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Is creationism fundamentally a modern phenomenon?


St Jerome and St Ephraim, early church fathers fluent in Hebrew who taught 6 literal creation days

So, it’s back to battle (ahem, sorry, dialogue) with Professor Bill Clegg!

I described in my last article my challenge to him regarding speciation, his brief response and why his   counterpoint missed the mark rather badly.  After that, he went on to say something like ‘I hope you agree with me that creationism is purely a modern phenomenon’ and pointed to early church fathers allegorical readings of Genesis, and cited a quote from Augustine, the exact detail of which escapes me at the moment.  This kind of line is a common one, and is often expressed by saying something like ‘Creationists are guilty of the fallacy of reading modern science (or modernistic understandings, or similar) into the ancient text of Genesis 1 / the bible’.  Indeed, an earnest older church pastor or priest came up and made more or less that point to me afterwards, along with urging ‘humility’ on my part, so that I could ‘avoid specious arguments about species’ (nice word play on her part, I thought).

This area is huge – it all depends on how you define terms.  For instance, the current creationism movement is definitely a modern phenomenon in the same way that science per se as it is now practiced is a modern phenomenon.  Both use tools of modern science that just weren’t around in the ancient world.  It is also true, of course, that the culture we are in will inevitably have some effect on how we read the bible – and this, I must hasten to add – is ironically also very much true of many, perhaps most, of those who most emphasize the need to not read the bible from a ‘modernistic mindset’, but treat it as an ancient document.  There are a number of scholars or theologians who write setting out what they believe to be the true meaning of Genesis for its original readers, or in its original context and so on.  I’m not going to even begin to start to engage with those myriad of ideas, but I will point out that modern scholarship is, well, modern, and that it has its own fashions, trends, issues and given that it is based in academic, university settings, it is arguably inevitable that the modern, or modernistic (and now post-modernistic) ethos of such settings would seep into their work and understanding.  I have personal experience of this.  Very often when people like that lady minister who came to me speak of the dangers of importing ‘modern notions’ into our reading of the ancient documents that constitute the bible, they are thinking of some of the ideas from these scholars and theologians.  I’m not, just to emphasize, doubting the sincerity or integrity of these theologians, but, as I said, it is almost inevitably the case that modernistic assumptions and the fashions of their branch of academia creep in.  It’s practically unavoidable.

Professor Clegg in his talk mentioned the 1961 book ‘The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications’ by Americans Whitcomb (theologian) and Morris (hydraulic engineer) – although it is little known that they enlisted the help of 9 theologians and over 20 scientists to check their work.  I don’t remember Professor Clegg explicitly saying this, but I do know that for many, this book is said to be the start of creationism, and that seemed to be the implication in the talk.  Now, it is certainly true that this book was immensely influential, epochal, in relation to the current creationist movement – for many of Professor Clegg’s age it was the only major creationist work.  Many prominent creationists of his age group will point to the reading of this book as very influential in their becoming creationists.  Directly or indirectly it had influence on the setting up of many of the big name creationist organisations, and they freely admit this – for instance describing the work as ‘having worldwide impact in reinvigorating the creationist movement’ or ‘revival of creationism’.  These quotes suggest – correctly – that it would be wrong to think that it was without precedent, and the ideas it contained were completely de novo, which is often the impression you get from some who decry creationism as ‘merely’ a ‘modern fundamentalist movement’ or similar (often with the additional sneering addition of ‘American’).  At least one Creationist research centre was established in the late 1950’s, before the publication of ‘The Genesis Flood’, by Seventh Day Adventists.  Seventh Day Adventist creationist books, and indeed creationist works from other streams of the Christian faith, came out at a steady trickle at least through the first half of the 20th Century, and one of the Seventh Day Adventist works about geology and the flood was instrumental directly for one of the authors of ‘The Genesis Flood’, Henry Morris, becoming a young earth creationist.  It should also be noted that although many of these early 20th Century works were American, the oldest explicitly creationist organisation in the world is in fact native British – the Creation Science Movement, originally entitled the Evolution Protest Movement and founded between the wars, although it has to be said that originally it encompassed old age creationists as well as young earth creationists.  And even that organisation was founded in effect because of a perception that evolutionists had taken over an existing Christian scientific organisation that was broadly although not quite explicitly creationist, the Victoria Institute, also known as the Philosophical Society of Great Britain and which was founded in 1865, explicitly in response to Darwin’s work a few years before.  This brings us on to the ‘Scriptural geologists’, sometimes also called the ‘Mosaic Geologists’, mainly in the UK, who were emphatically creationists in the sense of being ‘young earth’.  What is more, these ‘Scriptural geologists’ were not some new species, but rather an old one – they were building on previous work and in continuity with early scientists who founded many disciples of modern science and who in today’s terms would be described as creationist, including Steno, held to be the father of modern geology with his work on stratigraphy.

I give this potted history, simply to show that the creationist movement was not started in the 1960’s, contrary to the impression given by many.  However, you could still call the 19th century ‘modern’.  However, very often when people talk about creationism being ‘modern’ they are arguing that creationism is a reaction to scientific developments of the last few centuries, and that the issues that concern creationism – the linking of the account of Genesis to the properties of rocks and fossils, or the focus on the age of the world and the length of the creation process – were not of concern in earlier church times.  Let me be blunt.  This is patently false.  Whilst it is true that they arguably may not have been of as much concern as now, the early church did operate in a world where a number of other philosophical or religious positions held that the world was very much longer than the biblical record states, and we have examples in the early church literature of the fossils being ascribed to the flood of Noah’s time. When creationists point to an unbroken tradition of taking what are now called ‘creationist’ positions or interpretations of Genesis and the history of the earth stretching through the Reformers, the Medieval church and the early church fathers, they are essentially correct.  However, some creationists have definitely caused problems by over-stating their case, giving the impression, for instance, that it was universal in the early church to take the days of Genesis 1 – or even baldly stating that as fact.

This then leaves matters open for theistic evolutionists to point out numerous examples where blatantly allegorical, mystical, metaphorical or similarly non-literal interpretations are used in sermons or writings concerning Genesis 1 or creation from the early church, including cases where the notion of six literal days of creation is clearly and explicitly rejected.  In addition, they can point out that such positions or approaches even appear in documents such as Augustine’s work ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’.

Even better they can use this quote from that work as a weapon against creationists:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [quoting 1 Tim 1:7].

Today’s creationists, they say, are doing exactly what Augustine here condemns, and are therefore deeply dangerous – a few have even said creationism should be described as condemnable heresy .  Of course, creationists disagree that this is generally applicable to them.  Just a couple of observations, before we examine how strong the general theistic evolutionist’s case really is here.  Given that the ‘sure and certain’ knowledge of reason and experience in those days involved all the heavenly bodies revolving around the earth – although there was widespread knowledge that the earth was a sphere in the ancient world, I am not aware that there were any solar-centric views around – if a modern Christian went back in time with the true knowledge and attempted to cite Scripture in support, they would surely fall foul of Augustine’s diatribe, which is ironic.  Also, one could argue that in our day it is those liberals who assert, without any real evidence, but in accord with common beliefs in the world today, that the biblical cosmology was that of some pagan religions – flat square earth with pillars at the four corners supporting the dome, or a three layer universe of heavens, earth and hell or the underworld below, who are bringing the faith into disrepute.  Those images that you often see allegedly demonstrating this ‘fact’ about the biblical view of the world are mostly from or based on the works of late 19th Century proponents of the eternal war between science and religion that Professor Clegg rightly denounced – creationists would completely agree with him there.

Additionally, they can point to one or two early writers who made the not entirely unreasonable point that it was difficult to take all the days as literal days because the first three were created before the creation of the sun, a point that is raised frequently today.  (I have some vague recollection that at least one ancient response was groping towards the modern creationist answer, which is simply that for literal twenty four hour days you don’t need the sun, you need simply a rotating earth and a differential light source – in other words the light only coming from one side or location.  Given that God’s very first act on day one is to create light and then separate it from darkness, the answer is in the text – a differential light source from day one).

Now, if you hear this kind of argument, it can seem very hard to refute, especially if you have got the impression from some creationist sources that before the 18th century there was a pretty universal belief in six literal days of creation.  However, if some creationists have been at fault in this matter, arguably the theistic evolutionists who take the kind of line noted above abuse the truth even more badly.  Out of context quotes, or small quotes that are used to ‘prove’ or argue that some early church fathers taking the days of Genesis 1 then allows for huge swathes of ‘deep time’ are very common, and I have seen this done by individuals at several of Professor Clegg’s meetings (including from several years ago).

We need to make several distinctions here.  Firstly, just because an ancient writer interprets a passage allegorically or symbolically does NOT mean that they did not ALSO take it ‘literally’, in the sense of the bible providing a reliable history of the world.  For instance, I could write a sermon or pamphlet that goes through Genesis 1 and makes each numbered day symbolic of something.  The first day involving light and dark could be about the first principle that there is just one true God, who is the light of the world, day two could indicate the two eternal destinies of heaven and hell, day three could be about the fruitfulness of the divine nature as Trinity, day four could speak of the natural world – the four seasons and the four points of the compass, and so on.  If someone hundreds of years later, aware of the disputes in the church on this issue, came across this work and no other of mine, they would likely conclude, wrongly, that I was not a ‘literalist’ (a term I and many other creationists don’t like, because we have never advocated the universal wooden ‘literalism’ that their opponents like to mock, as, for instance Professor Clegg did by pointing out that taking the bible ‘literally’ would mean thinking that trees had hands – we would prefer ‘plain sense’ or the more academic ‘historical-grammatical’, precisely because we know full well that poetic material and parables and apocalyptical literature are not to be taken ‘literally’, but read according to their forms, and even historical material needs to be understood against the various literary and social contexts it was written in and for).  In the same way, just because an awful lot of allegorical interpretation went on in some of the early church writings we have, that does NOT mean that the same writers didn’t ALSO have a belief in a ‘young earth’ (even when they didn’t take the days of Genesis 1 literally).  In several cases, writers who engaged in lots of allegorical interpretation indicated elsewhere in the writings, however briefly, that they also took it ‘literally’, in the sense of describing actual history, even though they were primarily interested in more mystical meanings they believed were hidden in the plain text.  (There developed within the first couple of centuries of the church two approaches or schools in Scripture interpretation.  One, the Antioch school, was more interested in the plain, historical meaning – although even then they would sometimes offer interpretations that we would find strange or very hard to justify – whilst the other, the Alexandrian school, based in one of the major intellectual centres of the day, used allegorical interpretation very extensively, at least in part to try and make the faith more compatible with or attractive to those holding various philosophical and religious belief systems – these are the ones I mainly had in mind that often still on occasion noted the ‘literal’ truth of historical sections of Scripture, including the early chapters of Genesis).

What this means is that it is very illegitimate for someone to take these points and then try and claim that because of them there is historically and theologically no reason to deem long ages as incompatible with the Genesis account.  The fact that some writers at some point held that the days of Genesis were not literal (Augustine, for instance, appears to have changed his mind, and at some point have taken them literally, at another not) does not mean that they would therefore be OK with long ages.  Those who took the days as not literal, but as rather a literary framework accommodating to human limitations in some way, held the belief that God created everything instantaneously, only a few thousand years before their time.  Not only that, but they were not doing so in an environment where that approach was accepted by the surrounding ‘secular’ or pagan opinion – the Christians were often mocked by philosophers and others due to the widespread belief that the earth was very old, and the awareness that some major ancient civilizations claimed history going beyond the biblical timeframe of the flood or creation.  Some also had a belief that the earth was essentially eternal.   In other words, belief in ‘deep time’ is by no means a modern phenomenon.  In fact, even if we set aside the Jewish-Christian contributions(it is fair to say that both synagogue and church in general held to what today would be called ‘young earth creationist’ positions), there was a form of creation vs evolution / naturalism debate in the ancient Greek and Roman world, some of whose basic outlines were very similar to today’s battle-lines.

We have observed that there obviously can’t have been such a thing as ‘creationism’ in the early church in terms of the use of modern science, but it should also be noted that there are early church writings which do explicitly take the basics of modern creationism when it comes to interpretation of the natural world, particularly geology and fossils.  Almost all forms of modern ‘young earth creationism’ hold that most of the fossil bearing rocks found on earth are the result of Noah’s flood, and the fossils are animals that died in the flood, and we have several early church writers who made the same basic point.   Thus young earth creationism cannot legitimately be called a purely modern phenomenon, except in the most narrow definitions, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither can belief in long ages and uniformitarian or naturalistic interpretations of the natural world.  Oh, and I guess it is germane to point out that the New Testament itself prophesied that a view would arise that dismissed the flood of Noah and maintained a form of uniformitarianism – that everything just goes on as it has from the start of creation – and it is quite clear that such a view was held to be false – check out the first few verses of the third chapter of Peter’s final chapter, written just before he was martyred, as a reminder to the recipients to keep firmly to the faith.

  1. It is also very telling that arguably the most prominent old-earth proponent today, Hugh Ross of ‘Reasons to believe’ has been shown by one of his own supporters and web writers to have grossly misrepresented the church fathers on this issue, with his claims of their holding to an ‘old earth’ position. He has been forced to retract many of his claims, and the ones that remain are still very dubious.  The following quote from the website by that writer encapsulates the reality of what the early church fathers believed about the age of the earth:

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.

Now, the author does go on (for four more articles) to explain why he thinks this fact isn’t that significant for the modern debate, but at least some of his reasoning is rather dubious: for instance, he repeatedly points out that the early church fathers were for the most part not fluent in Hebrew and worked from Greek or Latin translations, which is true enough, but then says or strongly implies that this means they couldn’t really have taken Genesis 1 ‘literally’ and missed out on something essential in the original Hebrew language, but he NEVER says what this actual missing vital understanding is, he just asserts it, and implies that this mystery ‘Hebraic understanding’ would mean they would not have taken the positions they did about Genesis and creation.   He also, as a leading creationist, the Jewish Christian Dr Jonathan Sarfati, pointed out to me very recently, ignores the fact that those few early church fathers who did know Hebrew, such as Jerome and Ephraim the Syrian, as well as the Jewish historian Josephus, believed the days of Genesis 1 were ordinary days.