by Hugh Owen
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8).
Perhaps no verse has been used more often to challenge the patristic understanding of the days of Genesis than 2 Peter 3:8. This is ironic, because St. Peter wrote the passage from which this verse is taken to defend the traditional Catholic (and Hebrew) doctrine of Creation and the Flood. This becomes apparent if one examines the verses immediately preceding 2 Peter 3:8:
Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation." They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and the earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (2 Peter 3:3-7) (emphasis added).
In this remarkable prophecy, St. Peter predicted that "in the latter days"-a future time-"scoffers" would arise who would deny God's supernatural creative action "in the beginning of creation" and at the time of the Noachic Flood, thus casting doubt on His sovereign intervention in the future at the Second Coming of Christ. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, St. Peter foresaw that the scoffers would predicate their denials on the stability of the natural order-on the grounds that "all things have continued as they were" "since the fathers fell asleep."
In modern times this principle became known as "uniformitarianism," or "the present is the key to the past." Just as St. Peter had foretold, "uniformitarianism" became the guiding principle of Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and other naturalistic evolutionists who argued that natural scientists could extrapolate from present-day processes in the order of providence all the way back to the beginning of creation. St. Peter foresaw that to champion their evolutionary theory they would have to "deliberately ignore" the fact of the Flood, and, indeed, Darwin wrote in an unpublished manuscript of 1873: "Lyell is most firmly convinced that he has shaken the faith in the Deluge far more efficiently [in his writings on geology] by never having said a word against the Bible than if he had acted otherwise."
These thinkers flatly contradicted the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers who held, with St. Paul, that "all God's works were finished from the foundation of the world" (Hebrews 4:3)-after the creation of Adam and Eve-and that God created all of the different kinds of creatures, including man, by a supernatural divine action, in six natural days (the majority view) or in an instant (the minority Augustinian view). Indeed, all of the Fathers would have concurred with the fourth century "Apostolic Constitutions" that the Sabbath was observed "on account of Him who ceased from His work of creation, but ceased not from His work of providence." Thus, the farthest thing from St. Peter's mind was to expand the length of the days of creation to allow for a natural development of creatures. Indeed, St. Peter's primary point in the third chapter of his second epistle is that creation-like the Second Coming-is a supernatural divine action which "scoffers" will try to reduce to a natural process.
Moreover, the text contains additional indications that St. Peter is defending a rapid supernatural creation, not a leisurely creation over many thousands or millions of years. In 2 Peter 3:8, St. Peter exhorts his readers to "be not ignorant" "of this one thing," and turns their attention to another passage of Scripture, Psalm 90:4: "For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night." A careful reading of this verse shows that the psalmist is not saying anything about the length of the days of creation. On the contrary, he is contrasting God's eternal perspective with man's limited, temporal perspective. Some early commentators apparently used Psalm 90 to suggest that the days of creation might have been a thousand years long, but St. Augustine refuted this interpretation: "Even if the six first days in which God finished His works seemed to give some plausibility to their opinion"-in other words, that creation took place over six thousand years-"six watches, which amount to eighteen hours, will not consist with that opinion."
Some interpreters have tried to justify using 2 Peter 3:8 to equate the days of Genesis with thousands of years on the grounds that several early Church Fathers related the days of creation to the millennia of human history. But such interpreters have failed to understand the mind of these same Fathers, whose philosophy of history was based on the radical distinction between the days of Genesis-the period of creation-and the epochs of human history-the period of divine providence. St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus, and Lactantius, among others, speculated that there might be a proportion between the days of creation and the eras of human history, precisely because they recognized that the days of creation belonged to a different order of things from the epochs of human history. Hence, Lactantius:
God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day...For there are seven days, by the revolutions of which in order the circles of years are made up...Therefore, since all the works of God were completed in six days, the world must continue in its present state through six ages, that is, six thousand years...For the great day of God is limited by a circle of a thousand years, as the prophet shows, who says, "In Thy sight, O Lord, a thousand years are as one day." ...And as God labored during those six days in creating such great works, so His religion and truth must labor during these six thousand years...(emphasis added). (Institutes 7, 14).
In conclusion, 2 Peter 3:8 reinforces the patristic understanding of Creation and the Flood and provides no basis for lengthening the creation period to allow for any kind of natural development of the original kinds of creatures. Just as God produced all of the different kinds of creatures ex nihilo in six natural days and "rested" in His very good creation, so God would work out His purposes in the order of Providence in human history and "rest" in His elect during what St. Irenaeus in Book V of Against Heresies called "the times of the Kingdom." Tragically, those who "scoff" at the traditional understanding of Creation and the Flood wittingly or unwittingly weaken expectant faith in the Second Coming of Christ, which has always been one of the hallmarks of a vibrant Catholic community.
II Thess. III:V
Thank you for this article, Mr. Owen!
I was reading Genesis 1 recently with some friends–about a month ago, though it seems more like 30 billion years– and I was struck by the account of the fourth day, on which God created the lights in the firmament to “be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.” (Gn. 1:14b) Not having studied Hebrew, I am simply assuming that the word “yom” was used for every instance in which “day” occurs in Genesis 1. And, since there is such a clear distinction between days and years in the account of the fourth day of creation, if God had intended to convey to Adam (and Moses) that long ages had passed while He effected His work of creation, wouldn’t His use of the word for “years” have suited this purpose better than “day” in order to communicate more clearly what He did and meant?
Just a thought.
Pax et bonum,