Taylors, South Carolina (March 9-11, 1999)-Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary packed the auditorium of its recently-acquired facility as the school hosted its first Spring Theology Conference. The topic is a hot one within conservative Reformed circles: Did God create in six days? More than 100 people gathered to hear representatives of the various positions defend their views.
Long Age View
Dr. R. Laird Harris, professor emeritus of Covenant Theological Seminary, put forth the classic long age view. Scripture is "a plain book," he declared. "But, there are places where good men can differ."
Dr. Harris rhetorically asked, "Do we take the Bible literally?" He answered his own question by saying, "Yes and No." The Bible is inspired, "but the words are inspired in a context." He continued: "The phrase, 'This is my body', is taken literally by all Roman Catholics. It is not taken literally by Protestants."
For theological reasons, he would be opposed to creation in 144 hours if it involves apparent discrepancies with natural revelation. Dr. Laird does not believe that it is theologically consistent with God's nature for Him to have created apparent age in the earth, if the earth is not that old.
Dr. Jack Collins, currently a professor at Covenant Seminary, demonstrated his linguistical skills in dealing with Genesis 1:1-2:3. He used Discourse Analysis in trying to get at the "literal interpretation."
Dr. Collins' view is what he calls "analogical days": that is, the word "yom" refers to a literal day, but, it is used to communicate in an analogical way regarding God's creative activity. Towards the end of his lecture, he put forth four salient points of his position. 1) The first two verses of Genesis are background, representing an unknown length of time prior to the beginning of the first "day." 2) Six "days" represent periods of God's special ("supernatural") activity in creating a place for us. 3) The "days" are God's work-days, analogous to but not necessarily identical to our work days, structured for setting a pattern for our own rhythm of rest and work. 4) The length of time either for creation week or since it, is irrelevant for the communicative purpose of the account.
Dr. Mark Ross, a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, began his presentation by quipping that, in this context, "I find myself as the liberal." An associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, S. C., Dr. Ross showed his indebtedness to the work of Meredith Kline in maintaining that Genesis 1-3 constitutes a literary or theological framework which was not intended to give chronology or sequence. His is a figurative view.
He maintains that Scripture should not be adapted to the findings of science. Exegetical, not scientific, evidence, must govern. He then proceeded to give his exegetical reasons for accepting the framework view.
An Historical Overview
Dr. Morton H. Smith, founder of two theological seminaries (Reformed and Greenville), gave an overview of how American Presbyterianism has dealt with the doctrine of creation and the question of the days of creation. Speaking of the Southern Presbyterian Church, he noted that its premier theologian, Robert L. Dabney, rejected the alleged findings of geology, arguing on three bases for a literal understanding: (1) the narrative in Genesis seems historic, not symbolic; (2) the phraseology "evening and morning" points to literal days; (3) the use of God's creation as the basis for the Sabbath (Exodus 20) also points to literal days. However, many churchmen were content to adopt geologists' views, or did not see any particular problem with those who did.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which was founded in 1973, is currently engaged in a debate as to the meaning of Scripture and the Constitution with regard to creation. According to Dr. Smith, the question of the length of days was not a matter of debate in the early days of the PCA; but most non-ministerial members as well as many ministers held to the literal view.
Today, the issue has come to the fore, with different presbyteries taking radically positions on the question. Why is it such a sharp issue today? Dr. Smith believes that it is because ruling elders don't understand preachers holding a different view from the literal one.
An Exegetical Perspective
Greenville Seminary Old Testament Professor Ben Shaw gave a detailed exegesis of Genesis 1. He took exception to Dr. Collins' suggestion that on Day 4 of creation, the heavenly bodies might have been appointed rather than created ex nihilo. It is theoretically possible to translate the verb "appoint"-but why? "What in the text would lead you to that?"
Creation and the New Testament
Professor Sid Dyer, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister who teaches at Greenville Seminary, culled the New Testament for relevant information regarding creation. In Matthew 19:4-6, which quote Genesis 1-2, "at the beginning" refers to the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. "Any attempt to separate Genesis 1:1 from the creation of man by long periods of time, contradicts what Jesus says here," said the professor. From Luke 11:50-51, he drew the conclusion that "[t]he connection of the murder of Abel to the foundation of the world demonstrates the proximity of the first family to the creation of the world."
Professor Dyer expressed his agreement with Dabney, that God created the world to provide a stage for the redemption of rational creatures. He summarized his presentation by saying that his problem with the day-age view is that it is too much prelude for too little program; and that his problem with the non-literal view is that it is too much saying too little.
Still Looking to Give Away Two Cardinals Tickets
At the 1998 PCA General Assembly, the Rev. David Hall keynoted the minority report on the Standing Judicial Commission handling of the New Jersey creation case. With the court meeting in St. Louis, he offered two "hard-to-get Cardinals tickets" to anyone who could cite a participant in the Westminster Assembly who held to a non-literal view of creation. He has not had to yield the tickets.
Mr. Hall began his presentation with four assumptions: 1) the Westminster Confession of Faith allowed only one view; 2) Bible-believers do indeed differ on this issue; 3) the scientific consensus is changing its mind; scientific structures and paradigms are always being discarded and new ones being formed; 4) believers may change their minds and grow; indeed, a commitment to honor our heritage does not mean that we cannot grow in our understanding. The question is not only, What did our fathers believe?, but, What ought our children to believe? If we can progress in orthodoxy, would it not gain the approval of our fathers?
Mr. Hall's great concern is to preserve the integrity of the Confessional standards, by interpreting them according to original intent. All the evidence points to the fact that the Westminster divines believed in literal days of creation. Anywhere from eight to nineteen of the members of that 17th century assembly have declared their views in support of literal creation; and no one has been cited who holds a contrary view. "It would be imprudent in the extreme to alter Confessional understanding" based on a lack of evidence from the primary sources. Given the opposition to the clear historical evidence that has been adduced, Mr. Hall is concerned that "[n]ormal historical documentation is no longer the standard."
The issue touches on subscription and on the function of a confessional system. "Does one view the Confession as presenting nebulous ideas, or as presenting specific propositions based on Scripture?"
Indeed, if the church is unwilling to interpret the phrase "in the space of six days" in accord with original intent, what other issue do we treat in this fashion? "Virgin birth" appears nowhere in the Standards. "Evolution" is not addressed. The phrase "historical Adam and Eve" does not appear as such.
Theological Significance of the Doctrine
Dr. Morton H. Smith spoke again, this time outlining the theological significance of the doctrine of creation. Creation and knowledge, creation and the doctrine of revelation, creation and man, creation and the fall, creation and Christology, and creation and redemption, were the topics he treated.
Dr. Smith began his address by saying that he has grown in his appreciation for the literal view of creation, and that he had not taught strongly in the past on the matter. "I taught students in error. And I wish I could undo that," he admitted.
A Scientist's Perspective
Dr. Stuart Patterson, a retired science professor, gave a lecture on scientific evidence for a young earth. He dealt with various factors, including Niagra Falls and the speed of light at creation vis a vis its present speed.
The Wonder of Creation
The conference went to the Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church in Simpsonville, S. C., for a Wednesday evening worship service. Professor John Carrick of Greenville Seminary preached on the wonders of creation. "God created," the Englishman declared, "so He might display His glory and His perfections-especially in redemption."
A Lesson from History
After the worship service, a twin lecture focused on the James Woodrow controversy in the Southern Presbyterian Church in the late nineteenth century. Mr. Steve Berry, a student at Reformed Theological Seminary-Jackson, laid out the very complicated history of the Woodrow case.
The uncle of Woodrow Wilson, Dr. Woodrow was a scientist and minister who was a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. As Darwin's views gained ascendancy, Woodrow eventually adopted a modified evolutionary view: that Adam probably evolved from lower animals, while Eve's body was specially created from Adam's rib. A series of complaints, appeals, and decisions in the church courts finally removed him from his professorship, but did not defrock him.
Dr. Duncan Rankin, a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary-Jackson, then gave an analysis of the significance of the Woodrow case, particularly for the contemporary church. "A faulty hermeneutic," he warned, "can quickly impact the view of inspiration in the next generation."
A Time for Response and Questions
The final morning of the conference was dedicated to responses from the participants, and questions and answers.
Dr. Harris was the first respondent. He stated that "we are facing titanic forces against Christianity" in our present society, and that we should not be devouring each other on what he regards as secondary issues. "We ought to keep a certain amount of freedom within the bonds of the Reformed faith," he declared.
Dr. Collins began his response by saying, "It has been a challenge, it's been very interesting." He contested the meaning of "literal." He said, "I will not agree that my view is not literal," in that the notion of literal refers to the actual meaning being conveyed by the particular words.
With regard to animal death, and the implications of such death before the fall, the Covenant Seminary professor stated that "the only reference to death in Genesis 2 and 3 is to human death." He stated that "there is no such thing as a fallen creation," adding rhetorically, "Where in the text do you get the idea that earthquakes and volcanoes are manifestation of sin?"
Dr. Ross also objected to being called a "non-literalist," since the word "day" has a range of uses, and it can sometimes refer to things other than a space of twenty-four hours.
"It's clear to me," asserted Dr. Ross, "that it was not the author's principle concern [in Genesis 1] to give a chronological narration."
He also stated that ordinary providence-as in the phrase, "Let the earth bring forth"-could be the result of fiat.
Dr. Pipa responded that Dr. Harris seemed to have accepted uniformtarian views with regard to geology. Dr. Pipa believes that more study needs to be done on the question of the Seventh Day in Genesis 1. However, he does not understand why the hebdominal pattern would be evident in virtually all early cultures, unless the basis for the seven day week was rooted in creation itself.
Professor Shaw disagreed with Dr. Collins' contention that man was a fallen creature inhabiting an unfallen creation. In Genesis 3:14-15, the two things that are not cursed are the man and the woman.
Dr. Smith approached the matter historically and Confessionally. To him, the question is, "In the PCA, are we going to hold to a strict construction [of the Confession]?" The Westminster divines did say that creation occurred in six literal days: "then our church in adopting those standards has adopted this view."
When the conference ended, people were still standing around, speaking with the speakers and each other. The intense conversation indicated that the controverted matter is not going away any time soon.