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Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1, Part 3

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October 11, 2012 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Sujin Pak. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1, Part 3

Note: In the first two parts 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 the third post, she adds some final observations about how these early interpreters understood the relationship between Scripture and the scientific knowledge of their day.

The Heart of the Matter

So far in this survey of pre-modern Christian interpretation of the Genesis text, I’ve argued that all of the early interpreters believed Scripture to be the inspired and infallible Word of God, given by God to reveal God and God’s truths for the church; that is, they all believed that any good reading of Scripture will be performed in, with and for the church for the church’s strengthening and/or repentance. But I’ve also argued that Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin all focused upon several shared theological teachings in their readings of Genesis 1, all of which point to the Trinitarian God of the historic creeds as Creator uniquely apart and above all of the created cosmos. For these interpreters, guiding the church towards a right theological relationship to the Father, Son and Spirit is the real aim of Scripture, rather than establishing scientific details of the creation process, about which these church Fathers held various opinions.

Indeed, as to those details, pre-modern Christian readers of Genesis 1 debated about whether this text should be read primarily in its literal sense or in a spiritual sense. Again, they agreed that Scripture is the divine, authoritative Word of God, and that every word in Scripture is there by God’s intention. But belief in a kind of “infallibility” of Scripture did not lead these Christian readers to insist upon the literal sense of the text in terms of its scientific accuracy. In fact, several of our pre-modern readers caution against precisely such an assumption.

For example, at the very start of Aquinas’s explanation of the creation account, he clarified that the insistence that the world was created and that God created the world is a matter of faith and not something that could be sufficiently proven by rational demonstration. He wrote,

By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist … for the will of God cannot be investigated by reason … rather, the divine will is manifested by revelation, upon which faith rests. Hence, that the world began to exist is an object of faith and not a matter of scientific demonstration.1

900 years prior to Aquinas, Augustine himself had already stated that when one undertakes a study of Genesis 1, one does so “not by way of assertion, but by way of inquiry.” The contrast between assertion and inquiry was a classic way of demarcating matters of rational demonstration from matters of faith.2

Martin Luther, as well, remarked that no one has been able to explain everything in Genesis 1 adequately, nor has there been much agreement about its meaning, except to agree that the world has a beginning, that God created the world, and that the world was created out of nothing.3 Thus, he warned Christians to attend to the limits of language:
Therefore, if we want to walk in safety, let us accept what Scripture submits for our reflection and what God wants us to know, and pass over those things not revealed in the Word.4

Calvin directly addressed the question of the relation of Scripture’s authority and infallibility to its scientific accuracy. Specifically, he took issue with the fact that Genesis 1 names the sun and moon as the two great lights. Calvin noted that astronomers in his day already know that the moon is much smaller than Saturn, so is Scripture to be considered wrong here, since it is not scientifically accurate to call the moon one of the great lights?

Calvin contended that Scripture should not be considered wrong nor should one reject the findings of science. Instead, he insisted that Moses’s intention is not to be a scientist; rather, Moses uses what can be seen by the common eye in order to instruct all persons. All persons can see the sun and moon and learn about God’s providence, sovereignty and beneficence towards creation.5


Martin Luther in 1533, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

For these pre-modern Christians, then, Scripture’s authority and infallibility were not staked upon its scientific accuracy; rather, Scripture’s authority and infallibility meant that all Scripture is inspired by God “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Simply put, the authority and infallibility of Scripture meant that all Scripture should edify the church—namely, be useful and build up the church in right teaching and an ethical life.

Indeed, the insistence that Scripture is intended by God to train us in righteousness may be seen at the heart of all of these pre-modern readings in one way or another. When Origen reads Genesis 1 allegorically to illustrate the Christian’s journey from having one’s mind dwell on earthly things to the maturity of placing one’s mind on heavenly things, he precisely envisions a training toward righteousness and conformity to Christ. Likewise, Augustine’s allegorical reading also envisions the days of creation as the Christian’s ethical journey toward fuller righteousness.

Even for those who insist upon a more strictly literal reading of Genesis, such as Aquinas, Luther and Calvin—as well as the literal readings of Origen and Augustine—the primary intention of their interpretations is to proclaim profitable teachings for the church, both for right doctrine and for right ethical living. Such right teachings are that God is the one and only God who created the world, that God created from nothing, that God is a Trinity, and that humankind’s being created in God’s image was a teaching about God’s original intention of righteousness for humanity.

Especially in the accounts of Luther and Calvin, we find the profound insistence that belief in God as Creator and the world as created calls all creation—and the Christian in particular—to right knowledge of God as a good, beneficent and sovereign God, and right knowledge of self as created being. By this theological understanding of God, all persons are taught that the right response to God’s magnificence is unending praise and admiration, as well as rightful awe, respect and obedience.6 No doubt our pre-modern predecessors believed in creation, but they remind us that a belief in creation is primarily a matter of faith, and that our beloved Scriptures indeed are true and infallible by offering truths about God—theological teachings for the church’s edification, to uphold faithful doctrine and ethical practices.

Notes

1. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q46, art 2.
2. Augustine, Gen ad litt, 145.
3. LW 1:3-4.
4. LW 1:14.
5. Calvin, Comm on Gen, 86-87.
6. LW 1:39, 47, 49. Calvin, Comm on Gen, 77.


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.

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Skl - #73564

October 11th 2012

The author quotes Aquinas: “that the world began to exist is an object of faith and not a matter of scientific demonstration.”

I think Aquinas also said, or would have said, that we can say that the world began (i.e. the world did not always exist) as an object of divine revelation, and as an object of philosophy. I think on the matter of philosophy (I speak here in base layman’s terms, as I’m not a philosopher or an Aquinas scholar), St. Thomas makes the case that everything has a cause, that everything in the universe is subject to change, but the necessary grand initial cause (the causeless cause) is necessarily changeless; thus, the universe did not always exist, according to philosophical/logical reasoning.

I don’t understand the statements about Calvin: “he took issue with the fact that Genesis 1 names the sun and moon as the two great lights. Calvin noted that astronomers in his day already know that the moon is much smaller than Saturn, so is Scripture to be considered wrong here, since it is not scientifically accurate to call the moon one of the great lights?”

I think Scripture is to be considered scientifically correct here. It’s scientifically accurate to consider the moon one of the great lights for the naked eyes of the earthly beings, who are called human, and for whom the Scripture was written. Has anyone ever heard of anyone (on earth) dancing to the light of the silvery Saturn?

I also don’t understand the statement about Augustine: “Likewise, Augustine’s allegorical reading also envisions the days of creation as the Christian’s ethical journey toward fuller righteousness.” A similar statement is made about Origen.

One doesn’t need Genesis 1 or Scripture in general to know that all sentient beings grow in awareness, and that, in addition, human beings grow in ethical and theological maturity (cf. Rom 1:20). Even aborigines who have never heard of the Bible develop ideas of right and wrong and ideas about the divine.

I do not see Genesis 1 as an allegory, let alone an allegory for growth in spiritual maturity.


Merv - #73567

October 11th 2012

Skl wrote:

I think Scripture is to be considered scientifically correct here. It’s scientifically accurate to consider the moon one of the great lights for the naked eyes of the earthly beings, who are called human, and for whom the Scripture was written.

Scripture assumes exactly these things ... going on to use them to give life lessons that are not to be taken as astronomy lessons (i.e. that the moon really is bigger than Saturn).  That’s why we don’t try to reduce the Bible to science.  It was also obvious to all that the earth does not move ... an assumption that the Bible easily accomodates for the purpose of teaching us other more important things.

I do not see Genesis 1 as an allegory, let alone an allegory for growth in spiritual maturity.

I’m pretty sure Professor Pak wasn’t here promoting a particular church father’s view of Genesis as the correct one that you or everybody should all adopt.  Her point seems to be more along the lines of demonstrating that early church fathers with very high views of Scripture had plenty of reason to consider other interpretations of Genesis *in addition to* their literal understandings—and some of these long before any scientific ‘enlightenment’ (let alone evolution).  We need to explode the misconception that the only issues driving biblical re-interpretation are evolution or geocentricism.  People from centuries before had been delving into deeper understandings than the literal ones for some good reasons, some of which come from the Bible itself.

-Merv


Merv - #73568

October 11th 2012

... correcting my sloppy train of thought above…    I meant  ”...explode the misconception that the only issues driving biblical re-interpretation are evolution or *heliocentricism*”


Joriss - #73587

October 12th 2012

“For these pre-modern Christians, then, Scripture’s authority and infallibility were not staked upon its scientific accuracy; rather, Scripture’s authority and infallibility meant that all Scripture is inspired by God “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Simply put, the authority and infallibility of Scripture meant that all Scripture should edify the church—namely, be useful and build up the church in right teaching and an ethical life.”

Yes, of course 2 Tim 3:16 is true. But it is  too often misused to make a point to be able to dismiss historical facts. It doesn’t mean that things that were meant historical facts are still useful to edify the church when the facts are denied. For example, the exodus from Egypt has a very clear symbolic meaning. Many christian sermons have dealt with this and exposed the spiritual meanings for our christian lives nowadays. But can we separate the spiritual meaning from the historical facts? No. 1 Cor.10:11 says: Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
So the spiritual lessona have thei meaning from the facts and is one with them. You can apply this to many other historical facts that are serving as a typology of things to come: the offering of the son Isaac by the father Abram, the humiliation of Joseph by his brothers and his exaltation as a king to be their saviour. The ten plagues, specially the last one, from which the Israelites were saved by the blood of the lamb. And many more examples. If these things did not really happen, there is no lesson to learn. These lessons get their weight from the reality of the events.  
Suppose somebody’s father was a murderer and spent 25 years in prison, away from his wife and children. If the son was a sensible man he could learn a great big spiritual lesson from what happened to his father.
Of course he could also learn a spiritual lesson from a story about a father who was a murderer and spent 25 years in prison. But he could easily forget that lesson. But the lesson from the reality of his own father would make very very much more impact on him! And it is obvious that the lessons of the history are meant thar way according to Paul in 1 Cor.10:11, cited above and by Jesus
in Luke 17 where he warns the Israelites that on the day of the Son of man it will be as it was in the days of Noah and as it was in the days of Sodom. If we make symbolic stories with a “deep spiritual lesson” out of this historical facts we deprive history of it’s real spiritual impact, that these lessons are based on reality, and the words will loose their power.The spiritual lesson is in the reality of God’s acts.
I may have missed it, but I didn’t find a word of one the churchfathers that one of them didn’t believe in the literal creation history of  genesis 1. They only believed it had as well deep symbolic or allegoric meanings in it, which were not in conflict with it being real history.




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