Beware the Hermeneutics of Accommodation

David Saxon

It is undeniable that the history of interpretation includes numerous examples of commentators benefiting from insights garnered from general revelation. Historical discoveries have shed light on various passages, sometimes causing adjustments to interpretations.[1] Similarly, each generation reads Scripture in light of its current scientific perspectives.[2] It is, therefore, naïve to say that biblical interpretation should never be accommodated to extrabiblical data. The controlling factor, however, must always be the biblical text understood according to a normal hermeneutic.[3] It is the contention of young-earth, six-solar-day creationists that the series of accommodations to science that has occurred over the last two hundred years in the interests of evolutionary development allows science — rather than the text — to be the controlling factor. Conservatives, because of their commitment to biblical authority, should reject these hermeneutics of accommodation. While we do not wish to demonize advocates of alternatives to the six-solar-day view, many of whom express loyalty to a high view of Scripture, including inerrancy, this article will seek to briefly show that accommodating the interpretation of Genesis 1 to current science has tended to take the conversation ever further from a literal reading of the text. Detailed refutations are beyond the scope of this article, but it will survey the history of various accommodations to science by evangelical Christians with the purpose of demonstrating the trajectory of these efforts over the last two hundred years.

The Gap Theory

It is noteworthy that this discussion begins during the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Despite efforts to find support for modern innovations among various Church Fathers,[4] before about 1800 the consensus reading of Genesis 1–2 in all Christian theological traditions was to take these chapters as a normal historical record of creation in six solar days about six thousand years ago. This consensus came under attack when James Hutton, the father of modern geology, challenged young-earth catastrophism and proposed a uniformitarian approach that necessitated millions (later, billions) of years of earth history. Charles Lyell advanced Hutton’s theses in the 1830s, and Lyell’s friend, Charles Darwin, produced the most compelling arguments for natural selection, a process requiring the millions of years Lyell’s theories provided.[5] Obviously, such theories militated against the historic reading of the creation account. How were Christians to respond?

Thomas Chalmers was a dynamic Scottish Presbyterian who led in the great Disruption of 1843, guiding nearly five hundred ministers out of the national Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland. Unfortunately, despite his many outstanding qualities as a pastor and theologian, he enters this story as the popularizer of the Gap Theory. In the late eighteenth century, several Christian geologists had proposed that Genesis 1:1 spoke of an initial creation of the world, and verse 2 described its catastrophic destruction millions of years later. The remainder of Genesis 1 and 2 then gave an historic account of the re-creation of the world. Chalmers appears to be the first significant theologian to adopt this view; he advanced it in an 1814 lecture, “Natural Theology.”[6] About a century later, Scofield taught it in his celebrated reference Bible,[7] and through that instrument, the view became enormously popular in Englishspeaking countries in the first half of the twentieth century.[8] It is much less popular now, although Christian geologist John Clayton has been attempting to promote a “Modified Gap Theory” over the last few decades.[9]

The Day-Age Theory

Just a decade or so after Chalmers’ historic lecture, G. S. Faber, an Anglican churchman, suggested that the geologic record could be reconciled with Scripture in a new way: the days of creation were not solar days but rather lengthy epochs, within which considerable geologic and evolutionary development could take place. Evangelicals gave Faber’s view little credence until Testimony of the Rocks by Scottish evangelical geologist Hugh Miller advocated it in 1856.[10] This theory has found many advocates, including in recent decades the formidable evangelical theologian Millard Erickson.[11]

Two interpretative schemes were now available to theologians eager to avoid conflict with science and to evangelical scientists striving to reconcile their craft with Scripture. Exegetically, the Gap Theory sought justification in the unusual wording of Genesis 1:2 and its echoes in Isaiah 24:1, 45:18, and, especially, Jeremiah 4:23–26. The prophets spoke of the earth undergoing judgment with the result that it was without form and void. Thus, Genesis 1:2 must reflect a result of judgment as well. Without pausing for a thorough refutation, let us note that this interpretation is remarkably fragile. The Gap Theory did not arise from a natural reading of Genesis 1 but rather from a desire to accommodate modern geology. The virtue of the Gap Theory is that it allowed for a normal reading of the rest of Genesis 1–2.

The Day-Age Theory finds support in the metaphorical use of day throughout Scripture — notably, in Genesis 2:4 — and in the awkward fact that a literal reading has to account for the creation of the sun four days after light appears. However, Day-Age proponents struggle to find other uses of day in the Pentateuch occurring with either ordinals or cardinal numbers as metaphors for lengthier periods of time. Furthermore, while the creation of the sun on the fourth day may signal the reader that the author intended something other than a strictly literal reading,[12] it is not at all clear how extending the days into ages helps with that problem. The theory also struggles with the repeated refrain “evening and morning,” elsewhere always a Semitic way of referring to a solar day. In short — books have been written on these issues[13] — science, not exegesis, appears to be driving the theory.

The Framework Hypothesis

In 1924 University of Utrecht professor Arie Noordtzij argued that the structure of the Genesis 1 account, in particular the parallelism of days 1–3 with days 4–6, presents a theological rather than historical or scientific account of the origin of the earth. The human author of Genesis produced a literary work that provides a framework for creation but did not intend to recount actual historical events. Herman Ridderbos, in 1957, developed this Framework Hypothesis in Is There a Conflict between Genesis 1 and Natural Science? Lee Irons, with assistance from Meredith Kline, produced a substantial defense of this view in his contribution to The Genesis Debate.[14] It is quite common now for old-earth creationists to appeal to various poetic structures that they find in Genesis 1 in order to argue that attention to the “literary, thematic, and theological aspects of the creation narrative” frees interpreters from the “unexamined assumption that the text addresses the earthly sequence and chronology of origins.”[15] The recent “Temple Inauguration View” of John Walton probably fits in this category. He employs his enormous knowledge of the Ancient Near East (ANE) to convince his readers that Genesis 1 is “ancient cosmology,” not “modern cosmology.”[16] In other words, young-earth creationists find history and science in Genesis 1 only because they look for them there. One gets the impression that Bible readers for the last two thousand years had no hope of properly interpreting the first chapter of the Bible because they lacked the advantage of Dr. Walton’s unfolding of ANE cosmology.

Seeing a Pattern

While additional efforts have been made to accommodate Genesis 1 to modern science,[17] this brief survey suggests a pattern. Early old-earth science elicited a simple attempt to find vast swaths of time in the first two verses of Genesis 1. As science accumulated more “evidence” and opponents debunked the Gap Theory, the Day-Age View gained in popularity. While exegetically slightly more viable than the Gap Theory, it took even less of Genesis 1 literally. Finally, science seemed to have won the day culturally, and even the Day-Age View seemed insufficiently sophisticated to deal with the challenges being mounted against Genesis 1; interpreters now developed various literary views of the creation account. While often impressive in their intricate handling of textual details, these views effectively removed all science and history from the only historic and scientific account of creation available to mankind. Young-earth creationists continue to insist that a normal, literal-historical reading of Genesis 1 leads to the affirmation of creation in six twenty-four-hour days and that general revelation — while important and helpful — cannot assume the role of absolute authority for conservative Christians.

About two decades ago, church historian Mark Noll spoke of the scandalous rejection of modern science in Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism and urged Evangelicals to rethink their stance. Retreating to a position so hopelessly out of touch with the massive modern scientific consensus, he argued, essentially ends our dialog with modern man from the start.[18] Such reasoning has driven two centuries of accommodationist hermeneutics, but where would such reasoning lead? If we adjust Genesis 1 to allow for millions of years, must we adjust Genesis 2–3, which modern man will surely find equally unsatisfactory both scientifically and historically? Can we keep the normal reading of Joshua’s long day, Jonah’s adventure in the great fish, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? At which of these points is there not a massive secular consensus that these must be sheer fiction?[19]

We must acknowledge that general revelation — both history and science — is to be taken into account as we handle the Scriptures, but God forbid that we embrace an accommodationist hermeneutic that cedes “an equal authority . . . to nature (as observed by sinful man) as to Scripture.”[20] The Bible, including Genesis 1, must be our sole authority.

Dr. David Saxon is professor of Bible and Church History at Maranatha Baptist University, in Watertown, Wisconsin.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2016. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. For instance, discovery of the Nabonidus cylinders at Ur in the 1850s shed light on the reign of Belshazzar in Babylon. Commentators on Daniel now routinely refer to this data to explain Belshazzar’s offer to Daniel to be “third ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:29). Prior to these discoveries, exegetes were hard-pressed to explain the expression. The data from general revelation is not inspired, but it can nevertheless shed light on inspired texts enabling exegetes to interpret more accurately. []
  2. A schoolboy today no doubt grasps the revolution of the earth around the sun more clearly than did any human biblical author. So expressions such as “the sun rose” or the “the sun set” are today informed by a more scientific worldview. One of the miraculous things about Scripture is that premodern writers were supernaturally preserved from scientific error when they described phenomena from their relatively primitive worldviews. []
  3. Lee Irons, while advancing a literary framework view of Genesis 1, nevertheless is precisely correct when he writes, “Scripture has hermeneutical and presuppositional priority over our fallible study of general revelation” (David G. Hagopian, ed., The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation [Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, Inc., 2001], 218). []
  4. See Jonathan Sarfati’s thorough refutation of Hugh Ross’s attempts to enlist a number of Church Fathers in support of the Day-Age Theory in Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (Billions of Years), as Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross (Green Forest, AZ: Master Books, 2004), 107–22. For instance, Augustine is routinely cited as favoring the day-age view. On one hand, it is certainly true that he rejected solar days (because of the creation of the sun on day four); on the other hand, he believed in a young earth. In other words, he rejected a literal understanding of Genesis 1 not in order to insert millions (or even thousands) of years into the text but for literary reasons. Complicating the discussion is the extensive use of allegorical interpretation by many Church Fathers. In this writer’s opinion, appeal to Church Fathers to establish the Day-Age View is at best anachronistic and at worst special pleading. []
  5. Since that time scientists in a variety of fields have found what they believe to be corroborating evidence for a very old earth. Young-earth creationists argue that much of this science operates under wrong presuppositions. []
  6. Numerous works cite Chalmers’ lecture and its subsequent influence. See, for example, Bert Thompson, Creation Compromises (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, Inc., 1995), 158. []
  7. Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917), 3, notes 2–3. []
  8. In The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1955), after citing the advocacy of the Gap Theory by Scofield and Harry Rimmer, Bernard Ramm complains that “the gap theory has become the standard interpretation throughout hyper-orthodoxy, appearing in an endless stream of books, booklets, Bible studies, and periodical articles. In fact, it has become so sacrosanct with some that to question it is equivalent to tampering with Sacred Scripture or to manifesting modernistic leanings” (135). []
  9. See discussion in Thompson, 194–206. []
  10. Sarfati, 135–36. []
  11. Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 382. Erickson gives a brief but helpful survey of attempts to reconcile Scripture and science and opts for the “age-day theory” as the most likely, although he eschews dogmatism. []
  12. On the other hand, the presence of light without a sun in the New Jerusalem, the restored Eden, in Revelation 21:23 suggests that this may not be so great a difficulty as is often alleged. []
  13. See the very helpful discussion in David G. Hagopian, ed., The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation, 121–214. []
  14. Ibid., 217–56. []
  15. Irons, The Genesis Debate, 252. []
  16. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). []
  17. Notable among which is the “Historic Creationism” of John Sailhamer. See his Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 1996). Ken Ham categorizes this as a “modified gap theory” (The Lie: Evolution/Millions of Years [Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2012], 213), although Sailhamer’s exegetical approach is quite different from that of most advocates of the classic Gap Theory. []
  18. Characteristic of Noll, the argument is considerably more complex than this brief summary suggests, but I have attempted to capture its essence. For details, see The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 177–208. []
  19. See a similar argument in J. Ligon Duncan III and David W. Hall’s refutation of the Framework View in The Genesis Debate, 257–58. []
  20. Ibid., 169. []