One of the most divisive issues in the church today is how to interpret the first chapters of Genesis. What are the lengths of the creation days? What is the age of the earth? These questions are not new. The church has been wrestling over these issues for nearly 2,000 years. Since theologians and scholars from preceding generations were not influenced by modern philosophy or recent scientific discoveries, perhaps they can serve as a useful reference point against which we can judge our modern concerns.
Using Creeds to Resolve the Historic Age Debate
A number of people on all sides of the debate have tried to enlist ancient authorities in support of their own contemporary interpretations.1 Unfortunately, such claims are almost always seriously flawed for reasons I have documented here, here, and here. One specific reason is that most of these earlier theologians based their understanding of Genesis on translations rather than the actual Hebrew. So while they weren’t influenced by modern concerns, their reliance on translations led to frequent misunderstandings of the text.
Fortunately, there is an alternative way to draw upon the wisdom of the ages—by examining prominent church creedal statements (e.g., creeds, canons, confessions of faith, etc.). These doctrinal standards represent the views of large segments of the church (rather than the interpretations of individual theologians), and they lay out what was deemed most vital and agreed upon, in contrast to speculation or the opinion of individuals.
Creeds, Canons, Councils, Confessions, and Catechisms
Creeds represent the earliest proclamations of Christian orthodoxy.2 They helped maintain unity within the church and guarded against heresies by clearly and concisely outlining foundational beliefs. Creeds were also used in the instruction of new converts as well as in laying out doctrinal standards for church leaders. The creeds listed here are of great importance because, generally speaking, all three branches of Christianity—Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism—accept them:
• Apostles' Creed (first or second century AD)
• Nicene Creed (325, revised 381)
• Chalcedonian Creed (451)
• Athanasian Creed (ca. 500)
• Canons of the Council of Orange (529)
During the Protestant Reformation, many reformers developed lengthy confessions of faith to document their religious convictions. These confessions and articles of faith were much longer and more detailed than earlier creeds. The most important examples are given here:
• Ninety-Five Theses (Germany, 1517)
• Augsburg Confession (Germany, 1530)
• Genevan Confession (Switzerland, 1536)
• French Confession (France, 1559)
• Scottish Confession (Scotland, 1560)
• Belgic Confession (Netherlands and Belgium, 1561)
• Heidelberg Catechism (Germany, 1563)
• Second Helvetic Confession (Switzerland, 1566)
• Thirty-Nine Articles (England, 1563, 1571)
• Irish Articles (Ireland, 1615)
• Westminster Confession of Faith (England, 1647)
What, then, do these creeds and confessions of faith have to say about the doctrine of creation? My research has led me to three important points for today’s creationists to consider.
Finding #1: Creation Ex Nihilo
In surveying nearly 2,000 years of church history, only one creation-related issue received clear and consistent inclusion in creedal statements—the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (literally, creation “out of nothing”).3 This is the belief that God brought the universe into existence by His own power. It stands in opposition to the ancient Greek notion that matter is eternal and has always existed. The belief that God created everything is stated in 11 of these creeds and confessions, with two explicitly declaring that God created the cosmos “out of nothing.” For a complete discussion with explicit quotes, see here.
Finding #2: God’s Dual Revelation
Two important Reformation confessions clearly elucidate the notion of a dual revelation. Also known as the “two books” theory,4 this idea posits that God has related information about himself through both the general revelation of creation and the special revelation of Scripture. Thus, the testimonies of nature and Scripture should corroborate one another.