Crime investigation shows like CSI remain popular on TV. The typical episode has investigators reconstruct a crime based on the evidence left at the scene. This involves careful examination, methodical lab analysis, scientific deductions, and thoughtful conclusions. Discovering even minute clues can help demonstrate the guilt or innocence of the client.
In this Today’s New Reason to Believe series, we carefully investigate how the early church fathers dealt with Genesis 1 and the age of the earth. Primarily, we examine the claims made by James Mook in the first chapter of Coming to Grips with Genesis. He makes the case that the church fathers were young-earth creationists and we investigate whether or not the actual evidence supports this conclusion.
Much of my research has involved combing through mountains of books in search of even the smallest clues upon which to build a clear and solid conclusion. While not nearly as exciting as CSI, my work does follow the same methodical analysis.
Hermeneutics in the Early Church
Last week we discussed how Mook divided the church fathers into two categories: “allegorists” and “literalists.” We focused on those fathers who interpreted Genesis allegorically. Now we will consider the other side—those whom Mook has deemed “literalists,” namely Lactantius, Victorinus, Ephrem the Syrian, and Basil.1 Mook asserts these four taught that the creation days were normal 24-hour days. So, if these fathers interpreted Genesis “literally,” then does that mean theologians today should interpret it the same way?
Over the last decade, both young-earth and old-earth creationists have written many books and articles purporting to demonstrate how the patristics support their own creation view. Typically, both camps present the ancient leaders’ interpretations as isolated quotes or simplistic caricatures. This tactic makes everything seem so neat and clear. Reading the original writings in their entirety, however, completely shatters overly simplistic understandings of the church fathers. Studying these august figures in their original historical context is critical to piecing together a more complete picture of what they believed and, more importantly, to understanding how they arrived at their conclusions.
Having read much of the original writings for myself, I was surprised at how differently the church fathers interpreted the Old Testament compared to how most people would understand it today. Some of the fathers’ conclusions seem illogical or even bizarre by modern standards. Robert Bradshaw recognized this as well. In his study of the early church, Bradshaw provides an important discussion of early church hermeneutics and how it differs from today.2 Though Bradshaw views this subject from a young-earth perspective, he takes a well-balanced approach to the topic of early church hermeneutics. (I’ll provide only a limited summary here. See Bradshaw’s work for additional information.)
The key reason the church fathers often interpreted Scripture differently than we do today is because they saw the Old Testament as being primarily Christological. According to Gerald Bray, “Christians generally believed that the Old Testament spoke about Jesus Christ, not merely prophetically but in types and allegories which the Spirit revealed to Christians.”3 They employed typology and other nonliteral devices to allow them to see Jesus in these passages and, hence, connect Scripture to their current situation. The literal/historical meaning would correspondingly have been treated as secondary (not surprising since straight Jewish history would have had little meaning to non-Jewish Christians.) All the church fathers interpreted in this fashion, albeit to different degrees.
For example, Justin Martyr saw references to trees or wood in the Old Testament, e. g., the tree of life in Eden (Genesis 2:9), the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 13:18; 14:13), the staffs of Moses and Aaron, and the floating wood of Elisha (2 Kings 6:1–7) as prefiguring the cross of Christ. Origen added several more examples, such as the cedar wood that played a part in the ritual cleansing of lepers (Leviticus 14:1–7) and the wood that made the bitter water sweet (Exodus 15:22–27) to this list and other church fathers provided still more. So, it seems that almost any piece of wood mentioned in the Old Testament could be viewed as prefiguring the cross of Jesus. Water, particularly Noah’s flood, was likewise seen as prefiguring baptism.
Numerological association was another commonly used tool in interpretation. A simple example is the popular notion of the “eighth day.”4 Given that creation occurred in seven “days,” the eighth was taken as symbolizing the new creation. This idea was established when the fathers saw parallels to Jesus Christ being raised on the eighth day (i. e., the first day of the second week) and even babies being circumcised on the eighth day (Genesis 17:12). Even more important, the church fathers viewed the eighth day as marking the beginning of the new creation after seven “days” of one thousand years each. (This eschatological idea was also based on numerical association, but I must postpone a fuller discussion of that until next week.)
In some cases, numerological arguments were taken to the extreme. For example, in the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas, Abraham’s 318 servants (Genesis 14:14) are interpreted as prefiguring the cross of Christ.5 This is done by first interpreting 318 as 300+10+8. Next, the numbers 10 and 8 are seen as denoting the letters “I” and “H” (the initials for Jesus) and 300 is denoted by “T,” which resembles a cross.6
While we may be confused and surprised by these examples of “spiritual” rather than literal interpretation, it did not come from a low view of Scripture. The church fathers held a high view of Scripture—seeing even the most minute details as pointing toward Jesus Christ. We must understand that the plain historical/literal interpretation would have had little meaning to the fathers and their non-Jewish audience. By using non-literal association, they could connect it to their own lives.
So the “literalists” shared the same need for a meaning beyond the simple literal as the allegorists, whom I described last week, did. Most importantly, the literalists often employed nonliteral devices. In fact, the distinction between the literalists and allegorists is, at times, more an issue of degree than kind. Mook’s crisp delineation between the two groups is, therefore, rather misleading. In sum, simply because the literalists did not resort to allegorical interpretation, it does not necessarily follow that they always interpreted Scripture literally.
Victorinus of Pettau (late third century) is cited by Mook (and many others) as teaching that the creation days were specifically 24-hours long. This is based on the surviving fragment of his treatise, On the Creation of the World. Mook supports his conclusion with a short quote from Victorinus’ work, which I will include verbatim to show what details Mook does and does not include.7
Even such is the rapidity of that creation; as is contained in the book of Moses, which he wrote about its creation, and which is called Genesis. God produced that entire mass for the adornment of His majesty in six days; on the seventh to which He consecrated it…In the beginning God made the light, and divided it in the exact measure of twelve hours by day and by night…
This passage seems to be one of the strongest declarations in the early church that the days of creation were 24-hour periods—but a full reading paints a different picture. Victorinus’ primary focus is numerical association—not an attempt to correctly interpret Genesis 1. For example, the fourth creation day he associates with the four elements, four seasons, four Gospels, four rivers in Eden (Genesis 2:10–14), four living creatures around God’s throne (Revelation 4:6–9), etc. He makes frequent use of the number seven (the key number in Genesis 1), relating it to at least twenty other occurrences throughout Scripture. Twenty-four also held great significance for him as found in the final paragraph of On the Creation of the World (which Mook does not quote).
The day, as I have above related, is divided into two parts by the number twelve—by the twelve hours of day and night…Therefore, doubtless, there are appointed also twelve angels of the day and twelve angels of the night, in accordance, to wit, with the number of hours. For these are the twenty-four witnesses of the days and nights which sit before the throne of God…
We see that Victorinus’ emphasis on a day as 24-hours is just a numerological parallel to the 24 elders (or angels) that surround the throne of God (Revelation 4:4). Subdividing a day into exactly two 12-hour periods is likewise driven by numerical symbolism because the actual length of daytime varies considerably with location and season. In no case is Victorinus specifically trying to address the nature of the Genesis days.
Mook’s use of Victorinus to support a calendar-day view shows deficient scholarship and selective quoting. Clearly, Victorinus is far from being a literalist (according to how we use that term today). So he actually does more to undercut Mook’s 24-hour day interpretation than he does to support it.
Hippolytus’ Chronological Symbolism
Mook lists Hippolytus of Rome (third century) as defending the idea that human history would last exactly 6,000 years. (I’ll defer a fuller discussion of this millennial framework to part 4.) Here, I’ll focus on a related point where Hippolytus teaches that Jesus was born in the year 5500 from creation (Commentary on Daniel, Fragment 2.4–6). However, Hippolytus did not derive this value from adding up the ages in Scripture (although he may have borrowed that estimate from others who did). Instead, his argument rests on an allegorical interpretation of three different Bible verses.
First, he interprets Revelation 17:10 (“Five [kings] have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come”) as referring allegorically to millennia, hence suggesting that Christ lived between the fifth and sixth millennia. Second, he views the sum of the Ark of the Covenant’s dimensions (5 1/2 cubits in Exodus 25:10) as marking 5 1/2 millennia to Christ. (The Ark was commonly seen as a Christological symbol.) Third, he interprets the words “now is the sixth hour” (John 19:14), as corresponding to a half day or 500 years (i. e., half of a millennial “day”). In all three cases, Hippolytus’ arguments are highly nonliteral.
There is an even broader and more significant problem that applies to all of the church fathers—they did not know Hebrew. (I discussed this point in part 1.) This is critical because ancient Hebrew is very different from Greek and Latin. The church fathers were dependent upon Greek and Latin translations, which affected how they interpreted Genesis. So, it is rather misleading to refer to Basil and company as literalists when their interpretation was not, in fact, based on the actual Hebrew. This same problem exists today where commentators rely heavily on English translations.
As I discussed in part 2, Mook draws a sharp line between the allegorists and literalists among the church fathers. In reality, this distinction is blurry. When it came to the Old Testament, all the early church fathers used an assortment of nonliteral modes of interpretation to varying degrees.8 In the end, even the so-called literalists weren’t always literal and were not following ancient Hebrew. As a consequence, we would be better served by reexamining Genesis 1 in its original Hebrew rather than relying on the interpretation of the early church fathers.
The creation week as a pattern for human history is another key example of typological (nonliteral) association that came to dominate the early church’s thinking about the age of the earth. Part 4 will be dedicated to discussing this model and its implications.
My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to [email protected].
This article is Part 3 (of 5) of “Coming to Grips with the Early Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis”.
- James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” in Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury, eds., Coming to Grips with Genesis (Green Forest, AR: Masters Books, 2008), 29–32.
- Robert I. Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, last updated January 25, 1999, https://www.robibradshaw.com/contents.htm.
- Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 50.
- Ironically, part of the impetus for the “eighth day” is a misreading of the headers of Psalms 6 and 12. The Hebrew reads sheminith; the word’s meaning is uncertain but most modern translations understand it to be a musical term. The early church fathers, however, followed the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, which rendered it “on the eighth.”
- The Epistle of Barnabas was popular in the early church, in part because its author was misidentified as being the biblical Barnabas.
- Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, chapter 1.
- James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” 29–30.
- Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, chapter 1.
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.