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What did the Reformers believe about the age of the earth? (1)

April 2014 | by Joel Beeke

All Christians believe that God the Father Almighty is the maker of heaven and earth. This belief is like a great river that runs through Christian history. It distinguishes Christianity from other forms of spirituality.

Yet within this river there have been two streams of thought about how to understand Genesis: the allegorical reading and the literal reading.

The Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries marked a return to the literal reading of Scripture. The Reformers taught that God revealed in Genesis that he created all things in six ordinary days about 6000 years ago.

I will sketch these two streams of thought, describe the teachings of the Reformers and show how their teachings crystallised in their confessions of faith.

Two views

There have been many Christians through history who believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Basil of Caesarea (AD 329–379) wrote that in the context of ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ a ‘day’ in Genesis 1 referred to a day of ‘twenty-four hours’ (Hexaemeron, Homily 2.8; www.newadvent.org/fathers/32012.htm).

Ambrose (c. AD 339–397) wrote in his commentary on Genesis, ‘The length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent’ (‘Hexameron, paradise, and Cain and Abel’, trans. John J. Savage, The Fathers of the Church: a new translation; Vol. 42).The English historian and theologian Bede (c. AD 672–735) commented on Genesis 1:5 that the first day was ‘without a doubt a day of twenty-four hours’(Bede, On Genesis, trans. Calvin B. Kendall; Liverpool University Press; p. 75).

On the other hand, other Christians read Genesis 1 as an allegory or symbolic story. Origen (c. AD 185–254) rejected a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 (Robert Letham, ‘In the space of six days’, Westminster Theological Journal 61, pp. 150-51).The great theologian Augustine (AD 354–430) believed that the six days were not periods of time, but the way God taught the angels about creation (Ibid., p.156).

Why did they believe this? First, they were influenced by an ancient book of Jewish wisdom that is not part of the Bible, misunderstanding it to say that God created all things in an instant. (The reference is to Sirach or Ecclesiasticus 18:1: ‘The One who lives forever created all things together’ — the Latin Vulgate had simul or ‘at the same time’ for ‘together’, but the Greek reads koine or ‘in common’.)

Second, they wanted to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy, much as the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–AD 50) had tried to do, while not rejecting the major biblical doctrine that one God created all things.

Middle Ages

The allegorical approach to the Bible prevailed in the Middle Ages, but some major theologians still favoured a literal reading of Genesis 1.

Peter Lombard (c. AD 1096–1164) acknowledged the two ways Christians had understood the days of Genesis 1, but took the view he believed fits Genesis better, namely, that God created everything out of nothing and shaped it into its perfected form over the period of ‘six days’ (The four books of sentences, trans. Alexis Bugnolo, book 2, distinction 12, 2; www.franciscan-archive.org/lombardus/opera/ls2-12.html).

Lombard taught that the days of Genesis 1, defined by mornings and evenings, should be understood as ‘the space of twenty-four hours’ (Ibid. distinction 13, 4; www.franciscan-archive.org/lombardus/opera/ls2-13.html). The word ‘space’ translates Lombard’s Latin term spatium, the same word later used by Calvin and the Westminster divines.

Bonaventure (AD 1221–1274) argued that God created ‘in the space of six days’ — a phrase that will appear later in Reformed writings (Bonaventure made the same argument that Calvin would, that God created over a span of time, ‘to communicate to the creature what it was able to receive’).

Though they interpreted Genesis 1 in different ways, virtually all these Christians still believed that the world was only several thousand years old, in contrast to the Greek philosophical view of an eternal or nearly eternal world.

They did not see creation as a process spanning long eras, but a relatively short event, whether God completed it in an instant, or in six ordinary days. (For an overview of writers on man’s origins through the Christian era, see William Vandoodewaard, The quest for the historical Adam; Reformation Heritage Books; forthcoming.)

The Reformation

When God brought the Reformation to the church in the 16th century, one great effect was the return to the literal sense of the Bible.

For centuries the church had muddied the waters of biblical interpretation by giving each text four meanings, as if the Bible consisted entirely of spiritual parables. William Tyndale (c. AD 1494–1536) asserted: ‘The Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense’ (Obedience of a Christian man, ed. Henry Walter; Cambridge University Press; p.304).

He did not deny that the Bible uses parables and figures of speech, just as we speak and write today. But we discover the meaning of Scripture by reading it carefully in context (Ibid. p.305); we do not turn history into allegory.

As a result of this approach to the Bible, the Reformers embraced a literal view of Genesis. Martin Luther (AD 1483–1546) wrote: ‘We know from Moses that the world was not in existence before 6000 years ago’ (‘Lectures on Genesis’, Luther’s works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; Concordia, 1958; ix, 3). He relied on biblical records to compute the age of the earth, estimating in 1540 that the world was 5500 years old (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: the preservation of the church, 15321546; Augsburg Fortress, p.138).

Luther acknowledged that some people followed Aristotle’s view that the world had always existed, or Augustine’s view that Genesis 1 was an allegory, but he believed Moses wrote Genesis in a plain sense. He said, ‘Therefore, as the proverb has it, he calls “a spade a spade”, i.e., he employs the terms “day” and “evening” without allegory, just as we customarily do…

‘Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., 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’ (Luther’s works, 1:5).

Humility

Luther’s advice is sound. When the Bible speaks of God creating Adam on the sixth day, teaching Adam his command about the trees, and bringing the animals to him, these are not just spiritual parables or eternal principles, but ‘all these facts refer to time and physical life’ (Ibid. 1:122).

Genesis presents itself to us not as a poem or allegory, but as an account of real history. We should accept it as such, even if we cannot answer every question one might raise about the origins of the universe. The words of the Bible are infallibly given by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). God is the teacher, and we must be his students.

Luther understood that the world would regard Genesis as a ‘foolish fairy tale’ (Ibid. 1:128).When he commented on the creation of Adam in Genesis 2, he said, ‘If Aristotle heard this, he would burst into laughter and conclude that, although this is not an unlovely yarn, it is nevertheless a most absurd one’ (Ibid. 1:84).

But Luther said that, in reality, Genesis is not foolishness but wisdom, for science can only investigate what things are made of, but God’s Word can reveal how they were made and for what purpose (Ibid. 1:124).

To be continued

Author’s note: I thank David Clayton and Paul Smalley for their research assistance with this article from The new answers book 4 — over 30 questions on creation/evolution and the Bible; edited Ken Ham, 414 pages; Master Books; ISBN: 978-0890517888.

Dr Joel R. Beeke