Historic Age Debate: Overview, Part 1 (of 2)

Historic Age Debate: Overview, Part 1 (of 2)

The historic age debate (as defined in this series) refers to the ongoing controversy in the church over the nature of the days of creation and, correspondingly, the age of the earth. This debate ranks as one of the longest running theological debates in the history of the church – spanning nearly two millennia. Tragically, this issue has become truly divisive in modern times, but this wasn’t always so.

Early church scholars asked many of the same questions we ask today about Genesis 1-11. Throughout the centuries, we see differences and disagreements over the age issue yet we do not observe the rancorous debate that we often see today.

What makes today’s debate so different from the debate of past centuries? Is there anything we can do to remove some of the heat from this issue? It is the purpose of this series (this week and next provide an introduction) to answer those questions by a systematic study of how the church has historically understood the early chapters of Genesis.1 It is hoped that such an examination will challenge many commonly held presuppositions and provide new insights into the modern controversy.

Leaders from all sides of the current debate frequently appeal to earlier theologians to give credibility for their own positions. Sadly, most of these claims are misleading or even entirely inaccurate. Modern proponents of the calendar-day interpretation (young-earth creationists) more frequently appeal to the writings of earlier theologians and devote more time to this topic than their non-calendar-day counterparts. They point out (and rightly so) the serious flaws in claims that earlier theologians held to day-age or similar non-calendar-day interpretations. For example, some recent authors have wrongly argued that Origen in the third century held to gap theory, the framework hypothesis, and even pre-Adamite theory.

While young-earth creationists typically do a much better job of quoting earlier Christians and correctly identifying their interpretation of Genesis 1, that does not mean that their usage of these figures is necessarily more meaningful. Simply quoting the views of earlier leaders is not enough because it fails to account for the original historical context in which they worked, thus distorting their views and subtly projecting the modern controversy back onto these earlier believers.

The chief benefit of examining the writings of earlier theologians is that they are free from the potential biases of modern philosophy or recent scientific discoveries. Yet, that does not mean that they were better able to interpret Genesis 1 than we are today. Early authors did not write in a vacuum. Therefore, we must carefully identify what biblical and nonbiblical factors shaped their thinking as we examine how they interpreted the text. It is the intent of this series to discern not just what these earlier Christian leaders believed but why they believed it.

My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to [email protected].

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.

Further reading:
Robert Bradshaw, “Creationism and the Early Church.”
Robert Lethem, “In the Space of Six Days: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” Westminster Theological Journal, 61:2, 1999, 149-74.
Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Thousand Oaks, CA: Artisan Publishers, 1988).

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. The information in this series is summarized from many years of ongoing research into this vast and complex topic. My research currently encompasses more than 70 Christian theologians and 2 Jewish scholars spanning the first 1,800 years of the church. Much of the data has been drawn from the writing of 10 different individuals/groups, which was then integrated into a coherent whole. In selecting these reference works, I have intentionally included authors from different sides of the modern debate (specifically calendar-day, day-age, framework hypothesis, and “historic” creationism views) to insure balance and guard against source biases. By comparing and contrasting the conclusions drawn from each of these sources, one can distinguish between the points that are well agreed upon and those that require additional investigation. This is further refined by a direct reading (where possible) of the original writings—particularly in cases where reference materials gave differing conclusions. A large amount of historical and biographical data has also been incorporated into the study to help understand the earlier theologians’ views within the original historical context because we need to understand the basis of their beliefs.
  2. Another critical source of information about the thinking of earlier generations is doctrinal statements (creeds, confessions of faith, and catechisms). These statements provide invaluable information about the views of the church (or a denomination) as a whole (as opposed to that of individuals) and reveal what was considered to be issues of orthodoxy as opposed to what was debatable.