Vos on the Historicity and Interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2


In addition to the works of Herman Bavinck and several other prominent Dutch theologians at the end of the 19th Century, the historical development of various interpretations of Genesis 1-2 in the Reformed church, in many respects, finds its origin within the walls of Princeton Theological Seminary at the end of the 19th Century. This was due, in large part, to the accompanying advancements in scientific investigation and evolutionary theory being promoted by Professors of biology and geology at the University. When we read the writings of B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge et al, we find them wrestling with the relationship between science and Scripture–relating to the age of the world and the creation days of Genesis 1. What has not been explored in this discussion–to the best of my knowledge–is Geerhardus Vos’ exegetical considerations of the issues surrounding Genesis 1 and 2. As the father of modern Biblical-Theology, Vos was in no way inferior in theological rigor and scholarship to any of his colleagues at Princeton. With the partial translation of his Reformed Dogmaticswe now have a catechetical entry into the mind of a theological genius of almost unsurpassed greatness. In his chapter on Creation (ch. 6), Vos entered into a thorough exposition on the exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2. After setting out the three interpretive approaches of his day (i.e. allegorical, mythical and historical), Vos answers the following supremely important questions concerning the interpretation the first two chapters of Genesis (Note especially his answers to question 13, 17, and 27-32):

13. Can one who rejects the allegorical and mythical interpretations of Gen 1 and 2 also fall into error on the other side?

Yes, some want to give a hyper-scientific exegesis that satisfies the latest perception and newest fashion. All sorts of theories from physics, geology and astronomy have been projected onto the narrative. Some maintain that the theory of evolution in its entirety is contained in these chapters. This is perhaps apologetic zeal, but it is bad exegesis. Every interpretation of Gen 1 and 2 must be justified exegetically. That science has discovered this or that, or thinks to have discovered it, is not enough to cause us to discover it in Genesis. The creation narrative provides pure truth, but in such a general form that it can serve equally for the instruction of God‘s people in centuries past and His children at the present time. (The hyper-scientific interpretation loses sight of that.) That is precisely what makes the creation narrative such a great artistic achievement of the Spirit of God.

14. How is the first verse of Gen 1 to be interpreted?

“In the beginning” means “before all things.” Thus it does not refer back to subsequent deeds of creation but speaks of the absolute beginning of time.

Concerning the creating mentioned here there are two explanations:

a) It is the initial bringing forth of material out of nothing, thus the so-called immediate creating, while in the following verses mediate creation is described.

b) It is a heading prefaced to the creation account. That is, first it is reported to us in general that God created heaven and earth and first in what follows is that further explained to us. We accept the first explanation, because:

1. Otherwise any reference to the first act of creation would be lacking.

2. The Hebrew word בָּרָא appears precisely to indicate the immediate creation in its divine uniqueness (see Num 16:30). In the qal form it is never used of human creating. That the basic idea is “to cut” is certainly true and to such extent refers to material out of which something has been cut. But that only shows that human language is unsuited for expressing with complete accuracy divine actions such as the act of creation. God must reveal Himself to man, must speak human language. Here He has at least chosen a word that comes closest to the reality in view.

3. “Heaven and earth” is equivalent to the universe, for which Hebrew does not have any word.

15. What more is contained in the twofold expression, “heaven and earth”?

Simultaneously this expression already contains a division. The creation at its first beginning, when everything was still intermixed, already lay under the goal to be split into two great spheres of heaven and earth. God draws lines from the beginning on. Even the chaos is called “heaven” and “earth.”

16. What does the so-called Restitution hypothesis want to maintain?

Focusing on Genesis 1:2, this hypothesis teaches that there was an original earth before there was the creation or preparation that is described from v. 3 on. It therefore translates v. 2, “the earth became formless and empty,” or “the earth had become formless and empty.” (The first translation is that of Kurz and Zöckler.) The goal of this hypothesis is to harmonize Scripture with geology. The original earth became “formless and empty” by numbers of upheavals, before God prepared our earth. Against this view are the following considerations:

a) An undefined period of such earthly catastrophes is in conflict with God’s intention to make the earth a dwelling place for man (Isa 45:18). Such periods of emptiness are suitable only for a pantheistic development of the universe.

b) All the scientific objections are not solved by this hypothesis, in particular biological ones. Can there have been life on an earth without light?

c) [The Hebrew] tohu wabohu is a negative then positive expression, indicating what has yet to receive its form.

17. What has been done to remove the first objection?

The formlessness and emptiness of the earth is connected to the fall in the kingdom of the angels. But then men with their world become a kind of second experiment, after the failure of the experiment with the pure spirits. Scripture, however, nowhere presents matters in this way. Angels are obliging, etc.

18. How then do we interpret the second verse?

As the introduction to v. 3. It describes the state of the earth when God sent forth His first word of creation.

19. What is to be concluded from the fact that in v. 2 there is no further mention of heaven?

a) That the aim of the creation account is not astronomical but subordinate to the history of redemptive revelation.

b) That v. 1 cannot be a heading. If this were the case, then we would have to say that only half of the heading is treated.

20. What is said further concerning the chaos?

That it was a “roaring flood” or abyss (see Psa 106:9; Isa 63:13). From Psalm 104:6 it is clear that this expression must not be understood to refer to a muddy material, in which land and water are still thoroughly mixed together, but to a solid core of earth, flooded by water (see also 2 Pet 2:5).

21. Explain the words, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”?

The Spirit here is not a “wind from God,” sent out to dry what was created, for that is first spoken of in what follows. According to Psalm 33:6 it is the personal spirit, the third Person of the Trinity (see Psa 104:30). The word translated by “hovering,” רָחַף, is used elsewhere of a bird that hovers protectively over its young (Deut 32:11). Already in the first instance where the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Scripture His activity is portrayed for us in an image borrowed from the kingdom of the birds, just as He elsewhere appears as a dove. Here “hovering,” “brooding,” has in view the stirring of life within lifeless material. The brooding of birds brings out very aptly that life originates from outside by fructification. In the world there is at first no life. The Spirit of God must hover above the roaring flood, for its roaring is a dead noise. But the Spirit of God hovers on and above the waters. He does not mingle with them. Even where God‘s immanence comes to the fore, God and the world still remain unmixed.

22. What is the meaning of “And God said” (v. 3)?

a) One must compare these words with Psa 33:6 and with the teaching of the New Testament regarding the creative activity of the Logos, the uncreated Word (John 1:3; Eph 3:9; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2). That God speaks indicates that God‘s thought is going to form the chaos, that ideas are introduced concerning it. And that is precisely the particular work of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. As being is from the Father and life from the Spirit, so thought is from the Logos. Naturally this must be so understood that nevertheless the undivided ad extra [external] working of the three persons is maintained.

b) It can also include that God can call His works into being by a word of power, without exertion of effort.

c) It shows that the world is something outside God, something distinct from God. It appears at the word of God. And the word is accompanied by thought; the external logos presupposes the internal logos.

23. What is the first thing called into being by this speaking of God?

Light. This is prerequisite, not only for the appearance of living beings where it shines, but for all distinguishing and grouping. Light is the image of clarity, of thinking. Consequently, the works of the Logos begin with the creation of light. The same connection, the same sequence, between life and light that we meet here we find in the work of re-creation, where regeneration and calling follow each other, just as in creation we see the hovering of the Spirit and the word of power, “Let there be light!”

24. What is said about this light?

“God saw that it was good.” God thus recognizes it as a faithful image of His own light-nature, for He is a light and there is no darkness in Him. Its being good consists in its likeness to God. It was not said of the chaos that it was good, nor is that said of the darkness in vv. 4 and 5.

25. How does light appear here?

As not yet concentrated in bodies of light (“lights”). It is thus something distinguished from its bearers. The sun has light, but is not light. Only of God is it said that He is light. According to Job 38:19 there is a place of light and God asks Job if he knows the way to where light dwells (see also v. 12). The treasure of light of the Father of lights is thus much greater than we can conceive or can derive from sun and stars.

26. What is meant with the division between light and darkness (v. 4)?

The light must have its reverse if it is to become completely light. God’s naming “day” and “night” is naturally not to be understood as if God gave the two periods of time the Hebrew names יוֹמל and לָּיְלָהַ. God’s naming is something other. It is a naming that effects something from the outside, gives to things their specific, distinguishing character, makes them what they will continue to be. Augustine said: “All light is not day and all darkness is not night, but light and darkness following each other in regular order make day and night.” The naming of day and night means that therefore light and darkness now receive from God this rhythmic character by which they follow each other. And this physical rhythm, this natural contrast, without doubt reflects the series of spiritual contrasts there are between truth and lies, between good and evil, between beauty and ugliness.

27. How are we to understand, “And it was evening and it was morning, one day”?

It is not as if the first creation day began with evening, for a sufficient distinction would not be made between the preceding darkness and the night. It is probable that here the later, ordinary way of reckoning is not being followed (from evening to evening), but that the days run from morning to morning. The closing words of v. 5 then indicate successively the two halves of the first day. The first half closed with the evening, the second half with the morning.

28. Must the word “day” here be understood in the ordinary sense or in the sense of an indefinite period?

There has been much dispute about this point. Here, too, the decision must not be made dependent on geological considerations but on purely exegetical ones.

29. Is it right to say that the nonliteral interpretation is an innovation to which the development of modern science has driven theologians?

No, those who say that are mistaken. Augustine already said: “What kind of days they were is extremely difficult, or even impossible, for us to imagine, much less to say.”

30. To what is appeal made to support the nonliteral interpretation?

a) To the fact that sun and moon (or rather the rotation of the earth around its axis in relation to the sun) were not yet present. As we know, the length of an ordinary day is determined by this rotation.

b) To the indefinite use of the term “day” in other places in Scripture (Gen 2:4; 5:1; 2 Sam 21:12; Isa 11:16), also to the expression “day of the Lord” (= day of judgment) in the prophets, and to Psa 90:4; 2 Pet 3:8.

c) To the analogy with other things of God. Here we have to do with God’s days. Now the “things of God” are certainly archetypical (exemplars) for the things of men, but they are not completely identical. Thus we have no right, it is thought, to judge that God‘s days are like the days of men.

d) To the fact that the duration of God‘s Sabbath is eternal. That is one of the days here, the seventh day. If the seventh day is not limited to 24 hours, then the six previous days need not be limited to that time span.

On these grounds many, including those who are not intent on a reconciliation of the Scripture with science, accept an extraordinary length for the creation days. This includes many church fathers and theologians of the Middle Ages, and, among more recent theologians, even Charles Hodge inclines to this view.

31. What supports the interpretation that takes “day” in its ordinary meaning?

a) The entire creation aimed at man as its completion. It is difficult to accept that preparing for this goal took thousands of years.

b) All the creation days must have been of the same length. Who can accept, however, that a day on which nothing else occurred than the separation between light and darkness was a day of thousands of years?

c) The fact that the sun and moon, as measures of time, were not present, does not mean that there was no time. Already from the beginning God ordained a rhythm and created the light so that it would alternate with the darkness. When later this light was concentrated in the sun and the other bodies, we are told nothing about it being only then that the 24-hour day began. There was no change at that point. Therefore we have a reason for assuming that before that time the rotation of the earth took place at the same speed and that light was so positioned as was necessary for an alternation of day and night within 24 hours.

d) From v. 14 on the days are unquestionably ordinary days of 24 hours. There God says emphatically of the lights in the expanse that they will be “for days and years.” One might rescue the nonliteral view by assuming for the fourth to the sixth days an extremely slow rotation of the earth about its axis, but what about plant life during those long nights? The night has to have been half of the full day.

e) It is not accurate to say that the days are God‘s days. God ad intra does not have days. Creation is an act proceeding outwardly from God. Appealing to the eternal Sabbath is also of no avail. Although God’s Sabbath is certainly endless, that cannot be said of the first Sabbath (after the six-day creation) for mankind.

f) The use of the term “day” in Gen 9:4 is figurative, but in Gen 1 figurative language is not used. What one must show is another place in Scripture where a first, a second, a third day, etc., are just as sharply separated and nevertheless describe periods of time. The “day of the Lord” in the prophets refers to a specific day, that is, a day on which the Lord appears for judgment, even though His judgment may last longer than one day.

32. Must someone who holds that the days are long time periods be regarded a heretic?

No, in this sense the question is not an essential one. It would only become so if it provided the occasion for granting priority in principle over the Word of God to the so-called results of science.

3 Responses

  1. Steve

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the synopsis of Vos’s views on Genesis and the creation. For those who are interested in such matters, I would refer you to the work of Dr. Gerald Schroeder. Dr. Schroeder, Ph.D. M.I.T., Physics, is a devout Jew who has written and thought widely on Genesis and how it can be interpreted -literally- in the light of the Big Bang and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

    Dr. Schroeder, who has lived in Israel since 1971, has some fascinating theories regarding the subject of creation and God. I strongly recommend at least checking him out -he’s everywhere. Anthony Flew, the famous atheist, thought enough of his insights to give him some credit for his becoming a deist.

    I certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t comment on Vos but we are now living in a brave new world where true science will once again be used to illuminate the glories of God’s creation. The advances in physics and biology are immensely exciting and are faith-affirming. Christians, all believers, no longer have to fear science and the best is yet to come. I can easily see a day when science will be used to glorify God. There are just too many aspects of these wondrous developments to begin to discuss here but Dr. Schroeder’s work is a faith-building introduction.

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