We’re all guilty of having done it at some point, especially when trying to win an argument. Whether with your wife, your kids, or someone at work, it’s a hard logical fallacy to avoid, especially considering that there are legitimate reasons to use this kind of argumentation. And what is that faulty line of reasoning? It’s the argument, or appeal, to authority.
With this form of argument, someone presents the opinion of an authority on a topic as evidence to support their own argument. In an official logical debate capacity, it is always considered a logical fallacy, as all arguments should be based on their own merits, not the opinion of others. However, in a practical sense, we all understand that we can’t be authorities on everything, so we often defer to the expertise of those we consider trustworthy and more knowledgeable than ourselves to help us make informed decisions.
Having spoken and written on the creation/evolution debate and promoted the authority of God’s Word for over 20 years, I’ve seen this tactic used constantly, and to be honest, I’ve likely done it myself. In one sense, it’s an easy way to avoid having to fight your own battles. It’s a way to borrow credibility, so to speak, by letting you hide behind someone else’s opinion rather than having to defend your own. You simply find someone that most everyone respects and say “Well, you wouldn’t disagree with this person, would you? Well, I agree with them!”
And let’s face it: it can make you feel good when you find a smart person who’s credible, well known, and thinks the same way you do. The problem of course is that there is always at least one smart person who disagrees.
Having said all this, in the world of theology, a figure who looms large on the biblical landscape and is often used to support a variety of individual denominational groups, doctrines and church practices, is the well-known Church Father, Augustine.
Much has been written about St. Augustine, so rather than expound upon him myself, I’ll simply quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a brief summary of his impact on church and culture (even considering its more secular viewpoint):
Augustine was perhaps the greatest Christian philosopher of Antiquity and certainly the one who exerted the deepest and most lasting influence. He is a saint of the Catholic Church, and his authority in theological matters was universally accepted in the Latin Middle Ages and remained, in the Western Christian tradition, virtually uncontested till the nineteenth century. The impact of his views on sin, grace, freedom and sexuality on Western culture can hardly be overrated.1
Because Augustine is so well renowned, it’s common to see him referenced in support of or opposition to all sorts of theological stances. We’ll discuss his beliefs in more detail later, but first I want to address how figures like him in general have been used to promote a specific and ongoing fallacy within modern-day Christendom: the idea that a plain reading of Genesis was never universally held in the Christian church.
A common assertion by those who don’t hold to the plain reading of Genesis 1–11 is the fallacious declaration, “Many of the Church Fathers did not hold to what is commonly called Young Earth Creation (YEC). Many thought the days in Genesis were figurative, and they believed in long ages.”
The ideas that belief in a literal Genesis wasn’t the norm and that there were varied beliefs regarding the meaning of the opening chapters of Scripture in the early church are taught in the majority of Bible colleges and seminaries. It’s now rampant on social media posts and online discussion groups today because of it.
To demonstrate, let’s look at several examples, starting with this quotation from Hugh Ross, a Progressive Creationist who believes that God created in stages over billions of years of time:
Many of the early church fathers and other Biblical scholars interpreted the creation days of Genesis 1 as long periods of time. The list of such proponents includes the Jewish historian Josephus (1st century); Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, apologist, and martyr (2nd century); Origen, who rebutted heathen attacks on Christian doctrine (3rd century); Basil (4th century); Augustine (5th century); and, later, Aquinas (13th century), to name a few.
Another example is from a lengthy article found in Foundation: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology by Pastor John James (of Crossway Church, Northfield, Birmingham, in England), who argues that
interpretations of Genesis 1 are many and varied, with no suggestion that a reading of the timescale as solar days [e.g., literal approximately 24-hour days]2 is the obvious interpretation.3
Theistic evolutionist Dr. Kirsten Birkett, tasked with writing the chapter on science in the book The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (edited by New Testament scholar D.A. Carson) makes a similar claim:
The question of the age of the earth and how to read Genesis in the light of extra-biblical evidence is, then, contrary to most popular thought, hardly a new one. Long before modern geology, the issue of the time spans and genealogies in Genesis, and indeed the question of how to read different kinds of biblical literature, were thoroughly discussed.4
Theistic Evolutionist Denis Alexander also dismisses a literal/historical reading of Genesis by reiterating that they were not strongly held in the early Christian church, saying,
Figurative and theological understandings of Genesis 1 were the dominant approach to the text amongst both Jewish and Christian commentators until at least into the fourteenth century. . . . It is not until the twentieth century, with the rise of modernist interpretations of the text . . . that one finds the trend to interpret the passage as if it were written in the language of modern science.5
And Theistic Evolutionary thinktank Biologos’ contributors Francis Collins and Karl Giberson also suggest that
early Christian thinkers . . . were capable of discerning that the Genesis creation stories were not trying to teach about the literal history of the world. The works of many of the first Christian theologians and philosophers actually reveal an interpretation of Genesis surprisingly compatible with both the great age of the earth and Darwin’s theory of evolution.6
What’s so embarrassing here for Ross, James, Birkett, Alexander, Collins, Giberson, and many others who support these notions is that except for Origen and Augustine, the Church Fathers were straightforward about their beliefs on Genesis, including that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing—i.e., no evolution), that he created in six real (approximately 24-hour) days, and that the creation was less than 6,000 years ago.
Their writings can be fact-checked by the average person quite easily. Unfortunately, and because these claims come from professing, learned Christians, most people simply assume that they are correct and don’t bother doing their homework.
These claims, which I’ve heard over and over again over the past two decades of ministry, are actually so well documented as false that its really quite annoying to still have to deal with them, especially when many fellow believers are deceived because of their influence.
To prove the point, let’s walk through Ross’ claims from the list above.
The first on Ross’ list was Jewish historian Josephus, who understood the creation account in Genesis as historical, as clearly stated in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus:
In just six days the world, and all that is therein, was made.7
Irenaeus, (whose belief that the present world would last six-thousand years as a correlation to the days of creation, emphasizing his belief in a literal six-day creation week) is also of no help. He said,
For in six days as the world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. For that day of the Lord is a thousand years; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.8
Basil certainly didn’t seem confused about whether the creation days were literal either:
And there was evening and there was morning: one day. And the evening and the morning were one day. . . . Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day—we mean of a day and of a night. . . . It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.9
And Thomas Aquinas also agreed with a six-day creation, as shown in his classic Summa Theologica:
Thus we find it said at first that “He called the light Day”: for the reason that later on a period of twenty-four hours is also called day, where it is said that “there was evening and morning, one day”.
Nothing entirely new was afterwards made by God, but all things subsequently made had in a sense been made before in the work of the six days.10
These are the men from Ross’ list, but since the claim is that there were “many” of the Church Fathers who didn’t hold to YEC, let’s look at a few bonus quotations, the first from Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote,
All the years from the creation of the world [to Theophilus’s day] amount to a total of 5,698 years.
And the well-known fourth-century Father Lactantius said,
Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed. . . . God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He rested from His works.11
There are plenty more, but for brevity, we’ll leave it at that. However, to even further emphasize that YEC was the overwhelming assumption throughout church history, here are two hostile witnesses, old earth believers Davis Young and C. John Collins, admitting the same:
The church fathers also suggested that the world was less than six thousand years old at the time of Christ because of the chronology of the genealogical accounts of Genesis 5 and 11 and other chronological information in Scripture. . . . 12
Prior to the rise of the new geology in the eighteenth century, most Bible readers simply understood the creation period to be one ordinary week . . . and the creation took place somewhere in the vicinity of 4000 BC.13
And to put the cherry on top of this old-earth layer cake, here are a few clear admissions from the secular world that reach the same conclusion. In his book featuring James Hutton, The Man Who Found Time, Jack Repcheck (no friend to creationists) states,
The story of the gentleman farmer from Edinburgh who discovered that the earth was millions of years old, not six thousand, paving the way for Darwin's theory of evolution. Hutton proved that the earth was millions of years old rather than the biblically determined six thousand, and that it was continuously being shaped and re-shaped by everyday forces, rather than one cataclysmic event [i.e., Noah’s Flood14]. He went on to provide the scientific proof that allowed Darwin's theory of evolution to be viable.15
Prominent Bible skeptic F. Sherwood Taylor declared it even more succinctly when he was asked what he felt transformed England into a pagan nation, declaring,
“I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation.
So, despite many a compromising Christian who claims that the Bible just doesn’t tell us how old the earth is, we can clearly see admissions from the secular world that the concept of a young earth approximately 6,000 years old is biblically derived and that the idea of millions of years replaced the commonly held belief that the sedimentary rock layers all over the earth were the result of Noah’s Flood.
So, let me just make a statement that, because of the immense amount of theological gaslighting that has occurred in Christian academia over the last century, will likely have most Bible scholars howling in protest over. For the first eighteen centuries, the young-earth view was the majority view of the church—whether from a Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox perspective.16
If you meet someone who disagrees, ask them to show you their proof. Ask for the actual quotations from their own writings that prove that the majority, or even many, or even a handful of the Church Fathers, believed in a non-literal Genesis or millions of years. And while you are at it, perhaps ask them to list the top three Bible verses they feel convinced the Church Fathers of such things.
Now, before we get back to Augustine and examine what he believed, let’s clarify the term Young Earth Creationist.
YECs are not a monolithic group with a variety of thoughts concerning different topics among them. In its basic sense, the term opposes deep time and long ages. YECs believe in an earth history spanning only a few thousand years.
Even more specifically (and something that can be confirmed by simply looking up literature from major YEC groups and individuals) most YECs generally believe four main points:
Now, let’s compare what Augustine believed to what YECs believe.
Regarding point 1, Augustine seemed to change his opinion back and forth, with his writings being somewhat confusing and contradictory at times. However, he was quite clear on point number 2. Although he fluctuated between allegorical interpretations and literal views over the years, he seems to have settled on believing that God had created everything in an instant, but that He described it for us as being completed in six normal days for the sake of our human understanding. He wrote,
He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created. Creation, therefore, did not take place slowly in order that a slow development might be implanted in those things that are slow by nature; nor were the ages established at plodding pace at which they now pass. Time brings about the development of these creatures according to the laws of their numbers, but there was no passage of time when they received these laws at creation.17
As for point number 3, he clearly stated,
Unbelievers are also deceived by false documents which ascribe to history many thousand years, although we can calculate from Sacred Scripture that not 6,000 years have passed since the creation of man [emphasis mine].18
And as for number 4, Augustine’s writings show he believed that Genesis 6–8 described a global flood. He spent five pages answering skeptical objections regarding how Noah had the ability to build the ark, how the Flood covered the highest mountains, why the Ark was big enough for all of the animals, and how carnivorous animals on the Ark could have been fed.
It should be noted that it was not as if Augustine had never been challenged by old earth beliefs. In fact, in The City of God, he rebuts cyclical, old-earth concepts:
According to Scripture, less than 6000 years have elapsed since he began to be. . . . If it offends them that the time that has elapsed since the creation of man is so short, and his years so few according to our authorities, let them take this into consideration, that nothing that has a limit is long, and that all the ages of time being finite, are very little, or indeed nothing at all, when compared to the interminable eternity.
He clearly believed 3 out of 4 of the main points that all YECs believe. There is no doubt that Augustine, in the broad sense, was literally a young earth believer and a creationist.
We should acknowledge that Origen was an outlier, as he tended toward a very allegorical view of certain sections of Scripture. However, as far as his stance on the age of the earth, he clearly recognized and defended that the Bible indicates a young earth rather than the proposed ideas from the Greeks and others who were challenging biblical history in his day. In a major apologetics work countering a scathing attack on Christianity from the writings of the pagan philosopher Celsus, Origen said,
After this, secretly wishing to attack the Mosaic cosmogony that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but is much less than this, Celsus agrees with those who say the world is uncreated, although he hides his real intention.19
In the most basic sense, Origen was also a young earth (much less than 10,000 years old) creationist (the world was not “uncreated”).
Some might say that despite what we’ve just seen, if the great Augustine’s (and perhaps Origen’s) mind were open to the idea that the days in Genesis weren’t literal, then ours are justified to do the same. But before leaping into massive theological blunders that simply do not support a plain reading of Scripture, one should remember that for all of his many giftings, Augustine was limited in certain respects. He was influenced by his life before conversion and erred in some of his understanding. For example, Augustine regarded the Apocrypha as inerrant Scripture. The Apocrypha supports the idea of an instant creation. Augustine never learned Hebrew, and his modest knowledge of Greek was attained after he had written his three commentaries on Genesis.
Also, as a former Manichean Gnostic, Augustine had previously believed a literal interpretation of the text could lead to ridiculous ideas about God, and like Irenaeus, he sometimes relied heavily on an allegorical hermeneutic, especially in his first commentary.
Augustine had based his work in this area on an inferior translation of the Septuagint, the Old Latin Version (Vetus Latina), which was less accurate than Jerome’s later Latin Vulgate. How could that have influenced his understanding? Well, whereas in modern translations, the Hebrew word beyom in Genesis 2:4 reads “in the day that” (or when) God created the heavens and the earth, the Old Latin translation renders it, “When day was made,” God made heaven and earth.
If a more accurate text had been available to him, perhaps his understanding would have been less problematic. And all of this makes it more understandable why Augustine believed God made everything in a single day/instant.
Some claim that Augustine and other Christians of the past believed in a recent creation only because they didn’t have contemporary old-earth and evolutionary theories to consider. But if that were the case, it would only highlight and make our point! It was secular interpretations of science that spurred long-age/evolutionary interpretations of Genesis rather than the biblical text.
But as seen previously, long-age and evolutionary ideas were commonplace during Augustine and Origen’s days respectively (remember, evolution is the concept that things arose naturalistically, while Darwinian evolution is simply the popularized version of the day).
The bottom line is this: Augustine was a Young Earth Creationist. He believed God created everything fully mature in an instant. He believed in a literal Adam and Eve. He believed the earth was less than 6,000 years old. He believed Noah’s Flood was a historical, worldwide event. And he believed the genealogies given in Genesis to be literal chronologies and that the pre-Flood patriarchs lived to be around 900 years of age.20
The only point of disagreement in this area between Augustine and what Answers in Genesis teaches is that the days were allegorical rather than literal.
Remember what the old-earth theologians said their original argument was? It was some form of the following:
Belief in a literal Genesis was never the norm in the Christian church. Many of the Church Fathers did not hold to what is commonly called Young Earth Creation (YEC), many thought the days in Genesis were figurative, and they believed in long ages.
But the only truthful case, based on the Church Fathers’ actual documented writings that the long-age proponents can present, is the following:
There are two Church Fathers that did not interpret the days of creation as literal days, which justifies any Christians in believing that Genesis can be interpreted as teaching God created over millions of years and/or used a naturalistic evolutionary process to create living things.
Hmm, doesn’t sound as compelling when you trim the fat off the argument does it? Let’s ask this question: How many Church Fathers were there? According to the Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy,
The end of the Patristic era is generally marked in the West with the death of St. Isidore of Seville (d. c. 636) and in the East with the death of St. John of Damascus (d. c. 750).21
Once you tally the names up to the year 750 AD, there were well over 100 Church Fathers! The percentage of Church Fathers who believed that God created instantaneously rather than in six days was less than 2%! How compelling is that exactly? If the appeal to authority was to sway people toward the long-age argument through the weight of opinion from great minds of the past, having a full 98% of Church Fathers against you seems unhelpful to say the least.
In case you find someone who is still not convinced, understand that the truth of what I am saying here is now being acknowledged by organizations that once promoted it, because as they are fact-checked publicly, their conclusions have been proven to be so demonstrably false that to hold to them would be akin to outright lying.
An example is Dr. John Millam, a contributor to the old-earth Reasons to Believe ministry headed up by Hugh Ross (who made the false claims we soundly debunked earlier), who admits,
Based on my own research, no early church father taught any form of a day-age view or an earth older than 10,000 years.22
As a PhD, Ross should know how to do research, and as a professing Christian declaring to represent Christ’s teaching in the upright manner befitting all believers, he should be attempting to maintain the highest ethical standards possible. So the question remains, why then did Ross make these claims in the first place?
The only two options seem to be that either he (or someone he tasked with doing the research into these claims, which any self-respecting researcher would check for accuracy before publishing in a book) were either entirely incompetent to make error after error, or else they deliberately misrepresented the facts, which is entirely unbefitting a professing Christian.
Millam mentions in his article that “Ross has backed away from many of those claims.” But then he mentions that rather than apologizing to the Christian community that he previously misled, he has actually attempted to save face by doubling down and continuing to argue “that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and several others taught that the days of creation were 1,000 years each.”
But that itself is another falsehood! They believed that the six creation days were symbolic of the six thousand years that the creation would last before Christ returned. A clear example comes from Irenaeus’ writings:
For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: ‘Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all His works.’ This is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.23
As there is absolutely no excuse at this point (especially after having to re-examine his former false claims) for Ross not acknowledging the Church Father’s readily available clear writings, this reveals the most probable answer as to which of the two options outlined above is why Ross made his original (and ongoing) claims. It is very likely Ross is aware he is making false claims.
At this point, old-age defenders might throw up their hands and say, “But it doesn’t matter what the Church Fathers said. It matters what the Bible says and the evidence shows.” And we would agree!
But the Bible doesn’t support long ages or evolutionary ideas, and the supposed evidence they present is based on facts that can be better interpreted according to a biblical creationist viewpoint than an evolutionary one, so why were they using the argument in the first place?
The argument from authority is invalid, used when people feel it supports their argument but abandoned when it doesn’t. So, to all the old-earth and theistic evolutionists out there: stop using Augustine and the other Church Fathers as an argument to support your ideas!
It appears quite deceptive that for the most part today, whenever church history is brought up in discussions of Genesis, there is either a preference over which Church Fathers to use to make the case, or there is a misrepresentation of what they believed in order to support a particular view by many in Christian academia.
A reminder of James’ warning that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1 ESV) should not be taken lightly.
For well-educated individuals like Ross, James, Birkett, Alexander, Collins, Giberson, and many others to make these claims seems to lie somewhere between incompetence at best or duplicitousness at worst. Perhaps this is why Scripture has so many warnings like the following-
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3–5)
And this should serve as a warning to the average Christian to stand on the authority of God’s Word despite the pressures from the world, to investigate such claims and check their sources before accepting their conclusions.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4)