Reasons to Believe

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

It is commonly assumed by people today that the church has consistently and uniformly held to a calendar-day interpretation of Genesis 1 over its 2,000-year history. If that were true, then other interpretations could be safely dismissed as mere aberrations or as compromises to science. Given the prevalence of this view, it is important to establish if it is indeed true. This is a weighty task given the length of time spanned and scope of materials encompassed. My study of the historic age debate currently examines the work of over 70 Christian theologians and scholars over the first 1,800 years of the church. The interpretations of each of these figures have been identified (whenever possible) and have been divided into distinct historical time periods. Using this classification, we can determine how the church’s view has changed over time.

Even a fairly simple review shows that the church’s view of Genesis 1 is complex and not the simple uniform view that is commonly assumed. Moreover, we can discern that scholars in each major time period wrestled with this issue in their own characteristic manner.

  • The Apostolic Church (30-90 AD) – Completely silent on the issue of the “days” of creation.

  • The Early Church (90-476 AD) – Both the calendar-day and instantaneous creation (or creation not in time) views were held by prominent theologians. Origen and Augustine in particular clearly rejected the idea that the creation days were normal calendar days.

  • The Middle Ages (476-1492 AD) – The issue of creation receives little attention during this period. Instantaneous creation and figurative interpretations of Genesis 1 predominate, but the calendar-day view is still popular.

  • The Reformation (1492-1675 AD) – Calendar-day view is clearly predominant but other views are still around. Instantaneous creation and other allegorical interpretations are strongly rejected at this time.

  • Golden Age of Science (1675-1781 AD) – Day-age view appears but calendar-day remains prevalent. Day-age emerges in an attempt to understand God’s process in creation.

One thing is clear from this analysis—the Church has never reached a consensus on the nature of the creation “days.” While many important theologians did hold to a calendar-day view, none (at least prior to the twentieth century) considered it to be an issue of orthodoxy. This point will be more evident when we examine the creeds and confessions of faith later in this series.

A common argument made in the modern age debate is that day-age, gap theory, and other related interpretations show up very late in history. Indeed, my research shows that an unambiguous day-age view does not show up until the time of Isaac Newton and Thomas Burnet in the eighteenth century. The gap theory appears even later than that. In contrast, definite evidence for a calendar-day interpretation can be found as far back as Theophilus of Antioch in the second century and was likely taught even before that time.

Does that mean that the day-age interpretation can be dismissed as a recent innovation or labeled as a compromise? Not at all. The day-age view grew out of a desire to understand God’s process in creation (particularly as it relates to geology) and was not a reaction to Darwinism (which arrived later). While the day-age view emerged in the eighteenth century, it may be a surprise to some that modern young-earth creationism is actually even more recent—appearing only in the twentieth century.

To be clear, we need to understand that while young-earth creationism contains elements that can be traced to the earliest days of the church (e.g. calendar-day interpretation, Adam and Eve appearing six to ten thousand years ago, and a global flood), it packages these with the additional elements of no death of animals before the fall and the view that these interpretations are defining issues of orthodoxy. These later components are of a very recent origin. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that modern young-earth creationism holds the high ground in the historic age debate.

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.


Part 1 | Part 2

Subjects: Creation "Days"

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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).