Ham-Handed Hermeneutics 2: Reading the Church Fathers II: Theophilus of Antioch (Bishop of Antioch ca. 169-181 AD)

Answers in Genesis (AiG) are consistent in a few things. For instance, they are consistent in their assertions that every geological and archaeological discovery that seems to suggest an old earth can be explained by a global flood. Second, they are consistent in their general inconsistency. (In a future post, I will write about the inconsistency of Ken Ham and AiG with respect to adopting a “biblical scientific worldview”.)

Related Posts & Pages: Ham-Handed Hermeneutics 1: OrigenHeresy of HamHow to Teach Genesis 1Why Seven Days?Cosby’s “Interpreting Biblical Literature”How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth

ken-ham-dinosaur-getty-creation-museumOn the one hand, they decry those who appeal to “the traditions of men” whenever those traditions seem to contradict their raison d’etre. Yet, on the other hand, they are quite prepared to appeal to those same traditions when it suits their purposes.

Now, Answers in Genesis aren’t alone in this inconsistent practice. For instance, Baptists (and I am one) have “traditionally” emphasized the Bible alone and resisted Creeds. Yet, how many Baptist congregations, conventions, and schools have produced a “statement of faith”. Most of these statements of faith follow the creeds but then add distinctive features usually about the inerrancy of Scripture, age of the earth, or particular ways of reading Revelation.

In this series, I want to be consistent and honest. That is, I will not simply cite those Church Fathers who like Origen did not hold to a young earth position. After all, the point here is not to argue that no one ever held a position similar to the one held by Ken Ham and AiG. The point is to demonstrate that there was not a consistent position on the age of the earth in the Church Fathers. Nor, unlike essential Christian doctrines, was one’s opinion about the age of the cosmos ever made to be a test of orthodoxy. The Catholic Church for instance is remarkably open on this topic even though the past few popes have been convinced by the evidence for evolution. In line with the Catechism one helpful site states,

Catholics are at liberty to believe that creation took a few days or a much longer period, according to how they see the evidence, and subject to any future judgment of the Church (Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis 36–37). They need not be hostile to modern cosmology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “[M]any scientific studies . . . have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life forms, and the appearance of man. These studies invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator” (CCC 283). Still, science has its limits (CCC 284, 2293–4). — www.catholic.com

On this site, they helpfully list a number of relevant quotations from the Church Fathers. The following are from Theophilus of Antioch Bishop of Antioch ca 169 to ca 181 AD.st_theophilus

“On the fourth day the luminaries came into existence. Since God has foreknowledge, he understood the nonsense of the foolish philosophers who were going to say that the things produced on earth come from the stars, so that they might set God aside. In order therefore that the truth might be demonstrated, plants and seeds came into existence before the stars. For what comes into existence later cannot cause what is prior to it” (To Autolycus 2:15 [A.D. 181]).

In this passage, Theophilus’s argument is similar in approach to that of Ken Ham and the folks at AiG. That is, as Ken Ham and his followers see God precluding and confounding the “foolish” evolutionary theorists by telling us everything was made according to its “kind” and in six 24 hour periods, so Theophilus sees God as preemptively refuting philosophical theories that find causation in the heavenly bodies to the exclusion of the Creator.

Yet, are we to accept Theophilus position as it stands just because it points to God as the first efficient cause? That is, should I reject what I now know of photosynthesis our daily dependence on the sun because Genesis 1 has the plants created before the sun? Or should I, like Theophilus (and Aquinas), see the main point of Genesis 1 to be that the God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob is the first efficient cause. In the ANE, the gods (associated with the heavenly bodies) were believed to be the active agents. So, in a way, I see Theophilus’s argument as a legitimate application of the text even if his knowledge of the biology, physics, geology, etc. is now known to be incorrect.

If Ken Ham and AiG restricted their position to arguing with the likes of Richard Dawkins that God is the ultimate cause of all things, they would be on solid ground. Yet, they go further and vilify fellow Christians who are not convinced by their interpretation of Scripture or their assertions about the age of the earth.

So, with Theophilus, I would be quite at home saying to an evolutionary biologist, “Well done. You have ‘splendidly enriched our knowledge of’ the material cause of species and of human beings.” I can still say this and declare that God is the first efficient cause. Contra Dawkins et al., there is no logical contradiction here. Contra Ham, there is no theological contradiction here.

“All the years from the creation of the world [toTheophilus’ day] amount to a total of 5,698 years and the odd months and days. . . . [I]f even a chronological error has been committed by us, for example, of 50 or 100 or even 200 years, yet [there have] not [been] the thousands and tens of thousands, as Plato and Apollonius and other mendacious authors have hitherto written. And perhaps our knowledge of the whole number of the years is not quite accurate, because the odd months and days are not set down in the sacred books” (ibid., 3:28–29).

Here, we see that Theophilus, well before Bishop James Ussher in the 17th century, seeks to calculate the age of the earth by adding the dates in the Bible together. So, again we have a similar interpretive approach to the numbers in Scripture as that taken by Ken Ham and AiG.

However, just as I think there are problems with Origen’s interpretive practices, I also think there are problems with Theophilus’s interpretation. Modern discoveries have shed light on narrative practices in the ancient world that open our eyes to both the similarities and distinctives of Israelite story telling. Most biblical scholars whether conservative or liberal, whether Christian or openly antagonistic toward Christianity, would suggest that at best we can date Abraham and the patriarchs but that Genesis 1-11 has the hallmarks of a different genre which resists such a simple calculation. It is more akin to the use of numbers in Revelation than the numbers in Kings.

Yet, let me reiterate the main point of this series of investigations into the Church Fathers. There was no consensus on how one interpreted Genesis 1 with respect to the age of the earth. Nor was it ever a test of orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, while there was no consensus on the age of the earth, there was certainly consensus that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was the Creator God however old or young the cosmos was presumed to be. As evangelical biblical scholar Bruce Waltke notes in his commentary and Old Testament Theology, Genesis 1 is concerned with the ultimate origins of things not the proximate origins.

In practice, and despite protests to the contrary, Ken Ham and AiG have made their interpretation of Genesis 1 and belief in a young earth a test of Christian orthodoxy. Even if they use the euphemistic phrase “compromised Christian” for those who are not convinced by their assertions.

Recommended: Watch Conor Cunningham’s BBC Documentary Did Darwin Kill God? 


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