The early church believed Genesis as written
Jonathan Sarfati chats with church history scholar Dr Benno Zuiddam
Most church fathers treated Genesis as straightforward history. A small minority treated Genesis as allegory. But this was mostly in addition to—not instead of—history. This suggests that modern long-age ideas didn’t come from the text, but were imposed on it because of ‘science’.
Benno Zuiddam is research professor (extraordinary associate) for New Testament Studies, Greek, and Church History at the faculty of Theology at North West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. He has earned doctorates in the fields of the Classics and Theology. Benno also serves with Greenwich School of Theology (UK) as tutor for Ph.D. projects. He has published in about 10 different peer-reviewed classical and theological journals, and also authored an in-depth study on the authority of the Scriptures in the early Church.1
In some churches and theological seminaries, a plain reading of Genesis is ridiculed as ‘simplistic’, and something that ‘no educated Bible scholar would believe.’ However, such claims would have to amuse academic theologian Professor Benno Zuiddam, with two earned doctorates.
Benno was blessed to be raised in a church-going family. But this is no guarantee of saving faith. In his case, Bible reading and the work of the Holy Spirit made all the difference:
“Although God was part of my life since my baptism as a child, by the time I was a teenager I had to start taking serious responsibility for my life choices. Call that conversion if you like. For me it meant turning away from sin, owning what Jesus had done for me, and committing myself to God and his agenda.”
Political career at a young age
But Benno wasn’t always planning to be a scholar. At first he wanted to serve God as a journalist or politician, combating militant secular liberalism. He explains that his native Netherlands has a rich Christian tradition, such as Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), a leading conservative theologian who became Prime Minister. This tradition was not just about opposing the moral evils of our day like abortion and euthanasia, “but about serving God in all areas of life, including business, agriculture, and education.”
When Benno was only 16, he explains he was already “serving on the board of the political party that controlled the majority of the seats on the city council. I still look back with feelings of endearment on this body of largely grey-headed men, who graciously accepted me in their company.” The next youngest member was the secretary, probably twice his age. He then served in local government and state leadership.
However, he became disillusioned: a Christian political party won’t work if the general culture is being radically secularized: “gradually I discovered how thoroughly secular our system of government had become. To have Christian politics in a context of democracy you need to have many Christians who are committed to the Bible.”
Christian culture undermined in the colleges
Benno’s faith provided the motivation to become a scholar in Biblical Studies, Church History and classical Greek. He discovered that the biggest problem for Christianity in the Netherlands was not attacks from outside the Church, but from within. “The synods and theological faculties of the mainline denominations were not places that encouraged biblical authority. In fact, I discovered that theories of enemies of Christianity had ended up in the pulpit.”
This motivated Benno to study to be able to refute these critics. “I embarked on a thesis about early pagan philosophers who had ridiculed Christianity. Their ideas would resurface within the Church during the 18th-century ‘Enlightenment’, and have now infiltrated many theological colleges.” This is called “theological liberalism”, which denies the supernatural, and explains away the Bible as “people pooling their religious experiences, making God in their own collective image.”
Benno’s studies led him to the early Church writings. In contrast to theological liberals, in the first century, “people believed that God spoke in a direct way.” When Benno received the academic rank of associate professor in 2008, he had just completed a Ph.D. in classical Greek, studying the pagan historian Plutarch, a contemporary of the apostles. He believed that the gods spoke directly through mouthpieces called oracles. “In the Bible, the same Greek word that’s used of speaking an oracle2 is applied to the Holy Scriptures. It is very clear that Apostolic Christianity and the early Church considered the Bible to be the actual word of God. But in many parts of the Church today, there is a departure from this historic Christianity.”
Before this, Dr Zuiddam had already earned a doctorate in theology, specializing in the early post-apostolic period. His studies proved that wherever the books of our present Bible were available to the Church, they were received as the voice of God—centuries before church councils officially recognized the New Testament canon. It is clear that these books had already been functioning as Scripture from a very early stage. He explains:
“I discovered that these early Church fathers embraced the Scriptures for the same reason as this teenage boy did: they were the voice of God. When God speaks, you do not question, but you receive.”
How important is Genesis to Christianity?
Dr Zuiddam explains that Genesis “is the account of the beginning, not only of this world, but also of God’s relationship with mankind. It teaches us about an intrinsically good God and a beautiful creation that was messed up by Adam’s sin. It tells about a loving God who didn’t give up on His creation, who singled out the families of Noah and later on Abraham, when the world at large was not interested in serving Him.”
Benno also pointed out that how Christians take Genesis is often an indicator of how seriously they take the rest of Scripture. Not coincidentally, the enemies of the Gospel, both overt atheists from outside the Church and theological liberals from within, often aim their guns at Genesis.
How has Genesis been understood throughout history?
Many opponents of biblical (‘young-earth’) creation claim that it’s a novel view, while the Church was happy to accept long ages and allegorize Genesis.3 It’s important to be able to refute their claims, and Dr Zuiddam is an expert in this area. He explains:
“The Church has generally understood Genesis as God’s revelation on how the world started and as an account of mankind’s earliest history. They believed that God revealed what had happened to Moses and others. In other words, God created this world in a very short period of time, under ten thousand years ago. Whether you read Irenaeus in the 2nd century, Basil in the 4th, Augustine in the 5th,4 Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, the Reformers of the 16th century, or Pope Pius X in the 19th, they all teach this. They all believed in a good creation and God’s curse striking the earth—and the whole creation5 —after the disobedience of a literal Adam and Eve.”
Some opponents of a straightforward understanding of Genesis have conceded that a majority believed this, but they assert there were a few who treated Genesis as allegory. Dr Zuiddam points out a vital fact that these critics miss: their allegorical interpretation was mostly in addition to the plain historical meaning, seldom a replacement. For example, when the Jewish scholar Philo “speaks about creation, he uses words like: ‘an account of events recorded in the history of the creation of the world’, ‘for the sacred historian’ and a ‘beautifully created’ world. When he speaks about the days of creation in his commentary on Exodus (e.g. Exodus 20:11 and 31:17), he takes Genesis 1 as normal history. Indeed, he excluded Genesis 1 from his two series of allegorical commentaries.”
Clement treats creation literally as well—Benno says, “The six days in Genesis 1 are for him real days, just as real as the six months it takes the sun to travel from solstice to solstice.”
Discussing Origen (3rd century), he points out, “Although he treats several events in early Genesis symbolically, he was convinced that Moses teaches that the world was not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that.” 6
Augustine is often misunderstood: “His symbolism provides no support for theistic evolutionists who try to reconcile evolution with the Bible. Augustine believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old. He wrote a chapter in his most famous book, The City of God, to show the scholars of his day that their idea of a very old earth was wrong. Augustine believed in a literal Paradise (Eden) where the things that the Bible mentions really happened. It beggars belief that people try to use Augustine to make room for evolutionism. They either don’t understand what Neo-Darwinism is about, or don’t care what the man was really saying.”
Dr Zuiddam believes that there is no credible way to reconcile Darwinism with Patristic (Church Father) studies: “All Church fathers believed that we are all descendants of one historical person, Adam, who was created instantly (body and soul) and who used to live in the Garden of Eden as a place that could be located, less than about ten thousand years ago.”7
Why do so many Evangelicals reject the plain meaning?
However, so many evangelical churches have abandoned the text-based understanding, contrary to the traditional Church. Dr Zuiddam named three factors:
First, “pragmatism and individualism have taken over. Evangelical churches have become utilitarian institutions with a corporate business approach. It is no longer Jesus’ ministry but ours, ‘for Him’ of course. ‘Our’ ministry becomes a goal in itself. Success is equated with blessing. Then more capable Christians are treated as threats to the business rather than fellow workers for the Lord. And on the other side, they crave respectability from society, so pleasing men is more important than to please God.”
Second, “a secular view has permeated Western society. Everything in life is explained without God. It is the same everywhere, at school, university, on radio, television and in the newspapers. God is only reckoned with as a personal religious preference of people, a theory some people believe in, but only relevant in term of beliefs.” That is, God as such has no relevance to the real world.
Third, “there is widespread lack of biblical knowledge, as the Apostle Paul predicted, ‘For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine’ (2 Timothy 4:3–5). Look at the best-selling books in Christian book stores, and you will realize what I am talking about.”
What should Christians do?
To really make a difference, we need to take God at his Word in whatever profession we find ourselves. Dr Zuiddam strongly counsels, “Read your Bible, pray every day. If every young Christian would take this approach to his studies in whatever field, also reading up Bible-believing materials from past and present that are not part of the curriculum, we would have a different world.” This can take effort in apologetics, or defending the faith, but the Bible commands us to “give reasons” for our faith (1 Peter 3:15) and to “demolish arguments” against it (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).
We should also “support fellow Christians who try to do this: by means of prayer because they need wisdom and protection; by means of
encouragement as you tell them you appreciate what they are doing; and finance if you can.”
References and notes
- Zuiddam, B., Hope & Disillusionment: A basic introduction to the history of Christianity, Cross Link Services, 2010. Return to text.
- (λόγιον logion). ‘Oracle’ in its secondary sense of a message, rather than the medium. Return to text.
- See also Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, ch. 3, CBP, 2004/2011. Return to text.
- For more, see Zuiddam, B, Augustine: young earth creationist—theistic evolutionists take Church Father out of context, J. Creation 24(1):5–6, 2010; creation.com/augustine. Return to text.
- Smith, H.B., Cosmic and universal death from Adam’s fall: an exegesis of Romans 8:19–23a, J. Creation 21(1):75–85, 2007; creation.com/romans8. Return to text.
- Origen, Contra Celsum (Against Celsus)1.19, ad 248. Return to text.
- For more, see Zuiddam, B., Does Genesis allow any scientific theory of origin? A response to [Sydney Anglican minister] J.P. Dickson, creation.com/dickson, 22 January 2012; and Round 2, where Dr Dickson responded and Dr Zuiddam replied, creation.com/dickson2, 16 February 2012. Many fathers and Reformers were explicit that the world was not even 6,000 years old at the time of writing. Return to text.