Reasons to Believe

Coming to Grips with the Early Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis, Part 2 (of 5)

Radio host Paul Harvey was famous for his ability to tell compelling stories, often stopping for a commercial break and leaving the audience waiting breathlessly during the long pause. He always returned with his trademark phrase, “And now for the rest of the story.”

With a few more details, the listener can finally connect all of the pieces and suddenly reshape how he or she understands the story. This ah-ha moment—where one finally sees the full picture—reminds me of my investigation into the early church fathers’ view of Genesis and the age of the earth. My initial understanding of how these men interpreted Genesis transformed when I researched and discovered the “rest of the story” for myself.

The Early Church Divided

Previously in this series, I began reviewing chapter one of Coming to Grips with Genesis, a book edited by Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury that features a collection of essays by various young-earth writers. In the first chapter, James Mook attempts to make the case that the early church fathers were young-earth creationists. However, it is well-acknowledged that the church fathers were by no means unified on how to understand the creation days. Even Mook recognizes that Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine rejected a calendar-day view, believing instead that everything was created instantly. For completeness, we should include Hilary of Poitiers and the Jewish scholar Philo who believed likewise, even though Mook does not discuss them.

These facts carry two important consequences for Mook’s point. First, there was genuine disagreement in the early church over how to best understand the days of creation, with a small but significant number rejecting the idea that they were “ordinary” days. Second, the church allowed for charitable disagreement on this point and did not view it as an issue of orthodoxy. Recognition that Augustine was the single most influential theologian of the early church further challenges Mook’s position by demonstrating that opposition to a calendar-day view cannot be dismissed as a mere fringe position.

Mook responds to this challenge by dividing the church fathers into two camps: the “literalists” and the “allegorists.” In the former, he includes Lactantius, Victorinus, Ephrem the Syrian, and Basil, all of whom he claims taught a 24-hour days view.1 In the second camp, he places Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine.2 (Hilary and Philo, whom I mentioned earlier, also belong to this group.) While Mook lists Ambrose among the allegorists, he is quick to point out that Ambrose largely followed Basil with respect to Genesis 1. So for Mook’s purpose’s, Ambrose can be counted among the literalists.

The implication of all this is that Augustine and company’s creation views should be dismissed because—according to Mook—they did not interpret Genesis literally. That would support Mook’s conclusion by effectively removing any early church opposition to a calendar-day view.

Allegory vs Allegorical Interpretation

To understand what is meant by allegorical interpretation, we need to draw a clear distinction between that and plain allegory. Allegory is a figurative or symbolic representation referring to a meaning other than the literal one. Certain passages of Scripture contain allegory, as well as other figures of speech, which can be understood using the normal rules of interpretation. For example, Paul uses an allegory based on Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21–31) to illustrate why the Galatians should not listen to the Judaizers.

Allegorical interpretation, on the other hand, involves looking for a symbolic or figurative meaning beyond or instead of the literal/historical one. One extreme example comes from Philo, where he interprets allegorically the cherubim guarding the entrance to Eden (Genesis 3:24) as representing the two hemispheres of heaven (On the Cherubim 7–8). The key difference between allegory and allegorical interpretation is that for the former the meaning is found in the text itself while the latter looks beyond the text and relies heavily on the ingenuity of the interpreter.

Historical Background

Allegorical interpretation of Scripture first gained prominence among the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, starting around the second century BC. (Philo of Alexandria, whom I mentioned earlier, is the most prominent example of this group.) Alexandria represented one of the largest Jewish communities living outside of Israel; it was also a major center of Greek learning. The Jews there were caught between engaging the surrounding Greek culture and remaining faithful to their own.

In three different ways allegorical interpretation played an important role in helping the Hellenistic Jews find a balance between these two different worlds. First, it provided a way to apply Scripture passages to the audience’s non-Jewish context. Second, it allowed writers to comment on Greek ideas not directly discussed in Scripture. In the example I mentioned earlier, Philo used the cherubim as a springboard to write about the nature of the heavens. Third, some parts of Scripture seemed meaningless or even absurd to a Gentile audience. Allegorizing them would help blunt those objections.

It was in Alexandria that this mode of interpretation eventually crossed over into Christianity.  Alexandria was a major intellectual center for early Christendom with an important catechetical school located there and of which both Clement and Origen served as headmasters in their day. Allegorical interpretation served a similar purpose in the early church as it had among the Hellenistic Jews because they too were surrounded by Greco-Roman culture.  Even more, the early church—including all of the church fathers—was itself almost entirely non-Jewish with little knowledge of the Hebrew language or Jewish culture.3 So, the Old Testament as plain Jewish history would have had little meaning to the church fathers or their listeners.

Origen was the leader in popularizing allegorical interpretation. Even more, he codified it in his three-fold method of interpretation (First Principles 4.1.11–13). In his system, interpretation occurred on three different levels paralleling the tripartite nature of man (body, soul, and spirit). The first level of interpretation is the “body” representing the plain literal (obvious) meaning; followed by the “soul” consisting of moral principles; and lastly the “spirit” representing the deeper meaning that is brought out by allegorical interpretation. When the plain literal (“body”) interpretation seemed absurd, it indicated that the reader needed to look beyond it using allegorical (“spiritual”) interpretation. While this mystical approach may seem extreme or unnecessary, it did serve to apply the text to people’s current situations and concerns. Today, we might call this method “contemporary application.”4

The early church saw the entire Old Testament as being about Jesus Christ. Every detail—not just specific prophecies—could be viewed as serving as a type or symbol of Jesus Christ. Along with a variety of other nonliteral devices, allegorical interpretation served as a way to uncover hidden Christological meanings. For example, scriptural references to wood were sometimes seen as prefiguring the cross of Christ.5 I will dwell on this in more detail in part 3 but for now will simply emphasize that most of the church fathers (not just the allegorically inclined ones) viewed the Old Testament through a Christological lens. We see this, for example, in Hilary of Poitier’s Homilies on the Psalms, where he views the psalms as primarily being about Jesus Christ and so downplays their original historical context.6

Allegorical interpretation went on to dominate the theology of the Middle Ages. It was the Protestant Reformers who ultimately rejected it in favor of a literal (i.e., plain meaning) approach. They likewise specifically rejected Augustine’s instantaneous creation view even though they were deeply indebted to him in most other areas. I wholeheartedly agree with the Reformers on these points. If allegorical interpretation is therefore to be rejected, does this invalidate Augustine’s challenge to the calendar-day interpretation and, therefore, lend credibility to Mook’s thesis that the church fathers were predominantly young-earth creationists? No, it does not.

As Paul Harvey would say, “And now for the rest of the story.”

Legitimate (non-allegorical) concerns

While we should not follow the specific interpretations of the allegorical fathers, they do provide some valuable insights into Genesis 1 that are worth considering. In particular, they identified at least three scriptural arguments that seem to rule out the idea that the creation days could be ordinary solar days.7

  1. Nature of the first three creation days. If the Sun, Moon, and stars were not created until the fourth creation day (as popularly understood by the church fathers), then what was the nature of the first three creation “days”?8 How could they be ordinary solar days if the Sun did not yet exist? This question provoked more discussion and disagreement among the early church fathers than any other part of Genesis 1. Philo, Origen, and Augustine saw this as clear proof that at least the first three days could not be ordinary days.9 (A detailed discussion of the fourth creation day and its implications for the days of creation can be found in chapter 7 of A Matter of Days by Hugh Ross.)
  2. Genesis 2:4. This verse uses the words “in the day” (KJV) to summarize all of the preceding events described in Genesis 1. This usage seems to equate the “six days” of Genesis 1 with a single day, which caused considerable confusion in the early church. One way some fathers resolved this apparent contradiction was to view the days as being instantaneous periods.10 Today, we understand “in the day” in this verse to refer to an indeterminate period of time (covering all the events of Genesis 1) and, therefore, longer than 24 hours.
  3. Seventh day is not closed out. Each of the first six days is closed out with the phrase, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the X-th day” (NIV). This phrase is conspicuously absent from the seventh creation day, which indicates this “day” is still ongoing and so spans a time much longer than an ordinary solar day.11 Psalm 95:11 and Hebrews 4:1–11 further support the idea that we are still in the seventh day.12 At a minimum, this contradicts a simple calendar-day view where each day is a natural day.

So what are we to conclude from this? First, the fathers who used allegorical interpretation did have at least three significant scriptural reasons for rejecting a calendar-day interpretation. Second, it was issues like these three that led them to read Genesis allegorically because a calendar-day view seemed impossible to them. Third, recognition that the days of creation need not—or even should not—be understood as simple solar days is a tradition going back as far as Philo in the first century.

Having addressed some of the strengths and weaknesses of the view held by allegorists, what should we conclude about the “literalists” on Mook’s list? I will address these influential figures in the next installment.

My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to KansasCity@Reasons.org.


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.


This article is Part 2 (of 5) of "Coming to Grips with the Early Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis".

To access additional parts, please click below:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

Subjects: Church Fathers, Creation Passages

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1. James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” in Coming to Grips with Genesis, eds. Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury (Green Forest, AR: Masters Books, 2008), 29–32. Mook lists Theophilus, Methodius, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Cyril of Jerusalem as all teaching that the creation days were ordinary days, but did not specify the days as 24-hours long.
2. Ibid, 32–38.
3. In contrast, the apostolic church (c. 30–90 AD) had been primarily Jewish in composition and centered in Jerusalem. The change over from Jewish to Gentile adherents occurred very rapidly between about AD 70–150.
4. Robert I. Bradshaw, Creationism and the Early Church, last updated January 25, 1999, http://www.robibradshaw.com/contents.htm, chapter 1. I introduced Bradshaw in part 1 of this series. He comes from a young-earth perspective but provides a well-documented and balanced look at the early church.
5. Ibid.
6. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series vol. 9 (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 235.
7. The allegorists were not the only ones to identify these problems. Celsus, a critic of Christianity, made use of these verses to try to discredit Genesis. Origen wrote Against Celsus to respond to the skeptic’s claims.
8. This belief that the Sun, Moon, and stars were created for the first time on creation day four is a common error due to a lack of understanding of the original Hebrew. For a detailed explanation, see Rodney Whitefield, “The Fourth ‘Day’ of Genesis,” http://www.creationingenesis.com/TheFourthCreativeDay.pdf.
9. Philo, Allegorical Interpretations 1.2; Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things 34; Origen, Against Celsus 6. 60–61; Origen, First Principles 4.1.16; Augustine, Literal Interpretation of Genesis 4.26.43, in The Patristic Understanding of Genesis, eds. William A. Dembski, Wayne J. Downs, and Fr. Justin B. A. Frederick (Riesel, TX: Erasmus Press 2008), 428.
10. Philo, Allegorical Interpretations 1.8; Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis 1.1; Clement of Alexandria Miscellaneous 6.16; Origen, Against Celsus 6.50, 60; Augustine, Literal Interpretation of Genesis 4.27.44.
11. Origen, Against Celsus 5.59; 6.61; Augustine, Confessions 13.51.
12. Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 81–83.