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.