Before diving into more recent theological history, I would like to amend my previous post, with the fact that at least three other early church fathers echoed the views of Philo and Augustine: Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-216) and Origen (c. 185-254) (Contra Celsus 6.60).
Although Biblical scholars have grappled with OT history for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1650s when James Ussher (1581-1656) John Lightfoot (1602-1675) separately calculated the day of creation to 23 October 4004 BC and August 26 3929 BC, respectively. In order to calculate these dates was a massive feat in literary and Biblical scholarship requiring a thorough knowledge of the texts, history, and ancient languages. The Protestant Reformation saw the rise of a more Biblical, and consequently more literal, hermeneutic, which paved the way for a more literal interpretation of Genesis and a six-day creation. 100 years later, Biblical scholarship on OT chronology (that is, Ussher & Lightfoot) was reflecting this interpretational shift.
Whereas early Churh Fathers and Christian theologians have defended an allegorical interpretation of Genesis into the distant past, it is only over the past four-hundred years that the literal interpretation has begun to gain a foot-hold in main-stream Christian theology. A second impetus for the young-earth/literal view was the rise of Darwinianism beginning in 1859 when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his On the Origin of Species. As I mentioned several months ago in our review of Ben Stein’s movie Expelled, Darwinianism easily leads to an atheistic world-view, because i) it seems to eliminate the need for an explanation of human life and ii) it seems to imply an arbitrary or relative system of morality. Both of these ideas are obviously a threat to Christian theology, so I would suggest (although I am by no means an expert on the history of Christian thought and its developmental patterns) that fundamentalists, fearing the potential implications of evolutionary anthropogeny, have reacted in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis, riding on the tidal wave created by the Biblical emphasis of the Protestant Reformation and the work of Biblical scholars such as Ussher and Lightfoot.
This line of thinking began to blossom in the 20th century. George McCready Price was an early proponent of creation science, well known for his 1923 book, The New Geology. Later Henry Morris and John Whitcomb adapted Price’s theories into their own famous book The Genesis Flood, in 1961. They focus on Noah’s flood in Genesis as a geologically formative period in the history of the world, saying that most of the earth’s current structures were developed at that time. Morris went on to establish the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas, Texas in 1970.
Due to scientists and pseudo-scientist/theologians, these ideas began to permeate the masses of Christendom, particularly among the fundamentalists. Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, this truth is obvious to me, because I don’t really recall being taught anything other than the literal interpretation of Genesis, that God actually created the universe in six days. I was never told that it wasn’t really until the 20th century that this view began to take hold in the Church, and largely as a reaction to Darwinian anthropogeny. I don’t think that I was ever taught about other views because I was intentionally being programmed, but because young-earth creationism had rooted itself so firmly in the Church that the lay-people really weren’t aware of its recent origin or alternative Christian views.
To recap, for the first 15 centuries of Christianity, young-earth creationism was rejected by the leading scholars and theologians, who favored an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. During the Protestant Reformation (16th century), more emphasis was put on the authority of Scripture and literal interpretation. In the 17th century (1650s) Ussher and Lightfoot published their chronologies, which indicated a relatively short history of the world, establishing the point of creation around 4000 BC. In the 19th century, however, young-earth creationism arose as a counter-attack to the mounting threat of Darwinianism, and in the 20th century, Christian theologians and scientists lent more formality to the view, and are responsible for its dissemination throughout the fundamentalist majority as one of, if not the primary view.
Now that we have given some thought to the historical development of interpreting the creation account of Genesis, we are prepared to dive into the text itself and look for interpretive clues, feeling out each view and trying to decide the advantages and disadvantages of taking either one. This is where I will begin in my next post.
-James, the younger brother