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PAST CHURCH BELIEFS ABOUT

THE ORIGIN OF THE EARTH

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Overview:

During the first millennium CE, Christian authors and theologians believed in what we would now call "Creation Science" -- the concept that God created the universe during six consecutive days, each 24 hours long, less than 10,000 years ago, precisely as described in the Biblical book of Genesis. These beliefs were near universal because:

bulletEuropean and Eastern societies at the time were still pre-scientific. Thus theologians were not bothered by challenging questions by professional geologists, paleontologists, biologists and other scientists. 
bulletAlthough the inerrancy of the Bible was rarely discussed directly, most Christians assumed that the Scriptures were devoid of errors. There were no liberal theologians analyzing the Bible as a historical document, and calling its literal accuracy into question. The entire Bible was considered true. Its historical and scientific passages, including the creation, tower of Babel and flood stories, were interpreted literally.

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The importance of the meaning of "day"

Until the 18th century, there appears to be no suggestion that the "days" in Genesis 1 and 2 are anything other than standard 24 hour days. Thus there was no room in ancient times for belief in an "old" earth -- one older than 10,000 years. St. Augustine and others wondered why an omnipotent God would take 6 whole days to create the universe when he must have been powerful enough to do it in an instant. But we have not been able to find any reference to a theologian prior to the 19th century who suggested that the Genesis day was longer than 24 hours, or that creation week was longer than seven days.

 

 

Modern day creation scientists are divided into many sub-groups, primarily according to their interpretation of the Hebrew word "yom" (day) in Chapter 1 of Genesis.  All reject the possibility of biological evolution of the species:  

bulletSome believe that Genesis 1 refers to the creation period as 6 days, each 24 hours long
bulletOthers believe that the days may be longer than a regular day, up to hundreds of millions of years in duration
bulletStill others believe that  

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Comments by early Church leaders: 1

bulletIrenacus, (circa 115-202 CE): 
bullet"For in six days as the world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: 'Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all his works.' " Against Heresies 5.28.3
bulletTheophilus of Antioch (circa 120 - 190 CE):
bullet"Of this six days' work [of creation] no man can give a worthy explanation and description of all its parts..." Autolycus 2:12.
bulletClement of Alexandria (circa 150-220 CE): 
bullet"The creation of the world was concluded in six days." Miscellanies 6:16.
bulletHippolytus (circa 170-236 CE):
bullet"For in six days the world was made, and [the Creator] rested on the seventh" Against Heresies 4:48. 
bullet"...as John says in his Apocalypse: for 'a day with the Lord is as a thousand years.' Since, then, in six days God made all things. it follows that 6,000 years must be fulfilled. And they are not yet fulfilled, as John says: 'five are fallen; one is,' that is, the sixth; 'the other is not yet come " On Daniel 2:4.
bulletOrigen (185 - circa 254 CE):
bullet"...the Mosaic account of the creation,...teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old... And yet, against his will, Celsus is entangled into testifying that the world is comparatively modern, and not yet ten thousand years old" Celsus 1:20.
bulletCyril of Jerusalem (circa 315 - 386 CE) 
bullet"In six days God made the world..." Catechetical lectures 12:5.
bulletSt. Basil (circa 329 - 379 CE):
bullet "Thus were created the evening and the morning. Scripture means the space of a day and a night, and afterwards no more says day and night, but calls them both under the name of the more important: a custom which you will find throughout Scripture. Everywhere the measure of time is counted by days, without mention of nights.... If it therefore says 'one day,' it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day - we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there" Homily II.
bulletAmbrose of Milan (339 - 397 CE):  
bullet"God created day and night at the same time. Since that time, day and night continue their daily succession and renewal" Hexameron, p.72.
bullet"The beginning of the day rests on God's word: 'Be light made, and light was made.' The end of day is the evening. Now, the succeeding day follows after the termination of night. The thought of God is clear. First He called light 'day' and next He called darkness 'night.' In notable fashion has Scripture spoken of a 'day,' not the 'first day.' Because a second, then a third day, and finally the remaining days were to follow, a 'first dav' could have been mentioned, following in this way the natural order. But Scripture established a law that twenty-four hours, including both day and night, should be given the name of day only, as if one were to say the length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent" Hexameron, pp. 42-43.
bulletSt. Augustine (354 - 430 CE) 
bullet"...Scripture...tells us how at the beginning of the world, and at the time when God made heaven and earth and all things which are in them, He worked during six days, and rested on the seventh day" On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, 17:28. 

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Post-reformation writings:

bulletMartin Luther (1483 - 1546 CE): 
bullet"He [Moses] calls 'a spade a spade,' i.e. he employs the terms 'day' and 'evening' without allegory...that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit." 4
bulletCalvin (1509 - 1564 CE): 
bullet"[God took]...the space of six days..." Commentary on Gen. 1:5.
bullet"God applied the most suitable remedy when he distributed the creation of the world into [six] successive portions, that he might fix our attention, and compel us, as if he had laid his hand upon us, to pause and to reflect" (Op cit). 
bullet"To divide the day from the night. He means the artificial day, which begins at the rising of the sun and ends at its setting. For the natural day (which he mentions above) includes in itself the night. Hence infer, that the interchange of days and nights shall be continual: because the word of God, who determined that the days should be distinct from the nights, directs the course of the sun to this end." (Op cit). 1
bulletSynod of Dort (1618 - 1619 CE) : It ordered the book "Dutch Annotations upon the Whole Bible" to be written. On Genesis 1:5 it reads: "...night and day had made up one natural day together, which with the Hebrews began with the evening and ended with the approach of the next evening, comprehending twenty four hours." 1
bulletThe Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE): 
bulletIV. of Creation. "It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good." 2 
bulletStatements by leading contributors to the Westminster Confession: (Some theologians after 1850 CE have interpreted the phrase "in the space of six days" as possibly implying a long interval of many billions of years. That is definitely not accurate. Some of the contributors wrote:
bulletJohn White: "Here, where it [day] is distinguished from the Night, it is taken for a Civil day, that is, that part of 24 hours which is Light; but in the latter end of the verse, it signifies a Natural day, consisting of 24 hours, and includes the night too." Commentary on Genesis 1 - 3.
bulletJohn Ley: "This first day consisting of 24 hours...[and]...the Sabbath (being as large a day as any of the rest, and so containing 24 hours is measured form even to even." Annotations 
bulletJohn Lightfoot: "12 hours was there universal darkness through all the world; and then was light created in the upper horizon, and there it enlightened twelve hours more." Works 2:71.
bulletBaptist confession of faith (1689 CE):
bullet4. Creation 1.  "In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, to create or make the world and all things in it both visible and invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good." 3
bulletJames Ussher (1581 - 1656 CE): He taught that the first day of the creation week started on 4004-OCT-23 BCE. He allowed only 7 days for the creation week.

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References

  1. Wesley Brice, "The doctrine of creation in the history of the church," Reformed Church in the United States.  Online at: http://stjohnsrcus.inetnebr.com/page7.htm 
  2. Westminster Confession of Faith at: http://www.reformednet.org/refnet/lib/docs/wcf.htm 
  3. Baptist Confession of Faith, at: http://www.reformednet.org/refnet/lib/docs/bcof.htm
  4. Jaroslave Peliken, Ed., "Luther's Works," Concordia Publishing House, (1958), Pages 3, 6.

Copyright © 1999
Originally written: 1999-DEC-9
Latest update: 1999-DEC-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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