A Brief History of the Age of the Earth Controversy

(This is part three of a six part blog series that I am doing on the topic of creation, evolution and the age of the earth. This has unfortunately been a highly divisive topic within Christianity and if the topic makes you uncomfortable or you do not think that you can handle a discussion on it, I suggest you skip this series. Click to view Part 1 and Part 2.)

Context around any highly debated issue is very important and helps us to see our current arguments in perspective. Therefore, for this part of my blog series I will be sketching a brief history in regards to the age of the earth debate. Someone might immediately ask “Doesn’t the Bible directly say how old the earth is?” No, it does not. Christians make inferences from Scripture to try to determine how old the earth is, but no text directly states its age. As R.C. Sproul said, “When people ask me how old the earth is, I tell them I don’t know—because I don’t.”1

Starting with the patristic era, some of the church fathers, like Theophilus of Antioch, used II Peter 3:8 (a day is like a thousand years) to interpret the seven days of Genesis as consisting of seven ages each lasting 1000 years. Which led them to date the earth’s creation between 5000 and 5500 BC. Other fathers, such as Clément of Alexandria and Origen, took more of an allegorical approach. Yet, others like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Augustine interpreted the days non-literally.2 In City of God Augustine wrote “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, to determine.”3 This quote alone should cause those who think that Christians only started discussing this topic and questioning a literal day interpretation as a response to Darwinistic evolution to stop in their tracks. The majority of the early church fathers did take a literal Genesis interpretation but there was clearly not a complete consensus. The early chapters of Genesis are God’s beautiful account of His Creation, some aspects are clear, others are not as clear as a first glance might make them seem.

In contrast to the early church, medieval scholars and reformation scholars did not show much interest in the topic, although Calvin and Luther both gave a rough age of less than 6000 years, but they did not attempt a chronological account. In 1650 James Ussher published Annals of the World, where he gave the exact day the earth was created, October 22, 4004 BC. (Impressive right? John Lightfoot even gave the time! 9 AM!) At the time of Ussher’s publication at least 140 other contemporaries gave different dates ranging from roughly 3000 BC to about 6500 BC. Ussher’s date gained popularity as it was written in the margin of many early King James Bibles.4

More significant changes in the debate were brought on by Newtonian physics, which saw a return to theories of eternalism by secular theorists and some members of the church, eternalism is primarily what the patristic fathers were fighting against. Eternalism denies ex-nihilo (out of nothing) creation that the Bible makes clear. The rise of modern geology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to the eventual development of theories estimating an age range between 3 million and 1.5 billion years. Still prior to Darwin’s work many Christians had accepted an ancient cosmos without denying ex-nihilo creation. By 1850 only 50% of American Christians believed in a young earth. Of course the only Christians embracing old earth ideas were liberal right? Not at all. Charles Spurgeon, who is well known for fighting naturalistic thinking, embraced an old earth gap theory and B.B. Warfield, who came up with the term Biblical Inerrancy, accepted theories of old earth and even old humanity. In 1857, Philip Henry Gosse published Omphalos (Latin for “navel”) which presents the “Appearance of Age Argument” that is utilized by nearly all young earth creationists today.

The 1960’s saw two great developments: Big Bang Theory and the resurgence of Young Earth Creationism. Evidences in astronomy and astrophysics caused most scientists to conclude that the universe came into existence 13.7 billion years ago. This general consensus finally came but only after some strong resistance as the evidence resembled a Biblical ex-nihilo creation. At the same time John Wickham and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood, in which they defended a view of the universe being no more than 10,000 years old.6 One of the most persuasive arguments in the book was the Paluxy River Bed pictures that showed footprints of dinosaurs together with human beings. However, these photos have since become seriously doubtful to the point where they were removed in the third edition of The Genesis Flood. This book was monumental in its influence and unfortunately it took a very hard line stance against any other interpretation of the Bible, even those views which strongly fought against naturalism and fought for Biblical Inerrancy, setting the tone of the argument for the next half of the century.7

Clearly this debate is not as cut and dry as many people make it out to be by just assuming that Christians have been in full agreement throughout the history of the church. Although Scripture is always our final authority, I believe it wise to look at a list of Christians who have undeniably contended “earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3) to get some perspective on how a believer’s stance on the age of the earth clearly does not lead them outside of orthodoxy. The following is a list of some Christians who have embraced old earth views, old universe views or both: C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, John Piper, Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon, John Sailhamer, John Collins, B.B. Warfield, R.A. Torrey (co-founder of Moody Bible Institute and editor of The Fundamentals,) Harry Rimmer, William Jennings Bryan (Christian defender during the Scopes Monkey Trial),8 Justin Taylor9, and Bryan Chapell.10 This list is by no means all-inclusive nor should it make a believer lean one way or the other. It is simply to point out that there seems to be pretty strong evidence that a Christian’s stance on the age of the earth is not a determination of their orthodoxy.

For some further thoughts on this subject here is a very short video from Michael Horton where he discusses interpreting Genesis, interpreting science and the issues of “fundamentalism” on both sides. If you’re looking for a little more here’s a good sermon by Gary McQuinn that gives a quick overview of different interpretations but mainly focuses on What Genesis 1 is all About.

Citations:

  1. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/biblical-reasons-to-doubt-the-creation-days-were-24-hour-periods/
  2. 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution, Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 2014), “Question 18: What have been the attempts to determine the age of the earth?,” 180-181
  3. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/biblical-reasons-to-doubt-the-creation-days-were-24-hour-periods/
  4. 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution, Keathley and Rooker, 181-182
  5. Ibid. 182-184
  6. Ibid. 185-188
  7. Controversy of the Ages: Why Christians Should not Divide Over the Age of the Earth, Theodor J. Cabal and Peter J. Rasor II, (Weaver Book Company, Wooster, OH, 2017), “Young Earth Creationism,” 143
  8. 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution, Keathley and Rooker, “Question 20: What are the evidences that the universe is old?”, 201-202
  9. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/biblical-reasons-to-doubt-the-creation-days-were-24-hour-periods/
  10. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/were-adam-and-eve-really-historical-figures/

earth1

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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