, philosophy, and theology. He is well known in the field of Christian apologetics, which offers an intellectual defense of Christianity. If this topic interests you at all, this short, and well written, book is one you would do well to pick up soon! Lennox describes why he wrote the book, telling of a brilliant professor of literature from a famous university who was surprised that he was a scientist who believed the Bible. She said that she had been taught in school that the Bible tells a silly, unscientific story of how God made the world in seven days. And she wanted to know what he thought about that story as a scientist.
This book is written for people like her, who have been putting off even considering the Christian faith for this kind of reason. It is also written for the many convinced Christians who are disturbed not only by the controversy but also by the fact that even those who take the Bible seriously do not agree on the interpretation of the creation account. –Seven Days, pg. 12
But Does It Move? A Lesson From History
Coined as “Young Earth Creationists,” some Christians believe the earth was created only a short time ago – 6,000-10,000 years ago. Others, known as “Old Earth Creationists,” believe the earth is around 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself is in the neighborhood of 13.7 billion years old. I can tell you from experience, the sheer ferocity of this debate in Christian circles is astounding! Many in the Y.E. camp accuse O.E. creationists as rejecting the authority of scripture, making the scripture subservient to science, and sometimes worse! So Lennox takes us to history to see if this type of debate has raged before, and indeed, it has.
Nicholas Copernicus was a 16th century astronomer who suggested that the earth moves. Now that may not seem like much today because we all accept that the earth moves in an elliptical orbit around the sun going approximately 67,000 miles an hour. But the scripture seems to teach that the earth is immovable – fixed in position:
Tremble before Him, all the earth; yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. (1 Chron. 16:30)
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them He has set the world. (1 Sam. 2:8)
He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. (Ps. 104:5)
So it is not surprising that when Copernicus published his work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, that it was met with incredible resistance from both Catholics and Protestants. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, the great reformation thinkers and movers, scorned the idea that the earth moves. “Moving-earthers” were mocked and told they did not accept the authority of the scripture! That the scriptures were not subordinate to science! And again, in the 17th century, Galileo in his work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems presented the same idea, he was forced to recant before the Roman Catholic Church. Though after “recanting” under pressure he could not help but mutter to his inquisitors, “But it does move.” (this certainly made me chuckle)
No rational person alive today doubts that the earth moves. And Lennox pounces on this by writing, “But now we need to face an important question: why do Christians accept this ‘new’ interpretation, and not still insist on a ‘literal’ understanding of the ‘pillars of the earth”? Why are we not still split up into fixed-earthers and moving-earthers? Is it really because we have all compromised, and made the Scripture subservient to science?” (pg. 19)
But Does It Move? A Lesson About Scripture
In chapter two, Lennox launches into a fantastic teaching on how we should understand the Bible. He rightly points out:
When we are dealing with a text that was produced in a culture distant from our own both in time and geography, what we think the natural meaning is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed. –Seven Days, pg. 23
Lennox goes on to discuss the use of language and how we use it:
- There can be more than one natural reading of a word or phrase. The word “earth” is first used in Genesis 1 to describe the earth itself, but later it is used to describe dry ground that is separate from the sea. Both words are the same, yet we understand their meaning by looking at the context.
- We must be careful not to mistake metaphors for literal interpretations of the scripture. For example, Jesus said, “I am the door” (Jn 10:9). While the metaphor stands for something real (Jesus is the literal pathway into a life of joy and salvation), He is not literally a door that we walk through.
We see this further played out in phrases like “And God said.” But God is spirit and does not have a voice box, nor does He speak as we do. “The word said means something different for God than it does for us, but the two usages are sufficiently related for one word to do both jobs effectively.” (pg. 25) This is important to understand on the front end of this discussion when we look how the language of Genesis 1 is used.
Lennox goes on to speak of the relationship between science and religion. The idea that science and religion are separate gives rise to the belief that “science deals with reality, and religion with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and God.” (pg. 28) And while the Bible is not a science book, it does contain truths about life and reality that science discusses. Furthermore, Lennox says, “Most of us would surely agree that it is important to distinguish between matters that belong to the core message of the Bible and issues that are less central…we also need to distinguish between what Scripture actually says and what we think it means.” (pg. 32)
So, while our understanding of the physical universe influences our interpretation of the biblical text, it does not compromise the authority of the Scripture itself. So we must not tie our interpretation of Scripture too closely to the science of the day (which can change), but on the other hand, we must not ignore science entirely and thus promote Christianity as anti-intellectual. This balance has helped the church with the question of whether the earth moves – and we must also use this balance to help us understand: How old is the earth?
But Is It Old? The Days of Creation
Lennox first takes the reader briefly through the church fathers to demonstrate that many of the great minds in early Christendom thought that creation took place over a period of time and not literal days: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even Augustine who lived in the fourth century. These were serious thinkers who laid the ground work for Christian theology and doctrine in times when death was usually your reward for baptism. Meaning: we shouldn’t blow them off and ignore them.
A major question that arises is: How do the early chapters of Genesis need to be interpreted? Are they Historical? Figurative? Theological? Here are the three main views of interpreting the Genesis days:
- The 24-hour View: The days are seven 24-hour days, of one earth week, about six thousand years ago. (Though as Origen rightly pointed out, if we measure the length of a 24-hour day by the movement of the sun, moon, and stars and those celestial bodies weren’t created until the 4th day, then how do we know the first three days were actually days?)
- The Day-Age View: The days are in chronological order, each representing a period of time of unspecified length.
- The Framework View: The days exhibit a logical, rather than a chronological, order. For example, a builder might describe the hospital construction as, “We dug a hole, laid the foundation, put up the structure, then built floor by floor, etc.” (chronological) Whereas a surgeon might say, “We put the operating room on the second floor and the recovery rooms above it and below it.” (logical) But we wouldn’t think for a moment that the second floor was built before the first floor just because the surgeon said it in a different order. This is a view Lennox discusses in greater depth.
Lennox goes on to define the meaning of the word “Day” in Genesis 1:1-2:4. The Hebrew word yom, “day,” is first mentioned in Genesis 1:5. And in this short number of verses we have several distinct possible meanings for the word “day”. A 12-hour period, a 24-hour period, a day that continues on without end (7th day), and finally it can be translated “in the day” meaning, “In the day God created…” which is an open ended period of time. Clearly the author has anything but a literal 24-hour day in mind just like an old man saying, “Well in my day…” – he means the time when he was young. Furthermore, though the Hebrew language has a definite article (ha, or the), it is not used to describe days 1-5 which would denote a particular day. English Bibles say “the first day…the second day” – but the Hebrew doesn’t use “the” until day 6. So the text is better understood as “a first day, a second day…a fifth day, the sixth day, the seventh day.” (pg 52) This would give special prominence to Day 6 and Day 7 that seems purposely left off from days 1-5. As if God created during periods of time during the first 5 “days”, but then something special happened on Day 6.
Often Exodus 20:9-11, “Six days you shall labor…but the seventh day is a Sabbath…For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth…”, is used to point out a literal work week. But while there are similarities in the human work week with God’s week of creation, there are major differences as well: “God’s week happened once; ours is repeated. God’s creative activity is very different from ours; God does not need rest as we do; and so on. So it is not possible to draw straight lines from Genesis to our working week. God’s week is a pattern for ours, but it is not identical.” (pg. 57) Therefore a literal 168 hr week need not be meant.
Human Beings: A Special Creation?
The theory of evolution and the origin of human life is a topic of extreme interest in our culture today. Are we the lucky by-product of time + matter + chance? Or are we, as Genesis, and even Jesus, suggests, a special creation of God made in His image? Or is it a mixture of both? The Genesis text does not show that God was speaking to human beings who were already in existence, but that God fashioned Adam from the dust of the earth in order to have fellowship with them. Lennox remarks, “Surely it is crucial to the theology of salvation that Adam was the first actual member of a human race physically distinct from all creatures that preceded him?” (pg. 73) And in light of the miracle of the incarnation, God taking on a human nature, it demonstrates that human beings are indeed special. And if the existence of other humanoids developed under God’s watchful eye, they would have fallen under the list of animals in which Adam was unable to find a help mate.
Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century was the first to estimate the age of the earth, based on a literal 7-day work week and the genealogies given in Genesis. Interpreting genealogies in the Bible as literal can really get us into trouble. As K.A. Kitchen points out, “Within Hebrew and related tradition, such ‘official’ father-to-son sequences can represent the actual facts of life, or they can be a condensation from an originally longer series of generations.” (pg. 74-75) The genealogy in Matthew 1:8 is a perfect example where whole generations were skipped over for a particular purpose of showing the ‘highlights’ of the genealogy of Jesus. Thus Kitchen concludes that in Genesis 1-11:
“We see the narrative in some cases presupposing immediate fatherhood…But in most cases, one may in principle as easily read the recurring formulae ‘A fathered B, and after fathering B lived x years,’ as ‘A fathered (the line culminating in) B, and after fathering (the line culminating in) B, lived x years.'” –On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Kitchen, K.A.
Lennox then moves on to death before sin based on the Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12, “…death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” But Lennox makes the point that Paul says death spread to all men, not all things. “Is it therefore possible that corruption, disease, and human death may well be a consequence of sin, but that plant and animal death, as part of the cycle of nature, are not?” (pg. 80)
When Christians approach the questions Lennox deals with in the book, we need not be afraid of truth. As Christians, we should be open to any way that God has chosen to create the world and the processes by which He chose to do it. We need not ignore science and as such appear anti-intellectual. But we must also not tie our interpretation of scripture so closely to science that if the later changes, the former falls apart. So here are four considerations for moving forward:
- The current scientific evidence for an ancient earth.
- The honest and admirable admission of prominent young-earth creationists that “recent creationists should humbly agree that their view is, at the moment implausible on purely scientific grounds.” (pg. 86) [Paul Nelson & John Mark Reynolds are these young earth creationists]
- The fact that scripture, though it could be interpreted in terms of a young earth, does not require such an interpretation. There are, in fact, several plausible interpretations.
- Humility should be embraced because, we as human beings do not know everything.
The Message of Genesis 1
Ultimately, Lennox takes us back to the whole point of Genesis 1. While Christians may disagree about how to interpret it and how long it took, there is one clear message that rings true in each heart: God exists, He is eternal, unimaginably powerful, and He made mankind for fellowship with Him. And, ultimately, God is developing His purposes in the world in order to bring mankind back into perfect harmony with Himself. And in regard to the Sabbath, the high point of the account, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the Sabbath rest, “It is a day that sets a limit to our intervention in nature and to our economic activity. We become conscious of being creations, not creators. The earth is not ours, but God’s…The Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the boundaries of human striving.” (pg. 113)
It is one thing to wrestle with the meaning of the days of Genesis; it is another to understand, apply, and live the whole message of Genesis. And if we are not doing the latter, I am not sure that the former will profit us much…Surely the old adage has got it more or less right: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” –Seven Days, pg. 116
Lennox goes on in several appendices which I will not cover here. Here are the topics he goes on to cover in more depth:
- A Brief Background to Genesis
- The Comic Temple View
- The Beginning According to Genesis and Science
- Two Accounts of Creation?
- Theistic Evolution and the God of the Gaps
I very much enjoyed John Lennox’s book. I have heard him speak several times and it’s difficult to read the book and not hear it in his thick Irish accent. Lennox does a wonderful job of simplifying the text and looking at it objectively to discovery what Genesis 1 teaches and the conclusions we can draw from it. At best, we must walk away from Genesis 1 and admit that it is indeterminate. It is not as clear as we would have it be. So just as we all accept that the earth moves and is not “immovable” on it’s pillars because of scientific discovery, shouldn’t we also not be afraid to look at the universe as God made it and find understanding? There is a ton more in this book I couldn’t even touch! Check it out – you’ll be glad you did!
- Title: Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science
- Author: John Lennox
- Published: 2011
- Pages: 192
Personal Ratings (1-10)
- Applicability: 8
- Readability: 9
- Originality: 9
- Recommendation: Yes! Definitely a book you should pick up if you are interested in this topic. Even if you are dead set on your own interpretation, pick up, and give it a chance. You’ll be glad you did.