The Church Fathers on the Genesis Flood
Published: 28 February 2012 (GMT+10)
Central to the account of early earth history provided in the Bible is the global Flood in the days of Noah, described in Genesis 6–9. For modern young-age creationists, the Flood provides a framework for understanding the origin of the sedimentary rock layers and the fossils contained in them.
Although some critics have alleged that young-age creationism is a theological novelty that arose only in the last century or so,1 it can be demonstrated that belief in a worldwide Flood with geological effects was not a twentieth-century innovation. From the earliest days of the Christian church, the universality of the Flood was accepted on the testimony of the biblical text, and fossils were sometimes regarded as evidence of the cataclysm.
This can be readily illustrated by reviewing the writings of the Church Fathers on this subject. Here are some extracts from them.
Justin Martyr (103–165) affirmed the universality of the Flood when he wrote that ‘the whole earth, as the Scripture says, was inundated, and the water rose in height fifteen cubits above all the mountains’.2
Theophilus (c. 115–185), Patriarch of Antioch, noted the belief of the Greek philosopher Plato that the Flood ‘extended not over the whole earth, but only over the plains, and that those who fled to the highest hills saved themselves.’
He also drew attention to pagan myths about the preservation of Deucalion and Pyrrha in a chest and the notion that there had been a second flood in the days of Clymenus.
But he rejected these ideas saying: ‘But Moses, our prophet and the servant of God, in giving an account of the genesis of the world, related in what manner the flood came upon the earth, telling us, besides, how the details of the flood came about, and relating no fable of Pyrrha nor of Deucalion or Clymenus; nor, forsooth, that only the plains were submerged, and that those only who escaped to the mountains were saved. And neither does he make out that there was a second flood: on the contrary, he said that never again would there be a flood of water on the world; as neither indeed has there been, nor ever shall be.’3
Furthermore, he wrote, ‘the flood lasted forty days and forty nights, torrents pouring from heaven, and from the fountains of the deep breaking up, so that the water overtopped every high hill 15 cubits. And thus the race of all the men that then were was destroyed, and those only who were protected in the ark were saved; and these, we have already said, were eight. And of the ark, the remains are to this day to be seen in the Arabian mountains. This, then, is in sum the history of the deluge.’4
Tertullian (c. 160–225), the prolific Carthaginian apologist, spoke of fossils in the mountains testifying to a time when the globe had been covered by water. ‘There was a time when her whole orb, withal, underwent mutation, overrun by all waters. To this day marine conchs and tritons’ horns sojourn as foreigners on the mountains, eager to prove to Plato that even the heights have undulated.’5
Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) described Noah as one ‘entrusted with the saving of the whole world from the waters’ and as having escaped the destruction ‘in a small ark’.6
John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote concerning the Flood: ‘See the precision of Scripture, how it not only taught us the year of the deluge but also made clear the month and the day.’
Furthermore, commenting on Genesis 7:11, he said: ‘See the extent of the considerateness Sacred Scripture employs here too, describing everything in a human manner: it is not that there are sluice gates in heaven, but rather that it describes everything in terms customary with us, as if to say that the Lord simply gave a direction and immediately the waters obeyed their Creator’s command, fell out of the heavens on all sides and inundated the whole world.’7
Augustine (354–430), Bishop of Hippo, rejected the exclusively allegorical interpretations of the Flood account by commentators who supposed ‘that there could not be a flood so great that the water should rise fifteen cubits above the highest mountains’.8
Pseudo-Eustathius (c. 375–500) even pointed to fossils as evidence of the Flood: ‘Since the waters covered the summits of the mountains, they were covered over and hidden by their flowing. For in these times of ours also, on the summit of Mt. Lebanon, men who cut stone for marking boundaries find various types of marine fishes, which must have been gathered together in the caves of the mountains when they were caught in the mud.’9
Procopius of Gaza (c. 465–528) did likewise: ‘It can be shown clearly in many other ways that a universal flood came upon the earth, by which those people are persuaded who believe with difficulty that these things were explained by Moses. For even today, in mountains that are lofty and difficult to climb, marine remains are found, that is, shells and fragments of tortoise shells and other such things, which even we ourselves have seen.’10
In fact, the only Church Father known to have adopted the view that the Flood was a local event seems to have been Pseudo-Justin (identified by some with Theodoret of Cyrus, c. 393–457).11
The historical evidence suggests that when John Whitcomb and Henry Morris wrote their classic book, The Genesis Flood, in 1961, launching the modern creationist movement and reviving the idea that the fossil-bearing portion of the geological record is a testimony to Noah’s Flood, they were not dreaming up some novelty.
They were in fact part of a lineage of scholarly biblical interpretation stretching back into antiquity. They were standing on the shoulders of giants.
Paul Garner is a Researcher and Lecturer with Biblical Creation Ministries (www.biblicalcreationministries.org.uk).
- For example, Roberts, M.B., The roots of creationism, Faith and Thought 112(1):21–35, 1986. Return to text.
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 138. Return to text.
- Theophilus of Antioch, Apology to Autolycus 3.18–19. Return to text.
- Theophilus of Antioch, Apology to Autolycus 3.19. Return to text.
- Tertullian, On the Pallium 2.3. Return to text.
- Gregory of Nazianzus, Second Theological Oration 18. Return to text.
- John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 25.10. Return to text.
- Augustine, City of God 15.27. Return to text.
- Pseudo-Eustathius, Commentary on the Hexameron. Return to text.
- Procopius of Gaza, Commentary on Genesis. Return to text.
- Pseudo-Justin, Questions and Answers to the Orthodox. Return to text.