The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3

Andrew J. Brown. Deo Publishing, 2014. [297 pages].

I once heard it said that the task of the historian is cartography – that is, of mapmaking. A mapmaker’s role is to create maps by identifying and aligning the various features that make up the landscape of the selected territory, and then present it all in a way that enables newcomers to navigate that particular landscape for themselves.

Of course, historians do not deal with geography. They are cartographers of time. Their task is to find and collect the scattered data of the their chosen subject, make sense of it in light of its contexts and of other data, and then assemble it all as best they can so as to construct an accurate account in order to show the reader the terrain of their historical landscape.

Andrew J. Brown’s The Days of Creation is a history that maps out a very particular narrative: the history of formal interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3,[1] by Christians, up until 1860 (after which the impact of Charles Darwin’s thought began to impinge upon it).

Within this timeframe, interpretation of Genesis 1 did not occur in a vacuum. Different ideas about the world’s formed the interpretive landscape that interpreters worked within, and it is in light of these other ideas that Christians reckoned with those they found in Genesis. A surprising feature of the book was how often interpreters did not try to make Genesis 1 fit into the prevailing cosmogony[2] of the day. Between the New Testament and 1860 this did not happen often.[3]

The trajectory that Brown traces is that of the gradual emergence of the suspicion that the world was not eternal (as many of the ancients of the classical world had believed), but was nonetheless very, very old, and much more so than the 6000-odd years that is suggested by the biblical chronology. The relatively brief account of Genesis 1 became increasingly difficult for interpreters to align straightforwardly with the exponentially increasing data collected from the natural world, although many did endeavour mightily to do so.

Interestingly, for much of Christian interpretive history the struggle with believing in a creation spanning six days was that this was too long. Some interpreters, such as Augustine (354-430 A.D.), felt that an instantaneous creation of the heavens and the earth was more credible. He took the six days allegorically to stand for successive ages of redemptive history beginning with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, the Exile, and the birth of Christ, with the final seventh day corresponding to the future Messianic Age (page 45).

But interpreters in later eras during and after the long dawn of the scientific age felt an increasing cognitive pressure between the idea of a short, instantaneous, or eternal creation and the conclusions being reached by those studying the natural world. Some attempted to reconcile Genesis 1 with data from the natural world, others did not, and others still held that it only told a part of how our world came to be.

Before the empirical challenges presented by biologists such as Darwin, geologists and astrologists had already precipitated tremendous amounts of debate concerning the cosmogony of Genesis 1. These debates had already passed their peak among Christian interpreters before the impact of Darwin’s published writings. The story of what happened after Darwin is one that Brown leaves to another cartographer, but The Days of Creation maps out the twists and turns of the struggles that occurred before Darwin. While reading this book it is easy to get lost in the details. There are many names to keep track of, and the (in)significance of many of these is not made apparent. But the broad movements in the history are made clear at chapter and section summaries.

“The interpretive story told here might suggest that [Genesis 1] came out of the contest of truth battered and bruised, but what alternative was there? The account of truth that sits alone on the sidelines has already proved its redundancy. It is in the public square that truth proves its mettle.”

page 284

The questions I was left with as I finished this book were, Why didn’t Christians more often construct their own cosmogony out of biblical materials? Why did they feel the need to graft on to prevailing cosmogonies? It is possible that Genesis 1 (etc.) was too obviously  conditioned by the culture of the ancient near east to be intellectually acceptable in other cultures.

Unfortunately, these are not the kinds of questions answered by historians. But what Andrew J. Brown does offer is a valuable historical account of the interpretations, struggles, and contexts of Christians thinkers who have honestly sought to make the best sense of an important part of the biblical history.

What we can take away from The Days of Creation is that Christian interpreters have been satisfied with their varied formulations of Christian cosmogony and deemed them consistent with other elements of the Christian faith. That is not to say they are necessarily true, or that these interpretations all bore good fruit within their Christian traditions. Those matters are also outside the scope of this book. But the fact of these varying interpretations’ existence does show us that the acceptance of a new paradigm does not necessitate the wholesale abandonment of Christianity.

It has been a strength of Christianity (albeit a risky one) to be able to culturally adapt its message to the times and places where it has found itself while retaining the core message of the gospel and its key worldview components. Throughout all times and places, Christians have asserted a God who is both Creator and Redeemer, the Judge of all the Earth as well as the Lord of Grace, the Triune God who has sent the incarnate Son to redeem and the poured-out Spirit to renew. They have identified humans as creatures accountable to this God and communicated to by him in the good news of Jesus the Christ – it beckons them to believe, repent, and follow. Making sense of Christian cosmogony is important, but secondary. The manifold ways Christian thinkers have made sense of Genesis 1 show that Christian faith can be maintained within diverse views of the world’s origins – it is not an excuse to decline the gospel.

Whatever we may make of the larger questions of faith, Andrew Brown has here provided a detailed map of the terrain of a large section of Genesis 1’s history of interpretation. It is not an easy read, but dedicated and interested readers will appreciate his cartography, and may even be tempted to explore some of the less defined spaces on the interpretive map for themselves.

[1] Hereafter referred to simply as Genesis 1.

[2] The study of the origins of the world/universe.

[3] There is the possibility that Brown’s focus on formal and academic interpretations has meant that popular and non-academic undercurrents in interpretation were missed (if they even left evidence that they existed), which were more satisfied with readings of Genesis 1 which did not resort to relying on other sources to make sense of it.

He does acknowledge such an undercurrent in the form of Christian subcultures between 1860 and the rise of 20th century fundamentalism which remained unpersuaded by the findings of geologists but did not express their views in books and academic journals (p. 295).

Similar undercurrents may have existed throughout the period covered in The Days of Creation, but his book doesn’t search for those voices and the voices he does work with usually want to fit the six days into another schematic for the origins of the world.