By Hugh Henry and Dan Dyke
“In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.”
This is an ancient Christian principle. But what are the essentials of the Christian faith? What must all Christians believe? And particularly, is the belief that the universe and all life-forms were created in six, 24-hour days an essential or a nonessential?
Creeds and the Timing of Creation
Christian creeds may provide the most reliable answer to the last question because, in the words of the Orthodox Catechism: “The Creed is an exposition, in a few but precise words, of that doctrine which all Christians are bound to believe.”1 Creeds represent not just one person’s opinion, but the consensus opinion of theologians.
The earliest formal ecumenical creeds were the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (aka Nicene Creed) and the Apostles’ Creed. Neither makes any reference to six creation days.
Theologian J. N. D. Kelly says the fourth-century Nicene Creed “is the only [creed] for which ecumenicity, or universal acceptance, can be plausibly claimed.”2 This creed is used by the Orthodox Church,3 as well as the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches.
The Apostles’ Creed, on the other hand, is used by the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches. Kelly says it began as “a recognized body of teaching”4 spread orally. This was formalized in the Old Roman Creed,5 which “can be traced with some degree of confidence to the second century.”6 The formal Apostles’ Creed, according to church historian Philip Schaff, appeared no earlier than “the close of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin Church was not completed till the eighth century.”7
No later ecumenical creeds mention six-day creation, including the Creed of Chalcedon (451), the Athanasian Creed (late fifth century), and the creed of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680).8 In summary, none of the early ecumenical creeds—a consensus of fundamentals by church fathers—included creation in six, 24-hour days.
As the Christian church broke into the Roman and Eastern Orthodox divisions in the eleventh century—and later into Protestantism in the sixteenth century—longer statements of faith unique to particular denominations developed. However, none of the important documents of faith of the Roman Catholic9 or Orthodox10 churches through modern times have included six-day creation. The same is true for Protestant churches11 through the end of the sixteenth century.
Bishop Ussher Weighs In
That raises the question: When did six-day creation become an issue within the church?
The answer is found in the seventeenth century and Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher. Under Ussher’s direction or influence, six-day creation was included in the The Irish Articles of Religion (1615) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), which became the model for the Savoy Declaration (1658) and the 1688 Baptist Confession of Faith.12
Ussher’s influence in these documents is important because calculation of the date of creation was his lifelong project, begun several years before the Irish Articles.13 His opus, Annals of the World,14 was published three years after the Westminster Confession. Since his calculation of creation in 4004 BC was based on six 24-hour days, Ussher may have sought formal ecclesiastical endorsement to promote his efforts. And with that endorsement came general seventeenth-century Anglo-Irish acceptance of the dates he calculated, including insertion in many editions of the King James Version of the Bible.
Yet it seems clear that six-day creationism was primarily an Ussher phenomenon:
- No seventeenth-century Calvinist confession in any language other than English added six-day creation.15
- Later confessions in the English-speaking Reformed tradition16 omitted six-day creation—especially in the nineteenth century when Schaff detected “a strong impulse . . . to modify the creeds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”17
The data seems clear: the apostolic church never considered six-day creation a Christian essential. Furthermore, this attitude continued with every major Christian organization for almost two millenia. Only the Anglo-Irish church in the seventeenth century—in documents influenced by James Ussher—defined six-day creation as an essential of the faith. Hence any modern revival of six-day creationism18 is not based on Christian tradition or history; the church remains free to investigate all views of creation—exercising charity among fellow Christians who hold different perspectives.