Previous | Next

October 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 4 · pp. 9–16 

Interpreting Genesis 1,2: Exploring the Alternatives

Harold J. Dyck

It is apparent from the literature surrounding the renewed creation/evolution debate that no consensus has yet been reached on just what is being understood as “the biblical view”. There are in fact many views among creationists which are presented as biblical. Obviously the biblical material is being variously, and perhaps not always rightly, handled, and we should probably ask whether the hermeneutical question involved is not as important a point at which to pursue the discussion as the scientific one.

The new framework within which the question is now being raised has also made many concerned people more aware how unfamiliar they are with the real issues and how much they seem to be at the mercy of the “experts” who wish to win them over to their respective positions. What is needed, more than another champion, is a basis for evaluation and comparison of the various alternatives, both from the standpoint of science and of sound biblical interpretation.


Within this category is the view most prominently represented in the current public schools issue, that known as scientific creationism and represented by Henry Morris, John Whitcomb, Duane Gish and others. Its main features are a strict insistence on consecutive 24-hour days of creation and therefore a very young earth (10 to 20 thousand years at the most), complete rejection of evolution as a theory of change and usually the proposal that the fossil record and geological stratification are better explained by clues from the biblical account (such as the flood in Noah’s time), when properly followed up scientifically, than by resorting to such questionable methods as radioactive dating and Darwinian theorizing. Science, as such, is embraced, however, and technical or mechanical interpretations of the terminology of Genesis 1 are regularly offered. The “moving” (merachepheth) of the Spirit over the face of the {10} waters may be explained, for example, as the energizing of waves by which “gravitational forces were activated”. 1 At the same time, science must take a back seat to Scriptures, and such scientific assumptions as “uniformitarianism in nature” must be rejected when they yield results contrary to the literal biblical account.

It is not really a conflict with modern science which creation scientists wish to preserve, but a particular view of Scripture. If the Bible is really inspired by God, it is argued, its authority applies to any subject addressed, including those of a scientific and historical nature. The Genesis material is therefore not only significant for its own sake, but also as a test case in which biblical authority hangs in the balance. “It is quite impossible,” writes Morris, “to reject the historicity and divine authority of the Book of Genesis without undermining and in effect, repudiating the authority of the entire Bible.” 2 Furthermore, the witness of Jesus and Paul to the historicity of Adam and Eve, the origin of suffering and death in the Fall and the parallelism between universal death in Adam and redemption in Christ, it is held, demand a literalist reading for theological intelligibility. As a result, not only the modern scientific consensus is challenged, but also the validity of any kind of biblical criticism which makes necessary a figurative or symbolic reading of parts of Genesis. Along with a zeal for biblical authority and theological integrity, creation scientists enjoy an additional asset in the very incompleteness of evolutionary theory itself. Close attention to gaps in the theory coupled with their extremely able efforts in public debate account for much of the success of this movement in the last few years.

Whatever the outcome in its campaign for recognition in the public schools, however, literal creationism is not seriously being considered as an alternative by the scientific community. Even fellow creationists are apt to characterize it as “simply and purely very bad science”. 3 Such literal creationism continues to appear as a modern manifestation of the church vs. Galileo.

Moreover, creationists are not agreed that such a literalist reading of Genesis is good interpretation. Francis Schaeffer thinks there are other options and even suffering and death in the plant and animal world may be differently explained. 4 Many point out that the word “day” can be and frequently is meant figuratively. Bernard Ramm ridicules as “fantastic exegesis” the finding of theories of matter in Hebrews 11:13 and such interpretations of the Spirit’s “moving” as illustrated above. 5 Many insist that the semi-poetic language of Genesis 1,2 actually invites a non-literal reading, and that this is entirely consistent with biblical authority.

Quite different in outcome, but closely related in its method and assumptions, is the gap, or restitution theory. Briefly stated, it proposes {11} that a gap exists between the first two verses of Genesis, at the end of which “the earth became without form and void . . .” This ruinous event is the result of the fall of Satan, and it brings to an end an indefinite period of time, the character of which is now being uncovered by modern science. The six days of creation then describe a re-creation and they are 24-hour days.

This view, advocated by Thomas Chalmers and popularized by C. I. Scofield and G. H. Pember, seeks to defend a literalist reading for all the reasons given above and to make room at the same time for the findings of modern science. It thus relieves the tension and has had a wide following.

Its weakness lies, first of all, in its complete dependence on the translation of hayethah as “became” rather than “was”. Almost all scholars, including other literalists, deny a real basis for such a translation. Science, secondly, reports no evidence of that kind of catastrophe. Fellow literalists add theological objections, pointing out that the fossil record would then demand suffering and death before the Fall. Nonliteralists tend to regard it as a flimsy attempt to escape the implications of modern knowledge without giving up a hopelessly restricted system of interpretation.


A great many scholars, convinced that scientists are not altogether on the wrong track, but sharing with the literalists a reluctance to limit the scope of the Bible’s authority, attempt to show that the biblical account of creation is in harmony with the findings of science regarding the earth’s antiquity and in some cases even to biological evolution. This requires that the word “day” be interpreted in such a way as to permit a lengthy process, that some explanation be given of the intent of the language of Genesis 1 to 3, and that the evolutionary process be qualified so as to retain a genuine creation, particularly of Adam.

The day-age theory is probably the best known of these. Scholars typically begin with biblical word studies to show that the word “day” can properly denote an indeterminate but in some way definable period of time. Remarkable similarities in the order of creation and the evolutionary timetable are then identified. The biblical account, although very general, is held to be scientifically true, and evolution is accepted as the conceivable modus operandi of the Creator. Scholars in this tradition vary on the degree to which the “days” of Genesis 1 overlap (A. H. Strong) or follow each other in series (Charles Hodge). They are also not agreed whether evolution accounts for the differentiation of kinds or took place only within the kinds. Almost all insist on the special creation of Adam. {12}

Representatives of this view have the advantage of being more at ease with the scientific community than are creation scientists, and remain in full agreement with what the creation accounts seem to them to say, unlike those who accept only its religious truth. Because of their greater openness to the use of allegory, symbol and literary figures generally, they are also more free to avail themselves of the methods of biblical criticism, but they do so in fact with great reserve.

Literalists usually regard this view as a fatal compromise with an evolutionary outlook. Other accommodationists are less inclined to see a scientific intention in Genesis 1. It has also been difficult so far to prove that the sort of progression seen in Genesis 1 is as consonant with modern science as claimed. Finally, this form of concordism appears most thin when evolution, viewed as a satisfactory mode of creation, is abandoned in the creation of Adam. The text itself suggests no discontinuity of mode, and this externally motivated shift in logic suggests the expositor wants to have his cake and eat it, too.

Some writers prefer a more moderate form of concordism which they call progressive creationism. Bernard Ramm contends that the language of Genesis 1 to 3 is prescientific, phenomenal and popular in nature. The “days” of Genesis 1 are not metaphors for ages and do not portray a chronological scheme. 6 Their function is to present creation topically or logically, to indicate development from chaos to order and to affirm the exalted position of humankind among other forms of life. They serve as a literary device in the cause of theology more than of science. Addressing what science cannot describe, the biblical account seeks harmony with it by complementation rather than by duplication or generalization.

This view attempts to improve on the day-age theory by doing greater justice to the literary character of Genesis and by avoiding a strict correspondence between Genesis 1 and geological chronology. At the same time it stresses more than the former the repeated creative acts of God by which novelty is introduced in time. This is thought to be quite in keeping with the numerous abrupt new beginnings in the evolutionary ladder.

Many scholars have found this attractive, and it is still so recognized in a recent work by Elmer Martens. But literalists are not at all certain that its treatment of the language of Genesis is less hazardous to biblical authority than the day-age theory. Indeed it could be argued that the crevice opened up by the concept of a pre-scientific orientation in Genesis 1 to 3 is a much wider one. From a scientific standpoint, there is no a priori basis for discounting special creative activity where gaps occur in the geological record.

There are several theories which could be regarded as variations of {13} the above. The framework theory, advocated by Nicholas Ridderbos and Meredith Kline, treats the “days” as ages, but like Ramm, emphasizes their use within a formal structure that displays topical rather than chronological concerns.

These interpretations share with the literalists a defense of the reliability of the biblical text on those matters of which it speaks, an insistence that God as Creator is the decisive fact behind the existence of the universe, the requirement that the Genesis record be in accord with the witness and theology of the New Testament as a hermeneutical constraint, and a belief in the compatibility of the creation material with good science.


Many biblical scholars have become convinced that Genesis 1 reflects an understanding of the universe that is simply not in accord with the facts. All forms of concordism are futile, they maintain. We are under no obligation to accept the cosmology of Genesis 1 to 3 in the interests of biblical authority, but we do have to reckon with the religious outlook that lies behind it. God, it seems, did not inspire the writers by giving them a set of facts unnatural for their time, but by causing them to think rightly about Himself and about their own relationship to Him and to the natural order. Proponents of this approach make much more extensive use of critical tools and are more inclined to take Mesopotamian creation myths into account in their interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3.

A moderate form might be called the dramatic interpretation. R. K. Harrison prefers to think of these accounts as “religious drama” rather than myth, partly because of the liabilities of the term itself, and partly because he wants to preserve the historical reality of the events described. 8 His emphasis on historical reality and even scientific similarities with the creation narrative suggest a concordist outlook, but he himself does not allow it. 9 While he is doubtful that the creation account reveals an actual relationship with the Babylonian epic, Enuma elish, he does think it partakes of the character of Mesopotamian myth, that it is “essential truth” in story form. 10 Here is the chief break with concordism, for he maintains that the standpoint of the authors is the first concern of the interpreter, and only later may the question of what is scientific be raised.

Concordists are open to science on the question of “how”, but they are quite certain that “what” the author means to say agrees with the facts. Religious drama is a category that seems to allow for artistic representation of history rather than a strictly factual one. The entire narrative, structured as “story” in an accepted oriental sense, could then be an extended metaphor and true only when so understood. {14}

A more thoroughgoing example is the existential interpretation, usually associated with the writings of Barth and Brunner. There is an assumed cosmology in the creation accounts, it is admitted, but it is simply mistaken, and it is only the most obtuse mind which clings to it. “We would not escape a very bad conscience if we committed ourselves to any such statement,” writes Bonhoeffer, 11 and Langdon Gilkey regards efforts to bind biblical authority to the acceptance of such a view as “neither religiously helpful nor intellectually satisfying.” 12 Enshrined in these accounts, rather, is the timeless truth about our own condition before God and the universe.

Adherents are relieved of tensions with scientific theories. The biblical message retains its relevance and immediacy, while science is free to change. Moreover, it rings true to a great many people who have come to believe that the only genuinely crucial issue in life is the recovery of an experienced relationship with God and the quality of life that flows from it.

Most conservatives, however, are unwilling to accept a view of inspiration that allows interpreters to “salvage” religious truth after they have discarded the “plain sense” of the text. Many are unconvinced that justice can be done to Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 when Adam is thus dehistoricized. Critics from among both liberals and conservatives wonder whether a religious orientation can or should survive without a supporting world-view. It must be shown, they contend, that what we now know about the universe still allows honest people to believe. If two truth claims are not compatible, one or both of them must be abandoned.

Recognizing the epistemological problem above, other scholars opt for a more theological interpretation. Like the preceding one, it believes that biblical cosmology is outdated, that Mesopotamian myths influenced the composition of the biblical narratives, that Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-3:24 are the work of different authors in different historical settings and having different theological concerns, and that the narratives constitute a unique witness to the nature of the relationship between God and the universe. But these scholars are convinced that the religious concern in Genesis is more holistically bound up with its cosmology than is often admitted. Gerhard von Rad has no doubt that, although the creation account is completely bound to the knowledge of its time, it “seeks to convey not merely theological, but scientific, knowledge.” 13 While the influence of myth is present, “creation is regarded as a work of Jahweh in history, a work within time,” and “therefore no longer myth.” 14 For the Hebrews the coherence between the natural and the religious order lay in the personal will and the creative work of God.

Scholars in this school of thought cannot take lightly the collapse of the old cosmology or in some way modernize the biblical text to make it {15} agree with its modern replacement. Consequently, they are left having to explain how good theology can be married to bad science. The real question of biblical authority then, is whether the vision of Genesis 1 to 3, consisting of ideas that can be expressed in language and concepts that are capable of addressing other concepts like deism or dualism or pantheism, still speaks the truth by which we must shape our thinking and being in the light of what we now know. If the answer is yes, it calls for permanent dialogue between theology and science to develop an understanding of the implications of biblical truth.


It has not been our purpose to identify and defend the “best” interpretations but to describe and arrange them with a view toward further consideration. Some observations may serve to facilitate the next phase in the discussion. 1. Each view begins with assumptions that have far-reaching implications. It is to be expected that they will not easily be surrendered. 2. No view is without problems. This calls for testing and debate, but in a more charitable atmosphere than sometimes reigns. 3. Many variations and combinations of these views are held by scholars. The list is not exhaustive and the boundaries are not airtight. 4. Our subject, like eschatology, is without the controls which historiography demands. Similar problems surface in these two areas, resulting in a high degree of speculation. It is not an area for dogmatism. 5. No consistent correlation can be drawn between an interpreter’s point of view and the quality of his or her faith. Stereotypical branding has been much too commonly employed as an ad hominem argument for or against some position. 6. It is also not possible to settle the question by appeal to a view of biblical authority. What divides these positions is not loyalty to God’s Word, but the interpretation of its writings and its relationship to truth from other sources. More than anything, it is a hermeneutical problem.

We face an urgent risk in view of the ever widening gap between biblical faith and a world view shaped by science and technology. It involves the resolution of such standard hermeneutical questions as the nature of biblical language, the impact on interpretation of form and structure and the proper use of critical tools. It includes the question of how theology impinges on exegesis, as illustrated by the recurring problems of reconciling the creation material to the soteriology of Romans 5:12-21 or the anthropology of 1 Timothy 2:13-14 and 1 Corinthians 11:8-9. Finally, we cannot avoid the philosophical dimension of hermeneutics. This is true in theology, where we have yet to establish whether and on what terms different orders of truth may co-exist, but it is no less so in science, where, apart from a few scholars like Thomas Kuhn and Ian Barbour, there remains a lamentable and widespread lack of serious reflection on its own epistemology. It may be that if we ever {16} get beyond our present concern with the “how” of creation, a whole new phase in the religion/science debate, with the focus on its overarching philosophies, might open up. That would be welcome!


  1. Henry Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 52.
  2. Ibid., p. 22.
  3. Davis Young, “Genesis: Neither More Nor Less,” Eternity (May, 1982), p. 17.
  4. Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1972), pp. 63-64.
  5. Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 69.
  6. Ramm, p. 226.
  7. Elmer Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), in a footnote. p. 27.
  8. R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), pp. 456-7.
  9. Ibid., p. 554.
  10. Ibid, p. 456.
  11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation (London: SCM Press Ltd., English Edition, 1966), p. 28.
  12. Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1959), p. 28.
  13. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (N.Y.: Harper & Row, Publishers, English, 1962), p. 148.
  14. Ibid., p. 139.
Harold Dyck is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

Previous | Next