It is noted by some that the early church included nothing about the nature of the days of creation in any of her early creeds. This is interpreted to mean that there was no established teaching and that latitude was given to different interpretations. This attitude is based on a deficient recognition of the nature and genesis of the church’s creeds. The earliest creeds were meant as outlines of the faith and their specificity was directly tied to doctrines under attack. The Creed of Nicaea says little about the Father and the Spirit, but much about the Son. Why? Because heretics were attacking the truth about Jesus. The creeds do not mention the nature of the days of creation. Why? Because the issue was never under dispute.
This is not to say that there was necessarily absolute unanimity in the church about the time of creation. It is only to say that a lack of inclusion in creedal statements is more likely to indicate lack of dispute than license to believe multiple things.
Did the early church consider the 6 days of Genesis 1-2 literally or in some figurative/spiritual/allegorical way? Consider the following statements:
The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: “And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.” Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implies that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifies, saying, “Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years” (Psa. 90:4; 2Pe. 3:8). Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And He rested on the seventh day.” This means: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day. (Epistle of Barnabas, II.15)
For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: “Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all His works” (Gen. 2:2). This is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years (2 Pe. 3:8); and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.28.3)
But that we may not leave our subject at this point undemonstrated, we are obliged to discuss the matter of the times, of which a man should not speak hastily, because they are a light to him. For as the times are noted from the foundation of the world, and reckoned from Adam, they set clearly before us the matter with which our inquiry deals. For the first appearance of our Lord in the flesh took place in Bethlehem, under Augustus, in the year 5500; and He suffered in the thirty-third year. And 6,000 years must be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day “on which God rested from all His works.” For the Sabbath is the type and emblem of the future kingdom of the saints, when they “shall reign with Christ,” when He comes from heaven, as John says in his Apocalypse: for “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years” (Psa. 90:4). Since, then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6,000 years must be fulfilled. And they are not yet fulfilled, as John says: “five are fallen; one is,” that is, the sixth; “the other is not yet come” (Rev. 17:10). (Hippolytus, Exegetical Fragments on Daniel, II.4)
For since in six days God made the heaven and the earth, and finished the whole world, and rested on the seventh day from all His works which He had made, and blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (Gen. 2:1), so by a figure in the seventh month, when the fruits of the earth have been gathered in, we are commanded to keep the feast to the Lord, which signifies that, when this world shall be terminated at the seventh thousand years, when God shall have completed the world, He shall rejoice in us (Psa. 104:31). (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, IV.9)
Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodeled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. 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, on which He had rested from His works. But this is the Sabbath-day, which in the language of the Hebrews received its name from the number, whence the seventh is the legitimate and complete number. For there are seven days, by the revolutions of which in order the circles of years are made up; and there are seven stars which do not set, and seven luminaries which are called planets,whose differing and unequal movements are believed to cause the varieties of circumstances and times. (Lactantius, Divine Institutes, VII.14)
To me, as I meditate and consider in my mind concerning the creation of this world in which we are kept enclosed, even such is the rapidity of that creation; as is contained in the book of Moses, which he wrote about its creation, and which is called Genesis. God produced that entire mass for the adornment of His majesty in six days; on the seventh to which He consecrated it . . . with a blessing. For this reason, therefore, because in the septenary number of days both heavenly and earthly things are ordered, in place of the beginning I will consider of this seventh day after the principle of all matters pertaining to the number of seven; and as far as I shall be able, I will endeavor to portray the day of the divine power to that consummation. . . . And in Matthew we read, that it is written Isaiah also and the rest of his colleagues broke the Sabbath (Mat. 12:5) – that that true and just Sabbath should be observed in the seventh millenary of years. Wherefore to those seven days the Lord attributed to each a thousand years; for thus went the warning: “In Thine eyes, O Lord, a thousand years are as one day” (Psa. 90:4). Therefore in the eyes of the Lord each thousand of years is ordained, for I find that the Lord’s eyes are seven (Zec. 4:10). Wherefore, as I have narrated, that true Sabbath will be in the seventh millenary of years, when Christ with His elect shall reign. Moreover, the seven heavens agree with those days; for thus we are warned: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the powers of them by the spirit of His mouth. (Victorinus, On the Creation of the World)
Each of these men believed the world was created in six days. “Days” meaning what it means pretty much everywhere except, according to some, in Genesis chapters one and two: 24 hours. You say, “But wait a minute! All of those guys said the history of the world would be 6,000 years. What kind of exegesis is that!?!”
Indeed, I could provide quotations that do not use such disputable interpretive techniques. But the above quotations only strengthen the assertion that the church understood the days of Genesis 1-2 literally: as six, consecutive, 24-hour periods. Their interpretation was so literal that it carried over to their interpretation of Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8. In the minds of the fathers, Peter is not just waxing poetically on the long-suffering patience of God but is giving a literal time-table for the Lord’s return. The foundation for such an expectation was a literal interpretation of the creation days of Genesis 1-2.
Whether or not the fathers were right in their interpretation of 2 Peter 3:8, they were united in their understanding of Genesis 1-2. The first seven days were just like all those that followed them: 24 hours.