Early Christians Debated How to Interpret Genesis, Too

For many folks with a little exposure to church history, this is actually old news. Discussions of how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis are as old as Christianity.

But since I’ve been reading through the major theologians of the early church lately, I thought I’d share some of their more interesting quotes on the subject to demonstrate that differences of opinion on how God created are not to be treated as a matter of essential importance for salvation.

St. Augustine: “Don’t weigh in if you’re ignorant of science!”

Let’s start with this favorite of mine from St. Augustine of Hippo, written around AD 398:

“Whenever I hear a brother Christian talking in such a way as to show that he is ignorant of these scientific matters and confuses one thing with another, I listen with patience to his theories and think it no harm to him that he does not know the true facts about material things, provided that he holds no beliefs unworthy of you, O Lord, who are the Creator of them all. The danger lies in thinking that such knowledge is part and parcel of what he must believe to save his soul and in presuming to make obstinate declarations about things of which he knows nothing.” (Confessions, Book 5, Ch. 5).

In other words, Christians shouldn’t be weighing in on scientific matters about which they really aren’t sufficiently qualified. Much less should they treat their theories as essential to salvation.

Augustine’s advice feels all the more relevant today. In another chapter of his Confessions, he mentions that the early chapters of Genesis are so dense and rich with ideas that he can’t help but feel like readers shouldn’t limit themselves to just focusing on the one “original meaning” of the text:

“…since I believe in these commandments, and confess them to be true with all my heart, how can it harm me that it should be possible to interpret these words in several ways, all of which may yet be true? How can it harm me if I understood the writer’s meaning in a different sense from that in which another understands it? All of us who read his words do our best to discover and understand what he had in mind, and since we believe that he wrote the truth, we are not so rash as to suppose that he wrote anything which we know or think to be false” (Conf. 12.18).

Notice that Augustine is not so flippant as to suggest that we can read whatever we want out of the text; he does acknowledge that there was an intended meaning to it. But at the same time, he has no problem admitting that the “literal” or “original” meaning is not the only layer that matters, and that truth is multifaceted.

As he goes on to say in the next chapter, “For the great truth, O Lord, is that you made heaven and earth” (Conf. 12.19). That is the essential doctrine; the bottom line we must all agree on.

Here Augustine lines up well with the creeds of the church, which say we must believe in “God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,” but do not hold us to a specific view on how he created, or how long ago.

Origen of Alexandria: “All of Scripture has a spiritual meaning, but not all of it has a bodily meaning.”

Prior to Augustine, we find the influential theologian Origen of Alexandria (c. AD 230) vehemently denying that everything in Scripture is to be taken literally:

“For who possessed of understanding will suppose that the first and the second and the third day, evening and morning, happened without a sun and moon and stars? And that the first day was as it were also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a human farmer, planted a paradise in Eden towards the east, and placed in it a visible and perceptible tree of life, so that one tasting of the fruit by bodily teeth would obtain life, and again that one could partake of good and evil by chewing what was received from the tree there? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the afternoon, and Adam to hide himself behind the tree, I do not think that anyone doubts that these figuratively indicate, through apparent narratives and through things that did not happen bodily, certain mysteries.” (On First Principles, trans. by John Behr, 4.3.1).

Origen makes clear that his intention is not to say that the Bible is never talking about actual history (Princ. 4.3.4). Rather, like any good biblical scholar, he says we must carefully search and investigate the Scriptures, as well as history and science, to discover whether a given passage is discussing literal history or is conveying spiritual truths through the use of myth or legend (4.3.5).

Lest people cry foul, keep in mind that Origen’s principles here were not out of left field for ancient Christianity! He was regarded as the greatest teacher of biblical interpretation and theology by such crucial later theologians as St. Athanasius and St. Gregory of Nazianzus — men largely responsible for mainstream Christianity’s understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Though Origen was later accused of heresy after his death, it was not because of his biblical hermeneutics, but because certain groups of people grossly misinterpreted some of his other, more sophisticated ideas. His point about being sensitive to the different genres of biblical texts is timelessly important.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons: “Day” Can Mean a Long Age

Still earlier than Origen, writing around AD 180, St. Irenaeus of Lyons remarks that in his day, many Christians were of differing opinions as to whether the word “day” in Genesis 1 should be taken as referring to exactly 24 hours or as a symbol for a longer age of time, since verses like Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 affirm that to God “a thousand years are like one day” (Against Heresies, 5.23.2). 

While Irenaeus himself preferred the more literal interpretation (5.28.3), he in no way implies that this was a matter of importance for one’s salvation, or that those who held to a “day = age” theory were somehow undermining the gospel.

He is clear that it was a matter of opinion, about which people can disagree and discuss to their hearts’ content, but certainly shouldn’t divide the church over.



Categories: Genesis, Historical Theology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. So in Matthew 19:4–6 Yeshua (Jesus) quoted the Torah (Old Testament, Genesis) as a fact rather than interpretation. My point of view is.. if Jesus believed in it literally as he stated, then that is good enough proof for me!

    Also, as for the age of the earth, it is described as literal in the Gospel: Luke 3:23
    https://biblia.com/books/esv/Lk3.23

    This website may help as well.. https://answersingenesis.org/genesis/10-new-testament-texts-genesis-1-11/

    With Love,
    Woods

    Like

    • Hi Woods, thanks for engaging. Jesus’s reference in Matt 19:4-6 is, indeed, affirming a literal application of Genesis’ moral teaching about human marriage. That doesn’t entail that we have to take the preceding narrative as a straightforward recounting of history without any stylization. It’s always been common for cultures to enshrine their moral convictions in origin myths. The Luke 3:23 text is a genealogy that makes no reference to time — indeed, Hebrew genealogies frequently skip generations or abbreviate timeframes. And lastly, Answers in Genesis relies on problematic studies and I personally don’t find them a trustworthy guide to scientific matters. I prefer to recommend readers check out the Christian organizations Reasons to Believe (who argue for an old-earth interpretation based on the clear evidence of astrophysics and geology) and BioLogos (who argue for the compatibility of Christian theology and evolutionary theory).

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: