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Bob Godfrey On The Days Of Creation

Category Articles
Date November 26, 2004

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is well known as a very articulate spokesman for the Reformed faith. He has taught church history for about three decades on the campuses of both Westminster seminaries (Philadelphia and Escondido, California). He is currently president of Westminster Seminary in California as well as an associate pastor of the Escondido United Reformed Church.

Godfrey’s abilities are not limited to matters of church history and confessional theology. He is a student of Scripture, notably in the Psalms, and as this book (God’s Pattern for Creation: a Covenantal Reading of Genesis 1, P&R Publishing Co. 2003, 141 pages) displays, also Genesis. This book arises out of an adult Sunday school class that Godfrey led in the Escondido URC. Consequently, he makes it his explicit aim to write simply and plainly for “thoughtful church members” (p.16). Thus the book is not an academic treatise with language that goes above the heads of its readers. Godfrey achieves his goal of writing to be understood, keeping to Calvin’s own goal of “lucid brevity” in the exposition of Scripture. The book is divided into two principal sections, namely, his explanation of the teaching of the seven days of the original creation week (through p.96), followed by about 40 pages of selected appendices that discuss various views on creation in the Reformed tradition. Godfrey wants us to read all of Scripture covenantally. In brief, a covenant is “the divinely established relationship between humanity and God” (p.16). This provides a context for all that the Bible says to us. The Bible does not provide “abstract tidbits of knowledge” (p.17). Thus the history provided in Genesis presents an introduction to the (Mosaic) covenant made at Sinai between God and His people. Furthermore, Godfrey correctly notes that Genesis is organized into sections that begin with the phrase, “these are the generations of…”, beginning at Genesis 2:4. His study focuses on the introductory section (Gen. 1:1-2:3), although in the third chapter (“The Message of Genesis 1”,) Godfrey ranges into several following chapters of Genesis. Says Godfrey, “It is the introduction to the introduction, the historical background to the historical background” (p.20). All of this is helpful and to the point.

Godfrey notes (pp.32, 33) the important literary patterns used in Genesis 1: “it was so” (seven times) and “God said,” (ten times), etc. These observations, noted by others, are well-taken. The “text is constructed not only around seven days but around many other elements as well” (p.33). At several points Godfrey appeals to passages in poetic, wisdom (Job), or prophetic material to note Hebrew literary devices. However, while granting their use in such literature, it still begs this question: is Genesis 1 poetry or wisdom or apocalyptic literature? It reads like historical narrative but the kind that has employed the repetition of certain formulaic statements (e.g., fulfillment and naming statements). Genesis 1 is not poetry, at least not classical Hebrew poetry. And it is not that Godfrey says that it is poetry; yet his appeal to the Psalms and Job to explain the narrative of Genesis 1 is at least questionable. Godfrey notes (p. 83) that there are no reflections on the “days” of creation in books like Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, etc., while we do read inspired reflections on creation. But that observation does not really prove a lot since those books do not say a great deal specifically about man in the image of God either. Godfrey and all Reformed believers would affirm the importance of the doctrine of man’ creation in the image of God, I am sure.

The days of Genesis 1 are described as periods of evening and morning (although the seventh day lacks that notation), they are numbered sequentially, culminating in a verdict of “very good” and in a final day of rest. But Godfrey repeatedly tells the reader that one must not read Genesis as simple chronology (see, e.g., p.44). He writes: “Genesis 1 is not an encyclopedia of history…” (p.31). While it is true that Genesis 1 is not modern-day historiography, one wonders not only what is affirmed in that claim but also what is denied or excluded from such a statement. In all the discussions about Genesis 1, what is historical and with that, of course, is the question whether everyone works with the same definition of what is “historical.”

Godfrey on Genesis is a student of Meredith Kline, and this is evident in his frequent appeals to another student of Kline, Lee Irons, whose work (with Kline) is found in the book, “The Genesis Debate” (edited by David Hagopian, published by Crux Press, 2001). Despite the several helpful points Godfrey discusses, he inserts a distracting discussion on page 51 where he introduces “one approach” which he calls the “framework interpretation” (called an hypothesis by others), a view that treats the “days of Genesis 1 as a figurative framework for revealing God’s work of creation.” Here Godfrey appeals to the Irons-Kline essay in “The Genesis Debate,” previously mentioned. Irons (with Kline) argues for the framework interpretation on three grounds: first, Genesis 1 presents two triads of days (“kingdoms” set in place on days 1-3 and “kings” set in place on days 4-6); second, the Genesis 2:5 passage (there were no plants because there was no rain) “clearly” indicates that ordinary providence was at work in the creation period; and third, the “two-register cosmology” described throughout the creation account (upper register refers to the heavenly throne-room with the angels; lower register refers to the earth).

Given the constraints of this review, not every point of the framework interpretation can be addressed here. Interestingly, Godfrey raises his own questions and hesitations about the first and third grounds for the framework interpretation. The two-triads “insight has limits” (p.52), and it is not clear that the two-register cosmology is a “helpful key with reference to the days of Genesis 1” (p.53). Indeed, if days 1 and 4 are the same in the sense that the same act is seen from different points of view (which Godfrey argues on p.42), then are there in fact six days? The answer (according to Irons, with Kline) presumably is that the days of Genesis 1 belong to the upper register’s calculation of time, not the lower register of time.

As for the second argument for the framework view (Genesis 2:5 “clearly” relates vegetation growth to the “ordinary providence of rain” and thus ordinary providence is operative throughout the creation period), several answers have been offered by scholars such as Umberto Cassuto, E.J. Young, et al. In fact there is no discrepancy between the description of God’s creative work on the third day and what is said in Genesis 2:5. One might point out that Genesis 1:11-12 describes the earth bringing forth grass and trees with their seed-bearing fruit in place. By the sixth day, when man is created, certainly fruit is available as food. Genesis 2:5, on the other hand, uses words that likely are looking forward to the vegetation that arises following the covenantal test and judgment (see Gen. 3:18). Genesis 2:5 says that the grass/herb of the field had not yet blossomed; it does not say that such did not exist. In other words, Genesis 2:5 does not take us back to the third day of the creation week; it puts us back in the sixth day, and it looks forward to what would result from man’s covenantal obedience and his labor. The creation week is a week of miracles that sets in place God’s ordinary providences that we experience in His creation.

Godfrey summarizes the teaching of Genesis 1 under three points (pp. 89,90). First, Genesis 1 is “the foundation of our covenantal relationship with God.” Second, Moses has constructed “an intricate literary text in Genesis 1.” Third, the days of Genesis 1 are “ordinary, twenty-four-hour days.” Yet he qualifies this when he writes, “The days are actual for us but figurative for God.” They are a model for us, not a time schedule for God. He adds in his final section that “the days of creation are figurative descriptions of the actions of God” (p.93). If the reader senses unease here in Godfrey’s words (“actual days… figurative for God… figurative descriptions”) he is not alone.

A covenantal reading of Genesis 1 does not need the exegetically questionable framework interpretation to under gird it. It adds nothing helpful to his main point and thus distracts the reader. “Traditional readings” (which are not all the same in their details) have also drawn attention to man as vice-gerent who works to develop the creation, and whose work culminates in time but also ultimately in the eschatological Sabbath rest. Godfrey is most helpful to the reader when he stays with the development of the thesis in his book that the “purpose and message of Genesis 1 is that God created the world for humankind – a world in which man could be the image of God in his working and his resting” (p. 85). This is what the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:11 has always held before us: we work for six days and rest on the Sabbath day, because God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh day. In our work and our rest, we are called to image the Creator God.

Reviewed by Mark Vander Hart in Christian Renewal, Volume 23#3, October 6 2004 and printed by permission. Christian Renewal, PO Box 777, Jordan Station, Ontario, LOR 1SO, Canada.

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