Science and the Bible: The Framework View
Originally published July 31, 2012; revised mainly on the basis of helpful comments from readers, September 30, 2013
Although the Framework View has existed longer than a century and I’ve been familiar with the main idea since the mid-1980s, I didn’t know it even had a name until just a few years ago. The circumstances in which I learned it add some real-world flavor to a discussion that might already seem a bit too abstract for some readers, so I’ll tell you about it. I was in Manhattan, Kansas, for a few days, lecturing at Kansas State University, when I received an invitation to walk literally across the street and visit a class at Manhattan Christian College—a combination of words that may seem somewhat humorous, given that there is no Wall Street or Broadway anywhere in town. The students had on their desks copies of this book: The G3N3S1S Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation. According to the front cover, three views on origins were presented inside, with the final one being “The Framework View,” written by Lee Irons and the late Meredith Kline. Not recognizing the term, I asked if I could look at the book, whereupon I realized that something I’d been telling students about for many years actually had a name.
No Football Coaches
When I explain this position to students, I like to start with a little puzzle. Many years ago, after attending an academic conference in a major city, I was driving through the rural countryside some distance away, en route to an historic house that wasn’t well marked. As I got closer to where I thought I might start seeing some signs directing me to the house, I noticed a fair-sized hotel, restaurant, and bar off to one side of the road. What really caught my attention was a sign, prominently displayed at the start of the driveway, warning off a certain clientele: NO FOOTBALL COACHES, it said. Unfortunately I’d forgotten my camera, but this is pretty much what I saw.
When I show it in class, I ask the students to guess what this was all about: why such a sign outside of such a place? The stories they come up with are pretty good. My favorite involves two neighboring high schools, arch rivals, with the football coach at one having an affair with the wife of his opposite number, resulting in fist-fights in that bar every fall, when friends of one man or the other would go at each other in the bar, which was on the highway connecting the two school districts. After a few students have tried their luck to no avail, someone asks, where did this take place? Was it maybe in England, where football means soccer and coach means bus? Give that student an A, I say. It was England, on a highway running between York and Manchester. Now, who can fill in the blanks? Almost right away, a student will explain that soccer fans in England can be pretty rambunctious, and that a busload of them might not make the best impression on the rest of the clientele at a respectable country inn and pub. Thus, the manager would rather not have their business.
The take-away message, of course, is that there is always a context in which the meaning of a text is embedded. Unless you know something about the time and place in which a text is composed, you aren’t going understand what it actually says. The same is true for any part of the Bible, including the opening verses of Genesis. That’s the bottom line for the Framework View: if you don’t know anything about literature and culture in the Ancient Near East, you won’t understand what Genesis is really saying.
Core Tenets or Assumptions of the Framework View
(1) The “days” in Genesis have nothing to do with historical time; they are literary devices, employed by God in order to communicate the story of the creation in terms that we can understand.
This sounds like an example of the principle of accommodation, and it should. The activities of the six days of creation are arranged into a “framework” of two triads (days 1-3 and days 4-6), with parallel types of activities in each triad.
Thus, light is created on the first “day,” and on the fourth “day” God makes the Sun and Moon, the two great lights in the firmament that produce light and “rule over” the day and the night. The air and sea appear on the second “day,” and on the fifth “day” God fills them with birds and fish, etc. In other words, the order of events seems to be more logical than chronological. The key element is the fourth day: as we noted in our discussion of Concordism, the Sun was not made until the fourth day, yet it was expressly given the task of producing the day and the night and we’ve had “evening and morning” since the first day. What’s going on here? How can this be taken “literally”? Advocates of the Framework view see a solution in the parallel triads.
Another way to see this focuses on the second verse in the Bible, which reads (in the American Standard Version, a translation that follows the Hebrew closely), “And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” God is confronted by darkness, a watery abyss, and a formless earth—each of these features posing a problem for God, who deals with them in the subsequent six “days.” First, on “days” 1 to 3, God prepares the heavens and the Earth to be a home for the great creatures to come, by separating light from darkness, separating waters above the firmament from waters below the firmament, and causing the dry land to “appear” and to “put forth” vegetation. Then, on “days” 4 to 6, God makes the creatures and puts them in the places God has prepared—the Sun and Moon in the “firmament of heaven (day 4), birds in the air and fish in the seas (day 5), and finally “the beasts of the earth” and “man” on the land (day 6).
We emphasize that the Framework View is simply about the Bible, not about science. The Earth and the universe can be as “young” or “old” as anyone wishes to claim, because the literary form of early Genesis leaves this an open question. The “days” were probably meant to be understood “literally” as ordinary days, but only in the context of a literary form that was not meant to be understood literally, when taken as a whole.
What about the seventh “day”? Because it lacks a “morning” and an “evening” in the text (have you ever noticed this?), some authors interpret the seventh “day” as a prophetic reference to God’s own eternal rest, which has not yet begun and which we will share with God in the eschatological future. An OEC book I discussed in my column on Concordism, Robert Newman’s Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth (1977), advocates this interpretation (see pp. 65-66), and so do some advocates of the Framework View.
(2) When seen against the cultural and literary context of the Ancient Near East (ANE), it is clear that Genesis was written to combat the polytheism and pantheism of other creation stories. It was not written to provide a scientifically accurate account of the creation.
This is why the Sun and Moon are not even named on the fourth day: they were worshipped as divine beings by many people in the ANE, and the Hebrew author(s) of Genesis intentionally omit their names as an act of defiance against worshippers of those two false gods. (Remember: for the ancient Egyptians, the Sun was the chief god.) Furthermore, the stars are mentioned simply as an afterthought, at the end of verse 16: “And God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.” This was done deliberately, as a way of belittling the Babylonians and others who worshipped them. Indeed, the whole creation account stands in the face of polytheism, by affirming that the one true, invisible God has actually created all visible things, including the heavenly bodies. Nothing we see is divine: this is the essence of monotheism, stated bluntly and boldly.
(3) It is not possible to find a close match between what is proclaimed in Genesis—that God is the creator—and the details of natural history. We should not approach this text with inappropriate expectations.
For many readers, the crucial question awaits: according to the Framework View, is Genesis 1-3 historical in any meaningful sense? Here there is a division of the house, with authors falling into either of these two camps:
(1) Genesis 1-3 is an historical narrative (though not strictly chronological), not a creation myth. As Lee Irons and Meredith Kline emphasize in The G3N3S1S Debate, “The framework interpretation does not teach that creation was a nonhistorical event” (p. 220). The universe was actually created, Adam and Eve were the first humans, and the Fall was a real historical event. Some OECs like this approach, which can be seen as a looser type of Concordism than the day-age theory; Bernard Ramm’s “moderate concordism” might be understood as fitting into this category, even though he did not discuss the Framework View per se.
(2) Genesis 1-3 is not an historical narrative; tt resembles some other, older ANE creation stories. Conrad Hyers advances this view in his book, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science ; see below. Some aspects of the story reflect this: the days, the progression from chaos to order, and the creation of humans from mud or clay. These are common to other ANE stories, and they are present in Genesis because that’s what hearers in the ANE expected such stories to include. Other aspects of Genesis, however, are profoundly unlike other ANE stories: the transcendence of God and the de-deification of nature. These constitute the crucial, timeless, substantive message that God has revealed to us. Theistic evolutionists tend to like this non-historical approach, which is not usually seen as a kind of Concordism.
Antecedents to the Framework View are not difficult to find. As Victor Hamilton notes, “The parallel between the first three days and the last three was noted at least as early as the church father Augustine (City of God 11.6), and many writers have since drawn attention to it” (The Book of Genesis, p. 55). As I explained in an earlier column, Augustine taught that God created all things at once and told us about it in the pattern of six days, in order that we could understand it. The days themselves, however, were “unknowable” and not meant as a “literal” description of the passage of time.
In the 19th century, the German scholar J. H. Kurtz put forth an interpretation that Ramm later called the “pictorial day” view, which he considered to be a type of “Moderate Concordism,” the overall position that Ramm himself favored. Kurtz described the creation story as “prophetico-historical tableaux, [in] which are represented before the eye of the mind, scenes from the creative activity of God, each one of which represents some grand division of the great drama, some prominent phase of the development” (The Bible and Astronomy, 1861 Philadelphia edition, p. 110). His Scottish contemporary Hugh Miller, one of the most prolific and influential evangelical writers of his day, endorsed Kurtz’ interpretation, holding that “the form and nature of the revelation” in Genesis was “conveyed by a succession of sublime visions” (The Testimony of the Rocks, 1857 Boston edition, p. 180). Neither Kurtz, Miller, nor Ramm actually taught the Framework View, but their overall attitude toward interpreting the six days as literary devices was not much different.
The Framework View as I’ve presented it, with the “days” explicitly arranged in parallel “triads” characterized by different types of creative activity, has been around since at least 1862, when G. Rorison spoke of “the preliminary triad” and “the complementary triad” (Replies to “Essays and Reviews”, p. 248). In 1909, the great English scholar Samuel Rolles Driver divided the six days “into two sections of three days each; and the third and sixth days have each two works assigned to them. The first three days, moreover, are days of preparation, the next three are days of accomplishment” (The Book of Genesis, citing the 15th edition of 1948, p. 2). At the same time, at least one prominent conservative scholar, W. H. Griffith Thomas, took the same approach. The Framework View has a sizeable following among evangelicals today, especially in Reformed communities, mainly owing to the influence of Kline and the French theologian Henri Blocher.
An Assignment: It’s Your Turn to Read and Write
I’ve done most of the heavy lifting in this series, but now it’s your turn. As a way of getting into all three of the views we’ve studied thus far (not simply the Framework View), I’d like everyone to read an article by Conrad Hyers, “Dinosaur Religion: On Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Creation Texts,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 36 (September 1984): 142-48. The questions below are intended as helpful suggestions; feel free to discuss other matters as well!
1. What does Hyers mean by “dinosaur religion”?
2. What is Hyers’ most basic objection to “creation science,” the YEC view?
3. What does Hyers believe to be the true message of Genesis One?
4. Overall, do you agree with what Hyers says? Why or why not? Whether or not you agree, do you have any critical comments?
NOTE: Hyers wrote a sequel, “The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 36 (December 1984): 208-15, in which he employs an interpretive scheme highly similar to the Framework View, although that term is not used. I encourage you to read this also, but our discussion will focus on the first article.
In our next column on August 14, we begin a lengthy discussion of Theistic Evolution. Although that is the view advocated (under an alternative name) by BioLogos, I will approach it no differently. After explaining its central tenets, we’ll examine them critically and outline its history. Between now and then, I’m keen to see your responses to the assigned reading. If you gotten this far, you’re more than just a casual reader. Tell us what you think of Hyers’ ideas.
Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.