Creation and the Church Fathers
Recently I was rather shocked to read the following words from two leading British evangelical Christians:
“There is, unfortunately, a common misconception that Christians all used to take it [Creation] fairly literally, and that in a post-Copernican and Darwinian age some of us are now trying to cobble together some kind of non-literal understanding. This is simply not true. At no stage in the history of Christian interpretation of Genesis 1 – 3 has there been a ‘purely literal’ understanding.”Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith, p.198, Monarch Books © 1999
According to these two scholars the traditional and orthodox understanding throughout church history has been that the days of Creation are symbolic. But is this really true? This article is an attempt to put the record straight by referring to the earliest writings of Christian leaders. These leaders were known as the Church Fathers and they wrote to encourage believers, mainly during the period of AD 96 – 430 (Clement to Augustine). Of the 24 Church Fathers that I examined, 14 clearly accepted the literal days of Creation; 9 did not mention their thoughts on this subject, and only one held to a clearly figurative belief, which he imbued from the Jewish liberal philosopher, Philo, who had, in turn, been greatly influenced by the pagan Greeks.
The first Church Father who mentions the days of Creation is Barnabas (not Paul’s companion) who wrote a letter in AD 130. He says:
“Now what is said at the very beginning of Creation about the Sabbath, is this: In six days God created the works of his hands, and finished them on the seventh day; and he rested on that day, and sanctified it. Notice particularly, my children, the significance of ‘he finished them in six days.’ What that means is, that He is going to bring the world to an end in six thousand years, since with Him one day means a thousand years; witness His own saying, ‘Behold, a day of the Lord shall be as a thousand years. Therefore, my children, in six days – six thousand years, that is – there is going to be an end of everything.” (The Epistle of Barnabas 15)The Epistle of Barnabas 15, Early Christian Writings, p. 214, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin Classics © 1968
Barnabas is referring here to the traditional view of both the Jewish Rabbis and the early church leaders, that the days of Creation were literal six days, but that Psalm 90:4 (and for the Christians, 2 Peter 3:8) prophetically pointed to the coming of the Messiah after 6,000 years (and for the Christians, the return of Christ).Shachter, J., Freedman, H. and Epstein, I., Talmud: Sanhedrin, The Soncino Press, London, 97 a and 97 b, 1987 This is not to be confused with the modern idea in the church, which wrenches verses out of context and makes the days of Creation to be evolutionary billions of years. Such a view has nothing to do with traditional Christianity; it is an attempt to make the Bible palatable to the masses who have been indoctrinated by the pagan religion of evolutionism.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (AD 120 – 202), was discipled by Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who had himself been taught by the Apostle John. He tells us clearly that a literal Adam and Eve were created and fell into sin on the literal first day of Creation (an idea influenced by the Rabbis). He writes:
“For it is said, 'There was made in the evening, and there was made in the morning, one day.' Now in this same day that they did eat, in that also did they die.”Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:23:2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.1, p.557, T&T Clark Eerdmans © Reprinted 1996
When he refers to Adam sinning and bringing death to the human race on the sixth day, he also points out that Christ also died on the sixth day in order to redeem us from the curse of sin. It is impossible to manipulate the text to make Irenaeus look as if he believed in the long-age days of the modernist theologians.
Agreeing with Barnabas, he explains that the literal six-day Creation points to six thousand years of history before Christ’s return:
“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. 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; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.”Ibid., 28:3
Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus, near Rome (AD 170 – 236), was trained in the faith by Irenaeus, and like his mentor, he held to literal Creation days. He writes:
“And six thousand years must needs be accomplished… for 'a day with the Lord is as a thousand years.' Since, then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6,000 years must be fulfilled.”Hippolytus, the Extant Words and Fragments, On Daniel 2:4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, p.179, T &T Clark Eerdmans © Reprinted 1995
Lactantius, a Bible scholar (AD 260 – 330) who tutored Emperor Constantine’s son, Crispus, taught the official Christian doctrine of the traditional church. He wrote:
“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…. In the beginning God made the light, and divided it in the exact measure of twelve hours by day and by night….”Lactantius, On the Creation of the World, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, p.341, T & T Clark Eerdmans © Reprinted 1994
As with the other church leaders at the time, he accepted the prophetic days of 2 Peter 3:8, and tells us:
“Therefore, since all the works of God were completed in six days, the world must continue in its present state through six ages, that is, six thousand years.”Ibid., Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 7:14
Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo
Usually liberal Christians refer to these three church leaders to support their ideas. However, we must understand that these three scholars never even thought about interpreting the days of Genesis in a way that today’s liberals understand. To try and do this is a violation of their teaching.
Firstly, even these three leaders who interpreted Scripture in a more symbolic way than the others, never once tried to mix the long ages of the pagan philosophers like Plato with their teaching. Every single person among the Christian leaders who spoke about Creation said it had happened much less than 10,000 years ago. Augustine (AD 354 – 430) could write:
“fewer than 6,000 years have passed since man’s first origin,”
and he referred to the pagans’
“fairy-tales about reputed antiquity, which our opponents may decide to produce in attempts to controvert the authority of our sacred books....”Augustine, City of God, 12:11, translated by Henry Bettenson, p. 484 – 485, Penguin Classics © 1972
Liberals are keen to get Augustine on their side because apparently he believed that the days of Creation were symbolic, and not literal. He tells us in his City of God what he understood about the Creation days:
“The world was in fact made with time, if at the time of its creation change and motion came into existence. This is clearly the situation in the order of the first six or seven days, in which morning and evening are named, until God’s creation was finished on the sixth day, and on the seventh day God’s rest is emphasized as something conveying a mystic meaning. What kind of days these are is difficult or even impossible for us to imagine, to say nothing of describing them.
In our experience, of course, the days with which we are familiar only have an evening because the sun sets, and a morning because the sun rises; whereas those first three days passed without the sun, which was made, we are told, on the fourth day. The narrative does indeed tell that light was created by God…. But what kind of light that was, and with what alternating movement the distinction was made, and what was the nature of this evening and this morning; these are questions beyond the scope of our sensible experience. We cannot understand what happened as it is presented to us; and yet we must believe it without hesitation.”Augustine, City of God, 11: 6 – 7
From this we realise that Augustine held to a literal interpretation of the Creation days, although he admitted he had to take it by faith, rather than by reason. In his earlier book (AD 397 – 398), Confessions, he does spiritualize the Genesis account of Creation to communicate with a different audience, but his City of God was completed only four years before his death, and, as shown above, this later book shows a literal understanding of the days of Genesis.
He did teach an idea known as the “seminal principle,” which some liberals have jumped on with glee, stating that Augustine was a theistic evolutionist. This is, however, reading too much into his work from a post-Darwin mindset. He simply believed that all living things contained within them seeds, which grew to form the complete species, but that all kinds of living things had fixed boundaries. These seeds, he believed, grew rapidly into fully mature living forms during the creation process – there was no thought about millions of years in between each stage of the days of Genesis.Augustine, Literal Meaning of Genesis, 5: 11: 27 – 28, Robert I. Bradshaw, Chapter Three: The Days of Genesis, p. 12, http://www.robibrad.demon.co.uk/chapter3.htm
Origen (AD 185 – 230/254) was one of the most prolific Christian writers in the Early Church, and was used by God to lead many into the Christian faith. He was recognised as one of the greatest scholars of the church at that time. He led a Bible school in Alexandria, and in order to become a better missionary to the pagan philosophers, he attended the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, who had founded the school of Neo-Platonism in Alexandria. Sadly, it was the influence of pagan philosophy that led Origen astray in some of his Scriptural interpretations.
Origen started preaching that human souls had already existed and that they were waiting to be put into bodies. This heresy was known as the “Pre-existence of the Soul”, and it was totally rejected by the church. He also taught that the stars possessed their own souls. This belief he adopted from the pagan scientists of the day. He began to explain away Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden as figurative, and he also bought into a pagan understanding of the Creation days. He believed that “the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that”,Origen, Against Celsus, 1:19, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, p. 404, T&T Clark Eerdmans © Reprinted March 1994 but saw the six days of Creation as figurative.
The reason why he struggled with a literal understanding of the six days is because he could not understand how light could exist, and the earth rotate in a 24-hour cycle before the sun had been created. He appealed to Genesis 2:4 in order to give a figurative meaning to the six days of Creation and wrote:
“We found fault with those who, taking the words in their apparent signification, said that the time of six days was occupied in the creation of the world, and quoted the words: 'These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.'”Origen, Against Celsus, 6:60, p.600 – 601
Of course today we know that the sun is one among many stars, and that light radiation existed before they were created. The problem of a 24-hour earth cycle before the sun was made is not a difficulty for God; it is just that we do not yet understand it. When Origen quoted Genesis 2:4 to give a figurative foundation for the days of Creation, he did not realise that traditional rabbinical understanding of this verse was that the “generations” meant “the account of” and “the day” meant “at the time when”.Translation and Commentary by Klotowitz, R.M., Overview by Scherman, R.N., Bereishis, Genesis: A New Translation with a Commentary, anthologised from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources, vol. 1 (a), Art Scroll Tanach Series, Mesorah Publications Ltd., p. 87, 1977 Thus he is guilty of twisting Scripture.
Clement of Alexandria (AD 153 – 217), was famous as a Bible teacher, and he taught Origen. Although some evangelicals think he held to a liberal view on Creation, he actually had a mixed approach. He has an historical date for Creation of 5592 BC (Stromata, or Miscellanies 1:21) and he said about the Creation days:
“For the creation of the world was concluded in six days ...Wherefore also man is said to have been made on the sixth day ... Some such thing also is indicated by the sixth hour in the scheme of salvation, in which man was made perfect.”Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata or Miscellanies, 6:16, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, p. 512 – 513, T&T Clark Eerdmans © Reprinted March 1994
Although the context of the above passage is indeed figurative, it is clear that Clement was referring to a literal six-day Creation with man being “made perfect” in the sixth hour of the sixth day. Clement was influenced by the rabbinical teaching of the six hours in which God completed man, an idea which goes beyond the bounds of Scripture, but yet demonstrates a literalist view.Reference 5, p. 113
In conclusion, my investigation clearly demonstrated to me that the Church Fathers were almost unanimous on the twin beliefs of a literal six-day Creation and a “young earth”. Origen, who was influenced by pagan views and held to some heretical ideas, was the main exception to the rule. Although the Church Fathers were literalists, it is true that they also used Genesis in a figurative way to point prophetically to the return of Christ, and to draw out spiritual messages for their audiences, as do literal creationists today.