Coming to Grips with the Early Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis, Part 1 (of 5)

Coming to Grips with the Early Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis, Part 1 (of 5)

Understanding early Jewish and Christian interpretations of Genesis’ opening chapters has been a passionate
pursuit of mine for the last five years. This is a very difficult and complex topic, but one that can
yield important insights into the contemporary debate over the age of the earth. Given my background,
a friend asked me to review

Coming to Grips with Genesis
, a new young-earth creationist book edited by Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury.

The book is a collection of 14 scholarly articles written by different authors defending modern young-earth
creationism, namely a calendar-day (or 24-hour-day) view, recent creation, global flood, and no animal
death before the Fall. In the first chapter, James Mook covers how the early church fathers dealt with
Genesis 1, Noah’s flood, and the age of the earth. Since the subject matter corresponds to an area I
have studied intently, I will limit my response to just this chapter. The central question I am trying
to address in this article series is whether or not the church fathers lend valuable support to modern
young-earth creationism as argued by Mook.
1

A Little Background

While my actual academic background is in chemistry, I became interested in patristics (the study of
early church fathers) after reading

The Genesis Debate
, which presents three different views of the creation days side-by-side. J. Ligon Duncan III and David
W. Hall support a 24-hour day (young earth) view; Hugh Ross and Gleason L. Archer defend a day-age (old
earth) view; and Lee Irons and Meredith G. Kline argue for the
framework hypothesis. Each pair of authors appeals to the church fathers’ writings to support their
own positions; yet their analysis of the material clearly contradicts their opponents’.

So, who is right? This question was very frustrating for me because there are so few resources available
to help resolve it. Feeling deadlocked, I focused on other things until I eventually came across

Creation and the Early Church
, Robert Bradshaw’s lucid and well-documented introduction to this difficult topic. What I found so refreshing
and educational about Bradshaw’s work was that rather than simply cataloging the church fathers according
to their interpretations, he analyzed the complex history and undercurrents behind their views. I appreciated
his work despite the fact that he wrote from a young-earth view and was refuting old-earth creationists’
claims about the church fathers. I also greatly valued his refreshing honesty, such as his acknowledging
that the early church fathers held to a “diversity of opinion” with respect to Genesis 1–11.
2

Bradshaw’s study reinvigorated my interest in the patristic view of Genesis. It did much to correct and clarify
my thinking, but there was still much more to research. I soon realized that the only way to fully appreciate
what these ancient figures taught was to wade through the original writings and study their historical
context for myself. Moreover, it soon became clear that I also needed to include early Jewish writings
in my study. The church was birthed in a Jewish context, so some of these works helped shape the church
fathers’ thinking.

The current scope of my research includes more than thirty early Jewish sources and fifty church fathers
and so covers the majority of the relevant extrabiblical writings up to the fifth century. While the
bulk of my research is first-hand reading, I do still read whenever possible what young-earth creationist
writers have to say to insure that I don’t overlook relevant information and to counter-balance my own
old-earth perspective.

My investigation is currently unfinished but select extracts based on it are available as part of
Today’s New Reason to Believe (see the initial overview
here and
here). My online article
“The Genesis Genealogies” also contains an extensive discussion of the early church fathers with
regard to the age of the earth. To fill in details not discussed in my public writings, I recommend Bradshaw’s
work and will make frequent reference to it in this series.

Problems with Old-Earth Use of Early Church Fathers

Mook begins his essay by criticizing those who argue that the early church fathers supported the notion
of “deep time” (i. e., an old earth) and other modern theories. He identifies:

  • William G. T. Shedd as claiming that some of the early church fathers taught a day-age view;
  • Henri Blocher as writing that Augustine held to a view similar to the
    framework hypothesis; and
  • Arthur Custance as claiming that Origen held to the
    gap theory.
    3

Mook’s rejection of these specific claims as inaccurate is justified. This kind of misuse of the patristic
writings to support old-earth creationism is a common complaint echoed by other young-earth creationists,
including Bradshaw.

Mook also takes aim at Dr. Hugh Ross’ claims on this subject. Ross’ earliest statements claim that Irenaeus,
Origen, Basil, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas taught that the creation days were long periods of time,
which Mook rejects as incorrect.4 In later books, Ross has backed away from many of those claims but
still argues that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and several others taught that the days of creation were 1,000
years each. Mook concludes that while Ross become more nuanced in his claims, he remains substantially
wrong.
5

Unfortunately, few old earth creationists have written about the church fathers and what little they have
written is often poor quality (with Stanley Jaki as a notable exception).
6 This scarcity of solid resources is part of what motivated me to research this issue for myself.

Based on my own research, no early church father taught any form of a day-age view or an earth older than
10,000 years. In fact, the first people that I can clearly identify as teaching the old-earth view are
Isaac Newton and Thomas Burnet in the late seventeenth century. This seems like a fatal blow to old-earth
creationism and a strong vindication of Mook’s position but closer examination shows otherwise.

Problems with Young-Earth Use of Early Church Fathers

While Mook has many valid criticisms of old-earth creationists’ use of the church fathers, what of his own
claims? Do the fathers really support his young-earth view? Does he accurately represent their positions?

Mook does an admirable job of documenting specific claims made by individual fathers (and thus avoiding the
trap that many old-earth creationists often fall into), but he fails to look deeper at the underlying
factors that helped mold their interpretations. Instead, he presents an extremely one-sided analysis
of the biblical and non-biblical factors shaping the fathers’ interpretations in order to support his
own desired conclusion. Sadly, I have found this to be a very common flaw in the young-earth usage of
the patristics (with Bradshaw as a noteworthy exception). Consequently, most attempts to use the church
fathers by both old-earth
and young-earth creationists are seriously flawed, just in different ways.

The simplest and most important example of Mook’s poor analysis is that he fails to grapple with the patristic
fathers’ linguistic dependence. These men were almost entirely dependent upon Greek and Latin translations
of the Old Testament rather than the actual Hebrew in which Genesis was written. As Bradshaw documents
in detail, none of the church fathers were fluent in Hebrew until Jerome and Theodore of Mopsuestia in
the late fourth century.
7 (Prior to that, only Origen and possibly Eusebius in the third century seem to have actually
studied Hebrew, but neither was fluent.)

A deficient knowledge of Hebrew is probably the single most important factor leading to a young-earth misunderstanding
of Genesis (see
here for previous articles on this issue). This problem has continued to play a significant role
even in our own time.

Mook acknowledges that the church fathers were largely ignorant of Hebrew, but he relegates this critical
observation to a mere footnote.
8 He does not discuss the implications this ignorance poses for their interpretations. Greek and
Latin are very similar to each other but very different from ancient Hebrew. So even a “literal” interpretation
based on either of these languages will not necessarily represent a literal understanding of the original
Hebrew.

Ironically, Mook does apply this principle selectively to dismiss Augustine’s non-calendar-day interpretation
on the basis of Augustine’s dependence on a Latin translation of Genesis.
9 If Augustine’s Latin-based interpretation is suspect, then should not the views of the fathers
mentioned by Mook be questioned for their dependence on Greek? This inconsistency undercuts the objectivity
of his analysis.

The main interest in the church fathers stems from the assumption that they were closer in language and culture
to the Bible’s writers. While that is largely true for the New Testament (written in Greek), the early
church lacked a clear understanding of Hebrew and the Jewish culture of the Old Testament.
10 In fact, Bradshaw asserts: “Given this evidence, I think it is fair to conclude that at least
in its knowledge of Hebrew modern Christian scholarship has the edge over the church of the third and
fourth centuries.”
11

Unfortunately, this omission is not the only flaw in Mook’s analysis. In upcoming posts, I will outline two
more major examples where he ignores or misrepresents the full historical context of the church fathers.
I will then spend my final segment discussing what this means for us today.

My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to
KansasCity@Reasons.org.




Dr. John Millam




Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves
as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.


This article is Part 1 (of 5) of “Coming to Grips with the Early Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis”.

To access additional parts, please click below:

Part 1  | 
Part 2  | 
Part 3  | 
Part 4  | 
Part 5

Endnotes
  1. In this work, the term “church fathers” is being defined in a broad sense to include church leaders and
    influential writers, not just theologians. “Early church” is used here to refer to the period after
    the Apostles (starting c. AD 90) until the death of Augustine in AD 430.
  2. Robert I. Bradshaw, 
    Creationism and the Early Church, last updated January 25, 1999, 
    https://www.robibradshaw.com/contents.htm, summary.
  3. James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” in Coming to Grips with Genesis, eds. Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury (Green Forest, AR: Masters
    Books, 2008), 24.
  4. James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 25–26.
  5. James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 26.
  6. Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 through the Ages, (London: Thomas More Press, 1992). He covers more than 150 Jewish
    and Christian writers throughout church history, which is the broadest review of any of my sources.
    Unfortunately, this great breadth means that he does not have the room to provide the level of detail
    I need for my study.
  7. Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, chapter 1, table 1.1.
  8. James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 37n45.
  9. James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 38.
  10. Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, chapter 1.
  11. Ibid.