Currently, on Ken Ham’s website Answers in Genesis, there is a presentation of the Church Fathers’ reading of Genesis 1 by James R. Mook. The claim of Mook and the people at AIG is that up until the Enlightenment the standard interpretation of Genesis 1 is in keeping with and supports the claims of Young Earth Creationism. That is, the universe is less than 7,000 years old and that the reference to a day in Genesis 1 is to be taken as a concrete or literal 24 hour period.
The alternative is to read the days as figurative, metaphorical, or poetic as many contemporary biblical scholars do. The reference to days is poetic structure that says more about who God is than how God did it. In other words, the days function like the seals, trumpets, and bowls in Revelation and the alphabet in Lamentations and Psalm 119. (See John Walton’s excellent book The Lost World of Genesis One [link below] or if you don’t have time to read listen to Rikk Watts’s Making Sense of Genesis 1.)
In the next little while, both out of personal curiousity and to investigate the claims of Ken Ham, Mook, and the AIG, I will see what the Church Fathers (Early Christian Writers) have to say about Genesis 1. How do they understand a day? How old do they think the earth is? Are they open to alternative interpretations? Are they open to new interpretations based on new information? etc.
In a moment, I will turn to Origen’s influential work On First Principles. However, at this point, I want to make a comment on Ham’s inconsistent approach to extra-biblical evidence. Whenever scholars whether they are biblical scholars (including Evangelical Christians) or scientists reference exta-biblical evidence, Ham responds with the trope, “Are you going to trust the witness of ‘fallible man’ or the infallible God?” Yet, here AIG is appealing to the Church Fathers and church tradition to support Ham’s thesis that Genesis 1 was interpreted literally up until the Enlightenment. Is this a case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses? Isn’t this approach to history and extra-biblical evidence akin to practicing astrology, interpreting Nostradomus (where is he now — he was popular in the eighties), and some readings of Revelation? Even my children are learning that sometimes we focus only on what we want to be true and ignore any evidence to the contrary. Even the Church Fathers, for the most part, will agree that they too are fallible human beings.
Okay, let’s turn to Origen perhaps the most influential Ante-Nicene (that is, he lived and wrote before the Council of Nicaea) Church Father. Writing in the the third century, Origen was critical of those who read all scripture literally. Indeed, Origen insists that while all srcipture has a spiritual (metaphorical, allegorical) meaning not all scripture has a bodily (literal/concrete) meaning. To illustrate this point at its most basic level, let us take the biblical phrase, “God is a Rock.” If we take this phrase in its bodily or literal sense, then we wrongly interpret this to mean that “God is a piece of granite or obsidian.” Yet, most of us know that the biblical authors did not mean that we should figure out whether God formed through volcanic or sedimentary processes but that God has rock-like qualities, i.e. God is unchanging, God is a firm foundation (uh oh, another metaphor).
Let’s take something a little more complicated with both a bodily and a spiritual meaning. Origen, Ham, and I would agree that David literally killed Goliath with a slingshot. The literal meaning is that a young Israelite man (not a talking Asparagus) killed a large Philistine soldier with a stone. Now, Origen and I (and I expect Ham would agree with me, on this one) would say that is not all that is meant by the story. The meaning of the story goes beyond the mere concrete facts and that meaning can be expanded beyond the mere facts. Level 1: God is with Israel over against her enemies the Philistines. Level 2: God is with Israel over against all her human enemies. Level 3: God is with his people over against all her enemies including the invisible or demonic forces that oppose her. Level 4: God is with Christ against Satan and his forces. Level 5: God is with me as I battle my personal demons. Should I go on or do you get the point?
So, what does Origen say about Genesis 1? To give you an idea, read the following:
“Now what man [or woman, and Origen did teach women] of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed with the sun and moon and stars? And that the first day, if we may so call it, was even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, ‘planted a paradise eastward of Eden’, and set in it a visible and palpable ‘tree of life’, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of ‘good and evil’ by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name? . . . ” (Origen, On First Principles, Book IV.3.i — Harper & Row, 1973)
Moreover, in Chapter 4 of Book I, Origen speculates that creation could be eternal. For Origen and other Church Fathers, the age of the universe (the cosmos) did not matter nearly as much as the relationship of God to the Creation. That is, God is the Creator of all that is not God and God has no origin outside of God.
“If then particular things which are ‘under the sun’ have already existed in the ages which were before us — since ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ — undoubtedly all genera and species have for ever existed, and some would say even individual things; but either way, the fact that God did not begin at a certain time to be Creator, when he had not been such before.”
So, in at least one Church Father, and an influential one at that, we find an author who thinks a literal reading of the days in Genesis 1 is “silly” and who feels free to speculate that creation is eternal so long as we say it is the work of God. Similar thinking about origins will later help theologians articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.
Now, in anticipation of a possible response to my using Origen as an example, many of Origen’s ideas were later deemed heretical. However, while not all Ante-Nicene Fathers would be labelled Heretics, read in light of Nicaea most of them will say something that is in retrospect will sound heretical. It is in part Origen’s substantial influence that made him a particular target. (For a succint consideration of the problem of Origen see this article by Doyle Baxter.
N.B. I know enough about Patristics to know that I am no expert on the Church Fathers. I would welcome the comments or indeed contributions of my Pastristically minded friends and colleagues. If you know a particular Church Father’s view on Genesis 1 and Creation related stuff, then please write blog style entry and I will post it, even if they think the universe is less than 7,000 years old.
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
9 thoughts on “Ham-Handed Hermeneutics 1: Reading the Church Fathers I – Origen of Alexandria (ca. 184 – ca.254)”
Origen: ‘Scripture is not speaking here of any temporal beginning, but it says that the heavens and the earth and all things that were made were made “in the beginning,” that is, in the Savior.’ HOMILIES ON GENESIS 1.1.
– Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, eds., Genesis 1–11 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 1.
Basil: Therefore, if he makes the world appear in the beginning, it is not a proof that its birth has preceded that of all other things that were made. He only wishes to tell us that, after the invisible and intellectual world, the visible world, the world of the senses, began to exist. HEXAEMERON 1.5.
– ibid, 3.
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Keep them coming. I will write another post on this topic in the near future. But as I said above I welcome submissions either that I can use as a post or like these references that you provided.
I’m no patristic scholar either, but I seem to recall that a certain millenarian scheme was popular among several early church fathers in which the world at the time was a little less than 6000 years old. The main point of this scheme was that a millennium was coming soon, after which the world would be 7000 years old.
I don’t know whether this idea originated with him, but here is an interesting example of this scheme from Theophilus of Antioch:
“From the creation of the world to the deluge were 2242 years. And from the deluge to the time when Abraham our forefather begat a son, 1036 years. And from Isaac, Abraham’s son, to the time when the people dwelt with Moses in the desert, 660 years. And from the death of Moses and the rule of Joshua the son of Nun, to the death of the patriarch David, 498 years. And from the death of David and the reign of Solomon to the sojourning of the people in the land of Babylon, 518 years 6 months 10 days. And from the government of Cyrus to the death of the Emperor Aurelius Verus, 744 years. All the years from the creation of the world amount to a total of 5698 years, and the odd months and days.”