The word “creationism” has both a broad and a narrow meaning. It can widely apply to any belief that God created all things, or more narrowly to the “young earth” view that God created in six literal days only a few thousand years ago.
Broadly speaking, creationism is simply the view that the ultimate origin of everything is an act of divine creation. In other words, God created everything, even the very elements of matter and energy out of which other things are formed. The whole universe, and everything in it, owes its existence to God. Any view that holds this to be true can, in this sense, be called “creationist.”
However, in today’s common usage, the term “creationism” is rarely understood merely by this broad definition. Unless qualified by some additional term or context, the word is typically seen more narrowly as a shorthand term for “young Earth creationism” (YEC), which is the view not only that God created the universe and everything in it, but also that He did so in the exact order and timeline found in a literal reading of Genesis, i.e., in six literal days (as found in Genesis 1) in a time period only thousands of years ago rather than millions or billions (based primarily on the detailed genealogies from Adam to the patriarchs as related to subsequent biblical chronology).
All Christians are by definition creationists in the former sense, though many are not creationists in the latter sense.
The dictionary definition of the word “creationism” is:
“a doctrine or theory holding that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by God out of nothing and usually in the way described in Genesis.”1
Likewise, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as:
“creationism, the belief that the universe and the various forms of life were created by God out of nothing (ex nihilo).”2
These brief definitions fairly well capture the broad sense of the word, and point to some necessary elements for a position to qualify as creationist in even the widest, most general sense:
Created by God: Creationism asserts a single, personal, divine creator (most often specifically the God of the Bible). Appealing to an impersonal force or law that brought things into existence is not creationism, even if one calls that impersonal principle “god,” nor does “creationism” refer to complex myths involving many gods fashioning or becoming various parts of the universe over time. Creationism demands a creator; a single, ultimate, personal divine being that made everything else. And again, the term almost always specifically means the claim that this creator is the God of the Bible.
From Nothing: It is also important to note that, while “create” can sometimes merely mean to invent or to form from pre-existing material, creationism means that God created even the material itself, i.e., creation “out of nothing.” On creationism, only God Himself is self-existent and eternal. God thus brought the very elements of matter and energy into existence from nothing. Even the most fundamental materials from which everything else in the universe is formed once did not exist and God brought it into existence. The creative act of God is the ultimate source of all existence outside Himself. Only God is uncreated. Everything else is His creation.
Thus, many views (both secular and religious) are not creationist views. Still, within this broad, technical sense of the word, various views qualify as “creationist”.
Common Forms of (Broad) Creationism
Within this wider definition of “creationism,” a number of common camps exist:
Young Earth Creationism: This is the view most often associated with the term “creationism,” so much so that sometimes referring to any other view as “creationism” leads to confusion. This is the view that the biblical God created the universe and everything in it in exactly the way described by a literal reading of Genesis, especially chapters 1 and 2 that most directly focus on God’s act of creation (though the rest of Genesis is also vital to building the young-earth timeline, as are other parts of the Old Testament). It involves the claim that God created everything in six literal, 24-hour days only a few thousand years ago (most often six thousand years, though some YECs defend numbers closer to eight or ten thousand and others are more flexible on the precise number and defend only the general position that the age must be in the thousands rather than millions or billions of years.)
Old Earth Creationism: In obvious contrast to YEC, the term “Old Earth Creationism” refers to the view that God is, indeed, the creator of the universe but that He did so much longer ago than YEC implies. Most Old Earth Creationists accept the modern mainstream view that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old and that the earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Old Earth Creationists generally believe that YECs are misreading Genesis and that, in the orignal ancient Israelite context, the language actually would not have implied the strictly literal timeline on which YEC insists. Some Old Earth Creationists claim that the Bible actually asserts a very ancient earth while others argue that the Bible is silent on the subject and therefore can fit with whatever scientists determine the age of the earth to be.
Progressive Creationism: A form of Old Earth Creationism, progressive creationism specifically asserts that, over the eons of Earth’s existence, God periodically created different forms of life at different times. Thus, progressive creationism rejects Darwinian evolution and “common descent” as an explanation for the various distinct “kinds” of plants and animals, insisting instead that God created the basic categories of creatures independently at different times throughout earth’s history in distinct creation events. This view often interprets the language of six days in Genesis 1 as figurative language for six very long but distinct periods of God’s creative activity.
Evolutionary Creationism: This term is the most controversial on this list because many both within this camp and among its critics are uncomfortable calling it “creationism” at all. The term is championed primarily by the organization “BioLogos” as an alternative to the term “theistic evolution.” This position argues that God really did create the universe and is the ultimate cause of everything that exists, and thus it is technically a form of creationism in the broadest sense of the word. Yet, its proponents claim that God, having brought matter into existence and being the one who actively upholds the laws of nature in His creation, chose to use the process of Darwinian evolution as the means by which He formed plants, animals, humans, and other living things. Since “creationism” is almost always used in contrast to Darwinian evolution, the term “evolutionary creationism” tends to create more confusion than it solves, thus CARM writers will tend to use the more widely accepted and less controversial term “theistic evolution.” Still, it is worth knowing that the term “evolutionary creationism” exists since some prominent scholars use it and one may come across it in books and articles on this topic.
Young Earth Creationism
Having said all of this, when most people use the term “creationism” without any qualifiers like “Old Earth” or “Progressive,” they typically don’t mean the general view that God created the universe but rather the specific view that God created in the precisely the way described on a very literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. In other words, they typically have YEC in mind. Therefore, if we are to meaningfully answer the question “what is creationism,” it is worth briefly noting the essentials of the Young Earth Creationist position. Some of the points listed below are not exclusive to the YEC position, but all of them are essential to the YEC paradigm.
Biblical Primacy: The YEC position begins with the idea that the Bible should be our starting point on all matters to which it speaks. All other evidence should be interpreted through the lens of God’s perfect word. Since YEC believe that the Bible does speak clearly enough on the question of when God created the world, YEC Christians believe that we should accept a young earth prior to and apart from scientific investigation based on the testimony of God’s word, and should interpret what we observe during scientific inquiry through the lens of the pre-established biblical truth. (Most Christians who are not YEC would principally agree with the logic of this but would disagree with the YEC conclusion that the Bible clearly indicates a young earth)
Literal, 24-hour days in Genesis 1: Perhaps the definitive claim that leads to the Young Earth conclusion is that Genesis 1 is describing literal, 24-hour days. This claim is derived from apparent temporal indicators in the text, such as tying each of the creation days to a cycle of “evening and morning,” the way this passage is used in Exodus 20:11 seems to treat the creation days as literal, 24-hour days in establishing the weekly Sabbath, the claim that (in the grammatical context of Genesis 1), the Hebrew word specifically indicates a literal day, and other such arguments.
Literal, World-Wide Flood in Genesis 6-9: Also central to the YEC claim about the age of the earth is their equally literal reading of the catastrophic, worldwide nature of the flood in Noah’s day. The flood passages do not directly speak to the earth’s age, but YEC scholars point out that such a cataclysmic global event as Noah’s flood would have resulted in many sedimentary layers and the burial and fossilization of numerous plants and animals (among other geological and topographic features). Thus, the YEC position holds that, if the historical reality of the flood is taken into consideration, much of the evidence in geology and paleontology often used to argue for an ancient earth is, in fact, explained by the flood (and subsequent but related post-flood events).
Creation Marred by Sin After the Fall: Finally, another vital component of the YEC worldview (though also shared by many non-YEC Christians) is that creation was significantly affected by the fall. This is central to YEC in two important ways. One, it provides an explanation for why some aspects of the created world seem cruel, calloused, ugly, or just “poorly designed.” The world today (and for most of its history) is not in the perfect condition in which God created it, but rather bears the many marks of the curse of sin. Thus, we should expect to see brilliant design and also brokenness, pain, suffering, death, and degeneration, which is exactly what we do see, (thus far, most Christians would agree, whether they are YEC or not.) But YECs take this argument a step further and argue that we should not see such marks of the fall before the fall. Thus, since the fossil record is filled with disease, death, thorns, and arguably broken designs, and the geological record is filled with evidence of deadly natural disasters of every kind, YEC Christians argue that all of this evidence must be far more recent than either secular or Old Earth Creationist models allow.
When most people use the term “creationist,” the Young earth view is the particular perspective they have in mind, and that is indeed the view of millions of Christians, but not of many others. Still, in the broader sense of the word, all Christians are creationists. It is a central tenet of Christianity that the one, true, eternal, self-existent God brought everything into being out of nothing. The triune God of Scripture is the creator of the universe and all that is in it, and that fundamental truth that all Christians share makes us all creationists of a sort.
1↑ https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/creationism (Accessed 07/21/2022)