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 [email protected].
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
- 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.
- Robert I. Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, last updated January 25, 1999, https://www.robibradshaw.com/contents.htm, summary.
- 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.
- James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 25–26.
- James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 26.
- 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.
- Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, chapter 1, table 1.1.
- James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 37n45.
- James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 38.
- Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, chapter 1.