While Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species posed challenges to traditional understandings of the Bible, many Protestants had little trouble accommodating Darwin’s ideas. But a significant minority resisted. Holding to inerrancy – the Bible is God’s Word, factually accurate and without error – these archconservatives asserted that the Genesis creation account is to be read plainly, “literally.”
But there is no such thing as one and only one literal reading of the Bible. In the century after Origin of Species most conservative Protestants held to an “old earth” creationism, rejecting mainstream biology while accepting mainstream geology. Regarding Genesis 1, they either read it as allowing for a large gap of time between the first and third verses of Genesis, or they held that the “days” in Genesis 1 were actually eras of undefined length.
There were creationists who viewed such biblical interpretations as insufficiently literal. In 1961 John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood, in which they argued that the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and that a global Flood described in Genesis 6-8 created the earth’s geological strata. Within a matter of decades this young earth creationism – with its rejection of mainstream geology and astronomy – had supplanted old earth creationism among most Protestant fundamentalists.
But the young earth consensus is itself under challenge by “geocentric” creationists, who argue that a truly literal reading of the Bible also requires a rejection of mainstream cosmology. As Gerardus Bouw, a leading geocentrist, has argued:
“So, if Genesis 1:1, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ is a clear statement that God created, then Ecclesiastes 1:5, ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose,’ is just as clear a statement of geocentricity. And with that, we come to the real issue: Is the Scripture to be the final authority on all matters on which it teaches, or are scholars, to be the ultimate authority? The central issue is not the motion of the earth, nor is it the creation of the earth. The issue is final authority, is it to be the words of God, or the words of men?” (qtd. in Righting 146-147)
Ah, biblical inerrancy. The ever-expanding diversity of literal interpretations of Genesis continues apace. Perhaps the flat earth is just around the corner.