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 (c. 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 always existed. 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.
As such this God reveals himself to men, firstly in his works, in their creation, as well as in their preservation and control. Secondly, and more clearly, in his Word, which was in the beginning revealed through oracles, and which was afterwards committed to writing in the books which we call the Holy Scripture (French Confession, Article 2).
We know Him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book…Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word (Belgic Confession, Article 2).
The theological importance of this dual revelation is that it makes it clear that there is value in studying the natural world and that science is a valuable ally of the Christian faith.5
Finding #3: God Created Everything “in the Space of Six Days”
Aside from these first two findings, there is only one phrase that is significant for our study. In two cases, we find a declaration that God created “in the space of six days” (Irish Articles 18 and Westminster Confession of Faith 4.1). This phrase is at the center of a recent controversy (within the last 20 years), with some Christians claiming it prescribes an exclusive calendar-day (or young-earth) view of the creation timeline in Genesis 1.
In response, both the Westminster Theological Seminary (see here) and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) (see here) decided to study this issue in depth. In both cases, they concluded that the wording “in the space of six days” traces back to reformer John Calvin and was intended to specify that the days of creation must be real (non-instantaneous) periods of time. Over 1,000 years earlier, Augustine had popularized the view that the days of creation were to be understood allegorically and were not actual periods of time. Although Calvin was strongly influenced by Augustine in other areas, he specifically rejected the notion that the days of creation could be instantaneous. At the same time, Calvin’s use of “six days,” rather than a more specific “six natural days,” leaves the length of the creation days unspecified. In fact, the PCA study specifically recognized calendar-day, day-age, framework interpretation, and analogical days as being consistent with Christian orthodoxy.
Based on these creedal statements, there are only two creation-related issues that Christians must unite on: creation ex nihilo and a belief in dual revelation. In contrast, the days of creation are only obliquely mentioned twice while the age of the earth is not even discussed. It is evident that the early church fathers and other prominent leaders did not consider the age of the earth a central or defining issue for believers. This means that we should not divide the church over days of creation or the age of the earth, but work to peacefully resolve these issues through study and dialog. And the best part is that everyone can investigate church creedal statements for himself or herself.
By Dr. John Millam
John Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.
- For example, see The Genesis Debate, ed. David Hagopian (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001) and Coming to Grips with Genesis, ed. Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury (Green Forest, AR: Masters Books, 2008).
- Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 52–62.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 77–89.
- Samples, Without a Doubt, 42–51.
- Ibid., 187–200.
3 thoughts on “Do Christian Creeds Support a Calendar-Day View of Creation?”
God is clearly not limited by time, but that does not mean it is irrelevant to Him. He created time and put us in it. So it must be important to Him. He also limited how we experience it – we can only go one way in time. Furthermore, Scripture clearly teaches that it is God who determines the number of our days, but we are also instructed to number them and use them wisely, whether life is long or short. So time has great relevance, but our perception of it is far different from God’s. As far as creation is concerned, if you believe in dual revelation it is difficult to see how one can accept six 24-h days without totally dismissing the sciences as valid disciplines.
For me the best answer to this it found in scripture.
Psalm 90:4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (NIV)
2 Peter 3:8
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. (NIV)
Both of these verses remind us that God is outside of time as we know it and He is not limited by it. How can He be limited by it – He made time. The point being that whether something took 24 hours of Earth time or 1,000 years of Earth time makes no difference to God because time makes no difference to God. So, those six days can as easily be six million years, or six billion years, or six years. It all took however long it needed to give Him the end result He desired.
Timing, on the other hand, is a different matter. The timing of when something happens in His creation is very important and the scriptures often mention God waiting for the right time for something He has planned to occur.
But what we perceive as the passage of time doesn’t affect God’s work in His creation. He is outside of perceived time.
Thank you for this post. I have tried to make this point to YEC proponents for years. Their response is always, “a straightforward reading is the only kind there should be.” Or another one is “Here is what you said; here is what I want it to mean.”
Both arguments fail for a few reasons. The first is that a straightforward reading must also include the verses you point out, which proves that our understanding is obviously not on par with God’s. The second is that such reading leads to many clear conflicts throughout the Book, even in the very first chapters of Genesis, where the order of creation events differs between the two (e.g. water was upon the Earth before land in the first chapter, and man was on land before water in the second). The third is that somehow the YEC proponents assume that God’s intention was for His word to be read in a straightforward manner. Such interpretation is just as much “what they want it to mean” as an allegorical understanding is “what I want it to mean”, especially since they are reading translations rather than the original texts. The thing is He never said how to interpret it. We are all trying to figure it out based on all the details. I, like you, see time as something we experience that God considers irrelevant.