The historical creationist view affirms that the creation account in Genesis 1—2 is indeed intended to be a historical account—not poetry or mythology. At the same time, the historical creationism interpretation relieves much of the tension between modern science and Scripture that seems to be inherent in the young-earth creationist view, which also uses a “historical” reading of Genesis 1. Historical creationism is also called “historical” to point out that it is not new but has been held by many throughout church history, especially before the rise of modern science.
Historical creationism has been promoted of late by John Sailhamer (professor of Old Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Brea, California) in his book Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (originally published by Multnomah, 1996; second edition by Dawson Media, 2011).
Historical creationism maintains that Genesis 1:1 is the account of the creation of the universe. This creation took place “in the beginning”—in an unspecified period of time that may have lasted a very long time and may have been a very long time ago. The Genesis account simply does not give us any time frame for when the physical universe was created. It could well have been created long ago (even millions or billions of years in the past), or it may have been created very slowly over time. Therefore, the historical creationist interpretation of the Genesis account does not require a “young-earth” view.
When we pick up the story in Genesis 1:2, the earth is unformed and unfilled. Prior to modern science, there would have been little or no understanding of the concept of Earth as a planet. Thus, according to historical creationism, the word earth would have been understood as a specific area of land, not “Planet Earth.” Genesis 1:2—2:24 recounts the preparation of a specific area of habitat for mankind—the Garden of Eden—which took place over a literal six days.
The relationship of Genesis 1:1 and 1:2ff can be stated in the following paraphrase: “In the beginning, God created the universe. After He did this, He turned His attention to a specific area for man to live in. It was dark, so He said, ‘Let there be light.’” The words formless and void in Genesis 1:2 (KJV) can refer to a wasteland or wilderness that is unable to sustain life. (The term translated “formless” is also used in Deuteronomy 32:10 to refer to the wilderness at the time of Israel’s wanderings. Had it not been for God’s special provision, the people could not have survived their time there.) So, according to historical creationism, rather than Genesis 1:2 referring to the whole earth as a formless mass, it refers only to a specific section of wasteland that God had chosen for man to live in. (The whole planet may have been a barren waste, but that is outside the scope of the text.)
So, God spent a week of literal, 24-hour days to get the Garden of Eden ready for man. He first commanded the sun to rise: “Let there be light.” On Day 4, God did not bring into existence the sun and moon (they had already been created in Genesis 1:1); rather, He declared their purpose. Instead of “let there be lights in the vault of the sky,” historical creationists would argue that the best translation of Genesis 1:14 would be something like this: “Let the lights in the vault of the sky be signs.” The lights had existed since Day 1 and were already providing light, but, on Day 4, God proclaimed their significance—just as the rainbow may have existed before Noah’s time, but after the flood God gave it special significance. In Genesis 1:14 God revealed that the purpose of the heavenly bodies is to serve mankind.
The rest of the historical creationist interpretation of Genesis 1—2 would proceed along the same lines as other creationist views, based on a somewhat literal reading of the text.
There are strengths and weaknesses to the historical creationist view. Genesis 1 definitely seems, upon a literal reading, to be describing the creation of the universe and the entirety of the earth. However, it is absolutely true that the Bible does not offer extensive or specific information about God’s process of creation. For instance, some assumptions required for a young-earth interpretation might be valid, but they are still assumptions, not direct statements of Scripture itself. At the very least, the historical creationist view is an example of how people can interpret the Genesis 1 account in a faithful and theologically valid way but come to different conclusions on certain points.
Historical creationism should also challenge all believers to examine their understanding of the creation account, as well as any other passage of Scripture. It is important that our view is not overly influenced by English translations, traditions, or modern scientific concerns—either in capitulation or opposition to them.