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Creation and the Church Fathers

What did the Church Fathers think about Creation?

Returning to our view of Church history, you will remember Justin Martyr, one of the first Church Fathers. He was one of the first apologists, defenders of the faith, although his background, in common with the majority of these Fathers of the Church, was in Greek philosophy.

Justin queried the fact that Adam was told that the day he ate the forbidden fruit was the day he would die, yet he lived many hundreds of years. From this Justin made a logical jump and pulled out a Scripture (But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 2 Peter 3:8) and proclaimed that perhaps days were not always 24 hour periods and hence the Days of Creation were not literal days. 

So, already, doubt had set in. Let us move on to Clement of Alexandria, the first Christian philosopher to really push the ideas of Plato into the Church. What did he think of the Days of Creation? Well, unpack this ... if you dare!

For the creations on the different days followed in a most important succession; so that all things brought into existence might have honour from priority, created together in thought, but not being of equal worth. Nor was the creation of each signified by the voice, inasmuch as the creative work is said to have made them at once. For something must needs have been named first. Wherefore those things were announced first, from which came those that were second, all things being originated together from one essence by one power. For the will of God was one, in one identity. And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist. (The Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 16).

Eh?! What Clement was saying was the idea, borrowed from Philo, an earlier Jewish philosopher and the first Biblical Platonist, that God did not actually create over a six day period, but created everything at the same time! The "days" were just put there to add an order of priority to things.

Then there was Origen, the father of Christian allegory, the Greek idea of assigning deeper meanings to literal texts. He writes:

What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first "day," then a second and a third "day" [evening and morning] without the sun, the moon, and the stars? And that the first "day" [if it makes sense to call it such] existed even without a sky? Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings, by using an historical narrative which did not literally happen. (Origen's "De Principiis" 4.1.6)

Well, he couldn't have explained himself clearer in his utter rejection of any literal understanding of not just the Days of Creation, but the Adam and Eve story too. For him, the whole story should be read solely for their deeper meanings and symbolism.

What about the man mostly acknowledged as the Father of Western Christianity? What did Augustine have to say? Actually this issue concerned him quite a lot and wrote much on the subject, including in his Confessions, The City of God and the Literal Meaning of Genesis

The gist of his thinking is that, just as with Clement, he believed that God brought everything into existence instantaneously and that the Days of Creation are just a commentary on this, to be examined allegorically. He also believed in a concept of evolution, with God allowing part of His creation to develop and evolve independently but always under His control.

So what was the effect of this thinking? We will have a closer look next week.

Steve Maltz
February 2014

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again

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