Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1, Part 1
Note: Many people assume that until Darwin came along, devout Christians everywhere read and understood Genesis in the same way. But Dr. Pak points out that some of the most revered figures in Christian history--Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin--offered insightful but distinctive interpretations of the text that are often overlooked today. First presented at a symposium in Raleigh, NC, Dr. Pak's paper is presented here as a three part series.
To say, “I believe in the Church” is to embrace and live into a reality that precedes us, encompasses us, and continues beyond us. Indeed, if we are to truly be the Church in the present, I believe that it is incumbent on us to listen to those who have gone before us, and recognize that our own “here and now” is not the whole of the Christian story. Moreover, paying attention to the voices in the history of the Church can reveal to us our own contemporary blindfolds and assumptions, and might even enable us to approach Scripture with fresh eyes.
As a case in point, over the next three posts I’d like to walk us through a number of what I call “pre-modern” church fathers’ readings of Genesis 1 so that we might hear how Christians have read this text across the last 1600 years. For, while exploring the history of interpretation of any biblical text can teach us several important things, the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1 is a particularly instructive case.
Many, many Christian readers interpreted Genesis 1 during the early, medieval and Reformation eras of the church, but my survey focuses on the accounts given by Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. Every one of these church fathers held to at least two strong, shared assumptions: first and foremost, they all believed Scripture is the inspired Word of God—an infallible revelation given by God to reveal God and God’s truths for the church. I will return to this point later to show that what these readers meant by “infallible” is not necessarily the same as what many modern readers mean today, but the fathers’ firm conviction in the absolute trustworthiness of the biblical text is something contemporary evangelicals have in common with our predecessors in the faith. Secondly, they all asserted that any good reading of Scripture has the ultimate goal of edifying the Church. A faithful reading is performed in, with and for the Church, for the Church’s strengthening and/or repentance.
Beyond these two essential points about the text itself, all five of these church fathers focused upon several shared theological teachings in their readings of Genesis 1:
- First, the world is created. In other words, the world is not eternal; it has a beginning and an end.
- Second, God created the world.
- Third, God created the world from nothing. This is the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.
- Fourth, the Creator is also Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The first three of these beliefs—the world is created, God created the world, and God created the world from nothing—set up a clear distinction between God the Creator and created creatures who depend upon God for their creation—that is, the supreme distinction between Creator and creature. This distinction is necessary to demonstrate that only God is God; there is no other God. There is no room for the world or anything else to claim existence outside of or beyond God. God is the beginning of all existence.
Finally, the church fathers’ agreement that Genesis 1 teaches us about God’s Trinitarian nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gives us a sense of the complete and self-sufficient yet still relational quality of the Creator. In sum, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin agreed that the account of creation in Genesis 1 tells us in some kind of literal way how the world came to exist, but equally that Gen 1 is intended to teach us these key theological truths.
An infinite source of wisdom
One of the key issues debated amongst these early readers of Genesis 1 was a question of methodology: how should one read the text? The pre-modern Church held firmly to the belief of both the divine inspiration of Scripture and Scripture as an infinite source of God’s wisdom, revelation and teaching. This meant that the pre-modern Church believed that there was not just one singular correct meaning of a biblical text, but that there were many possible faithful readings of any given text.
Such an assertion involved the belief that since God is infinite, so also is God’s Word infinite. To assume that there is only one singular correct meaning of Scripture is in essence to “box God in” or offend the absolute sovereignty of God—namely, limiting what God may teach or say through God’s own very Word. Hence, from very early on in the Church’s history, the church held that Scripture has literal and spiritual meanings. The late-2nd / early 3rd-century church father Origen, for one, was a keen proponent of the spiritual reading of Scripture. He maintained that Genesis 1 has both a literal meaning and a spiritual or allegorical meaning. He wrote, “There is certainly no question about the literal meaning, for these things are clearly said to have been created by God,” but then he continued, “but it is also profitable to relate this text in a spiritual sense.”1
The spiritual meaning of the text, according to Origen, is that the creation account is not simply about how the world was created, but it also sets forth the Christian’s journey in faith from infancy to maturity. Or, put another way, the days of creation are an illustration of the ethical journey of Christians toward righteousness. Thus according to Origen, for example, the separation of waters from the dry land (in verse 9) points to the call for the Christian to seek heavenly things rather than earthly things.2 Though they may be literally the creation of the sun, moon and stars, the lights in verse 14’s “Let there be lights” spiritually signify Christ and his Church—Christ who is the “light of the world” and the church who has been called to reflect this light into the world (John 8:12).3 Hence, though Origen affirmed the literal reading of this text as teaching that God created the world, the weight of his focus fell upon reading Genesis 1 as a road map for the Christian’s journey in righteousness towards becoming more Christ-like.
The renowned late 4th/early 5th-century church father Augustine also believed in reading Genesis both literally and spiritually, though he placed more emphasis on the literal reading than did Origen. Augustine commented on Genesis 1 several times, including Against the Manichees and A Literal Interpretation of Genesis. In the both of these accounts, his primary intention was to set forth that the world is created by God out of nothing—hence light vs. dark or good vs. evil cannot be rightly believed to be dualistic entities. In fact, God is the only Supreme Being, and God created everything else out of nothing—not out of God’s self (which leads to pantheism or pan-entheism), nor out of something else existing alongside God (which would lead to dualism or the belief that there are two or more equal entities that can claim to be gods). All of these theological teachings were set forth to deliberately counter the heretical teachings of the Manicheans in Augustine’s day. Hence, one might argue that Augustine’s “literal” reading of Genesis was very much focused upon certain theological teachings of Genesis 1.4
But Augustine did not stop there. He also provided a number of ways in which the literal words of Genesis 1 may point to a spiritual meaning. For example, Augustine writes that the 7 days of creation represent the 7 ages of the world. Moreover, Augustine—much like Origen—also read the 7 days of creation in terms of the Christian’s spiritual journey in faith. Thus, Day 1 is the light of faith, day 2 is a time of learning and discernment; day 3 is the separation of heavenly and earthly things; day 4 is development in spiritual knowledge; day 5 involves good works; day 6 is being made in the image of God to gain mastery over carnal desires, and day 7 is a day of perpetual rest.5
Key theologians of the early church (such as Origen and Augustine, as we’ve discussed) read Scripture with multiple senses and meanings—with a literal sense and multiple spiritual senses. However, not all fully agreed with this methodology. Though most all would certainly hold to multiple senses of Scripture, some readers insisted upon a more profound attention to the literal sense, and the use of the literal sense to help restrain or hold in check the possible spiritual readings. Such 3rd- and 4th-century Church fathers, as St. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and Theodore of Mopsuestia insisted upon a much more restrained literal reading of Genesis 1.6
Yet even those who insist upon a more literal—or more historical—interpretation of Genesis 1 still contended that the primary purpose of any reading was to edify the Church, which entails setting forth the key theological teachings of Genesis 1, rather than focus on the material specifics. Again, such teachings include that the world is created, that God create the world out of nothing, and that the creation account demonstrates the great order and harmony of creation as a testimony of the God’s glory, beauty, and goodness.7
More than one thousand years later, 16th-century Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin strongly argued for a literal reading of Genesis 1 over and against an allegorical one. Luther wrote, “God’s purpose is to teach us not about allegorical creatures and an allegorical world, but about real creatures and a visible world apprehended by the senses.”8 Calvin maintained, “For to my mind this is a certain principle, that what is here treated is the visible form of the world.”9
Yet Luther and Calvin also insisted that the central purpose of Genesis 1 is to set forth the theological teachings that the world is created, that God created the world out of nothing, and that creation demonstrates God’s providence, divine purpose, goodness and benevolence.10 While these historical readers do not all agree on whether Genesis 1 should be read allegorically, what becomes crystal clear is that for all of these interpreters, in one way or another, a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 retains as its focus the theological teachings of the text. In our next installment, we’ll look briefly at some of the difficulties our expositors perceived in Genesis 1 when they did attempt to read it literally.
1. Origen, Homilies on Genesis, 60.
2. Origen, 49, 50.
3. Origen, 53-55.
4. Augustine, Against the Manichees, 57, 58 and Genesi ad litteram, 145-46.
5. Augustine, Against the Manichees, 83-88, 89-90. The seven ages are the following: Day 1 = the infancy of the world that stretched from Adam to Noah; Day 2 = childhood, stretching from Noah to Abraham; Day 3 = adolescence, encompassing the biblical history from Abraham to David; Day 4 = the age of youth, from David to the Babylonian captivity; Day 5 = youth to old age, stretching from the Babylonian Exile to the first advent of Christ; Day 6 = old age, the coming of Christ until the 2nd coming; and Day 7 = on the even and including the 2nd coming of Christ.
6. St. Basil the Great, Hexameron 9.1.
7. Ibid, 7.6, 1.7-9, 1.2-4.
8. LW 1:5.
9. John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, 79.
10. LW 1:3, 4, 10, 18, 36, 39, 47, 49. Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, 70, 89, 80-82, 88.
The daughter of missionaries to South Korea, G. Sujin Pak is Assistant Research Professor of the History of Christianity and Associate Dean for Academic Programs at Duke Divinity school, where she specializes in the history of Christianity in late medieval and early modern Europe and the history of biblical interpretation during the Reformation era. Her teaching focuses on the theology of the Protestant reformers, the Protestant Reformation and the Jews, women and the Reformation, and the history of biblical interpretation. In her research, as well, she gives particular attention to the role of biblical exegesis in the history of Christian-Jewish relations. Her book The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.