Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Church Fathers and Age of Creation

I received a question this week about whether any of the church fathers held that the Earth and universe were very old.

In some cases, where particular passages or topics of Scripture are interpreted in different ways, there may be value in assessing how other believers throughout church history dealt with that passage or topic. Often of special interest is how the early church fathers understood things (in part because these men were largely free from the religious traditions that arose within the next generations).

And so, it is not unnatural that the question would arise regarding the beliefs of the church fathers on a controversial issue in some Christian quarters today... Is the creation young (on the order of 6 to 10 thousand years) or old (13.7 billion years)?

Let me first give three reasons why what the church fathers thought on this issue is irrelevant to the issue of how old creation is. Then, let me give their answer to a more interesting and relevant question.

First, though some of the church fathers did speculate or even hold certain beliefs about how old the creation was, they did not appeal to Scripture as teaching clearly about this. (The first Christians to claim that Scripture does teach about the age of creation were James Ussher and John Lightfoot, and this was not until the 17th century. The impetus for this unprecedented claim was the translation of the Bible into the King James English. These two men made a number of assumptions and interpretive decisions, each of which is at best dubious and at worst demonstrably false, to arrive at a date for creation of 4004 BC.)

Second, the evidence for a very ancient Earth and universe--or more precisely the ability to measure the relevant evidence--did not become available until the 19th and 20th centuries.

These two facts are why a particular view on the age of creation is not a part of historic Christianity and cannot be found in any of the church's creeds.

Third, the church fathers were (along with virtually all of their contemporaries, Christian or otherwise) wrong about a number of scientific things. Some of them believed that the Earth was flat, and most or all of them believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. (Unlike the age issue, in both of these other cases Christians appealed to evidence from both the world around them and the Scriptures to maintain these wrong views.) Today, we recognize that the Earth is more or less spherical and that it is not the center of our solar system, let alone of the entire universe. And it was science that changed our understanding and science that caused us to revise our interpretation of Scripture on these issues.

For all these reasons, what the church fathers believed about the age of the creation is both uninteresting and irrelevant. What is interesting and relevant, however, is what they believed about the reliability of God's revelations to us.

You see, for most scientists today--Christian or otherwise--it would be easier to believe in a flat Earth than one that is only thousands of years old, so varied and powerful is the evidence. And so those Christians who still follow Lightfoot and Ussher's interpretation of Scripture invariably appeal to one (or more) of three unbiblical (and unhistorical) doctrines: 1) appearance of age (that God created everything with a false appearance of age), 2) fideism (that Christian faith is a blind leap, and somehow divorced from reason and evidence), and 3) biblicism (that the Bible is the only reliable source of knowledge).

In future posts, I may examine each of these wrong views in more depth. For now, however, let me close this post (by coming full circle) with a quote from arguably the most important church father, Augustine, in which he affirms the value of science in a way that directly attacks (albeit anticipating it by 16 centuries) the biblicism and fideism (as well as the dogmatism) of modern young-earth creationists...
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world... and his 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? (from The Literal Meaning of Genesis)


Av8torbob said...

Thanks Rick,
I was recently contacted by a fairly notable speaker/teacher for a well-known YE organization about the possibility of working together (he is local) on apologetics. Since I knew the issue you address here might come up, I told him up front that I was happy to do so but that he should be aware we probably disagreed about it.

His response to me included the caveat that he would not "compromise" a high view of Scripture -- implying that my view did just that.

I will never cease to be amazed, not only by the attitude displayed by folks like this, but by how completely unaware they are of the damage their test for orthodoxy does to their Christian apologetics.

Loved the Augustine quote. Foolishness indeed ...


Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi Bob, and thanks for reading.

I'll be interested to know if anything comes of your working together with this fellow. In my experience, if a man has enough invested in that false doctrine (e.g., enough to be "a fairly notable speaker/teacher" of it) then he'll be too close-minded to work together closely with on general apologetics issues. (What would be great to see would be the two of you working together on the sanctity of life issue, despite glaring differences on these other science issues.)

I'm in a really good place these days, at a church plant where the senior pastor has really fostered a willingness to reexamine traditional beliefs and hold on to the true. So while many of the folks I teach or interact with are YEC, we're usually able to discuss things without a lot of the dogmatism and passion normally associated with the issue. And in that environment, I find that putting it in its historical context (Lightfoot and Ussher not until late in church history, measuring the evidence even more recent) diffuses the situation even more.

Keep in touch.

Av8torbob said...

Sounds encouraging Rick. My place is not so good. In fact, we are having trouble promoting, planning, and maintaining adult education at any level. I'm trying to work on an amiable solution with the leadership to get it fixed but right now, not so good.

I love the example I see your church modeling. I'd like to pick your mind sometime about how you got that rolling. It is very frustrating to have the wrong paradigm being supported and no one to work with ... at least not yet.

I'm working on it. :-)