Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thoughts on Letham's "In the Space of Six Days"

Monday, Meet The Puritans posted an article written by Robert Letham entitled "In the Space of Six Days: The Days of Creation From Origen to the Westminster Assembly." This article was published in the Westminster Theological Journal back in 1999 (Westminster Theological Journal 61 no 2 Fall 1999, p 149-174.). It is important to keep the date of the article's publication in mind, since it was at that time that the days of creation were a hot button issue in the PCA.

Letham's stated thesis in his article is: "This article focuses on how the six days of creation in Genesis 1 have been understood in exegetical history until the time of the Westminster Assembly." (149). He then adds, "We will not argue that any one position on the question is the right way to understand Genesis."

Letham then cites 18 historical examples of theologians who have given their opinion on how the days of creation are to be understood. The people included in his survey are: Origen, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Bede, Anselm, Robert Grossteste, Aquinas, Luther, Bullinger, Calvin, Peter Martyr, "Sixteenth-century Reformed Confessions," Richard Greenham, William Perkins, Ussher, Ames, and lastly "Members of the Westminster Assembly."

Throughout the article, Letham attempts to demonstrate a diversity of views in the Church concerning how we are to understand the days of Genesis. I agree with Letham that there have been divergent views in the past; however, Letham then seeks to conclude that since there have been divergent views in the past, we must still allow divergent views in the present. He writes, "We will be wise to heed the warnings Augustine and Calvin give on the difficulty of interpreting this chapter, and so beware of dogmatic claims they themselves did not advance." (174, emphasis added).

Several things strike me as interesting in this article. First, Letham warns us against "dogmatic claims", and yet allowing the framework view (which he is clearly advocating--see below) to be accepted in Presbyterian denominations is, in fact, a dogmatic position. The dogma moves from "in the space of six days" to "we allow divergent views." One is still making a claim concerning doctrine, the claim has just changed.

Second, while Letham claims to "not argue that any one position on the question is the right way to understand Genesis" (150), it is clear that he is attempting to lay the historical groundwork for justifying acceptance of the Framework Hypothesis. That was, after all, the issue of the day in 1999. Letham clearly supports the Framework Hypothesis when he states of Origen that "a non-literal view of Genesis 1 has a pedigree reaching back to the third century" (151). Then, when commenting on Robert Grossteste's view, Letham writes, "Here, in this medieval scholastic bishop, lie the roots of what eventually became known as the framework hypothesis" (161). His citation of Aquinas immediately follows, and Letham comments, "A generation or so after Grossteste's masterpiece, Aquinas also provides a basic groundwork for what is now known as the framework hypothesis." Interestingly, Letham then adds, "He [Aquinas] asks how this relates to Augustine's position and finds no incompatibility." (163). So, the views of Grossteste and Aquinas, which lay the basic groundwork for the framework hypothesis, have no incompatibility with Augustine's instantaneous creation view.

Letham states that Martin Luther was the "first of the major exegetes we have considered who without ambiguity adopts the interpretation that the days of creation are of twenty-four hour duration, at the same time arguing that the earth is only six thousand years old" (164). But, Letham is not satisfied with Luther's view, and interjects: "in commenting on the seventh day he is silent on the absence of the previous refrain 'and there was evening and there was morning,' an absence that seems to set this day apart from the other six and thus to pose questions as to the nature of the six" (164). So, Luther was explicitly clear as to what he believed the six days of creation were referring to, but because he did not comment on a lack of a phrase on the seventh day, his view is unclear.

Letham's summary of Calvin is perhaps the most disappointing. He begins by asserting, "Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis (1554), does not deal directly with the details of the discussion on the days of creation. This, in itself, may be significant, for he steadfastly refused to engage in speculation, confining himself to what was clearly revealed" (164-5). Of course, this begs the question of what was clearly revealed. Letham goes on to state that the one orthodox figure Calvin opposed was Augustine and the idea of instantaneous creation. Note that previously, Letham has stated that the "basic groundwork" for the framework hypothesis was compatible with Augustine's view and that now Augustine's view is apparently the one position that Calvin feels the need to oppose. However, Letham instead comes to the conclusion that, "is it is as idle to speculate on the time of creation (when it was made) as on the space of creation (where it was made" (166-7). Interestingly, Letham neglects to cite Calvin's views expressed in places other than his comments on Genesis 1 and the Institutes (1:14). Calvin in several places clearly believes in creation in six days (see his comments on Exodus 20:11, Leviticus 22:27, John 5:17, and Acts 12:10 all of which use the explicit language of "in six days.").

Perhaps more troubling than Letham's selective citing of Calvin is his insertion into Calvin's views that Calvin was "correcting Augustine and Grossteste on the basis of scientific discovery" (167). What a poor thing to say about a man who stridently defended the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Yet, this is another theme which runs through Letham's article: that science ought to inform our exegesis. In his introduction, after quoting Grossteste, Letham states, "Why most of us today do not immediately understand the reference in Genesis 1 to the waters above the firmament in the way Augustine and Grossteste did is due to advances in natural science rather than biblical studies. As our understanding of nature has developed so it has impinged on our exegesis of the Bible" (149, emphasis added).

Next on Letham's list after Calvin is Pietro Martire Vermigli (Peter Martyr). After demonstrating that Vermigli believed "This is the strength of our faith, that all things are established by the word of God" (169), Letham goes on to say "Vermigli occupies similar ground to Calvin in granting integrity to science and natural philosophy, allowing it to assist in Biblical exegesis" (169, emphasis added).

Letham's treatment of James Ussher is perhaps the worst of any in the article. He plainly states, "Ussher's reasons [for holding to six-day creation] seem rather lame" (171-2) without any evidence of their "lameness" other than listing Ussher's reasons. Letham attempts to hijack Ussher as one supporting the Framework Hypothesis: "First he created dwelling places, then creatures to dwell in them, the thought that undergirds the later framework hypothesis, foreshadowed in Grossteste and Aquinas" (172, emphasis added). I believe Ussher, the man who calculated the creation of the world to October 23, 4004 BC, would be quite surprised to find that he advocated a non-historical view of the days of creation! Letham less-than-charitably concludes, "The end result is that Ussher considers only part of the evidence and presents it as if it is the whole" (172).

Letham then moves to William Ames, who, like the Westminster divines, affirms that creation "was accomplished part by part in the space of six days" (172). Letham writes that this statement "foreshadows the cryptic reference in The Westminster Confession of Faith" (174). He then adds that "Ames leaves the six days undefined" (172)!

Letham lastly deals with the members of the Westminster Assembly itself. He states, So far our searches in Pollard & Redgrave and Wing have yet to unearth a single work specifically on creation or the book of Genesis composed before 1647 by any member of the Westminster Assembly or other leading Puritan, such as Perkins, Ames, Owen Cartwright, or Fenner" (173). Of course, David Hall has shown that several of the Westminster Divines, as well as other leading Puritans did, in fact, state their views on the days of creation, and that they held to six twenty-four hour days. But, Letham does not stop there. He goes on to accuse the Puritans of not being "interested in interacting with contemporary science [Note: Once again, science enters into theology]. At a time of such scientific and philosophical ferment this is astounding. Their interests had switched to the narrowly soteriological and ecclesiastical" (174, emphasis added). Letham quotes John Leith approvingly: "By the time of Westminster, orthodox theology was already being carried on in isolation from the intellectual currents of the day" (173).

Letham concludes that the text of Genesis 1 is not clear, that we ought to "beware of dogmatic claims" that men such as Augustine and Calvin "did not advance" (174), that "until the mid-sixteenth century the interpreters we cited were all abreast of the philosophy and science of their day, and often made us of it in biblical interpretation" (174, emphasis added), that the days of creation were "never a matter of confessional significance" to the Reformers (174), and finally that the Puritans "never attempted a serious theological interpretation of creation," because, as quoted above, "their interests had switched to the narrowly soteriological and ecclesiastical" (174).

What, then are we to conclude after reading Letham's piece? First, that although he clearly states he will not argue that any one position on the question is the right way to understand Genesis, his bias in favor of the Framework Hypothesis is clearly demonstrated. Second, Letham also advances a position in opposition to the Westminster Confession, chapter 1.9 ("The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.") when he repeatedly advocates science and natural philosophy be used "to assist Biblical exegesis" (149 and see also 167, 169). Third, Letham seems to indicate that there may not be any one way to correctly understand the creation account, which is also contrary to WCF 1.9 which states that the true and full sense of any Scripture is not manifold, but one. There is one correct way to understand the days of creation, and that one correct way is stated in WCF 4.1: that creation took place "in the space of six days." Fourth, Letham seems to align the Framework Hypothesis with Augustine's instantaneous creation view, when he writes, without qualification, that Aquinas "finds no incompatibility" (163) with Augustine's view and Aquinas's own proto-framework view. This is very interesting, since Letham himself admits that it is Augustine's view in particular which Calvin opposed (165-6). Fifth, Letham notes that Augustine's view of instantaneous creation is based on Sirach 18--a passage from the Apocrypha. Sirach 18 is cited four times in Letham's article: Augustine used it to support his view, Anselm and Aquinas both cite it, and Calvin addresses it as well. The problem is that Letham never states a negative word about this citation by Augustine et. al. of apocryphal literature! The one objection that is noted by Letham is not that Augustine's view was based on non-authoritative human writings (WCF 1.3), but, as Calvin pointed out, Augustine used a bad translation of the Apocrypha (166)!

This article demonstrates a clear agenda by Letham to promote the Framework Hypothesis and in so doing, Letham sacrifices much more than the Confession's language of "in the space of six days," as the whole Westminster hermeneutic is brushed aside to make way for science to enter into exegesis. This article is better classified as propaganda for the Framework Hypothesis than as academic research deserving of publication in a theological journal.


  1. Thank you Brother for your critique.

    We live in perilous times when even those who call themselves "Evangelical" or "Reformed" submit to that dragon called "Evolutionary science".

    God bless.

  2. Thank you for such an article brother. The WTS have shown themselves more interested in the traditions of reputable men desiring to conform to secular speculation(Warfield, Machen, Kline etc) than the Holy Scriptures.

    What a measured reply and rebuke to such confabulations.