As a member of my church’s education committee, I share the duty of planning and organizing the topics and teachers for the various adult Bible classes.

All adult classes work through the same biblical books, and we are used to kicking around names of potential teachers within the congregation and then assigning them to a particular class. With appropriate care and consideration, it’s usually a simple matter of drawing from the same pool of folks who are able and willing. In a recent meeting, though, there was a noticeably different vibe—one I had not yet witnessed in my brief time on the committee—as we contemplated the upcoming class offerings. Angst would be too strong a word to describe the mood, but the conversation certainly took on a more deliberate air of caution. What happened? Well, it was time for the adult classes to study Genesis.

Genesis! Apparently we have to be extra careful about who we get to tackle. . . I mean. . . teach this book. And rightly so; perhaps, in some churches, only Revelation has more minefields. In a congregation where people have different views on evolution and maybe even on the age of the earth, whoever teaches these classes must be well qualified and proceed delicately. To be fair, there is much that is difficult in Genesis 1-11, especially for Christians who have been trained to read it as literally as possible, that is, to take the stories as exact transcripts of what would have been caught on video, what we may call a merely literal, or “literalistic,” account.

Some of the difficulties of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis would be mitigated if we took a moment to learn from our ancestors in the faith, devout Christians who approached these narratives from a perspective different than that of most modern westerners. To this end, Sapientia is publishing a series of reflections on influential premodern interpreters of Genesis, with an eye toward retrieving the best of the church’s reflection on God’s work in creation in order to assist us in the interpretive task of the present day. Of the many things that earlier Christians could teach us about biblical interpretation, and particularly regarding the exegesis of Genesis, in this introduction to the series I will mention two that will assist us in getting our bearings for what follows.

The Spiritual Meaning of Scripture

First, for premodern Christians, it is the spiritual meaning, not the literal meaning, of Scripture that is of ultimate importance. Premodern interpreters of Scripture were one in their belief that the sacred text has both a literal and a spiritual sense or meaning. By “literal” sense, they meant the actual words of the text in their context, not necessarily a “literalistic” account. The literal sense is the basis for and points to the spiritual sense; the spiritual sense arises from and is linked to the literal. The Spirit, though logically subsequent to the letter, is what brings life (2 Cor. 3:6), and it is the spiritual sense that yields knowledge of doctrine and morals. This way of reading blossomed in the so-called “quadriga” of the Middle Ages, which sought a fourfold interpretation: the literal (what the text says), allegorical (what is to be believed), tropological (what is to be done), and anagogical (what is to be hoped)—the last three corresponding to the theological virtues of faith, love, and hope.

As such, early Christians generally did not take the creation accounts in Genesis as literal in every detail, or at least not merely literal. Although they usually considered the earth to be a few thousand years old, they based this belief on a figurative interpretation of the six days of creation, along with the absence of any widespread scientific evidence to prove an “old” earth. If Genesis 1 refers to literal, 24-hour days, how could there be days without the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, which were not created until the fourth day?Early Christians recognized that, in this case, bogging down in a merely literal reading raises more problems than it solves.
Early Christians recognized that, in this case, bogging down in a merely literal reading raises more problems than it solves.

Indeed, the church fathers assumed that if a biblical text is nonsensical on its surface, then that very difficulty is a literary clue to the parabolic nature of the text, under which one should seek the deeper, spiritual meaning. For instance, Origen claims that Scripture sometimes commands laws and it sometimes documents events on the literal level that are meant only to convey spiritual realities. Just as there are some unreasonable or even impossible commands in Scripture, there is also non-historical narrative. This feature is true especially of the Old Testament, and Origen provides an example from the opening chapters of Genesis:

“Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and third day, and the evening and the morning existed without 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 in 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?” (De principiis IV.iii.1)

Origen claims that there are innumerable such examples that are “recorded as actual events, but which did not happen literally” (De princ. IV.iii.1). These are instances in which one is presumably better off not spending too much time contemplating the bodily, or literal, sense. His ad hominem tone notwithstanding, Origen’s point is that the many difficulties that follow from taking these narratives literally serve as clues that there is a spiritual message to be teased out of the text. In other words, the very fact that you are asking about the location of Eden in relation to the four rivers, about Cain’s wife and the other people whom he feared, or about the “sons of God” and daughters of men, indicates that you are asking the wrong questions. The presence of so many fabulous elements in these texts presents a challenge to any simplistic, literal-historical interpretation. This is not to suggest that God could not have actualized a paradisiacal garden or a walking, talking snake. It is simply to acknowledge the numerous historical, scientific, geographical, and literary problems that arise when this account is taken literally.

Genesis as a Science Textbook?

A “literalistic” reading, moreover, is subject to multiple interpretations of its own. In fact, a “literalistic” reading of Genesis 1 could be used in various ways to support ideas and worldviews that we would presume to be not necessarily biblical and definitely out of step with what we now know about the cosmos. How, for instance, might a traditional Neo-Platonist of late antiquity read Genesis 1 in a literalistic fashion? In Timaeus, where Plato records his story about God and creation, he mentions the four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. A Neo-Platonist could, without great difficulty, see Genesis 1 as consistent with the Platonic view of physical reality and read the four elements into the Genesis account. The first verse of Genesis mentions the creation of heaven and earth, and the second verse speaks of spirit and water. For Plato, fire is the highest element that represents heaven. Ruach (Hebrew) or pneuma (Greek) can be translated variously as spirit, wind, or air. Thus, in the beginning, God created fire (heaven), earth, air (spirit), and water (see Augustine, De civitate Dei VIII.xi). In this way, a certain literal interpretation of the biblical text could turn it into a sort of science textbook that pronounces on physics that, we now know, is greatly mistaken. In addition to this ancient possibility, it is well known how a literalistic reading of Scripture was used to support the scientific theory of geocentrism, or how a modern literal rendering of Genesis 1 has creation actually being completed, from beginning to end, in six days, or 144 hours. Such interpretations turn the biblical text into another kind of science textbook that pronounces on astronomy and provides a timetable of geological history.

William de Brailes – First Two Days of Creation

Biblical scholars now recognize that, regardless of what the biblical authors may have personally believed about physics and astronomy, Genesis 1 was not primarily intended as what we might call a science textbook. The theological message—that God is transcendent and powerful, the source of all being, that he created freely, that he loves and cares for his entire creation, that he intends to communicate his goodness and grace to creation, so that humanity might reflect his glory and image in holy worship—this is the primary purpose of the creation account in Genesis 1. Such readings are not to be confused with the spiritual interpretations of early Christians; there are many differences, but the motivations are similar. The Genesis text is not a treatise on physical science, but rather is a theological cosmogony that makes claims about the nature and character of the God who created.

The difference between premodern and modern, literalistic interpretations stems in part from the kinds of questions asked of Genesis 1-2 and of Scripture in general. Modern readers tend to focus more on questions of historicity, science, textual background, date, provenance, authorship, and human authorial intent. These are all important questions for guiding one’s interpretation. Premodern interpreters, however, tended to be more interested in what the biblical text teaches about God, Christ, his people, his intentions for his people—in short, doctrine and morality. This is not the place to discuss how this shift in guiding questions happened. But it must be pointed out that the questions one asks of the text will influence what one finds in the text and which answers one deems most important. Premodern interpreters often do not address questions of historicity when it comes to passages such as Genesis 1-11; when they do, there seems to have been a wide degree of latitude. But they never get lost in the literal sense or fail to address doctrine and ethics. The concerns of premodern interpreters, vis-à-vis those of modern interpreters, seem to be more in line with the theological concerns of the biblical writers themselves.

Regulated Readings

A second feature of premodern biblical exegesis is the insistence on interpreting Scripture within the boundaries set by the rule of faith (regula fidei) and the whole of Scripture. The rule of faith refers to the oral proclamation of the faith passed down from the apostles. Although its function is different than later creeds, its content is summed up well in the ancient creeds of the church, especially the Apostles’ and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds. As regards exegesis, the faith expressed in the rule—belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—serves as a lens for reading Scripture and regulates the range of possible interpretations of Scripture.

From one side, the rule of faith can function as a limit to the spiritual sense: allegorical interpretations must not go beyond the bounds of the ancient, catholic faith. From another side, the rule of faith also excludes certain interpretations that appear to be based on a literalistic reading, interpretations that are, after all, thoroughly biblical and literal as well as thoroughly heretical.

As an example of how the rule of faith can limit incorrect literalistic interpretations, Origen points out the biblical descriptions of God walking in the garden and of Cain going out “from the face of the Lord” (Gen. 4:16). Based on such passages, what would the true literalist infer about God? To paraphrase a bit, unless one is willing to depict God as embodied and ignorant, no one takes everything narrated in Genesis 1-11 literally. A governing principle for Origen and other early Christians is that “everything recorded about God, even if it may be immediately unsuitable, must be understood worthy of a good God” (Origen, Homily 20 on Jeremiah), that is, the God proclaimed in the rule of faith.

The study of the history of interpretation provides exegetical insight and perspective that we miss when we only consult those who happen to still be walking around.

Another example of the dangerous possibilities of literalistic interpretation focuses on the second creation account and its aftermath, told by the so-called Yahwist source in Gen. 2:4–3:24, in which a certain literal reading could easily raise intractable theological problems. In fact, the Gnostic sect known as the Ophites (ophis, “serpent”) took these texts literally, and, accordingly, glorified the serpent of Genesis 3. In a sense, the serpent appears to be the only good character in the story. He alone tells the truth and appears to want to help Eve acquire valuable knowledge. On this reading, God is the one lying about the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit, he is vindictive, and he jealously guards his position by banishing the cursed couple who are on their way to becoming his equal. Make no mistake—this rendering is one logically coherent way of reading the text literally. If it sounds far-fetched, it is only because orthodox Christians have a traditional interpretation of the text that, bounded by the rule of faith, smooths over some of these difficulties.

The main point of Genesis 1-11 is the revelation of theological truth and archetypes consistent with the rule of faith and the whole of Scripture. Indeed, the writers of the New Testament indicate that these passages are full of meaning beyond the surface level account. The earliest church identified the serpent as a type of Satan (Jn. 8:44; Rev. 12:9), saw Adam’s loss of innocence as the story of all people (Rom. 5:12), and came to view the curse on the snake as the protoevangelium. To be sure, even modern Christians who insist on merely literal interpretations acknowledge these recurring typologies that are not present in the Genesis text itself.

Why should premodern interpretations of Genesis matter to us? In short, not that we should replicate every exegetical conclusion of the church fathers, but that we might add to our faith knowledge, wisdom, and humility. Anyone who feels strongly about their “literalist” reading of Genesis 1-11 ought to gain some humility when they realize that most premodern Christians, who were just as devoted to God and the inspiration of his word as they are, did not share their concerns or perhaps their same beliefs about the text. As the study of church history in general opens up a world of wisdom and broad perspective, so the study of the history of interpretation provides exegetical insight and perspective that we miss when we only consult those who happen to still be walking around. We are encouraged to read Genesis as, above all, a Christian book, and to avoid getting mired in a literalistic reading that causes us to be antagonistic to science and to miss the spiritual point of the text. Whether or not we agree with their exegetical conclusions, more often than not our older brothers and sisters will help us see the beauty and glory of the God revealed in Scripture, the telos of which is Christ.