Should a specific view of the nature and duration of the creation days of Genesis be considered a part of the Christian creed?
Does an “orthodox” position on the creation days exist, as it does for the Trinity and the Incarnation? Over the past few years a number of theologically conservative denominations (for example, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, and the United Reformed Churches of North America) have discussed and debated the controversial questions of how to understand the Genesis creation days. Recently, both the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and Westminster Theological Seminary, one of evangelicalism’s most conservative and well respected theological institutions, released statements announcing their conclusions. In light of the statement set forth by Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS), a number of reasons emerge for resisting the push to make the nature and duration of the creation days a test of orthodoxy.
Within conservative Reformed theological circles, and among conservative evangelical scholars as a whole, four popular and distinct interpretations presently dominate discussions concerning the Genesis creation days (though of course others exist). These positions include the Calendar-Day interpretation, which treats the days as six consecutive twenty-four hour periods; the Day-Age Interpretation, which views the days as six consecutive long ages; the Framework Interpretation, which considers the days as topical rather than chronological, unspecified in duration; and the Analogical-Day interpretation, which sees the days as merely analogous to the human work week. All four views appeal directly to Scripture for support. All four views are held by staunch advocates of scriptural inerrancy and supernaturalism. All four views reflect exegetical strengths and weaknesses. None of the views, however, deserves to be labeled an ad hoc capitulation to modern evolutionary theory.
More important than the exact nature and specific length of the days of creation is the factual nature of the events mentioned and described in the first three chapters of Genesis. Scripture describes a divine creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), Adam and Eve as actual historical persons, a real time-and-space fall of mankind into sin, and a divine promise of redemption. All four of the interpretations affirm, in principle, these non-negotiable biblical truths. While some of the views make a more substantial account and explanation for the biblical data than do others, the worst accusation one can legitimately levy against any is that it may sometimes be inconsistent in its affirmation of biblical truth. However, even if inconsistent, not one of these interpretations undermines the very truth-claims of Christianity through actual heresy.
Some scholars hold that any view of the creation days as other than six consecutive twenty-four hour periods must be labeled heretical, not explicitly, but implicitly. They argue that reading the days of Genesis as anything other than twenty-four hour periods undermines orthodoxy because it allows for the possibility that Earth is billions of years old. This idea, in turn, allows for the possibility of animal and plant death (not human death) before the Fall. Such an idea, they assert, compromises one or more of the non-negotiable doctrines of the faith. However, many well-respected evangelical scholars see no real logical or theological support for such an assertion. Some of these same scholars have raised doubts as to whether the Calendar-Day view itself can be squared with biblical inerrancy.
Christianity’s greatest theologians and biblical scholars, including Augustine, Calvin, and Warfield, expounded a diversity of views concerning the nature and duration of the creation days. From the time of the church fathers, through the Reformation, and up to the present, various views have prevailed, some more broadly represented than others, but none was ever considered the definitive, or the only, orthodox biblical position (see the WTS statement).
If indeed the nature and duration of the creation days cannot rightfully be considered a test of orthodoxy, then for church bodies to split over such issues not only hurts the unity of believers but also damages their reputation among non-believers. Christians have a divine imperative to stand up for the truth and against false doctrine. The issues worthy of such a stand do not include the length of God’s creation days. For nearly 2000 years Christian martyrs all over the world have chosen death rather than deny the essential doctrines of the faith. May God grant His church the wisdom to know which issues to fight and die for and which to acknowledge as needing further study.