Update: Link added to the article online (HT: Daniel Hyde).
It is sometimes claimed that the church has historically interpreted Genesis 1 as taking place in six twenty-four hour days, such that this is the “traditional” interpretation, with the rise of other interpretations as being solely due to scientific theories with naturalistic assumptions, especially those of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century.
In light of this claim, it’s instructive to read the historical survey conducted by Robert Letham in his article, “‘In the Space of Six Days': The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 147-74.
Professor Letham writes, “This article focuses on how the six days of creation in Genesis 1 have been understood in exegetical history until the time of the Westminster Assembly [1640s]. . . . We will simply ask how the matter has been viewed in the past, for if it is as obvious as some make out we might expect a broad measure of agreement to exist.”
What follows are his summary points at the end of the article:
(1) Before the Westminster Assembly there were a variety of interpretations of Genesis 1 and its days. If the text of Genesis is so clear-cut why did the church down the centuries not see it that way? Does that not say something not only about the interpreters but also the text? Claims that a literal reading of the days of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into consideration.
(2) We will be wise to heed the warnings Augustine and Calvin give on the difficulty of interpreting this chapter, and so beware of dogmatic claims they themselves did not advance. Jerome pointed to the Jewish rabbis’ refusal to let anyone under thirty interpret it. Creation transcends our knowledge and experience. A heavy dose of medicine from Job 38:1ff is in order. As with any other passage, Genesis 1 must not be interpreted in isolation but in the context of the whole of Scripture.
(3) Until the mid-sixteenth century the interpreters we cited were all abreast of the philosophy and science of their day, and often made use of it in biblical interpretation. That we reject many of their scientific beliefs is because of our own scientific knowledge. That we place implicit faith in the laws of gravity is due to what we know scientifically, rather than from the Bible. So far I, for one, have found this reliable! Calvin allows and supports scientific work. He indicates Genesis is of a different literary genre than a science text book.
(4) The Reformed tradition of the sixteenth century interpreted creation theologically. The classic Reformed creeds consider it in the context of the doctrine of God, as an ex nihilo work of the Trinity. In so doing, they affirm their continuity with the historic teaching of the church. The question of the days of creation was not even a matter of discussion. It does not appear in theses for debate by students. Its absence is striking. It was never a matter of confessional significance.
(5) The Puritans until the time of the Westminster Assembly are significantly different from the historic church in their conspicuous lack of interest in creation in general and Genesis in particular. They never even attempted a serious theological interpretation of creation. Nor were they interested in interacting with contemporary science. At a time of such scientific and philosophical ferment this is astounding. Their interests had switched to the narrowly soteriological and ecclesiastical. Evidently, the focus of this article was not a matter of controversy for them.
You’ll have to track down the full article to see the historical homework behind these conclusions.
To be sure, none of this settles the issue—which ultimately must be settled by careful exegesis. But it is a helpful reminder for us not to assert or assume that the history of interpretation before Darwin was uniform.