Interpreting Genesis 1 with the Fathers of the Church
In this article, we will consider the interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1 offered by various Church Fathers. The gain of this undertaking will be the observation that there are different opinions among the greatest saints and scholars in the Church. By taking note of this, we can avoid a myopic reading of Genesis and thus steer clear of an uninformed fear-driven reaction to atheistic materialistic assertions about the origin of the universe.
We will briefly review the positions of twelve Church doctors and then consider St. Augustine of Hippo’s understanding at greater length. Augustine is a good choice, not only because he is one of the most influential figures in the Church, but also because he is exemplary in explicitly joining a defense of the truth of Scripture with a caution about drawing too detailed conclusions about this mysterious event that predates human existence.
A distinction that must be noted preliminarily is the difference between the act of creation properly speaking, which is to produce something where before there was simply nothing, and the act of making something more interesting out of basic elements that already exist. With the benefit of ancient Greek philosophy, some of the earliest Fathers already articulate this, observing that the act of creation properly speaking must be instantaneous, leaving the question of the six days to be a matter of interpreting the formation of the basic elements created out of nothing.
Some Fathers of the Church suggest a reading of the six days as twenty-four hour periods. For examples of this we can point to St. Victorinus who accepts that “God produced the entire mass for the adornment of his majesty in six days,” clarifying a few lines later that “in the beginning God made the light, and divided it in the exact measure of twelve hours by day and by night.”1 Also, Lactantius in his Divine Institutes seems to accept six ordinary days, which he correlates to six ages of a thousand years each, after which the world will end.2
Turning to slightly later, more significant authorities, Ss. Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan, and John Damascene explicitly refer to twenty-four hour periods. In speaking of the “first day,” Basil explains that “it is as though [Scripture] said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.”3 And Ambrose, also commenting on the first day, asserts that “Scripture established a law that twenty-four hours, including both day and night, should be given the name of day only, as if one were to say the length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent.”4 John Damascene describes a day’s length in terrific detail, comparing the solar solstice to the solar equinox, and the period of the moon to the sun, when he ponders the sun’s being created on the fourth day.5 However, to recall our previously noted distinction, Basil, Ambrose, and Damascene also teach that the universe was created instantaneously or before time.6
We also find ancient Doctors of the Church who do not suppose that a day in the Lord’s time is twenty-four hours. Ss. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons quote the line “The day of the Lord is a thousand years” from Psalm 90:4 in connection with Adam’s dying on “the same day” that he ate the apple.7 And St. Cyprian writes that “The first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years.”8
Along the same lines, but with deeper metaphysical considerations, St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen both recall Genesis 2:4: “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” as evidence that the “six days” are to be taken figuratively.9 In his Miscellanies, St. Clement notes that the creation could not have taken place in time because time itself was created.10 So, new things could be “generated” over a span of days, but creation itself did not transpire over a period of time but is rather the source of time.
Origen argues similarly that “there was not yet time before the world existed,”11 and that the first days cannot be taken literally because you cannot have a day without a sun, a moon, and a sky.12 So, early in the third century Clement and Origen have already articulated the central difficulties in taking six ordinary days as the literal sense of Genesis 1.
St. Augustine does not interpret the six days of creation to be six periods of twenty-four hours. He treats this theme in a few different works and is consistent on this point. In his Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Augustine makes some important distinctions about how Scripture should be read and then directly addresses the question of creation in Genesis 1:
In all the sacred books [of Scripture], we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given. In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: “Now all these things that happened to them were symbolic.” And he explains the statement in Genesis, “And they shall be two in one flesh,” as a great mystery in reference to Christ and to the Church. If, then, Scripture is to be explained under both aspects, what meaning other than the allegorical have the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth?” Were heaven and earth made in the beginning of time, or first of all in creation, or in the Beginning who is the Word, the only-begotten Son of God? And how can it be demonstrated that God, without any change in Himself, produces effects subject to change and measured by time? And what is meant by the phrase “heaven and earth”? Was this expression used to indicate spiritual and corporeal creatures?13
Augustine goes on to raise a host of possible interpretations of “heaven,” “the earth,” “darkness,” “the abyss,” and “let there be light”; and he will conclude that “heaven and earth” refer to formless matter.14 He explains that in a narration, you must give one thing before the other, but that doesn’t mean that there is a difference in time. So, the first day and the second day are not different times but different orders. He offers the example of speech: “But the speaker does not first utter a formless sound of his voice and later gather it together and shape it into words. Similarly, God the Creator did not first make unformed matter and later, as if after further reflection, form it according to the series of works He produced. He created formed matter.” Augustine clarifies that the material itself of a thing does in a certain sense precede the thing, as clay in a certain sense precedes a clay pot; but whatever shape the clay has at any time is simultaneous with its being clay.15
In a manner reminiscent of Origen’s argument, Augustine doubts the counting of six ordinary days, pointing out that the sun would never set on God in his creation—for where would it go, to another universe?16 And not unlike Clement, Augustine insists that creation had to be instantaneous.
No one certainly would be so foolish as to think that, because God is great beyond all beings, even a very few syllables uttered by I-us mouth could have extended over the course of a whole day. Furthermore, it was by His coeternal Word, that is, by the interior and eternal forms of unchangeable Wisdom, not by the material sound of a voice, that “God called the light Day and the darkness Night.” And further questions arise. If He called them with words such as we use, what language did He speak? And what was the need of fleeting sounds where there was no bodily sense of hearing? These difficulties are insurmountable in such a supposition.17
Helpful to our overall consideration, Augustine warns against pretending to have one single right interpretation of these difficult passages:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, 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.18
Augustine presciently adds that we only damage Scripture’s credibility—especially in the minds of unbelievers who are educated in science—if we draw wrong conclusions about science from the Bible: “Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics.”19
Finally, let it not be thought that Augustine thinks that Christians should cower before and defer to irreligious experts in science: “With a sigh, [such weak believers] esteem these teachers as superior to themselves, looking upon them as great men; and they return with disdain to the books which were written for the good of their souls; and, although they ought to drink from these books with relish, they can scarcely bear to take them up. Turning away in disgust from the unattractive wheat field, they long for the blossoms on the thorn.”20
To sum up then, it is clear that different Fathers of the Church interpreted the first chapter of Genesis in diverse ways. They certainly did not all interpret the literal sense of the six days to be six twenty-four hour periods, as Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the Church, shows. And in the influential Fathers who do so interpret the six days, we find the distinction between creation, which is instantaneous and before time, and the subsequent development of that creation over six days.
— Rev. John Baptist Ku, O.P.
Image: Michael Pacher, Altarpiece of the Church Fathers
On the Creation of the World. (Written in AD 280). ↩
Divine Institutes, Book 7, Chapter 14. (Written in AD 307). ↩
Hexaemeron, Homily 2, No. 8. (Written in AD 370). ↩
Hexaemeron, Chapter 10, No. 37. (Written in AD 393). ↩
De Fide Orthodoxa, Book 2, Chapter 7. (Written in AD 710). ↩
St. Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily 1, No. 6; St. Ambrose, Hexaemeron, Chapter 10, No. 37; St. John Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa, Book 2, Chapter 1. ↩
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 81 (Written in AD 155); Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5:23:2 (Written in AD 189). ↩
Treatises 11:11 (Written in AD 250). ↩
St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 6:16 (Written in AD 208); Origen, Against Celsus 6:51-61 (Written in AD 248). ↩
Miscellanies 6:16. ↩
Homilies on Genesis (Written in AD 234). ↩
Fundamental Doctrines 4:1:16 (Written in AD 225). ↩
Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, Nos. 1-2. (Completed in AD 415). ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 14. ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 2, No. 15. ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 10, No. 21. ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 10, No. 21. ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 18. ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 19. ↩
On Genesis, Chapter 20. ↩