What did the Westminster Assembly mean by the phrase ‘In the space of six days)?

I am open to being convinced that the Westminster Confession is not following Calvin’s literalist position: though the Assembly indisputably parrots his technical phrase, “in the space of six days.” But someone is going to have to produce the evidence!

Recently, there have been a number of public, printed and spoken assertions made about the alleged latitude of our Reformed forbears on the issue of the interpretation of Genesis I. Because many of these assertions have come in the context of a current ecclesiastical debate or polemic, you will appreciate my skepticism (as an historian) of their historical accuracy and value!

One such assertion that is presently popular is the opinion that the Westminster divines had no consensus on the time-span of creation (six literal days) and did not intend to exclude any view of that time-span by the use of the phrase “in the space of six days” in the Westminster Confession IV:1.

I am, personally, open to being convinced that the Westminster Confession is not following Calvin’s literalist position: though the Assembly indisputably parrots his technical phrase, “in the space of six days” (which was explicitly employed by Calvin to deny a figurative reading of the creation days and to rebut the instantaneous creation theory). But someone is going to have to produce the evidence! This historical-theological discussion (if it is to be of any practical use at all) is going to have to be carried on at a factual level, dealing with primary sources, rather than a rhetorical level, dependent upon anecdotes, recent tradition (even if that tradition spans the last 150 years!), and secondary sources.

There are, it seems to me, three good possibilities. First, it may be (as some have suggested) that: the Assembly was open to a non-literal interpretation of the creation days –being undecided on the matter, and was aware of ancient or contemporary non-literal interpretations of the creation days, and was deliberately ambiguous about the nature of the creation days.

Second (as others have suggested), it may be that: the Assembly was, by default, generally committed to a literalist view of the six days of creation, and was aware of ancient or contemporary non-literal interpretations of the creation days, and yet did not attempt to make any assertion whatsoever about the nature of the creation days in the Confession or Catechisms.

Third, it may be (as seems, historically, most probable) that: the Assembly was generally if not unanimously committed to a literalist view of the six days of creation, and was aware of ancient or contemporary non-literal interpretations of the creation days, and precisely because of those non-literal interpretations chose to employ Calvin’s explicitly literalist language (“in the space of six days”) in an effort to promote one particular view of the manner and time-span of creation as over against other views.

Now, an interesting feature of the recent historical debate in conservative American Presbyterian circles on this matter comes in the form of the appeal to A. F. Mitchell’s views of the ambiguity of the Assembly’s language and position on creation. The following passage is produced from Mitchell’s corpus and then the case is, summarily, pronounced as closed. Mitchell comments:

There are two or three topics of minor importance which I could not take up in the introduction to the “Minutes of the Assembly,” but which in consequence of prevalent misunderstandings I should like to notice on this occasion….

The first to which I advert is the question so often and confidently propounded of late, that the Confession represents the creation of the world as having taken place in six “natural and literal days,” which almost all orthodox divines now grant that it did not. But the whole ground for the assertion is furnished by the words “natural and literal,” which they have themselves inserted.

The authors of the Confession, as Dr. A. A. Hodge has well observed, “simply repeat the statements of Scripture in almost identical terms, and any interpretation that is fairly applicable to such passages of Scripture, as Gen. ii.3 and Exod. xx.11, is equally applicable to the words of the Confession. It is quite true” as he adds, “that since the Confession was composed, . . . new arguments have been furnished against interpreting the days mentioned in the above passages of Scripture as literal days.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that the figurative interpretation of the word ‘days’ in these passages originated in modern times, and was altogether unknown to the men who framed the Confession. To prove it is a mistake it is not necessary to have recourse to the ingenious conjecture, that some of the Cambridge men in the assembly may have been acquainted with the manuscript work of Dean Colet, preserved in their archives, and only given to the public in our own time, in which the figurative interpretation of the days of creation is maintained.”

There is no lack of evidence, in works published before the meeting of the Assembly, and familiar to several of its members, to show that the figurative interpretation had long before Dean Colet’s time commended itself to several scholars and divines. If there was one Jewish scholar with whose writings such men as Lightfoot, Selden, Gataker, Seaman, and Coleman were more familiar than another, it was Philo of Alexandria; and Philo has not hesitated to characterize it as “rustic simplicity, to imagine that the world was created in six days, or, indeed, in any clearly defined space of time.”

Augustine, the great Latin doctor, with whose works several of the Westminster divines were far better acquainted than most of their successors, in his literal Commentary on Genesis, maintains that the days of the creation week were far different (longe diversi and, again, multum impares) from those that now are in the earth. Procopius, a Greek writer not unknown to some of the Westminster divines, teaches that the number of six days was assumed not as a mark of actual time, but as a manner of teaching the order of creation; while in certain commentaries in that age, attributed to the venerable Bede, and largely read in England, though now deemed spurious, a similar opinion is said to be found.

The figurative interpretation therefore of the six days of creation is no make-shift of hard-pressed theologians in the nineteenth century. It was held by respectable scholars and divines, from early times, and was known to the framers of our Confession; and had they meant deliberately to exclude it they would have written not six days but six natural or literal days.”

The weightiness of this viewpoint to those who appeal to it is based on a number of factors: (1) Mitchell was a stellar scholar of the Assembly; (2) he was a Scottish Presbyterian minister; (3) he was theologically conservative; (4) he was generally historically, rather than polemically, motivated in his research; (5) he supposedly objectively argues on the basis of historical evidence and personal expertise that the Assembly was uncommitted on the matter of the length of the creation days.

But, dear reader, please note that Professor Mitchell produces not one shred of evidence for his position. He asserts, but does not even argue the case, that in order to indicate that it meant literally “in the space of six days” the Assembly would’ve had to have said “in the space of six natural and literal days.”

He also appeals to the venerable A. A. Hodge’s mid-nineteenth-century claim that the Assembly was merely repeating Scriptural phraseology (note however: the phrase “in the space of six days” is not the language of any English version of Scripture contemporary to the Assembly, and the idea that the Assembly included a “throw-away phrase” within its very compact section on creation — a phrase with no special, limited or definite meaning — is a strange thing to suggest indeed, especially about a legal document as pregnant and precise as the Confession!) Still, even if we agree with Hodge’s views, we have learned nothing about what the Assembly itself intended or thought by quoting from him!

And Mitchell produces examples of figurative views of the Creation days held by certain theological writers prior to the time of the Assembly (only one of whom could be seriously estimated as influential on the Reformed tradition), but does not give any indication that the Assembly ever even privately discussed such views in its deliberations. In light of this, I think it is rather bold to assert that this quote of Mitchell’s shifts the burden of proof (as some have supposed) to those who hold that the Assembly was generally committed to a literalist position. Indeed, the Mitchell quote is unconvincing to me for a variety of reasons.

First, Mitchell, though a fine scholar of the Assembly and relatively theologically conservative for his day, wrote in the wake of the Darwinist controversy in Britain. The Free Church fathers (Chalmers –gap theory, Martin –theistic evolution, etc.) had already set a precedent in nineteenth century Scotland for theological latitude on this issue. Hence, it would be difficult to argue that Mitchell’s speculation and opinion was not influenced by this context. Indeed, it is easy to imagine how he (a relative conservative dwelling in the midst of a theological Edom) might be tempted to justify or further to legitimate these current evolutionary views of latter-day Calvinists via an appeal to historic ambiguity.

Second, Mitchell was minister of the Kirk (the Church of Scotland), and not in the best of her days (the age of the “Moderates” in the aftermath of patronage and the departure of the more conservative Free Church evangelicals). And though he was a careful scholar, with a genuine appreciation for and sympathy with the Assembly, he was not fully committed to the theology of Westminster (had he been, his ecclesiastical affiliation would have been elsewhere). In this regard, Hetherington (though not a historian of Mitchell’s caliber) catches the spirit of the Assembly’s convictions much more fully than does Mitchell –who was no Warfield.

Third, and more importantly, Mitchell produces no primary evidence for his assertion! He says that the Assembly was aware of other views, that one of their contemporaries held an alternate view, and that they possessed a volume in their collection that advocated a non-literal view. To say that the Assembly knew about a view and therefore was tolerant of it is rather imaginative. I’d expect better argumentation from Charles Briggs or Jack Rogers. Of course the Assembly knew Philo and Augustine and these others, but Mitchell adduces no evidence of their influence. Puritans making allowance for a Philonic view of Genesis 1? Now there’s a stretch. If one applied that hermeneutic to your writings or mine, and then perused our respective libraries –our theology could be made to say or tolerate just about anything.

Fourth, I recently asked a good friend and colleague who holds to a non-literalist position on the Genesis days, to write a chapter on the Westminster Confession’s view of creation in a multi-volume set on the Assembly. He was unable to glean any contemporary evidence whatsoever that anyone at the Assembly held to anything other than a literal six day view.

I am quite open to finding such evidence, but as yet I have not seen any. We would need: notes, comments, sermons, or books by a commissioner or commissioners that indicated a non-literal view, and even then we’d have a difficult time proving that the Assembly intended to tolerate that view in its formulation. For example, the Confession is nowhere nearly as forceful or as polemical (and some would add: as clear) in its presentation of the doctrine of the definite atonement, as are the Canons of Dordt. Did, then, the Assembly intend to accommodate the quasi- or semi-Amyraldian view of the atonement, popular at the time of the Assembly’s discussions and supposedly held by leading commissioners like Davenant? Alex Mitchell would have us believe so.

Now did the historical evidence push him to that conclusion or was it his commitment to the ecclesiastical engineering of Robert Rainy and the Calvinistic downgrade of the Declaratory Act movement in late nineteenth-century Scotland? Mitchell did have presuppositions you know and his record is not unspotted! Any time that I read any undocumented assertion by a late nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian Church historian about something that Calvin, Beza, Knox, Turretin, the Westminster Assembly, Rutherford, or Boston supposedly said or thought, I am instinctively suspicious.

As many of you are aware, there was a considerable anti-Calvinist spirit afoot in this time amongst Scottish Presbyterians. This led in two directions. Some openly attacked historic Reformed theology while others attempted to revise it while claiming to embrace it (not unlike the modern “back to Calvin” movements). The latter was Mitchell’s tendency.

Fifth, I find Mitchell’s assertion interesting, and perhaps worth following up because of his expertise, but it is hardly a major revelation and certainly not significant enough to influence an objective discussion of the Confession’s original intent. His claim strikes me as similar to J. I. Packer’s assurances that John Owen wouldn’t have made a blanket condemnation of the modern charismatic movement. I know Dr. Packer knows the Puritans, and Owen in particular. And I know I’ll never know them like him. But I can’t help but thinking I’m hearing the view of the author of Keep in Step with the Spirit rather than the composer of A Discourse on Spiritual Gifts when Packer tells me that Owen and Warfield were worlds apart on the cessation of extraordinary gifts and special revelation! Sometimes, we see what we want to see.

J. Ligon Duncan is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is serving as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and an Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary