A very clever criticism being offered lately against creationist arguments is that young-earth-creationism (YEC) is a relatively modern invention. That is, never before in Church history has there been such an emphasis or hyper-literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. When I first began to encounter this argument, I must admit I was a little taken aback. It was not so much that I thought the argument had substance but rather that I was unsure how anyone could have such an opinion. I quickly realized that this argument is really nothing more than clever spin.
When we read through the writings of the early Church fathers, there is little doubt that the overwhelming majority of them accepted the creation account in Genesis as a historical fact. Only a very small handful looked at Genesis as anything but non-literal. One notable exception to the literal understanding of Genesis was Augustine who is no doubt one of the most cited example offered by modern proponents of this argument. What they fail to mention, though, is that Augustine believed in an instantaneous creation – certainly not a billions years long one.
Curiously absent from the writings of the Church fathers are long, expository apologies defending a literal Genesis. In most references to creation, even in lengthy discussions of the creation, the author already assumes the account is historical. He doesn't spend time explaining why he believes the account is literal. The critics then ask why groups like Answers in Genesis (AiG) seem to focus their entire ministry on promoting a literal Genesis when none of the Church fathers have done the same? There are certain Churches that overemphasize certain parts of the Bible (like Revelation or passages discussing demons) and this seems to become the entire focus of their ministry. Some Churches see a demon behind every corner and every sickness while other Churches see every headline as a sign of the end times. This behavior is especially prevalent among cults like the Branch Davidians. The implication, then, is that ministries like AiG or people like myself who seem to “overemphasize” a literal creation are exhibiting cult-like behavior. Like I said, this is a very clever argument.
The reality is that, prior to 100 years or so ago, there was never a need for ministries like AiG. A literal 6-day, recent creation had been the default position of the Church for nearly 2,000 years. A lengthy treaty defending a literal understanding of Genesis would have been as unnecessary as defending the position that the sky is blue! It was not until the 19th century, after the writings of Lyell and Darwin, that serious challenges to Genesis started becoming popular. Looking back, I believe the Church handled the new ideas rather poorly. Rather than trust the word of God over the flawed opinions of flawed men, many Christian leaders of that day capitulated without a struggle. Some began to invent new interpretations of Genesis that were “compatible” with the new theories of science. These new interpretations included absurd notions like theistic evolution, the gap theory, the day-age theory, the framework hypothesis, and the simple “Genesis-is-allegory” interpretation. More liberal theologians have even adopted the alarming idea that most of the OT (particularly Genesis 1-11) is merely myth written down by bronze-age shepherds. Even some conservative, evangelical Churches have taken the position that our understanding of origins is not relevant to the message of the Church today.
The effects of early compromise on Genesis has been devastating to the Church. We live in a society today that sees fit to compartmentalize “religion” and the “real world.” To them, the Bible is just a book about God and science tells us about everything else. However, such a position is untenable. Jesus Himself said that if we do not believe His words about earthly things, how can we believe Him about Heavenly things (John 3:12)?
It was in response to the compromises of the 19th & 20th century Churches that Dr. Henry Morris co-authored his ground-breaking book, The Genesis Flood and ushered in what has become the modern creationist movement. Modern YEC is not an attempt to introduce a new Church doctrine. It seeks to defend centuries old Church doctrine against more modern heresies. It also continues that centuries old tradition of preaching the absolute truth of God to a secular and lost world.