Folks who say that Genesis 1 must be interpreted as presenting a literal chronology of seven literal days often assert that this viewpoint was never challenged before 19th century (or some other recent century). Once scientists began to think that the world might be very old, and particularly when evolution became a popular theory, some Christians began to try reinterpreting Genesis 1 in a new way: these believers started saying that maybe we don’t need to interpret Genesis 1 literally. The literalists say that this was nothing but an accommodation to scientific developments, and that we really ought to stick with what Christians have always believed about this passage. I was one such person myself. I believed that God-hating scientists (sorry, but that’s how I thought of them, unfortunately) advanced the idea of the extreme age of the earth because they rejected what Genesis clearly taught, and since no one in the history of the Church had ever thought otherwise about Genesis 1 before the advent of God-hating science, it was foolish to change our views just to suit atheistic opinions. There are a few problems here, however.
One rather glaring problem for Protestants who hold to sola scriptura and who take this view is that they appeal to tradition in defense of their opinion. To appeal to tradition in defense of their view of Genesis 1 while at the same time rejecting Catholic appeals to tradition reduces sola scriptura to an ad hoc argument that they make when it is convenient to do so. If the Church’s history of interpretation may be discarded at will, there’s no principled reason to cling to tradition on this point either.
Another and more important problem with this appeal to tradition is that it is false. It is not the case that Christians always interpreted Genesis 1 as presenting a literal chronology until modern science challenged this idea. As Alister McGrath shows in this article, St Augustine did not hold this view:
North African bishop Augustine of Hippo (354–430) had no skin in the game concerning the current origins controversies. He interpreted Scripture a thousand years before the Scientific Revolution, and 1,500 before Darwin’s Origin of Species. Augustine didn’t “accommodate” or “compromise” his biblical interpretation to fit new scientific theories. The important thing was to let Scripture speak for itself.
Further, he argues that a close reading of Genesis 2:4 has the following meaning: “When day was made, God made heaven and earth and every green thing of the field.” This leads him to conclude that the six days of Creation are not chronological. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mold it, even to the present day. [emphasis added]
It was a hard pill to swallow when I learned that my huffing and puffing about the universal consensus about Genesis 1 was contradicted by no less than St Augustine! Egg and my face were in alignment.
Aquinas has some useful things to say about the subject of the world’s age.
By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity (32, 1). The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from “here” and “now”; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. Likewise neither can it be demonstrated on the part of the efficient cause, which acts by will. For the will of God cannot be investigated by reason, except as regards those things which God must will of necessity; and what He wills about creatures is not among these, as was said above (Question 19, Article 3). But the divine will can be manifested by revelation, on which faith rests. Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science. And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith. [ST Ia q46 a2, emphasis added]
We believe that the world is created and not eternal because God tells us that He created it. But on the other hand, reason does not compel us to believe that the world is eternal, either: there is no contradiction between reason and revelation.
Nothing except God can be eternal. And this statement is far from impossible to uphold: for it has been shown above (Question 19, Article 4) that the will of God is the cause of things. Therefore things are necessary, according as it is necessary for God to will them, since the necessity of the effect depends on the necessity of the cause (Metaph. v, text 6). Now it was shown above (Question 19, Article 3), that, absolutely speaking, it is not necessary that God should will anything except Himself. It is not therefore necessary for God to will that the world should always exist; but the world exists forasmuch as God wills it to exist, since the being of the world depends on the will of God, as on its cause. It is not therefore necessary for the world to be always; and hence it cannot be proved by demonstration. [ST Ia q46 a1; emphasis added]
God has revealed to us that He created the world ex nihilo. He has not told us exactly how old the earth is. We need to be cautious when approaching this question. The fact that God created the world is not contradicted by the idea that Earth is billions of years old, so we do not need to be afraid to reconsider the question of how to interpret Genesis 1 correctly. We may safely follow in St Augustine’s footsteps, even if we do not end up agreeing with all of his conclusions.
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