As a practicing young Catholic, it genuinely surprises me how many people are surprised to hear that I am not a young-Earth creationist. That’s not to say I don’t believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, or I think that every miraculous event recorded in the Bible ought to be interpreted as metaphorical poetry. Some events, such as the Resurrection of Christ, are obviously intended to be interpreted literally. That said, how should Christians read Genesis?
What did the Early Church Say?
When considering any biblical question, it is always helpful to look at what the tradition has taught. The Bible ought to be read within the context of the tradition.
When examining statements that Church Fathers have made about Genesis, it is clear that some of them were skeptical of fundamentalist understandings of the text. This is not to say that there were not Church Fathers who believed Genesis to be written in a strictly historical sense. But there were certainly very influential Chruch Fathers who opposed this view. St Clement of Alexandria notes
“For the creations on the different days followed in a most important succession; so that all things brought into existence might have honor from priority, created together in thought, but not being of equal worth. Nor was the creation of each signified by the voice, inasmuch as the creative work is said to have made them at once. For something must need have been named first. Wherefore those things were announced first, from which came those that were second, all things being originated together from one essence by one power. For the will of God was one, in one identity. And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist.”
Clement of Alexandria is arguing that things must have been created instantaneously, instead of in order of significance, as creationists would have you believe. This makes logical sense and would seem to fit what most science tells us regarding the origins of the Universe.
Origen, another Church Father, agrees with this sentiment:
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first and second and third day existed without a sun and moon and stars and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally.”
St. Augustine of Hippo has a warning about those who stake out a fundamentalist interpretation of the bible in contradiction to human reason. In his book Literal Interpretation of Genesis, he, like Clement of Alexandria, takes the position that things in the Universe were created simultaneously and not sequentially. He warns Christians about ignoring scientific advances and rejecting human reason and thus making a mockery of their faith.
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, maybe known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.”
This is particularly relevant in an age where science and religion are perceived to be in conflict with one another. Should Christians reject what modern science tells us about the origins of Earth, we do so at our own peril. This is a great disservice to Jesus Christ, who is himself the Truth.
How Was Genesis Meant To Be Read?
There is good reasoning that Genesis was meant to be read as an allegory. Father Peter Joseph explains this in his essay Genesis and Literalism
“These two points are crucial to the interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis: (1) they were not written in conformity with the historical method of either the best classical writers or of competent authors up to 1950; and, (2) the history they contain is set forth in simple and figurative language adapted to the mentality of a people of small culture. It follows inevitably that the account is not to be read as a rigorous history of what transpired, or as a rigorous expression of the scientific ideas of that time or any time.”
It would follow, logically, that we ought not to read Genesis as a history textbook, but as a theological allegory.
What Can We Learn From Genesis?
This begs the question: if Genesis is meant to be read as an allegory, what can we learn from it? Genesis is packed full of symbolic and theological meaning that gives great insight into the human condition and the nature of God.
First, the idea of creation itself as an act of love stands in stark contrast to most pagan myths at the time. Most of the myths have a world born of destruction, war, and sexual conquest of sorts. Genesis, on the other hand, talks about a world being created by a God out of love and sheer self-gift. God, by himself, is eternal, perfect, and lacks nothing. He created us not to increase his glory, but to allow us to share in it. In the words of St. Bonaventure: God created us “not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it.” By living in accordance with his plan for our lives, we share in his divine life.
By living a life of virtue, we share more and more in his
Second, you will notice the repetition of the phrase “and it was good” after most everything God creates. This is instrumental in understanding the inherent goodness of creation. Unlike a great number of philosophies, and some heresies (specifically Gnosticism), which treat the material as being inherently bad, Genesis instructs us that all of creation is, by its nature, good. Of course, this creation gets corrupted by sin during the fall of man, but that does not change the inherent goodness with which it was created.
Third, there is great significance to the idea that God created the whole universe. In various other religions, there is the worship of the environment, certain animals, the stars, etc. The idea in Genesis that God alone is responsible for all of creation is, therefore, the only being worthy of true worship is deeply important. This is not to say that we cannot appreciate the Earth, or stars, or animals, but that it is God alone that is worthy of our worship.
Lastly, the idea of humans being made “in the image and likeness of God” is incredibly profound (and probably worthy of a separate blog post at some point). The idea of being made “in the image of God” does not mean that God physically resembles us in any way. Rather, it means that humans have inherent dignity in the eyes of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates:
“Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead”
In the words of Father Gregory Pine OP., we are made in the image and likeness of God because we have “minds to know and hearts to love.” Specifically, we are made in the image of God in our intellect, in our ability to contemplate truth, and in our will, our ability to choose a course of action. In using our reason to choose the good, we become more united to God.
One Important Caveat
This is not to say that no elements of Genesis, are historically true. For example, Catholics are bound to accept, among many other things, the truth of original sin (that there was a sin committed that separated man and his posterity from God) and the reality that God created the universe and gives souls to every being. Evolution reveals a lot about how man came to be, but it alone is not a sufficient explanation for the origin of man.
Is It True?
In returning to our original question, we find Genesis to be full of invaluable truths about the origins of man, what differentiates non-rational creatures from humans, and the origins of suffering. Given that this was likely the intent of the author, it is true. Should you attempt to read Genesis as a history text, you will miss the profound amount of wisdom it has to offer humanity.