Early church fathers and creation
Refuting misleading claims
First appeared in CMI Prayer News, January 2023.
Some critics of biblical (‘young-earth’) creation dishonestly claim that it is a novel view. Anti-creationist historian Ronald Numbers claimed that it was invented by Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism. This fallacy unfortunately gained traction amongst a lot of old-earth advocates. Old-earth, ‘progressive’ creationist Dr Hugh Ross went even further. He claimed:
A majority of those who wrote on the subject rejected the interpretation of the Genesis creation days as six consecutive 24-hour periods. Many of the early church fathers and other biblical scholars interpreted the creation days of Genesis 1 as long periods of time.1
First, such claims evade the real issue which is: what does Scripture teach? Second, they rely on the assumption that new = bad. However, this second assumption undermines their case.
In reality, most Christian interpreters in history understood that the Bible taught that the earth was c.6,000 years old. They also accepted a global Flood, and the majority believed in six consecutive 24-hour creation days. Contrary to the anti-creationist attack, long-age views are the novelty.
But from the early 19th century, long-age views became popular. They included: days = ages, or a long-time gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. What happened? There was no new insight from the Hebrew text to change their minds. Rather, this is when long-age geology became ‘scientific’ dogma. From their own words, they were not driven by the Hebrew text but by so-called ‘science’.
Why should we care what Christians of old said?
As indicated, the second assumption of the attack is reasonable. We are not the first people ever to read the Bible. Great Christians of the past did so as well, and we should be humble enough to learn from them. These Christians include many of the leading theologians and writers of the first few centuries of the Christian era. They are known as the ‘Church Fathers’.
Those promoting ideas never previously held by the church have the burden of proof. For example, if Scripture really taught long ages, how come no one saw them in the Bible until the early 19th century?
This doesn’t mean that the pendulum should swing the other way. Yes, the church Fathers were closer to the Apostles than we are. Indeed, the earliest Fathers knew some Apostles personally. But then, the Christian churches addressed in Paul’s letters were even closer, yet the letters often had to correct the church’s errors.
Still, we owe the Church Fathers a great debt of gratitude for many things. One of the most important was their explanation and defence of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
Church Fathers on Creation days
The majority of Church Fathers who commented on the issue believed that God created in six 24-hour days. One of the most famous was Basil the Great (AD 329–379), Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca, Cappadocia, from AD 370–379. Basil’s classic Trinitarian formula, that God is three persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia), is still one of the best summaries of the biblical doctrine. All branches of orthodox Christianity accept it.
Basil was also an effective preacher, and some of his sermons have been recorded. One collection is called the Hexaëmeron (= ‘six days’), nine Lenten sermons on the days of creation in Genesis 1. When he came to Genesis 1:5, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (NASB), Basil asked, “Why does Scripture say ‘one day’ not ‘the first day’?” He answers:
If it, therefore, says “one day”, it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night and to combine the time that they contain. Now 24 hours fill up the space of one day—we mean of a day and of a night. And if at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: 24 hours measure the space of a day …
Church Fathers on Earth’s age
Most Fathers who commented on the Creation days asserted a period of six 24-hour days. And even those who disagreed still believed that Scripture teaches that Earth is only thousands of years old. For example, Origen (AD 182–251), a great textual scholar, wrote a famous refutation of the anti-Christian writer Celsus. Origen accused Celsus of “a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old.”
And one of the greatest Church Fathers, Augustine (AD 354–430), warned of deception by “highly mendacious documents” that claimed the earth was eons old. Because, “reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed.”
Church Fathers to present day
As documented in Refuting Compromise, the teaching of six 24-hour days was affirmed by the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Reformers. Hugh Ross’ website had to post an abject retraction.2
So CMI is following a distinguished line of eminent Christians in faithfully teaching that God created in six 24-hour days, about 6,000 years ago.
References and notes
- Refuting Compromise (available creation.com/s/10-2-575) covers the history of interpretation of the Genesis creation in Ch. 3, and the history of interpretation of the Flood in Ch. 8. The relevant parts are now available for free at creation.com/rc-ch3. Sources for quotes from both Hugh Ross and Church Fathers are in this page; emphasis is added. return to text.
- Sarfati. J., Hugh Ross and Church Fathers: Old earther admits “poor quality” research by other old-earthers, creation.com/ross-fathers, 13 Jul 2017. return to text.