We assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. (Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis)
The Early Church Fathers
The early Church Fathers were men who believed in Jesus as their Savior and Lord and were the leaders of the church after the time of the original twelve apostles. They defended and proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Bible as a whole. Their writings show us that they spent great amounts of time attempting to disprove false teachings that arose. The issue of creation was certainly one of those.
The Church Fathers wrote against the Greek teaching that there was not a beginning, that the universe was infinite. They also wrote against spontaneous generation, which taught that life merely sprang up all by itself without a– which has similarities to the ideas of Charles Darwin known today as abiogenesis. We need to keep in mind, as stated earlier, that just because the Church Fathers have a particular interpretation of a passage, it does not automatically mean that we have to agree with them. They were men who could make mistakes and their writings are not considered inspired like the Bible. However, they are indicative of what the early church believed Scripture was teaching. Because of the sheer number of their writings, we will only look at the most salient of writers; just the ante-Nicene Fathers (the writings of the Fathers from approximately the second until the fourth century A.D.) who wrote thousands of pages – enough to occupy a lifetime of study.
Twisting the Words of the Early Fathers
The Church Fathers, like the ancient Jewish writers, have been appealed to by those who believe in an old earth to establish that the Bible truly teaches that the heavens and earth are very old. As we noted earlier, Dr. Ross has claimed that many of the Church Fathers believed in an old earth rather than in a young earth.
It is twisting the facts, however, to say that “many of the early Church Fathers […] interpret the creation days […] as long periods of time.” (Ross 1991: 141) We have already demonstrated that Josephus, whom he includes in his list, thought just the opposite and dates the age of the world to about 5800 years. In a similar fashion, the vast majority of early Church Fathers believed that Genesis 1-2 spoke of literal days, not long periods of time.
Ross’s poor scholarship has unfortunately led many to believe that the Church Fathers believed in day-ages when in fact they did not. Dr. Joshua Zorn discusses how he used to believe in a young earth and was very zealous until he learned more about science and in particular, read that the ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters believed in long days of creation.
For me it was surprising to find out that very few of the early Jewish interpreters or Church Fathers held to the six consecutive twenty-four-hour day interpretation of Genesis 1. In Creation and Time, Ross has documented that Philo, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandra, Origin, Augustine, Basil, and others all held to other interpretations. (Zorn 1997: 3)
Contrary to what Hugh Ross claims, practically none of the Church Fathers believed in long days of creation, which explains Zorn’s surprise. Again, we note that the Church Fathers are not the standard by which we measure Scripture; they were fallible. They do, however, provide a window into how ancient believers understood and interpreted Scripture. If nearly every ancient interpreter understood the days of Genesis to be literal, then there exists no historical basis to believe in anything but six, literal days of creation.
Let’s survey what some of the Church Fathers thought about Genesis 1 and 2 and whether they indeed support the position that the universe and the earth are billions of years old.
The Epistle of Barnabas[i] was probably written between 70 A.D. and 135 A.D. possibly by an Alexandrian Jew, though authorship is not clear. “The Epistle of Barnabas is, like I Clement, really anonymous…” (Lake 1912: 337-339). While we are not so concerned with proving who indeed actually wrote it, we are interested in mining the interpretation of an ancient Christian regarding the creation. From Chapter 15 on, covering the topic of the false and the true Sabbath, we read:
Further, also, it is written concerning the Sabbath in the Decalogue which [the Lord] spoke, face to face, to Moses on Mount Sinai, “And sanctify ye the Sabbath of the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart”… The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: “Andmade in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.” Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. (emphasis mine)
Contrary to believing in an old earth and universe, this author believed that the total span of earth’s history would last 7000 years and then God would “make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world.” How much more clarity in a creation time line could one ask for? This author was by far not the only one to hold to the belief that the six, literal days of creation multiplied by 1000, was equal the total time in years which the earth would exist. It would also be wrong to conclude that the author somehow thought that the days in Genesis were not actual days. It is precisely because those days were real, literal days that the formula worked in his mind. Because the days of creation were real and definite units of time, so too would be the duration of earth’s history – a grand total of 7000 years.
Irenaeus, an early church father of the second century in the area of modern day France, in his work, Against Heresies reiterates the formula the author of the Epistle of Barnabas so plainly put forth. Irenaeus says:
For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: “Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all His works.” (Genesis 2:2) This is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years; (2 Peter 3:8) and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year. (Irenaeus Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 28 emphasis mine)
Irenaeus is discussing the end of the age, but plainly believed the days of creation to be literal. “For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded.” Irenaeus believed that the world would end after six thousand years precisely because the creation was finished after six days. If we reverse the formula where one day equals one thousand years, then there is no other conclusion that may be drawn concerning how long he believed those first days of creation to be. If God will rest after 6000 years, and if the formula is that 1000 years equals a day, then the days of creation must be nothing other than 24-hour days. If the number of years until the end of the world is believed to be definite and concrete by Irenaeus, then he must have believed that the days of creation were literal as well.
Theophilus of Antioch
Theophilus of Antioch, born around 115 A.D. and died about 185 A.D., was a prolific writer of the early church. Theophilus was an apologist especially concerned with refuting the false teachers of his day. Theophilus, writing to “Autolycus an Idolater and Scorner of Christians”, states concerning the six days of creation that,
Of this six days’ work no man can give a worthy explanation and description of all its parts…on account of the exceeding greatness and riches of the wisdom of God which there is in the six days’ work above narrated. (Theophilus: Book 1, Chapter 1)
He later says, “But the power of God is shown in this, that, first of all, He creates out of nothing, according to His will, the things that are made” (Chapter 8). He thus establishes that, contrary to Greek thought, there was nothing before God began His work of creation. Interestingly, in light of the evolution plus God theories, Theophilus writes concerning the creation of the luminaries and how God created them later so as to confound the vain philosophers.
On the fourth day the luminaries were made; because God, Who possesses foreknowledge, knew the follies of the vain philosophers, that they were going to say, that the things which grow on the earth are produced from the heavenly bodies, so as to exclude God. In order, therefore, that the truth might be obvious, the plants and seeds were produced prior to the heavenly bodies, for what is posterior cannot produce that which is prior. (Book 2, Chapter 15 emphasis mine)
God Finished in Six Days
The current evolutionary (abiogenesis) model teaches that life spontaneously generated in the primordial soup of the earth. A necessary condition for the generation of life was the presence of the sun to provide the light, warmth, and energy for that life to miraculously begin. Theophilus, who obviously knew nothing of the paradigm of biological evolution, seems to have preempted the idea. The thought of spontaneous generation did not begin with Darwin; it was a belief held by the ancient Greeks. Theophilus was specifically attacking the belief that the sun was necessary for the generation of plant life. It is also significant that those holding both evolutionary timescale and the Bible as being true (Progressive Creation and Theistic Evolution) have to reinterpret the text of Genesis 1 to make it fit their preconceptions. Theophilus, however, wrote extensively to disprove such theories that contradicted the Scriptures as he understood them. He then gives a summary statement of all that God had done, “God, having thus completed the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that are in them, on the sixth day, rested on the seventh day from all His works which He made” (Chapter XIX). Later in chapter 23 he states again:
Man, therefore, God made on the sixth day, and made known this creation after the seventh day, when also He made Paradise, that he might be in a better and distinctly superior place. And that this is true, the fact itself proves. For how can one miss seeing that the pains which women suffer in childbed, and the oblivion of their labours which they afterwards enjoy, are sent in order that the word of God may be fulfilled, and that the race of men may increase and multiply? And do we not see also the judgment of the serpent, — how hatefully he crawls on his belly and eats the dust, — that we may have this, too, for a proof of the things which were said aforetime? (Book 2, Chapter 23)
According to his logic, the facts that we see the pains associated with childbirth and that snakes do indeed crawl on their bellies proves that God created just as Genesis declared. Whether or not we agree with his logic is irrelevant. What is important for our study is to see that another church father understood the events of Genesis 1 – 3 as very real and literal events. They were historical events. The days were literal days. To further confirm those facts, Theophilus establishes that the fall of man and the deception of the woman were at the beginning. This makes perfect sense if the days of creation were only six, real days, but not if creation lasted billions of years as Theistic Evolution and Progressive Creationism purport. “This Eve, on account of her having been in the beginning deceived by the serpent […]” (Chapter 28 emphasis mine).
Theophilus’ Simple Arithmetic
Many old earth advocates suggest that belief in a young earth of about 6000 years is a fairly recent one. Theophilus apparently wasn’t aware that he was supposed to believe in an old earth as we have already demonstrated. But just to let us know what he really thought, he left us yet another clear proof that he thought that creation had taken place only several thousand years before his own time. In book 3 chapter 23 he endeavored to demonstrate that the prophets of the Old Testament were more ancient than the Greek writers. He states:
And that we may give a more accurate exhibition of eras and dates, we will, God helping us, now give an account not only of the dates after the deluge, but also of those before it, so as to reckon the whole number of all the years, as far as possible; tracing up to the very beginning of the creation of the world, which Moses the servant of God recorded through the Holy Spirit. For having first spoken of what concerned the creation and genesis of the world, and of the first man, and all that happened after in the order of events, he signified also the years that elapsed before the deluge. (emphasis mine)
Theophilus immediately begins chapter 24 with a very literal totaling of the years of Adam and his descendants and arrives at a number fairly close to what young earth advocates propose:
Adam lived till he begat a son, 230 years. And his son Seth, 205 […] And his son Enoch, 165 […] And Lamech’s son was Noah, of whom we have spoken above, who begat Shem when 500 years old. During Noah’s life, in his 600th year, the flood came. The total number of years, therefore, till the flood, was 2242. (emphasis mine)
Theophilus has done nothing extraordinary here. He has merely added up the lifetimes from Adam until Noah and arrived at a number of years of 2242; that is Adam was created 2242 years before the flood (an event which he considered literal and real.). He then continues:
And immediately after the flood, Shem, who was 100 years old, begat Arphaxad. […] And his son Eber, when 134. And from him the Hebrews name their race […] And his son Nahor, when 75. And his son Terah, when 70. And his son Abraham, our patriarch, begat Isaac when he was 100 years old. Until Abraham, therefore, there are 3278 years. (emphasis mine)
Thus from the Creation (including Adam) to Abraham, according to Theophilus, there were 3278 years. Therefore if we add up Theophilus’ calculations until the present we get: Adam to Abraham 3278 years (Abraham lived somewhere about 2000 B.C.) plus 2000 years approximately from Abraham until Christ and then another 2000 from Christ until the present to equal 7278 years from the beginning until now. Where is the belief in long, indefinite ages in the distant past that Theophilus was supposed to believe in? Theophilus reiterates his point (and I submit here, at the risk of being redundant, merely to stress that this writer is not being taken out of context, nor am I leaving out important elements of his treatise) because he fully desired to prove as clearly as possible that the world was only thousands of years old:
And from the foundation of the world the whole time is thus traced, so far as its main epochs are concerned. From the creation of the world to the deluge were 2242 years. And from the deluge to the time when Abraham our forefather begat a son, 1036 years. And from Isaac, Abraham’s son, to the time when the people dwelt with Moses in the desert, 660 years. And from the death of Moses and the rule of Joshua the son of Nun, to the death of the patriarch David, 498 years. And from the death of David and the reign of Solomon to the sojourning of the people in the land of Babylon, 518 years 6 months 10 days. And from the government of Cyrus to the death of the Emperor Aurelius Verus, 744 years. All the years from the creation of the world amount to a total of 5698 years, and the odd months and days. (Book 3, Chapter 28, emphasis mine)
To Theophilus, The Earth Is Young
For fear that his reader might get lost in all of these numbers and hence forget the reason for their listing, he plainly states that he is writing to show as nonsense the positions of the writers that suggest that the world is extremely old:
For my purpose is not to furnish mere matter of much talk, but to throw light upon the number of years from the foundation of the world, and to condemn the empty labour and trifling of these authors, because there have neither been twenty thousand times ten thousand years [200,000,000] from the flood to the present time, as Plato said, affirming that there had been so many years; nor yet 15 times 10,375 years [155,625], as we have already mentioned Apollonius the Egyptian gave out; nor is the world uncreated, nor is there a spontaneous production of all things [abiogensis], as Pythagoras and the rest dreamed; but, being indeed created, it is also governed by the providence of God, who made all things; and the whole course of time and the years are made plain to those who wish to obey the truth. (Book 3, Chapter 26, emphasis mine)
For Theophilus, believing that the world is two hundred million years old is complete nonsense invented by those who are not seeking the truth. He is humble enough to concede that his calculations might be off by a little bit.
For if even a chronological error has been committed by us, of, e.g., 50 or 100, or even 200 years, yet 121 not of thousands and tens of thousands, as Plato and Apollonius and other mendacious authors have hitherto written”(Chapter 29).
He is not dogmatic about his calculation being the only correct number. However, he is suggesting that to speculate that the earth is over one hundred thousand years old as Plato suggests or is two hundred million years is complete nonsense. Theophilus wrote to “condemn the empty labor and trifling of these authors.” While his opinion doesn’t prove that Genesis teaches a young earth, it does prove that a young earth was considered orthodox and the only acceptable, Biblical perspective. In light of all the other ancient commentators hereto examined, we are gaining a picture that to believe in an old earth of hundreds of thousands, or millions, let alone billions of years would have been considered extremely aberrant and outrageous.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria, who lived from 153 to 217 A.D., is considered one of the most influential of the early Church Fathers. He was a prolific writer who so eloquently articulated many matters of faith in his generation. He wrote briefly but succinctly concerning the time frame of the creation:
For the creation of the world was concluded in six days. For the motion of the sun from solstice to solstice is completed in six months – in the course of which, at one time the leaves fall, and at another plants bud and seeds come to maturity. And they say that the embryo is perfected exactly in the sixth month, that is, in one hundred and eighty days in addition to the two and a half, as Polybus the physician relates in his book On the Eighth Month, and Aristotle the philosopher in his book On Nature. Hence the Pythagoreans, as I think, reckon six the perfect number, from the creation of the world (The Stromata Book 6, Chapter 16)
We know that he believed in a literal six days by the examples that he gives (e.g. the motion of the sun, the time the leaves fall, the budding of plants, and the time of perfecting of an embryo at six months). From the fact that his examples, which all have to do with a unit of six, are nonetheless real and finite units of time, we can conclude that his understanding of the first days of time were no different.
Hippolytus was a bishop of Rome who lived from 170 to 236 A.D. and was a student of Irenaeus. In his book, The Refutation of All Heresies (book 4, chapter 48), he says, “For in six days the world was made, and (the Creator) rested on the seventh.” What does he mean by six days, though? Could it be that he is referring to six ages – ages in which millions and billions of years might have elapsed? How can we know precisely what he meant by six days?
Fortunately, Hippolytus continues in a very direct and exact manner. He would not have his ancient audience, or us for that matter, be in the dark regarding what he firmly believed the Scriptures to be teaching:
But that we may not leave our subject at this point undemonstrated, we are obliged to discuss the matter of the times, of which a man should not speak hastily, because they are a light to him. For as the times are noted from the foundation of the world, and reckoned from Adam, they set clearly before us the matter with which our inquiry deals. For the first appearance of our Lord in the flesh took place in Bethlehem, under Augustus, in the year 5500; and He suffered in the thirty-third year. And 6,000 years must needs be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day “on which God rested from all His works.” (The Extant Works and Fragments of Hippolytus, Part 1.3.4)
Here he unambiguously declares the earth to be young. According to his calculations, Jesus came in the flesh 5500 years after the foundation of the world. He then states that the entirety of human history would last only six thousand years, a theme that we have seen several times earlier in our study of the other ancient commentators.[ii] There exists no doubt in the mind of Hippolytus that God created all that there is a mere 5500 years before Jesus and that the entire span of history would last no longer than six thousand years.
Origen and Methodius
At this point we need to consider Origen and Methodius, both of whom were on Hugh Ross’s list of Church Fathers who supposedly believed in non-literal days of creation and hence an old earth. We need to consider them in tandem since they are better understood together rather than separately regarding creation. Origen lived in Alexandria from 185 to 254 A.D. He was a follower of, who, unfortunately, began interpreting the Scriptures in a manner that was considered heretical by the Christian community of his day and for centuries after.
Origen’s Disturbing Doctrines
Of all the Church Fathers that we have examined so far, Origen is the only one that truly did reject the literal interpretation of the text of Genesis in favor of an allegorical approach in order to resolve some of the seeming difficulties of the text. While Origen’s love for God is not in question, his method of interpretation is. For in caring more about the hidden meaning of the text than the literal and plain meaning, mixed with the NeoPlatonistic thinking of Alexandria, Origen wrote some most disturbing things concerning doctrines which are essential to orthodox Christianity, and if one merely follows the plain meaning of Scripture, cannot be missed. Though Origen was perhaps the first to systematize a doctrine of the Trinity, his conclusions are not derived from the plain reading of Scripture, but from mixing Greek philosophy, allegory and Scripture together. Below is an excerpt from Origen on the Trinity:
The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit, and in turn the power of the Holy Spirit exceeds that of every other holy being. (Moore 2006)
Origen obviously holds to a completely unorthodox position of the relation of the three persons of the Trinity to such an extent that it sounds much like the modern day cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses who hold that Jesus is the first of all of God’s creations but is not equal to God. Obviously someone holding to such a position is unstable in their interpretation of the Bible and should not be looked to for guidance on interpreting the creation account of Genesis. We might be tempted to give Origen the benefit of the doubt concerning his heretical view of the Trinity. However, it is not only this issue but many others that call into question his teachings.
Another example which is nowhere to be found in the pages of Scripture, but purely from his own imagination is the creation of souls. This teaching held that not only were there many beings created prior to the act of creation which originally fell away from their creator, but that the soul of Christ was among that number.
Where do we see this idea even remotely intimated in Scripture? Obviously, the answer is absolutely nowhere! Isn’t the plain teaching of Scripture easy for all to see? Jesus said, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) and the Jews obviously understood what He was saying since they wanted to stone Him! In Revelation 1:17 Jesus said that He is the first and the last – a term that is used only for God and stands in direct contradiction to Origen’s teaching.
Methodius Opposed to Origen’s Teaching
We now turn our attention to Methodius who was born shortly after Origen and became bishop over Olympus and Patara in Lycia and then later died as a martyr around 312 A.D. in Greece. He was chiefly known as an ardent opponent of the teachings of Origen and devoted numerous pages to refuting his heretical teachings. In a fragment of his writings[iii], he says concerning Origen, whom he then quotes:
Origen, after having fabled many things concerning the eternity of the universe, adds this also:
Nor yet from Adam, as some say, did man, previously not existing, first take his existence and come into the world. Nor again did the world begin to be made six days before the creation of Adam. But if any one should prefer to differ in these points, let him first say, whether a period of time be not easily reckoned from the creation of the world, according to the Book of Moses, to those who so receive it, the voice of prophecy here proclaiming: “Thou art God from everlasting, and world without end […] For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:2, Psalm 90:4) For when a thousand years are reckoned as one day in the sight of God, and from the creation of the world to His rest is six days, so also to our time, six days are defined, as those say who are clever arithmeticians. Therefore, they say that an age of six thousand years extends from Adam to our time. For they say that the judgment will come on the seventh day, that is in the seventh thousand years. Therefore, all the days from our time to that which was in the beginning, in which God created the heaven and the earth, are computed to be thirteen days; before which God, because he had as yet created nothing according to their folly, is stripped of His name of Father and Almighty. But if there are thirteen days in the sight of God from the creation of the world, how can Wisdom say, in the Book of the Son of Sirach: “Who can number the sand of the sea, and the drops of rain, and the days of eternity?” (Ecclus. 1:2)
This is what Origen says seriously, and mark how he trifles. (Methodius Extracts from the Work on Things Created, emphasis mine)
The last line of the above quote contains the final remarks of Methodius. Notice that where Origen denied the literal creation in six days, Methodius just dismisses his words as “trifles”. Thus, we can truly admit that there was at least one who thought that the creation of the heavens and earth exceeded six literal days. However, the idea is considered to be foolish and is rejected out of hand and Origen is the only known exception to the rule. It must also be kept in mind that Origen’s denial of such teachings of the creation was a result of his allegorical and NeoPlatonistic method of interpreting the Scriptures – the same method that led him to teach that the Holy Spirit is inferior in essence to the Son and the Son is inferior in essence to the Father. He thought, in fact, both the Son and the Holy Spirit were created beings. This same method also led him to teach the preexistence of souls and the soul of Christ – a doctrine that resounds with the teachings of the Mormon cult started by Joseph Smith.
Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries
In 312 A.D. Constantine the Great conquered the city of Rome, the center of the oppressive government which for nearly three centuries had afflicted Christians with all manners of torture and martyrdom.
A vision had assured him that he should conquer in the sign of the Christ, and his warriors carried Christ’s monogram on their shields, though the majority of them were pagans… Of his gratitude to the God of the Christians the victor immediately gave convincing proof; the Christian worship was henceforth tolerated throughout the empire (Edict of Milan, early in 313). (Catholic Encyclopedia 2006 emphasis mine)
Constantine’s victory marked the beginning of a new age for the church where almost overnight the belief in Jesus as Lord went from being threatened with a miserable death to being accepted as the official state religion.
Victorinus, a church father who flourished around 270 A.D. and was martyred around 303 A.D., wrote many works, most having been lost, unfortunately. Nevertheless, one that was preserved titled “On The Creation Of The World” contains some candid reflections upon what he understood those six days to mean.
To me, as I meditate and consider in my mind concerning the creation of this world in which we are kept enclosed, even such is the rapidity of that creation; as is contained in the book of Moses, which he wrote about its creation, and which is called Genesis. God produced that entire mass for the adornment of His majesty in six days; on the seventh to which He consecrated it […] In the beginning God made the light, and divided it in the exact measure of twelve hours by day and by night, for this reason […] (Victorinus, emphasis mine)
Note that Victorinus specifically states that God created in a matter of six days and rested on the seventh. He then further defines for us what he means by a day by saying that God divided the day and the night into twelve-hour segments and hence a twenty-four hour day. Could we ask for a more specific explanation from an ancient source as to what they understood a day to be?
Victorinus is hardly alone in his understanding of the creation days consisting of 24 hours. Basil “The Great” (ca. 330 to 379 A.D.) corroborates Victorinus’ teaching one hundred years later with his statement:
’And there was evening and morning, one day.’ Why did he say ‘one’ and not ‘first’? He said ‘one’ because he was defining
the measure of day and night […] since twenty-four hours fill up the interval of one day (The Six Days Work 1:1-2, emphasis mine)
Lactantius (260 to 330 AD), who suffered under the last of the persecutions of Rome, in his latter years had the unique fortune of being the tutor of Constantine’s son Crispus. Working in such close proximity to the emperor, he was given the opportunity to become “the instrument of Providence in bearing the testimony of Jesus, ‘even before kings.’” (Fathers Volume 7 Introduction Lactantius) Lactantius thus becomes an important voice concerning our question of how the Church Fathers interpreted Genesis. His perspective is especially noteworthy since he had tasted the bitterness of suffering for Christ and then later witnessed introduction of Christianity as the official state religion, which ultimately led to his working in the home of the emperor himself. We can surmise, therefore, that he would have desired to be bold in his declaration of Christ and to teach the Scriptures as faithfully as possible.
In his work The Divine Institutes, which he entitled, “Of the First and Last Times of the World,” he states that God made the heavens and earth in six days. He also straightforwardly states:
Plato and many others of the philosophers, since they were ignorant of the origin of all things, and of that primal period at which the world was made, said that many thousands of ages had passed since this beautiful arrangement of the world was completed; foolishly saythat they possess comprised in their memorials four hundred and seventy thousand years; in which matter […] they believed that they were at liberty to speak falsely. But we, whom the Holy Scriptures instruct to the knowledge of the truth, know the beginning and the end of the world […] Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodeled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He had rested from His works. (The Divine Institutes, Chapter 16, emphasis mine)
Lactantius states this as clearly and plainly as one could possibly expect. He unambiguously declares that it is the philosophers who are both ignorant and foolish in declaring that the origin of all things took place over hundreds of thousands of years earlier. Lactantius even denounces an exact amount of 475,000 years and if it was considered foolish to think that the world was so old in his day, why should we be persuaded that the earth is 4.56 billion years old and the universe is about 14 billion years old? We have seen again and again that the ancient interpreters believed that Scripture taught a young earth.
Of all the Church Fathers (besides Origen), the person we would expect to hold to a view of an old earth and a creation week that took place over vast ages, would be Augustine. He lived from 354 to 430 A.D. and was the bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He is considered to be the foremost theologian of the Catholic Church and is also held in high esteem by many Protestants. A typical method of interpretation for him was allegorical and typological. He often sought a deeper and spiritual truth underlying a given text. Thus, to discover that he did not believe that the creation week happened over long periods of time, as Dr. Ross has stated, is surprising. Ironically, Augustine held to a view that God created everything in an instant rather than in six literal days. However, as to when this occurred, he, like so many Church Fathers before him, believed the creation to have occurred less than six thousand years before his own time.
Creation Was Less than Six Thousand Years Ago
In his monumental work, City of God book 12, chapter 10, Augustine lucidly comments on certain people that just don’t have their facts straight concerning the age of the earth:
They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed. (City of God book 12, chapter 10 emphasis mine)
He then reiterates this in chapter 12.
As to those who are always asking why man was not created during these countless ages of the infinitely extended past, and came into being so lately that, according to Scripture, less than 6000 years have elapsed since He began to be, I would reply to them regarding the creation of man, just as I replied regarding the origin of the world to those who will not believe that it is not eternal, but had a beginning, which even Plato himself most plainly declares […] If it offends them that the time that has elapsed since the creation of man is so short, and his years so few according to our authorities […] (City of God book 12, chapter 12 emphasis mine)
Even Augustine, the one person in addition to Origen that we might have expected to see an earth of billions of years or hundreds of thousands at the very least, held to a young earth. One, therefore, cannot argue that he was advocating any type of day-age theory. Nor did he envision any gap between the verses 1, 2 or 3. However, we may not conclude that he believed in a literal six-day creation either.
Augustine’s “Literal” Interpretation
Augustine’s denial of six actual days is trumpeted by Davis Young, of the geology department ofCollege Grand Rapids, MI, who notes that Augustine’s “literal” interpretation of Genesis does not resemble the modern literal six days creation week or young earth positions.
He [Augustine] later came to reject that [allegorical] method and in this more mature work, written in his late fifties just before The City of God, he is concerned ‘to discuss Sacred Scriptures according to the plain meaning of the historical facts, not according to future events which they foreshadow’. Given his strong commitment to literal interpretation, it is fascinating to recognize that the outcome bears absolutely no resemblance to modern literal interpretations. For example, he concludes that in Genesis I the terms “light,” “day,” and “morning” bear a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning. Yet for Augustine, spiritual light is just as literal as physical light, and the creation of spiritual light is just as much a historical event or fact as the creation of physical light. What is literal for one person may not be literal for others. (Young 1988 emphasis mine)
According to Young, Augustine stresses that his new work is literal and not metaphorical or allegorical. He then goes on to state that since Augustine was such a great theologian we ought to listen to his testimony. Young writes,
From his general approach to this text, it would appear that Augustine, the great theologian, a man saturated in Holy Scripture, actually encourages the church not to cling dogmatically to specific renderings of the text but to rethink its interpretations in the light of genuine extra-biblical knowledge. Perhaps we should pay him serious attention. Augustine is obviously interested in the science of his own day and interacts with it. He takes extra-biblical knowledge seriously. (Young 1988 emphasis mine)
Notice that Young urges us to follow Augustine’s example to shift our interpretation of Genesis “in the light of genuine extra-biblical knowledge.” It would seem that Young is suggesting that we are to allow modern humanistic thought to act as a standard by which we interpret Scripture. Consider that he says, “Augustine shows respect for scientific activity, and does not want to put Scripture in a situation of conflict with it” (Young 1988). Certainly Young is correct that none of us ought to disregard scientific activity nor pit the Bible against science. However, when the scientific activity of which he speaks, contradicts the historical-grammatical reading of the Bible, then there will be conflict.
Spontaneous Generation a Fact for Augustine
It would seem that Young is so eager to demonstrate that we should emulate Augustine by not holding to the belief that God created the heavens and earth in six (real, literal) days that he advocates believing man’s shifting thoughts over the Bible. Consider how his next statement and following example encourage believing in (faulty and secular) science rather than merely trusting the Bible, even when it disagrees with man’s findings.
For example, it is clear that he [Augustine] accepts spontaneous generation of organisms and the four elements of Greek thought. He expends considerable effort in relating Genesis I to the four elements and to the Greek theory of natural places: “One must surely not think that in this passage of Holy Scripture there has been an omission of any one of the four elements that are generally supposed to make up the world just because there seems to be no mention of air in the account of sky, water, and earth.” (Young 1988)
Are we therefore to allow mainstream thought about the origins of the universe, which, as we have seen, is built on a paradigm that all matter and all life arose by chance, merely because Augustine held a belief that was sympathetic to the science of his day? Exactly what point Young wished to make regarding Augustine’s belief in spontaneous generation is unclear. There exist two possibilities as I see it: either Young believes that that confirms the teaching of evolution and its teaching of abiogenesis or that just as Augustine permitted current thought to influence his interpretation of Scripture, so too should we. In either case, our response is a resounding “no” since neither could be further from what our response should be.
If Young meant to demonstrate that Augustine was in fact, rather progressive for his day to believe in spontaneous generation, then it only serves to prove why Scripture alone should be our standard. Wikipedia.com rightly describes the history of Spontaneous Generation:
Classical notions of abiogenesis, now more precisely known as spontaneous generation, held that complex, living organisms are generated by decaying organic substances, e.g. that mice spontaneously appear in stored grain or maggots spontaneously appear in meat.
Yet it was not until 1862 that Louis Pasteur performed a series of careful experiments which conclusively proved that a truly sterile medium would remain sterile.
Three years earlier, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (published in 1859), had presented an argument that modern organisms had evolved, over immense periods of time, from simpler ancestral forms, that species changed over time. Darwin himself declined to speculate on some implications of his theory – that at some point there may have existed an un-organism with no prior ancestor and that such an organism may have come into existence, formed from non-living molecules.
Pasteur had demonstrated that Spontaneous Generation was wrong, and he also seemed to have demonstrated that any concept involving the generation of living matter from non-living matter was also wrong. (Wikipedia.com: Abiogenesis emphasis mine)
Spontaneous generation is a theory that has been scientifically proven to be false and worthless. Thus to assert that it was in any way good that Augustine paid heed to the scientific activity of his day rather than merely believe the, albeit unpopular, teaching of the Bible, is not only fallacious but inexcusable. It is unfortunate that Augustine held to such a position that has now without a doubt been proven bogus and incorrect. Augustine’s endorsement of “the four elements” does not need to even be mentioned.
I would argue that rather than trying to absorb Augustine’s views, we hold fast to the easy teaching of Scripture and where Augustine or anyone for that matter agrees with it, then we embrace their views and when they differ we part ways. Augustine was wrong about interpreting Scripture in light of what Young described as “genuine extra-biblical knowledge”. Spontaneous generation and only four elements were the prevailing thought back then. Using them to interpret the Bible led to false conclusions in his day and interpreting the Bible through the lens of evolutionary thought today will lead to faulty conclusions about God and the world in our day.
Augustine certainly made important contributions to the Church and those should not be discounted. However, the real and lasting contributions were those that were firmly based on Scripture and not on the changing science of men. Thus, we ought to learn from Augustine as Young suggested; we should learn from his mistake of trying to appeal to current scientific thought where it disagrees with the Bible. Sooner or later man’s science will change but the Bible remains.
The Fathers Believed in a Young Earth
Having looked at the classic ancient interpreters of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, we can now ask ourselves what the ancient perspective was. Did they actually believe in an old earth as some purport or did they hold to a literal point of view? As we have seen, in every instance (except for Origen and partly Augustine), both Jewish and Christian perspectives held that the heavens and the earth were created in six, literal days and many of the commentators defined what a day is by stating that it meant 24 hours. Not one of them (except Origen) even remotely intimated that those six days of creation should be understood as long ages or that day meant anything other than a period of 24 hours. Time and again, they believed that God made all that is in a span of six, 24-hour days and they all thought that it occurred less than 6000 years before their own lives. Even Augustine wrote that the creation had occurred less than 6000 years before his own day. The real exception to the overwhelming and prevailing belief that God created in a span of six days less than 6000 years earlier was Origen and as we saw, so many of his teachings were considered heretical that his opinion on the creation of the world bears little weight. This view of a literal, six-day creation would remain as the only acceptable belief until the enlightenment and the advent of the geology of Charles Lyell and Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis.
Thomas Aquinas of the 13th century, considered to be one of the foremost theologians of the Catholic Church, stated: “’God called the light day’ (since the word ‘day’ is also used to denote a space of twenty-four hours). Other instances of a similar use occur, as pointed out by Rabbi Moses.” (Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica)
Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer of the 16th century, believed in a young earth as well.
We know from Moses that the world was not in existence before 6,000 years ago […] He [Moses] calls ‘a spade a spade,’
_i.e., he employs the terms ‘day’ and ‘evening’ without allegory, just as we customarily do […] we assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit. (Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis)
This view is shared by John Calvin, who also lived in the 16th century, that the earth is less than 6000 years old, which implies that the days of creation were literal six days of 24-hours. In speaking of those that reject some of his teachings, he strongly declares:
A rebellious spirit will display itself no less insolently when it hears that there are three persons in the divine essence, than when it hears that God when he created man foresaw every thing that was to happen to him. Nor will they abstain from their jeers when told that little more than five thousand years have elapsed since the creation of the world. (John Calvin)
Thus what shall we conclude? Is it safe to venture that the early church believed that God created the universe in six, literal days roughly six thousand years prior to their time? There exists no historical reason to believe in any other conclusion. We have also seen that there exists no philological, semantic or syntactical reason in the Bible. The Bible never suggests that the Genesis days should be considered longer. The only reason that exists to believe that those days were long periods of time is because one has accepted as established fact and truth the evolutionary model, and hence, feels the need to fit those billions of years into the Bible. The amazing irony, however, is that evolution was devised to try to explain how we got here without the aid of a creator.
[i] All of the early Church Fathers are cited from The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volumes 1 – 9 (1867), Edinburgh, using the electronic version of The Word Bible Software unless otherwise stated.
[ii] The belief of the ancient commentators that the entirety of human history would last 6000 years is not specifically stated in the Bible. Nevertheless, the belief clearly shows that they believed the earth to be young and not millions or billions of years old.
[iii] This was actually recorded by another ancient writer, Photius.