Biblical Interpretation

by Dr. Terry Mortenson on July 14, 2011

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, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley

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

Commentaries in the Early 19th Century

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

Thomas Scott

Thomas Scott (1747–1821)

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.

The Great Turning Point

Many people in the church today think that “young-earth” creationism is a fairly recent invention, popularized by fundamentalist Christians in the mid-20th century. Is this view correct? Answers in Genesis scholar Dr. Terry Mortenson presents his fascinating original research that documents a different story.

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  1. N.L. Geisler, “Augustine of Hippo,” in Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 105–107; A.D. White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), I: p. 211.
  2. Augustine, The Retractions (1968), translated by Mary Inez Bogan, p. 78 (footnote by Bogan), 170–171 (footnote by Bogan).
  3. Augustine knew no Hebrew and not until he was an old man did he develop a modest ability in Greek. See J.H. Taylor’s “Introduction” to his translation of Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1982), p. 5.
  4. Augustine, City of God: Books VIII–XVI (1952), translated by G.G. Walsh and G. Monahan, p. 196 [Book 11, chapter 6].
  5. Augustine, The Retractions, translated by Bogan, p. 169.
  6. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by Taylor, I: p. 103–107, 124–125, 134–136, 141, 149.
  7. Ibid., I: p. 125, 141–142.
  8. He did not name specific people and theories but only spoke generally of those who believed that earth history was an eternal cycle of destruction and renewal, either in piecemeal fashion or on a global scale from time to time. See Augustine, City of God: Books VIII–XVI, translated by Walsh and Monahan, p. 263–267 [Book XII, ch. 10–13].
  9. Ibid., p. 436–440 [Book XV, ch. 11–12]; City of God: Books XVII–XXII (1954), translated by Walsh and Honan, p. 148–149 [Book XVIII, ch. 40].
  10. Augustine, City of God: Books VIII–XVI, translated by Walsh and Monahan, p. 480–484 [Book XV, ch. 27], p. 504–507 [Book XVI, ch. 9–10]. He did not believe in a flat earth, as some have suggested, but rather that no men were living on the other side of the world because, it was thought, no one could cross the ocean to the other side. See ibid., 504–505 [Book XVI, ch. 9] and Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York: Praeger, 1991), p. 20–23 and 40–45.
  11. I referred to the English translation of Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Vol. I: Genesis 1–5 (1958) and Vol. II: Genesis 6–14 (1960).
  12. Ibid., I: p. 5, 19, 89, 122–23; II: p. 150–153.
  13. In his lengthy footnote in Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise, I: p. 25, Edward Pusey, regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford, said that Luther allowed for the possibility of the gap theory in that the 1557 edition of Luther’s German translation of the Bible placed a “1” in the margin at Genesis 1:3. Pusey’s interpretation of this marginal notation was in error, however. Luther’s commentary makes this clear. But also, Luther’s 1523 translation of Genesis has nothing in the margins and the 1545 version has the numbers of the days in the margin at the end of each day’s description (so “1” is at verse 5). See D. Martin Luthers Werke: Die Deutsche Bibel (Weimar, 1954), p. 8. Band, where the two versions face each other on opposite pages. Also, the 1558 and 1576 versions of Biblia (Wittemburg) follow the 1545 edition in this matter.
  14. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, I: p. 75–76.
  15. Ibid., I: p. 36, 77–78, 204.
  16. Ibid., I: p. 87–90, 204–208; II: p. 3, 65–66, 74–75, 93–95.
  17. John Calvin, Genesis (1992), translated by John King, p. 58–59; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1994), translated by Henry Beveridge, p. 141–142.
  18. For example, R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), p. 117–124; Russell, Hooykaas, Goodman, The “Conflict Thesis” and Cosmology, p. 71–72.
  19. See Calvin, Genesis (1992), translated by John King, p. 78.
  20. Ibid., p. 84–87 and 256–257.
  21. On the days of creation he said, “It did not, however, happen from inconsideration or by accident, that the light preceded the sun and the moon. . .Therefore the Lord, by the very order of the creation, bears witness that he holds in his hand the light, which he is able to impart to us without the sun and moon. ... Here the error of those is manifestly refuted, who maintain that the world was made in a moment. For it is too violent a cavil 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.” See Calvin, Genesis, p. 76 and 78.
    On the age of the earth he wrote that in Genesis, “the period of time is marked so as to enable the faithful to ascend by an unbroken succession of years to the first origin of their race and of all things. This knowledge is of the highest use not only as an antidote to the monstrous fables which anciently prevailed both in Egypt and the other regions of the world, but also as a means of giving a clearer manifestation of the eternity of God as contrasted with the birth of creation, and thereby inspiring us with higher admiration. We must not be moved by the profane jeer, that it is strange how it did not sooner occur to the Deity to create the heavens and the Earth, instead of idly allowing an infinite period to pass away, during which thousands of generations might have existed, while the present world is drawing to a close before it has completed its six thousandth year.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1994), translated by Henry Beveridge, p. 141.
  22. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 58, 76, 111, 132–133.
  23. Ibid., p. 286.
  24. John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960), p. 156–158.
  25. John Wesley, Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation (1763), II: p. 22, 227. On the Flood see also his sermon on original sin in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley (1829–31), IV: p. 54–65.
  26. Wesley, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, IV: p. 206–215 (“God’s Approbation of His Works”), IV: p. 215–224 (“On the Fall of Man”), VII: p. 386–399 (“The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”), IX: p. 191–464 (“The Doctrine of Original Sin, According to Scripture, Reason and Experience,” especially pages 196–197).
  27. Hereafter referred to simply as Introduction to the Scriptures.
  28. T.H. Horne, Introduction to the Scriptures (1818), I: p. 3.
  29. S. Austin Allibone, A Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1877), p. 890.
  30. Ibid., p. 889; DNB on Horne. Sample reviews are quoted in the preface to T.H. Horne, A Compendious Introduction to the Study of the Bible (1827, second edition) and included Christian Remembrancer (high church Anglican), Evangelical Magazine (non-conformist), Congregational Magazine, Home Missionary Magazine, Wesleyan Methodist Magazine and Gentlemen’s Magazine.
  31. Hereafter referred to as Compendious Introduction.
  32. Horne, Introduction to the Scriptures (1828), I: p. 515–516. The exact same remarks on inspiration appeared in the 1846 edition, I: p. 474–476. For the common man, a similar explanation was given in Horne’s Deism Refuted, p. 32, and in his Compendious Introduction to the Study of the Bible (1827, second edition), p. 29–31, where he responded to (and rejected) the notion that the Bible contains the Word of God but is not in its entirety the Word of God. The tenth edition (p. 33–35) in 1862, the year of his death, said the same.
  33. Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible . . . with Explanatory Notes (1841), p. 3. Scott wrote this preface in 1812. See also Reverend William Symington’s introduction to Scott’s work, p. xi–xii; Thomas Stackhouse’s A New History of the Holy Bible (1737), p. xvii, xxii–xxiv; and Bishop George Gleig’s unabridged edition of Stackhouse’s work, with his own additional comments (1817), as well as the introductions to the Old Testament and to Genesis (no page numbers given) in George D’Oyly and Richard Mant, The Holy Bible, with Notes Explanatory and Practical (1817 and 1823 editions).
  34. Horne, Introduction to the Scriptures (1818), II: p. 18–38.
  35. Ibid., I: p. 485–490, II: p. 37.
  36. Ibid., (1834), I: p. 148–165; T.H. Horne, Manual of Biblical Bibliography (1839), p. 283.
  37. T.H. Horne, Introduction to the Scriptures (1856) I: p. 583–590. He indicated that old-earth proponents William Buckland and John Pye Smith were the two primary influences in his change of thinking.
  38. Horne, Introduction to the Scriptures (1818), I: p. 207–208.
  39. Ibid., I: p. 198–209.
  40. Ibid., II: Appendix p. 25–34. Geddes and Priestley were cited for the sake of completeness, but Horne did not approve or recommend them. He also listed the commentary by the German, J.D. Michaelis. All commentaries in the chart are listed in the bibliography.

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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.