W. Robert Godfrey. P&R Publishing 2003, 141 pp. ISBN 0-87552-799-X (pbk).
Dr. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in California, has written a short book advocating a figurative interpretation of the days of Genesis 1. He writes “… this study is written to communicate not primarily with scholars or ministers but with thoughtful Christian church members” (p. 16). In accordance with his intended readership, the book is readily understandable and easy to read.
A Covenantal Perspective
The author begins by asserting that “We cannot understand Genesis 1 until we see it covenantally” (p. 16). The covenant he has in mind here, however, is not God’s relationship to His creation in general, but rather “the divinely established relationship between humanity and God” (p. 16), and even more narrowly, God’s relationship with His covenantal people.
“Although all the Bible is true,” Godfrey writes, “the Bible never provides random or abstract tidbits of knowledge. It is not an encyclopedia but a covenantal record, always focused on God and his relationship to his people” (p. 17). Godfrey describes a primary purpose of Genesis as providing the people of Israel with the historical background to God’s covenant with them at Sinai.
The first chapter, which “stands outside the structure of the ten generations” under which the rest of Genesis is organized, is viewed as “the introduction to the introduction, the historical background to the historical background. If Genesis is the introduction to Exodus, Genesis 1 is the introduction to Genesis” (p. 20).
This particular “covenantal perspective” is an emphasis that is presumed to predominate in the biblical author’s intent. This is true not only in the Pentateuch, nor just in the book of Genesis taken as a whole, but also throughout the first chapter of Genesis. Godfrey concludes that “Covenant” predominates Genesis 1 to such an extent that exegetical conclusions deemed as not falling within this narrow “covenantal” focus are considered erroneous or doubtful.
Viewing Genesis 1 from this perspective, Dr. Godfrey in succeeding chapters considers “The First Three Days of Creation,” “The Final Four Days of Creation,” and “The Message of Genesis 1.”
On Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God …”) the author remarks that the fact that God is not introduced or explained in this text “reminds us that Genesis is not written as a history book for uninformed, worldwide readers but is part of the covenant history written for a covenant people who already knew their God” (p. 22). Godfrey sees similar “reminders” or “pointers” at nearly every turn in Genesis 1, claiming they reveal in sum not only a “covenantal” perspective and intent but also a figurative presentation of the days and chronology.
The reader may wonder whether granting that Genesis 1 is part of a “covenant history written for a covenant people” must exclude a divine purpose in Genesis 1 also to reveal chronological history both to covenantal readers and ultimately even to “uninformed, worldwide readers”.
The near certainty that the revelation of God’s creation was known (at least in oral form) before the time of Moses, and even before the time of Noah, is not discussed. Even in pagan myths, faint echoes of the creation revelation can still be discerned, however distorted and corrupted they may have become. May not there be a broader “covenantal focus” of Genesis 1 which encompasses all of creation, all men, and all times?
Dr. Godfrey does assert that Genesis 1:1 teaches the absolute sovereignty of God in an ex nihilo original creation and briefly contrasts this to the gods in ancient Near East creation myths. Nevertheless it is surprising in a book subtitled “A Covenantal Reading of Genesis 1,” that the author includes no substantial discussion of a possible broader covenantal focus. Nor is there any discussion of the significance of God’s covenantal name “JHWH” which does not appear at all in Genesis 1, but only after the first “generation” in Genesis 2.
Development in Creation
Genesis 1:2 is a crucial text for the author’s interpretation of the days of Genesis 1:
First, God shows us that his purpose in creation is not some kind of static, unchanging reality. Just as time is built into creation from the beginning, so is development. God in his creation is already pointing us to a fulfillment or consummation of that creation. … God is already preparing us for the idea of a final completion of his work that is more developed than what is created at first. (p. 24, 25).
Second, Genesis 1:2 shows us that God’s creative purpose is not for himself but rather culminates in the creation of humanity. A world that is empty or covered with water or dark is not a problem for God’s existence. … Genesis 1:2 is critical for understanding the rest of the creation narrative because the three elements that rendered earth uninhabitable for humanity [emptiness, darkness, waters covering the earth] are dealt with one at a time in God’s subsequent acts of creation. These problems are a key to understanding what God is revealing about the meaning of creation in Genesis 1. (p. 25).
One is leery of seeing too much built-in “development” in God’s creation. “Development” has too often been used by liberalizing theologians as a euphemism for “evolution”. Dr. Godfrey, however, does make some valuable comments in what follows. Godfrey sees God’s creative works in day 1 as solving the problem of darkness, His works in days 2 and 3 as solving the problem of the waters, and His works in days 4, 5 and 6 as solving the problem of the emptiness of the earth.
This seems a helpful insight, but one that in no wise conflicts with the traditional interpretation of the days. However, maintaining that “Day one is not presented as the beginning of creation” (p. 26) seems to be a doubtful assertion. Nor does it seem necessary to consider the phrase “and God said” as essentially anthropomorphic (see p. 27), which Godfrey does.
The Second Day
On the biblical description of the second day (Gen. 1:6–8) Dr. Godfrey remarks “Here we see Moses giving a description of God’s creative act from the perspective of what the common man sees and experiences in this world” (p. 31). Godfrey sees this as evidence that the intent “is not to tell us about creation in the abstract but about the appearance and meaning of creation for God’s image bearer (p. 31).”
Here again Professor Godfrey sounds the refrain “Genesis 1:6–8 is not a detailed scientific description of reality …”, “Genesis 1 is not an encyclopedia of history or science ….” The refrain in the biblical text of “And there was evening and there was morning …” is considered to be merely Moses “reminding us that the work of the first day
[e.g. the creation of day] carries over to the second day” (p. 32).
It is noted that God does not declare His acts on the second day as good. Dr. Godfrey plausibly reasons that this is because “God points to the fact that the work on the waters is not completed until the third day” (p. 32). He further suggests that thereby “God wants to indicate that the days of creation are not the only structure of Genesis 1 (p. 32).” Here he begins to remark on the “subtle structural elements that Moses has worked into the text,” pointing out the number of times various phrases appear in the text of Genesis 1. No mention is made of the phrase “according to its kind,” which is repeated a total of ten times. However, Dr. Godfrey does remark on Genesis 1:11 (‘Let the land produce vegetation’) that “We must remember that God acts just as truly and effectively when he works through means [e.g., the land or earth] as when he works directly” (p. 35).
The Fourth Day
In his treatment of the “Final Four Days of Creation” (Gen 1:14–2:3), the author sees God as solving the final problem remaining of the three mentioned in Genesis 1:2, namely the emptiness of the world: “God begins by filling the sky with lights as he will later fill the sea with fish, the sky with birds, and the land with animals and people” (p. 37).
The fourth day is considered to be “one of the key days in terms of the structure and interpretation of Genesis 1” (p. 38). Dr. Godfrey remarks on the length of the descriptions of the three functions of the lights (“to separate the day from the night,” “to be signs to mark seasons” (or “to rule”), and “to give light to the earth”). He also remarks on their pattern of repetition.
Godfrey lists parallels between the first and fourth days of creation, and asks “How do we account for these similarities?”(p. 41). He briefly considers “the traditional interpretation” which “suggests that God changes the relationship between light and source of light from day one to day four” (p. 41). Here the author erroneously claims that the traditional interpretation requires “some other created source for the light than the lights of the fourth day.”1
Dr. Godfrey finds the traditional interpretation wanting in that it “does not give adequate attention to the way in which the days of creation are addressing the problems of Genesis 1:2.” He claims that when this principle of organization is duly recognized:
The text seems to suggest that day four is not about the creation of a new and different source for the light created on day one but rather is now pointing us to the lights that fill the sky and that always were the source of light. In other words, day one and day four describe the same creative act of God from different perspectives and as solutions to different problems posed in Genesis 1:2. (p. 42)
The author maintains that this interpretation is also supported by the fact that God often works through means, and claims that “elsewhere the Bible always links the light to the lights,” citing such texts as Zech. 14:6–7 as “surely imply[ing] that in the old heaven and earth light came only from the lights” (p. 43). The reader may wish that he had also dealt with II Cor. 4:6 (“For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, …”).
Dr. Godfrey summarizes, “If we conclude that days one and four seem to describe the same activity of God from different perspectives, then we must conclude that the days of creation in Genesis 1 are not simple chronology” (p. 44).
To bolster his case, the author “pause[s] to observe that throughout the Bible texts are arranged in ways that appear to be simple chronology when they are something else” (p. 44). Here he cites: the different orders of the temptations of Christ as presented by Matthew and Luke, the history of King Joash as given in 2 Kings 13 and 14, the thousand years in Revelation 20, and especially the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.
From the fact that Matthew omits mention of some generations that are recorded elsewhere in Scripture, Godfrey claims that “strict chronological sequence is subordinated to theological concerns” (p. 48). From this, Godfrey concludes that “what was apparently chronological had another meaning,” and that “the same, then, could be true of Genesis 1.” What Godfrey does not consider is that if Matthew says that “Joram begat Uzziah” we may certainly know that Joram was the ancestor of Uzziah and that Joram chronologically preceded Uzziah, even if some intervening generations may have been passed over.
The Framework Theory
As he proceeds to the fifth day, Dr. Godfrey describes and comments on various arguments that have been advanced by those who hold to a “Framework Interpretation” of Genesis 1. He finds Framework advocates’ (i.e., L. Irons and M. Kline’s) recognition of the “two triads” of “kingdoms” (Days 1–3) and “kings” (Days 4–6) to be only of limited usefulness. Godfrey considers their argument from Genesis 2:5 (“because it had not rained”) to be their strongest. This argument infers from this text that ordinary providence was normative for growth and development during the creation week, and that therefore the days are not 24-hour chronological days.2
With respect to the (rather arcane) “two-register cosmology” Framework argument, the author remarks “it is not clear that it is a helpful key with reference to the days of Genesis 1” (p. 53). This argument, which focuses on events in the heavenly realm (such as the supposedly eternal Seventh day), conflicts with Godfrey’s contention that the focus in Genesis 1 is primarily on the Earth. Surprisingly — given his argumentation thus far in his book — Godfrey also faults the Framework interpretation because its “approach to the days of Genesis 1 as figurative does not seem to fully explain the chronological and sequential character of the text” (p. 53).
In his treatment of the sixth day, the author emphasizes that the text reveals the special position of man as made in God’s image, made for fellowship with God, and made to rule over the Earth and to fill it. Man’s task in ruling and filling the Earth is seen to be analogous to God’s work in creation.
The Day of Rest
On the seventh day, Dr. Godfrey remarks:
If God cannot need rest and refreshment and if Jesus tells us that God did not rest on the Sabbath, then what is the meaning of the Sabbath day? We can only conclude that God spoke about himself as he does in Genesis 2 in order to teach us about our-selves. If we are in his image, then he presents his rest so that we can know about our own. He does not need to rest, but we do. He is accommodating his revelation of his creating work to us and our needs. He speaks of himself in a way that serves as a model for us. (p. 62)
Here the author appears to stand the reason for the Sabbath on its head. Exodus 20:11 teaches that because God rested on the seventh day and hallowed it, therefore we must keep the Sabbath. But Dr. Godfrey seems to be saying that because we must rest on the seventh day and keep it holy, therefore God said that He rested on the seventh day even though He really did not. At least in the Framework’s “two-register cosmology” there is still considered to be a heavenly reality to God’s resting, but in Godfrey’s interpretation there no longer appears to be any reality to God’s resting on the seventh day at all. Not only is the seventh day figurative and God’s rest on it presented as an anthropomorphic and figurative mode of expression, but God’s resting appears in Godfrey’s interpretation as a complete fiction invented by God to provide a pretext for a Sabbath command.
The Message of Genesis 1
In his final chapter, entitled “The Message of Genesis 1,” Dr. Godfrey restates and summarizes his previous arguments — both positive and negative — and adds a couple more. He emphasizes that the Scriptures (especially in poetical and prophecy sections) frequently use anthropomorphic and metaphorical language. He writes:
What is true of poetry and prophecy may well be true of the account of creation in Genesis 1 as well. After all, we have no real experience of that phenomenon of creation at the beginning of time. We know the world only as a created, functioning, purposeful place. In order to tell us about creation, God uses images and language that we can understand. But much of the language must be figurative. (p. 67)
Dr. Godfrey emphasizes (and exaggerates) the number of different ways in which the word “day” is used in Genesis 1:1–2:4. He argues that there is an apparent conflict in chronology between the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 2 which is best resolved through recognizing that “God’s primary concern in both accounts is not to give us a specific chronology of God’s acts but to show us God’s meaning and purpose for humanity in creation” (p. 81). Dr. Godfrey then turns his attention to “Traditional Interpretation Problems.” Here he briefly recapitulates some of his earlier arguments, and also briefly counters the traditional interpretation’s “waw consecutive” grammatical argument and its argument that church history is on its side.
After all the arguments that have preceded, it surprises the reader that Dr. Godfrey here affirms “that the days and week of Genesis 1 are presented to us as a real week of twenty-four-hour days.” Lest he be misunderstood, he immediately adds “These days and week, however, do not describe God’s actions in themselves but present God’s creative purpose in a way that is a model for us” (p. 85). Later he further clarifies “The days are actual for us but figurative for God. They are not a timetable of God’s actions but are a model timetable for us to follow” (p. 90). At this point the reader begins to understand Godfrey’s earlier criticism that the Framework Interpretation “does not seem to fully explain the chronological and sequential character of the text” (p. 53). So it is finally conceded that the text of Genesis 1 has a chronological character, that the days are presented as twenty-four-hour days and the week as a real week — but only as a figurative and anthropomorphic mode of expression.
Dr. Godfrey concludes the chapter by giving his opinion that the current controversy over the interpretation of Genesis 1 has arisen in the last decade or so as “a result of a heightened sense of alienation from our dominant culture that conservative Christians have come to feel in the last ten to twenty years.” It is clear that the author has a strong antipathy for the creation science movement. He writes:
Feeling betrayed by politicians, the public schools, and even many church leaders, many Christians have sought ways to isolate themselves from the evil and degeneration they sense around them. They have sought to create a subculture of their own. The phenomenon of home schooling is one manifestation of that withdrawal. So is the rise of creation science as an antidote to evolution and materialism. (p. 91). Just as we must beware of anti-Christian forms of thought that claim to be science, so we must beware of anti-intellectualism and an inappropriate rejection of science parading itself as Christianity. As Christians we must not tie our faith to a pseudoscience of human invention, whether by a fad of secular science or so-called creation science. We must not hobble the evangelistic work of the church by embracing a false science of any kind. (p. 91).
A short 2-page “Conclusion” follows, which includes “Ten Theses on Creation.” Here Dr. Godfrey again posits, among other things, the ex nihilo nature of God’s creative work, the special status of man as made in God’s image, and man’s creation by God immediately from the dust of the earth. Four appendixes provide: (1) excerpts from Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1 interspersed with added comments of Dr. Godfrey, (2) a passage from an apocryphal book (2 Esdras 6:3559) that speaks of the creation days, (3) excerpts from various Reformed confessions on Creation, and (4) quotations from eleven Presbyterian theologians commenting on the meaning of “in the space of six days” in the Westminster Standards. Finally, there are 5 pages of end-notes.
In the first appendix, Dr. Godfrey notes that Calvin “writes forcefully against the opinion of Augustine that God created everything in a moment and then described the creation in terms of six days to instruct us” (p. 97). He provides a quote from Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis which appropriately includes the following: 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 of 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.
Dr. Godfrey claims that “The principles of biblical analysis used here [i.e., in my book] are those used by John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis 1” (p. 16). One of Calvin’s “principles of interpretation” that Godfrey identifies is to “recognize that in the text God is accommodating himself to our capacity” (p. 105). However, with respect to the days of Genesis 1, Calvin says not that God accommodated “the text” to our capacity, but that he accommodated “his works” to our capacity.
Furthermore, Godfrey nowhere in his book acknowledges that Augustine depended on a mis-translation of an apocryphal text to come up with his novel interpretation of the days of Genesis 1, nor that Calvin specifically criticized Augustine on that score:
For the confirmation of the gloss above alluded to, a passage from Ecclesiasticus is unskillfully cited. ‘He who liveth for ever created all things at once,’ (Ecclus. 18:1) For the Greek adverb choine, which the writer uses, means no such thing, nor does it refer to time, but to all things universally.
On the contrary, Augustine is rather held up by Godfrey elsewhere in his book (e.g. p. 15 and p. 82) as an example of an orthodox scholar who responsibly interprets the days of Genesis 1 as figurative.
Is it not also “too violent a cavil”, as Calvin said, to contend that Moses distributes the work of God perfected over eons into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction? This “violent cavil” seems a fairly accurate description of Dr. Godfrey’s position. Calvin’s phrase “the space of six days” is echoed in the Westminster Standards. In the opinion of this reviewer, if “in the space of six days” in the Westminster Standards should be understood to exclude Augustine’s position (and it should), it should also be understood to exclude the position that Dr. Godfrey has taken in this book.
The author writes “No doubt the approach to Genesis 1 taken in this book will not convince everyone that it is correct, but it should demonstrate that it is an exegesis that is responsible to the text and ought to be tolerable in conservative Protestant circles” (p. 95). Few will disagree with the first half of this statement. Many may disagree with the second half.
1. Contrary to this claim, for example, Professor Robert Grossman has written the following:
The textual conclusion is that while light is often associated with light-bearers and is produced by them, it also has an existence apart from the light bearers. This is attested to by the findings of physics. Once light has been produced by a star, for example, it continues to pass through space whether the star continues to exist or not. …
God could very simply have created a shaft of light of sufficient diameter to illuminate the earth and of sufficient length to keep shining on the earth until the fourth day when the light bearers were created.
(“Light Called Day,” Mid-America Journal of Theology V. 3, No. 1, p. 11)
2. This argument has been well-answered from a traditional viewpoint by E. J. Young, A. Cassuto, J. Pipa, and others.
Mr. David Kloosterman is an Elder at the Covenant United Reformed Church of Kalalmazoo, Michigan.