Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Theology
Wyoming Catholic College
Presented at Thomas Aquinas College
November 16, 2012
It was a great pleasure to receive an invitation to speak about Scripture here at my alma mater. Although I realized even as a student that I was receiving a great formation, it was not until many years later that I saw how specifically this education prepared for entering the field of biblical studies. Light began to dawn at some point during my doctoral studies, when I had taken most of my classes from a certain professor, a respected scholar and a member of the Jesus Seminar. We disagreed, in an amicable way, about whether miracles were possible, about whether form criticism were really the best way into the gospels, and about many other things, but I never felt that I had met his mind and really grasped from the inside why he mentally zigged when I would mentally zag. Then it came home to me: my teacher studied under Helmut Koester, who studied under Rudolf Bultman, who studied at the University of Marbourg, a hotbed of neo-Kantian philosophy. Then I read then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous “Erasmus Lecture” of 1989, in which he argued that “the debate about modern exegesis is, at heart, not a debate among historians, but a philosophical debate.” (pg. 113) The source of the problem? Ratzinger pointed to Kant. And as a model for an “open philosophy, which is able to accept the biblical phenomenon in all its radicalism” (pg. 118), Ratzinger pointed to Thomas Aquinas.
The advantage of the perennial philosophy is not that it gives us a club wherewith to smite the modernist. The real advantage is that it allows us to bypass fruitless debate and get on to the truly interesting questions in biblical interpretation. Good philosophy will not answer all your biblical questions, but bad philosophy will keep you from ever seeing the questions in the first place. It’s rather like the contemporary debate about evolution, which, at least as it unfolds in the popular press, largely takes place between atheists and Christians who tacitly agree to the same bad philosophy and so get worked up over molehills while missing the mountains entirely.
Tonight I want to tackle a different but related topic, namely the bearing of the book of Genesis on science. I could equally well have titled this lecture “Genesis and History,” because a historical account of the world’s beginnings and a scientific account of the world’s beginnings are, in modern terms, more or less the same thing. It seems to me that people argue about how to interpret the creation story in Genesis, neither side sees the other’s point, and both sides fail to drill down to the truly theological issues. In the time we have I will only be able to offer a preamble of sorts to an interpretation of the text, and at the end I will raise what seem to me some possible directions that further discussion might take us.
Now, although I want to speak to you about Genesis, I can’t leap straight into the text. To do it well, I will need to start with something that comes before our understanding of any particular passage of Scripture, namely with what literary critics call the understood author. As we read any book, whether we realize it or not, we form an imaginary picture of the author. For example, I almost unconsciously think of Milton as an older man with a stern, almost overbearing moralistic view of the world, symbolized in my imagination by his tall, perfectly starched collar; I picture Aquinas as a serene and serious person who is never aggressive but on the other hand never backs down, his eyes penetrating but kind; and when a student turns in a paper with multitudinous grammatical and spelling errors, I can’t help but picture the author more or less as a monkey at a typewriter. And even when we do not realize that we are imagining the author, the way we imagine the author greatly influences how we read his book—and this may be more true of Scripture than of any other book, because the authors of Scripture were supernaturally inspired, which makes us imagine them in a very unusual way. So I need to start by explaining how I imagine the authors of Scripture.
But before I can talk about the human authors of Scripture, I need to talk about the first and most important author of Scripture, God. Who the human authors were and how they wrote will depend on how and what God wanted to write. And before I can talk about God’s intention in making books, I need to talk about his intention in creating anything at all. In order to explain the story of creation in Genesis, therefore, I need to talk directly about creation itself. Why did God make things?
God created in order to share himself, his being and goodness. That is to say, he created in order to give a likeness of himself to creatures. One very important way he wanted his creatures to resemble him is that he wanted them to be real causes, as he is the supreme cause. In fact, to be and to be a cause are so closely related that it is difficult to conceive of God wanting to share his being without considering that he wanted to share his causality.
That God wants his creatures to be real causes is clear in nature, where so much can be explained by natural causes that some people begin to think that we do not even need God to explain things—this the reward for his generosity! But I want to focus on human history, and on salvation history in particular. In this context, God’s desire to make his creatures to be real causes means that God wants man himself, so far as it is possible, to be the teacher and savior of mankind. He wants revelation to come from man, and he wants redemption to come from man. This fact is clearest in the Incarnation, in which God gives himself most fully to his creatures by personally becoming one of his creatures, and in which man himself is the supreme teacher and savior of the world. But the same desire is clear in what followed the Incarnation, when God made human beings to be apostles and priests in order to reveal to others what Jesus Christ had revealed. Leo XIII lays this out clearly in his encyclical letter Satis cognitum:
Although God can do by His own power all that is effected by created natures, nevertheless in the counsels of His loving Providence He has preferred to help men by the instrumentality of men. And, as in the natural order He does not usually give full perfection except by means of man's work and action, so also He makes use of human aid for that which lies beyond the limits of nature, that is to say, for the sanctification and salvation of souls. But it is obvious that nothing can be communicated amongst men save by means of external things which the senses can perceive. For this reason the Son of God assumed human nature-"who being in the form of God.... emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man" (Philipp. ii., 6,7)-and thus living on earth He taught his doctrine and gave His laws, conversing with men. … The Apostles received a mission to teach by visible and audible signs, and they discharged their mission only by words and acts which certainly appealed to the senses. (SC 2-3)
But the way in which the visible Church passes on the revelation of Jesus Christ is not the way one would hand on a baton, as an extrinsic object and extrinsically handed off without any change in the hand itself: each generation of Christians must themselves contemplate Christ and so to speak discover him for themselves, and then they pass on the fruits of their reflection to others as something truly from themselves. This is why, for example, we have development in doctrine. As Dei Verbum says,
There is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. (DV 8)
This is the closest that mere men can come to being themselves the revealers of supernatural truth, true causes of revelation: God supplies a supernatural, revelatory object, namely Christ; and by contemplating this object under the influence of faith, men are able to discover supernatural truth through their own powers and announce it to others.
If Christians after the Incarnation are able to “reveal” supernatural truths by contemplating Christ, what did God want from men before the Incarnation, in the time of the Old Testament? Clearly, he chose Israel as his vehicle of revelation, but what did he want from the men of Israel?
Contemplation of Christ is the key for those of us who live after the Incarnation. To prepare for Christ, God made Israel as a foreshadowing of him; that is, God gave Israel a partial share in what Christ is fully, and by possessing this partial share Israel was able to be a sign of Christ. Because Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, God can warn Pharoah that Israel is his first-born son; because Christ is the bodily temple of the Godhead, Moses can plead to God that it is God’s presence in the midst of Israel that makes Israel distinct from all other nations (Deut 34); because Christ is the great high priest who offered sacrifice once for all, God can tell Israel that they are a kingdom of priests. Everything that Christ is fully, Israel is in a partial manner.
Here we have the Israelite’s path to revealing supernatural truth. The Word is not yet Incarnate, so the Israelite prophet cannot contemplate Christ directly as would the apostles and priests of the New Testament; but God made the nation of Israel itself in its history and its institutions to be a reflection of Christ, so the prophets could contemplate their nation and their history and announce to others the results of their contemplation. In other words, God (a) made a supernatural, revelatory object for man to see, namely the history and institutions of Israel, and (b) gave certain men a supernatural light of insight into this object. This supernatural light was to natural insight as faith is to reason, beyond it but perfective of it in its own line. Now man could by the exercise of his own powers discover and announce to others the revelation of God.
This is why the books of the prophets are concerned primarily with the nation of Israel and say comparatively little about the future. They authoritatively interpret the events of their times, say what God’s intentions are, and explain the real reasons behind things; they comment on kings, famines, invasions, diseases, and economic booms and busts; they open up the true nature of the Temple, of sacrifice, and of the priesthood; and when these things are threatened with destruction, then yes, their attention turns to the future. But the prophet’s role was more to see deeply into the realities of his own day than to peer into distant events.
A very special case of this was when authors living close to the time of the exile reflected back on Israel’s history and, with new insight based on new experience, pulled together all the traditions dating back to Moses about Israel’s history and presented them in a single, coherent account. They could see the whole trajectory from Abraham through David to the demise of the kingdom, and the imminent national death of Israel had that clarifying effect that imminent death has for any individual man: the important things stood out, the less important things receded into the background, and as a result these men were in a unique position to tell Israel’s story in its true meaning. They had to use traditions because they were using their own powers, though enhanced by grace, and so they could not just write things down de novo. But they saw into their national history with a new clarity strengthened by grace, and the result was not only the Pentateuch in its final form but also the series of historical books from Joshua through 2 Kings called in Jewish tradition the “former prophets”. Notice that the writing of history was a prophetic vocation—we will have to come back to this idea later.
We are getting close to that imaginary picture of the human authors of the Old Testament which I promised when we began. Although certain authors, like Ezekiel, wrote in obvious ecstacy, sensibly overpowered by God’s message, most authors of Scripture would have looked exactly like any human author From an outsider’s point of view, even though in truth they were supernaturally graced men contemplating a supernatural object. This view of the sacred authors is compactly laid out in Dei Verbum:
In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (DV 11)
Now at last we can turn to Genesis 1-11. While our author reflected on Israel’s history, he also reflected on creation. All of creation, but mankind in a special way, is recapitulated or summed up in Christ, who is able to represent all of humanity to God the Father, and therefore able to offer sacrifice on behalf of all humanity. Now remember that, to prepare for Christ, God made Israel as a foreshadowing of him; that is, God gave Israel a partial share in what Christ is fully, and by possessing this partial share Israel was able to be a sign of Christ. Now if Christ recapitulates mankind, and if Israel was made to reflect Christ, then it follows that Israel also recapitulated mankind; or to put it in more biblical terms, if Christ was the new Adam, and Israel foreshadowed Christ, then Israel was also a new Adam. It would be too great a digression to demonstrate here that the Old Testament portrays Israel as a new creation or a new Adam, but a couple of examples should illustrate the idea. When Israel crosses the Red Sea and wins definitive independence from Egypt, the wind blowing over the water and the parting of the waters to reveal dry land evoke the creation account in Genesis 1; the priestly and kingly role assigned to Adam in Genesis 1 is given to Israel in Exodus 19, where God says, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; God then plants Israel in a holy land made unique by his dwelling among them, just as Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden where he could walk with God in the cool of the evening. Such examples could be multiplied, but suffice it to say for now that Israel represented a new creation, a new mankind, because Israel represented Christ the new Adam.
But here the order of being and the order of discovery are different: while Christ is the reason why Israel recapitulated creation, creation and mankind were actually present in Old Testament times while the Incarnate Word was not. So it was easier at first to see clearly that Israel recapitulated mankind than to see clearly that Israel foreshadows Christ. Because the human author was contemplating an object designed to reflect creation, and because he had a supernatural gift of insight into this object, he was able to offer an account of creation based on his reflections about Israel’s history—he gazed into Israel’s institutions and history and there saw mankind’s beginnings. For example, knowing the story of Israel, one can readily see how the human author arrived at the notion that mankind in the beginning had a covenant with God as well as a law, and that by breaking God’s law he was expelled from a holy land. Here we have a solution to the riddle of how God will make man the revealer and teacher with regard to something so removed from man’s everyday experience as creation: once again, God (a) provides a supernatural object and (b) gives man a supernatural grace of seeing into this object.
Because he used his own powers, enhanced by grace, our human author used the resources one would normally use in a literary effort to describe creation, namely other accounts of creation. Dei Verbum emphasizes the importance of this point:
Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. (DV 12)
As applied to Genesis, this text means that the human author, when he wished to write about creation, used the literary forms conventional at the time for talking about creation. The accounts of creation all around at the time were mythical, and so he took up mythical elements to write Israel’s own creation story.
But it was impossible—and this is important—it was impossible for Israel to use myth simply speaking. Myth is based on a particular view of history in which a timeless “beginning time”—which is nonetheless not some particular number of years in the past but conceived atemporally—serves as the pattern for all things, and the world will sometimes through liturgy re-contact the “beginning time” to renew the world. Hence history moves in a circle, and the “beginning time” is like a point in the middle of the circle sending radii out to the circumference. Israel, on the other hand, came to know God and came to its story of creation by experiencing the linear historical plan of God, which had a beginning, was then in its middle, and was headed towards some end—not circular. The “beginning time” for Israel had to be in some sense historical, even though Israel used a mythical literary form to convey it. As a result, Israel’s creation story fits neither into the genre of history as understood today nor into the genre of myth as understood then. It is in fact a unique form of literature with no exact precedent and no exact successor—which makes it really hard to interpret! The Pontifical Biblical Commission, writing at the time as part of the magisterium of the Church, expresses the difficulty well in a letter written to clarify questions about Genesis 1-11:
The question of the literary forms of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is … obscure and complex. These literary forms correspond to none of our classical categories and cannot be judged in light of Greco-Roman or modern literary styles. One can, therefore, neither deny nor affirm their historicity, taken as a whole, without unduly attributing to them the canons of a literary style within which it is impossible to classify them. [Letter to Suhard]
[To complicate the picture, Israel meant to refute the theology of the surrounding nations. Often, therefore, he took up material from the myths of other nations in order to show that the other nations were wrong.]
To put the same thing in other words, in the ancient world people wrote stories as a way of doing theology, and the mythical genre signaled to the listener, “I mean to present theology, not history.” When Israel wanted to present theology, they took up the myth format just as Aquinas adopted the disputation format when he wanted to do theology in the 13th century. But since Israel’s theology itself was bound up with history, their myth-like writings could not signal that they meant to do theology as opposed to history. So the result was a non-historical story form whose theology frequently implied that the story was in some respects historical.
Excerpt from Pius XII
Humani generis (1950):
Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies. This Letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.
a) Were Adam and Eve Historical Individuals?
Consequently, the Church’s approach to Gen 1-11 has been to examine the theology in a story and then determine what history it requires. For example, the entire story of salvation history, including the redemption wrought by Christ, depends on the premise that humanity as a race stood under a curse. This makes no sense unless a historical, individual person who really acted on behalf of mankind committed some kind of sin and brought down punishment on the human race—that is, unless Adam was a real, historical person. As Pius XII goes on to say in his encyclical Humani generis.
The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own. [HG 37]
The Pope examines the theological meaning of Genesis to determine whether it does or does not imply a historical assertion. This will be our approach as well.
Since we have already seen this case in which the theological meaning does require a historical sense, I would like to take up another case in which I will argue that the theological meaning rules out a historical assertion. The question I will take up is whether the seven days of creation in Genesis one are to be read chronologically. Does the text assert that day one of creation is prior in time to day two, day two prior in time to day three, and so on?
A first hint of an answer comes from the structure of the text. The first six days of creation are laid out such that days one through three correspond to days four through six, with the first three days providing “containers” for what come in the next three days:
4. Sun, moon, stars
2. Sky and seas
5. Birds and fish
3. Dry land and plants
6. Land animals and man (who eat plants)
The parallel between the light of the first day and the luminaries of the fourth day always causes the new reader to stop and wonder: where did the light come from before there was a source of light? Was like sitting in a well-lit room until the lightbulb appears, at which point the light is coming from the lightbulb? How are we supposed to understand the sequence of events?
To answer the question, I suggest that we have to slow down and use our lower, not our higher, powers of understanding. The answer does not depend on an advanced knowledge of Hebrew, or on research into the nature of light, or on speculations about the intentions of providence. The answer is best found with a crayon, using powers we exercised deeply in kindergarten but sometimes overlook in our older years. I mean a simple and slow imagining of what the text describes. You can use your handout to follow along as I read the text and comment on it.
In the beginning, we are told, the earth is without form and void and darkness is on the face of the deep. So we envision a great water covering the world, and no light shines on the water. Then God creates light, and we imagine this as shining on the water. Next, God divides the water horizontally in the middle so as to make a cavity in between the upper waters and lower waters; at this point, the light shines on top of the upper waters. Then God divides the lower waters to reveal land, so that the lower waters and the land are below the upper waters which is below the light; this cavity in the middle is called “the firmament.” Next, God places the sun, the moon, and the stars in this “firmament,” in the cavity between the lower waters and the upper waters in order to provide light during the day and during the night, as well as to measure times and seasons. So at this point, the land and seas are below the sun, moon, and stars; these are below the upper waters; and this is below the light that began shining on the first day. The important thing to notice is that, when we carefully follow the story in our imaginations, the sun, moon, and stars are in a different place from the original light of the first day; in other words, neither the sun nor any other heavenly body replaces that original light.
At this point, one cannot help but wonder what that original light is supposed to be. While separate from the sun and other heavenly luminaries, it is placed in parallel to them (see the chart above). Since the first chapter of Genesis is in many other ways combating the paganism of the surrounding nations, and many gentile religions involved worship of the heavenly bodies, I would suggest that our author wants us to see that the heavenly bodies point beyond themselves to a greater light in the highest heavens. Is Augustine right to see here the angels of God enlightened by the beatific vision? Is the very person of the Word perhaps in view? However that may be, the heavenly luminaries that measure our time are set apart from the original light of the first day.
This fact is important for our question, because that light created on the first day causes the division of creation into seven days. The sun, which causes our days to be distinct from our nights, comes later and is set apart as a different light and perhaps even as a different kind of light. As a result, the seven “days” of creation in Genesis 1 are not the same days, or even the same kind of days, as what we typically call “days”. If I am right in suggesting that the human author wants us to lift our minds beyond the physical luminaries to something greater, then attending to a historical chronology is in fact contrary to his intention, a falling back into that very focus on physicality he hoped to prevent.
At this point we have to face a bias we all share as modern men and women: modernity has developed a distinctive way of writing history, and we all unconsciously tend to believe that it is superior in every respect to more ancient ways of writing history. The semi-mythical history in the early chapters of Genesis is so far away from our ideal of history that we cannot help but notice it and deal with it, but to think about the problem in context we need to see that ways of writing history fall on a spectrum between myth and modern approach, and that nothing in Scripture fits either pure myth or the modern approach.
To take a familiar example, we are all aware that the gospels record the events of Jesus life in different orders. Most of us do not study the problem closely, and so we assume that there must be some way of reconciling them all such that each gospel is historically accurate by modern standards. But we should look at our own instincts: if it were up to us, there would be only one gospel, not four apparently conflicting ones; or if we must have four different witnesses, then we want someone to present to us the one, true historical order of events that emerges from them. God, it seems, preferred four different versions written anywhere from decades to half a century after the events. Our instincts seem to be at odds with God.
When we look closely at the gospels, it becomes clear that the evangelists simply do not care much about the historical order of all the details. Moreover, the gospels are not written as modern biographies: we know next to nothing about Jesus’ childhood, and in the three synoptic gospels we are only told that he journeyed to Jerusalem once; only John fills in for us that Jesus went to Jerusalem three times over the course of his public ministry. The instincts at work in the writing of the gospels are not ours; they are not strange, they are just ancient.
The problem continues when we move into the book of Acts. In both his gospel and in the Acts, Luke clearly signals in his preface that he intends to write an actual history according to the best standards of the time, with appeal to eye witness accounts and attention to right order. However, although Acts gives the impression of being a history of the early Church, and although its traditional title is “The Acts of the Apostles”, only two apostles do or say anything at all in the entire book: Peter and Paul. And when you examine Peter’s deeds, it becomes clear that he sets the stage for Paul. The entire story is arranged around a geographical progression from Jerusalem outwards to Rome, and details or anecdotes that do not fit into this progression are dropped. What’s more, Luke writes out in full speeches at which he could not have been present, and for which no eye witness could have remembered the details. An examination of the use of Scripture in these speeches indicates that Luke himself has composed them and put them into the mouths of his characters.
Again, this is not strange, just ancient. You have all read or will read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War: Thucydides clearly presents himself as a historian and takes the task seriously, even complaining that others before him have not checked their facts carefully enough. And yet he openly states that he was not present for many of the speeches he records, and so he has combined whatever report he could get of them with his own imagination to create something suitable for the occasion—what should have been said. A later author of the second century AD, Paul of Samosata, writes in his book How to Write a History that this is exactly what one should do: create a speech that fits the person speaking and the occasion in which he is speaking, and also take the opportunity to show off a bit of one’s rhetorical skill.
All of this is real history, by serious historians, and yet it makes us uncomfortable as moderns. We have to see that there are many ways to write a history besides the modern one, and that there was some reason why God chose to have his sacred histories written in ancient ways—in a whole spectrum of ancient ways, from the semi-myth of early Genesis to the quasi-history of Exodus to the more straightforward history of 2Kings through the self-identified Greco-Roman history of Luke.
All of this raises questions we should consider. Could it be that the distinctively modern way of writing history arose in connection with the distinctively modern worldview? And could it be that we feel so strong a bias toward the modern way of writing history because we are all of us, consciously or unconsciously, students of Descartes and the rest of the modern philosophers? We know that we are influenced by modern ideas about the nature of space and time: is it not therefore plausible that modern philosophy has changed our instincts about history, which reports to us the events making up the flow of time?
But lastly, and most importantly, I have to remind you that, as St. Augustine points out in On Christian Doctrine, Scripture was not primarily composed to satisfy our intellects. If the almight and omnipotent God had set out to compose a text purely for the illumination of the mind, he could have created a text so utterly lucid that the meaning would simply leap off the page in a torrent of intelligibility. But instead, Augustine argues, God composed Scripture primarily to bring us to love, and as a result he desired the text to have imperfections and obscurities that would cause us to wrestle. While the clear texts are the most useful to the intellect, the obscure texts are often more useful for our sanctification. So any time we encounter a difficult text in Scripture—and the first eleven chapters of Genesis present a unique difficulty—we have to ask the question: what spiritual good does God want me to draw from this? Our instinct is to work around the difficulty somehow, to make it go away, but that is contrary to the Author’s own intention: he wants us to sweat it out.
In the case of Genesis 1-11, it’s a kind of set-up, because God has engineered a situation in which the text will have a unique literary form never seen before and never to be seen again, which is a guarantee that this text will cause problems down the road. And he is present now to us in this room, in the same moment of eternity from which he composed the text we have before us, and through the words of the texts he desires to act on us. What change does he want to work in you? What effect does he want this difficulty to have? And most importantly: will you let him?