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Biblical Chronology
Vol. 2, No. 2
February, 1990
Copyright © James B. Jordan 1990

Groping Through the Gaps

By James B. Jordan

Although nowadays gap theories are associated with dispensationalism, it was not always so. In the nineteenth century, scholars from a variety of backgrounds (Anglican, Reformed, and proto-fundamentalist) seem to have become fascinated by gaps. If you are not familiar with what I am talking about, this newsletter will acquaint you with the problem.

Primeval Gaps

The first gap proposed was between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. It was argued that God would not have made a "formless and void" world, so clearly there must have been some kind of fall of the cosmos between these two verses: God had created the heavens and the earth. This was supposedly a finished and glorious universe. Also, supposedly there was either a pre-Adamic human race or else a race of angels who ran this world. This race fell into sin and God destroyed the world, leaving it "formless and void." God then remade the world during the six days of Genesis 1.

One can find this notion in numerous older Bible commentaries, including such Presbyterian works as George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James & Klock, 1976 [1860]), and J. G. Murphy, Commentary on Genesis (Minneapolis: James Publications, n.d. [1865]). It is also found advocated in Martin Anstay, Chronology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1973 [1913]), and of course in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible and in most commentaries issuing from the dispensational camp.

The supposed evidence for this is Isaiah 45:18, which says that God created the world "not a waste place: He formed it to be inhabited." This verse proves nothing, however. It would be just as proper, and better in context, to render it in English, "He established it and did not create it to be a waste place." I recommend the discussion in E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 3:211.

Not content with straining out a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, theologians next set about tossing in gaps in Genesis 5 and 11. Supposedly the chronologies in these chapters were not to be taken as complete because of "gaps in the genealogies." We shall take up Genesis 5 and 11 more fully later on. For now, I simply wish to make the point that nineteenth century theologians were fascinated by gaps, and that Reformed and Presbyterian theologians were as guilty as anybody in inventing them. In this case, as I’ve mentioned before, it was two Princeton theologians, B. B. Warfield and W. H. Green, who bear primary responsibility.

These primeval gaps made room for superficial accommodations with then-current secular science. The dinosaurs, it was argued by some, existed during the ages of the gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Indeed, others argued, this gap accounts for all the billions of years required for evolution. Before the six days of re-creation, the earth was shrouded in clouds, they proposed, and what happened on the fourth day was merely that the sun, moon, and stars became visible to observers on the earth — an interpretation that strains lots of gnats and swallows more than one camel.

Naturally, adding lots of years into the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 enabled evangelicals to accommodate secular Egyptologists, who were saying that the first dynasties of Egypt arose between 6000 and 5000 B.C. Of course, the secularists have had to revise this opinion repeatedly, drawing the first dynasty ever closer and closer to a Biblically-acceptable date.

Problem? It isn’t in the Bible, Charlie. There’s no evidence for any of these gaps.

Eschatological Gaps

While Presbyterian theologians tried to make the history of the world longer than the Bible says it is by stuffing gaps into Genesis 1, 5, and 11, the proto-fundamentalist scholars, who today are known as dispensationalists, took to gap thinking with a vengeance. Integral to their system of thinking was the notion that Daniel’s seventieth week (Dan. 9:24-27) had been postponed until the end of time, so that the entire Christian era falls into a gap in prophetic chronology.

Other gaps had to be pushed into place as well. For instance, consider 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, "But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, — [gap] —, then the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power." Well, there’s no millennium in those verses. It sure looks as if the Kingdom comes to an end right at the "rapture" of the saints, since the Son gives it to the Father at that point. Guess we’re going to have to stuff in a gap, as indicated, where we can put the millennium! There are lots of other places in the Old and New Testaments where either millennial gaps or "Church Age" gaps have to be forced into the text in order to make it jibe with millennial systems.

It wasn’t just premillennialists who were zapping gaps into the text right and left. Other forms of gaps also were being entertained. For instance, some Lutheran and Calvinistic theologians came up with the idea that in Old Testament prophecy there is a "foreshortening of the eschatological horizon." This means that the Old Testament prophets combined the events of the first and second comings of Christ into one event. Now that the Gospel has arrived, we can see that there is in fact a gap between the first coming of Christ "in humility" and His second coming "in glory."

Calvin Theological Seminary professor Louis Berkhof puts it this way: "The element of time is a rather negligible quantity in the prophets. The prophets compressed great events into a brief space of time, brought momentous movements close together in a temporal sense, and took them in at a single glance. This is called `the prophetic perspective,’ or, as Delitzsch calls it, `the foreshortening of the prophet’s horizon.’ They looked upon the future as the traveler does upon a mountain range in the distance. He fancies that one mountain-top rises up right behind the other, when in reality they are miles apart. Cf. the prophecies respecting the Day of the Lord, and the twofold coming of Christ." Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), p. 150.

Berkhof and others fall into this trap because they are committed to a "literal wherever possible" approach to prophecy (p. 152), which ignores the true character of ancient language and literature. On this, see my remarks in Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988), chap. 1. We need to let the Bible interpret itself, and not bring to it an artificial and rationalistic rule such as "literal wherever possible."

In my opinion, there is no good reason for this notion of foreshortening. It was at Christ’s first coming that He not only suffered and was buried, but also rose again, ascended to sit enthroned at the Father’s right hand, sent forth the Spirit to inaugurate His reign, and poured out wrath on His enemies in A.D. 70.

Problem? It isn’t in the Bible, Charlie. If we understand the imagery of the Bible properly, there is no need to see anything being postponed, and no evidence that any Old Testament prophecy "foreshortens" anything.

Spiritual Gaps

Gaps at the beginning and gaps at the end. All we have left are gaps in the middle of history, and nineteenth century evangelicals were happy to provide these as well.

Another manifestation of gap thinking, found not only in dispensational circles but in others as well, is the suggestion that some of the chronological statements of the Bible only pertain to "spiritual years," with "years of carnality" left out. Thus, 1 Kings 6:1 says that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign came 480 years after Israel came out of Egypt. This seems clear enough, until we count up the number of years in the books of Judges and Samuel and find out that the total figure is 594 (according to Anstay). The explanation offered is that if we subtract the years that Israel was under foreign rule ("carnal years"), we are left with 480 "spiritual years." As you can imagine, a great deal of ingenuity goes into making this system work. "Spiritual versus carnal years" were also used to explain the seeming chronological discrepancies between the books of Kings and Chronicles. This approach mars the usefulness both of Anstay’s book, and of Philip Mauro, The Wonders of Bible Chronology (Swengel, PA: Reiner, 1970 [1933]).

It is far simpler and more obvious to take note of the fact that some of the judges of Israel worked at the same time. For instance, Samuel, Jephthah, and Samson were contemporaries. The years given in the book of Judges do not require us to take them all in chronological sequence, and thus we are not obliged to do so. From the time Israel conquered Canaan to the time of Jephthah was 300 years (Jud. 11:26). That leaves 140 years to the fourth year of Solomon. Subtract 40 for David’s reign and 40 for Saul’s, and we have 56 years left. There were 40 years of Philistine oppression at the beginning of this period, eighteen of which are included in Jephthah’s 300 years. During the first 20, Jephthah, Samuel, and Samson were growing up. During the second 20, Samuel and Samson judged Israel. The battle of Mizpah took place at that point, which was the year Samson died and right at the time Elon the Zebulunite, the northern judge, also died (Jud. 12:7-12). Abdon judged after Elon in the north, but only for eight years (Jud. 12:14), after which Samuel judged all Israel. This leaves 34 years between the battle of Mizpah and the call of Saul (1 Sam. 8). By my reckoning, Samuel would be about 74 years old at this point, an "old man."

Now, this is just a rough sketch. As we go along, I’ll try to refine the chronology of this period as much as possible. Some of the numbers may change. My only point now is that gap-thinking is unnecessary and pointless in accounting for the period of the Judges. (In a later essay, we shall take up how this harmonizes with Acts 13:17-21.)

Problem? It isn’t in the Bible, Charlie. There is simply no evidence for this "spiritual years" approach.


I don’t know how to account for the rash of gap-thinking that broke out in the nineteenth century among evangelicals. I do know that it was a fairly pervasive phenomenon, not something limited only to dispensationalists. Part of the reason why Biblical chronology has fallen out of consideration during this century is because gap-thinking became so entrenched during the last. It became easy to imagine all sorts of chronological gaps between events, because supposedly there was evidence for many of them. Thus, Biblical chronology became less trustworthy, and the speculative constructions of secular scholars became more trustworthy.

In fact, however, there is no evidence of any gaps anywhere in the Biblical chronology. Harmonizing apparent discrepancies is not difficult, and there is no foundation for such notions as the "foreshortening of the eschatological horizon" or "spiritual chronology."

There is no evidence for a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. All these verses say is that God made the world shapeless and empty to start with, and then as a Potter works with clay, He made the world we know in six days. Nothing could be simpler. There was no pre-Adamic race, and angels were never given charge of this earth. That is man’s job.

And there is no evidence of any gaps in the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11. These passages show us that the Flood came 1656 years after the creation of the world, and that Abram was born 2008 years after the creation.