Seven Days that Divide the World, by John C. Lennox. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 192 pages.
John C. Lennox (PhD, DPhil, DSc) is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He is the author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? on the interface between science, philosophy, and theology. He lectures extensively on mathematics, the philosophy of science, and the intellectual defense of Christianity. He has publicly debated New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
“All Scripture is God-breathed,” Paul declared (2Ti 3:16). Peter agreed: “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pe 1:21). From these and many other passages of Scripture we know that every word of Scripture is God’s own Word and therefore is absolutely true, reliable, and authoritative. That includes the very first words of Scripture written in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. When Moses writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we must take those words as absolutely true. God has created all that exists, and nothing came into existence apart from his creative activity.
Lennox agrees with every word written in the previous paragraph. He firmly believes that all of Scripture is God-breathed and therefore we cannot dismiss any of it just because it does not seem to fit with our human knowledge and understanding. However, he also is a scientist. And as a scientist, he cannot easily dismiss what his colleagues in the secular scientific community proclaim to be the truth about the development of the universe. So, how can he maintain the authority of Scripture and at the same time make sense of the findings of modern science? This brief book is his attempt to do just that.
He starts by discussing another time when the discoveries of contemporary science came into conflict with the church’s teachings concerning the earth. Up until the fifteenth century, it was generally believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around it. The Roman Catholic Church cited various passages of Scripture, such as 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, and Ecclesiastes 1:5, as proof that the geocentric model of the universe was correct. Then in 1543 Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, proposing the view that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. Galileo followed in 1632 with his book Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which supported Copernicus’s “radical” ideas. The Roman Catholic Church famously attacked Galileo for his beliefs and used the Inquisition to force him to recant. But now we know that Copernicus and Galileo were right. The earth is not fixed in one location while the sun, stars, and planets revolve around it. The earth and the rest of the planets revolve around the sun. The church had to adjust its interpretation of all those passages it had formerly used to support its geocentric view of the universe.
Lennox closes this chapter by asking, “Why do Christians accept this ‘new’ interpretation [i.e., the heliocentric view of the universe], and not still insist on a ‘literal’ understanding of the ‘pillars of the earth’? Why are we not still split up into fixed-earthers and moving-earthers? Is it really because we have all compromised, and made Scripture subservient to science?” (19) Lennox’s answer to this question, which he discusses in the second chapter, is that we have not compromised the authority of Scripture in adopting the heliocentric view of the universe. We have, however, given certain passages of Scripture a different, yet legitimate interpretation based on what contemporary science has discovered. “Scripture has the primary authority,” he declares. “Experience and science have helped decide between the possible interpretations that Scripture allows” (33).
“The Galileo incident,” Lennox concludes, “teaches us that we should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The biblical text might just be more sophisticated than we first imagined, and we might therefore be in danger of using it to support ideas that it never intended to teach. The Bible could be understood to teach that the earth was fixed. But it does not have to be understood that way. At least, Galileo thought so in his day, and history has subsequently proved him right” (35).
Could something similar be happening today in the debate over what the days of creation described in Genesis 1 and 2 really were? That question provides the starting point for the rest of the book. In chapter 3, Lennox briefly surveys the main views concerning the days of creation (the literal, 24-hour view; the day-age view; and the framework view) before discussing the different meanings that the word “day” can have in Genesis 1:1—2:4. He pointedly notes that the account of each of the creation days begins with the words, “And God said.” He then draws the conclusion that since Genesis 1:1 does not begin with those words, God did not necessarily intend to convey that “the beginning” mentioned in verse 1 happened on Creation Day 1. He concludes, “It would therefore be logically possible to believe that the days of Genesis are twenty-four hour days (of one earth week) and to believe that the universe is very ancient” (53, emphasis original).
Lennox also notes that in the listing of the creation days, Genesis does not use the definite article for Days 1-5, but it does use the article for Days 6 and 7. Therefore, he argues, “a better translation…would be ‘day one, day two,…,day five, the sixth day, the seventh day’; or ‘a first day, a second day,…, the sixth day, the seventh day’” (52, emphasis original). Based on this entire line of argument, Lennox believes he has found the solution to how he can maintain the absolute authority of Scripture while still taking into account the findings of contemporary science: “The writer [of Genesis] did not intend us to think of the first six days as days of a single earth week, but rather as a sequence of six creation days; that is, days of normal length (with evenings and mornings as the text says) in which God acted to create something new, but days that might well have been separated by long periods of time” (54, emphasis original).
Lennox recognizes that there will be objections to his proposition. Isn’t this contrived to make Scripture subservient to science? Are human beings a special creation of God? How could there be death before the creation and subsequent fall of mankind? In the remainder of the book, he seeks to answer those objections. He maintains that his “solution” does not make Scripture subservient to science: “What I have tried to do so far is to look at what the text of Genesis actually says, irrespective of any scientific considerations, and in light of that to consider possible interpretations” (60). He does believe, based on Scripture, that human beings were a special creation of God and did not evolve from nonhuman hominids (67-74). And he concludes that while human death was a consequence of the Fall, plant and animal life were not. They were instead “part of the cycle of nature” (80). Ultimately, he summarizes his argument in this way:
So what is the best way forward? There seem to me to be four salient considerations:
- The current scientific evidence for an ancient earth.
- The honest and admirable admission of prominent young-earth creationists that “recent creationists should humbly agree that their view is, at the moment, implausible on purely scientific grounds.”…
- The fact that Scripture, although it could be interpreted in terms of a young earth, does not require such an interpretation….
- The fact that we do not know everything….
Factors essentially the same as the first three of these (with ‘young-earth’ replaced by ‘fixed-earth’) would have weighed increasingly with people in the years after Copernicus and Galileo, and would have made them increasingly confident in affirming the new interpretation that fitted more closely with the increased understanding of the universe. There is no reason why the same thing cannot happen today. Just as it was no shame or compromise in the past for people to change their minds over the motion of the earth, so it is no shame or compromise today for people to change their minds about the age of the earth. (86-87)
The book concludes with a final chapter on the message of Genesis 1 as well as five appendices. What are we to make of Lennox’s argument? On the one hand, Lennox’s commitment to the authority of Scripture is commendable. At a time when many Christian church bodies determine their doctrine by popular vote rather than by listening to what Scripture says, it is good to see someone stand up for the fact that every word God has written in the Bible is inspired and absolutely true. However, in spite of Lennox’s repeated assertions that he is not making Scripture subservient to science, it appears to this reviewer that he is doing exactly that. If the secular scientific community were not insisting that the earth is billions of years old, would Lennox have written this book? Would his rather elaborate argument even have occurred to him? Or would he, as he read the opening chapter of Genesis, have taken the days described there in their simplest meaning, that of six 24-hour days of one earth week?
Lennox’s comparison between the debate over the motion of the earth and the debate over the age of the earth fails to distinguish between the different kinds of scientific discovery involved in the two debates. When Copernicus and Galileo proposed that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun, they had direct observations to support their assertions. They looked through their telescopes and directly saw what was happening. They took measurements and used mathematics to construct models of what they saw. They compared what they continued to observe with the models they had constructed and saw that they matched. And today, we can send people into outer space and they can directly see in a way that Copernicus and Galileo could only dream of that the earth and the planets do indeed revolve around the sun. When it comes to the scientific evidence for the ancient age of the earth, there are no such direct observations of what actually happened. No one can go back in time and witness the formation of the universe. All anyone can do is look at what exists today (fossils, rock layers, etc.) and use that evidence to form their own interpretation of how the universe came into being. Interpretations depend heavily on the presuppositions that underlie them. And so, since today’s secular scientific community presupposes that there is no God and that the universe had to develop over billions of years, all their interpretations of the available evidence will be based on those presuppositions. However, to adapt one of Lennox’s own assertions, the fossils, rock layers, and other evidence that we have today, although they could be interpreted in terms of an ancient earth, do not require such an interpretation. When viewed through the biblical presupposition that God created all things in six 24-hours days of one earth week, the same evidence used to support an ancient earth fits well with a young earth. In fact, no directly observable scientific evidence has been found that truly contradicts the Bible’s account of a young earth.
Contrary to Lennox’s assertion, the debate over the age of the earth is not completely parallel to the debate over the motion of the earth. In the debate over the motion of the earth, observable science has shown us that an equally legitimate interpretation of the passages in question is, in fact, the preferable one. And the “new” interpretation does not in any way contradict any other teaching of Scripture. In the debate of the age of the earth, however, there is no observable science that would contradict a simple, literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. And the “new” interpretation proposed by Lennox does create problems when it is held up against the rest of Scripture.
There is no denying that the pressure to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 in terms of an ancient earth is intense. We feel it, even though most of us do not work in the scientific community. One can only imagine how much more intense that pressure is for someone like Lennox, who does work in the scientific community! Yet, no matter how intense the pressure to reinterpret Scripture may be, God’s Word still must stand supreme. When God tells us that he created all things in six 24-hour days of one earth week, we will take him at his word. After all, he is the only one who actually had direct observation of how the universe came into being. And he has so graciously chosen to share his eyewitness account with us.