Young Earth Creationists often claim that their view has been the position of the church since its earliest period. Here, I will challenge that notion and argue that, instead, modern creationism is unrecognizable in historic Christianity. Thus, my contention is simple:
Modern young earth creationism has no historical pedigree.
It is impossible to go through a comprehensive survey of early Christian teaching on creation, so my discussion here will be necessarily brief. Further reading may be found in the sources cited, below. I note that if someone wants to contradict my contention, above, they must present evidence showing that the claims about Flood Geology, etc. are all present in early church writings, or indeed any church writings before around 1600.
Now, it is a simple fact that for much of church history, theologians held that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Do not take this sentence out of context. Recall that we’re talking about modern young earth creationism, not just a belief that the Earth is young. To say that because, for example, some church fathers held the world was a few thousand years old and allege that proves they held to modern creationism is a blatant historical anachronism for several reasons.
First, the reason many of these early teachers of the church held to this view is because their view of overall history was such that the 6 days of creation should match up with 6 “days” of thousand year periods of all of history, culminating in the second coming. The literature on this is quite easy to find, but here are a few choice examples:
“the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a Thousand years… in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished…” – Epistle to Barnabas, (quoted in Young and Stearley)
“for in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded.”- Irenaeus (quoted in ibid, 35)
“[Because] in six days God made all things, it follows that 6000 years must be fulfilled.” – Hippolytus (quoted in ibid, 35)
These quotes could be (and are, in the literature) multiplied. The simple fact is that the earliest interpretation of the Genesis text was yes, that it took place in 6 days, but also that those 6 days were important because they outlined the 6000 years of all of Earth’s history, which would end in a seventh day rest of 1000 more years.
Does that sound like modern young earth creationism to you? It shouldn’t. I don’t know of any modern creationist who holds that the Earth should have already ended because it is more than 6000 years old now, or that the days in Genesis correspond strictly to days of 1000 year lengths that define the history of creation.
Second, even the early thinkers who resonate most closely with modern young earth creationism would not have recognized it as it exists now. Early flood theories often had the water simply get placed on earth miraculously and then destroyed by God, held to a “tranquil flood” theory in which the global flood didn’t make any impact on the surface of the planet, held that fossils weren’t actual vestiges of previously living organisms (an interesting piece of geological history), and the like.
Why is it that YECs take these writers out of their historical contexts? It would be easy to say it is due to a project of quote-mining to find support for one’s view in the past–and I’m sure this is part of it–but perhaps a lot of it is just mere ignorance. The volumes of writings we have from the church fathers, for example, would take years to read, and lifetimes to become well-versed in. Many haven’t even been translated. Thus, it is more expedient to simply find the quote that supports one’s view and use it.
But that’s not at all how we should construct historical theology. The fact is that the constant parade of claims made by YECs that their position is that of the early church is only possible because of a lifting of quotes from church fathers out of their context in order to support the position. Moreover, the people quoted themselves, though they would support the notion of a “young earth” would do so for theological reasons tied to their view of the whole of human history–one which I know of no modern YEC buying into. To cite them as supporting modern YEC, then, is a kind of baptism-by-decontextualization. Only by ignoring the very reasons the early church held their views and the theological worldview that the early church operated under can a YEC find support for their view.
An analogy might be helpful here. To say that the early church agrees with modern young earth creationists would be like saying the early church agrees with modern modalists. Why? Because, after all, many modern modalists claim to be able to uphold the Apostles’ Creed, which, after all, never speaks of distinction of persons in an explicit enough way so as to exclude modalism. Thus, a modalist could say “Our view is from the Apostles’ Creed.” Now of course this is an extreme example, and one could argue at length as to whether the modalist is actually agreeing with the historic Creed, however, the point is that simply finding a single point of doctrine with which one agrees does not mean that one holds to an historic Christian view. It is instead to treat a system of doctrine as something which may be broken apart piecemeal into individual affirmations and then find one of these affirmations with which one agrees. But that doesn’t show one agrees to the system, only to one decontextualized part.
Thus, the best a modern YEC can claim is that the early church also felt the Earth was only a few thousand years old. But to leave it at that is disingenuous, because it paints a picture as though the early church believed this for the same reasons the modern YEC does, but that is not the case. Or perhaps instead it is to, as noted above, just break apart doctrinal systems into component parts and just pick what suits oneself. In either case, it is a mistaken way to approach the question.
The reason the early church held to the young earth was because, as noted above, of their view of the history of the Earth corresponding to 6 days of 1000 years each, not because of alleged geological evidence for a global, catastrophic flood. Although some of the early writers did not hold to this 6 – 1000 paradigm, it is very clear from their writings that there was absolutely no familiarity with the kind of “the Flood did it” reasoning which is so pervasive in YEC today. Modern creationism is founded upon Flood Geology, an absolutely foreign concept to the earliest church teachings.
Indeed, the notion that the early church would have even recognized modern YEC is a bit absurd. Modern YECs use the Noachian Deluge to explain the fossil record, stratification, and the like. But up until John Ray’s time period in the late 1600s, it had been assumed fossils were simply tricks of the rock, not vestiges of once-living organisms (for some interesting reading on this history, check out this post on John Ray). Thus, someone living earlier would simply not have understood what was meant by saying fossils were due to the Flood, let alone knowing what fossils even refer to! Moreover, stratification as a studied feature of geology didn’t really begin in earnest until the 1800s. Again, to then attribute Flood theories back to the early church is wrongheaded.
The Bottom Line
To put what we’ve reviewed above all together: modern young earth creationism does agree with the historical church broadly on the age of the Earth. That’s it. But the categories of thought in which the church has historically envisioned the history of the universe–the very context which YECs try to link their views–have no points of contact with modern creationism. Indeed, they would have been baffling to the early church because these points of contact with Flood Geology simply do not exist. The reasons the early church believed in a “young earth” were linked to their own faulty reading of Scriptures, and an eschatology not shared by modern YECs. In short, Modern Young Earth Creationism has no historical pedigree.
The Young Earth Challenge, Restored
‘Ah!’ one might exclaim. ‘That means that, at least, the early church held to the notion that the Earth was young.’
Well yes, it does mean that. But that hardly justifies belief in modern YEC. Modern YEC is an invention intended to unify the geologic record with an interpretation of the Bible. It is itself an entire system. This interpretation, which leads to speculation about the way the flood formed the geologic record, is not found in the early church. If you disagree, find it for me. Demonstrate that, say, Irenaeus when he wrote about the entire history of the Earth as corresponding to 6 days of 1000 years each, was actually speaking of how Noah’s Flood shaped the geology of the planet in order to layer sediment one atop the other. If one cannot do this, they should not claim to garner support for YEC from the early church.
Once more, YEC has no historical pedigree.
Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!
“Oceans of Kansas,” Unexpected Fossils, and Young Earth Creationism– I discuss the alleged findings out out-of-sequences fossils in the fossil record and how YEC explanations fail to show they are attributable to a global catastrophic Flood.
What options are there in the origins debate? – A Taxonomy of Christian Origins Positions– I clarify the breadth of options available for Christians who want to interact on various levels with models of origins. I think this post is extremely important because it gives readers a chance to see the various positions explained briefly.
Source and Further Reading
Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 Through the Ages (New York: Thomas Moore Press, 1992).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
I think the crucial point you make is that none of the fathers had access to the overwhelming evidence for an old earth. If they had I doubt any (apart perhaps from the irrationalist Tertullian) would have held to a young earth.
Even prior to the modern evidence Augustine doubted six day creation and Calvin called Genesis 1 “baby talk”.
Thanks for stopping by! I am always hesitant to say what historical persons would or would not have done or believed. I think it is likely that we would have had more views earlier on, but who can say? In any case, I appreciate your comment and I think that you’ve brought up a crucial point. After all, during the 1800s it was, in fact, generally accepted that the Earth was much older than a few thousand years even by most theologians. Of course, then there was the rise of diluvialism, etc. And of course I’m also glossing historically a bit. My main point is that it wasn’t as contentious then as it is now. I have my own reasons for thinking this is the case, but they’re not terribly germane to this discussion.
Your argument would appear to be that the Young Earthers have always put the cart before the horse, and that modern Young Earthers have switched out the cart. As modern YECism is taught today, I might agree. However, a successful response to your argument might only need show that if the horse is scripture, then the horse does in fact lead the cart… so switching carts is acceptable.
Consider that the early church’s 6000-yr view of history before Christ’s Millennial Reign (the first cart) has its roots in the Jewish Talmud, which traces back to the Jewish Oral Law, which in turn pre-dates Jesus. Therefore, when the Church adopted the Jewish scriptures as their own, messianic prophecy and other doctrines came along. There were many Jews expecting a messiah when Jesus arrived… they just didn’t think it was Jesus. So, when the early church formed (while the Jews continued waiting for the Messiah), they had a young-earth view ready-made for them (i.e., they placed the horse before the cart).
This doesn’t mean the church understood what they were adopting however. One important thing the early church missed in their adoption of Jewish imagery and doctrine was that the Jews generally draw a distinction between how things “literally” happened, and how the Bible “literally” describes what happened. So, for a Jew, whether the earth is really old or young can reduce for a Jew to a gentlemanly disagreement between people who otherwise agree that historical years should be numbered from Adam, and no earlier, whether it be six solar days earlier, or four days of uncertain length followed by two solar days. This was a nuance that the church, in their drive to distinguish themselves from the Jewish people, missed in my opinion. But while I believe they switched out the cart by accident even back then, they still believed the horse (scripture) came first. And that brings me to modern YECism.
I believe that modern YEC beliefs started by replacing the old cart with a new cart, but scripture still came first. However, they have become so married to the cart, they have in fact placed the cart before the horse in some very important ways… but I do not think they realize it. So while I would have no problem with switching carts, as long as the horse comes first, the real paradigm shift (a subconscious one in my opinion) came when the cart was moved up in priority. The cart (flood geology) is now leading the horse. And why? Because they believe their science, and believe they can present their cart as proof of the horse. It is the moving of the cart before the horse that I propose was the real paradigm shift.
Thanks for your comment. I think you’ve hit on some very valuable points. My post is only intended to show that modern YEC is not the position of the early church. I think we agree that that is the case. The historical background you’ve given is great!
“And the evening and the morning…” each day is preceded with this quote. Makes it hard to get around the Scriptural fact that Adam was created on the 6th (24 hour) day – the Lord created Adam when the universe was less than a week old. From Adam to our Lord is about 4000 years. Call me a dip-stick, fundie, it happens.
Thanks for your comment. There are two issues here. First, my post is not necessarily arguing that YEC is false. Rather, it is an argument that YEC does not have historical pedigree. Your comment does not address that argument.
Second, you wrote: “From Adam to our Lord is about 4000 years.” This is not in the Bible anywhere.
I have many other posts discussing these and related issues, but for the sake of this post, it seems the argument is not addressed. I maintain that modern YEC has no historical pedigree.
Dear J.W., but if you add up the life spans of Adam, Seth…Noah, Abraham, Isaac… well, a theologian added the numbers and i’ll bet he didn’t mislay his spreadsheet. 😦 Concerning the earth being old, real old, there seems to be a gap (was reading on the web somewhere) between Genesis 1.1 and 1.2a. The possibility that this planet was originally for the angels, but then came the rebellion… One could wonder if the bad angels abused the dinosaurs and polluted the planet – and so the Lord made the planet desolate, then started over.
And why would I add up those spans? And what would I do with the known gaps in the genealogies? And how would I somehow infer that the Bible expicitly sets a point of creation? Seems to me like there are a lot of assumptions happening here.
>> I note that if someone wants to contradict my contention, above, they must present evidence showing that the claims about Flood Geology, etc. are all present in early church writings, or indeed any church writings before around 1600.
By the same logic, no contemporary OEC position has historical pedigree either.
However, between contemporary YEC and contemporary OEC, it seems clear that contemporary YEC more closely aligns with early church beliefs: that the earth is relatively young. So it still wins 🙂
I’ve never knowingly claimed that OEC has historical pedigree, though I know some attempt to do so. Moreover, simply saying that one group has perhaps deviated less from the historical church is the “win”ner is hardly a great claim. Perhaps the early church is wrong, much as it was wrong to integrate so much Neoplatonic thought.
When I said YEC wins I was being facetious. But the YEC is in a better position than those who integrated Neoplatonism because even most OEC admit the prima facie reading of Genesis is in favor of a young earth. Neoplatonists are imposing an outside philosophy upon the text. YEC are simply going with what the text seems to imply. OEC T. David Gordon, for instance, said this on a Straight Thinking podcast with Ken Samples where he was trying to show (unsuccessfully, imo) that YEC is exegetically untenable.
Actually I think the original view fits perfectly fine with modern creationism; they just need better biblical reckoning. Bishop Ussher’s chronology is by no means infallible. Old Earthism is the view which needs to have its pedigree checked. It’s the daughter of uniformitarian geology and Darwinism from the 1800’s and nothing more. The first Christians would have been appalled, rightly so, at Darwinistic old-age doctrines being mixed with the Bible.
You are mistaken. Deep time is not a conclusion of Darwinism but was rather around long before Darwin came onto the scene. See this post for some historical background. Indeed, I would check out many posts on that site for more historical background like Jon Ray or William Buckland. These people were around before Darwin and so can hardly be faulted for using Darwinism to get their time periods. The “Darwinistic old-age doctrines” is a red herring, and I suggest you drop it.
It’s interesting that Joel doesn’t mention what exactly was considered “deep time” prior to Darwin and how that has expanded as we’ve discovered more and more about the complexity of life. I’m not claiming Darwin is solely responsible for the expansion of the age of the universe, most people, including Darwin, as I understand it, thought the cell would be a relatively simple structure. So they wouldn’t have necessarily thought that they needed long ages to account for evolution. But from my understanding the “oldness” of the universe in the minds of scientists has expanded greatly over time–and at least part of that expansion is due to how long it would take to get creatures like us. Of course, it would be pointed out that other independent factors in astronomy etc. have confirmed the oldness.
Yes, deep time was around before Darwin. In fact it can be traced ultimately all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But it wasn’t until the 19th century men like Charles Lyell and James Hutton came on the scene and started trying to reinterpret the strata of the earth in terms of long ages that modern Christians started compromising their plain, natural reading of scripture with this man-made ‘science’. I’ve read the writings of the earliest Christians. Sorry, but in no way, shape or form did they have any concept of deep time. That’s not what the apostles taught.
In Response to J.W. Wartick’s “Young Earth Creationism Does Not Have an Historical Pedigree”
As J.W. said, the sheer volume of writings from the Church fathers makes it difficult to read everything. And like him, I haven’t read everything. However, I have read some. Having written lengthy research papers on Origen for one of my degrees, I think I can say quote him with some deeper insight. And since he happens to be a person who casts a large shadow over the early church and he was well versed in the languages of the Bible, I think he’s a good person to reference to see if the claim that modern creationism really has no historical pedigree.
J.W. showed rightly that most of the early Church believed in a young Earth, though he used weak quotes (see below). So where did they get such a notion? From the Bible! (Note: A commenter said that if they knew the evidence for an old Earth, they would believe that. Ha! Those guys weren’t idiots. They were highly intelligent people who read the Scriptures. For most of them, it was in its original languages. They understood what the text was saying.)
As Origen says in Contra Celsus, 1.19 (Note: I have particular reasons for citing mostly from Contra Celsus):
“After these statements, Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated.” (Note: In the very next chapter, Origen again repeats that the world is less than 10,000 years old.)
Restate: The Mosaic account of the creation teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old. (Note: Even in his De Principiis, Origen identifies the literary genre of the books of Moses — Genesis in particular — as “historical narrative” (3.2.5 [Greek]).
But, as J.W. rightly point out, Flood-related geology is also a large part of creationism; we maintain that you can’t understand most (NOT all!) of the Earth’s geological features without reference to the Flood.
How interesting it is then that in the same section of Contra Celsus, Origen points out that Celsus attempts to discredit the writings of Moses by claiming that there have been “many deluges”. What is implied? Is Origen not stating that the understanding drawn from the writings of Moses is that there haven’t been “many deluges”? (We’re not talking about local flooding here.)
And it was a divinely initiated Flood due to human sin, which is another part of “modern” creationism (see Contra Celsus 4.11 and 49).
From what I’ve read, ancient Church fathers didn’t speak of geology in the modern sense. (They were probably more concerned with things like how to not be killed.) “Ah ha! My point is proven!” No. We can go to a much better and reliable source to show that the earth that exists now has been altered by the Flood. It’s right there in 2 Peter 3:
“3 First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires.
4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water.
6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.
7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”
Verses 6 & 7 are particularly important – verse 6 “the world of that time was deluged and destroyed”. What does “world” mean? I think verse 7 helps us understand; it distinguishes the sky and earth which exist in the present (at the time of Peter and now) from that at the time of the Flood. Otherwise, why insert the adjective “present” there? And isn’t the scope of the Flood implied as being world-wide?
So, for brevity’s sake, I’ll submit these as evidence that young earth does have an historical pedigree.
Note: Whatever you think of what I’ve written above, just understand that the Bible should be the authority for Christians. Hugh Ross, whom OECs are fond of (and for good reasons, being that he’s a highly intelligent guy), often says that there are two books — the Bible and nature. Well, in a sense, that’s true. BUT nature and things found in it require an interpretation. Only if we properly understand the conditions and mechanics involved can we correctly interpret the “record” of nature. I submit that if we overlook the impact of a world-wide flood, and reduce Genesis 1 ~ 11 to mere allegory and not actual history, we not only prevent ourselves from correctly understanding most (NOT all!) of the geological features of the world, but also do a great disservice to the Word of God, the Bible.
Since the scriptural verses quoted above are somewhat less direct than needed, I just wanted to add 1 more quote from a Church father directly addressing the geological impact of the Flood. This will provide a double witness to the antiquity of at least this aspect of young earth creationism. This is from Tertullian (the pronoun “her” in this passage is referring to the Earth in this context):
“There was a time when her whole orb, withal, underwent mutation, overrun by all waters. To this day marine conchs and tritons’ horns sojourn as foreigners on the mountains, eager to prove to Plato that even the heights have undulated.” (Tertullian, On the Pallium 2)
Thanks for reading.
The point I made in this post is that modern YEC would be unrecognizable to historic Christianity. Simply finding some places in which someone says something that aligns to one aspect of modern YEC does not establish historic pedigree. If one wants to claim–as is demonstrable that YECs constantly do–that a position is the view of the historic church, then they must establish that anyone in the historic church would have a clue as to what it is they’re talking about. When a YEC talks about the Flood laying down the layers of sediment on the earth, it immediately is clear that no one in the historic church would have had any notion of what they mean, or would claim the Bible says anything of the sort. Hence, simply finding a few places in which single, isolated parts of YEC teaching might be derived at a later–and different–point does not establish historic pedigree.
Moreover, the very age of the earth, as I pointed out, was held to for different reasons.
If YECs are going to claim that their view is the view of the historical church, then I once more say: feel free to prove it. Finding “hints” of it in various writings taken out of their historical context (i.e. without any knowledge of geology whatsoever) does not demonstrate a belief in Flood Geology or that this was the position of the historic church.
Fair enough, J.W.
I’m no longer sure how specific one would need to get to satisfy the requirements you’ve laid down here. Of course the ancient Church isn’t going to be discussing these things using geology-specific terms before geology existed as a discipline. (You’re brilliant and you know that.) Is that the point? My point was that I think it is fair to say that the general tenants of YEC — the Earth is relatively young; the Earth now is not like the Earth before the Flood; that there are reminders of the Flood in visible features on the Earth — are present in the literature of the early Church. (There are other texts that could be quoted. I only quoted these few out of time and space considerations.)
Nevertheless, I’ll let that be my final word. Let readers go through the literature themselves. They’ll find the Church wrote about all sorts of topics, including abortion, adultery, and homosexuality.
Maybe this’ll spark more interest in the historical writings of that time. (It has rekindled mine.)
Thanks for your responses! I think that if someone wants to say that YEC has some amount of historic pedigree, then OECs could appeal to several out-of-context passages to give “historic pedigree” to their own position. The bottom line, in my opinion, is not that OEC has better historic pedigree or even equal historic pedigree; rather, it is that no modern position on origins can claim to be the position of the historic church.
Horrible treatment of the subject. Assertion and just non sequiturs abound. Clearly a young earth interpretation of the scripture is ancient. Not only can we gentiles calculate the ages between Adam and Abraham (since they are explicitly stated in Genesis, and not only can we read Genesis 1 and understand what “evening and morning” is trying to communicate, but on top of all this, we have the Jewish calendar which was formulated, at the latest about 1100AD, and it is under 5900 anno mundi. So you are now properly informed about how YEC does have a historical pedigree, and your article is completely incorrect.