Pre-modern Readings of Genesis 1, Part 2
Note: In part 1 of her series, Dr. Pak explored how some of the most prominent Christians in history-- Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin-- understood the opening chapter of Genesis. Here in part 2, she focuses on three concepts that were (and continue to be) particularly challenging for those who are seeking a faithful and accurate understanding of scripture.
Perceived Difficulties in Text
Even for our Church fathers, sticking to a more literal reading of Genesis 1 presented a number of difficulties that needed to be addressed. Rather than give an exhaustive account, I will focus upon only three of these perceived difficulties:
- What is meant by “day” in verse 5, when the sun and moon were not created until verse 14?
- How was there “light” in verse 3, when the sun, moon and stars were not yet created until verse 14?
- What does it mean for humanity to be created in the image of God?
Of course there were many other questions that our interpreters asked of this text, but these are some of the most prominent.
A first perceived difficulty in taking the Genesis account literally was the question of how one should understand the actual days of creation. Were they regular solar days of 24-hours? If so, how, since the sun was not yet created until later in verse 14? Or, is “day” to be understood in some other way? There were some interpreters, such as the 2nd-century theologians Justin Martyr (100-65 CE) and Irenaeus (125?-202 CE) who suggested that “day” might be interpreted in light of 2 Pet 3:8, which states that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day.”1
Origen, on the other hand, argued that certainly the first 3 days of creation—the days before the sun was created—were not literal, solar days, and only the last 3 days could possibly be solar days.2 Moreover, since Origen’s reading of the text emphasized its allegorical meaning more than its literal, he also asserted, “I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally.”3
While some addressed this difficulty by providing a metaphorical reading of “day,” others highlighted a careful reading of the distinct wording of the text to solve the difficulty. The text precisely reads in verse five “one day,” and not “the first day.” From this, theologians such as Augustine reasoned that, in fact, all the days of mentioned in the creation account are this “one day,” not separate days unto themselves. In other words, Augustine contended that the world was created instantaneously in one day and not successively over a period of six days. What is actually going on in the text, then, is that this “one day” is repeated 7 times. Hence, the description of a morning, an evening, and a mid-day were not describing intervals of time per se, but, rather, a certain order to creation.4 Augustine explained that the reason the text presents a 6-day sequence of creation was to accommodate the teaching for those who could not understand simultaneous creation.5
Aquinas, on the other hand, disagreed with Augustine. The world was indeed created in 6 successive days and not in one day repeated seven times.6 Instead of focusing upon what kind of “day” is meant by the text, Aquinas focused upon how a succession of six days emphasizes the order and sequence of creation that was intended by God.
Aquinas demonstrated that there is a noticeably 3-fold division of creation: first, there is the work of creation, in which the heaven and earth—the original matter for all the rest of creation—were created on day one. Next comes the work of distinction, in which the various parts of creation were made distinct from each other: the heavens, the waters, and the earth. Finally, the last three days of creation are the work of adornment, in which the heavens are adorned with heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars) and birds; the waters are adorned with sea creatures, and the land was adorned with plants, animals and humanity.7
Other readers, such as Luther, insisted that “day” is a literal 24-hour day and, against Augustine, that the world was not created instantaneously. Calvin also rejected Augustine’s contentions that the world was created instantaneously and that the 6-day exposition is merely there for our instruction. However, he applied Augustine’s appeal to accommodation in a different way, arguing that it is better to believe that God literally took 6 days to create the world. Of course God could have created the world instantaneously, but God chose to use a literal six days precisely to accommodate God’s works to human capacity, for by doing so God distributed the creation of the world into successive portions in order that humans might more easily reflect upon it and glorify God.8
Light without Sun and Moon
A similar difficulty arises with the question of how God created light in verse 3 when the sun, moon, and stars were not created until verse 14. “What kind of light was this that was first created?” our expositors asked. Augustine responded by asserting that the angels were part of that creation of the heavens in verse 1. These angels, Augustine explained, are the source of light, for “angels were created as sharers in the eternal light.”9
Aquinas wrote that a kind of primitive light was created on that first day that was then adorned on the fourth day with the sun, moon, and stars.10 Similarly, Luther insisted that, “the crude light of the first day was perfected by the addition of new creatures on the 4th day—the sun, moon and stars.”11 Calvin used this mystery as a point of instruction about God’s sovereignty: that God in God’s sovereignty can impart to us light without the sun and moon and stars and that by later assigning light to the sun, moon, and stars God also teaches that all creatures are subject to God’s will and command.12
The imago Dei
A final important issue we’ll look at here concerned the question of what it means for humanity to be created in the image of God. All interpreters agreed that to be created in the image of God indicated that humanity is distinguished in greatness above the rest of creation.
Origen argued that the image of God is first and foremost Christ, and so ultimately, Genesis 1 aims to teach humanity to make progress daily to conform itself to the likeness of Christ.13 Augustine argued that humanity being created in the image of God points to three distinctive qualities of humans: first, part of the image of God is the dominion given to humanity. Second, human reason is the image of God.14 And finally, to be created in the image of God is to bear a Trinitarian image—since the human mind has memory, mind, and will.15
Aquinas also emphasized that humanity created in the image of God refers primarily to the human mind and is a Trinitarian image.16 Luther followed along these lines to argue that to be created in the image of God is to be created in the Trinitarian image of memory, mind and will; however, he emphasized the original righteousness of humanity as central to the imago Dei, rather than simply the mental capacity of humans.17
Calvin, on the other hand, viewed seeing a Trinity in humanity as a fabrication. Similar to Luther, he argued that being created in the image of God pointed to the perfection of the whole human nature that God originally intended in creation, in which the whole person—mind, soul, heart, affections and even the body—were rightly ordered toward God’s intentions.18
In the third post, I’ll add some final observations about how these early interpreters understood the relationship between knowledge from the scriptures and the scientific knowledge of their day.
1. Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4; Irenaeus, Adv Her 5.30.4.
2. Origen, Contra Cel 6.50.
3. Origen, De Princ, 4.1.16.
4. Augustine, Gen ad litt 5.5, 5.2.
5. Augustine, Gen ad litt 4.51-52, 5.5. Quote from Robert Letham, “’In the Space of Six Days’: The days of creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” WTJ 61 (1999): 157.
6. Aquinas, Summa Theo Q74, art 2 & 3.
7. Aquinas, Summa Theo Q70, art 1 and Q74, art 1.
8. LW 1:3, 4, 5, 14. Calvin, Comm on Gen, 78.
9. Augustine, Gen ad litt, 160, 5.12; see Letham, 154-55, 160.
10. Aquinas, Summa Theo Q67, art 4; Q70, art 1. St. Basil, Hexameron 2.7-8, 6.2-3.
11. LW 1:40.
12. Calvin, Comm on Gen, 76, 83.
13. Origen, Hom on Gen, 62-63, 65, 66.
14. Augustine, Against the Mani, 76.
15. Augustine, Gen ad litt, 187-88.
16. Aquinas, Summa Theo Q 93, art 1, 5.
17. LW 1:60.
18. Calvin, Comm on Gen, 93-95.
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.