Notes from a Sunday School that began on May 25.
Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!
5. The Church Fathers
It is said that the pressure to interpret scripture in a way that is consistent with an old earth arose only when the scientific evidence pointed to an old earth. That is certainly true—when there was no real reason to seek compatibility with an old earth, not many tried to. Said differently, it is certainly true that for much of Christian history Christians believed the earth was thousands, not billions of years old.
However, that is not the same as saying that they taught that the days of Genesis One were normal days and that biblical chronologies could accurately pinpoint the year of creation. And it especially does not mean that they believed it was essential to affirm a “normal day” interpretation. The historic creeds indicate that it was the who and what of creation that was cardinal, not the when or how long.
To turn the argument on its head, if science has only served to obfuscate the obvious interpretation of Genesis, then this should be evident in the teachings of the early church. With no scientific evidence to confuse the issues, the early church fathers should be adamant that Genesis One demands a 144 hour creation time period.
They were not.
5.1 Oops: It seems that on that day, Adam surely did not dieIn two well known passages from Genesis we read:
but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Gen 2:17)
Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died. (Gen 5:5)
At first glance, there is something amiss. It appears that there is a discrepancy. Worse, it seems as if the discrepancy is irreconcilable. God states that on the very day that he ate of the forbidden fruit, on that day and no other, Adam will surely die.
On that day, Adam surely did not stop breathing. On that day, his heart continued to beat without failing. Adam's death sentence was pronounced, but the execution, it would appear, was postponed for close to a millennium. How do we understand this?
I get a lot of comments and challenges regarding several alleged biblical contradictions. Usually they are the same-old same-old "the bible teaches bats are birds,"
11 “You may eat all clean birds. 12 But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, 13 the kite, the falcon of any kind; 14 every raven of any kind; 15 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 16 the little owl and the short-eared owl, the barn owl 17 and the tawny owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18 the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. (Deuteronomy 14:11-18)"the bible teaches pi = 3,"
Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)
"the bible teaches two conflicting creation accounts," etc.
Interestingly, I never get asked the really hard questions—almost always these simple kindergarten challenges. At the root of these sort of questions is a fallacy—the fallacy that the ancients were idiots. That is, there is an assumption that the ancient Hebrews never noticed the obvious and fatal contradiction between Genesis One and Two—that only modern man has sufficient insight. The creation conflict lay undetected for over three millennia—for if it had even been noticed, surely some ancient scribe would have redacted a correction. A holy book with blatant errors is too much of an embarrassment.
It then may seem strange that nobody has ever challenged me with the seeming inconsistency between Gen. 2:17 and Gen 5:5. I think the reason is the apparent discrepancy is just too big. Even unsophisticated bible critics sense that we all must have a solution to this problem at our fingertips.
Actually, we don't. There are several quite different explanations. One, popular with dispensationalists and other biblical liberalists, is that by "surely dying" what God actually meant was that Adam would start the process of dying. Another, the one I favor, is that Adam did indeed die, but that death was far, far more horrible than physical death—it was spiritual death. It was what we have come to call the Fall. It was a radical change more serious than a quiet heart and empty lungs—it left us morally incapable of doing anything pleasing to God, including choosing to follow him. Adam's sentence wasn't commuted—on the contrary it was carried out just as God promised, and it was far worse than we could have imagined.
The doctrine of the Fall, however, was not known to the early church fathers. It took a while for it to be fully worked out, and it was St. Augustine in the fourth century who honed the doctrine through his debate with the heretic Pelagius and formalized it as we know it today.
In the next segment, we shall see the importance of all this for the question of the early church's view on the days of Genesis.