Pre-Modern Interpretation of Genesis 1-11


We know from Moses that the world was not in existence before 6,000 years ago… He [Moses] calls ‘a spade a spade,’ i.e., he employs the terms ‘day’ and ‘evening’ without allegory, just as we customarily do… we assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis


In recent years some revisionists have claimed that belief in a young earth and a perspicuous (plain) understanding of Genesis is a new, peculiar, teaching. It is not. Whatever their differences on other matters the great majority of church fathers and Bible-believing Christians have always accepted that Genesis means what it says in teaching a six day creation, a young earth and a global cataclysmic flood.

Modern revisionists such as Hugh Ross teach that most early church leaders believed the days of creation were long periods of time. Mark Van Bebber and Paul Taylor have researched this question and discovered the opposite is true. Church fathers like Theophilus, Basil, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and many more all believed the days of Genesis were literal days. (Taylor & Van Bebber) This remained true in later times. For example, David Hall has documented the complete unanimity of opinion on the literal days of Genesis 1 among scholars involved in the Westminster Confessions. (Hall) St. Augustine is notable not because he believed in long creation days (as often, wrongly, claimed) but just the opposite – he believed creation occurred instantly and not in as long as six normal days! (Hall)

It is true that a few early Christians, influenced by pagan philosophy, did not hold literal views of Genesis. This is because they tended to allegorize all of Scripture. The main example is Origen, whose allegorizing also led him to disagree with Christian doctrines in a range of areas from creation to the doctrines of Hell and salvation itself. He is not exactly the sort of person one wants to claim for support if one wants to be considered an orthodox Christian! Even so, Origen has been too eagerly used by men seeking justification for modern revisions of Genesis:

During the twentieth century Origen has been credited with coining the Gap Theory,(1) the Pre Adamite theory,(2) and the Framework Hypothesis(3) and put forward as a model of how Christians today should interpret Genesis. It is obvious from the contradictory nature of these theories that Origen could not have held all of them at one time. Indeed, he never held any of them… (Bradshaw)

And note that even Origen believed age of the earth was “very much under” 10,000 years old (Origen)! The notion that the days of Genesis were long ages simply does not find support among early Christians. It is a false claim. Until recent times acceptance of a recent creation was overwhelmingly the norm among Christians.

For example, the famous estimate – widely accepted for centuries – of Archbishop Ussher that the world was created in 4004 B.C. was only one of many similar estimations of the age of the earth. Other young earth creationists who published their estimates using similar methodology were scientists like Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, as well as Martin Luther and the renowned Hebrew scholar John Lightfoot.

Likewise, the notion of a “local” flood is absent from pre-modern writings (Taylor), because the Bible could hardly be more clear on this point. Genesis 7 repeatedly uses universal terms like all the high mountains covered in water, all life moving upon the face of the earth, to make clear the global extent of what may properly be called the Cataclysm. (Blievernicht) II Peter 3 states that the “whole world perished” from this overflowing of water. There is no textual evidence from the Bible whatsoever that the Cataclysm was less than global. The revisionist claim that the Cataclysm was local or “tranquil” (try saying “tranquil Cataclysm” with a straight face) is based solely on a desire to accommodate the Bible with a naturalistic, uniformitarian worldview held by the “scoffers” of II Peter 3.

Those who do not accept the Scriptures in their ordinary, common meaning, say that “water” is not water but something else; plants and fishes they interpret as they please; the creation of reptiles and wild beasts they explain in their own way, twisting it from the obvious sense as do the interpreters of dreams — who give whatever meaning they choose to the images seen in sleep. As for me, when I hear the word “grass” I think of grass, and the same with plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal. I take everything in the literal sense, for “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” (Basil)

Therefore let the [pagan] philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed… (Lactantius)

They will not refrain from guffaws when they are informed that but little more than five thousand years have passed since the creation of the universe. (John Calvin)

The words one day are used when day is first instituted, to denote that one day is made up of twenty-four hours. (Thomas Aquinas, in Hall)

Compromising scholars at Christian institutions occasionally admit that Genesis is meant to be interpreted literally. Dr. Pattle Pun writes:

It is apparent that the most straightforward understanding of Genesis, without regard to the hermeneutical considerations suggested by science [sic], is that God created the heavens and the earth in six solar days, that man was created on the sixth day, and that death and chaos entered the world after the fall of Adam and Eve, and that all fossils [I would say ‘most’ – EJB] were the result of the catastrophic deluge that spared only Noah’s family and the animals therewith. (Pun)

St. Augustine – “Of the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World’s Past.”

Let us, then, omit the conjectures of men who know not what they say, when they speak of the nature and origin of the human race. For some hold the same opinion regarding men that they hold regarding the world itself, that they have always been. Thus Apuleius says when he is describing our race, “Individually they are mortal, but collectively, and as a race, they are immortal.” And when they are asked, how, if the human race has always been, they vindicate the truth of their history, which narrates who were the inventors, and what they invented, and who first instituted the liberal studies and the other arts, and who first inhabited this or that region, and this or that island? they reply, that most, if not all lands, were so desolated at intervals by fire and flood, that men were greatly reduced in numbers, and from these, again, the population was restored to its former numbers, and that thus there was at intervals a new beginning made, and though those things which had been interrupted and checked by the severe devastations were only renewed, yet they seemed to be originated then; but that man could not exist at all save as produced by man. But they say what they think, not what they know.

They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed. And, not to spend many words in exposing the baselessness of these documents, in which so many thousands of years are accounted for, nor in proving that their authorities are totally inadequate, let me cite only that letter which Alexander the Great wrote to his mother Olympias, giving her the narrative he had from an Egyptian priest, which he had extracted from their sacred archives, and which gave an account of kingdoms mentioned also by the Greek historians. In this letter of Alexander’s a term of upwards of 5000 years is assigned to the kingdom of Assyria; while in the Greek history only 1300 years are reckoned from the reign of Bel himself, whom both Greek and Egyptian agree in counting the first king of Assyria. Then to the empire of the Persians and Macedonians this Egyptian assigned more than 8000 years, counting to the time of Alexander, to whom he was speaking; while among the Greeks, 485 years are assigned to the Macedonians down to the death of Alexander, and to the Persians 233 years, reckoning to the termination of his conquests. Thus these give a much smaller number of years than the Egyptians; and indeed, though multiplied three times, the Greek chronology would still be shorter. For the Egyptians are said to have formerly reckoned only four months to their year; so that one year, according to the fuller and truer computation now in use among them as well as among ourselves, would comprehend three of their old years. But not even thus, as I said, does the Greek history correspond with the Egyptian in its chronology. And therefore the former must receive the greater credit, because it does not exceed the true account of the duration of the world as it is given by our documents, which are truly sacred. Further, if this letter of Alexander, which has become so famous, differs widely in this matter of chronology from the probable credible account, how much less can we believe these documents which, though full of fabulous and fictitious antiquities, they would fain oppose to the authority of our well-known and divine books, which predicted that the whole world would believe them, and which the whole world accordingly has believed; which proved, too, that it had truly narrated past events by its prediction of future events, which have so exactly come to pass! (Saint Augustine, emphasis mine)

Unbelievers also understand that Genesis means what it says. In my experience they do not respect compromise positions:

Christianity has fought, still fights, and will fight science [sic] to the desperate end over evolution, because evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus’ earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the son of god. Take away the meaning of his death. If Jesus was not the redeemer that died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing. (Bozarth)

Sources & Further Study


Augustine, The City of God, 12:10. (

Basil, in “Genesis means what it says: Basil (AD 329 – 379)”

Blievernicht, Eric J., “Genesis Flood or Cataclysm?,” Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, Volume 10 Number 3, 1996.

Bozarth, G.R., “The Meaning of Evolution”, American Atheist, 20 Sept. 1979, p. 30.

Bradshaw, Robert, Creationism and the Early Church, Appendix 1.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 2:925.

Hall, David, “The Westminster View of Creation Days: A Choice between Non-Ambiguity or Historical Revisionism” (

LactantiusInstitutes Book VII, Ch. 14. (

Martin Luther in Jaroslav Pelikan, editor, “Luther’s Works,” Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1-5, Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), pp. 3, 6.

Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520,” trans. Charles M.         Jacobs, rev. James Atkinson, The Christian in Society, I.

Origen, Against Celsus – Book I, Ch. 19 and 20 (

Pun, P.P.T., Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 39:14, 1987.

Taylor, Ian, personal communication, 9/27/00. See also Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order.

Taylor, Paul and Mark Van BebberCreation and Time: A Report on the Progressive Creationist Book by Hugh Ross (Mesa, AR: Eden Productions, 1994), pp. 93-100. (Also

I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s word becomes corrupt. Because of this we can see what kind of people they become in the universities and what they are like now. Nobody is to blame for this except the pope, the bishops, and the prelates, who are all charged with training young people. The universities only ought to turn out men who are experts in the Holy Scriptures, men who can become bishops and priests, and stand in the front line against heretics, the devil, and all the world. But where do you find that? I greatly fear that the universities, unless they teach the Holy Scriptures diligently and impress them on the young students, are wide gates to hell.

Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate

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