The Early Church and Genesis


This is an excerpt from something I have been working on.

Why Was the Story Told in Genesis?

We can only begin to imagine what the author of Genesis might have been thinking when he or she recorded the words that chronicle the beginning of the universe and this world.

Perhaps it was the end of the day and families were gathered around the fire.  One of the children in the group may have very well asked one of the elders how it was that they had gotten to that moment in time and space.  And the elder may very well have responded, “In the beginning” and the lesson began.

It was a story told from the heart as well as the mind and it reflected the knowledge and understanding of the world at that time.  It was as much a story of how a group of individuals came to be and was an explanation of their relationship with God as much as with this world.  That story, how we came to be a group of individuals in a relationship with God, is still a valid story today, some three thousand years later, and one which needs to be retold time and time again.

What Did the Early Church Think Happened?

From the beginning, many early Christian thinkers saw Genesis 1 – 2 as an allegorical tale that became known as the Accommodation view.  In this view, Genesis 1-2 was written in a simple allegorical fashion to make it easy for people of that time to understand.  It should be noted that I developed my own idea of the Genesis tale before I learned of this idea of accommodation.

See John Walton’s Reconciling Science with Scripture and Denis Lamoureux’s The Ancient Science in the Bible and The Message-Incident Principle from the Science and the Sacred blog on Biologos web site. o understand how Genesis was interpreted during ancient times.

Origen, the 3rd century philosopher and theologian, provided one of the earliest examples on the topic of creation.  He opposed the idea that the creation story was an historical and literal account of how God created the world.  His views echoed that of even earlier voices advocating a more symbolic interpretation (Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008; cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”)

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a North Africa Bishop in the early church, wrote several books that focused on Genesis 1 – 2 (Gillian Clark, Augustine: The Confessions, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993; cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”).  He presented the argument in The Literal Meaning of Genesis that Genesis was written so that people would understand it.  He also believed that God created the world with the capacity to develop, a view in harmony with today’s understanding of evolution (Bishop of Hippo Saint Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Ancient Christian Writers, no. 41, New York: Newman Press, 1982; for a further discussion of Augustine’s perspective on creation, see chapter 6 of Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, New York: Free Press, 2006, as well as chapters 8 and 15 of Alister McGrath’s A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009; cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”.)

Later Christian Thought

St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian, did not fear the possible contradiction between the Genesis creation story and scientific findings.  In Summa Theologica, he argued in favor of the view that God created all things to have potential:

On the day on which God created the heaven and the earth, He created also every plant of the field, not, indeed, actually, but “before it sprung up in the earth,” that is, potentially.…All things were not distinguished and adorned together, not from a want of power on God’s part, as requiring time in which to work, but that due order might be observed in the instituting of the world (St. Thomas Aquinas, “Question 74: All the Seven Days in Common,” in The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2nd ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1920). Also available online at “Summa Theologica,” New Advent (accessed Oct 21, 2011); cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”).

John Wesley thought the scriptures were written in terms suitable for their audience. He wrote,

The inspired penman in this history [Genesis] … [wrote] for the Jews first and, calculating his narratives for the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, and leaves us, by further discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them.

Wesley also argued the scriptures “were written not to gratify our curiosity [of the details] but to lead us to God” (John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1987, 22, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35. Also available online at John Wesley, “John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible,” Wesley Center Online, accessed Oct 21, 2011; cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”).

B. Warfield, perhaps the most noted Princeton theologian of the nineteenth century, accepted evolution as giving the proper scientific account of human origins (Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingston, eds., B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science, and Scripture, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000, 14; cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”).

Conclusion

History has shown us that scientists and religious leaders were more often working in concert than they were at odds with one another. The discoveries of modern science do not serve as the cause for abandonment of one’s faith or being contradictory to the Scripture but, rather, to serve as a guidepost for a proper understanding of the Scripture’s meaning.

While those promoting a worldview that requires people to make a choice between faith and science do so for narrow sectarian reasons; most religious individuals need not make such a choice. Indeed, there’s nothing in their faith that precludes a full acceptance of the best that science offers (December, 2014, newsletter of the Clergy Letter Project).

Augustine offers this advice:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 41; cited in “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”)

How Did God Create?  Different Views Christian Hold (STEAM Grant Series)

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