Another YEC/OEC Exchange, Part 1 of 2: What the Early Church Fathers Said about Creation Days

As you may know, I sometimes post parts of exchanges I’ve had with skeptics and young-earth creationists (YEC) on Facebook or some other forum. They can be informative and instructional — at least, to me, and hopefully for others “listening in”. They can also be as frustrating as all get out, whether because a) the other person refuses to acknowledge a valid point you make (especially if it undermines their argument); b) s/he cannot see the fault in their own reasoning; c) s/he resorts to ad hominem attacks; d) you somehow find the conversation constantly going off-topic onto “bunny trails”; and/or e) both sides keep talking past one another, where assumptions and misunderstandings abound. And, even if you manage to have a civil, mostly-on-point, rational discussion, acknowledging strengths & weaknesses, etc., it can still be frustrating, because the other person doesn’t bow to your superior knowledge & reasoning and adopt your position on the matter. ;>

pouty nerd with steamy coming from earsIn this case, there was already a discussion going on that I decided to jump into. There was one young-earther in particular — call him “Jay” — that was making certain claims, and I thought I could contribute by demonstrating that Scripture does not clearly support the young-earth, 24-hr day view, nor was it uniformly accepted or assumed by all the great theologians of history. Here, we pick up the conversation from when Jay essentially claimed that the Bible is the only valid source for information on the origins & history of the universe/Earth/life/humanity.

Someone challenged him on this, and his reply was:

Jay: “Either the Bible is sufficient, or it isn’t. Again, if you go with just the Bible, you come away with 6 literal days. Re: 2 Tim 3:16, 17….”

I responded and our exchange went as follows:

Me: “The question is, “Sufficient for what?” I don’t see anything in Paul’s instruction to Timothy about scientific investigation, for example. Or for learning to speak Assyrian. Or for building a better wagon. Or…”

Jay: “So it would appear, Christopher, that other sources aren’t needed. Q: is 2 Tim 3:16, 17 still relevant? Is it obvious that this concerns what the Bible speaks to and not to what it doesn’t (like building wagons)?”

Me: “Jay, *of course*, the verses are still relevant. The question is what they are relevant for, which is precisely what you said: what the Bible speaks to and what it doesn’t. That was kinda my point, and I don’t see how II Tim. 3:16,17 specifically helps the YEC position or works against OEC.

There are many OT passages in which <yom> refers to a long period of time. [Note: <yom>, of course, refers to the Hebrew word translated “day”.] Add to those the many other “creation passages” and those in which God reveals Himself faithfully through the “voice” of nature. God Himself seems to indicate that we can learn a great deal from general revelation (i.e., “nature” or “the Creation”). I think an honest assessment leads one to acknowledge — as I did, in my journey from YEC — that some form of OEC is at least a possibility and certainly within orthodoxy. Many noteworthy theologians & scholarly laymen have thought so over the years.

[Then I linked to this article.]”

Here’s where Jay makes another bold — some might say “dogmatic” — claim, and another old-earth creationist (OEC) proponent chimed in:

Jay: “All of the Bible writers, all of the earliest Church fathers (pre Catholism), all of the reformation fathers until this present day have understood that it was 6 literal days (am I mistaken on that?). I’ll follow what is written and use IT to explain itself. If that makes me ‘narrow minded’ so be it. I’m pretty sure God won’t mind me ascribing to His ability to do all of creation in 6 days.”

Ian: “Augustine didnt. Big claim you make here!”

Jay: “Did I not qualify the claim? So let’s see, that is one….”

At this point, the discussion got sidetracked onto a couple other issues. But, I didn’t want to leave some of what Jay had said go unanswered. So, I posted the following:

“If I can get back to what Jay said earlier…

Justin Martyr collage drawn in ovalNo one is questioning God’s ability to create anything or everything in 6 24-hr days… or instantaneously, for that matter. (I hear/see this plaint all the time.) The real issue is what the best understanding of both God’s special revelation and His general/natural revelation leads us to conclude about HOW & WHEN He *actually* did it.

Jay, I believe you are mistaken on a supposed historical consensus re the “6 literal days,” and Augustine isn’t the only example. (Btw, the “long, finite period of time” definition for <yom> is also literal.) Of course, if the Bible writers were so very clear on this, then it wouldn’t be an issue, would it? As for the Early Church Fathers, let’s take a look. (Quotes available upon request.)

Actually, I’ll start with a 1st-century Jew, Philo (c. 13 BC to between AD 45 & 50), who expressed the notion that God created everything instantaneously and that the 6 days are figurative, a metaphor for order and completeness.

Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-165) and Irenaeus (c. AD 120-140 to 200-203) both suggested that the “days” could be epochs, perhaps 1000-year-long creation periods (drawing on Psalm 90:4 and II Peter 3:8).

Hippolytus (c. AD 170-235) apparently wrote the most about the Genesis creation days, but most of his writings are lost. What scholars have recovered gives no indication of what he believed about the duration of the creation days or about the dates for creation.

Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150 to 211-215) held a position similar to Philo’s that the creation days were not 24-hr days and claimed that the creation days communicated the order & priority of created things but not time.

Origen (c. AD 185-254) recommended looking for spiritual meanings to solve certain scriptural difficulties (e.g., the 6 creation days of Genesis). He thought that time as we know it didn’t exist until the 4th day. Also, the 7th day could not be a 24-hr period.

Citing many contemporaries who believed the same, Lactantius of North Africa was the earliest church father on record to infer from Genesis, based on the 1000-year-day view, that the creation was less than 6000 years old.

In “The City of God”, Augustine (AD 354-430) wrote, “As for these ‘days,’ it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think — let alone explain in words — what they mean.” In “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” he added, “But at least we know that [the Genesis creation day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar,” and, “[W]e must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them.” In “Confessions”, he noted that for the seventh day Genesis makes no mention of an evening and a morning. He deduced from this omission that God sanctified the seventh day, making it an epoch extending onward into eternity.

Eusebius (c. AD 260-339) devoted six pages in his lengthy apologetic “Preparation for the Gospel” to explaining the Genesis creation account. But, nowhere did he address creation dates for either the universe or the Earth or the length of the creation days. He did, however, quote Genesis 2:4 twice (“…in the day that God made the heaven and the earth…”), so he was certainly aware that <yom> could refer to a period longer than 24 hours.

Basil (c. AD 329-379) wrote at least nine homilies on Genesis 1. He hinted at the difficulty of discovering the date for the universe’s creation but otherwise focused on the actions of God’s creating rather than the timing of creation.

Ambrose (c. AD 339-397). From what I understand, YECs love this guy! But, in his 280-page homily on the six days of creation, he devoted less than a page to the length of the creation days. He does talk about Scripture establishing 24-hour periods that include both day & night hours. But, then he goes on to say that “There are many who call even a week one day…,” perhaps thinking of Gen. 2:4. Then he says, “Hence, Scripture appeals at times of an age of the world,” and he proceeds to give examples of the “day of the Lord” and the “eternal day of reward” in the new creation. So, it doesn’t seem Ambrose was so clear on the duration of the creation days, after all.

Of course, all of this is *not* to prove that anyone had, for example, a fully-orbed Day-Age theory way back then. That’s obviously not the case, and certainly not with the timeframes now recognized from various tests. It is only meant to show that, while the 24-hr view was quite popular over the centuries, even the Early Church Fathers were not agreed on this, to the extent that they even paid the creation days much mind. (Out of about 2000 pages written on the 6 creation days, only about 2 pages’ worth addressed the duration.)”

Now, most of the above is my summary/paraphrase from info I found in Dr. Hugh Ross’ book A Matter of Days, which addresses the YEC/OEC debates. (The Genesis Debate, to which Dr. Ross contributed, also discusses this issue at length.) At the end of the relevant chapter, Ross makes the following observations, which I also posted verbatim to the FB thread:

Dr. Hugh Ross in casual blue shirt and friendly smile

Dr. Hugh Ross, astronomer, apologist, prez of RTB

“Christianity’s early leaders interpreted the length of the creation days in different ways. They gave the topic little attention compared with such matters as the triune nature of the Godhead, the deity of Christ, and the means, methods, and products of God’s creation. Those who wrote on the subject often expressed doubts about the interpretation of the creation days as six consecutive 24-hour periods. However, since so many writings of the early Christian leaders have been lost, conclusions about their views must be held lightly.

Of more significance than the conclusions is the observation that these early Christian authors were free of today’s scientific bias. It cannot be argued that these ancient minds were influenced by such modern ideas as Darwinism. They wrote long before astronomical, geological, and paleontological evidences for the antiquity of the universe, Earth, and life had been discovered. Yet nearly all the key figures acknowledged that the length of the Genesis creation days presented a challenge to their understanding and interpretation. Those who did not say so may have implied this difficulty by avoiding any specific comment on the subject.

Except for Augustine, the early church leaders expressed their views tentatively. There is no indication that they sharply debated the issue or took a dogmatic stance. Instead, they charitably tolerated a diversity of views.

The original source literature notes a different tone for the early church leaders compared to that of today’s leaders. Missing from the ancient writings is the trumpeted certainty and dogmatic insistence on only one interpretation. Missing are the emotional insults tossed at those who dared to disagree. Rather, the early church leaders gently expressed their views with tolerance toward those who differed. They seem to have appreciated the mystery and been content to wait for further revelation and understanding.”

Naturally, I was curious to hear/read how Jay would respond to my/Ross’ refutation of his assertions. Maybe he would do some investigating of his own and find some counterpoints or challenges to throw at me. But, this was all I got:

Jay: “Christopher, thanks for the research. As exodus 20 when speaking of the sabbath command points back to apparent 6 day creation, and as the creation account gives evening and morning as the dividing point between days, so to me (and not throwing stones) to me I would be doing violence to what is written. I don’t see any warrant to consider another interpretation.”

“[T]hanks for the research.” That’s it?! Not even a “That’s interesting. Can I get back to you on that?” or “I’ll have to do some research of my own before I respond.”? Essentially, he just blew off my response and went on to his next couple YEC talking points. (At least, he was polite about it.) Well, that’s OK. I responded to them, too.

Stay tuned….


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