The Fathers of the Church and the Creation Stories

No one interested in the history of Biblical interpretation can ignore the role of the Fathers of the Church. It seems clear that many (though not all) of the Fathers of the Church interpreted the narrative of Genesis literally, as sequential history, and that accordingly most of them regarded the world—including the sun, moon, and stars—as no more than about 6000 years old. They also believed that the sun revolved around the earth, because the Bible said so. In fact, we now know from sciences such as biology, archaeology, and geology that the human race goes back at least 10,000 years, and the physical world even further still, and that the sun does not in fact revolve around the earth. Does this mean that the Fathers are therefore unreliable guides for our reading of Genesis and should be dumped as having nothing to contribute? Or, more alarming still, that fidelity to the Fathers means dumping all the finds and discoveries of archaeology and geology, along with most of modern science? But has it come to that?

In a word, no. It is important to read the Fathers in their own cultural context and on their own terms, and not to simply use some of their words as proof-texts yanked from their context and time to serve as ammo for a battle which the Fathers never heard of and in which they would have had less interest.

Our modern approach to Genesis is primarily historical. That is, we read the sacred text to find out what happened in the past. What matters for us is what actually occurred, and we value the text primarily because it gives us literary access to historical events. The sacred narrative is “true” because it gives us accurate reportage, a window into what actually occurred in the past. This is why fundamentalist readers of the sacred text are threatened by the insights and assertions of archaeology and geology, for these sciences offer a different and alternative version of what actually occurred in the past. If the main value of Genesis depends upon its accuracy in reporting past events and if the sciences say something else happened in the past and not those events, then (fundamentalists say) either Genesis must be wrong or those sciences must be wrong. The two are radically incompatible, they imagine, and we must choose.

As stated above, it is true that most of the Fathers read the text as a literal narrative. But that does not mean that for them the primary value of the text was the access that it gave to historical events. Rather, the primary value of Scripture was its theological content, the truth that it spoke about Christ. That is why in commenting upon the days of creation and the details of the Genesis text they made so much use of allegory. Like the rest of the Old Testament, the historical details were important mostly for the deeper meaning that lay hidden within those details—meaning that could only be brought to light through allegorical interpretation.

For us moderns, the issue is one of historical accuracy, and the sacred text is valued for the access it allows us to past events. For the Fathers, the sacred text was valued for the deeper theological meaning that could be mined from it. That does not mean that they would have denied the historical meaning. But it does mean that for them the historical meaning was of distinctly secondary importance. This also means that it is anachronistic to enlist the Fathers as allies in the current debate about what actually happened in the past, as if this question had the same importance for them as it has for us. For the Fathers, the Genesis accounts were valued for their allegorical meaning.

Perhaps some examples might be helpful.

Theophilus (d. ca. 184) wrote a series of books to Autolycus, and in one of them (2.15) he discusses the creation of the world as described in Genesis. When he discusses the creation of the sun and moon and stars on the fourth day, he declares that these were created after earth’s vegetation precisely to refute later pagan view which declared that earth’s vegetation was produced by the stars. And when he discusses the sun and the moon, he allegorizes them, making the sun an image of God and the moon an image of man: “As the sun remains ever full, never becoming less, so does God always abide perfect, being full of all power, understanding, and wisdom, and immortality, and all good. But the moon wanes monthly and in a manner dies, being a type of man; then it is born again and is a crescent, for a pattern of the future resurrection”. Furthermore, the first three days of creation “which were before the luminaries are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word and His Wisdom. The fourth day is a type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, Wisdom, man. Therefore also on the fourth day the lights were made”. For Theophilus the literal narrative has supreme value when mined allegorically.

Then there is the work of St. Gregory Nazianzus (d. 390), often called “the Theologian” for the profundity of his thought. In chapter 12 of his sermon On the Theophany Gregory refers to the creation of paradise: “This being [Adam] God placed in paradise—whatever paradise may have been—having honoured him with the gift of free will…to till the immortal plants, by which is meant perhaps the divine conceptions, both the simpler and the more perfect…Also He gave him a law as material for his free will to act upon. This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch. This latter was the tree of knowledge—not however because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us…But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time, for the tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which it is only safe for those who have reached maturity of habit, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy in their habit”. Here we see Gregory interpreting the text allegorically—paradise is not simply a garden, but something else (Gregory is not sure what), the plants Adam tended were divine conceptions of all kinds, and the fruit of the forbidden tree was contemplation, which Adam sinned by partaking of it before he was ready.

We conclude this brief sampling of the Fathers with the great western father, St. Augustine (d. 430). Despite the title of his Literal Interpretation of Genesis, St. Augustine was anything but narrowly literal in interpretation the creation stories. In chapter four of that book he examines the words, “and there was evening and morning, one day” and wonders what this can mean prior to the creation of the sun. He concludes that “the evening and morning” there do not refer to times of the day, but to the quality of creaturely knowledge. Creaturely knowledge of itself is like “the dusk of evening”, but when it turns to God “it becomes the full light of morning”. Thus, says St. Augustine, “on the evening of the first day there is already the self-knowledge that it is not itself what God is; but on the morning after the aforesaid evening on which the first day is concluded and the second begins, there is its periodic return, in which that which was created turns to the praise of its Creator…it knows itself in its own nature, which knowledge, because it is lesser, is rightly indicated by the name of evening”. This is very deep, but hardly literal in the modern sense of the word.

It is the same with Augustine’s discussion of light and darkness. In The City of God (book 11, chapter 33) he considers the words, “and God separated the light from the darkness”. By “the light” he understands the angels, and by “the darkness” he understands the fallen angels who left their first estate and were thrust into the prison of darkness [2 Peter 2:4]. “Can anyone doubt,” he asks, “that God separated these [fallen] angels from the others in His foreknowledge and by His creative act? Who could deny that the good angels are rightly called ‘light’? …And that ‘darkness’ is a most apt name for these apostates will be readily appreciated by all those who realize or believe that the rebellious angels are worse than unbelieving men…We think that the two companies of angels are also meant by the terms ‘light’ and ‘darkness’”.

From these examples it is clear that for the Fathers the sacred text held mysteries buried within the literal narrative, and it was these mysteries that supremely interested them as exegetes and teachers. Since the Fathers had no quarrel with scientific discoveries of their day and since they were more interested in the deeper allegorical meanings of the Genesis narrative than in historical events, there is no reason to assert that the Fathers would have objected greatly to what some have called a mythological/ meta-historical approach to the creation stories. Objecting to such an approach because “the Fathers interpreted the text literally” is anachronistic and fails to understand the complex patristic approach to the sacred text.

Note: The author wishes to thank Dr. Craig Allert for his book Early Christian Readings of Genesis One for the help, insight, and inspiration it has provided for this article.

This article is a condensed version of the appendix found in the recently re-released and expanded version of my book In the Beginning, available here.

11 comments:

  1. Homo Sapiens emerged closer to 300,000 years ago, 10,000 years is a rounding error.

    Peter Bouteneff’s Beginnings provides a useful survey of patristic writings on the hexameron.

    1. Quite so. That is why I said, “At least 10.000 years” and left what I meant by “the human race” deliberately vague. There is debate about the date of the various finds and what constitutes “human”. A good and non-technical look can be found in Appendix 10 of Lamoureux’s excellent “Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution“.

  2. Fr Farley,

    Your article is timely, as for the past two days I have been struggling greatly with my faith over the very question of the historicity of Adam/Eve. I’m an inquirer into Orthodoxy (and Christianity more broadly), but this has caused me stumble greatly.

    My question for you is this: what about the theological position that death entered the world through the fall of mankind? I don’t have an issue with Genesis not being a history book (in the modern sense), but it seems that Christian theology depends upon death being the result of man’s fall.

    How does one harmonize that with the findings of modern science? This has been a real struggle for me.

    1. At the risk of self-promotion, I deal with this subject in my book In the Beginning (see the link at the end of my piece). One might also read Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema (the scientific part) and Scot McKnight (the Biblical part), as well as Evolutionary Creation, by Denis Lamoureux. Also good is Enns’ The Evolution of Adam.

      1. Thank you! I will check those out.

        As a side note, it is a great frustration to me that our modern times teach us to demand quick and easy answers to all questions. Even more frustrating, I recognize that I have been conditioned by this as well. You recommend I read books. Very well, I shall read them, even though my first reaction is, “What? Books? That takes too long! Can’t you summarize it in a few sentences?”

        What a frustrating time it must be to try to teach something as beautiful and complex as the Christian faith.

      2. I also see that you have been accused of heresy in the Amazon comments. Given what I have read on this subject so far, that seems par for the course. 🙂

        1. Yes, I am reluctant to give a quick reply, because (unlike fundamentalists) I think that the issues are sufficiently complex so as to defy such a facile quick reply and that they require a more in-depth treatment. I find that I have been the subject of a number of accusations of heresy, which is only to be expected. Most of the criticisms confirm me in my conviction that my book is badly needed. One commenter suggested that dinosaurs never existed, and were part of an evolutionist conspiracy. One would like to ask such people if they really believe that all the cosmos was sea water prior to the first day of creation, if the sun, moon, and stars are really only 6000 years old, and if vegetation on earth grew before the sun was created. If they answer Yes to such questions, I suppose I have nothing further to say to them. My book is addressed to others.

          1. As one of the “others”, I am so thankful for the “in-depth treatment” that you apply to your books and blogs.

            I want to be OPEN to learning and many times, I MUST re-read a portion of a blog or book. Nine times out of ten the “light bulb” will come on. (smile).

            Regarding the “other” one time out of ten………………..well, the time may come when I re-read and STUDY it again (smile). I’ve been known to re-read and make copious notes in more than one book or article suggested by someone who was sincerely interested in my “spiritual direction”.

  3. Fr. Farley/Isaac,

    I just want to throw in this, that while there is a boom in the production of theistic evolutionary motifs – that the holes in evolutionary theory keep getting revealed as well. To be honest the topic doesn’t interest me much anymore, but, there are some real theological problems with theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is basically indistinguishable from atheistic evolution as far as mechanics go. God doesn’t ever tamper with anything He just gets the ball rolling. The entrance of death and Christ’s work to defeat death, Satan the lord of death, marriage, anthropology, eschatalogy, etc. – these are all affected by your view of the fall.

    Now, as Orthodox we don’t need to protect Original Sin like the Protestants are anxious to do, so there may be ways of making it work, but you need certain parameters in my opinion, like:
    the angelic fall happened before the creation of Adam/humanity and are responsible for animal/other lifeforms’ death, that Adam was supposed to reverse the chaos already present outside Eden (if Eden is a real place), that Christ as the new Adam achieved what Adam and Israel failed to achieve, etc.

    These ideas would fit fine within Orthodoxy but they would be very novel in terms of Patristics and it would be still completely at odds with theistic evolution because you would still need special creation for Adam or at least a moment in time when God gives two hominids consciousness which is not much different. How the iconography would change!

    It’s funny to me that at the same time evolution has never been in more trouble, or that natural selection is being shown to me an insufficient medium for creating novel lifeforms/body plans/etc. – that Christians are jumping on this bandwagon versus waiting it out.

    There are a lot of alternative ways to look at this topic without being Ken Ham alikes. Progressive Creationism with or without common descent – these seem to me much safer alternatives to full blown theistic/deistic evolution. But maybe I haven’t read the other side well enough. The ID folks, even with all the crap they get, still make me question evolution to the point that I could never feel confident that the science will not change, maybe within our lifetime.

    Lewis had much more of a take on this like the one I’m describing. Mere Christianity, the essay/lecture, The Funeral of a Great Myth – lays out his sort of halfway point on the topic.

    For a detailed critique of theistic evolution I suggest the book,Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. It is written by Protestants but so are all of the books mentioned above, which is sort of telling in my opinion.

    God bless you,
    Matthew Lyon

    1. Enjoyed the article, Father. What stands out, to my mind, more than anything about the approach of the Church Fathers vis-a-vis the creation accounts conveyance of history, is that they really don’t care to dwell upon that aspect of it. The particular historico-scientific concerns we whip up over it just wasn’t something they were all that distressed about. Admittedly, they didn’t have the hard sciences with which to consult and challenge; but who’s to say they would have been inclined to inimically challenge the accepted scientific accounts? It’s not clear to me they would have (save where methodologocal naturalism drifts into philosophical naturalism, of course). Sometimes, they make a casual reference to the nascent age(s) in early Genesis that may seemingly be read to imply at least a component of historical meaning in their minds. But when, as in the dialogues and of Socrates and in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, references to the myths were by no means an endorsement of their factual or polytheistic metaphysical truth, the significance of such references are not evident in terms of their status as more than merely incidental. And certainly, if one sifts through when the Fathers’ minds are explicitly directed toward a proper understanding of the texts, the allegorical and (arche)typological meanings are what predominate. Likewise, this to me, is and remains the most pertinent area of focus concerning the creation texts.

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