Science in Christian Perspective

Essay Reviews       

  Douglas Kelly on the
 Framework Interpretation of Genesis One

CREATION AND CHANGE: Genesis 1.1-2.4 in the Light of Changing Scientific Paradigms  by Douglas F. Kelly. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 1997

Lee Irons

14315 Chandler Blvd., #10
Sherman Oaks, CA 91401

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50 (December 1998): 272.

Douglas Kelly is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. His Creation and Change is an apologetic defense of young earth creationism, with a special emphasis on the question of the age of the earth/universe. While he includes a few critical remarks about biological evolution, Kelly's primary aim is to refute the old earth/universe viewpoint, especially as held by evangelical Christians, whom he disparagingly calls "evolutionary evangelicals."1

On the "scientific" front there is little new here. Since Kelly professes that he is "a theologian and student of the Bible, and in no sense a scientist," he relies heavily on the arguments of well-known young-earth apologists. He frequently quotes the writings of Henry Morris, Walter Brown, R. L. Wysong, Paul Ackerman, and Robert Whitelaw. This part of the book, however, is marred by Kelly's failure to interact with the body of literature that seeks to set the record straight on these points.

On the exegetical front, Kelly attempts to refute the evangelical nonliteral interpretations of the days of Genesis 1. He addresses the day-age view, the gap theory, and the framework interpretation espoused recently by Meredith G. Kline in this journal.2 Since an entire chapter (chap. 6) is a critique of the framework view, and since Kelly's critique is being appealed to by many young-earth defenders in conservative evangelical circles, this review will focus on the hermeneutical concerns raised by Kelly.

Referring to nonliteral approaches to the days of Genesis 1, such as Kline's framework interpretation, Kelly charges that "exegetes have to engage in a sort of modern casuistry to make Genesis `day' mean anything other than ordinary solar day" (p. 112). One repeatedly encounters in Kelly and those of his camp the opinion that an honest and unprejudiced examination of the text can only lead to the literal, young-earth position. Yet, at the same time, Kelly recognizes that certain features of the text are not consistent with the literal solar day interpretation. For example, the observation - as ancient as Augustine's Literal Interpretation of Genesis - that the first three days could not have been solar days for the simple reason that the sun was not created until day four, is noted as an argument "of serious moment." But apparently it is not so momentous that a quick quote from Henry Morris reasserting the "straightforward understanding of all seven days as normal days of the same length" cannot obviate the difficulty (p. 111).

Another example of Kelly's out-of-hand dismissal of the exegetical evidence for a nonliteral approach is his treatment of the argument that, according to Heb. 4:1-11, the seventh day is an open-ended, eternal day. Given the fact that the seventh day is an integral part of the unitary creation week it would be reasonable to ask, "If `day' can be used in a nonordinary, nonsolar sense for day seven, why must we insist that the previous six occurrences can only refer to ordinary, solar days?" Kelly simply raises this question and then dismisses it with a cavalier wave of the hand and appeals again to the "patent sense" of the text (p. 111). These examples should give the reader an idea of the quality of the author's biblical scholarship. Ironically, it was here that Kelly claimed to be at his best. It would appear that the charge of "modern casuistry" is more applicable to Kelly than to his non-literal counterparts (whether framework or day-age).

When Kelly aims his guns specifically at Kline's position, the quality of his scholarship declines still further. Kelly does not object to the framework interpretation merely because it leaves room for an old earth/universe. In his estimation, it involves something far more serious: the introduction of a disastrous disjunction between historical factuality and literary form. "Much more is at stake here than the admittedly complex question of how old the earth is. Even if one wished to opt for an ancient cosmos, the mode they have chosen to achieve it is too high a price to pay in terms of the truth claims of the entire biblical text" (pp. 114-5).

But the charge of a dangerous "hermeneutical dualism" between historical factuality and literary form is unfounded, for it is really Kelly who is guilty of such dualism. Evangelical advocates of the framework interpretation, like Kline, have always insisted that the creation account of Genesis inerrantly records actual historical events-events which really occurred in space and time. However, these events have been narrated in a nonsequential, topical order under the framework of a week of "days." The days are like picture frames. Within each picture frame, the Holy Spirit has inerrantly recorded various scenes of God's creative activity as he fashions the formless and void world into an orderly cosmos to be a replica of his heavenly dwelling place. Even though the picture frames (the days) are not literal solar days, the picture within each frame is to be interpreted as referring to historical events in the visible world. Thus, there is no tension between the historicity of the text (the creative acts) and its literary form (the creation "week"). The two aspects of the text are perfectly harmonious; there is no dualism. The charge of hermeneutical dualism, therefore, must be placed at Kelly's feet. His inability to fathom how both literary form and historical factuality can harmoniously co-exist in Genesis 1 shows that it is he who dualistically pits one against the other.

In addition to this strange case of the pot calling the kettle black, Kelly descends into still further obscurity by accusing the framework view of being both Platonic and nominalist (p. 116)! Plato's realism and Ockham's late medieval nominalism are normally thought of as being significantly opposed to one another. Based on the length of his discussion of nominalism, however, it would appear that Kelly would probably go with the latter charge if push came to shove. The basic argument is this. Nominalism (as Kelly understands it) teaches that human words have no proper referential reality outside the mind. The framework interpretation says that the "days" are figures of speech, and thus mere mental ideas or literary devices. Therefore, the framework interpretation is guilty of the medieval heresy of nominalism.

Although one suspects foul play at this point, I will make no effort to question the accuracy of Kelly's grasp of late medieval linguistic theory. However, we must ask how Kelly would clear himself of the charge of nominalism, given his own definition of it. He admits that there are instances where yom (day) is used in a nonliteral sense: "There are a few Scriptural texts which make it clear that `day' is being employed in another sense than `twenty-four hours'" (p. 108; examples cited: Gen. 30:14; Job 7:6; Ps. 90:9; 2 Pet. 3:8). And what about the myriad of examples in Scripture where figurative, poetic, and nonliteral language is used? I doubt that Kelly wants to reject all nonliteral interpretations of Scripture as nothing more than nominalism.

Another argument of Kelly's is based on the slippery slope fallacy. He argues that it would be naive to suppose that a nonliteral approach "could be stopped at the end of the second chapter of Genesis, and would not be employed in other texts that run contrary to current naturalistic assumptions" (p. 115). The problem, according to Kelly, is that this literary approach to Genesis 1 has no brakes. What would prevent someone less orthodox than Kline from applying the same hermeneutic to the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ?

But let's turn the tables for a moment. Many fundamentalists used to argue that the amillennial and postmillennial views-both of which interpret the "thousand years" of Rev. 20 in a nonliteral manner-would lead down the slippery slope to liberalism. Kelly is a postmillennialist and believes that the "thousand years" of Rev. 20 do not refer to a literal, one thousand year period of time. What are the exegetical brakes preventing Kelly from applying this nonliteral hermeneutic to deny the resurrection of Christ? Presumably, Kelly is persuaded of a nonliteral interpretation of Rev. 20 because he has concluded, after a careful study of biblical eschatology, that the Scripture does not teach that there will be an earthly millennium after Christ returns; that, in fact, there is only one resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous (Dan. 12:2; John 5:29); and that the eternal state will follow immediately after the second coming, leaving no room for a postadvental but pre-consummation millennial period (1 Cor. 15:23-28; 2 Pet. 3:9-13). Based on these texts, therefore, non-premillennialists hold that the thousand years is an idealized figure representing the entire interadvental period. However, there are no similar legitimate arguments for taking the resurrection or the virgin birth figuratively. In other words, the exegetical brakes preventing Kelly from sliding down the slippery slope into outright liberalism is his commitment to interpreting each text in light of the total context of Scripture.

This hermeneutical procedure of comparing Scripture with Scripture (also known as the analogy of Scripture) is the same method used by the framework interpretation. The framework view appeals to several exegetical features of the text that favor, or even require, a nonliteral interpretation of the days. For example, there is the striking parallelism between days 1-3 (which narrate the institution of the creation kingdoms: light/darkness; sky/seas; land/ vegetation) and days 4-6 (which describe the creation of the creature kings, respectively: luminaries; birds/fish; animals/humans). The parallelism between each corresponding member of the two triads indicates the presence of intentional literary artistry.

Furthermore, we have already alluded to the argument that the seventh day is clearly not an ordinary, solar day. And yet it is called a "day," just like the previous six. Kelly rejects the view that the seventh day is eternal but gives no alternative explanation of Heb. 4:1-11"a passage that clearly equates the seventh day of creation (v. 4) with the Sabbath rest that currently "remains for the people of God" to enter by faith (v. 9). Others accept this biblical-theological argument, but maintain that the other six days are still literal. But this approach fails as well. How can the creation week be dismembered in this fashion? The entire week of seven days is a unified whole. If one member of that week is a nonsolar day, it would be utterly arbitrary to insist that the others are solar. Besides, as Augustine has pointed out, the first three days cannot be solar days. So what we really have is four nonsolar days and only three (allegedly) solar ones.

In view of this kind of powerful exegetical evidence, are we not justified in taking the whole "week" as a figurative framework for organizing the divine creative activity in a topical manner? This hermeneutic is not Platonism, nominalism, or dualism. It is not the first step down the slippery slope to a denial of the virgin birth. It is simply basic scriptural exegesis grounded in time-honored exegetical principles and the presupposition that Scripture, as the inerrant and inspired Word of God, is its own best interpreter. Exegetically, there are compelling, if not decisive, grounds for concluding that the days of Genesis are not literal solar days.3 Kelly has not given the intelligent reader any good reasons to think otherwise.

In conclusion, Kelly's attempt in Creation and Change to refute the nonliteral framework interpretation of Genesis 1 must be regarded as an abysmal failure. His claim that the framework interpretation constitutes a serious departure from evangelical fidelity to Scripture remains unproved. If this most recent volley in the Genesis debate is any indication, it would appear that the framework interpretation is substantially more difficult to refute than its critics have imagined.


1In Kelly's over-generalizing lexicon, this epithet includes those evangelical Christians, such as Hugh Ross and Meredith G. Kline, who acknowledge the strength of the empirical evidence for an old earth/universe"a position that does not necessarily imply an evolutionary explanation of biological origins in general" and who have biblical objections to an evolutionary origin for humans in particular.

2Meredith G. Kline, "Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony," PSCF 48:1 (March 1996): 2-15.

3For a more complete treatment of the exegetical evidence, cf. M. G. Kline, op. cit.; Mark D. Futato, "Because It Had Rained: A Study of Gen. 2:5-7 With Implications for Gen. 2:4-25 and 1:1-2:3," Westminster Theological Journal 60:1 (Spring 1998): 1-21; and Lee Irons with Meredith G. Kline, "The Framework Interpretation," in The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation, edited by David G. Hagopian (Crux Press), forthcoming.