This article is from
Journal of Creation 37(1):40–44, April 2023

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Misrepresenting creationism

A review of: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One by Craig Allert
IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 2018



Craig Allert is Professor of Theological Studies at Trinity Western University. This school is well known as a hotbed of theistic evolution. Many vocal evolutionists teach there, including Dennis Venema, a Professor of Biology, and Arnold Sikkema, a Professor of Physics. Allert authored this book as a polemical response against young-earth creationists (henceforth shortened to creationists). The tone is abrasive and filled with invective against his opponents. For example, he is “appalled” (p. 4) by creationists who “plunder the church fathers for ammunition” (p. 71).

As an avid student of the patristic writings, I found Allert’s book to be tedious—not so much because he quotes the Church Fathers at length, but due to his inability to grasp the nuances of creationist literature. Hence, the bulk of the book revolves around a number of careless and misguided charges against his creationist opponents. Allert accuses creationists of ‘quote mining’ the Church Fathers. He denounces creationists for imposing contemporary evangelical hermeneutics (i.e. the historical–grammatical method) upon the Church Fathers. Thus, the central thesis of his book is that creationists are guilty of decontextualizing and proof-texting the patristic writings, misappropriating them to support their preconceived views of Genesis.

Literalists vs. allegorists

Allert cautions his readers not to take the Church Fathers as if they are a monolithic body in doctrine and practice. Evangelicals must be especially careful not to read the Fathers through a post-Reformation lens, looking for Protestant doctrines in their writings.

He takes issue with creationists who appeal to Basil as one who believes in a young Earth. He rejects the idea that Basil was a ‘literalist’ and devotes considerable space to discussing Basil’s allegorical views. One whole chapter is devoted just to Basil, where he argues that Basil depended heavily on allegory.

Allert criticizes CMI, ICR, and AiG for misappropriating the Church Fathers. According to Allert, the biggest error made by creationists is that they artificially divide the Church Fathers into two rigid schools—the Alexandrian school and the Antiochene school. Creationists regard the Antiochene school as literalists—those who read Genesis literally. These are ‘the good guys’.

The Alexandrian school are the allegorists—’the bad guys’. Allegorists include Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine of Hippo. According to Allert, creationists chastise the allegorists for reading the Bible the way they do, and, in so doing, brush aside their interpretation of Genesis. Then, according to Allert, creationists turn around to exalt the literalists, reading them through a post-Reformation, Protestant lens.

Grammatical–historical method

Creationists, according to Allert, teach that the Antiochene Church Fathers—the good guys—depended on a grammatical–historical approach of exegesis. But a grammatical–historical approach is a modern hermeneutical construct. Thus, by misappropriating the Fathers, creationists twist their words of the patristics out of context to ‘support’ their interpretation of Genesis. Allert writes:

“Organizations like AiG and CMI appropriate the church fathers as advocates of a nascent creation science position. But even more foundational than this is the claim that the authors of the New Testament and ‘theologians since the Fathers’ were practitioners of the GH [i.e. the grammatical–historical] method of interpretation” (p. 107).

As far as CMI is concerned, this statement is profoundly untrue. As an organization that affirms the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, CMI adheres to the grammatical–historical method of interpretation—proudly so. This is the method explicitly described in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). CSBI states:

“Article XVIII
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historicaI exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.”

Thus, in rejecting the grammatical–historical method in his book, Allert necessarily rejects the doctrine of inerrancy as historically defined in CSBI—he has to, since he is an evolutionist. Notably, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (CSBH) also states that a belief in evolution constitutes a denial of inerrancy:

“Article XIX
… We deny that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism.”

While CMI abides by grammatical–historical hermeneutics, CMI has never said that the Antiochene Church Fathers always stuck firmly to a grammatical–historical method all the time. The Church Fathers were certainly consistent with the grammatical–historical principle in the sense that, at the foundational level, the patristics affirmed the inerrancy and historical reality of Genesis. We have also explained that there are only a couple of individuals from the Alexandrian school who taught that the creation days were instantaneous— none of these individuals taught that the creation days were millions of years old, and none of them believed in an old earth.

Rather, as creationists have always pointed out, even when some of the Antiochenes resorted to allegory— this allegory is always drawn out, based on a prior foundational acceptance of Genesis as a historical account.

Unfortunately, Allert’s unfamiliarity with the nuances of creationist literature meant that he spent significant space in his book attacking a strawman. It is the historical acceptance of Genesis by the Church Fathers that can be likened to the grammatical–historical method. Note that this is different from saying that the Church Fathers only used the grammatical–historical method. In contrast, the emphasis on Genesis as a real historical account by the Church Fathers flies in the face of the historical–critical method of interpretation that Allert proudly extols in his book.

Here we see another conundrum in Allert’s thought process. On one hand, he claims that creationists say that the Church Fathers used the grammatical–historical method, and on the other hand, he argues that creationists have placed the Church Fathers into two rigid ‘literal vs. allegorical’ camps. Well, if creationists have placed the Church Fathers into two strict camps, then it should be obvious that they cannot all be using the same grammatical–historical method consistently—and CMI doesn’t claim that they did!

CMI affirms the grammatical–historical method, and we believe the Church Fathers ought to have done the same. Nevertheless, we have always recognized that the Church Fathers have not always been consistent in doing this. So CMI’s position is actually the opposite of what Allert asserts. For example, creationists have long pointed out that some of the Church Fathers were prone to allegory in their reading of Scripture (i.e. not historical–grammatical).

Image: Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674) , Wikimedia / Public Domainaugustine
Figure 1. Although Augustine of Hippo came from the Alexandrian school of interpretation, he affirmed the historical reality of the Genesis account, and the belief in a literal Garden of Eden with a real Adam and Eve who fell into sin.

Out of the massive body of literature that constitutes the Church Fathers, there are only three Early Church Fathers that took a figurative understanding of creation days.1 Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine of Hippo (figure 1). All three of them come from the Alexandrian school of interpretation, which leaned towards allegory. Being heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, they believed that Creation Week was instantaneous, not six days. Yet, we do not know of a single Church Father who taught that the earth is millions of years old. Why? Because the Church Fathers, Antiochene and Alexandrian alike, recognized the importance of affirming the historical reality of the Genesis account, together with a belief in a literal Garden of Eden, with a real Adam and Eve, who fell into sin, bringing physical death, spiritual alienation, and sin into this world.

All three of these ‘Alexandrians’ taught that the earth was only thousands of years old, in contrast to the ancient Greeks, who believed that the universe was ancient. For example, Augustine, in his most famous work, City of God, he has a whole chapter, Of the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World’s Past, where he says:

“Let us, then, omit the conjectures of men who know not what they say, when they speak of the nature and origin of the human race. … They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.”2

Misrepresenting creationism

CMI denies that the Church Fathers constitute a monolithic body that can be divided into two rigid camps: ‘literal’ and ‘allegorical’. Yes, there are two main schools of interpretation, the Antiochene school, and the Alexandrian school. Almost all Patristic scholars recognize this—even Allert. The Alexandrian school of thought tended to allegorize their interpretation of biblical passages, while the Antiochene camp generally tried to avoid wild allegorical speculation. But this is not what Allert is saying. Allert accuses CMI of teaching that there is a strict rigid demarcation between the two camps, where one is either allegorical (the bad guys), or literal (the good guys).

Image: Meister der Sophien-Kathedrale von Ohrid , Wikimedia/ Public Domainbasil
Figure 2. Basil was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, but still affirmed a literal six-day Creation Week, and taught that the space of a creation day was made up of 24 hours.

But where has CMI drawn this demarcation of ‘literal-only’ vs. ‘allegorical-only’? Basil (figure 2), as Allert points out, is often classified as an Antiochene. CMI agrees. In fact, CMI has previously pointed out that Basil was rather sympathetic to the allegorical interpretation of the Alexandrian school. Allert doesn’t seem to be aware that CMI has actually said this, showing again his poor grasp of creationist literature. He then goes on to devote an entire chapter—filled with invectives and what not—to refute this strawman. Consider the writings of CMI’s Andrew Sibley:

“Basil, the Cappadocian saint (AD 330–379), acknowledged the ‘laws of allegory’, but also emphasised the literal sense in his Hexaemeron (meaning ‘Six Days’). This was written in elegant prose to be presented as a set of homilies or sermons. It was didactic, that is designed to appeal to the senses and be informative, and in this case expressing both symbolic meaning and literal truth.”3

It should be obvious from the above quotations that Allert’s complaint does not hold any water. We should not miss the obvious here. As much as Allert quotes Basil as one who uses allegory extensively, Basil, in his writings, nevertheless affirmed both a literal six-day Creation Week and 24-hour days, and taught that “24 hours make up the space of a [Creation] day”.4

Thomas Aquinas certainly understood Basil that way—teaching ordinary-length creation days:

“The words ‘one day’ are used when day is first instituted, to denote that one day is made up of 24 hours. Hence, by mentioning ‘one’, the measure of a natural day is fixed. Another reason may be to signify that a day is completed by the return of the sun to the point from which it commenced its course. And yet another, because at the completion of a week of seven days, the first day returns which is one with the eighth day. The three reasons assigned above are those given by Basil (Hom. 2[8] Hexaem.).”5

Image: Guillaume Chaudière (1584), Wikimedia / Public Domainorigen
Figure 3. Origen defended the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is less than ten thousand years old, in contrast to the ancient Greeks who believed that the universe was ancient.

Yet Allert simply glosses over this important point. It is not just Basil. CMI has also pointed out that the same can be said about the other Church Fathers who used allegory. The Fathers drew out their analogies after first affirming the historical reality of Scripture. This is not a case of historical or spiritual, but historical and spiritual. For example, In Origen, origins and allegory, Sibley points out that while Origen (figure 3) held to an allegorical interpretation of Genesis, he also read it historically:

“All early theologians, including Origen, read Scripture historically and spiritually, even if Origen read the six-day creation account allegorically. The second response is in relation to Origen’s writing regarding Adam and the Fall, and the third, in relation to the age of the earth. It becomes clear that Origen believed in a real Adam, created physically in the recent past, who was the progenitor of all humanity. Origen also spoke against the Epicurean beliefs of Celsus, beliefs now inherent in Darwinian evolution, and so his teaching cannot be properly used to support theistic evolution … . Origen’s three levels of biblical interpretation were divided into the literal sense, the moral sense, and the allegorical sense.”6

As proof, Origen, in his refutation of the anti-Christian Celsus, wrote:

“… Celsus, from 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, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated.”7

Allert concedes in his book that, unlike him, the Church Fathers were not evolutionists. Neither does he think that we should adopt the hermeneutical methods of the early church. In rejecting the grammatical–historical method, he gravitates towards the historical–critical method of interpretation that is popular with most liberal theologians today. He believes that the Church Fathers were wrong about creation. Nevertheless, he is appalled that creationists claim patristic support for their view of creation. He blames this on the modern evangelical ignorance of the Church Fathers.

Allert’s departure from the Church Fathers should not surprise us. After all, there is not a single Church Father on record who taught evolution. So if it were true that we ought to follow the Church Fathers in their interpretation, Allert would actually end up refuting his own view. However, Allert sweeps this under the carpet and takes aim at creationists, who, in his view, do worse for wrongly teaching that the Church Fathers held to a grammatical–historical method of interpretation, and for putting them into two strict literalist vs. allegorist camps.

Now, the careful reader will have noted, from the earlier quote by Sibley, that creationists are well aware of this! Sibley explained that Origen practised three levels of biblical interpretation that can be divided into the literal sense, the moral sense, and the allegorical sense. It should be obvious that in this discussion about Origen’s allegorical interpretation, CMI is saying that the Church Fathers are not always consistent in practising the principles that we now call the grammatical–historical method of interpretation. So how can Allert say that creationists insist that the Church Fathers were practitioners of the grammatical–historical method? CMI said the very opposite, pointing out that some of the Church Fathers strayed beyond the grammatical–historical approach into allegory.

Likewise, Allert implicitly suggests that just because some of the Church Fathers appealed to allegory, we do not have to take Genesis as historical. But far from rejecting the historicity of Genesis, the Church Fathers affirmed the biblical record as the inerrant Word of God. Now, some of them would go on to draw out additional allegorical or spiritualized ideas from the text that go beyond the grammatical–historical context, but they do not reject the historical reality of the passage. Rather, the allegorical analogy is explicated as an add-on to the foundational historical reality of the text.

For example, the Church Fathers often interpreted the six days of creation as analogical to the future millennial kingdom, where the earth will exist for 6,000 years followed by a 1,000-year millennial reign. However, just because the Church Fathers identified analogical patterns or allusions between the Old and New Testament, it does not mean that they rejected a plain reading of the Genesis days. In fact, it is often because they took Genesis historically that they begin to draw these allegorical links between the Old and New Testament. Further, most of the Church Fathers asserted that we are not yet in the Millennium because the earth was not even 6,000 years old at the time of writing. E.g. Irenaeus (AD 130–202) wrote:

“For in six days as the world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. … For that day of the Lord is 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.”8

Here, Allert is guilty of erecting a false ‘literalist vs. allegorist’ dichotomy, which he then projects onto creationists.

Allert proceeds to discuss several other Church Fathers in his book, using this false dichotomy as a central theme in his book. One example is Theophilus of Antioch. In his interpretation of the first six days of creation, Allert points out that Theophilus uses a lot of typology and allegory. When Theophilus speaks about God’s creation on the fourth day, he explains that “because the sun is greater in brightness and power than the moon, the sun is a ‘type’ of God and the moon a ‘type’ of man.” Once again, Allert fails to see that behind this typology lies a strict appeal to the historicity of the text. Theophilus also taught that the creation days were six literal days. He even affirmed the historical order of Creation in Genesis, where the creation of the sun on the fourth day, a day after the plants, served as a refutation of pagan sun-worshipping worldviews.9


In other words, while Allert accuses CMI of misappropriating the Church Fathers, he is the one who is guilty of misappropriating creationists. Allert’s error is subtle, but significant. This is because his entire thesis pivots on the claim that creationists have misappropriated the Church Fathers. He devotes an inordinate amount of time pointing out that Basil, from the ‘literalist’ Antiochene camp, wrote allegorically about creation in many places. But every major critique that Allert musters against creationists turns out to be due to his lack of grasp of creationist literature.

CMI has always been careful to note that there is an overlap in the way both schools of thought interpreted biblical passages. The rigid ‘literalist-only’ vs. an ‘allegorical-only’ school of thought is an invention of Allert’s own making. Neither is CMI guilty of saying that the Church Fathers always practised the historical–grammatical method of exegesis. Instead, CMI points out that some of the Church Fathers wandered into allegory. Yet even those that did so held to the historical reality of Genesis as the basis for their allegorical interpretation. Finally, as CMI has always pointed out, and which Allert has never shown to the contrary, there is not a single Church Father that can be shown to have taught millions of years.

Allert needs to show more than just how some of the Church Fathers interpreted Genesis allegorically. To defend his thesis, Allert has to show that the Church Fathers who allegorized biblical passages did so by first rejecting the historical reality of the Genesis passages. He fails to do this. Allert’s inability to show a single example in his entire book serves to bolster the case that the Church Fathers universally believed in a recent creation.

Lastly, while Allert discusses Augustine, he fails to inform his readers that Augustine was not only a creationist who believed the world was not even 6,000 years old at the time of writing, but he was perhaps the most important Church Father on the doctrine of Original Sin. This led to what became known as the Pelagian controversy. Yes, Augustine, the ‘allegorist’, regarded it of utmost importance to affirm a historical Adam and Eve who brought sin, physical death, and spiritual alienation and suffering into this world. Subsequent church councils expounded on this doctrine in even more detail, and a denial of this was declared to constitute the Pelagian heresy (cf. Council of Carthage (AD 419) and the Second Council of Orange). These creeds would condemn most theistic evolutionists today as heretics, with the threat of excommunication! This is because most theistic evolutionists do not believe that Adam (if they even believe in such a person) was immortal until he sinned. The Council of Carthage (AD 419) declares:

“That whosoever says that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that whether he had sinned or not, he would have died in body—that is, he would have gone forth of the body, not because his sin merited this, but by natural necessity, let him be anathema.”10

Allert not only fails to show that creationists are wrong in their interpretation of the Church Fathers, but the very church history he appeals so strongly to condemns him as a heretic. The irony cannot be overstated.

Posted on homepage: 24 May 2024

References and notes

  1. Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, Creation Book Publishers, pp. 118–120, 2014. The sections about historical interpretations of Creation and the Flood are now available online. Return to text.
  2. Augustine, De Civitate Dei (The City of God), 12(10). See also Augustine: young earth creationist—theistic evolutionists take Church Father out of context, by Patristics scholar Dr Benno Zuiddam, 8 Oct 2009. Return to text.
  3. Sibley, A., Creationism and millennialism among the Church Fathers, J. Creation 26(3):95, 2012. Return to text.
  4. Explicit quotes from Basil as opposed to explaining them away are documented in creation.com/basil. Return to text.
  5. Thomas, Summa Theologiae > First Part > Question 74: All the seven days in common. See also creation.com/aquinas. Return to text.
  6. Sibley, A., Origen, origins, and allegory, J. Creation 32(2):110–117, 2018. Return to text.
  7. Origen, Contra Celsum (Against Celsus) 1.19, Ante-Nicene Fathers 4:404. Return to text.
  8. Irenaeus, Heresies, 5.28.3 (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:557). Return to text.
  9. Theophilus, Autolycus Book 2, chapters 12, 15. Return to text.
  10. Canon 109. Return to text.

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