“In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the earth.”
These ten words have been called “majestic,” “great,” “magnificent,” “sublime,” “profound,” etc. Theologians have recognized them as “straightforward,” “simple,” “clear” and “unmistakable.” One scholar described Genesis 1:1 as a “plain statement that even a child can easily understand.“ Underneath the smoke of these adjectives, however, lies a heterodox of interpretations that belie their simplicity. The current Quarterly for 2013 discusses some of these theories. This article will briefly outline the major theories proposed for Genesis 1:1, 2.
I. Active Gap Theory (Ruin-Reconstruction)
Some see Genesis 1:1 as referring back to the creation of the physical world and all life on it to a moment of time long before the seven days of creation. They believe that a subsequent “appalling cataclysm obliterated every trace of life upon it and reduced its surface to a state that might be described as ‘without form, and void in verse two.’” This “Gap” or “Space” of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 has been referred to as the “Active Gap” or “Ruin-Reconstruction Theory.” Proponents of this theory assert that during this gap, “Satan was ruler of the earth which was peopled by a race of ‘men’ without any souls. Eventually, Satan, who dwelled in a garden of Eden composed of minerals (Ezekiel 28), rebelled by desiring to become like God (Isaiah 14). Because of Satan’s fall, sin entered the universe and brought on the earth God’s judgment in the form of a flood (indicated by the water of Genesis 1:2), and then a global ice-age when the light and heat from the sun were somehow removed. All the plant, animal, and human fossils upon the earth today date from this ‘Lucifer’s flood’ and do not bear any genetic relationship with the plants, animals and fossils living upon the earth today.” In general these gap theorists are “opposed to evolution, but do not believe in a recent origin of all things.” The gap theorist assumes the proposition that God reshaped the earth and re-created all life in six literal days after ‘Lucifer’s flood,’ hence the name ‘ruin-reconstruction.’”
Bible commentaries written before the Theory of Uniformitarianism and the scientific revolution of the early 1800s, are silent about the “Ruin-Reconstruction” theory. The man most responsible for it’s origin is Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), a famous Scottish theologian. Chalmers and William Buckland (1784-1856) proposed:
Millions of millions of years may have occupied the indefinite interval, between the beginning in which God created the heavens and the earth and the evening or commencement of the first day of the Mosaic narrative... The condition [of the earth and waters] is also described as a state of confusion and emptiness (tohu va bohu), words which are usually interpreted by the vague Greek term chaos, which may be geologically considered designating the wreck and ruins of a former world.
As modified by George H. Pember (1837-1910), this view came to be widely disseminated in the older editions of the Scofield Reference Bible. It was probably the dominant view among evangelicals until the 1960s. Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, and The Newberry Reference Bible also helped to foment the “Active Gap Theory.” Contemporary supporters of this theory include: Harry Rimmer, (Modern Science and the Genesis Record, 1937), George DeHoff (Why We Believe the Bible 1944), Benny Hinn, John Hagee (asserts that “the earth was created and flooded before the six days of creation in which mankind appeared”), and Billy Graham.
II. Passive Gap Theory (Restitution Creationism--Creatio ex materia)
The “Passive Gap Theory” understands “Genesis 1:1 as a reference to the creation of the universe, including the earth in its raw state, billions of years ago. Contrary to the Ruin-Restoration theory of the early Scofield Bible, only non-fossil bearing rocks are billions of years old.” Thus, the six days of creation (verse 3 onwards) start “sometime after the Earth was ‘without form and void.’ This allows an indefinite ‘gap’ of time to be inserted after the original creation of the universe, but prior to the six days of creation--when present biological species and humanity were created. Gap theorists can therefore agree with the scientific consensus regarding the age of the Earth and universe, while maintaining a literal interpretation of the biblical text.”
According to theologian Aurther Custance, the historical antecedents of the “Passive Gap Theory” extend back to the Jewish commentators of the Midrash and Targum of Onkelos. This understanding was more clearly and forcefully articulated by the 11th century Flemish Catholic theologian, Hugo St. Victor. Hugo’s understanding was that the disordered state of the earth “was only awaiting the ordering hand of God to make it into a Cosmos.” Thirteenth century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) reiterated this view when he wrote his Summa Theologiae: "it seems better to maintain (the view) that the creation [of the “heaven and the earth”] was prior to any of the days (literally, before any day)." 16th century French Jesuit theologian Dionysius Petavius (1583-1652), wrote: "The question of 'How great an interval there was ', it is not possible except by inspiration to attain knowledge of." Catholic philosopher Benedict Pereira wrote:
Even though before the first day, the heavens and the elements were made subsequent to the substance (ie., basic essence of creative activity) nevertheless they were not perfected and completely furnished until the period of the six days: for then was given to them (their) furnishing, (their) fulfillment (filling up), and (their) completion. However, just how long that darkened state of the world lasted, ie., whether it lasted more than one day or less than one day, this is not clear to me . . .
The “Passive Gap Theory” first gained prominence during the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation. Although the antecedents of this Theory might be traced to ancient Jewish writings--it was the Catholic scholars who first solidified and actively promoted it. The current Catechism reflects this understanding:
'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' Creation . . . did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu vitae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it...
During the 19th century, the “Passive Gap Theory” made its way into the thinking of the Protestant theologians. Hebrew Professor E.B. Pusey of the late 1800s, dismissed the “Ruin-Restoration” geologic theory, but embraced the “Passive Gap Theory.” He concluded: “'in the beginning God created . . .’ what intervened between ‘in the beginning’ and the remodeling of our habitation does not concern us. . . . It was not my business to enter upon the claims of geology.” Theologians who promoted this view include: German Orientalist, Julius Wheelhouse (1844-1918), E. Konig (1882), John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), Dutch theologian G. Aalders, A. Heidel, B.S. Childs, D. Kidner, E.J. Young, E. Maly and G. Henton Davies. Some Contemporary theologians who appear to have adopted this position are: Apologist Dr. John Ankerberg, philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig, Bible scholar Dr. Norman Geisler, radio personality Hank Hanegraaff, apologist Greg Koukl, etc.
III. Summary Statement Theory
Another understanding of Genesis 1:1 is that it is a “Summary statement,” “Heading” “superscript,” or “Title.” Dr. Waltke, a Reformed evangelical professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, asserts that Genesis 1:1 is a summary verse of the rest of the chapter-- not simply the first event in the chapter. He writes:
In the beginning. The daring claim of verse 1, which encapsulates the entire narrative, invites the reader into the story. Its claim and invitation is that in the beginning God completed perfectly this entire cosmos. ‘Beginning’ refers to the entire created event, not something before the six days nor a part of the first day. (Note: This is a relative beginning. As verse 2 seems to indicate, there is a pre-Genesis time and space.) Although some have argued that 1:1 functions as merely the first event of creation, rather than a summary of the whole account, the grammar makes that interpretation improbable.
One explanation of this theory proposes that the Hebrew language uses headings or “announcements” of events that follow them. A narrative that tells something that happened in the past can use verbs in the wayyigtol sense. One scholar describes it this way:
They are used to announce broadly sequential events. If an author wishes to provide background information relevant to the story, he will typically do so in an introduction using mainly verbs in the perfect or weqetal tenses. That’s exactly what we find in Moses’ Creation account in Genesis 1. The result is that Day 1 begins in verse 3 with the first wayyiqtol verb wayyomer elohim (And God said); the same way Days 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 begin. This also means that verses 1 and 2 record events that happened prior to Creation Day 1 and speak of the conditions in Creation at the time the first Day begins.
Among the scholars who have adopted this position are: German theologian Hermann Strack (1848-1922), German Old Testament scholar Herman Gunkel (1862-1932), Lutheran theologian Otto Procksch, Walther Zimmerli (1907-1983), Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971), Old Testament scholar Walther Eichrodt (1890-1978), H.A. Brongers, U. Cassuto, Old Testament scholar W.H. Schmidt, German Lutheran O.T. scholar Claus Westermann (1909-2000), New Testament theologian, Herman Nicolaas Ridderbos (1909-2007).
IV. Young-Earth Theory (No Gap- Creation of Universe and Earth on the First Day)
Another theory of Genesis 1:1, 2 holds that God created the universe, matter, heavens, angels (including Lucifer) in verse 1, and then immediately went on to form and fill the earth in six literal days. This view is propagated by the Institute for Creation Research and Answers-in-Genesis Organization. They propose that verse 1 is part of the first day of the creation week, and that everything was brought into being--including angels, God’s abode, time, energy, etc. Before this, only God existed. The approximate time of this creation took place between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb Jr. are the main proponents of this theory. This became the foundation of a new generation of young Earth creationist thinkers, who organized themselves around Morris' Institute for Creation Research. Sister organizations such as the Creation Research Society have sought to re-interpret geological formations within this young Earth creationist viewpoint.
V. Young-Earth Theory (No Gap--Creation of “Local Heaven” and Earth on 1st day)
This theory differs from the previous one, in that it limits the creation to the raw materials for the earth and the local heavens (including the solar system and local “heavens“) on the first day. In other words, God created the unfilled, unformed (Hebrew--tohu va bohu) earth (including the “deep”) and local galactic and solar heavens at the beginning of the first day of the creation week. O.T. theologian Gerhard Pfandl explains:
This view, held by Luther and Calvin and many Christians since, understands Genesis 1:1 to be part of the first day of the Creation week. Thus verse two describes the condition of the earth immediately after the creation of ‘heaven and earth’ (our planetary system) and before the creation of light. The fourth commandment says, ‘In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them’ (Ex. 20:11; 31:17). According to the traditional Creation theory, the phrase ‘all that is in them’ includes the raw material of the heavens and the earth.
This view does not speak of the creation of the entire universe in Genesis 1:1. Dr. Gerhard Hasel notes that: “verse 1 does not seem to speak of the creation of the entire universe in its totality, but of the [earth] and its surrounding heavenly sphere.” F. Regalado commented:
“When we closely examine Gen. 1, especially such words as ‘in the beginning’ and ‘heaven and earth,’ contextually and linguistically, we can say that the creation narrative is talking only about our world and is silent about the creation of the entire universe . . . .”
Commentator Adam Clarke asserted that “Genesis 1:1 is interpreted “in a more restricted sense to mean the solar system.” Old Testament scholar William Shea echoed this when he wrote: “Genesis 1:1 is even further restricted to the earth and the atmospheric heaven surrounding it.” He also challenges the idea that Genesis 1:1 refers to the universe:
An examination of the occurrences [where ‘heaven and earth’ is used in the Creation account] shows that the word ‘heavens’ does not focus upon the universe, but rather upon the atmospheric heavens that surround this earth . . . Thus the focus of the use of the phrase ‘heavens and the earth’ in Genesis 1 is upon this earth, not the universe . . . This shows the geocentric emphasis of this Creation account.
This Young Earth theory seems to have had roots in ancient Judaism--the commentary on Genesis by Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164). Jose ben Halafta in 160 AD, dates the creation of the world to 3751 BC while the later Seder Olam Zutta to 4339 BC. The Hebrew Calendar has traditionally since the 4th century AD by Hillel II dated the creation to 3761 B.C. Early Christians include Eusebius, Jerome, Hippolytus of Rome, etc. Protestants included Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Melanchthon, Martin Luther, Andreas Helwig, etc. The Seventh-Day Adventist Encyclopedia states: “SDAs have always affirmed belief in creation ex nihilo--that God was not indebted to previously existing matter when He brought the earth into existence. They have generally taken it for granted that it was on the first day of Creation week that He brought into existence the matter that composed the earth and that He proceeded immediately with the work of the six days.”
What difference does it make how we interpret Genesis 1:1, 2? A few points to keep in mind regarding an accurate understanding include: 1 ) Whether or not the world was created from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), 2 ) What the word “Beginning” means--the “beginning of time,” “beginning of the earth,” the “absolute beginning“, etc., 3 ) When were “heaven,” “earth,” “water” created?, 4 ) Is it consistent with other actions of God in Scripture- that He would make an “unfinished” world for millions of years, and come back to complete it later? If so--why? 5 ) Did God really make “the heaven, earth, sea and all that is in them” in six days as the Fourth Commandment declares?, 6 ) There are no other “gaps” in the creation account--if this is the exception, wouldn’t the text make it clear there is a “gap“?, 7 ) Does the dating of geologic formations and strata affect the reading of the text? In the next article, we will see if Genesis 1:1, 2 sheds any light on the meaning of these “Ten Grand Words.”