Interpretations of the
We have now completed our survey of the early churchs
interpretation of Genesis 1 - 11. In this final chapter I intend to use this
information to test the accuracy of some of the many generalisations that have
been made about the early churchs views.
Did The Early Church Teach Creation
Louis Lavellee in an ICR Impact article published in
1986 argued that the early church fathers defended creation science because
they believed in creation ex nihilo, literal creation days and a young earth.(1) Historian Ronald L. Numbers, on the other hand, has argued in
his influential book The Creationists that scientific creationism can be
traced back no further than George McCready Price (1870-1963). Price in turn
derived many of his views from the prophetess of Seventh-day Adventism, Ellen
Gould White (1827-1915).(2) Numbers uses the following
definition of scientific creationism / creation science:
Creation-science includes the
scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Sudden creation
of the universe, energy, and life from nothing; (2) The insufficiency of
mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of living kinds
from a single organism; (3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally
created kinds of plants or animals; (4) Separate ancestry for man and apes; (5)
Explanation of the earths geology by catastrophism, including the
occurrence of a worldwide flood, and (6) A relatively recent inception of the
earth and living kinds.(3)
Echoing Numbers argument Roger Forster and Paul
Marston provide the following summary of the teaching of scientific creationism
/ creation science:
- The world is not much more than about 6-10,000 years
- It came into being during a period of 144 hours, by a
series of instantaneous miraculous fiat creations.
- Genesis 1 describes these events literally, and the Bible
is itself a source of high-quality scientific information, which enables it to
set a framework of basic scientific truth which may be elaborated by
- Before the first human sin there was no animal death, and
scientific laws were radically different.
- Evolution cannot account for any basic change in animal
structures, but degenerative evolution has - since Adams sin
- caused the production of present habits and organs of predatory life within
basic animal kinds.
- The Flood of Noah was a worldwide cataclysm, during which
most of the present geological strata was laid down.(4)
While I have some sympathy for Lavallees argument it
simply does not follow that just because the early church held to some of the
points in the above lists (belief in creation ex nihilo, a worldwide
flood, and a young earth) they therefore supported creation science.
Creation-science as above defined is a modern phenomenon, because it is
dependent on modern science for most of its terminology and concepts. It would
be anachronistic to appeal the early church for answers to questions they did
not ask relating to science they did not practice.
It would be equally incorrect, however, to argue that all of
the central tenets of creation science are of modern origin. Mark A. Noll, for
example implies that the belief that the earth is less than 10 000 years old
was invented by Ellen G White.(5) In fact the early church,
together with the majority of the church up to the eighteenth century, held
that the world was less that 10 000 years old.(6) The majority
of the church up until the mid-seventeenth century also believed that the Flood
was both geographically and anthropologically universal.(7)
Belief in creation ex nihilo, far from being a modern development became
an established part of the churchs tradition by the end of the second
century. The length of the days of Genesis 1 was clearly an issue of debate in
the early church. Nevertheless, the literal 24 hour view has a long history and
sound Biblical support.
The fact that a doctrine was held by the early church
fathers does not mean that it cannot be challenged or even rejected at a later
date. A good example of this is the interpretation of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28
which see the King of Babylon and the King of Tyre as referring to Satan. Such
a view has a long history, the first reference to it being found in the
writings of Tertullian,(8) Origen,(9) John
Cassian,(10) Cyril of Jerusalem,(11)
Jerome,(12) Athanasius of Alexandria,(13)
Nevertheless, the Reformer Martin Luther(14) rejected it,
pointing out that both passages referred primarily to human kings who suffered
from human pride.(15) The majority of modern commentators
follow his example.(16)
Evaluating the Evidence
When one comes to evaluating the importance of the
historical interpretation of a doctrine there are no set rules to follow. In
order to present as unbiased an assessment of the evidence of possible a number
of unrelated historical studies were examined. Noting the methodology of these
studies I have attempted to draw up a list of general principles that will
allow the early churchs teaching to be evaluated.
- Was the issue debated by the early church? If the
answer is yes, then this would imply that at least some of the
possible interpretations were examined and the relevant biblical passages
exegeted. An important the issue would also debated by a larger number of
people and therefore there is a greater likelihood that the results of the
debates would survive.
- Was there relative unanimity concerning the results of
their exegesis? If yes then this would indicate that the
fathers varied backgrounds had little effect on their reading of
- Did any Seven Ecumenical Councils of the early church
rule on the issue? Although some councils contradicted the findings of
previous ones conciliar evidence would indicate that the issue was considered
important at that time.
- If the modern understanding of a particular text or
doctrine is different to that of the early church, what caused the view to
1) Was the issue debated by the early church?
The evidence is that the contents of Genesis 1-11 were not
the subject of the debates that took place during the first centuries of the
2) Was there relative unanimity concerning the results of
Apart from on the subjects of the extent of the flood and
creation ex nihilo there was little unanimity on the interpretation of
Genesis 1-11. On these subjects Christians should be confident that these views
are supported by the testimony of both Scripture and history.
3) Did any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the early
church rule on the issue?
The Seven Church Councils universally accepted both Roman
Catholics and Protestants were: Nicaea I (325); Constantinople I (381); Ephesus
(431); Chalcedon (451); Constantinople II (553); Nicaea II (787). The First
Council of Nicaea marked any important turning point in the use of creeds in
the church. After this event creeds became more than baptismal confessions:
they became the tests of orthodoxy.(17) While no one would
argue that their doctrinal content is exhaustive they remain authoritative in
the subject matter the cover.
Most of these Councils were concerned with some aspect of
the Godhead, Christology or church polity and none discussed the doctrine of
creation. The creeds produced by the Councils of Nicaea I and Constantinople I
refer only to God as the ...maker of all things visible and
invisible..(18) and ..maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible...(19)
respectively. The Ecumenical Councils, therefore, are of no direct help to us
in our present study as far as the doctrine of creation is concerned. What is
clear is that the only aspect of the doctrine of creation that was made a test
of orthodoxy by the early church was the creation ex nihilo. From other
works on church history we know that this is also true of the rest of church
history up to the 1920s and the rise of fundamentalism.
In his eagerness to recruit historical figures to the ranks
of scientific creationism Henry M. Morris includes men like Sir Isaac Newton
and William Whiston. Morris refers to Newton as a ...man of gigantic
intellect was also a genuine believer a Christ as his Savior and in the Bible
as Gods Word.(20) Nevertheless it is a matter of
record that both of these men rejected the Ecumenical Creeds, rejecting the
doctrine of the Trinity as a heresy invented by Athanasius of Alexandria in the
Fourth Century.(21) Surely such an opinion (if it cannot be
dismissed simply as ignorance or poor scholarship) indicates that Morriss
theological perspective is somewhat distorted if he considers denial of the
Trinity acceptable as long as a persons doctrine of creation is (in his
4) What Caused Our Interpretation of Genesis to
This final question takes us beyond the scope of present
study and into areas covered by other studies and is one that has perhaps best
left to experts in modern history to answer. When it comes to issues on which
the interpretation of the text is clear (e.g. the extent of the Flood) perhaps
we should re-examine our views. Reading the works of the first Christians
reminds us how easy it is to fail to let the Biblical text speak for itself and
in its own terms before smothering it with preconceived theories. This study
has also shown in many ways modern Christians are in a better position than the
early church, with regard to sophisticated linguistic aids, historical and
archaeological studies and the benefit of centuries of church history to learn
from. Modern Christians therefore have at least as good a chance as they had to
interpret the texts correctly. We should acknowledge that the early church
cannot answer the scientific questions that we are asking of the text of
Genesis, because they could never have asked them for themselves. Finally, we
would do well to emulate the early Christians thirst and respect for the
Word of God, even if we do not follow them in all of the conclusions they drew
from it. Augustine of Hippo struggled for most of his life with the text of
Genesis and even at the end felt that he had not quite grasped its meaning.
Would that we had the same degree of determination mixed with humility!
1998 Robert I. Bradshaw
The Early Church Defended Creation Science, ICR Impact, No.
160 (October 1986). Lavallee titles is misleading, but the content of his
article is much the same as this present work.
(2) Ronald L. Numbers,
The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. London:
California University Press, 1993), 72-89.
(4) Forster & Marston,
(5) Mark A Noll, The
Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994),
13. Noll claims to be quoting Numbers when he makes this point, but I think
that he has misread his source. See Numbers, Creationists,
(6) David A. Young,
Christianity & The Age of the Earth. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1982), 19, 25:
The virtually unanimous opinion among the
early Christians until the time of Augustine was that human history from the
creation of Adam to the birth of Christ had lasted approximately fifty-five
It cannot be denied, in spite of frequent
interpretations of Genesis 1 that departed from the rigidly literal, that the
most universal view of the Christian world until the eighteenth century was
that the Earth was only a few thousand years old.
(7) Davis A. Young, The
Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Churchs Response to Extrabiblical
Evidence. (Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1995), 307.
Marcion, 2.10; 5.11, 17 (ANF, Vol.3, 305-306, 454,
Principles 1.5.4-5; Marcion 6.43 (ANF, Vol. 4, 258-300,
(10) John Cassian, On
(11) Cyril of Jerusalem,
Catechetical Lectures 2.4 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 7,
Jovianus 2.4 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 6, 391).
(13) Athanasius, To the
Bishops of Egypt, 1.2; Discourse III, 25.17 (NPNF, 2nd
series, Vol. 4, 224, 403).
(14) Commenting on Isaiah
14:20 Luther wrote: This is not said of the angel who once was thrown out
of heaven, but of the king of Babylon, and it is figurative language.
Martin Luther Lectures on Isaiah, Jaroslav Pelican & Hilton C.
Oswald, ede. Luthers Works, Vol. 16. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing
House, 1969), 140.
(15) John N. Oswalt,
The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, NICOT (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1986), 320.
(16) See further Sydney
H.T. Page, Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan & Demons.
(Grand Rapids / Leicester: Baker Book House / IVP, 1995), 37-42.
(17) Kelly, Creeds,
(18) J.N.D. Kelly, Early
Christian Creeds, 3rd edn., 1972 Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1995),
(19) Kelly, Creeds,
(20) Henry M. Morris,
Men of Science, Men of God: Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible,
1982. (El Cajon, California: Master Books, 1992), 23.
(21) Richard H. Popkin,
Newton as a Biblical Scholar, James E. Force & Richard H.
Popkin, Essays on the Context, Nature and Influence ofIsaac Newtons
Theology. (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 108-111; James E.
Force, William Whiston: Honest Newtonian. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1985), 15-18; 105-113.
(22) David N. Livingstone
points out that Morris is not the only creationist to make this mistake. See
David N. Livingstone, Darwins Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter
Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought. (Grand Rapids /
Edinburgh: Eerdmans / Scottish Academic Press, 1987), 170.