A Review of John Lennox’s Seven Days that Divide the World
If I believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, am I denying the authority of Scripture? It is question that we must wrestle with; in fact, many Christians and non-Christians alike feel that in order to believe in the Bible, one must embrace the idea that our universe is only a few thousand years old.
John Lennox, a mathematics professor at the University of Oxford, seeks to correct such a misperception in his book, Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science, as he compares the creation account presented in Genesis with scientific theories. In less than 200 pages, Lennox guides us through history to show that science and religion are not necessarily at odds with each other. Lennox provides a framework to interpret Scripture in a manner that demonstrates that one can read the first few passages in Genesis and discover the universe may be very old indeed.
Lennox dedicates a chapter to reading and interpreting the Bible that quite powerfully provides a method with which we can approach Genesis. He states: “One should in the first instance be guided by the natural understanding of a passage, sentence, word, or phrase in its context, historically, culturally, and linguistically” (22) He argues that one should first apply a literal understanding of a passage even though there may also be correct metaphorical interpretations. For example, Lennox describes Jesus’ ascension into heaven as a literal movement of Christ in this world. Of course, there is also a metaphorical interpretation of Christ’s ascension to his heavenly throne; “the (literal) ascension of Christ is a metaphor of his (literal) assumption of universal authority”(24) Lennox provides us with the valuable insight that a metaphorical reading of the Bible does not necessarily compromise a literal one. However, he also recognizes that in instances that a literal understanding of a passage is not possible, it must be ascribed a metaphorical understanding. Lennox explains that when Jesus says he is the door, clearly he is not a literal door, but a door in the sense that he is the way to salvation (23-24).
There are other parts of Scripture that are unclear as to the type of interpretation they require. Such is the case when we read that the Earth is set on pillars and a foundation. Thanks to advancement in science, we can see that there are no pillars or foundations holding up our world. We can deduce that those verses may merit a metaphorical reading. Lennox interprets that the Earth is built on foundations and pillars as such:
“God the Creator has built certain very real stabilities into the planetary system that will guarantee its existence so long as is necessary to fulfill his purposes. Science has been able to show us that the earth is stable in its orbit over long periods of time, thanks in part to the obedience of gravity to an inverse square law, to the presence of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt of earth’s axis, and to the existence of the planet Jupiter, which helps keep the other planets in the same orbital plane” (33).
He points out that the Earth is stable in the sense that there are laws that maintain the existence of our world and that it was science that helped people decide between the possible meanings of the verses involving the mobility of our planet. Lennox explains that the controversy over the movement of the Earth compels us to be prudent in interpreting Scripture and to also be eager to research the way our universe works: ”After all, it was God who put the universe there, and it would be very strange if we had no interest in it” (36).
As Lennox engages in the contentious debate of whether science and the Bible can coexist, he reminds us that this is not the first time that the church has had to reconcile science with scripture. He points out that in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Copernicus and Galileo’s heliocentric views of the universe, which state that the Earth and the planets revolve around the sun, were rejected not only by Catholics and Protestants but also by the Aristotelian academia. This interpretation of the Bible was based on verses such as “He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved” (ps 104:5) that seemed to describe the Earth as an immovable planet. It is important to recognize that the heliocentric view of the universe was largely prevalent among the academia and in the scientific community as well; for example, in universities, Aristotle’s view that the planets, suns, and stars moved around the Earth was unquestioned. The integrity of scripture should therefore not be seen as dependent upon the integrity of our notion of the scientific workings of the universe. Lennox points out that the heliocentric theory is no longer a source of conflict and is quite certain that the current creation debate will follow a similar course.
The opening chapter of Genesis states that there were seven days during which God spoke things into being. Yet, when one interprets Scripture, there is disagreement over the meaning of ‘a day,’ and consequently over the age of our universe. The author notes that this conflict is not a recent one. Church fathers and reformers like Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Luther, and Calvin have all been divided over the meaning of the creation week in Genesis. Some think the days were consecutive twenty-four hour periods that the universe is only a few thousand years old. Others, however, believe that the creation days symbolize a much greater length of time and that the universe is billions of years old.
Lennox presents a rather complex account of creation, based largely on the analysis of Hebrew semantics. Though he believes that the creation describes twenty-four hour days, he suggests that the initial creation at the beginning of Genesis 1: 1 took place before day one. He highlights that the first verse in Genesis establishes a beginning of the universe – the heavens and the earth – then, an undefined time elapses to day one, which occurs in verse three. Lennox argues that because there is a gap between the beginning of the universe and the start of day one, the universe is of indefinite age. Furthermore, he is hesitant to assume that the days were consecutive. He points out that the definite article is associated with only the sixth and seventh day in the original Hebrew; the use of the definite article highlights the importance of those days over the previous five. Such complexity of the text, he argues, might suggest that the days were periods when God spoke new creation and matter into being and that they may have been separated by indefinite periods of time. Significantly, Lennox concludes that the universe might be ancient based on his reading of the Bible, without even appealing explicitly to science. Lennox’s interpretation that the initial creation did not necessarily take place in one day provides a place for science in attempting to explain the origins of the universe.
Lennox, however, leaves no room for human evolution in his reading of Genesis. In the final chapters of his book he writes on the origin of human beings and the significance of Genesis within the whole story of the Bible. First, he argues, “The image of God in man was not produced as a result of blind matter fumbling its unguided way through myriad different permutations” (70). Through textual analysis of the creation of humanity in Genesis 1-2, he dismisses theories that state Adam and Eve came from nonhuman forms like advanced Neolithic farmers. He affirms there is “no difficulty in believing that the human race itself began-indeed, had to begin- with a supernatural intervention. Science cannot rule out that possibility either”(74). Lennox explains that Genesis proclaims the importance of humanity to God, considering that they are described as being made in His very image. In fact, he highlights that Genesis goes out of its way to imply a “direct special creation.”
Whether one agrees with Lennox’s interpretation of the creation account or not, his work is a significant contribution in that it reminds us, as Christians, that we cannot shy away from the seeming inconsistencies between the Bible and science. If we fail to address such confrontations, we risk reinforcing the widespread belief that science deals with reality while the Bible deals with fantasy. Lennox quite brilliantly demonstrates that contemporary science does not compromise the integrity of Scripture. One does not have be a young earth creationist to be faithful to scripture; nor does a belief in evolution render one unfaithful to scripture. Undoubtedly there are limitations in trying to propose a complete view of creation in such a short amount of space, but that does not diminish Lennox’s contribution to the dialogue between science and faith. In fact, his work is a reminder that though science is always changing, the Christian faith is based on a final truth that does not change. We should never blame the Bible for the fallibility and limitations of our own interpretation of the world around us.
Bryan Padilla ’15, a resident of Holworthy Hall, is the Subscriptions Manager of The Ichthus.Tags: academia, Aristotle, Bible, church, Copernicus, creation, evolution, Galileo, God, Hebrew, John Lennox, language, science, truth