Debate over the creation time frame boils down to how one interprets Genesis 1. For those who interpret it as a literal description of physical events, the answer is clearly that creation occurred in a six day period. For those who interpret it as a figurative description of spiritual principles, it says nothing about the natural time frame. In that case, we are left with science to provide that answer. But how do we choose an interpretation in the first place? Paul had some wise words that can be applied in this case, about interpreting Scripture with the proper mindset:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14–16 ESV)
Now, Paul isn’t necessarily talking about interpretation of Scripture, but the distinction he makes represents a general spiritual principle that can be applied to our context. In particular, if we try to discern between figurative and literal interpretations of Genesis 1, we must incorporate spiritual awareness into that process. The natural mind balks at figurative spiritual speech (ie, Ezekiel 20:45-49, John 16:29), so relying on just natural thinking will mislead us. Instead, like Paul, we must have the mind of Christ, and approach such questions with more than just a natural perspective. So, seeking to address this question with the mind of Christ, we can look to the Gospels for insights.
Jesus frequently taught with parables, and it was generally clear that He was speaking figuratively. But there are a handful of cases where the use of figurative speech was not expected. Even in these cases though, Jesus expected those around Him (especially His followers) to recognize the nature of His speech. By studying Jesus’ reaction when they incorrectly interpreted Him literally, we can learn about His perspective regarding figurative speech.
In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus comments about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, referring to their false teaching. Instead, the disciples hear Him as talking about the fact that they had run out of physical bread to eat. Jesus’ response shows this was clearly more than a simple misunderstanding, but actually revealed a true lack of discernment on their parts. According to Jesus, they were showing a lack of faith and spiritual perception. Another passage, Mark 8:14-17, makes Jesus’ comments even more clear. There, He describes the disciples as having hard hearts, and lacking eyes that see and ears that hear. These are commonly used in Scripture to refer to spiritual perception. Clearly, the disciple’s error was not intellectual misunderstanding, but lack of spiritual discernment.
Similar to the disciple’s lack of faith in these passages, those who misunderstand Jesus’ metaphors about the need to eat His flesh in John 6 are described as unbelieving in verse 64. Again, the error that Jesus points out is not intellectual, but spiritual.
In both these cases, Jesus made a figurative statement, but the disciples incorrectly took Him literally. These passages, coupled with Paul’s statements above, make it clear that a spiritual perspective is required specifically when deciding whether to take a passage of Scripture literally or figuratively, when both are reasonable options.
Now, it’s tempting to excuse those around Jesus because He didn’t state that He was being figurative. However, He still obviously expected His listeners to recognize the nature of His words. If spiritual discernment was required when listening to the incarnate Word, shouldn’t we expect it to be necessary with the written Word? It’s often pointed out that Genesis 1 doesn’t clearly state that that it is figurative, but perhaps we need to be aware of things that are not clear to the natural mind.
The association of the incarnate and written Words is just this sort of thing. Such a comparison only makes sense if we consider the Bible to be a spiritual book about the spiritual, rather than a secular book about the spiritual. This is a subtle but important distinction. Consider the two examples that follow.
In one case, Steven Boyd used a computer to perform statistical analysis of Genesis 1 in order to prove that it is not poetry. The contention was that, if not poetry, the text must be narrative and so represent real history. In another case, Michael Gungor concluded that it is poetry, simply by listening to the text with his own perspective as a Christian artist. Both of these are examples of discerning the nature of Genesis 1.
Now, these are just isolated examples, but to me, the first sounds like secular analysis, while the second sounds like a sheep recognizing its Shepherd’s voice. The first treats the Bible as an ancient secular book, as opposed to a living and spiritual one.
The difference illustrates the real problem with science: it teaches us that spiritual reality can be analyzed in the same was as natural reality. That math and computers can lead us into all truth, rather than being led by the Holy Spirit. That theological understanding is the same as relationship.
Other approaches result from acknowledging the true nature of Scripture, such as recognizing Genesis 1 as a prophetically-spoken divine oracle, and acknowledging the underlying divine Author as well as its many human authors.
But in any case, we must be more discerning than those who misunderstood the incarnate Word, and took His metaphors as literal. Instead, we must approach the written Word with the mind of Christ, and recognize the creation narrative as much more than mere history.