Genesis and Literalism

I have written about this subject before, and it came up again today whilst I was flipping through my notes. Once upon a time when I was still Protestant I adamantly stood for the literal 24-hour, 7-day interpretation of Genesis 1. I went so far as to say with complete confidence that this interpretation was unchallenged until Lyell and Darwin came along, and that this alleged novelty demonstrated the error of supposing that Genesis 1 should be understood in any other way. In short, I was Mr. Know-It-All…except I didn’t. As it turns out there are at least two (and probably more—see below) highly prominent theologians who lived long before Lyell and Darwin and rejected the literalist approach to Genesis 1: Augustine and Aquinas.

Our first source of information is Frank Sheed’s fine book Theology for Beginners. He tells us (p. 72) that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (including St. Augustine) never believed that the six days of Genesis 1 were literal days. Obviously my claim had a few holes in it.

Aquinas turns the holes into a gaping maw of ignorance on my part.

According to Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iv. 34), the works of the six days were done all at one time (Summa Theologiae I q.91 a.4 ad 5; emphasis added)

Fred turns red. What was that I used to say? Gulp. But why, then, should we suppose that Genesis 1 should be understood figuratively instead? Is there a positive argument? As it turns out there is at least one (even if we ignore the little problem of the “firmament”):

In the slime of the earth are earth, and water binding the earth together. Of the other elements, Scripture makes no mention, because they are less in quantity in the human body, as we have said; and because also in the account of the Creation no mention is made of fire and air, which are not perceived by senses of uncultured men such as those to whom the Scripture was immediately addressed. (ST I q.91 a.1 ad 4; emphasis added)

In short: Aquinas says that Genesis 1 should not be taken literally because it was written in such a way as to accommodate the weakness of its first recipients. Kaboom. Game, set, match; Fred loses. Two of the greatest theological minds of the last two millennia denied the idea of literal days in Genesis 1. My brash, untutored claims were just that: brash and untutored.

I have written about problems with taking Genesis literalistically before. There are serious difficulties that cannot be simply ignored out of existence. For another example, take Ishmael’s age when Abraham sent him and his mother Hagar away: was he a young toddler, as seems strongly implied by the record in Genesis, or was he thirteen or fourteen years old, as Genesis earlier says he was when he was circumcised?

The question, I think, is this: what sort of literature is Genesis intended to be? If it is not intended to be literal history, these difficulties evaporate. It seems to me that there are good reasons for making this supposition, not least of which is that SS. Augustine and Aquinas denied the strictly literalist account.

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Posted in Aquinas - Theology, Augustine, Creation, Scripture

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