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A Critique of the Framework Hypothesis

In 1985 the Eureka Classis of our denomination adopted two resolutions regarding the length of days in Genesis one.

  • Frank Houston Walker, Jr.,
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In 1985 the Eureka Classis of our denomination adopted two resolutions regarding the length of days in Genesis one. The first sets forth the position of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) on this issue: "The Eureka Classis affirms that God created the heavens and the earth in six normal days which were chronological periods of light and darkness as recorded in the book of Genesis."

A popular alternative to this traditional interpretation of the creation days is the framework hypothesis. Some of the ideas that eventually became part of this theory began to take form among liberal theologians in Germany in the middle of the last century, but Professor Arie Noordzij of the University of Utrecht first used it as an interpretive tool for Genesis one in 1924. Dr. Meredith G. Kline started teaching it at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) nearly half a century ago. Through him it has impacted the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and other Reformed communions.

The second statement that the Eureka Classis adopted in 1985 addresses the framework view as it was being taught at Westminster. It reads, "That the Eureka Classis, Reformed Church in the United States, register a protest against the teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in California and Philadelphia which questions the chronological sequence of the six normal days of light and darkness in Genesis one. We believe that this skeptical interpretation of Holy Scripture is dangerous to the faith and theology of the students and to the churches which these students shall serve." Westminster Seminary in California responded with a letter of several pages. The Executive Committee then recommended, inasmuch as the two resolutions quoted above were adopted almost unanimously, that each Consistory write to Westminster to affirm our overwhelming agreement on this issue. Whether any Consistory did so is not stated in the record. The next year the representative of Westminster Seminary in California asked for time to address the Synod concerning this issue. Following this address, the Synod reaffirmed its commitment to the two resolutions of the previous year. Since that time, the Synod has neither amended nor rescinded its position.

A Matter Worth Fighting Over
But is this something worth fighting for? The Southern California Presbytery of the OPC apparently does not think it is. In a debate over the licensure of a man who holds to the framework hypothesis, several commissioners said that they could not see any way that a person coming to Scripture with a Reformed hermeneutic could arrive at any conclusion other than six-day creation, but they did not want to make this a qualifying issue.

The RCUS takes a different view. The length of days is not really the issue. If God had wanted to make the entire universe in two seconds, he could have done so. Augustine thought it was even shorter than this. He could not imagine any reason why it would have taken an omnipotent God six days to do anything. Or if God had wanted to stretch out his creative activity to a hundred million years, that is also within the realm of his power. The issue at the heart of this controversy is not the length of days in Genesis one, but one's view of Scripture. The approach of the Reformed church historically is grammatical and historical. Our goal is to interpret the statements of Scripture in their historical context. The framework hypothesis, on the other hand, relies to one degree or another on an additional element, namely, genre criticism. Because different rules apply to different genres of literature, the re-categorization of a piece of literature will necessarily cause its reader to ask a different set of questions. When a book begins with the words, "Once upon a time. . . ,"we do not ask, "When did this take place?"We know that we are reading fiction and questions of history are irrelevant. But when a book begins, "The significance of Einstein's theory of relativity is . . . ,"history, science, mathematics, philosophy and a host of other subjects immediately raise their heads. The framework hypothesis removes Genesis one from history and reclassifies it as a poetic teaching device. The implication of this is that, although there are certain ideas in Genesis one that are historical (e.g., the creation of the universe), the precise details (e.g., chronology) need not be interpreted in a straightforward manner.

Recently, Mr. Futato of WTS (Escondido) wrote an article to supplement Kline's 1958 article. In this he uses genre criticism to turn the first chapter of Genesis into a polemic against Canaanite Baal worship. This is a reaction to the liberals who often claim that Genesis one is an adaptation of Baal mythology. His evidence for this is far from conclusive. Although it is well beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate his arguments, his paper shows how re-categorizing the genre of Genesis one changes the way we look at it.

The RCUS has considered the literary approach of genre criticism as well. In 1991 the Synod formed a committee to study the doctrine of Scripture as it is taught at WTS (Philadelphia). I was on that committee. My particular assignment was to study the views of Dr. Raymond Dillard. When I finished my report, I submitted it to Dr. Dillard to confirm that I had represented his views fairly and accurately; in fact, to be fair I purposely biased my report in his favor. Though I criticized his views, he admitted that my assessment of his teaching was correct. This report was presented to the RCUS Synod in 1995. I also wrote the conclusion, which begins, "Your committee concludes that there is a cause for concern about various forms of expression used by some professors at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), that, at the very least, obfuscate the historic, orthodox understanding of Scripture as defined by the Reformed creeds."The Synod adopted this report. Thus, ten years after defining its position on the days of creation, the Synod expressed its disapproval of the hermeneutical approach that allows one to hold to the framework hypothesis.

It has been said that six-day creation is a test of orthodoxy in the RCUS. This does not mean that we condemn or approve the whole of a man's theology solely on his view of creation, but that a man who holds to the day-age theory or the framework hypothesis holds to a view of creation unacceptable to the RCUS and is therefore ineligible for the office of elder or pastor.

Naturally, those who hold to other views want us to be more tolerant. They argue that the matter is not that clear, that it is a matter of interpretation. The fact is that every doctrine is a matter of interpretation, but this does not affect the fact that each church (denomination) has a God-given responsibility to determine which interpretation it believes to be the teaching of Scripture. We do this with Christology, theology proper, soteriology, and eschatology. By what logic, then, are we forbidden to adopt a standard concerning the doctrine of creation, especially if that standard is what the church has generally held down through the ages and is the most natural reading of the text?

The Framework Hypothesis
The framework hypothesis holds that the "days" of creation have nothing to do with time, but are "forms" or "images" designed by God to help us understand creation. It is as if a person takes a trip across the United States. When he returns, he arranges his photographs by subject rather than in the order they were taken. Hence pictures of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are on one page, pictures of the Rockies and Appalachians on another, and the deserts of California and New Mexico on a third. Those who hold to the framework theory find it necessary to interpret Genesis one in this way because they believe that there are certain inconsistencies in Genesis one that compel a non-literal, non-chronological interpretation. Based on these supposed inconsistencies and the parallelism of the days, Genesis one is reclassified as a "literary device," "poetry," or "semi-poetic teaching device," from which we are to draw the conclusion that it cannot be accepted at face value as far as its chronology is concerned.

Here are some of the alleged inconsistencies noted by those who espouse the framework theory: (1) The sun was not created until Day Four (vv. 14-19). Since the sun is the instrument used for measuring "days," there was no way to measure the first three days. How then are we to determine their length? (2) On the seventh day God rested from creation. He has not created anything since then, but has rather taken an eternal delight in his works (as we read in Hebrews 4). Thus, it is held, the seventh day is an eternal day and not a normal day. This at least leaves open the possibility that the other six days may be something other than normal days, too. But the greatest inconsistency, as the framework view holds it, is this: (3) Genesis 2:5, in describing Day Three, shows that God's modus operandi during the creation week was ordinary providence. Yet, if Day Three was a literal twenty-four hour day, this could not be, for it is impossible for all the water that covered the earth to have evaporated in that amount of time. However, the problem disappears if Day Three was longer than a normal day.

The poetic structure is fairly straightforward. It is as if there are two sets of days (Days One through Three and Days Four through Six). These two sets of days are actually describing the same creation-events. Days One and Four are the same, as are Days Two and Five, and Days Three and Six:

Day 1 — light
Day 2 — separation of water and air
Day 3 — dry land and plants
Day 4 — light-bearers
Day 5 — birds and fish
Day 6 — inhabitants of dry land (animals, man)

Sometimes it is said that the first set of days portrays the spheres of creation and the second set the filling of the spheres. Others say that the first three days give the kingdoms and the second set the kings of the kingdoms. It would be hard to deny that there is some parallelism here. Is it not part of the beauty of creation?

Early Criticisms
Now, before we consider responses to these matters, there are a few things that I would like to say about the framework hypothesis in general.

First, how many theologians have studied the first two chapters of Genesis over the centuries and have never seen these inconsistencies to be of such a magnitude that warrant a completely new theory of creation? For example, Calvin's comment on Genesis 2:5 shows an awareness of the problem mentioned earlier, but he offers an obvious solution: "But although he has before related that the herbs were created on the third day, yet it is not without reason that here again mention is made of them, in order that we may know that they were then produced, preserved, and propagated, in a manner different from that which we perceive at the present day."Here Calvin assumes that Genesis 2:5 is not a description of Day Three, for, though plants were certainly "produced"and "preserved"during the twenty-four hour period of Day Three, which he firmly believed, it would be quite a stretch to say that they "propagated"in that time. In his commentary on Genesis one, E. J. Young comes to the same conclusion and suggests that the framework theory crumbles when the assumption that Genesis 2:5 refers to Day Three is rejected. To the present writer's knowledge, this argument has never been satisfactorily answered.

Second, the framework approach causes problems for the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This doctrine says that the things necessary for our learning are so clearly revealed that even those of considerably diminished capacity can understand them well enough to be blessed by them. Of course, this does not mean that everything in the Bible is equally clear. If this were true, there would be no debate on many subjects. However, the doctrine of creation is essential for our understanding of origins, the person and work of Christ, regeneration, and the last things, to name a few; and it is referred to time and time again. It seems rather preposterous that only Jews of the fifteenth-century B. C. who may have been considering Canaanite Baal worship and twentieth-century theologians with an enlightened view of language have adequate knowledge to interpret Genesis one properly. The rest of the church throughout the ages has been hopelessly duped by the simple language of the narrative. Even Marcus Dods, a liberal Scottish theologian of the last century, agrees; he wrote, "If, for example, the word 'day' in these chapters does not mean a period of twenty-four hours, the interpretation of Scripture is hopeless."

And finally, there are no clear limits to the framework theory. If the so-called inconsistencies and literary devices warrant a reinterpretation of Genesis one, why not do the same with Genesis three? After all, if a talking serpent is not extraordinary, we would be hard pressed to find something that is. The same problem applies to the Flood and the tower of Babel. The miracles of Christ can be dismissed on the same basis. Young insists that even the resurrection of Christ cannot stand. In fact, this is exactly the approach that the liberals have taken. Once the door is opened, nothing holds together.

Inconsistencies and Poetry?
Now, let us move on to the "inconsistencies"mentioned earlier. I believe that their answers are fairly simple and straightforward. This is why theologians of previous eras were not bothered by them.

Can there be "time"without the sun? While it is true that the first three days had no sun, they were not without light (which was created on the first day) and this light, whatever its source may or may not have been (and certainly we believe that an omnipotent God can create light without a source of light), waxed and waned in periods of "evening and morning."If time is defined as the succession of events, as Augustine said, this certainly qualifies. By the repeated use of this phrase and the ordinals (first, second, third, etc.), the exegetical boundaries of the days of Genesis one are clearly defined. Elsewhere in Scripture, wherever both criteria are used, literal days are in view.

Even the length of the seventh day cannot be denied on the grounds that it was not described as "evening and morning."It differs qualitatively from the other six days, being a day of rest, not labor, and as such would allow an alternate closing. In fact, it seems that the early verses of Genesis two are just as definitive for the length of Day Seven as the other indicators are for the first six days. Notice, for example, that it is called the seventh day three times; that is, it is the seventh of whatever the first six were. If the first six days were normal days, the seventh day must be a normal day, too. This is especially so since by Day Seven the sun was in place and operating as the keeper of time. Thus, as far as creation was concerned, Day Seven was exactly twenty-four hours in duration.

As for Genesis one being poetry, it seems that there is an unspoken assumption that literary form and literal meaning are mutually exclusive. This, I believe, necessarily involves an incomplete and defective view of language. But why must we assume that poetry is literally false? Are the Psalms literally false simply because they employ Hebrew parallelism? If so, then every time a man writes a love poem to his sweetie he may actually be telling her how much he hates her. Likewise, the disjunction between literary form and literal chronology cannot be accepted without doing great harm to the Bible. Jean-Marc Berthoud, a Swiss Reformed scholar, says, "What difficulty would it be for [the Author of the Universe] to cause the most complex, refined literary form to coincide with the very way in which He Himself created all things in six days? Artistic form is in no sense opposed to an actual relation of facts, especially since the Author of the account is none less than the actual Creator of the facts which are described in that account. . . ."

As a matter of fact, the parallelism of the creation narrative is not as exact as we are asked to believe. Again, Young deals with this in a rigorous argument covering several pages, but for our purposes I will quote just two paragraphs:

Do the second and fifth days parallel one another? On day two there is a twofold fiat ("let there be a firmament ... and let it divide") and the fulfillment consists of two acts of God ("God made ... divided"), followed by a further act ("God called"). On the fifth day there is also a twofold fiat ("let the waters bring forth ... and the fowl let it fly") and then comes a fulfillment consisting of a threefold creative act of God ("God created ... great whales ... every living thing ... every winged fowl") and this is followed by two additional acts of God ("God saw ... God blessed"). As far as form is concerned, the parallelism is by no means exact.
Nor is there exact parallelism in content. The swarming waters and their inhabitants which were created in the fifth day are not to be identified with the primeval waters of day two. Rather, it is expressly stated that the fish are to fill the waters in the seas (verse 22), and the seas were brought into existence on the third day. For that matter, if a mere parallel with water is sought, we may note that "the waters"and the "abyss"are mentioned in verse two also.

In a footnote Young says that this is sufficient "to show that the alleged parallelism between days two and five is an illusion."At least it is not complete enough to warrant a theory based on it.

Genesis 2:5
Since Genesis 2:5 is a pivotal passage for defenders of the framework hypothesis, I want to deal with it in greater detail. To repeat what we said earlier: the problem here is that Genesis 2:5 seems to conflict with Day Three. Day Three, if taken literally, pictures the drying up of the land at an abnormally rapid rate, but Genesis 2:5 suggests that God used processes of ordinary providence, including secondary causes (mist, rain, etc.), to make the world.

Mark Futato believes that Genesis 2:5-7 is a "logical, highly structured, and perfectly coherent"presentation of two problems, their reasons and their solutions. The problems are stated in the first half of verse 5: there was neither "wild vegetation"(plant of the field) nor "cultivated grain"(herb of the field) in the earth. The reasons why these two kinds of plants did not exist are given at the end of verse 5: there was no wild vegetation because the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no cultivated grain because there was not a man to till the ground. The solution to the lack of rain, which kept the wild vegetation from germinating, can be found in verse 6: God caused "rain clouds"(Futato's interpretation) to arise from the earth and water the whole ground. The absence of a cultivator is supplied in verse 7, where the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground. He concludes that these normal processes (rain and human cultivation) were present during the time of creation since these verses describe the origin of certain plants. In a footnote, he specifically says that "other biblical accounts of creation [Ps. 104:13 and Prov. 3:19-20 in particular, but probably including Job 38-39] ... testify to the presence of rain from the beginning."

It seems that it is the concept of "other biblical accounts of creation"that causes the problem. The assumption seems to be that these other creation accounts diverge from each other so much that we must find a way to harmonize them. But a discrepancy appears only if we treat the other creation accounts as if they were independent of each other. In other words, we must assume the problem in order to find one. This is a clear case of petitio principii (begging the question). One would be hard pressed to find any indication of chronological sequence in the other so-called accounts; yet, this is exactly what Genesis one purports to offer. If only one account claims to be chronological, the difficulty vanishes.

All this is to say that Genesis 2:4 ff. is not a second version of the creation narrative. The account of the creation of heaven and earth concludes with Genesis 2:3. Genesis 2:4 begins with the phrase, These are the generations. Many years ago, Dr. Young demonstrated that this phrase, which occurs several times in Genesis, always introduces the results of the previous section. Thus, Genesis 2:4 introduces a new section that concentrates on one aspect of the completed creation, namely, the creation of man. It first considers the environment in which man would appear and then narrates the creation of man and his helper. Thus, Genesis 2:5 is not another explanation of Day Three, but a detailed description of an already created world with specific information relating to man's place in that world.

Genesis 2:5-7 anticipates the story that follows. Its function in the narrative is akin to the heading or subheadings of a newspaper article. That is, they provide the basic story, but the details of that story come in what follows.

The plants mentioned in Genesis 2:5 are the same as those mentioned in Genesis 3:18. In fact, exactly the same words are used for herb of the field. Thus, Futato's definition of these plants as "wild vegetation"and "cultivated grain"is essentially correct. But what he misses is that neither of these kinds of plant life grew before the Fall exactly as they grew afterward. When Adam sinned, God cursed the entire world: Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (Gen. 3:18-19). Wild vegetation became a hindrance and an annoyance to man; God himself would provide rain to cause it to flourish in man's world. Cultivated grain needed the tireless labor of a cultivator. Fallen man will eat only by the sweat of his brow. No more would Adam and Eve simply reach out their hands to eat the abundant fruit of the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:5-7, then, helps the reader understand the drastic change that took place as a result of Adam's sin.

Earlier we said that Genesis 2:5 is not about Day Three. Now we see that there is no necessity to go in that direction; the reference to the absence of rain can be interpreted in another way that allows Genesis one to maintain its chronology. There is no need to interpret the days of Genesis one as anything other than days of normal duration as we know them today. In fact, Genesis one does not allow anything else.

Throughout Scripture, creation is spoken of as a six-day event. The clearest of these is the fourth commandment. When Moses gave the law to the Israelites, they knew what days were because they spent many of them out in the hot desert sun making bricks. The fourth commandment obligated them to follow the pattern for labor that God himself established at the very beginning. Now, if the days of Genesis one are not the same kind of days that we know today, then this commandment makes no sense. "God put together six images of creation and then rested forever; therefore, we must work six days and rest one day"? This is called the fallacy of equivocation; that is, the meaning of the terms is not consistent throughout the argument.

Kline recognizes the force of this argument, though he obviously does not want to admit it or accept it. He says, "The argument that Genesis 1 must be strictly chronological because man's six days of labor follow one another in chronological succession forces the argument unnecessarily."He does not say why he thinks so, but continues, "The logic of such argument would not allow one to stop short of the conclusion that the creation 'days' must all have been of equal duration and twenty-four hours at that."So it does. Dr. Kline has unwillingly established our case.

This shows something else. Not only is the correct view of creation necessary for sound doctrine, but also for ethics. The framework hypothesis says that God structured the creation account with the six-to-one ratio to lay the groundwork for the fourth commandment to be given later. But if creation did not take place in six days, why did God find it necessary to make up a story to base the fourth commandment on? Could he not simply have given us the fourth commandment without a reason for it? What motivation is there to obey a God who manufactures reasons for our obedience?

  • Frank Houston Walker, Jr.
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