Tag Archives: Evolution

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 2

Kevin Hester

(Part 1 of this two-part article appeared last Tuesday).

In my last post (or part 1) we examined the philosophical background of the early church that influenced the way in which they examined biblical references to creation. Their responses to Atomism (Naturalism) and Neo-platonism demonstrated how they presented Christian truth from a biblical framework. Though it may not have fit in with the predominant worldviews of the day, we saw that the early Fathers were ever insistent that a good God actively created a good world from nothing, and endowed that world with His purpose and design. This week, we will continue our study by looking more closely at how creation was understood in early Christian creeds and the Fathers’ exegesis of the biblical creation accounts. We will see how closely aligned were the stories of creation and redemption.

Early Christian Creeds

The development of the early Christian creeds did not focus specifically on aspects of creation. However their Trinitarian formulation and reification of the early kerygma do provide an important opportunity for them to engage their culture with truth about God and his relationship with the world.

God is often described as Father. The early Christian authors primarily refer this title to God’s relationship with his only-begotten Son. At the same time, there is a consistent undercurrent of discussion among several fathers of the way that God as the agent of creation is symbolically the “Father” of all that exists. This implies God’s ultimate responsibility as the author of creation and the one who sustains it by his word. In fact, this concept of the Word’s presence in both the creation narrative and in the first chapter of John’s gospel link the role of God as Father and the work of creation in a Trinitarian foundation.

In addition, God is referred to as pantokrator (Almighty). Some believe this is just a basic Greek translation of the concept of El Shaddai or God Almighty from the Hebrew text. While this may be partially true, there is more to it than that. Literally, pantokrator speaks to being lord and ruler of all things. Early on in the Eastern church’s tradition it was a reference to monotheism and God’s existence as the one who rules over all things. They consistently argued in their teaching that God’s rule is based in God’s creation. Because He created the world and is responsible for its continued existence, God has the right to do with it what He wills and to command what He wills.

A later addition to the creedal tradition was incorporated in the Western church and found its way into what we call the Apostle’s Creed. It is the phrase “maker of Heaven and Earth.” J.N.D. Kelly, the foremost authority on the creeds, asserts that this addition was actually a restatement of earlier tradition owing to the shift in the west to Latin and the term “Almighty” moving from pantokrator in the Greek to omnipotens in Latin. While the Latin phrase speaks to God’s capacity for creation, it did not have the same connotation. Therefore, the Western church added this phrase as its common confession that all that exists comes from God as an act of conscious and purposeful (indeed gracious) creation.

The word creatorum (maker) here is also important. It indicates that God “started fresh” in creation (de novo). Other phrases like fundamentum (established) were rejected for a term that indicates that all that God did was new and did not make use of pre-existent matter or some aspect of Godself. The term that was most often used in the Eastern church (teknites) was often used to describe a master craftsman or an artificer. This was specifically used over and against gnostic and platonic ideas to demonstrate God’s active and intentional participation in the creative act.

Understanding of Genesis and the Creation Account

Thus, these creedal formularies capture both in language and doctrine, the formulaic expression of the Christian church seeking to explain God’s work in creation as presented in the biblical text. Over and over again they asserted the following:

  1. God actively created the world from nothing
  2. God is the source of all things and the source for all order and purpose in creation.
  3. God’s redemptive purposes include all aspects of God’s good creation now tainted by sin.

When the early church turned to the actual description of creation in Genesis 1, we see aspects of the culture and these clear teachings often in tension. This tension resulted from different ways of reading the text. Much of their work on the texts was written as an apologetic against the common worldviews of their day. As such, they do not directly answer some of the questions we often ask given the apologetic needs or interests of our day. However, that does not mean that they are silent. There are several things that are worthy to note.

The Days of Genesis

There were two basic methods of exegesis of the Biblical text that were predominant during this time. There was a literal or Antiochene tradition of interpretation and the Alexandrian or allegorical method of interpreting scripture. The Cappadocian fathers, including Basil and other early patristic fathers, seem to understand the “days” of creation as literal days providing a literal description of the mode of God’s creative purposes. While Basil recognizes two creations (a spiritual and a material), it is clear that what he has in view is the creation of the immaterial world (angels, etc.) apart from the material world. His discussion in a number of different homilies on the days of creation clearly shows that time was created with the creation of matter and the world, through the Son.

There were some who viewed the days of Genesis as allegorical in nature, and not representative of God’s actual means (or timing) of creation. Origen is perhaps the best example of this. Origen builds upon Philo Iudaeus’ means of interpreting the Torah after the fashion of Neoplatonic philosophy. Of important note in this regard are the teachings of Augustine. Augustine was sympathetic to this reading. He had for a time been an adherent of Manicheism and parroted its mockery of God’s active engagement with the world and Scripture’s use of anthropomorphisms. Following his conversion, he was hesitant to affirm the days of Genesis as an actual description of God’s work. Instead, he argued that God created all things that existed instantaneously and that Scripture’s purpose in relating creation in days was to describe order and give humanity a pattern of existence.

However, in most instances and with the majority of authors, the days were viewed as literal days of creation. Most commentators were quick to say that it wasn’t as if God needed six days to create, but that he did so as a means of accommodation to humanity.

Length of the Days

There was much greater consistency however in the description of the length of the days. When the days were understood to be literal days they were often described as “evening and morning” as represented in the Biblical text and identified with Jesus’ days/nights in the tomb. While there was often an allegorical or eschatological reading of the days as a description of the ages of creation and the world (identified with Daniel), these eschatological descriptions are all ultimately about the spiritual meaning of the text as distinct from the literal meaning and nothing can be made of them to work the “age” concept back into the creation narrative itself. In fact, even for those who make this connection and for those who are hesitant to embrace the literal understanding of the days, their emphasis is upon an immediate or instantaneous creation.

Ex Nihilo

For all Augustine’s reticence to commit to God’s creation in six literal days, he establishes and furthers the early church’s argument that God creates ex nihilo. God’s creation was a new or “de novo” creation that was identified with the creation of time and this world. God did not make use of pre-existent matter because there was nothing beyond or besides God. This world was tied to God’s purposes in establishing his glory and offering His grace. God alone is the responsible agent for all that exists and His omnipotent character meant that He did not need anything else in order to accomplish His work of creation.

Linear Time and Purpose

Something also deserves to be said about the fact that time is created when God created the world. This concept of time outside of God’s nature, is what allows for development and purpose. The Christian church upended the typical view of time as cyclical in the Greco-Roman world and argued that time should be understood as linear. It had a beginning and would ultimately have an end in God. All that was, and is, lies fully under his superintendence and sovereign, purposeful care.

Conclusion

The early church rightly understood that the question of where the world came from was foundational for building a biblical worldview. It is no different today. Errors in cosmogony lead to catastrophic missteps in understanding God, the world, human existence and purpose, and morality. As such, the early church began with Scripture and with God. So should we.

Scripture clearly presents that God Almighty purposefully created the world and continues to superintend His will upon it. God’s creation of the world ex nihilo means that God is the only self-existent being and that all else owes its existence to Him.

In this world, He placed a human couple with whom he desired a relationship. They would serve as His vice-regents to continue to impose the order He had established at creation. Human failure to rightly recognize this order brought sin that has infected all of God’s good creation. And yet, through the God-man Jesus and through the work of human persons redeemed by Him, God is working to renew and restore the goodness of all His creation.

This is the biblical worldview that fueled the early church’s efforts at evangelism and apologetics. While the questions with which the early church struggled were different from ours, the answers must ultimately be the same. While we struggle with the questions of our own age, let us do it in the same spirit and with the same goal of glorifying the Creator God and drawing fallen humanity to Him.

(This article was adapted from a presentation entitled,  “A Historical Christian View of Creation,” which was presented at the Polis Apologetics Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee on March 2-4, 2019)

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 1

Kevin Hester

Modern evangelicals regularly engage in robust discussions with naturalists and with Christians who promote other, non-literal interpretations of the Genesis account. Many conservative Christians often wonder how creation has been understood throughout Christian history. As a historical theologian who focuses upon the early church, I am often asked about the early church perspective on creation. Many Evangelicals are initially disappointed when I share with them the nature of early Christian views. Most church fathers don’t spend time discussing the literal historicity of the creation account because they simply assume it. Even Augustine, whose complex views on creation have become a recent battleground, demonstrates this essentially literal approach to Genesis when he dates the ages since the creation of man at 6,000 years (City of God, 12.11) and argues for a literal, world-wide flood (City of God, 15).

Still, when the early church fathers did discuss creation, they were answering different questions and responding to different apologetic needs. The questions they were answering tended to be more philosophical than scientific. That does not mean, however, that the early church has nothing to teach us on the topic. If we understand their context, they can show us a way forward by focusing upon the basic principles they developed of a good God actively creating a good world from nothing, and endowing that world with His purpose and design.

If you hope to turn to the early church fathers and their medieval counterparts for specific answers on modern debates related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the nature of the days of the creation narrative as expressed in Genesis, you will be disappointed. However, that is not to say that such perspectives should not or cannot be informed by the teachings and beliefs of the early church. What I will demonstrate is that the early church posited a purposeful, active creation of all that exists ex nihilo (from nothing). And that they developed this reading of the creation story in a context where the predominant views of the universe’s origin ranged from a disinterested passive creation on the one hand (Neo-platonism) and the eternality of matter working through blind causes on the other (Atomism). Further, we will note that Christianity introduces a concept of teleological purpose and systematic expression in creation that lays the foundation for all of modern science. It is because God is a God of order and He created this world for a purpose that science is even possible. Early theologians believed that reflection on the natural world could reveal truth that would lead humans ultimately to God.

The Philosophical Context of the First Century

There were two major views on the origin of the universe (cosmogony) in the ancient world. One of these was Atomism. Atomism is generally identified with Democritus (370 BC), Leucippus (370 BC), and the founder of hedonism, Epicurus (270 BC). Epicurus developed an ethical theory that defined the goal of life as contentment and he believed that fear of the gods prevented many from achieving this end. In order to relieve his hearers of concern related to the gods, he turned to Atomism which posited a purely materialistic perspective on the world. Atomism taught that matter was eternal and all that happened was the result of blind laws working in a cause and effect sequence. Ancient atomism thus shared similar sentiments with modern naturalism. Humans were simply part of a larger mechanism subject to various impersonal forces.

There was a significant revival of Epicurus’ hedonism and atomism in the Roman world just prior to the birth of Christianity in the writings of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (d. 55 BC). While some aspects of evolution were occasionally used to explain humanity and other aspects of the natural world, the primary driver of this system of thought was that this world was composed of eternal material elements, largely self-governed by laws of cause and effect, in an endless cycle of creation and growth, decline, death, and rebirth. The gods, if they existed at all, were simply higher forms of life that should cause no concern for us as we live our lives.

The other major cosmogony in the ancient Roman world was that of a disinterested, passive, and accidental creator God. As the Greco-Roman world moved away from earlier polytheism, they recognized a higher order than the physical world. The believed contra the atomists that reason and moral virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty though reflected in nature must come from a higher source. The best representative of this view is the Greek philosopher Plato (d. c. 350 BC). Plato believed that the physical world composed of matter, subject as it was to mutability and destruction, could only be explained by a greater and higher existence. He therefore asserted that there was a scale of ontological reality that moved from matter on its lowest extreme to rational ideas (forms), and ultimately the Good (God) which was the source of all other existence. For Plato the Good was the ultimate form of existence. This Good or God, was perfect existence having neither beginning nor end, pure actuality. This Good was so transcendent and its essence (ousia) so full that its very existence, its very contemplation of itself, naturally produced lesser existences like the forms, which then naturally and accidentally produced matter and the world.

These concepts would lead to a radical perspective on matter that would plague the church and contribute to a number of early Christian heresies. Plotinus (d. 270 AD), the Roman popularizer of these concepts, would further expand the ideas and add spiritual and mystical components to them dividing the categories into a descending hierarchy including the One, the Nous, the Soul, and matter.

Early Christian Descriptions of Creation

The early church came to understand and define the biblical references to creation against the backdrop of these predominant views. Much of their teaching worked to counteract particular tendencies from these worldviews that the church perceived as problematic.

Over against atomism, the Church taught that the source for the order and structure of creation was dependent upon God’s purposes. They asserted that Scripture taught that matter had a beginning in time and its regularity was part of a pattern established by God. In other words, because God is a rational being, all His works are rational and ordered. At the same time, they understood God’s care in the world to be pervasive. God was transcendent and beyond the material plane in which humanity resided, but from the beginning had purposefully interacted with His creation. God was interested in the world and was working to fulfill His purposes in it.

The early Christian response to the Platonists was somewhat different. Many early Christians adopted a number of platonic and neo-platonic perspectives. Plato and Plotinus had insisted on the existence of one ultimate divine being. Many Christians saw their focus on the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues as higher ideals as a different expression of Christian living. Platonism also underscored the Church’s beliefs about God’s ultimate transcendence, aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and immutability. Many of the categories used by Plato to describe the Good were adopted or recognized as legitimate categories of ultimate ontology and embraced by the Church as appropriate descriptions of God consonant with the Biblical text.

There were, however, very important differences. Primary among them was the insistence that God was a personal God. God’s purposes in redemption mean that God cares and is intensely interested in the world. God engages in the world to sustain it and ultimately to redeem it. God’s activity and purpose were determined before creation and they describe God’s act of creation as purposeful and intended. Rather than Plato’s passive, accidental creation, the Christian church posited that God actively and purposefully created the world with a goal in mind. God desired a relationship with His creatures and is now working to restore a relationship broken by sin.

Another important distinction from platonic perspectives was the recognition that God’s creation was good. Matter, though it was ontologically less than God, was not evil (contra Gnosticism). In fact, God’s creation of matter and the world was a work of divine ennoblement over which God had pronounced His blessing. After creating the world and humanity God himself had declared it “very good.” In fact, even though the world had been impacted by sin, God’s purposes in redemption were not only spiritual but physical in nature. Paul had presented this concept in Romans 8 and the early church referenced the promised restoration of creation in eschatological terms. Ultimate salvation was not spiritual enlightenment in a heavenly realm, but eternal life in a renewed body on a renewed earth in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all good things.

Part two of this article will appear next Tuesday.