Hasn’t the church always read the creation account in Genesis 1 as a straightfoward narrative? Haven’t Christians always believed that the earth is relatively young and that the creation days were twenty-four hour days? How do I just up and think I can read this text anyway I want to? Where has the Holy Spirit been all these years?
The Clarity of Scripture
Often, when I walk people through the interpretation of Genesis 1 that I advocate in this series of articles (see especially this article), I find people often react in a couple of ways. Some say, “I’ve never heard of reading Genesis 1 like that before!” and others say, “I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to read Genesis 1 like that!” Naturally, these questions make them skeptical of my explanation and, frankly, they should.
One thing that sets evangelicalism apart from other brands of Christianity is a high view of Scripture. Evangelicals hold strongly to the authority, necessity, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture. In this article I’m addressing issues that especially pertain to the clarity of Scripture which the Westminster Confession describes like this:
…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 Paragraph VII
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is important because as evangelicals we believe God communicates in a way that everyone can understand. No one needs secret knowledge or special access to God to be able to understand the essentials of salvation. We also believe that the Holy Spirit is present and active in God’s church, guiding us in the truth (John 16:12–15).
When people hear an interpretation of Scripture that seems, at first glance, far-fetched and new, then suspicion is exactly the response they should have. That is the right and good response of God’s people. And so if I’m going to advocate a reading of Genesis 1 that raises those suspicions I better have a very good explanation. The burden is on me to explain why those suspicions are unfounded.
Parsing out the Issues
To address these suspicions I’m going to look at three specific issues raised by my reading of Genesis 1 and try to show that
- the interpretation I advocate is not new and/or
- the interpretation I advocate is new but the particular issue facing the church is new and it wasn’t until the issue was raised that we needed to take a closer look. When we did take a closer look we found good reason to believe the text says something different than we had always thought.
The three specific issues I’ll be looking at are:
- Hasn’t the church always understood the days to be twenty-four hour days?
- Hasn’t the church always believed in a young earth?
- Hasn’t the so-called forming and filling interpretation I advocate been thought up in just the last one hundred years as a reaction to evolution?
Looking to Augustine
Augustine (354–430 AD) is a key figure for reading Genesis 1–2 because his interpretation of the creation account in Genesis came to be the standard view right through to the Reformation. Anyone talking about creation up to the seventeenth century had to take Augustine into account (actually, we’re still doing it). A great source for this history is Andrew J. Brown’s book The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3.
In fact, what makes Augustine especially interesting for us is not just his teaching on creation, but his conversion story.
Augustine began his quest for wisdom when he was nineteen years old and it lasted for more than ten years before he converted to Christianity. For most of that time he sympathized with Manichaeism, a religion founded just a hundred years earlier by a Persian named Mani. It was the main rival to Christianity right up to the emergence of Islam in the sixth century. Manichaeism taught a dualistic cosmology. The good, spiritual realm struggled for dominance with the evil, material realm. For Augustine, Manichaeism had a more credible explanation of creation than the biblical explanation.
And yet, in his quest for wisdom Augustine began to compare the “old philosophers” to the teachings of the Manichaeans and found the philosophers more convincing (you can find this in Book V of his Confessions). Though the philosophers could not understand the maker of creation, they had an uncanny ability to predict, many years in advance, the eclipses of the sun and moon down to the day and hour they were to occur and they even wrote down the rules by which they made these calculations. Augustine had studied the philosophers on these points quite extensively and had tested their calculations and observances and found them to be undeniably accurate. But when he compared the teaching of Mani on these same subjects, he found that Mani contradicted the philosophers.
But yet who bade that [Mani] write on these things also, skill in which was no element of piety?…these things, since, knowing not, he most impudently dared to teach, he plainly could have no knowledge of piety.The Confessions of Augustine, Book V in Pusey’s translation
What Augustine is saying here is that Mani didn’t have to mention these philosophical-scientific issues at all, and yet he did. Mani’s lack of knowledge caused him to speak falsely and exposed his lack of piety. Why lack of piety? Because he made his religion speak falsely on matters that were settled by the philosophy of the day. His false teaching in this regard reflected badly on his religious teaching.
Shortly after finding fault with Manichaean teaching, Augustine moved to Milan to take up a post as a rhetorician. He loved to listen to those who could speak well and in Milan he became a fan of Bishop Ambrose. Ambrose not only spoke well, but was knowledgeable and humble.
This was another key moment for Augustine. He had been turned off to the teaching of the Manichaeans and now Ambrose, through his figural reading of the Bible, helped Augustine see that Scripture was not actually in conflict with his understanding of the world (science) as gained from the philosophers. Augustine then began to study Christianity more closely as a catechumen and in a few years he converted fully to Christianity.
Just two years or so after his conversion, Augustine took up the project of writing against the Manichaeans. He wanted to help others see, as he did, that the Bible has the superior view of the cosmos. To do this he set out to interpret Genesis literally. Why a literal interpretation since it was the figural interpretation that helped Augustine see that the Bible had a better explanation than the Manichees? For Augustine, it was not a matter of figural or literal interpretation—both were important and each played a different role. In the introduction to this work he lays out four kinds of interpretation and notes that
It is a matter of history when deeds done—whether by men or God—are reported.On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book (De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber) 2.5 in On Genesis, 147.
If you want to know what actually happened as described by the history recorded in Scripture then you apply a historical method of interpretation. The problem is, history is only about what happened in the past, not about how it applies to us today. If you want to know how the text applies to us—if you want to understand the theology of the text—then you need to read allegorically.
It is a matter of allegory when things spoken in figures are understood.On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book 2.5 in On Genesis, 147.
So even though the figurative, or allegorical reading helped him see that Scripture was not in conflict with philosophy (or science, since at the time science was not distinguished from philosophy), he still had to deal with the historical, or literal interpretation of Genesis and that’s what he set out to do. This was important for Augustine because, like evangelicals, he was convinced that the Bible, as God’s word, could not err even when it spoke of the physical world (see On Genesis Literally Interpreted 4.21.38).
It’s interesting Augustine found the figural reading to be clear and the historical or literal reading to be much more difficult. At one point he says no true Christian would doubt the need to read Scripture allegorically. Whoops! Today we very much doubt the need to read allegorically. Today we give primacy to the literal meaning even for teaching on theology and we consider most allegorical interpretation problematic.
We can see there are some rather large differences between the venerable Augustine and us, even though there are some important similarities. We’ll try to keep all of these in mind as we look to see how he interprets the length of days and the order of creation in Genesis.
The Length of a Day
When we read Genesis 1 that each of the six days of God’s creative activity ends with “and there was evening, and there was morning, day 1…” then it seems so obvious to us that the text must be referring to twenty-four hour days that we simply cannot believe anyone has ever read it differently. And yet, as a matter of fact, most of the church, for most of its history has not understood the days to be twenty-four hour days.
The early church was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and felt the text must surely be about more than just how and when God created or in what order. The idea that it would have taken an omnipotent and perfect God any length of time at all was also theologically troubling. And then there was the fact that the markers of time were not created until day four, but evening and morning were from the very first. Influenced by passages like Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, the early fathers sometimes looked to the six plus one days of creation more for a periodization of the history of the world. Ireneaus (c. 130–200) is a good example of this common world-week interpretation. He writes,
For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded…For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to end at the six thousandth year.Against Heresies, Book V Chapter 28 Paragraph 3
Among these typological and sometimes metaphysical readings of the text there was also a minority that was more inclined to a literal reading of the Bible. The Antiochene School is the prime example. These fathers, perhaps the most famous being John Chrysostom (347–407), insisted that Genesis 1 be read as a chronological sequence of days. Still, even with their emphasis on the literal meaning of the text, these fathers were not averse to typological readings, as some think, nor were they completely orthodox in their teachings, sometimes even tending toward nontrinitarian heresies (even because of their insistence on literalistic interpretation).
This is where Augustine comes on the scene to defend against the Manichees. He has some clear philosophical-scientific convictions about how the world works and since he himself gave up on Manichaeism because it contradicted his understanding of the physical world, he felt the need to explain how a literal reading of Genesis 1 would not serve as a stumbling block to those considering Christianity.
So how did he interpret the days of creation? As we just saw, Christians at the time had a variety of interpretations. He could have gone with the Antiochenes and their sequential and orderly reading of the text. He didn’t. He spilled a lot of ink trying to understand how there could be evening and morning from God’s perspective. In the end, he concludes it just can’t be.
“This [the thought of God experiencing evening] forces us to believe (Heaven forbit it!) that God was in one particular part of the world which this light would have to leave in order that evening might come to it.”On Genesis Literally Interpreted (De Genesi ad litteram) 1.10.22
This may seem like a strange problem, but it’s a real problem for Augustine and it’s one reason he cannot accept the idea that a creation day is a twenty-four hour period or that it took God any time at all to create. Thus Augustine, following the Jewish thinker Philo and earlier church fathers, concludes that the six plus one days of creation literally mean something else than a twenty-four hour day. As far as Augustine was concerned, God must have created everything instantaneously.
But how can a literal reading be something other than the plain-language, straightforward meaning of the word itself? Augustine explains that it depends on what the author had in mind when using that particular word. For example, in his discussion on what the text means by “dark abyss,” (On Genesis Literally Interpreted 1.1.1, from Gen 1:2) he says we should understand dark abyss metaphorically, meaning that life was formless and empty until it turned toward its creator. Whether or not we agree with his judgment in this particular case, this, in fact, is a good rule. The literal interpretation is what the author intended to communicate and that may very well be a metaphorical meaning. The literalistic reading, on the other hand, flattens everything to the plain-language meaning of words even when the author intends to communicate metaphorically.
Augustine is a key figure in the history of reading Genesis 1. After Augustine, creation as instantaneous became virtually the only reading and it remained the only way the church interpreted the text through most of the Middle Ages and was the dominant reading right up to the Reformation. It’s only with the Reformation that interpreters switch to the literalistic, plain-language, twenty-four hour sense of day.
At this point we might have some arguments with Augustine about his methodology and even his motives for reading the way he read. Clearly, he was trying to avoid philosophical-scientific problems that don’t encumber us today. But for now, the point is simply this: the idea that the days of Genesis are not twenty-four hour days may seem odd to us but it was the dominant reading of the church from the very beginning and for most of its history.
If someone wants to argue that the forming and filling interpretation of Genesis 1 that I advocate goes against the way the church has always read the text, then this claim is simply false. My reading is more closely in line with the majority of Christian interpreters.
But do we really want to side with Augustine? Is his method of interpretation the right method? Wasn’t the Reformation shift to literal interpretation a positive move? That is another issue and it’s the issue I try to deal with in the main articles in this series and introduce directly in the previous post.
The Age of the Universe
What about the second question? Hasn’t the church always believed in a young earth?
This question is much easier to answer than the first because while there were different schools of thought regarding the length of a day, it never occurred to anyone that the universe could be older than about 6,000 years. So the question here is not What has the church believed? but Isn’t this a problem for those of us who think the Bible does not teach anything about the age of the universe?
No, this is not a problem. This is not the first time the church assumed Scripture teaches something it does not really teach with regards to the physical world. For a very long time the church held officially to the geocentric model of the solar system. When Galileo suggested that Copernicus might be correct when he tried to point out that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system, he got into a serious conflict with the Catholic Church. He was ordered to abandon his opinions and a formal injunction against him was issued “to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion and from discussing it” (J. L. Heilbron, Galileo, 218). The committee of eleven consultants from the 1616 Roman Inquisition reported:
All have said the stated proposition to be foolish and absurd in Philosophy; and formallyGraney, Christopher M., Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo, 63.
heretical, since it expressly contradicts the sense of sacred scripture in many places, according
to the quality of the words, and according to the common exposition, and understanding,
of the Holy Fathers and the learned Theologians.
The Catholic church only slowly backed off a geocentric teaching. It wasn’t until 1757 that the ban against books teaching the heliocentric view was relaxed and it wasn’t until 1835 that Pope Pius VII allowed the publication of books teaching the heliocentric view. That’s almost three hundred years later than Copernicus first posited the heliocentric model (1543).
Since our scientific understanding of the age of the earth developed much more slowly, it only makes sense that it took us longer to question our interpretation of the biblical text. Nicolas Steno first made a connection between fossils and geologic strata in 1670 but it wasn’t until around 1790 that John Phillips calculated the age of the earth at 96 million years, departing from a young earth view. If we give the church 300 years from 1790 to adjust its view on the age of the earth, then we still have another 70 years left.
Should Science Influence Our Interpretation of Scripture?
This does raise another question. Should we let science influence our interpretation of Scripture? On this point we can learn from both Augustine and the heliocentric debate.
Let’s start with the heliocentric debate. On this point we can all agree that theologians were wrong who claimed the Bible teaches the earth is at the center of the universe. The Bible simply does not teach the geocentric view. This was a mistake and we need to learn from it. But what should we learn? Should every new scientific theory change our interpretation of Scripture? Certainly not, but new discoveries in science might very well cause us to take another look at our interpretation to make sure we haven’t made a mistake. We are not bringing the authority of Scripture into doubt by doing this, we are bringing our interpretations into doubt.
This is the first thing to learn from the heliocentric debate. The church can be wrong in its interpretation of Scripture and this need not bring into doubt the authority of Scripture. It’s not Scripture that’s wrong, it’s us.
In this case, Augustine offers a better example than the Roman Inquisition and its approach to the heliocentric debate. Like Augustine we can have confidence that Scripture, when rightly interpreted, and science, when it rightly understands the physical world, will never be in conflict. Augustine had a lot of confidence in the philosophy and science of his day and he also had perfect confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture. Yes, philosophy and science are very imperfect, but while Scripture is perfect, our interpretations are not. Both scientists and theologians make mistakes. The Bible does not.
I have arrived at a nourishing kernel in that I have learnt that a man is not in any difficulty in making a reply according to his faith which he ought to make to those who try to defame our Holy Scripture. When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture.On Genesis Literally Interpreted 1.21.41
That leads to the second lesson from Augustine. Our interpretations are not perfect and while we can have perfect confidence in Scripture, we should be humble about our interpretations. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Augustine.
To say the right thing is to say what is true and appropriate, not arbitrarily rejecting anything or thoughtlessly affirming anything so long as it is doubtful where the truth lies in the light of the faith and Christian doctrine, but unhesitatingly asserting what can be taught on the basis of the obvious facts of the case or the certain authority of Scripture.On Genesis Literally Interpreted 7.1.1
What is he saying here? In the wider context he’s dealing with a text that he is uncertain how to interpret. Why doesn’t he just take a side? Because he wants to be careful not to make Scripture say something it does not say. In my interpretation of Genesis 1 I’m following Augustine’s advice. I want to affirm what Scripture affirms but remain silent where Scripture is not clear. There seems to be good reason to doubt that Scripture teaches anything at all on the chronology or duration of God’s creation activity. Therefore, I want to follow Augustine’s advice and be very careful not to arbitrarily make the Bible claim something it does not claim.
The next lesson from Augustine is that while theologians should not bend to every whim of science, we should hold science in high regard and go back to take another, careful look at how we have interpreted Scripture. We see this again and again in his dealing with Genesis as he reasons through possible interpretations. If an interpretation conflicts with something philosophy thought to be clear and true, then he rejected that reading and looked for another.
We do need to be cautious, however. Augustine sometimes rejected readings based on philosophy that we no longer hold as true. Sometimes, even what seems perfectly clear in science eventually turns out to be false or at least not quite true. We should not arbitrarily adjust our readings of Scripture to fit the prevailing scientific view.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Augustine in this regard. He was using standard rules of interpretation as he read the text literally and figuratively. Today, however, many of his figurative readings and even his literal readings are doubted or outright rejected because we find fault with those rules of interpretation (hermeneutics). If science drives us back to take another look at biblical teaching we cannot arbitrarily reinterpret the text. We must take care to ensure our interpretation is grounded in solid methodology. Fortunately, I think today we have a much better understanding of methodology and I have been careful to apply proper methodology to my interpretation of Genesis 1.
At the same time, we also need to be humble as we apply “proper” rules of interpretation, especially since we are not in the same place as Augustine in terms of church history. As we saw above, the church was still working through some of these issues so Augustine wasn’t departing from centuries of interpretive tradition. If we really believe the Holy Spirit is at work guiding the church in truth, then we need to take readings very seriously if the church has held them for thousands of years. Still, as we saw from the heliocentric debate, sometimes we need to question even unanimous and long-held theological opinion.
Where then, do we end up on this question? Did the church, until recently, hold to a young earth view of creation? Yes. And yet this issue is properly compared to the heliocentric debate and we need to learn from that failure of the church. We might depart from Augustine’s understanding in this regard but we are not departing from his theology, nor from his respect for the authority of Scripture.
The Form-Filling Reading
This brings us to the third and last question. Isn’t the so-called forming-filling interpretation that I advocate something that was thought up in the last one hundred years as a reaction to evolution?
Here again we turn to Augustine. As Augustine is dealing with the six days of creation and struggling over the meaning of the days, one aspect of the text he finds helpful in understanding that “day” is to be taken metaphorically, is the “perfect” structure of the six creation days. Here Augustine is influenced by Philo (20 BC–50 AD) who was also the source of the earlier fathers’ instantaneous creation interpretation.
Following Philo, Augustine suggests that God creates in six days because six is a perfect number. A perfect number is a number whose divisors (excluding the number itself) all add up to the number. The divisors of 6 are 1, 2, 3 and 6. Not counting 6 itself, the sum of its divisors is 1 + 2 + 3 = 6, the number itself. The next perfect numbers are 28 and 496 (and they go up rapidly from there).
We cannot, therefore, say that the number six is perfect precisely because God perfected all His works in six days, but rather we must say that God perfected His works in six days because six is a perfect number.On Genesis Literally Interpreted 4.5.11
Augustine was led to this conclusion in part because he found a three-part structure of 1 day, 2 days and 3 days for the 6 days of creation. One day, day 1, records the creation of light, which he thinks of as intellectual life in a formless and chaotic state (On Genesis Literally Interpreted 4.14.28). This day belongs by itself. The next 2 days, days 2 and 3, go together because they describe the creation of the universe, both the upper and lower parts. The final three days, days 4 through 6, also go together because they describe the things that fill creation.
This is not the exact same interpretation as the one I present in this series but it is very similar. Augustine does not identify any symmetry outside of a kind of mathematical symmetry that I don’t think is actually the author’s intent. However, the fact that two different approaches find a similarity in the text is an affirmation of that similarity. And by the way, Augustine was not alone in this, earlier interpreters also advocated a similar reading. We can have a lot of confidence in the forming-filling interpretation because various interpreters with various approaches come to the same conclusion.
Here again, our interpretation does not invent anything new but follows a very old tradition of reading the text. It seems new to us only because the Reformation shifted to a literalistic reading. The reading of the Reformers was influenced by the rise of modernism and we remain children of modernism to this day.
So Has Anyone Read Genesis Like This Before?
Now we can turn back to our basic question: Has anyone read Genesis 1 like this before and is that a problem for the forming-filling interpretation? Now we can answer this question more deeply because the question should be more than just: Is this the exact interpretation of the church from the beginning? Hopefully I have shown that the question is more complex. The deeper question is: Have we maintained continuity with the teachings and concerns of faithful interpreters over the history of interpretation?
I think the answer is a clear and resounding: Yes!
There may be some discontinuity in the specifics of our interpretation or even in our methodology, but there should be continuity in our concern for the authority and clarity of Scripture, continuity in the church’s basic theological teaching and continuity in some of the basic observations from the text.
Here I’ve tried to show that there is above all continuity with the proper concerns of the church (as represented here by Augustine) to uphold the authority of Scripture and to humbly seek the meaning the original author wanted to convey. There has also been continuity in our effort to take seriously the scientific evidence that contradicts our interpretation of Scripture. That does and should send us back to the text to see if our interpretation truly reflects the original intent of the author. We do not want to make a mockery of God and his Word by making Scripture say something it does not say. On this point we especially want to learn from the mistake of the church with regard to the heliocentric debate.
We are also concerned, to the best of our current understanding, to apply proper hermeneutical methods (rules of interpretation). We share this general concern with Augustine while we also recognize discontinuity in the specifics. Early church fathers had a multi-tiered interpretive approach that we find problematic today. We now put more emphasis on the worldview background of the original authors and audience plus we have a greater appreciation for the impact of genre and other literary conventions. I very briefly opened up some of these methodological issues in the previous post.
But this last statement raises our next and last question for this series, The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum. Most people who read the text today think it’s nearly impossible for a normal person to arrive at this interpretation. You have to study the archaeology and literature of the ancient Near East. That also seems counter to our evangelical (and biblical) conviction that Scripture is clear. I’ll discuss that and the paradox of perspicuity in the next and final article.
Thanks for Reading!
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Other Posts in this Series
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can the Creation Account in Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Has Anyone Ever Read Genesis 1 Like this Before?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?
David Duff says
Eagerly anticipating the final installment! Thanks for your insights. I just finished Confessions a few days ago, and now this article. One of my own confessions was that I had trouble understanding the later books/chapters in which he dealt with Genesis 1. It seemed as if he were spending a lot of time on seemingly small issues. One of my favorite lines from Book XII: . Behold, O Lord my God, how much we have written upon a few words, how much I beseech Thee! What strength of ours, yea what ages would suffice for all Thy books in this manner?