Science and the Bible: Concordism, Part 3

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

In my last two posts, I explained and analyzed Concordism. We conclude today with a short history of Concordism.

Frontispiece to Robert Bakewell's An Introduction to Geology (New Haven, 1839). Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

Historical Comments

Prior to the 18th Century, the six “days” of creation were often—not always, but more often than not—interpreted literally as ordinary days in succession. During the Reformation and the 17th century, the literal view received very strong support. Allegorical readings that had been viable alternatives in earlier centuries became increasingly unpopular among both Protestant and Catholic scholars. Thus, according to the famous wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was drawn up in 1646, the whole period of creation took place “in the space of six days,” a phrase that even today is very influential on conservative Presbyterian approaches to origins. This language was grounded in the interpretation provided almost a century earlier by the greatest theologian of the 16thcentury, John Calvin. In his Commentary on Genesis, originally published in Latin in 1554, Calvin said (concerning Genesis 1:5),

Here the error of those is manifestly refuted, who maintain that the world was made in a moment. For it is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men… [God] distributed the creation of the world into successive portions, that he might fix our attention, and compel us, as if he had laid his hand upon us, to pause and to reflect. For the confirmation of the gloss above alluded to [see the first sentence], a passage from Ecclesiasticus is unskilfully cited, ‘He who liveth for ever created all things at once,’ for the Greek adverb κοιν which the writer uses, means no such thing, nor does it refer to time, but to all things universally.

In this pithy paragraph, Calvin juxtaposed the two main alternatives available to pre-modern interpreters of Genesis. The option Calvin defended, the literal creation week, was strongly favored by the early reformers and rooted in the earliest Christian commentaries. The option he rejected, in which all things were created instantaneously (sometimes based on Ecclesiasticus 18:1, as Calvin indicated with evident disagreement), fell out of favor in early modern times, but it, too, was rooted in the earliest Christian commentaries—to say nothing of the great Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus. For example, around 200 AD Clement of Alexandria asked, “And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist?” For Clement, everything was “created together in thought,” and since “all things [were] originated together from one essence by one power,” the six days could not be taken literally. (Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 16)

The instantaneous view was advanced especially by the most important Western theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who wrote a work (in multiple versions) called On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (ca. 391). Influenced by Ecclesiasticus 18:1, he taught that in the beginning God made matter and all material things simultaneously. “Those who cannot understand the meaning of the text, He created all things together, cannot arrive at the meaning of Scripture unless the narrative proceeds slowly step by step.” Some things were created to unfold in time, growing from “seeds” placed in the creation by God, but they were all part of the original conception that was brought into material existence in a single creative event. However, to aid our poor understanding, God told us about it in the pattern of six days. Augustine called the creation days “dies ineffables” (unknowable days), so majestic and profound that we cannot think of them in merely human terms as ordinary days. They indicate logical order, not temporal order, and must be interpreted subtly.

Regardless of which interpretation they favored, commentators have acknowledged a puzzling feature of the biblical text: the Sun is not “made” until the fourth day, yet the Sun is expressly given the task of producing the “day” and the “night” and there have been “evening and morning” since the first day. How can this be? Were the first three days unlike the next three days in some way? As we will see in my next column, the fourth day is crucial to the Framework view, but the questions addressed by that modern view are not modern at all.

Some Observations about Pre-modern Interpretations

Augustine’s view was not identical to any of the modern views I am presenting (Concordism, Framework, and Theistic Evolution), but it resonates in places with each of them, and therefore is often seen as a precursor of such views. Although such comparisons are not without value, we must keep in mind that neither Augustine nor any other early commentator imagined an “old” earth. Before the late 1700s, it was generally assumed that the entire pre-human world was (at most) only a few days older than humans. There was hardly any scientificevidence bearing on the age of humanity, the Earth, or the universe. People interpreted Genesis on its own, without knowledge of modern geology or modern astronomy or Ancient Near East literature. Peter Enns underscores the significance of this in his splendid book, The Evolution of Adam.

Given the pre-modern understanding, the question naturally arises: how old is the Earth, according to the Bible? Because the Bible contains detailed genealogical information about the descendants of Adam & Eve, it’s possible to estimate the date of creation. Several specific dates have been endorsed, all clustering around 6000 years. The traditional Jewish date (since the 12th century) for the creation of the world is either 29 March or 22 September 3761 BC. This reflects an assumption, accepted also by many Christian scholars: God would have placed Adam & Eve into the garden either in the spring or at the harvest, so that food would be abundant. The Byzantine date, based on the Septuagint (in which some of the genealogies are different from the Hebrew version), is 1 September 5509 BC. Martin Luther calculated 3960 BC. By far the most famous date among English-speaking Protestants, however, is the one given by James Ussher, a truly erudite scholar who did things very carefully. He arrived at 4004 BC after a very long and complex chain of reasoning, partly on the basis of the genealogies, partly by comparing the Bible with other ancient chronologies, partly because he knew that Jesus was born no later than 4 BC (in 1583, Joseph Scaliger established that Herod had died in that year), and partly because he liked a version of the traditional “world-week” interpretation of the six days, according to which each “day” of creation represents one thousand years of historical time and there were exactly four thousand years from Adam to Christ.

The literal creation week and the instantaneous creation were the two major alternatives for most of Christian history, but more than a few commentators took intermediate positions that I ignore here. I cannot adequately convey the subtlety and diversity of this grand conversation, stretching nearly 2,000 years, in 2,000 words. Those who want to dig deeper are urged to consult the references at the end.

The Discovery of Deep Time

Concordism in general is as old as references to the “book of nature” as a valid source of truth, supplementing the Bible. These go back at least to the Middle Ages and were very common by the 17th century, when Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and many others acknowledged multiple sources of truth, using the same terminology. Concordism in natural history, however, began in the late eighteenth century, in response to the growing sense that the Earth was vastly older than humanity. Martin Rudwick has written extensively about what he calls “the discovery of deep time,” his term for the idea illustrated in an engraving of Niagara Falls, showing how the gorge was produced by erosion over time, that helped introduce American readers to an ancient Earth in the 1830s. Concordism in natural history is all about reading Genesis in parallel with geology, in order to get a single, consistent picture. The rest of this column outlines key aspects of concordism in America since the 1830s.

Benjamin Silliman (1825), by John Trumbull. Oil on wood panel, 19 ¼” x 15 ¾” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Alice Silliman Hawkes

I introduced readers to Benjamin Silliman in the first part of this column. An outspoken concordist, Silliman explicitly endorsed Galileo’s approach to the Bible and Copernican astronomy. Applying it to natural history, he spoke of the “consistency” of geology with “sacred history.” Mapping geological evidence onto the six “days” of creation, which he interpreted as long periods of time, Silliman noted that the absence (at that time) of fossil humans indicated that “man” appeared only at the end of the geological process—fully consistent with Genesis.

From Sillman’s “Appendix” to Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology (1839). Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.


Silliman’s student, geologist Edward Hitchcock, was also a concordist. Briefly a Congregational minister, he became professor of geology and natural theology at Amherst College, where he also served nine years as president. His textbook, Elementary Geology (1840), the first to be written by an American geologist, contained a lengthy section devoted to biblical and theological issues that still makes fascinating reading today. Hitchcock preferred the “gap theory” over Silliman’s “day-age” view, because he thought it was a more literal translation, but he was careful to offer alternative interpretations and did not push his own view dogmatically.

A crucial theological issue discussed in Hitchcock’s book is what he, himself, called “death before the fall,” which he took as an incontestable fact of natural history. “Not only geology, but zoology and comparative anatomy, teach us that death among the inferior animals did not result from the fall of man, but from the original constitution given them by their Creator. One large class of animals, the carnivores, have organs expressly intended for destroying other classes for food.” Even herbivores “must have destroyed a multitude of insects, of which several species inhabit almost every species of plant,” not to mention the destruction of “millions of animalcula [microscopic organisms], which abound in many of the fluids which animals drink, and even in the air which they breathe… In short, death could not be excluded from the world, without an entire change in the constitution and course of nature; and such a change we have no reason to suppose, from the Mosaic account [Genesis], took place when man fell.”

Indeed, Hitchcock argued, on biblical grounds alone, apart from geology, one might have to allow animal death before the fall. Romans 5:12 (“Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men...”) explicitly limits the scope of death to humanity: death passed upon all men. And, unless Adam himself had seen death, how could the threat of death for disobedience have real force? At the same time, Hitchcock still accepted the traditional link between animal death and human sin. But, he also accepted the fact of animal death before the fall. To put these two truths together, he appealed to his Calvinist theological convictions: God had foreseen the fall and planned accordingly, creating a world in which animal death preceded the fall chronologically, but not theologically—if God in his foreknowledge had known that Adam & Eve would not sin, the creation would have been different.

Hitchcock’s way of reconciling sin and death with an old Earth was not very influential, but from his day forward most conservative Protestant writers accepted an ancient earth and animal death before the fall. However, William Dembski has revived Hitchcock’s theodicy (and explicitly credits it to Hitchcock) in his recent book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009). I said quite a bit about this in part two, so here I simply note the historical continuity and invite readers—especially fans of Dembski—to peruse the selection from Hitchcock linked above.

Concordism received a powerful boost in the mid-20th century, when Bernard Ramm published The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954), which I have already introduced to readers. It was partly to counter Ramm’s considerable influence that Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb, Jr., wrote The Genesis Flood (1961). One measure of the ongoing importance of Concordism is the fact that Scientific Creationism arose partly in response to it, and YEC leaders continue to devote significant energy to combatting contemporary advocates of Concordism, especially Hugh Ross. Theologian and ethicist John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell Seminary (not related to me) offers a different style of Concordism in his book, The Frontiers of Science & Faith (2002). The title of one of his chapters shows the continued relevance of Ramm: “Is ‘Progressive Creation’ Still a Helpful Concept? Reflections on Creation, Evolution & Bernard Ramm’s Christian View of Science and Scripture.” Davis originally published that material in the ASA’s journal, so it’s available on their website. If you get a chance to read it, please let me know what you think. Thus, Concordism remains a viable option for evangelicals today.

Looking ahead

My next column, on Tuesday, July 31, lays out the Framework View. Since it’s such a modern position, there will be less to say about it: don’t let the amount of coverage lead you to think that it’s less important than the other views. It’s not!


References & Credits

As I’ve said before, most of the best material about Christianity and science is available only in print. If your interest in this topic is keen, the need to visit a library will not hold you back!

James Barr, “Why the World Was Created in 4004 BC: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 67 (1984-85): 575-608.

Andrew James Brown, A History of the Christian Interpretation of the Days of Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3: From the Apostolic Fathers to Essays and Reviews (1860). PhD Thesis, The University of Queensland, 2010. [There is no substitute for this very detailed account, but unfortunately it is very hard to obtain. A much shorter work by the same author is readily available here.

Edward B. Davis, “The Word and the Works: Concordism and American Evangelicals.” In Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith Miller (Eerdmans, 2003), 38-60.

Edward B. Davis, “Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science.” In The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, ed. J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), 48-60.

William A. Wallace, Appendix 7 in William A. Wallace, ed., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Volume 10, Cosmogony: 1a. 65-74 (Cambridge University Press, 1967).

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.