After the “gap” theory, Dr. Kline took up the so-called “day-age” theory, in which the “days” of creation are understood not as 24-hour periods, but as long stretches of time, possibly lasting millions of years. This view appeals to the frequent figurative use of the word “day,” in Hebrew as in many languages, to mean a longer period of time (for example, “in the days of the Romans”).
I had encountered this view before as well. Once a biology teacher in our high school (not the one whose course I had taken) visited our weekly Bible and prayer club and asked why we had trouble believing in evolution, when the best description of it she knew was found in the opening chapter of the Bible. She meant that Genesis 1 described simpler forms of life coming into being before more complex ones. But her reading depended on a figurative understanding of the word “day.” It would also have broken down with more careful scrutiny, as in Genesis life appears on land before it appears in the sea, contrary to the evolutionary scenario. But I did not entertain her interpretation long enough even to make this simple observation; I was convinced that a day was a day was a day.
Dr. Kline’s analysis of the “day-age” theory included some observations about its impracticality. He questioned, for example, how there could have been vegetation on earth (day 3)—not to mention light (day 1)—for many millions of years before the sun was created (day 4). This had been Calvin Chao’s “very good question,” I recalled. He described the typical answer to this objection: the sun actually became visible on earth on the “fourth day”; before this, it was in existence and warming the earth, but obscured by clouds or mist. But such a statement, he observed, appears nowhere explicitly in the text.
I found this very convincing. But most of his response to this interpretation, like his response to the gap theory, did not require going outside the text to show the impossibility of correspondence with natural history. Rather, he just challenged us to read more carefully. He called our attention to the way the “days” of Genesis have “evenings” and “mornings.” Why should this be specified, he asked, if they were not meant to be understood as literal days? I was with him all the way on this one.
Things got more uncomfortable for me, however, when he took up the third prevailing interpretation, the so-called “literal” reading of Genesis 1, whose natural-world corollary was a young earth. Here he found the same sequence problems as in the day-age view, if this chapter were to be taken as a description of actual events: light and vegetation before the sun.
The solution to this problem I had always heard within creationist circles was that God had exercised some supernatural influence on the created world during the first week, until everything needed for its natural operation was in place. For example, God would have made vegetation spring forth from the earth even in the deep freeze before the sun’s creation, and somehow have sustained it until the sun was created and had warmed the earth. If one was already prepared to believe that God was performing supernatural acts such as creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) by the spoken word, certainly the notion of a divine greenhouse effect could not strain credulity.
But Dr. Kline asked a question that would never have occurred to me: What does the Bible say about how God sustained the creation while it was in process? Was this through supernatural agencies, or through natural providence? He called our attention to Genesis 2:5, which read, according to his translation, “Now no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up, because the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground.”
If “no plant of the field was yet in the earth,” he noted, we were back in the six-day period; the narrative of the book proper (2:4ff) was picking up the story at a certain point in the prologue (1:1-2:3). But clearly, during this period, God was working through natural providence: there were no plants because there was no water and, in effect, no one to mow the lawn. Once these were furnished, plants could grow—naturally.
This did not sit well with me, as the premise of supernatural agency was the key to my literal reading. I wrote in my notes, “The whole argument rests on ‘because.’” Dr. Kline had acknowledged that this word was not to be found in most translations of the Bible. (The majority of versions do say “for,” which can mean “because,” but it can also be interpreted in other ways.) I raised my hand and asked him why he thought this was so.
What I was getting at was, “Why do you think your translation is right and everyone else’s is wrong?” But it did not even occur to him to defend himself against my implication that he was adopting a self-serving translation. He simply replied, with evident frustration at other translators, “I don’t know why it isn’t in our translations, because it’s definitely there in the original.”
Not knowing any Hebrew, I was not qualified to investigate the matter myself, but I found reassurance in the thought that the consensus favored a translation that posed no problem for my literal-supernatural reading. (Years later, when I did learn Hebrew and began using it regularly in sermon preparation, I discovered repeatedly how tradition and extra-textual exigencies do slant our translations. And I saw for myself that “because” really is in the text of Genesis 2:5.)
Having objected to the three prevailing understandings of Genesis 1, Dr. Kline proceeded to present his own view. (I’m not sure whether it was original with him, but my generation of Gordon-Conwell alumni will always associate it with him.) He first made the case that the opening creation account in Genesis must be considered “poetry.” He showed us that the whole account consisted of a sequence of formulaic “strophes” (variations on the sequence “God said . . . God made . . . God called . . . God saw . . .”), punctuated by a repeated refrain (“and there was evening and there was morning, the Nth day”).
He also assured us that in the original Hebrew the account featured the poetic devices of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds). And even in English we could appreciate the presence of parallelism or repetition of meaning, a defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry—for example, “God made man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (v. 27). So our expectations of this account should rightfully be those of poetry, not of narrative. It was literal interpreters who had to labor under the burden of proof.
He then showed us, from the text, how days 1-3 describe God making “creature-kingdoms”: day and night; sky and sea; the dry land. Days 4-6 then show how God populated each of these kingdoms in the same sequence in which they were made, setting within each a “creature-king”: the sun, moon, and stars to populate the day and night, with the sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night; fish to swim in the sea and birds to fly in the sky, with the “sea monster” to rule the sea; and cattle, creeping things, and humans to populate the land.
Humans, Dr. Kline noted, are “creature-kings” not just of the land, but of the sky and sea as well. They are God’s vice-regents, in other words. But even they must defer to God’s prerogatives, hence the sabbath of the seventh day, when the entire created structure pauses to acknowledge its Creator. (Dr. Kline winced at the separation of the seventh day from the first six by an unfortunate chapter division in modern Bibles.)
Here was an amazing depth of meaning I had never appreciated before in the account of the days of creation. This passage was not so much a description of how we got here as an explanation of why we were here. It had a moral purpose, challenging humans to acknowledge God’s supreme lordship, despite their pretensions to self-determination and self-sufficiency. I was immediately won over to Dr. Kline’s reading of the passage. His literary arguments had had a compelling effect on a literature major.