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Paul Copan vs. John MacArthur on Genesis 1

Paul Copan vs. John MacArthur on Genesis 1

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03/18/2014

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1The Days of Genesis: An Old-Earth View
Paul Copan
(Written in dialogue with Dr. John MacArthur, who takes the young-earth view)
Areopagus Journal 5/2 (March-April 2005): 15, 17, 19.
Posted with permission from Areopagus Journal.

God\u2019s kingdom and our Christian witness to the world are far weightier and grander matters than
how long it took for God to create.That God created is more critical than theduration of creation.
Alas, the young-earthversus old-earth debate has often been ugly and mean-spirited, and I (an old-
earther) hope to build\u2014not burn\u2014bridges of understanding, and I readily affirm the Christian
commitment of young-earthers.

First, I\u2019ll set forth important hermeneutical perspectives. Second, I\u2019ll point out some scientific
evidences for an ancient universe. Third, I\u2019ll make the case that faithfully interpreting Genesis 1-2
with a high view of Scripture doesn\u2019t require taking \u201cday\u201d as a 24-hour period. Genesis 1-2 allows
for greater flexibility of interpretation than what some young-earthers claim. This flexibility can
easily accommodate the weighty evidence for the universe\u2019s antiquity.

Hermeneutics and Authority

For much of my life, I\u2019d believed in a recent universe, being suspicious of any \u201cbillions of years\u201d
talk. But after reading scientifically-trained authors\u2014Christian and non-Christian with no apparent
axe to grind\u2014who repeatedly spoke of an ancient cosmos, I investigated further. To my surprise,
not only did many young-earth \u201cevidences\u201d in which I had taken scientific refuge come crashing
down, I found that most such \u201cevidences\u201d were highly selective, skewed, outdated, or otherwise
problematic. I would have been happy to find solid support for a young universe (and I\u2019m still open
to persuasion), but I regularly found it to be shaky at best. The more I have studied the Scriptures
and the relevant, wide-ranging scientific data, the more reasonably I can conclude that (1) the
universe is billions of years old and (2) Scripture accords nicely with this evidence. The breath-
taking splendor of God\u2019s creation isn\u2019t diminished if the process took billions of years rather than
six 24-hour days. The heavens still declare God\u2019s glory.

I am firmly committed to Scripture\u2019s authority, but the difference between John MacArthur and me
is hermeneutical. One must distinguish between Scripture\u2019sauthority andour interpretations of
Scripture. As Francis Schaeffer (incidentally an old-earther) wrote, \u201cWe must not claim, on the one
hand, that science is unnecessary or meaningless, nor on the other hand, that the extensions [i.e.,
interpretations] we make from Scripture are absolutely accurate or that these extensions have the
same validity as the statements of Scripture itself.\u201di John Calvin astutely observed that students of
Scripture can make the Bible appear silly to the scientifically-minded by insisting on pressing
certain aspects of biblical language as literal. For example, Genesis 1:16\u2019sobservational language
refers to the sun and the moon as \u201cthe two great lights.\u201d Some of Calvin\u2019s contemporaries had
interpreted this to mean that the moon must be bigger than Saturn, which is false. However,
Calvin asserts that Moses simply addresses the common man\u2014without need for scientific
exactness (as with our use of \u201csunrise\u201d and \u201csunset\u201d).ii

The two \u201cbooks\u201d of God\u2019s self-revelation\u2014HisWord and Hisworld\u2014aren\u2019t ultimately contradictory.
On the one hand, Scripture should not be held hostage to certain scientists\u2019 pontifications (e.g.,
Christians across the centuries have held to creation out of nothing even when the empirical

2evidence wasn\u2019t as clear as it is today).iii On the other, scientific discoveries have at times

demanded that humans adjust theirinterpretations of Scripture (regarding the earth\u2019s
immovability, its being on foundations, its spatial centrality in the cosmos, etc.). Theologians and
scientists can learn from each other.

Clearly, Genesis 1-3is historical (e.g., Adam and Eve as the first couple who were tempted and
sinned: Lk. 3:38; Ac. 17:26; Rom. 5:12-19; 1Tim. 2:13-14; 1 Cor. 11:8-9; 15:21-2; 2 Cor. 11:3);
however, it has a number of non-literal/metaphorical elements as well (some evangelical exegetes
consider the early chapters of Genesis \u201cpoetical-historical\u201d). Thus we must not over-literalize
Genesis 1-3 given important theological/literary motifs: God\u2019s \u201cdividing,\u201d which foreshadows
priestly responsibilities in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:10; 11:46), metaphor (God \u201cbreathed\u201d and
\u201cwalked\u201d), poetic parallelism (1:27; 2:2), poetically arranged strophes with \u201cecho\u201d and \u201cre-echo
(\u201cGod said\u201d/\u201cand there was\u201d), etc.

Unfortunately, many young-earthers have accused old-earthers of not taking the biblical text
\u201cliterally\u201d (an often ill-defined, inconsistently-used term that fails to take genres and important
literary features into consideration)\u2014or of compromising with naturalistic evolutionists. But many
careful evangelical exegetes such as Gleason Archer, Craig Blomberg, Walter Kaiser, Craig Keener,
Derek Kidner, Kenneth Mathews, Vern Poythress, Bruce Waltke (to name a few) have observed
from the text itself that the word \u201cday [y\u00f4m]\u201d in Genesis 1-2 hardly entails a 24-hour time-period;
the text is more generous than this.

Furthermore, another view to consider is the \u201cliterary framework\u201d view, in which the author isn\u2019t
interested in a specific chronological or scientific account, but speaksliterarily/theologically,
underscoring thefact of God\u2019s creation.iv First, Godforms (days 1-3\u2014light separating from
darkness; water above and below separated; earth\u2019s vegetation) and thenfills His creation (days 4-
6: lights in the heavens, birds/fish, and animals/humans). At any rate, the biblical text does allow
for greater flexibility regarding the \u201cdays\u201d of Genesis. But before any such analysis, what is the
scientific support for an old universe?

The Antiquity of Universe

I won\u2019t expand much upon the evidences for an ancient earth/universe, which are abundant.v I
shall basically list them. There is (1) therate of the universe\u2019s expansion (red-shifting of spectral
light from stars) as well as (2)the rate of cooling from initially high temperatures, which support an
ancient universe. In addition, consider (3) therate of stellar burning and (4) thearrival of light

from distant galaxies.vi There is (5) the phenomenon of varves(two-toned sediment layers reflecting

annual change of seasons); these layers number in the millions\u2014and thus millions of years. Note
(6)the lengthy process of continental shifting (plate tectonics), in which land masses move
slowly\u2014about 2-5 centimeters per year. (There is an almost perfect jigsaw-puzzle fit between the
eastern coast of North America and the northwestern coast of Africa as well as eastern South
America with Western Africa; other land masses also fit together well.) This process\u2014which
includes the formation of mountains (e.g., the Himalayas) that were once on the ocean floor
embedded with layers of marine fossils\u2014takes many million years. (7) Coral reefs grow only a few
centimeters per year in the best of conditions\u2014again, a process that would take millions of years to
produce today\u2019s reefs. There have been (8) at leastfour major ice ages, often with intervening
subtropical conditions\u2014a process taking millions of years; this can be accounted for by the earth\u2019s
tilt that varies by a few degrees approximately every 41,000 years (and sometimes in combination
with the earth\u2019s changing from an elliptical orbit to a more circular one every 100,000 years or so).

3(9) Detecting radioactive decay through various corroborating or cross-checking methods supports

an ancient earth, not a young one. (10) Thefossil record indicates that animal death occurred
before human beings existed; with the fall,human death entered into the world. (Contrary to what
young-earthers claim, Rom. 5:12 simplydoesn\u2019t assert thatall death [e.g., plant death] came into
the world with Adam\u2019s sin.) What\u2019s more, Scripture indicates that the food chain wascreated by

God\u2014something young-earthers don\u2019t adequately address. God\u2019s original creation includes
carnivores (Job 38:39-41; 39:28-9; 41:1,10,14; Ps. 104:21,29). There\u2019s bothbeauty\u2014as well as
bloodiness\u2014in the world God made.vii
The Days of Genesis 1-2

Before arguing for a greater flexibility of interpretation regarding the word \u201cday\u201d in Genesis 1-2, I point out that even if one takes Genesis 1\u2019s days as 24-hour periods, one canstill believe in an ancient universe, including ice ages, animal death, and dinosaur extinction (e.g., Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer holds just such a view\u2014\u201ctextual creationism\u201d).viii

As for the meaning of \u201cday\u201d in Gen. 1, Beeson Divinity School\u2019s Kenneth Mathews correctly
observes: \u201cthere are many indications that \u2018day\u2019 in its customary sense may not be intended.\u201dix
Here are some: (1) Those who take a young-earth view typically claim that the ordinal (e.g.,
second, third) withy\u00f4m (day) isalways a literal 24-hour day. But thisisn\u2019t so. Take the restoration
passage of Hosea 6:2: \u201c[The LORD] will raise us up on thethird day\u201d\u2014a phrase identical to Gen
1:13; this case presents a clear exception. Interestingly, Luke 13:32 reads,x \u201cGo and tell [Herod],
\u2018Behold, I [Jesus] cast out demons and perform curestoday and tomorrow, and thethird [day] I
reach my goal.\u201d Clearly something other than a 24-hour day is in mind here (see also Ps. 90:4,
where human life is like a \u201cday [y\u00f4m]\u201d; 2 Pet. 3:8). (2) The phrase \u201cday one [y\u00f4m echad]\u201d in Gen.
1:5 is also found in Zech. 14:7, referring to \u201cthe day of the LORD\u201d\u2014clearly not a 24-hour day. (3)
Genesis 2:4 reads \u201cin theday [y\u00f4m] the LORD God made earth and heaven\u201d\u2014referring to theentire
act of creation. So within the text of Genesis 1-2 itself, we have clear indication that \u201cday\u201d can
mean more than 24 hours. (4) \u201cEvening\u201d is mentionedbefore \u201cmorning\u201d throughout Gen. 1; this
is an unusual rendering and suggests a sacramental and symbolic usage that points forward to
Israel\u2019s celebration of holy \u201cdays and months and years\u201d (Gen. 1:14; Sabbath and Passover began
theevening before). (5) If the sun was not made until thefourth day, as young-earthers claim, then
why think that the preceding days were 24-hours in length? (6) \u201cEvening\u201d/\u201cmorning\u201d isn\u2019t
mentioned on the seventh day, suggesting God\u2019s complete rest from this initial creation isstill
continuing to this day (cp. Heb. 4:4: \u201cGod rested on the seventh day from all His works\u201d)\u2014a very
long \u201cday\u201d of rest! If this final day can be more flexibly understood, then why can\u2019t the others? (7)
Some say that Exodus 20:9-11 (\u201cin six days the LORD made heaven and earth . . . and rested the
seventh day\u201d) demonstrates a literal 24-hour view of \u201cday\u201d in Gen. 1. However, the focus is on a
divine pattern being set for humans to follow, but this doesn\u2019t mean thatall comparisons are
equal. Consider 1 Jn. 3:16: Christ\u2019s (unique atoning) laying-down-of-life sets a pattern for our
(repeated, non-atoning) laying-down-of life for our brethren. Also, note that the fourth
commandment is repeated in Ex. 31:12-17, which adds that God \u201cwas refreshed\u201d\u2014whichisn\u2019t to
be taken literally (cp. Isa. 40:28). Why insist that \u201cday\u201d be taken as such? (8) The third day calls
for a lengthy process of plants to grow, produce seeds, and yield fruit (Gen. 1:11-12); a 24-hour
interpretation would require extremely rapid plant development, as in time-lapse photography in
which a seed grows to full flower in seconds! (9) The sixth day also requires more than 24-hours:
Adam names thousands of animals, gets acquainted with their mating habits, realizes he\u2019s alone,
etc., suggesting more than just 24 hours. And Adam\u2019s cry at Eve\u2019s arrival suggests significant
passage of time\u2014\u201cAt last! [happa`am]\u201d (2:23). Note the same phrase used at Leah\u2019s

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