All Christians believe that God the Father Almighty is the Maker of heaven and earth. This belief is like a great river that runs through Christian history. It distinguishes Christianity from other forms of spirituality. Yet within this river there have been two streams of thought about how to understand Genesis: the allegorical reading and the literal reading.1
The Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries marked a return to the literal reading of Scripture. The Reformers taught that God revealed in Genesis that He created all things in six ordinary days about six thousand years ago.
In this article, I will sketch out these two streams of thought, describe the teachings of the Reformers, and show how these teachings crystallized in their confessions of faith.
Two Views of Genesis 1 in Christian History
There have been many Christians through history who believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Basil of Caesarea (AD 329–379) wrote that in the context of “morning” and “evening” a “day” in Genesis 1 referred to a day of “twenty-four hours.”2 Ambrose (c. AD 339–397) wrote in his commentary on Genesis, “The length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent.”3 The English historian and theologian Bede (c. AD 672–735) commented on Genesis 1:5 that the first day was “without a doubt a day of twenty-four hours.”4
On the other hand, other Christians read Genesis 1 as an allegory or symbolic story. Origen (c. AD 185–254) rejected a literal interpretation of Genesis 1.5 The great theologian Augustine (AD 354–430) believed that the six days were not periods of time but the way God taught the angels about creation.6 Why did they believe this? First, they were influenced by an ancient book of Jewish wisdom that is not part of the Bible, misunderstanding it to say that God created all things in an instant.7 Second, they wanted to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy much as the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (20 BC– AD 50) had tried to do, while not rejecting the major biblical doctrine that one God created all things.
The allegorical approach to the Bible prevailed in the Middle Ages, but some major theologians still favored a literal reading of Genesis 1. Peter Lombard (c. AD 1096–1164) acknowledged both ways Christians had understood the days of Genesis 1, but took the view that he believed fit Genesis better, namely, that God created everything out of nothing and shaped it into its perfected form over the period of “six days.”8 Lombard taught that the days of Genesis 1, defined by mornings and evenings, should be understood as “the space of twenty four hours.”9 Bonaventure (AD 1221–1274) argued that God created “in the space of six days”—a phrase that will appear later in Reformed writings.10
Though they interpreted Genesis 1 in different ways, virtually all these Christians still believed that the world was only several thousand years old, in contrast to the Greek philosophical view of an eternal or nearly eternal world. They did not see creation as a process spanning long eras, but a relatively short event, whether God completed it in an instant, or in six ordinary days.11
The Reformation and the Interpretation of Genesis
When God brought the Reformation to the church in the 16th century, one great effect was the return to the literal sense of the Bible. For centuries the church had muddied the waters of biblical interpretation by giving each text four meanings, as if the Bible consisted entirely of spiritual parables. William Tyndale (c. AD 1494–1536) asserted, “The Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense.”12 He did not deny that the Bible uses parables and figures of speech, just as we speak and write today. But we discover the meaning of Scripture by reading it carefully in context.13 We do not turn history into allegory.
As a result of this approach to the Bible, the Reformers embraced a literal view of Genesis. Martin Luther (AD 1483–1546) wrote, “We know from Moses that the world was not in existence before 6,000 years ago.”14 He relied on biblical records to compute the age of the earth, estimating that in 1540 the world was 5,500 years old.15 He acknowledged that some people followed Aristotle’s view that the world had always existed, or Augustine’s view that Genesis 1 was an allegory. But Luther believed that Moses wrote Genesis in a plain sense. He said,
Therefore, as the proverb has it, he calls “a spade a spade,” i.e., he employs the terms “day” and “evening” without allegory, just as we customarily do. . . . Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit.16
Luther’s advice is sound. When the Bible speaks of God creating Adam on the sixth day, teaching Adam His command about the trees, and bringing the animals to him, these are not just spiritual parables or eternal principles but “all these facts refer to time and physical life.”17 Genesis presents itself to us not as a poem or allegory, but as an account of real history. We should accept it as such, even if we cannot answer every question one might raise about the origins of the universe. The words of the Bible are infallibly given by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). God is the teacher, and we must be His students.
Luther understood that the world would regard Genesis as a “foolish fairy tale.”18 When he commented on the creation of Adam in Genesis 2, he said, “If Aristotle heard this, he would burst into laughter and conclude that although this is not an unlovely yarn, it is nevertheless a most absurd one.”19 But Luther said that in reality Genesis is not foolishness but wisdom, for science can only investigate what things are made of, but God’s Word can reveal how they were made and for what purpose.20
Calvin on the Time of Creation
Though God worked through many Reformers alongside and after Luther, none is so well known as John Calvin (AD 1509–1564). Like Luther, he read Genesis as “the history of creation.” He believed that “the duration of the world . . . has not yet attained six thousand years.”21 He also rejected Augustine’s belief that creation was completed in a moment,22 writing, “Moses relates that God’s work was completed not in a moment but in six days.”23
The Reformers were not naïve; they too faced atheistic skeptics. We should not think that only in this modern age have people tried to explain the origin of the universe and biological life without giving glory to the Creator. Calvin knew that the Bible’s teaching of the relatively young age of the earth would provoke some to laugh and sneer, but realized that profane men will mock at almost every major teaching of Christianity.24 He was aware that some people taught that “the world came together by chance” as “tiny objects tumbling around” formed the stars, the earth, living creatures, and human beings. Calvin believed that the excellence and artistry of the smallest parts of the human body showed such theories of random creation to be ridiculous.25 God revealed that He created the world in six days about six thousand years ago to protect the Church from pagan fables about our origins, to glorify Himself as the only Creator and Lord, and to call us to submit our minds to God’s will and Word.26
Calvin regarded the early chapters of Genesis as “the history of the creation of the world,” and delighted in them because creation is “the splendid mirror of God’s glory.”27 To be sure, the Bible does not reveal all the facts that can be discovered by astronomy — though Calvin said that astronomy is “pleasant” and “useful” for Christians.28 Scripture records creation in words that ordinary people can understand, not technical scientific language.29 Still, the Bible is true, and Genesis is real history. Foolish men may ridicule God’s ways, but the humble know better: “Since his will is the rule of all wisdom, we ought to be contented with that alone.”30
If someone objects that Moses was not alive at creation and so could only write fables about it, Calvin replied that Moses was not writing thoughts he invented or discovered himself, but “is the instrument of the Holy Spirit.” That same Spirit enabled Moses to foretell events that would happen long after his death, such as the calling of the Gentiles to Christ. Furthermore, the Spirit helped Moses to make use of traditions handed down from Adam, Abraham, and others.31
Someone else might object that it makes no sense that God created light on the first day before God created the sun on the fourth day. Here too, Calvin helps us by saying that God has an important lesson for us in this: “The Lord, by the very order of creation, bears witness that he holds in his hand the light, which he is able to impart to us without the sun and moon.”32 Thus the order of the creation week reveals that God can meet all our needs even without the natural means He ordinarily uses.
Calvin was aware that some people said that the six days of Genesis 1 were a metaphor. But he believed this did not do justice to the text of Scripture. He wrote, “For it is too violent a cavil [objection] to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men.” He went on to explain that God “distributed the creation of the world into successive portions, that he might fix our attention, and compel us, as if he had laid his hand upon us, to pause and reflect.”33 Joseph Pipa writes, “Calvin’s commitment to six days and the order of the days stands in bold contrast to modern theories such as the framework hypothesis and the analogical view of Genesis 1. He emphatically insists on the order of the six days as both advantageous to man and instructive about the character of God.”34
Additional Major Reformers
Other major Reformers agreed with Calvin about the six days of creation, and the first three days in particular. Though examples could be multiplied, I will mention only four. Wolfgang Musculus (AD 1497–1563), an astute Reformed theologian whom Calvin highly esteemed, wrote that the six days of creation were “natural days.” Speaking of the first three days of creation, he wrote: “For natural days are comprised of these parts—evening and morning—in order that we may rightly understand the three day period as having ceased in the space of three nights and days.”35 For Musculus, the fourth day did not begin a new chronology; rather, all six days of creation were viewed by him as consisting of twenty-four hours.36
Peter Martyr Vermigli (AD 1499–1562), an Italian Reformer and one of Calvin’s most influential contemporaries, also believed in a young earth. In his systematic theology, he raises the issue that some object to the biblical account of creation by demanding that God could have created the world “long before” Genesis 1 advocates. As to why God created “so late,” Martyr responds: “This is an arrogant and malepert question, wherein mans curiosotie cannot be satisfied; but by beating down the follie thereof. For if I should grant thee, that the world was made before, at anie certeine instant of time, that thou couldest imagine; yet thou mightiest still complaine, that the same was but latelie made, if thou refer thy cogitation to the eternitie of God; so as we must herein deale after a godlie maner, and not with this malepert and rash curiositie.”37 He also warns against believing that Genesis 1:2 was speaking of an “eternall and uncreated chaos, or confused heape,” that was “extant before” God’s creation, and God created later from things that were “mingled together” in this chaos.38 Martyr adds: “But we saie, that the same heape also was made the first date”39—a date that lasted only twenty-four hours and was the first of six days. Elsewhere, Martyr taught that “the evening and morning were made the first days of the gathering together and spreading forth of light before the bringing forth of the sunne.” He then added, “When we speak of the creation of things, we bring not forth one thing out of another after Aristotle’s manner, but we affirm all natures, as well as bodies without bodie [i.e., angels], to be created of nothing by the word of God.”40
Henry Bullinger (AD 1504–1575) was a Swiss Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli as head of the Zurich church. He rivalled Calvin in influence throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, and produced some 150 treatises, the most famous of which was The Decades, which consisted of fifty sermons in which he preached his way through a systematic theology. In the first sermon of the first decade of sermons, Bullinger advocates a young earth, stating that a careful reading of Genesis and Exodus affirms that from the creation in Genesis 1 to the death of Moses spanned 2,488 years.41 Six sermons later, Bullinger writes, “If thou bring into parts, and severally examine what he made in those six days, in which order, with what beauty, to how great commodity of mankind, and finally how almost with no labour at all he brought them all forth, as it is at large written by Moses in the first of Genesis, thou shalt be compelled to be amazed at the goodwill and power of God.”42
Zacharias Ursinus (AD 1534–1583), a German Reformed theologian who served as the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, similarly embraced a young earth view. In his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, he wrote in 1616, “According to the common reckoning, it is now, counting from this 1616 of Christ, 5534 years since the creation of the world.”43 He then cites Melanchthon who would have believed that the world in 1616 would have been 5,579 years; Luther, 5,576 years; the Genevan theologians, 5,559 years; and Beroaldus, 5,545 years. After consulting these theologians, Ursinus concludes “that the world was created by God at least not much over 5,559 or 5,579 years.”44
As far as I have been able to ascertain, the accepted interpretation of the Reformers who addressed these subjects is that they by and large believed (1) in a young earth of around 6,000 years in terms of our modern 21st century chronology, (2) that God created all things in six twenty-four days, and (3) that there were no gaps of time in the creation week. The fact that many Reformers did not address these issues directly or did so only briefly does not appear to be because they were not significant to them, but because there was little or no controversy about them since they unitedly maintained that the creation days were to be understood literally.45 As far as the Reformers were concerned, the literal historicity of Genesis 1 was not up for debate; “to them the six-day creation meant a six-day creation,” which in turn meant a young earth.46
Lutheran and Early Reformed Confessions on Creation
The Reformation was a time of tremendous rediscoveries of biblical truth. To show their faithfulness to the Scriptures and pass these truths on to future generations, evangelicals published their beliefs in confessions and catechisms.
The doctrine of creation was not a major point of disagreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the evangelical churches of the Reformation. Therefore, it did not receive much attention in the Lutheran confessions, except to affirm briefly that one God created all things.47 The major Reformed confessions of the 16th century offered more developed statements about the creation of the world, angels, and mankind, but did not address the time of creation.48 The Belgic Confession (article 14) does say that “God created man out of the dust of the earth.”49 Thus it confessed a literal understanding of Genesis 2:7, which logically contradicts the modern notion that man evolved by a natural process from other forms of life over millions of years.
Girolamo Zanchi (AD 1516–1590) was a professor of Old Testament and theology who taught at Strassburg and Heidelberg. A few years before he died, Zanchi published a detailed confession of faith, which said that God created the world “in the space of six days.”50 He also published a massive book titled Concerning the Works of God in Creation during the Space of Six Days, in which he argued that Genesis 1 clearly says God created the world in six literal days.51
James Ussher (AD 1581–1656), bishop of Armagh, is now best known for his biblical history of the world, in which he famously calculated the date of creation at 4004 BC In 1615, he led a gathering of church leaders in Dublin to adopt the Irish Articles, which say, “In the beginning of time, when no creature had any being, God by his Word alone, in the space of six days, created all things.”52 These words come directly from Ussher’s Principles of Christian Religion, which he wrote around 1603.53 Ussher was invited to participate in the Westminster Assembly, and though he declined, his writings still greatly influenced the documents written there.
The Westminster Standards on Creation
Meeting from 1643 to 1649, British Reformed theologians wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Shorter Catechism (WSC), and Larger Catechism (WLC). The Westminster Standards continue to serve as the confessional declarations of many Presbyterian churches around the world. The Larger Catechism (Q. 17) taught a literal view of Genesis 1–2 by stating, “After God had made all other creatures, He created man male and female; formed the body of the man out of the dust of the ground, and the woman of the rib of the man.”54 The confession and both catechisms state that God created the universe in “the space of six days.”55 This same language also carried over into the confessions of the Congregationalists and Particular Baptists when they adapted the Westminster Confession for use in their own churches.56
What do the Westminster Standards and their daughter confessions mean by creation in “the space of six days”? Why did they not simply say, “in six days”? First, by using the word “space” they made it clear they were talking about a definite span of time, not just a metaphor with six parts. Other books from the 17th century used the words “the space of six days” to refer to the duration of six ordinary days.57 Thus one book printed in 1693 talks about how a king conquered an entire region “in the space of six days.”58
Second, in taking up the language of “the space of six days,” the Westminster Assembly declared that it stood with previous theologians in affirming a literal six-day creation. The expression has its roots in at least four previous theologians whom the Westminster divines knew. As we have seen, the words “in the space of six days” appear in the writings of Bonaventure, Calvin, Zanchi, and Ussher.59 Zanchi’s Confessions may have influenced the Westminster divines, for it was a prime example of early Reformed orthodox confessions from which to draw.60 Certainly the Irish Articles of Ussher influenced the Westminster Confession.61
Research into the writings of several members of the Westminster Assembly has confirmed that they believed in a relatively young earth and a literal six-day creation.62 In 1674, Thomas Vincent wrote the following in his explanation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “In what time did God create all things? God created all things in the space of six days. He could have created all things together in a moment, but he took six days’ time to work in.”63 Thus, we have good reason to conclude that the Westminster Confession, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism teach us to regard Genesis 1 as a real week of time in history.
Some godly men who love the Westminster Confession disagree with me, arguing that “the space of six days” is ambiguous and it was only meant to exclude the idea of creation in an instant.64 But the Westminster Standards do more than reject instantaneous creation. They also affirm creation over a specified period of time: “the space of six days.”
Though all Christians believe that God created the world, through the history of the Church a literal reading of Genesis has competed with an allegorical reading. In the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and other major Reformers embraced the literal reading of Genesis, with the result that they believed in a six-day creation some six thousand years ago. We also find evidence of the literal view in the Belgic Confession, the Confession of Faith by Zanchi, the Irish Articles, and the Westminster Confession of Faith.
But in this modern era, an increasing number of evangelical and Reformed Christians are turning back to the old error of embracing a symbolic view of Genesis, albeit often in new forms. I believe that we face a double danger here. First, we are in danger of losing our confidence that words can clearly communicate truth. There seems to be a hermeneutical issue at stake here, namely, the perspicuity of Scripture. It is fascinating that, generally speaking, the same Reformed scholars who argue for some kind of allegorical interpretation of the plain and literal words of Genesis 1 tend to reinterpret the plain and literal words of the Westminster Confession when it states that creation took place “in the space of six days.” If plain words can take on allegorical or alternative meanings so easily so that they do not mean what they plainly state, how do we know what anything means? The resulting uncertainty that such interpretations convey leads into the second danger, that of doctrinal minimalism. If we cut back the meaning of our confessions by saying their statements merely stand against some specific error, then we lose the richness of what the confessions positively affirm. Similarly, if we reduce Genesis 1 to the bare truth that “God created everything,” then we lose the richness of what God reveals in the whole chapter.
An uncertain and minimalist approach to the doctrine of creation opens the door for serious errors to enter the church, such as the evolution of man from animals or the denial that Adam and Eve were real, historical people. Happily, a robust doctrine of creation provides a strong foundation for our faith.