The doctrine of creation before Westminster and before Darwin

Young-Earth creationists commonly assert that until the 1700s, the almost universal interpretation of Genesis 1 was six consecutive literal 24-hour days about 6000 years ago. They say that the only reason that Christian scholars since then have suggested alternative interpretations was because they have sought to impose science on Scripture.

Justin Taylor, on his Between Two Worlds blog, summarizes an article that appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1999. Taylor’s blog post is How Did the Church Interpret the Days of Creation before Darwin? and the WTJ article is “In the Space of Six Days”: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly.

My summary of the main points of Taylor’s summary is

  1. There were a variety of interpretations of the text down through the centuries before modern geology.
  2. Augustine, Calvin, and Jerome all warned about the difficulty of interpreting Genesis 1.
  3. Interpreters throughout Church history have taken what they knew of science and philosophy into account when they interpreted Genesis 1.
  4. The exact meaning of the days of creation was not nearly as important to sixteenth century Reformed scholars as the fact that creation was an ex nihilo (i.e. creation from nothing) work of the Triune God.
  5. The Puritans at the time of the Westminster Assembly made no serious attempt to dig deeply into Genesis 1.

In other words, the standard YEC interpretation of Genesis 1 has not always been and should not now be considered as a standard of Christian orthodoxy.

Grace and Peace

HT: Glenn (Be Bold, Be Gentle)

5 thoughts on “The doctrine of creation before Westminster and before Darwin

  1. Boz

    Shouldn’t the title be “is How Did the Church Interpret the Days of Creation before Lord Kelvin” ?

    he, afaik, was the first to publish geological calculations for the age of the earth.


  2. geochristian

    Hi Boz, and welcome back.

    Lord Kelvin was actually a bit of a pain in the neck to geologists in the mid to late 1800s, as his calculations indicated that given the rate at which heat is escaping from Earth’s interior, the planet would have been molten only 20 or 30 million years ago. This did not seem sufficient for Darwin’s theory to take the world from muck to man.

    In 1760, Buffon suggested an age for the Earth of about 75000 years, and that value inched up over the upcoming century through the work of the founders of modern geology, such as Smith, Hutton, and Lyell. Kelvin wasn’t the only one working on scientific estimates of the age of the Earth; In 1899 Joly used sodium concentrations in seawater to estimate an upper limit on the age of the Earth of 100,000,000 years (YECs still use this argument to show that Earth cannot be billions of years old).

    Of course, Kelvin was wrong because he didn’t know about radioactivity, which keeps Earth’s interior hot.

    It wasn’t until all of this started to happen that Christian scholars were forced to take a closer look at what the Bible actually says about creation. From a very early date (late 1700s), there were plenty of scholars who said that, as far as the Bible is concerned, it doesn’t matter how old the Earth is. It wasn’t because they somehow were compromising in their Scriptural interpretation. Instead, they looked at “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and saw that the Bible nowhere stated when that event happened.

    One conclusion that I draw from this history is don’t reject Christianity because some people are telling you that you would have to believe Earth is only 6000 years old. There are, of course, two groups of people who believe that the Bible teaches this: the YECs, and the vocal atheists. I guess that is one thing they agree about, but they are both wrong.


  3. Boz

    thanks for that background on the calcualtion of the age of the earth. It is very interesting to see how wrong these very intelligent people were. These days, we laugh at the idea of a 75,000 year old earth!

    I don’t think that it is true that vocal atheists claim that you have to believe the planet is only 6000 years old in order to be a christian.

    Can you provide quotes from prominent vocal atheists making this claim?


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