Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1
Some of the most revered figures in Christian history—Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin—offered insightful but distinctive interpretations of Genesis 1 that are often overlooked today.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published on the BioLogos website in October of 2012. It is adapted from a paper that was presented at a symposium in Raleigh, NC.
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, 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 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 Genesis 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.”
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. 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). 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 theologicalteachings of Genesis 1.
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.
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.
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.
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.” Calvin maintained, “For to my mind this is a certain principle, that what is here treated is the visible form of the world.”
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. 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.
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 on 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.
One perceived difficulty in taking the Genesis account literally was the question of how one should understand the 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.”
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. 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.”
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 of the days 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.” 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.
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. 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. 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.
Aquinas also emphasized that humanity created in the image of God refers primarily to the human mind and is a Trinitarian image. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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