The Puritan Consensus

There are a number of posts from my old blog, RearViewMirror, that I would like to keep in circulation, so I will repost them here. This is the second in a series I did on the Reformed history of interpreting Genesis 1. It’s quite an eye-opening series.

Earlier I posted some quotes by the Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon about the age of the earth and related issues. I noted some surprise when I first read the quotes and asked a question about how it could be that Spurgeon, one well-versed in the Puritan and Reformed tradition, and one living in the midst of great scientific strides, would advocate for things like an old earth, animal death before the Fall, and a large amount of time between creation and Adam. It’s likely a safe assumption that most people would assume Spurgeon, a staunch defender against liberalism, to be a young earth creationist; I know that was my assumption.

So what are the reasons behind why he would hold the view he does? What sources did he read, theological or scientific, that led to the conclusions he drew? It could be that he held to the “Ruin-Reconstruction Theory” of creation, a view made popular by the Reformed theologian Thomas Chalmers. This view states that there is a gap of millions of years between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 that allowed for things like dinosaurs. While out of vogue today, it was something more common in Spurgeon’s. Ultimately, at least from the two quotes I posted, we can’t be sure. Another view at that time was the “Day Age” view, one that another noteworthy Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, held. Was Spurgeon reading Chalmers or Hodge? There’s a good chance he was, but I haven’t done the research to find out. That’s not the point of this post. Rather, I want to answer the question, “Did Spurgeon break with his theological tradition by espousing these views?”

It is well-known that as a young boy Spurgeon stumbled upon his preacher-grandfather’s book collection in a shuttered attic. At an early age he devoured the works of the sixteenth-century Reformers, the seventeenth-century Puritans, and eighteenth-century Evangelicals. He was reading Calvin, Bunyan, Henry, Whitefield. Likely Spurgeon had a photographic memory, and read voluminously. There can be no doubt that he imbibed the best theology the Puritan and Reformed tradition had to offer. As a Baptist, he demonstrated his Calvinistic stripes by publishing an edition of the Second London Confession of Faith (1689). His wife, Susanna, was responsible for distributing Reformed literature to pastors as she lived a life mainly as a shut-in. Wouldn’t one think that for a man was firmly entrenched in this older, orthodox literature, that he would have felt behooved to adopt another, more conservative view on creation?

The answer to this question requires a foray into times past to first of all see what the Puritan and Reformed tradition said about creation and the ensuing doctrines. A helpful resource is a recent essay by Robert Letham in the Westminster Theological Journal [69 (1999):149-174] called “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly.” Letham is a well-known Reformed theologian who currently teaches at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and is the author of a number of important books, in particular The Work of Christ is a personal favourite. In his article Letham surveys major thinkers in church history from the patristic period, beginning with Origen of Alexandria, and concluding with the period just before the Westminster Assembly in the mid-seventeenth century. Some church fathers, like Basil of Caesarea, held to what we call the “6/24 hour” view, while others like Augustine posited an “instantaneous creation”; Augustine also argued for what may be called a “literary” reading of Genesis 1. In the Middle Ages, Augustine’s view dominated and thus it is seen in the writings of Robert Grossteste and Thomas Aquinas. During the Reformation, Letham notes that not one Reformed confession (i.e. French Confession, Scots Confession, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, the Thirty-Nine Articles, etc.) has a statement about the creation days. Letham’s conclusion as to why the silence: “It was not a matter of definition since it was not a matter of controversy or even a point for discussion, despite the varying views in exegetical history” (p. 170). Great Reformed theologians like John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger don’t mention the creation days in particular—which Letham thinks is telling—and Calvin seems primarily concerned with refuting the Augustinian “instantaneous creation” view in his commentary on Genesis, though there is some indication that he may take the 6/24 hour view on the days. While that may be the case, Letham points out that Calvin saw the language of Moses in Genesis 1 as “accommodated,” so that the reader might be able to understand. Peter Martyr Vermigli, another important Reformed theologian, read the opening of Genesis with hints of allegory, and did not mention the six days of creation. All of this, it is significant to remember, during the period noteworthy for the science of Copernicus and Galileo.

The first Reformed confession to actually speak of the days of creation and such things is James Ussher’s Irish Articles (1615); Ussher is of course notorious for dating the creation at 4004 BC. As for the Puritans, like the Reformers before them, there was no consensus on the creation days. Richard Greenham doesn’t mention them, and William Perkins gives them scant attention. While the latter takes the days chronologically, he says that the first three days are not “solar days” because of the lack of sun. William Ames is important for understanding the view of the Westminster Divines, because he, like Calvin, is concerned to refute the Augustinian reading of creation as instantaneous. He does so with the language of “in the space of six days,” that was picked up by the Assembly. Ames likely did not believe that the days were solar days.

That takes us up to the time of the Westminster Assembly, but what of the Westminster Divines themselves? Letham gives a short space to the question and says: “The single most astonishing and noteworthy feature of English Puritan theology before 1647, and the Westminster divines in particular, is the virtually complete absence of interest in creation” (p. 173). Yet this was the time of the founding of the Royal Society, that was largely made up of Protestants, and it was a time of great scientific advance. Letham says that in his research he hadn’t found a single Puritan work on creation up until the time of 1647. Letham further adds: “One obvious conclusion is that the days of creation were not a matter of contention, although divergent views existed” (p. 173).

William S. Barker, now Emeritus Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), and a published expert on the Puritans, continued Letham’s project by examining the writings of the Westminster Divines on creation in more detail. He did so in an essay called “The Westminster Assembly on the Days of Creation” Westminster Theological Journal 62.1 (Spring 2000): 113-120 (the link requires a subscription, but I have a PDF if anyone wants it. Or, for the sum of the argument, see this statement by Westminster’s faculty here). Barker is concerned to show that the Westminster Confession of Faith’s language of “in the space of six days” not be construed to mean that only a 6/24 hour view of Scripture is confessionally sound (the PCA creation report as well as the OPC’s agree with him). Rather, following Calvin and Ames, the language directly refutes the Augustinian view of instantaneous creation. This view was taught at this time by the Anglican physician Sir Thomas Browne in 1643, the year when the Assembly first began to meet. The language of “in the space of” doesn’t describe what a day was at the time of creation—some held it to be longer than twenty-four hours like John Lightfoot—but rather that it took longer than an instant for God to create. Barker notes that some Divines merely spoke of “six days” but did not get into the nature of what those days were, namely, Stephen Marshall, John Wallis, Thomas Vincent, and John Ball, who don’t go beyond that statement.

When turning back to Spurgeon, who bled Puritan theology as much as he did “bibline,” it is not at all inconsistent for him to argue for long ages or a gap theory, and still rightfully claim a Reformed heritage. The Second London Confession that Spurgeon reprinted uses the same language as the WCF about “in the space of six days,” and so the argument that the WCF was written to refute Augustinian instantaneous creation is just as applicable. Just like a minister in a Presbyterian church wouldn’t have to make an exception at this point in his confessional commitments, neither would Spurgeon. Nor was Spurgeon out of step with the Reformed theology of his own day. As historian R. Scott Clark, who teaches at Westminster California, says in his recent book Recovering the Reformed Confession: “From the middle of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, virtually none of the leading Reformed theologians held or taught that Scripture teaches that God created the world in six twenty-four-hour periods” (p. 49).

This may not answer the question of source material, which is something I’d really like to get into with Spurgeon, it does answer the question that he stands firmly in line with the Puritan and Reformed tradition—because there was no consensus on creation in this tradition, and to hold a different view on creation is not to break with it.