To assess properly the debate that the scriptural geologists were involved in, one needs also to understand the views of Scripture generally and Genesis 1–11 in particular held by evangelicals and high churchmen, especially as revealed in the Bible commentaries. The following summarizes first the views of four of the most influential older commentators (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley) and then the commentaries in use in the early 19th century.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was perhaps the greatest theologian of the early Christian church and through his voluminous writings he had a tremendous influence on the thinking of Christians for nearly 13 centuries.1 After two previous attempts at commenting on Genesis, both of which took a decidedly allegorical approach, Augustine published in 415 his last commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which was “the most significant attempt made during the patristic period” to clarify the meaning of these chapters.2 Based on the Latin translation of Genesis,3 he endeavored to do what his title indicated—give a literal historical interpretation to Genesis rather than looking for allegorical meanings, into which, however, he often slipped. Concerning the meaning of the six days of creation, he openly struggled in uncertainty and leaned toward an allegorical interpretation. This uncertainty of interpretation in Genesis continued apparently throughout his life. Two years after completing his commentary on Genesis he wrote, “As for these ‘days,’ it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think—let alone to explain in words—what they mean.”4 Later, near the end of his life, he remarked about his Genesis commentary: “In this work, many questions have been asked rather than solved, and of those which have been solved, few have been answered conclusively. Moreover, others have been proposed in such a way as to require further investigations.”5
Though insisting that he was interpreting “day” literally, he tended to regard at least the first three days before the creation of the heavenly bodies to be non-literal, unlike modern days, which are measured by the sun, moon, and stars. He never ventured to say how long these non-literal days lasted. He possibly believed that the last three days of creation were literal 24-hour days.6 If anything, he leaned toward creation being in an instant, rather than over long ages. In any case, he considered that the plants and animals were created miraculously and fully formed in an instant on the various days (rather than gradually by present-day processes of nature) and that creation was complete on the seventh day.7 In rejecting the uniformitarian and catastrophist views of his day,8 he argued that 6,000 years had not yet passed since the creation of Adam, the first man, and that the antediluvian patriarchs had literally lived some 900 years.9 He argued at some length that the Noachian flood was a historical global catastrophe and that all men were descended from Noah, having been dispersed throughout the earth after the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.10
Luther frequently insisted that the first 11 chapters were literal history.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) started his verse-by-verse commentary on the Book of Genesis in 1535 and completed it ten years later.11 Criticizing Augustine at several points for his lapse into allegorical interpretations, Luther frequently insisted that the first 11 chapters were literal history.12 He took the days of creation as literal 24-hour days, with the sun and other heavenly bodies created on day 4 and that he believed all this took place less than 6,000 years before. Referring to Exodus 20:11, he argued that Genesis 1:1 was the beginning of the first day and was not describing a creation before the first day.13 He stressed that at the end of the week of creation, everything was perfect and God ceased (and never resumed) His creative work; procreation of life continues under His providence.14 The animals initially were vegetarian and some only became carnivorous as a result of God’s curse at the Fall, which Luther believed affected the whole earth, not just man.15 This curse was made more severe at the Flood, which destroyed the whole surface of the earth, obliterating among other things the Garden of Eden, which, according to Luther, is the reason we cannot find it today. He said the pre-Flood world was like a paradise compared to the earth afterward.16
The other great reformer, John Calvin (1509–65), also took the early chapters of Genesis as reliable history handed down faithfully and without corruption from Adam to Moses.17 Many have remarked on Calvin’s notion of accommodation.18 He said that Moses sometimes “accommodated his discourse to the received custom” of the Jews (as in the reckoning of the days from evening to evening rather than morning to morning)19 and “does not speak with philosophical acuteness” but “addresses himself to our senses” using a “homely style” (as in the case of the “two great lights,” the sun and moon, described in Genesis 1:14–15, in comparison to the more exact way that astronomers speak).20 However, it has often not been noted that Calvin nevertheless contended for a creation of the world in six literal days less than 6,000 years ago.21 He emphasized the literal order of the creation events, especially that light was created on day 1 before the sun and other celestial bodies on day 4, and the literal creation of Adam from dust and Eve from the rib of Adam.22 In his view, the Fall brought a curse on creation, not just on man, and the global Flood, which was “an interruption in the order of nature,” destroyed the animals and the surface of the Earth along with man.23
John Wesley (1701–91) clearly valued the practical benefits of science and wrote two books to popularize useful knowledge in medicine and electricity. But he was wary of theoretical science because of its potential for leading people toward deism or atheism. In his two-volume Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation (1763) he relied heavily on the work of others in presenting the traditional arguments from design for God’s existence, which were so popular in 18th and early 19th century Britain.24 He never wrote extensively on creation or the Flood, but in this work he stated his belief that the various rock strata were “doubtless formed by the general Deluge” and that the account of creation, which was about 4,000 years before Christ, was, along with the rest of the Scriptures, “void of any material error.”25 In several published sermons he repeatedly emphasized that the original creation was perfect, without any moral or physical evil (such as earthquakes, volcanoes, weeds, and animal death), which both came into the world after man sinned.26
We now turn to the 19th century commentaries. Extremely important in this regard is the work of Thomas Hartwell Horne (1780–1862), who was an Anglican clergyman, although for much of his working life he also served as assistant librarian in the department of printed books at the British Museum. He did not write a commentary on the Bible, but he was one of the great biblical scholars of his time. Among his numerous literary productions, his greatest work was the massive Introduction to the Critical Study of the Holy Scriptures,27 first published in 1818 in three volumes (1,700 pages) after 17 years of research. Not finding an adequate resource for his own study of the Bible, Horne had read, and in many cases bought, the writings of the most eminent biblical critics, both British and foreign.28 Continually revised and expanded, Horne’s work grew to five volumes by the ninth edition in 1846, with two more editions after that in the United Kingdom and also many editions in America during these years. In spite of its size and cost, those editions sold over 15,000 copies in the United Kingdom and many thousands in the United States.29 From the start, it received high reviews from magazines representing all the denominations (and both high church and evangelical Anglican) and was one of the primary textbooks for the study of the Scriptures in all English-speaking Protestant colleges and universities in the British empire.30 A one-volume abridged version, designed for the common man, was A Compendious Introduction to the Study of the Bible,31 which was first published in 1827 and eventually reached a tenth edition in 1862.
Given Horne’s great influence on the Church, both its clergy and laity, it is noteworthy to know that he thoroughly explained and defended the divine inspiration of Scripture and the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He maintained that the Bible “is free from error, that is any material error,” adding that “this property must be considered as extending to the whole of each” of the books of the Bible and that “it is enough for us to know, that every writer of the Old Testament was inspired, and that the whole of the history it contains, without any exception or reserve, is true.”32 This view of the inerrant inspiration of Scripture was expressed by Horne throughout his life as well as by other biblical scholars at this time.33
Referring to the arguments of continental biblical critics such as Astruc, Eichhorn, Rosenmüller, and Bauer (as well as Geddes from Scotland), Horne vigorously contended for the literal historicity of Genesis, especially the first three chapters, stating that Genesis “narrates the true origin and history of all created things, in opposition to the erroneous notions entertained by the heathen nations.”34 Horne also responded to objections against a global Noachian flood, which he believed was confirmed by fossils, the paucity of the human population, the late inventions and progress of the arts and science, and the flood traditions of other peoples from around the world.35 In 1834, he considered Granville Penn’s (one of the scriptural geologists) Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies to be the best harmonization of geology and Scripture, whereas in 1839 he favored George Fairholme’s (another scriptural geologist) Physical Demonstrations of the Mosaic Deluge.36 Not until the 1856 edition of his Introduction did he accept the gap theory and local flood theory.37
To the proper interpretation of Scripture, Horne devoted about 480 pages. He argued that a word in a given context had only one intended meaning, but that there were two senses: the literal and the spiritual sense. Because of the past abuse of the spiritual sense, he cautioned against too much use of it. Instead he said the “plain, obvious literal meaning” should be sought, and not abandoned for a figurative interpretation unless there is “absolute and evident necessity” in the text or wider Scriptures.38 Such necessary cases were those in which the literal meaning contradicted doctrinal or moral teachings of other Scriptures or clearer passages on the same subject or in which it resulted in a logical absurdity (though he cautioned against too quickly concluding that there was a real absurdity).39
These then were the dominant views of Scripture (and particularly Genesis) at the time of the Genesis-geology debate in the years 1820–45. Table 2, on the pages 46 and 47, shows how many of the commentaries in use in the early 19th century interpreted key verses in Genesis, as well as a few verses elsewhere which refer to the relation of the sun to the earth so as to compare the commentator’s view of Copernican astronomy. It should be noted that Alexander Geddes (1737–1802) was a Roman Catholic Bible scholar, whose thoroughly liberal views of the Bible were censored by his bishop. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was a Unitarian minister (and scientist). The rest were considered to be orthodox Christians. Most of the works were recommended by Horne40 and all were in use in the early decades of the 19th century, although the most popular were those by the respected scholars Thomas Scott (1747–1821, evangelical Anglican), Matthew Henry (1662–1714, non-conformist), Adam Clarke (1762?–1832, Methodist), George D’Oyly (1778–1846, high church Anglican), Richard Mant (1776–1848, high church Anglican), Andrew Fuller (1754–1815, Baptist), and John Gill (1697–1771, Baptist).
From this analysis it is seen that at the time of the scriptural geologists the dominant view of the biblical commentators was that Scripture was infallible and unerring, in matters of history as well as theology and morality. Most of them also believed that Genesis 1–11 was historical narrative describing a creation which was only about 6,000 years old. Though many of them expressed their belief that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun and that in relation to astronomy the biblical writers used the common language of appearance (which also fit the astronomical understanding at the time they wrote), these commentaries took the account of the long day of Joshua as literal history, just as they did Genesis 1–11.
Although the commentaries in widespread use in the 1820s and 1830s defended the young-earth view, this did not reflect the views of all evangelicals and high churchmen, as noted earlier. In addition to the prominent old-earth proponents previously discussed, the editors of the high church magazines, British Critic and Christian Remembrancer, and the evangelical magazine, Christian Observer, also generally accepted the old-earth view, though they did not firmly commit themselves on how it should be harmonized with Scripture (i.e., day-age or gap theory on Genesis 1, and local or tranquil Noachian flood). All these Christians adopted their old-earth interpretations of Genesis because of the influence of the new geological theories, but they all professed to believe that the Scriptures were divinely inspired, infallible, and historically reliable. So for these evangelical and high church old-earth proponents the issue was not the nature of Scripture, but rather its correct interpretation and the role of science in determining that interpretation.