How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?
In a Nutshell
Given the stark difference between evolution and six-day creation, many people assume that Darwin’s theory shook the foundations of the Christian faith. In truth, the literal six-day interpretation of Genesis 1-2 was not the only perspective held by Christians prior to modern science. St. Augustine (354-430), John Calvin (1509-1564), John Wesley (1703-1791), and others supported the idea of Accommodation. In the Accommodation view, Genesis 1-2 was written in a simple allegorical fashion to make it easy for people of that time to understand. In fact, Augustine suggested that the 6 days of Genesis 1 describe a single day of creation. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that God did not create things in their final state, but created them to have potential to develop as he intended. The views of these and other Christian leaders are consistent with God creating life by means of evolution.
Many people assume that Darwin’s theory must have shaken the foundations of the Christian faith because of the stark difference between evolution and the idea of a six-day creation. In truth, the literal six-day interpretation of Genesis 1–2 was not the only perspective espoused by Christian thinkers prior to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. The works of many early Christian theologians and philosophers reveal an interpretation of Genesis compatible with Darwin’s theory.
Early Christian Thought
To understand how Genesis was interpreted during ancient times, see John Walton's Reconciling Science with Scripture and Denis Lamoureux's The Ancient Science in the Bible and The Message-Incident Principle from our Science and the Sacred blog.
Origen, a third-century philosopher and theologian from Alexandria, Egypt—one of the great intellectual centers of the ancient world—provides an example of early Christian thought on creation.
Best known for On First Principles and Against Celsus, Origen presented the main doctrines of Christianity and defended them against pagan accusations. Origen opposed the idea that the creation story should be interpreted as a literal and historical account of how God created the world. There were other voices before Origen who advocated more symbolic interpretations of the creation story. Origen’s views were also influential for other early church thinkers who came after him.1
St. Augustine of Hippo, a bishop in North Africa during the early fifth century, was another central figure of the period. Although he is widely known for Confessions, Augustine authored dozens of other works, several of which focus on Genesis 1–2.2 In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine argues that the first two chapters of Genesis are written to suit the understanding of the people at that time.3
In order to communicate in a way that all people could understand, the creation story was told in a simpler, allegorical fashion. Augustine also believed God created the world with the capacity to develop, a view that is harmonious with biological evolution.4
Later Christian Thought
There are many other non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1–2 later in history. St. Thomas Aquinas, a well-known thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian, was particularly interested in the intersection of science and religion and was strongly influenced by Augustine. Aquinas did not fear the possible contradiction between the Genesis creation story and scientific findings.
In Summa Theologica, he responds to the question of whether all six days of creation are actually a description of a single day, a theory Augustine had suggested. Aquinas argues in favor of the view that God created all things to have potential:
On the day on which God created the heaven and the earth, He created also every plant of the field, not, indeed, actually, but “before it sprung up in the earth,” that is, potentially.…All things were not distinguished and adorned together, not from a want of power on God’s part, as requiring time in which to work, but that due order might be observed in the instituting of the world.5
Augustine’s creation perspective can be seen even as late as the eighteenth century—just before Darwin published The Origin of Species—in the works of John Wesley. An Anglican minister and early leader in the Methodist movement, Wesley, like Augustine, thought the scriptures were written in terms suitable for their audience. He writes,
The inspired penman in this history [Genesis] … [wrote] for the Jews first and, calculating his narratives for the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, and leaves us, by further discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them.6
Wesley also argues the scriptures “were written not to gratify our curiosity [of the details] but to lead us to God.”7
In the nineteenth century, Princeton Theological Seminary was known for its staunch defense of conservative Calvinism and the absolute authority of Scripture. Perhaps the most noted Princeton theologian of that era, B. B. Warfield, accepted evolution as giving the proper scientific account of human origins. He believed that hearing God’s voice in Scripture and the findings of solid scientific work were not at odds. As historian Mark Noll puts it, “B. B. Warfield, the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.”8
The history of Christian thought has not been consistently dominated by proponents of a literal interpretation of Genesis. The discoveries of modern science should neither be seen as the instigator of some abandonment of trust in Scripture, nor as contradictory to Scripture, but as guideposts toward a proper understanding of Scripture’s meaning.
Augustine offers this advice:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.9
- Catholic Answers. "Creation and Genesis."
- Lucas, Ernest. “Interpreting Genesis in the 21st Century (PDF).” Faraday Papers.
- Young, Davis A. "The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine's View of Creation." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.
- Collins, Francis S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press, 2006.
- Falk, Darrel R. “Science and Religion: Trying to Live in Two Worlds at Once.” In Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds between Faith and Biology, 19-38. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
- McGrath, Alister E. A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
- Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008).
- Gillian Clark, Augustine: The Confessions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- Bishop of Hippo Saint Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Ancient Christian Writers, no. 41 (New York: Newman Press, 1982).
- For a further discussion of Augustine’s perspective on creation, see chapter 6 of Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), as well as chapters 8 and 15 of Alister McGrath’s A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
- St. Thomas Aquinas, “Question 74: All the Seven Days in Common,” in The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2nd ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1920). Also available online at “Summa Theologica,” New Advent (accessed Oct 21, 2011).
- John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1987), 22, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35. Also available online at John Wesley, “John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible,” Wesley Center Online (accessed Oct 21, 2011).
- John Wesley, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation: or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, 3rd ed. (London: J. Fry, 1777), 2:463, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35.
- Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingston, eds., B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science, and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 14.
- Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 41.