A common assumption, and one I started with, is that before the rise of geology in the late 18th century all Christian churches reckoned that god created in about 4000BC and the days of Genesis were of 24 hours .
The more writers I read, the more I was aware of the diversity of opinion 0n the matter, and that Christian churches were most undecided on the subject
In the 16th century despite the drift to sola scriptura the influence of the renaissance added to that and depicting it simplistically
Bible alone – or so some claimed!
Bible plus classical literature (eg Ovid)
Bible plus classics plus astronomy.e.g. Calvin
Thus when it became apparent that Ussher was slightly out in his estimates, either the time of Chaos was extended to allow for geological time, or the 6 days of Genesis were extended, first to a year and then indefinitely, hence we have
Bible plus Classics plus astronomy plus geology e.g Hutton’s clergy friends!! and so many all round Europe
Though some, but fewer as time went on, and popular commentators did not always agree.
It was expressed wonderfully in Haydn’s oratorio The Creation
Here is a brief account of mine on developing understandings of Genesis One, from Chaos of Ovid to Geology.
Genesis Chapter 1 and geological time from Hugo Grotius and Marin Mersenne to William Conybeare and Thomas Chalmers (1620 – 1825)
The Gap Theory set to classical music: Haydn’s Creation
To many people geology and Genesis don’t mix but over the centuries many Christians have tried to “reconcile” the two. To some that is absurd as you cannot reconcile the 144 hours of 6 days with the 13.2 billion years of our universe.
From 1860 until 1980 the most popular way of conservative evangelicals reconciling the two was the Gap Theory. Here it is posited that between the verses of Genesis I vs1 and vs3 , there was a “gap” when all the millions of years of geology took place before god re-ordered it in 144 hours to get ready for humans. That was rejected by less conservative Christians 150 years ago and by Young Earth Creationists in recent decades (though their view is even more implausible).
The Gap Theory came to the fore with Pember’s Earth’s Earliest Ages of 1876. It wasn’t entirely novel as it was a development of Thomas Chalmers’ ideas of 1804.
In fact, in another form, as the Chaos- Restitution interpretation, it goes back centuries and even to Justin Martyr. It was an apologetic to relate to Classical thought and arguing that the chaos or “formless void” of Gen 1.2, was the same as the “chaos” of so many Classical writers from Heisiod onwards. Aristophanes put an erotic spin on it, but what do you expect from the author of Lysistrata?
It begins with a superb orchestral piece “the Representation of Chaos” to set the scene. After that in a series of recitatives, solo arias and choruses it works through the Six Days of Creation.
PART ONE Overture – The Representation of Chaos
The First Day Recitative and chorus
RAPHAEL In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth; and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
CHORUS And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters; and God said: Let there be Light, and there was Light.
URIEL And God saw the Light, that it was good: and God divided the Light from the darkness.
This is simply the first two verses of Genesis 1. But then to bring out the common understanding of the creation and end of Chaos, Haydn slips in anther Aria and Chorus to being out the “recreation” of creation after the time of chaos has ended.
Most of the aria and chorus is rather sombre but turns to joy with “A new-created world springs up at God’s command.” And so the rather dark and dismal chaos has been transformed into the delight of “A new created world”.
URIEL Now vanish before the holy beams the gloomy, dismal shades of darkness; the first of days appears! Disorder yields and order fair prevails. Affrighted fly hell’s spirits, black in throngs; down they sink in the deepest abyss to endless night
3 CHORUS Despairing, cursing rage attends their rapid fall. A new-created world springs up at God’s command.
After the transformation of chaos all is read for the Second Day
Haydn’s Creation expresses the variety and ambiguity of the 18th century interpretation of the Creation Story in musical form. Haydn’s Creation apparently gives a simple musical rendering of Genesis Chapter One in a thoroughly literalistic manner. A closer examination belies this and indicates that the libretto follows the Gap Theory with its interval between the two clauses of verse two, allows a measure of “ruin-and-restitution” and has probable close links with contemporary sciences, especially the Nebular Hypothesis of Laplace.
The Creation was one of Haydn’s last works and he began composing the music in 1796 after visiting London in 1791-2 and 1793-4, when he “experienced the overwhelming effect of Handel’s oratorios. Temperley argues that Haydn’s experience of Handel’s oratorios in London was the chief stimulus for both The Creation and “The Seasons”. The original text of The Creation was in English and it was given to Haydn by Salomon in 1795. Gottfried van Swieten, who translated the text into German wrote about its origins in 1798; “Neither is it by Dryden but by an unnamed author who had compiled it largely from Milton’s Paradise Lost and had intended it for Handel….” The author is not known, but many have assumed that it was Thomas Linley (1733-95). However, what is known is that it dates from about 1750, and is thus evidence for contemporary understandings of Genesis One and is similar to Milton and other poets, who incorporate ideas of Chaos. as well as many exegetes, as described above.
van Swieten’s libretto is a fairly literal translation of the English , and the Recicatives in German do not follow German Bibles, but rather a literal rendering of the A.V. into German. Temperley argues that the inept or bizarre choice of epithets: “holy beams”, “dreary, wasteful hail” and others are modelled on Milton by an imitator lacking the master’s touch. The structure of the oratorio is simple, following through the six days of Creation with Recitatives, Arias and Choruses, with that for the First Day preceeded by the superb orchestral introduction The Representation of Chaos. As with much contemporary exegesis, e.g. Bishop Samuel Horsely, it is easy to see it as straight literalism. Consideration of the Aria with Chorus, “Now vanish before the holy beams” indicates that the librettist follows a form of “ruin-and-restoration” with a Destruction of gloomy chaos by the Light (“Now vanish before the holy beams / The gloomy shades of ancient days” and “Affrighted fly hell’s spirits black in throng; / Down they sink in the deep abyss / To endless night. and “Despairing rage attends their rapid fall “) and the formation of “a new-created world” which “springs up at God’s command.” The libretto for the first Day points to the first Act of Creation being the Chaos “without form and void” and then after an unspecified time was recreated or reconstituted in Six Days. Thus from the chronological sense of the libretto the orchestral Representation of Chaos should between Raphael’s first recitative and the first chorus, though not on musical grounds! The words of the libretto for Day One preclude the possibility of taking the Chaos as the pre-existing material which God moulded into shape over six days
As well as looking to contemporary biblical interpretations of all of the Eighteenth Century, Haydn also looks to modern science especially astronomy. As Tovey wrote, ” the chaos he intends to represent is no mere state of disorder and confusion. he has a remarkably consistent notion ofit, which harmonises well enough with the Biblical account of the Creation; not less well with the classical notions of Chaos, whether in Heisiod or Ovid; but most closely with the Nebular Hypothesis of Kant and Laplace.” Kant published his views in 1755 and Laplace in popular form in 1796. While in England Haydn visited the astronomer Herschel at Slough, but Tovey does not give the date. Tovey considers that the Representation of Chaos represents not disorder but a gradual evolution of Cosmos from Chaos. One could see this differentiation from the original “chaotic” nebula as Gardiner expressed it “Amidst this turbid modulation, the bassoon is the first that makes an effort to rise and extricate itself from the cumbrous mass (bar 6) Later “In mingled confusion the clarinet struggles with more success (bar 31?) and the etherial flute escapes into the air (bar 39). It is interesting that William Gardiner wrote this in 1811, which is the the time that the Gap Theory was gaining wide credence among British Christians,such as Chalmers, Sumner and the Reverend Geologists, as this gave them plenty of time for all their geology to be inserted into Genesis
Though Haydn began work on The Creation in 1796, ironically a year after Smith’s formulation of stratigraphic succession, the libretto comes from the beginning of the century. The libretto was in English and given to Haydn while he was visiting England in 1791. Returning to Vienna Van Sweiten translated it into German, which was the language of the first performance in 1798. The original English text had possibly been prepared for Handel in the 1740s and is based on Genesis One , some Psalms and Paradise Lost. Though with typical Enlightenment optimism it stops short before the Fall, it provides another insight on how Genesis was understood in the 18th century. The Introduction and the early recitatives and choruses show that it is not a simple literal interpretation. We are presented with an initial Creation, then a long, dark and mysterious Representation of Chaos in a minor key, (which musically is in the right place, but should follow on from Raphael’s first Recitative.) and then “a new-created world”. What we have is a musical rendering of the Gap Theory, which both reflects widely-held understandings of Creation Story in the whole of the 18th Century and then because of its popularity made this understanding more widely known. After its first performance 1799 in German and then the English version at Covent Garden in 1800. It became one the most popular choral works, almost overtaking The Messiah in popularity. Societies were formed up and down the country expressly for The Creation and its familiarity is referred to in The Mill on the Floss
It was fitting that Salomon should have presented the first London performance, but John Ashley pre-empted him with a performance at Covent Garden on 28th March 1800. The Creation entered the standard repertory of provincial choir festivals within two decades (Norwich 1813, Edinburgh 1815 and York 1823). Throughout the century it was also performed annually at Exeter Hall, London, the bastion of interdenominational evangelicalism. There is an irony that it was at Exeter Hall in 1856 that Hugh Miller so forcibly presented the geological arguments against the Gap Theory. Some years later, on 7th January 1866, with greater irony, Thomas Huxley was introduced to an audience at St Martin’s Hall, Covent Garden by “a booming church organ pumping out Haydn’s ‘Creation’ to heighten the sense of awe”. (p345 )
The production of the Creation is important to highlight the relation of Genesis and the general thought and science of two centuries ago. The received version is that until these atheistic geologists came along with their hammers in 1790, the churches all believed in a 6 24 hour day creation. Young Earth Creationists are adamant about this and the more liberal Christians tended to argue for this until this century.
Before 1790 most “educated” Christians were either iffy about or rejected a 6 day creation. The discovery of Deep Time did not shatter the churches beliefs, but rather Deep Time slotted quite easily into the supposed chaos of Gen 1 vs 2, and just considering British Christians this so-called Gap Theory became widely accepted, though some preferred the Day Age view.
It comes out clearly in the evangelical Rev Joseph Townsend’s The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as an Historian, Recording Events from the Creation to the Deluge, (1813). Townsend was one of the three vicars who worked with William smith, the “father of English Geology”. It was then expounded by Rev William Buckland in huis iaugural lecture as Reader in Geology and Mineralogy at Oxford in 1819 – Vindiciae Geologicae and then in his Bridgewater Treatise of 1837.
These are but two examples, but a minority e.g. G.S.Faber and the American Silliman presented the case for the Day Age view. Some still held to a 6 24 hour day, either because geology was no concern to them or they considered geology atheistic.
By the late 1840s the chaos view was going out as it did not “fit” with geology and the more liberal went with the Germans and broke the nexus with historical events. This summary of Genesis interpretation from 1800 to 1850 is hopeless brief and wil, be expanded in a later blog.To conclude we can listen to Haydn’s Creation and see that geology was not a problem for early 19th century Christians – at least the sensible ones and there is no need to hold that Deep geological Time can only lead to atheism as I was told by a historian of geology 20 years ago when we were looking at the thermal metamorphism of slates caused by an intrusive sill at the fantastic Tan Y Pystyll waterfall near Shrewsbury.