Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1, Part 3

| By Sujin Pak

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.

Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1, Part 3


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.


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.


About the Author

Sujin Pak

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. Dr. Pak has a long and rich heritage in the United Methodist Church. Two of her grandfathers were United Methodist ministers, her father is a United Methodist pastor and a professor of worship, and many of her aunts and uncles are also ordained in the United Methodist Church. Furthermore, she was born while her father studied at Southern Methodist University, and spent her earliest years in Atlanta while her father got his doctorate at Candler Theological Seminary. Eventually, she attended Emory University for her undergraduate degree and later received her Master's of Theological Studies and PhD from Duke University. Her first job was at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (another UMC seminary!).