Misunderstanding the Book of Genesis

Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860
Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860.

What do faithful Christians believe about the creation of the world? A glance at any mainstream American newspaper—and its coverage of the all-too-frequent debates about Creationism and the teaching of evolution in American public schools—might lead a casual observer to conclude that the idea of God creating the world in six days roughly five-odd thousand years ago is enshrined in most Christian denominational dogma.

But that wasn’t always the case, Roland Mushat Fyre reminds us. In an article published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Frye explains that:

The mainline denominations today have just as low an opinion of these cultural ghosts [ie, young earth creationism] as does the scientific mainstream.

And he isn’t merely alluding to the diversity of Biblical references on the subject, such as the fact that the sun and moon were only created on the fourth day of Genesis, or that the Book of Job speaks of only a single day of creation. (Perhaps it’s best to avoid getting into the differences between Genesis 1 and 2.) Rather, he points to a near-universal interpretation shared by the early Church Fathers: that Genesis 1 should not only be understood allegorically, but that allegory itself was an entirely acceptable religious mode of conveying a greater truth. “Augustine,” Frye writes, “thus found it impossible to impose a time frame on the biblical references to creation, and treated the accounts as pervasively figurative.” He was more concerned with defending the idea that the act of creating the world might imply a change in a perfect and unchangeable God.

Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did a desire to “prove” the Bible through science come into theological vogue.

Augustine, like many of his contemporaries (to say nothing of his successors) subscribed to the idea of “accommodationism,” the belief that the Bible was written to both help the common man and the learned man interested in understanding its truth. As Thomas Aquinas put it:

The use of metaphors…befits sacred doctrine…Poetry uses metaphors to depict, since men naturally find pictures pleasing. But sacred doctrine uses them because they are useful and necessary.

Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did a desire to “prove” the Bible through science come into theological vogue. This effort planted the seeds of the anti-Darwinian, reactionary fundamentalism so prevalent in America today.

Ultimately, Frye reminds us, Christian theologians throughout the ages have understood the Genesis account as fundamentally concerned with the relationship between God and human beings. Not between science and faith. “The purpose of the biblical account of creation was not to instruct people in astronomy or in any other science, but rather in their human nature and destiny, and in their relation to God.”

For Frye, and for so many Christians throughout the history of the faith, that’s not a waffling minimization of the Biblical story. It’s the most important story of all.

JSTOR Citations

So-Called "Creation-Science" and Mainstream Christian Rejections

By: Roland Mushat Frye

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 127, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 61-70

American Philosophical Society

Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton's work on religion, culture, and place has appeared in National Geographic, Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Atlantic, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is finishing her DPhil in theology and literature as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford

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