Early Church Fathers on Genesis*
By John Tobin
One of the most common claims some Christians who believe in young earth use when arguing Biblically for their view point is that young earth was the “original” viewpoint of the Church until modern times. That is inaccurate. What makes it even more tragic is that there are many people like me who stick with young earth in large part because they think the Early Church Fathers (ECF’s) held to it. My first step in leaving the shackles of YEC thought was when I found out that a number of high profile ECF’s did not hold a young-earth interpretation. But of course please do not take my word for it, you can read what the ECF’s said for yourself below. For ease of research I have only used quotes from works available online and have attached the links at the bottom of each quote. Most of the quotes are pretty long because I want to make sure that they are in context but I have been careful to emphasize the important parts.
There is a straw man that believers in young earth will object to for writing this article. They will pull quotes of the ECF’s stating that the earth is a matter of thousands of years old but that is misleading because the ECF’s knowledge of geology is not what is important but rather whether or not they think Scripture demands a literal Six Day interpretation. Remember that this essay is not about what the early church thought of natural history but rather what they thought of the Bible. If we were to use their words about the age of the earth as proof that Christianity taught a young earth than we must also keep in mind that all of the ECF’s, as far as I can tell, believed in Ptolemy’s earth-centered model of the universe. So let us stick to what they said about Biblical interpretation.
Let us start with the Early Father of the Church, Origen. In his book Against Celus he stated:
We answered to the best of our ability this objection to God’s “commanding this first, second, and third thing to be created,” when we quoted the words, “He said, and it was done; He commanded, and all things stood fast;” remarking that the immediate Creator, and, as it were, very Maker of the world was the Word, the Son of God; while the Father of the Word, by commanding His own Son–the Word–to create the world, is primarily Creator. And with regard to the creation of the light upon the first day, and of the firmament upon the second, and of the gathering together of the waters that are under the heaven into their several reservoirs on the third (the earth thus causing to sprout forth those (fruits) which are under the control of nature alone, and of the (great) lights and stars upon the fourth, and of aquatic animals upon the fifth, and of land animals and man upon the sixth, we have treated to the best of our ability in our notes upon Genesis, as well as in the foregoing pages, when 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.”
(Against Celus 6:60 [AD 248])
Here he is not arguing for a specific view but rather finding fault with the literalists. Next we move onto someone everyone must be familiar with, St. Justin Martyr. For as Adam was told that in the [d]ay [h]e ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, ‘The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ is connected with this subject.
(Dialog with Typho the Jew chapter 81 [AD 155])
In this quote we have St. Justin Martyr talking about the word “day” in Genesis meaning a period of a thousand years by pointing out that despite God telling Adam he would die within a day of sinning he lived over 900 years. That is to say that the days were not literal 24 hour periods. This view is not limited to St. Justin as we see in the next quote Irenaeus speaks of a similar idea:
And there are some, again, who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year; for since “a day of the Lord is as a thousand years,” he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence of his sin.
(Against Herasies, 5:23 [AD 189])
It appears that this view of each day containing a thousand years was popular among Early Church Fathers as we read from St. Cyprian of Carthage:
As the first seven days in the divine arrangement containing seven thousand of years, as the seven spirits and seven angels which stand and go in and out before the face of God, and the seven-branched lamp in the tabernacle of witness, and the seven golden candlesticks in the Apocalypse, and the seven columns in Solomon upon which Wisdom built her house l so here also the number seven of the brethren, embracing, in the quantity of their number, the seven churches, as likewise in the first book of Kings we read that the barren hath borne seven. (Treatises 11:11 [A.D. 250])
I find what Clement of Alexandria writes curious. He says that we cannot know when creation took place from reading Scripture:
That, then, we may be taught that the world was originated, and not suppose that God made it in time, prophecy adds: “This is the book of the generation: also of the things in them, when they were created in the day that God made heaven and earth.” For the expression “when they were created” intimates an indefinite and dateless production. But the expression “in the day that God made,” that is, in and by which God made “all things,” and “without which not even one thing was made,” points out the activity exerted by the Son. As David says, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us be glad and rejoice in it; ” that is, in consequence of the knowledge imparted by Him, let us celebrate the divine festival; for the Word that throws light on things hidden, and by whom each created thing came into life and being, is called day.
(Miscellanies 6.16 [208 AD])
St. Augustine also comments on his view of the word “day” in the Creation Week. In City of God St. Augustine expressed his amazement of the creation days:
But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world’s creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say! (City of God 11:6 [AD 419])
Augustine refers to the days as “impossible to conceive”. I doubt he would refer to 24 hour periods as inconceivable. There are more quotes out there and I intend to find them. But such work takes time and I am but a lowly working student. I intend to add more quotes as I find them but the ones I have already found from some of the most influential ECF’s should be more than enough to dispel the false notion that six 24-hour day creationism held some kind of monopoly on Christian thought for 1800 years. But that is not to say “young earth” did not exist back then. There were some 24 hour day proponents among the ECF’s as well.
The truth is there really was no universal consensus on interpreting Genesis but the fact that there was such a diversity of views proves that organizations like AiG and ICR are telling people what is clearly not true. It saddens me to think that Christians would use such apologetics in the name of Christ.
[note added by Glenn Morton: For a quote from Clement of Alexandria (pointed out to me by John) and some Talmudic views along the same line see http://home.entouch.net/dmd/daysofproclamation.htm
*The article was edited a little not in main parts to lower its tone. I don’t believe that we should, as Christians, fight over such trivial matters. We should leave all the cards on the table for further open inquiry.