Are science and the Bible at odds? More specifically, can science and the Genesis creation story co-exist?
Genesis 1—the creation story—inspires some of the most heated, sensitive and yet important controversies within the church today. How we personally view Genesis 1 does impact how we, individually, view the rest of Scripture, science and the nature of the gospel itself.
Many young Christians, in fact, indicate that the supposed conflict between Christianity and science is one of the main reasons they have chosen to leave the church. That’s terrible news, right?
While the church finds itself unable to reach a universal consensus on how to interpret Genesis 1, Christians must keep in mind that God reveals Himself in both Scripture and nature. Where we find apparent contradictions between the two, we must go back and re-evaluate our science and/or our interpretation of Scripture.
Writes R.C. Sproul, “There are two spheres of revelation; the Bible (special revelation) and nature (general revelation). In the latter, God manifests Himself through the created order. What God reveals in nature can never contradict what He reveals in Scripture, and what He reveals in Scripture can never contradict what he reveals in nature. He is the author of both forms of revelation, and God does not contradict himself.”
In this post, let’s look at various church interpretations of the Genesis 1 creation story, which highlight only topically the ongoing, raging debate over whether the inerrancy of the Bible demands a literal adherence to the text. Or can Christians embrace both God and modern science, without judgement from those who disagree?
Early Church Interpretations of Science and the Bible
Genesis was written in Hebrew, and a responsible interpretation requires a good understanding of the Hebrew text. The use of commentaries that shed light on the nuances of the Hebrew text—for example the meaning of words, genre, verb tenses, literary devices and the culture of the day—can be of considerable help in understanding the original meaning of a passage.
Let’s summarize three main interpretations of Genesis 1 that emerged from early church fathers, and then some of the modern interpretations. Obviously, they can’t all be correct…perhaps not even one of them is correct.
~ Epoch Day View
In writing about the sixth day of creation, Irenaeus, an early church father, was among others who suggested that this day could have been a thousand-year epoch. Irenaeus concluded that, based on the scriptural teaching that for God one day is as a thousand years (Psalm 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8) and that Adam lived for 930 years before dying (Genesis 5:5), the sixth day of creation could have lasted for a thousand years. Clearly, Irenaeus held the view that yom, the Hebrew word used for “day,” could be interpreted as an epoch or age.
~ Allegorical/Figurative Day View
Several early church fathers recognized a challenge in understanding the nature of the creation days: the sun, moon and stars were not created until day four, so the first three days could not have been normal calendar days in terms of the earth’s movement in relation to these celestial bodies. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), in his book The City of God, wrote: “As for these ‘days,’ it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think—let alone explain in words—what they mean.” In his commentary The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he argued that a creation day was not a typical calendar day, “certainly not such as the one we are familiar with here.” Concerning the duration of the creation week, Augustine believed that “God made all things together simultaneously,” and that the days are used to provide a logical—not chronological—sequence of explanation to us.
~ 24-Hour View
Many church fathers held the 24-hour view of the creation days—among them Lactantius (AD 250-325), Victorinus (died AD 304), Ephrem the Syrian (AD 306-373), Basil of Caesarea (AD 329-379) and Ambrose of Milan (AD 338-397). These literalists asserted that the six days of creation were each 24 hours long.