Well…it all started like this, you see…(Part I)

First, I apologize for being so late in making this post.  With graduating, going to Guatemala for a week, and then moving–not to mention the float trip Katie planned for us this last weekend–my life has been slightly scattered.  Matt and I will both be in and out this summer, so our posts will probably be more sporadic.

Anyway, Matt recently posted about the various scientific views on the origin of life that are tenable from the Christian world-view.  Many Christians, when they have questions about the beginning, turn to the first chapters of Genesis for the answers.  For millenia, Jewish and Christian theologians have been trying to understand the proper way to interpret the creation account in Genesis, and in this post I will try to provide a brief overview of the possibilities–I’ll really be focusing on i) an allegorical interpretation vs. ii) a literal one–while putting them in their historical context, but first I have a word about hermeneutics (“interpreting Scripture”) in general.

There is sometimes confusion within Christendom over terminology when discussing the veracity of Scripture.  I admit up-front that I believe the Bible to be the literal, inerrant, unique, authoritative, God-breathed message about the divine plan for redemption resulting in God’s greater glory, and that it has a special power to transform humans into worshippers of God (2 Tim. 3:16).  This kind of statement is generally perceived as a strong view of Scripture, that is, putting a lot of faith in the Bible and its authenticity/veracity.  This does not, however, vastly simplify understanding scripture or eliminate the need for interpretation.  (In fact, it probably makes it harder, because one cannot simply dismiss ad hoc the difficult passages out of convenience).  To take a strong stance on Scripture (that is, to say that it is “true”) does not equate to writing out a formula so that for any given verse Truth(Book:Chapter:Verse) = true.  Essentially, this is an oversimplification of the matter, or an equivocation on the word “true”, and this can be shown by a simple example.  Some sentences/expressions cannot even be evaluated for truth, such as questions: “Isn’t this a fine morning?”  Whoever utters this question has no intention of even saying something true or false.  I do not wish to draw this thought out in excessive detail, but am simply trying to support the idea that understanding Scripture often requires serious thought and reflection about what the author’s mindset/perspective and intentions were when he wrote a given passage.  Sometimes this can be difficult work, but if the Bible is really the inspired Word of God, I think that it is worth the effort.

Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) was a Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher/theologian contemporary to Christ.  In Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis Book I, Philo writes that

“And on the sixth day God finished his work which he had made.” It would be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed at all in time; because all time is only the space of days and nights, and these things the motion of the sun as he passes over the earth and under the earth does necessarily make. But the sun is a portion of heaven, so that one must confess that time is a thing posterior to the world. Therefore it would be correctly said that the world was not created in time, but that time had its existence in consequence of the world. For it is the motion of the heaven that has displayed the nature of time. When, therefore, Moses says, “God completed his works on the sixth day,” we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number. (I.1-2a)

Here, Philo focuses on the fact that God created something from nothing (creatio ex nihilo): space from nothingness, time from eternity.  In essence, a sequential creation account is all that our minds can really understand.  In another one of his works, On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses, he argues against a literal six-day creation in order to champion God’s omnipotence and superiority to humans, who require time to accomplish a task.  He writes:

And he says that the world was made in six days, not because the Creator stood in need of a length of time (for it is natural that God should do everything at once, not merely by uttering a command, but by even thinking of it); but because the things created required arrangement; and number is akin to arrangement; and, of all numbers, six is, by the laws of nature, the most productive… (III.1)

For one, this shows that the idea of rejecting a literal six-day creation is not a new one.  Philo seems to understand the creation account as a theological preface to the Books of the Law, not a scientifically accurate cosmogony.  At the end of this work, he lists the five lessons we learn from Moses’ creation account, which interestingly enough state nothing about the amount of time God required to fashion the universe:

  1. the eternal existence of God (as against atheism)
  2. the unity of God (as against polytheism)
  3. the non-eternity of the world
  4. the unity of the world (made by a singular Creator)
  5. the Providence of God

My personal tendency in reading the Genesis account is to look at these big-picture theological issues rather than focus on details.  It is more interesting to see that God created the universe in order rather than to speculate what exactly the order was, at least directly from the Genesis creation account.

Several hundred years later, St. Augustine (354-430) echoed these earlier Jewish ideas.  In his Confessions, he writes the following about the Genesis creation account:

Let Your works praise You, that we may love you; and let us love You, that Your works may praise You, which have beginning and end from time,— rising and setting, growth and decay, form and privation. They have therefore their successions of morning and evening, partly hidden, partly apparent; for they were made from nothing by You, not of You, nor of any matter not Yours, or which was created before, but of concreted matter (that is, matter at the same time created by You), because without any interval of time You formed its formlessness. (13.48)

He depicts God as wholly other, being superior to space and time, unchanging; creation, on the other hand is subject to the changes time brings.  An unchanging God, then, must have created the universe without any interval of time, which according to Augustine’s detailed (in the Confessions) view of time, only serves to mark change.  He elaborates on this view, that God created space and time together in the beginning of City of God XI.6:

For if eternity and time are rightly distinguished by this, that time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change, who does not see that there could have been no time had not some creature been made, which by some motion could give birth to change—the various parts of which motion and change, as they cannot be simultaneous, succeed one another—and thus, in these shorter or longer intervals of duration, time would begin? Since then, God, in whose eternity is no change at all, is the Creator and Ordainer of time, I do not see how He can be said to have created the world after spaces of time had elapsed, unless it be said that prior to the world there was some creature by whose movement time could pass. And if the sacred and infallible Scriptures say that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in order that it may be understood that He had made nothing previously—for if He had made anything before the rest, this thing would rather be said to have been made in the beginning,then assuredly the world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time.  For that which is made in time is made both after and before some time,— after that which is past, before that which is future. But none could then be past, for there was no creature by whose movements its duration could be measured. But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world’s creation change and motion were created , as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!

St. Augustine is right to speculate with intense imagination what the first days could have been, considering that there had been no time before God spoke: “Let there be light.”  It is worth noting that these two examples of Jewish and early-Christian thought fly in the face of the contemporary philosophy that was en vogue, which considered the universe to have existed for all eternity, repeating history in cycles, physically modelled by the celestial revolutions.

Well, there is surely a lot of interesting material to investigate in this field, but as this post is growing to a significant length, I see that I will have to continue the theological history in a subsequent post.  To summarize, early theologians, represented here by Philo and St. Augustine, held counter-cultural beliefs that God created something from nothing, and that being himself unchanging, and therefore timeless, he created time when he created the universe.  From this point, they distance themselves from a literal interpretation of Genesis and prefer to focus on the theological implications of the Genesis cosmogony rather than its details.  Philo goes so far as to say that Moses wrote Genesis as a theological preface to his other works.  Next time, I’ll go into the origins of young-earth creationism and the biblical evidence that supports that view, and hopefully I’ll get into problems associated with each.

James, the younger brother


5 Responses to Well…it all started like this, you see…(Part I)

  1. cheno says:

    Bravo. Here is my list:

    1. Good use of larger-than-ordinary-conversation words. My favorites were cosmogony and the latin phrases
    2. Good objectivity. While giving your personal history with the subject (“bias-en-exposium”) you kept yourself from directly endorsing a view
    3. Good Ending summary. Good for people who might mistake you for someone who was trying to convince people of something instead of someone merely trying to educate them.
    4. Good “Sola Scriptura” reference. (referendo sola scripturata) Presbyterians will like you.

    With a pinch of sarcasim,

    P.S. Seriously people, don’t quote me.

  2. James says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Cheno. I also appreciate your humor and your Latinimaginoforensic constructions.

  3. NoPockets says:

    I really liked this. A refreshing sortie as the recent posts have been more scientific and this one was more wholly philosophically based. I didn’t realize that the thinking of a non-literal translation of Moses’ account was an old idea instead of a relatively new one. I particularly like the references to God not being subject to time and space in our way of thinking of it and how that makes it difficult for Moses to even account for the timeline progression in his re-capping of what happened.

  4. David Covington says:

    “Seriously people, don’t quote me.” [Cheno] Too late, I just did.
    As I read over the post two reactions emerge, one is to focus on the concepts presented, and critique the presentation of facts and subsequent analysis. This is constructive and appropriate, but it also occurs to me to remain in view of the larger question. As in the context of a course, there optimally would be a greater structure (course outline), individual points of which would give rise to a sequence of logical sub-presentations each carrying an appropriate quantum of additional revelation, with some measure of suspense and expectation about the next topic to be engaged. And upon the completion of all presentations, the parts would interrelate comfortably into a greater whole. In contrast there is a human tendency to lock onto a view that makes sense and defend it to the death. Matt was right to introduce a sequential unfolding of all tenable views on a fair basis, then proceeding into compare and contrast, driving toward a determination of the most defensible view.

  5. James says:

    I agree, Katie, that it was refreshing to write/read something a little more concrete and definable. Dad, hopefully we can live up to your methodical standard.

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