Keen insights into Genesis 1–3 flawed by analogical days approach
A review of Interpreting Eden: A guide to faithfully reading and understanding Genesis 1–3 by Vern S. Poythress
Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2019
Vern Poythress is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary and author of many books and articles on topics related to science and the Bible. His latest work, Interpreting Eden, offers guidance on how to properly interpret Genesis 1–3, and has a foreword by D.A. Carson. The book presents quite a juxtaposition of praiseworthy and problematic arguments. It contains a good number of thorough analyses and correct conclusions that biblical (young-earth) creationists should ﬁnd very helpful. At the same time, a signiﬁcant portion of Interpreting Eden is devoted to unsound reasoning against 24-hour creation days and in favour of the mistaken analogical days view. This review will highlight what Poythress gets right and respond to what I believe he gets wrong.
Continuity with previous work
First, an aside. For those who have followed Poythress’s work carefully, there is not much new here. Many of the themes of this present work were formerly discussed in his 2006 book, Redeeming Science,1 which was reviewed in this journal.2 Although Interpreting Eden does develop and elaborate on these topics, most of the chapters are slightly modiﬁed versions of nine articles that Poythress had previously published in the Westminster Theological Journal (p. 16). Regardless, it is convenient to have all this material in one place and organized into a coherent whole.
Areas of agreement
Except for a few qualiﬁcations and quibbles sprinkled here and there, creationists can largely agree with the material Poythress presents in parts 1 and 2, as well as his four appendices. Poythress supplies a summary at the end of part 1 (in chapter 7) of 15 hermeneutical principles for interpreting Genesis, all of which are either correct or only in need of slight modiﬁcation. It is only in his last section, part 3, where more serious concerns arise, so these will be addressed below.
Here are some particulars Poythress gets right. He afﬁrms inerrancy (chap. 3), and he takes several professing evangelicals to task for interpreting Genesis in a way that undermines biblical authority—including Peter Enns,3 Paul Seely and John Walton (chaps 4 and 9), and Kenton Sparks, including his misrepresentation of Calvin (Appendix C). He critiques their theologically liberal ideas that (1) God ‘accommodated’ by allowing scientiﬁc errors in the text (Appendix B), and that (2) the ancients—including the author(s) of Genesis—had faulty views of science which they incorporated into their writings, such as a belief that the sky consisted of a solid dome which held back a heavenly ocean (ﬁgure 1). Poythress’s critiques are spot on, and I recommend creationists familiarize themselves with his arguments, since the myths which he demolishes are extremely pervasive in the literature of theistic evolutionists and in academia generally.
Poythress also afﬁrms that the Bible has primacy over science (chap. 4). He says that scientiﬁc evidence may prompt us to rethink our interpretation of Scripture, but only if this change can truly be derived from considerations of Scripture alone, apart from science. Scientiﬁc claims are not to be used as trump cards over Scripture, Poythress insists (pp. 58–60).
In addition, Poythress takes Genesis to be a true, historical account (p. 124), stating that the genre of its overall structure is prose narrative (p. 119). He regards Adam not just as an historical ﬁgure, but also as the ﬁrst man, not having descended from apes, but who was uniquely created by God from dust (pp. 191–194).
Positions creationists should consider
In a few areas, Poythress delves into topics about which we biblical creationists differ among ourselves. Regarding most of these, my own opinion is that Poythress’s arguments are solid and his interpretations are correct. He is to be commended for laying out a clear case and interweaving numerous lines of evidence to support his conclusions. Three examples follow.
Genesis 1:1 as the ﬁrst event
First, Poythress maintains that Genesis 1:1 is the initial event of creation, not a summary statement to describe all of Creation Week (p. 145). In Appendix A, he carefully and convincingly dismantles the arguments in favour of the summary view given by Bruce Waltke, and he offers positive reasons to afﬁrm the initiation view instead.
Next, Poythress defends the position that Genesis describes natural phenomena from the perspective of ordinary observers, and is not ‘theorizing’ about more technical modern scientiﬁc concerns. Quoting from Bernard Ramm, he says that “the language of the Bible is non-postulational with reference to natural things” (p. 74). This means that, when Genesis 1 describes the moon as the “lesser” of the “two great lights”, for example, it makes no commitment to whether the moon generates its own light as opposed to reﬂecting it, and it makes no commitment to the moon’s absolute size in comparison to other heavenly lights. All the description means is that, for ordinary observers, the moon is the second brightest light in the sky, after the sun.
Similarly, Poythress says that the Bible often portrays the cosmos as a house or tent, but this is meant to be colourful imagery, not a physicalistic theory (pp. 87, 137–139). It would be a mistake, therefore, to see references to God’s stretching out the heavens “like a tent” as allusions to the modern cosmological concept of the expansion of space. More likely, it is a poetic way of highlighting the fact that God created the sky overhead, which is visibly expansive in its extent from one horizon to another—much like a tent stretched overhead.
More examples could be presented, but these few should sufﬁce to illustrate the principle, which can help to correct mistaken interpretations by both liberal and conservative exegetes. The Bible does not promote a faulty scientiﬁc cosmology, but neither does it contain much, if any, advanced scientiﬁc revelation—as opposed to making true statements about the observable natural order, including how and when God brought that order into being. One might argue about whether this principle has any exceptions, but I am convinced it is at least true in the main.
The waters above
Last, Poythress applies the aforementioned principle to Genesis 1:6–8 (Day 2 of Creation Week), and concludes that the mention there of water above the expanse refers to clouds, plus any other invisible water vapour in the sky that contributes to precipitation. He devotes chapter 9 to a defense of this position and a critique of the ‘heavenly sea supported by a solid sky’ view.
Here too, although some creationists may disagree with his conclusions, Poythress’s excellent reasoning should be thoughtfully considered. Among his several points are the following. First, the language in Genesis 1 is phenomenal with some ﬂexibility built into the term ‘heaven’. Second, the Israelites and their ancient Near Eastern neighbours understood that rain and dew came from clouds. Third, the Bible often equates the heavens with clouds as the source of rain, using parallelism and other literary devices. Fourth, Genesis speaks of things that were relevant to ordinary Israelites—which is true of clouds but would not be true of a distant heavenly sea. I would add that the same criticism could be made of alternative creationist proposals, including the icy shell-aggregate models of Hartnett (at the edge of the solar system)4 and Humphreys (around the universe as a whole).5
Areas of disagreement
Given his careful reasoning throughout much of this book, it is unfortunate that Poythress promotes the analogical days approach to Genesis 1. His case falters in the following four areas.
The standard for measuring a day
Poythress tries to maintain that there is a difﬁculty in deﬁning the length of the creation days, since whatever standard one might select to deﬁne it, he says, cannot be extended back to Creation Week. Why not? Readers should prepare for some convoluted reasoning.
First, Poythress says, it would be circular to deﬁne a day as 24 hours, and then deﬁne an hour as 1/24 of a day. It would indeed. But terms are deﬁned by common usage, and nobody takes the term ‘hour’ to mean 1/24 of just any arbitrary deﬁnition of the term ‘day’. Rather, we experience the passing of time; ‘hour’ and ‘day’ are designated as particular lengths we commonly experience. This is no tautology.
But Poythress anticipates the response that the language in Genesis implies that the days are the same length as the solar days we now experience. In reply, he claims that this response treats the sun’s apparent circuit through the sky as the standard for the length of a day. Yet he says this cannot be the case for the ﬁrst three days of creation, since the sun was not there until the fourth day. Further, he insists, even the appeal to ‘length’ assumes a standard for measurement, and this standard “must already be in place during the ﬁrst three days, not merely afterward” (p. 218).
This is clearly mistaken. Consider an analogy. If a modern story were to be written about Day 3 of Creation Week, and in it some of the trees God created were described as over 100 feet tall, will those familiar with American units comprehend the author’s meaning? Of course they will, even though the basis of the unit—a human foot—didn’t appear until Day 6, and the more precise standardization of that length and its division into 12 inches came later still. (If someone professed not to know whether these ‘feet’ mentioned on Day 3 were approximately 12 inches or instead miles long because of an absence of a standard for ‘feet’, we would accuse such a person of being obtuse.)
In the same way, the readers of Genesis may know the length of a day even when it is used to describe a time when the source of its length was absent. Strangely, Poythress himself comes near to acknowledging this when he points out that the Bible describes the amount of time Joshua had to defeat his enemies at Gibeon as “about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13). According to Poythress’s own interpretation, the sun was motionless (ﬁgure 2) in the sky during that time (p. 245), yet the term ‘day’ remains intelligible. Its meaning as a unit of time can be distinguished from, and should not be rigidly equated with, the source of that deﬁnition (whether the source is the apparent motion of the sun, the light/dark cycle, or the length of a typical human workday).6
Moreover, if it is comprehensible to refer to the elapse of a day’s time even when the light/dark cycle has been paused, how much more does it make sense when the light/dark cycle is present? This is what we have in Genesis 1. So, even if, for argument’s sake, we grant Poythress’s overly stringent criterion that the standard for deﬁning a day must be present on each day, why could not the light/dark cycle serve as the standard? Poythress answers that without the sun, we cannot know how long those cycles took. After all, he points out, throughout Creation Week there were transitions in God’s activity from His initial, special work of creation to His ongoing work of providence. So it follows we cannot assume God operated by the same rules both while creation was taking place and afterward.
But if that’s where Poythress wishes to take the argument, employing the sun to serve as the standard will not tell us how long the creation days were either, as he later admits (p. 249). That is, if the cycle of day and night during Creation Week might not correspond in length to what we recognize as day and night today, for all we know the sun might have proceeded at a different rate as well. By this line of reasoning, we could not be certain what any of the words mean in Genesis 1, as we would have no standard by which we could compare those terms with things that go by their identical names today. Obviously, this presents a major problem. The words in Genesis 1, including ‘day’, must retain their meanings or else it would be impossible for us to understand God’s inspired communication to us about His creative acts.
‘Day’ as an indeﬁnite cycle of personal activity
Poythress next advances his own view, that the days in Genesis 1 represent cycles of personal activity (such as work/rest for the ﬁrst six days) or inactivity (such as God’s rest on the seventh day), rather than deﬁnite units of elapsed ‘clock’ time.7 He says, “The six days may be interpreted as God’s ‘workdays,’ the times of his personal activity” (p. 266), and he insists that “Genesis 1 does not specify the length of each day, as measured by a modern technological timekeeper” (p. 250). Furthermore, he claims that even the period between ‘evening’ and ‘morning’—mentioned at the close of each creation day—refers only to a temporary hiatus from personal work as opposed to a particular length of time as might be measured by a clock (p. 267).
However, here Poythress ought to apply his own distinction between the meaning of a word and its referent (p. 301 ff.; similar to the ‘sense’ and ‘reference’ distinction proposed in 1892 by logician Gottlob Frege). The term ‘day’ commonly does refer to a period of work and rest, because God designed human beings to operate according to such rhythms—labouring in the daytime and sleeping at night. The 24-hour days in our common experience unavoidably include some combination of personal activity and inactivity. But the meaning of the term ‘day’ is deﬁned by usage and context, and Poythress does not offer any exegesis to show that in Genesis 1 the term ‘day’ inherently carries the meaning of a rhythm of personal activity with no ﬁxed length. Nor does Poythress show that ‘evening’ means an indeterminate period of time in which work ceases, or that ‘morning’ means an indeterminate time period in which work resumes.
In fact, Poythress has not demonstrated that the Hebrew terms for ‘day’, ‘evening’, or ‘morning’ are ever used to mean such things. Poythress is actually proposing new deﬁnitions for these words, but his whole case depends on an erroneous assertion that ‘day’ cannot mean a deﬁnite unit of time unless the standard for its measurement is present during the period to which the term is applied. As already shown above, this is not so. Rather, the context clues in Genesis demand that the creation days mean the time it regularly takes for one complete cycle of light (daytime) and dark (nighttime). Thus, they refer to time periods of 24 hours.
Order of events
Another area where Poythress drops the ball is in his discussion of the order of events in Creation Week. On the positive side, unlike proponents of the Framework Hypothesis, Poythress does admit that the Genesis 1 sequence is presented “basically in chronological order” (p. 271). But he fudges with the word ‘basically’, and this tactic opens the door for him to arbitrarily rearrange things in an attempt to create a match between the Bible and deep time. He appeals to a paper by Bruce Waltke to suggest there may be some “shufﬂing of chronology”, although he is not dogmatic on this point and confesses that the evidence for it is ‘subtle’ (p. 270).
Unfortunately, though, Poythress goes on to offer a proposed harmony between the creation account and what he calls the ‘scientiﬁc’ (actually, evolutionary) account, in which he cherry picks points of agreement and glosses over the glaring contradictions (pp. 273–274). What are we to do with the fact that Genesis places fruit trees before ﬁsh, for example, when old-earth scientists tell us differently? No problem, Poythress says, quoting Derek Kidner, the trees simply “anticipate their chronological place in order to be classiﬁed with vegetation” (p. 271). But if Poythress is allowed to invoke topical rearrangements like this without the slightest exegetical grounds for adjusting any particular item, his position becomes unfalsiﬁable. An honest reading, however, in keeping with the way the New Testament authors interpreted Genesis, shows many blatant inconsistencies between Genesis and deep time.8
Problems brushed aside
Finally, there are a number of exegetical problems with Poythress’s old-earth, analogical days approach, which he either ignores or brushes aside too quickly. For instance, Poythress does not interact with the New Testament material which takes human history to be co-extensive with natural history—a position fatal to all old-earth views.9 Also, the problem that all old-earth views face in placing human death, animal death, and carnivory prior to the Fall is only addressed in a single footnote (p. 159). There, Poythress simply asserts that the Bible does not preclude animal predation or death before the Fall, and he says that human death alone began after Adam sinned. He does cite a couple of verses and list a few references for more information, but creationists have already extensively refuted the weak sorts of arguments noted as his proofs. Not only is Poythress wrong about animal death, he fails to appreciate that his position on human death alone is inconsistent with his old-earth perspective.10
There are still other interpretive problems that Poythress does not discuss in this book, such as the incompatibility between deep time and the global catastrophe of Noah’s Flood. In a previous book, Poythress took the position that the Flood was a local event, and he explained away the Bible’s description of ﬂoodwater prevailing above the mountains by 15 cubits (Genesis 7:20) as snow piling up on mountain peaks.11 This is clearly not what the author of Genesis intended, considering all the references in the account to rain, water rising and subsiding, mountain peaks appearing as the waters abated, and so on. Also, when the judgment was over, God promised Noah that He would never again send so great a Flood to destroy the earth, while He said not a word about safety from a second great blizzard.
Despite the serious missteps in this book regarding the creation days and the age of the world, Interpreting Eden does deserve attention. Poythress is a useful ally to biblical creationists in many respects and he has a number of insights that creationists would do well to embrace. But Poythress himself would do better to abandon all the contrivances of his analogical days approach and instead come to embrace biblical creation.
References and notes
- Poythress, V.S., Redeeming Science: A God-centered approach, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2006. Return to text.
- Murata, M., God-centred or man-centred? J. Creation 23(1):23–24, 2009. Return to text.
- See footnote on p. 69. Return to text.
- Hartnett, J., The ‘waters above’, J. Creation 20(1):93–98, April 2006. Return to text.
- Humphreys, D.R., New time dilation helps creation cosmology, J. Creation 22(3):84–92, December 2008. Return to text.
- Poythress claims that the standard for the term ‘day’ in Joshua 10:13 is not a solar day, but the ‘experiential’ passage of time. He says it refers to “about a whole day’s worth of human activities” (p. 245). But what does he mean by “a whole day’s worth”? Clearly, this does not mean ‘as long as the human activity lasted’, or it would be tautologous. Rather, it must refer to a ﬁxed unit of time, perhaps the length of time humans are commonly occupied with work during the daylight hours (8 hours?), or the amount of time the sun is ordinarily up (12 hours?), or the time during which humans are typically awake (16 hours?), or even the full 24-hour cycle. In any of these cases, though, Joshua’s ‘whole day’ means a deﬁnite amount of time which could be converted to other units, like hours, and it clearly refers to a time period that is around 24 hours or less. So this is of no help to Poythress’s claim that the creation days are ambiguous in terms of ‘clock’ length. The sun stood still for a particular amount of clock time, and the context of Genesis 1 likewise demands that the creation days are speciﬁc periods of approximately 24 hours, not open-ended periods of personal activity. Return to text.
- Poythress takes the seventh day to be everlasting (p. 265), but refers readers to his earlier book, Redeeming Science (ref. 1), for the argumentation. His reasoning there is spurious and has been answered elsewhere. See, for example, Is the seventh day an eternal day? Creation 21(3):44–45, June 1999. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Evolution/long ages contradicts Genesis order of creation, Creation 37(3):52–54, July 2015. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Jesus on the age of the earth, Creation 34(2):51–54, April 2012. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Why would a loving God allow death and suffering? creation.com/death. Return to text.
- Poythress, ref. 1, p. 129. Return to text.