Interpreting the Days of Genesis Allegorically in the Early Church

The view that interpreting the days of Genesis as literal 24 hours days is mistakenly described as the following: traditional, orthodox, literal, and classical. When John Macarthur, Ken Ham, and other noted Young Earth Creationists say such a thing, they err on the issue of Church history. Though the idea that the days of Genesis are literal 24 hour days is common throughout the Church’s history (possibly even dominant especially in the Antiochan school), that does not mean it was the only view. The idea that Genesis has allegorical or figurative days is actually found within early and subsequent Church history. As Jack P. Lewis, professor of Bible at Harding Graduate school of Religion noted “Bible readers have never been of one mind concerning the nature of the days in Genesis.” The claim that viewing the Genesis days as something other than 24 hour days is brought on by evolutionary naturalism and/or compromise is a caricatured statement that shows a slight tinge of ignorance in the study of church history. Despite the rhetoric, there have been many ways to interpret the days of Genesis. The purpose of this blog is to show the relevance of such interpreters who held a different viewpoint on the Genesis days. There is a noted and marked tendency to allegorize the days within the Genesis account early on within the Church’s history.

Before you examine the different voices, there are two observations I’d like to point out. First, the early church fathers are not dealing with modern controversies. They are not answering questions that began to be asked with the advent of modern geology, astronomy, and other fields of scientific study. They can still be relevant though in some sense. Second, under Young Earth Creationist paradigms, an appeal to Church history seems to be an example of an Ad Verecundiam type of argument. If Old Earth Creationists are not allowed to appeal to Science because the Bible is the sole authority on these issues, how can Young Earth Creationists appeal to Church history to ground their ideas? YECs seem to cry foul when science is brought into the conversation with Genesis but have no problem talking about what other authorities (Church history) say about Genesis (as long as they agree with their position). This seems obtuse.

There are not numerous discussions on the days of Genesis within the second century. However, there are voices such as the writer of the Epistle of Barnabus. Discussing the importance of the Sabbath, the writer says:

“If my sons keep the Sabbath, then will I cause my mercy to rest upon them.” (Jer_17:24, Jer_17:25) The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: “And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.” Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, “Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years.” (Psa_90:4; 2Pe_3:8) Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And He rested on the seventh day.” This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day. (Epist, of Barn. 15:3-4)

The writer interprets the days of Genesis as thousands of years not because of the modern advent of scientific knowledge but because of other verses within Scripture. He makes an allegorical interpretation based upon the text without any undue compromise to outside fields of study. The idea that a day is a thousand years became common in early Church history.

Justin Martyr discussing the millennium in Isa. 65:17 to the end of the chapter says

Now we have understood that the expression used among these words, ‘According to the days of the tree shall be the days of my people; the works of their toil shall abound’ obscurely predicts a thousand years.For as Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not 240 complete a thousand years. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, ‘The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ (Psa_90:4; 2Pe_3:8) is connected with this subject. And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place. Just as our Lord also said, ‘They shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but shall be equal to the angels, the children of the God of the resurrection.’ (Luk_20:35) (Dial. 81)

Like Barnabus before him, Justin links how long the creation will last until the end of the world with the days in Genesis (days of the tree). This is an allegorical interpretation of the days.

Continuing in the line of reasoning that the earth would exist for six thousand years because of the days used in the Creation account, Lactantius made similar statements. Discussing the first and last times of the world, he says

Therefore, since all the works of God were completed in six days, the world must continue in its present state through six ages, that is, six thousand years. For the great day of God is limited by a circle of a thousand years, as the prophet shows, who says, (Psa_90:4; see also 2Pe_3:8) “In Thy sight, O Lord, a thousand years are as one day.” And as God laboured during those six days in creating such great works, so His religion and truth must labour during these six thousand years, while wickedness prevails and bears rule. And again, since God, having finished His works, rested the seventh day and blessed it, at the end of the six thousandth year all wickedness must be abolished from the earth, and righteousness reign for a thousand years; and there must be tranquillity and rest from the labours which the world now has long endured. (Div. Inst. 7:14)

Lastly, Irenaeus makes a similar interpretation in Against Heresies 5:283.

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.” (Gen_2:2) 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; (2Pe_3:8) and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.

The allegorical interpretation of Genesis to determine how long the earth would last is common throughout the early church’s history. Hippolytus, Victorinus, Methodius, and others also noted a connection between the days of Genesis, how long the earth would remain, and other scriptures. One wonders why Young Earth Creationists do not typically say the earth will last six thousand years anymore. Maybe it stems from their chronology that we are in the 6,011th year of our supposed, young existence.

Origen noted, like Old Earth Creationists today, the inconsistency of a 24-hour day during the first three days/periods of Genesis. In De Principis Book 4:16, he notes

It was not only, however, with the (Scriptures composed) before the advent (of Christ) that the Spirit thus dealt; but as being the same Spirit, and (proceeding) from the one God, He did the same thing both with the evangelists and the apostles, – as even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur. Nor even do the law and the commandments wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

Origin did not find it to be heretical to interpret Genesis in a nonliteral way. This is way before the advent of modern science and the popularity of the evolutionary theory.

Lastly, the greatest theologian of the Church did not find it wrong or opposed to the text to interpret Genesis and the days figuratively. In his work On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, he writes

 “These seven days of our time, although like the same days of creation in name and in numbering, follow one another in succession and mark off the division of time, but those first six days occurred in a form unfamiliar to us as intrinsic principles within things created” (p. 125). The days of creation “are beyond the experience and knowledge of us mortal earthbound men … we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation but without in any way being really similar to them” (p. 135). Further, “we should not think of those days as solar days…. He made that which gave time its beginning, as He made all things together, disposing them in an order based not on intervals of time but on causal connections” (p. 154).

More information about Augustine’s view can be found here.

This blog should suffice to show that there are varied viewpoints within the early church on the Genesis days that predate the advent of modern science. The charge that Old Earth Creationists are compromising Scripture and interpreting allegorically in light of modern science is false. There is a historical precedent for interpreting Genesis in non-literal ways. Christians involved in the Genesis debate owe each other the respect and Christian charity of thoughtful study.

Bercot, David W.. A dictionary of early Christian beliefs: a reference guide to more than 700 topics discussed by the Early Church Fathers. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.

Collins, John C.. 1994. “How Old Is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3.” Presbyterion 20, no. 2: 109-130. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials

Lewis, Jack P. “The days of creation : an historical survey of interpretation.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32, no. 4 (December 1, 1989): 433-455. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, Allan Menzies, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Ante-Nicene fathers: the writings of the fathers down to A.D. 325. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995.

The Genesis debate: three views on the days of creation. Mission Viejo, Calif.: Crux Press, 2001.

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3 responses to “Interpreting the Days of Genesis Allegorically in the Early Church

  1. Pingback: On Reading Genesis Scientifically | Jared Byas·

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Genesis: Part 1 « Austin's Blog·

  3. Pingback: Fundamentalism vs. Orthodoxy - Christian Chat Rooms & Forums·

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