Bavinck the Dogmatician: Bavinck’s Interpretation of the Account of Creation in Genesis (1)

In my previous article on Bavinck’s exposition of the key features of the doctrine of creation, I observed that conservative Reformed believers often are preoccupied with debates regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1, and particularly the issue of the length of the creation days. Unlike Bavinck, who begins his treatment of the doctrine of creation with a more comprehensive, theological reflection on the significance of the doctrine, many contemporary treatments of creation focus almost exclusively on controversies relating to the interpretation of Genesis 1, and the extent to which such interpretation should be shaped by attempts to harmonize Scripture and modern scientific theories about evolution and human origins.

Though differences of opinion may remain regarding the precise understanding of some aspects of the Genesis account of creation, Bavinck’s approach reminds us that it is most important to affirm the foundational significance of the Bible’s teaching that the triune God created all things out of nothing by his sovereign goodness and power. In the biblical worldview, a sharp distinction must be drawn between the triune God, who eternally and necessarily exists in the fullness of his being and attributes, and all creation, which owes its existence, qualities, and history to the free and wise counsel of its Creator and Lord. God alone is self-existent and independent. The creation is utterly dependent and wholly subordinate to God’s glory. In the context of contemporary discussions of how to read the account of creation in Genesis 1, we must not neglect the profound implications of the doctrine of creation for a biblical worldview.

While Bavinck does not begin his discussion of the doctrine of creation with a reflection on the creation account in Genesis 1, he does turn to this controversial subject in a chapter in his Reformed Dogmatics, which bears the title, “Earth: The Material World.” In this chapter, Bavinck offers an extended interpretation of Genesis 1. In the course of his interpretation of the account of creation, Bavinck seeks to avoid the dangers of an inappropriate deference to the theories of modern science on the one hand, and of an undue dogmatism about the interpretation of some features of the creation account on the other. The interpretation of Genesis 1 must be governed by the ordinary requirements of responsible biblical exegesis. But at the same time interpreters of the account of creation in Genesis 1 must be aware of the challenges of modern scientific theories. It is no more advisable for interpreters of Genesis 1 to be prematurely and excessively dogmatic about their understanding of its teaching than some scientists are regarding their preferred theories.

Biblical and Non-biblical Accounts of Creation

Bavinck opens his consideration of the biblical account of creation with an interesting observation about human knowledge of the material world. Whereas the doctrine of the creation and being of the spiritual world, including the existence of angels, is one that can only be known through divine revelation, “the material world is visible to all and comes up for consideration in philosophy as well as in theology, in religion as well as in science” (RD 2:474). Because the knowledge of the visible creation is shared by theologians, philosophers, and scientists alike, it is not surprising that there are often clashes among them regarding the origin and nature of the created order. Such clashes can scarcely be avoided by an artificial division of labor, which proposes to restrict the range of theology to questions of ethics or religious truth, and to grant to philosophy and science an exclusive access to the knowledge of the visible world. According to Bavinck, such a division is “theoretically as well as practically” impossible. “Just as every scientific system is ultimately rooted in religious convictions, so there is not a single religion that does not bring with it a certain view of the created world” (RD 2:474). Though it is tempting to resort to such a division of labor, there can finally be no absolute separation between religious and scientific knowledge. The biblical doctrine of creation is itself the foundation for all knowledge and understanding. And so Christian theology has an obligation to address whatever apparent differences there may between theology and science, especially on the doctrine of creation.

After noting the inescapable need to address apparent conflicts between theology and the other sciences on the subject of creation, Bavinck addresses the tendency among many theologians and historians of his time to draw comparisons between the biblical account of creation and the creation stories among the ancient Babylonians. With the translation and publication in 1876 of the Babylonian story of creation, the Enuma Elish, many theologians and students of biblical history were inclined to find a variety of parallels between them. Since the Babylonian civilization that produced the Enuma Elish existed centuries before the emergence of the people of Israel as a distinct nation, “many scholars wondered whether all that was uniquely Israelite could not be explained in terms of Babylon” (RD 2:374).

In his evaluation of the “pan-Babylonianism” of biblical scholarship among his contemporaries, Bavinck acknowledges that there are apparent parallels between the Babylonian account of creation and that found in Genesis. However, these parallels are often exaggerated and then seized on in order to undermine the uniqueness and authority of the biblical account. Rather than explaining the sources that lie behind the biblical account of creation, the Babylonian account (and similar accounts among other ancient peoples) is best explained as a corruption of the biblical story of creation, the rudiments of which continued to be known in an adulterated form among the ancient peoples of the earth. Despite the similarities between the biblical and the Babylonian account of creation, the biblical account remains in many respects a unique and unparalleled recounting of God’s work of creation. “The creation narrative in Genesis is utterly unique; it is devoid of any trace of a theogony [a story of creation that is the story of the ‘birthing’ of the gods], is rigorously monotheistic, teaches a creation out of nothing, and knows nothing of primary matter. It therefore is unbelievable that the Jews, in exile or even earlier in Canaan, borrowed this story from the Babylonians” (RD 2:477). Rather than downgrading the biblical account of creation, we should regard it as the source of alternative accounts, which often corrupt the story of creation that was only “preserved in its purity in Israel” (RD 2:478).

The Creation Account of Genesis 1

After his introductory comment on the inevitable clash between biblical and unbiblical accounts of creation, Bavinck turns his attention directly to the account of the creation week in Genesis 1.

The first point that Bavinck emphasizes in his treatment of Genesis 1 is that “the first verse needs to be read as an account of an independent fact” (RD 2:478). In this opening verse, we are immediately informed that the entire cosmos was created by God. Then in the second verse of Genesis 1, we are told what the created world was like before God in the six days of the work-week of creation further fashioned the world into a form with which he was pleased. When the original state of the created world is described as “without form and void,” we should not mistake this to mean a world of “chaos” or a world that had become “disordered” by comparison to an earlier, more perfected state. “The state of the earth in Genesis 1:2 is not that of positive destruction but of not-yet-having-been shaped. There is no light, no life, no organic creature, no form and configuration in things” (RD 2:378).

In Bavinck’s understanding of the opening of the Genesis account of creation, we need to use an old distinction in Christian theology between what is called “first creation” (creatio prima) and “second creation” (creation secunda). The first two verses of the account provide a concise statement of the “first creation,” the act whereby God called immediately the entire heaven and earth into existence out of nothing. In the act of “first creation,” there is no divine work of preservation or providential government, no process in which God makes use of the stuff of creation that already exists and that requires further ordering or perfecting. In the remainder of the account of Genesis 1:3ff., which describes the six successive days of God’s acts of further creation, we have a description of the “second creation.” Subsequent to God’s original act in calling the creation into existence, God creates the light and separates the light and the darkness, calling the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

One important implication of Bavinck’s use of the traditional distinction between “first” and “second” creation is that the duration of the original state of the earth in its formlessness and emptiness remains unknown to us. Because Bavinck regards the language of verses 1–2, which record God’s act of immediate and direct creation of the world out of nothing, to describe the state of the world “anterior to the first day” that is described in verses 3–5, he claims that we cannot know how long the world existed in its original state of formlessness before God began to order and adorn it during the work-week of creation. Perhaps the period of time between the “first” and “second” creation was short; perhaps it was a period of more extended duration. But however long this period, it seems that it “certainly lasted for some time” (RD 2:478). Though Bavinck resists the temptation to offer an opinion about the relative “age” of the earth at this point, he interprets the Genesis account of creation in a way that argues against undue dogmatism about a “young” versus an “old” earth view. In Bavinck’s reading of Genesis 1:1–2, since the biblical account leaves the question of the age of the earth open, theologians ought to avoid the temptation to undue dogmatism regarding it.1

The account of creation in Genesis 1:3ff. primarily focuses on God’s work on the six successive days of the creation week, which constitutes a divinely authorized sabbatical pattern for human life and conduct. The six days of the creation week constitute God’s work of “second creation,” which proceeds on the basis of his prior work of “first creation.” In the six days of the creation week, God as Creator begins to transform the formless and empty creation into an ordered and richly furnished world. While Bavinck acknowledges that some interpreters distinguish the six days of creation into two sets of three days or ternaries and emphasize the parallels between them, he prefers the “old division of the overall work of creation into three parts” (RD 2:480): first, God creates the cosmos (vv. 1–2); second, God separates on the first three days between light and darkness, heaven and earth, land and sea; and third, God adorns the earth on the last three days with all kinds of living entities. This three-fold division of the creation account reflects more accurately the progress of God’s work of creation, and does not exaggerate the alleged parallels that obtain between the first and second set of three days.2 Through the sequence of six days in Genesis 1, we see “a clear progress from a lower to a higher level, from the general conditions for organic life to this organic life itself in its various forms” (RD 12:480). In a beautiful economy of words, we are taught how God brought the world, which he first called into existence instantaneously and immediately, to its finished state of beauty and perfection. Only after the completion of his work on the six successive days of the work-week of creation does God declare the creation to be good, corresponding to his sovereign design and purpose.

Though we cannot do justice to the details of Bavinck’s treatment of the Genesis account, he offers the following summary of the creative work of God in these six days:

• On the first day, God creates the light, separates the light from the darkness, and declares the alternation of light and darkness “day” and “night” (verses 3–6).

• On the second day, God separates the firmament (the sky and the clouds, which appear to our eyes as a kind of “tent” [cf. Ps. 104:2] or “curtain” [cf. Isa. 40:22]) from the earth with its waters (verses 6–8).

• On the third day, God separates the earth and water, land and sea, and the earth becomes “a cosmos with continents and seas, mountains and valleys, fields and streams” (verses 11–13; RD 2:481). The first three days of the creation week prepare the distinct realms for the rich diversity of life-forms that will subsequently fill and adorn the earth.

• On the fourth day, the sun, the moon, and the stars “have to be readied” (verses 14–19). Regarding this day, Bavinck observes that “this does not imply that the masses of matter of which the planets are composed were only then called into being, but only that all these planets would on this day become what they would henceforth be to the earth” (RD 2:481).

• On the fifth day, “by a divine word of power” God causes the waters to bring forth aquatic animals and the sky is filled with an “assortment of bird species” (verses 20–23; RD 2:481).

• Finally, on the sixth day, God first creates the land animals and then culminates his creative work with the creation of man upon the basis of a “specific counsel” (verses 24–31; RD 2:482). At the completion of the work-week of creation, God “took great delight in his own work and for that reason rested on the seventh day” (RD 2:482).

At the conclusion of his overview of the Genesis account of God’s work of creation in the space of six days, Bavinck observes that Christian theology “has always treated this six-day period with special fondness” (RD 2:482). Throughout the course of church history, the majority of interpreters of the Genesis account adhered to a “literal” view of the creation week. However, there was also a second school of thought in the church that “rejects the temporal character of the six days, for the most part ascribes visionary significance to them, sees the entire world as being created simultaneously at a single stroke, and frequently arrives at a variety of allegorical interpretations” (RD 2:483). Interestingly, Bavinck, who generally adheres to a more literal reading of the account of creation in Genesis 1, argues that this latter school of thought, represented by the church father Augustine, “was consistently discussed with respect and never branded heretical” (RD 2:483).

Bavinck also offers a further important observation about the history of the interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis 1. Prior to the time of Copernicus, most Christian theologians proceeded on the assumption of an older Aristotelian-Ptolemaic worldview, which taught that the earth was a fixed body at the center of the universe and that all the expanse of the heavens rotated around the earth (RD 2:483). In this worldview, all the stars and planets were fixed in space, and the earth was surrounded by a series of rotating spheres that carried the stars and planets with them. With the discoveries of Copernicus, however, the earth was no longer viewed as the center of the universe, and the older explanation of the interrelation of the stars and planets was overthrown.

Though the history of the transition from the older Aristotelian-Ptolemaic to the Copernican worldview is often told as though it were a conflict between the biblical worldview and modern science, Bavinck argues that the biblical account of creation does not depend on either of these distinct scientific worldviews. The language of the Scriptures is not “scientific” but observational in character. Therefore, the opposition of many in the church to the Copernican revolution in science was not based on the authority of Scripture, but was largely due to an adherence to the older Aristotelian view of the universe to which many of the church’s theologians were committed. However, the biblical worldview, which properly regards the earth as “central [to the universe] in a religious and an ethical sense,” does not depend on or require adherence to either of these distinct scientific positions. Though the biblical worldview requires a certain kind of geocentricity, which recognizes the unique place and importance of the earth to God’s purposes in history, it does not require adherence to a particular scientific worldview.

For Scripture indeed always speaks geocentrically and also explains the origin of things from a geoentric viewpoint, but in this matter it uses the same language of ordinary daily experience as that in which we still speak today, even though we have a very different picture of the movement of the heavenly bodies from that which generally prevailed in the time when the Bible books were written. (RD 2:484)
1. Toward the end of the chapter, Bavinck does return to the question of the age of the earth and appeals to the distinction between God’s work of “first creation” and his subsequent work of “second creation” to leave the question open, at least from the standpoint of the biblical evidence (RD 2:498-90).

2. The view Bavinck has in mind when he speaks of those who emphasize the “parallels” between the two sets of three days in Genesis 1 anticipates in some ways the view that is known today as the “framework hypothesis.” Bavinck downplays the alleged parallels between these two sets of three days and interprets the six days as six successive periods of time in which God ordered and adorned the world according to his purposes. For a presentation of the “framework” view, see Meredith G. Kline, “Because it Had Not Rained,” Westminster Theological Journal 20 (1998): 1–21.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.