Is Genesis A Literal Account of Creation?
Is Genesis 1 a Literal Account of Creation?
Before we answer the question, it’s helpful to recall that there are two ways of understanding creation (or two “levels” of creation).
Level 1) God Simultaneously Creates All Things (All that Exists)
All matter is drawn forth from nothing.1 There is no part of creation that somehow comes into existence “later” or “after” the initial creative act.2 This simultaneous creation of all things is a reality expressed by Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The Church Fathers, from the earliest times (Justin Martyr, Origen) and beyond, interpreted Gen 1:1 as signifying the radical dependence of all created things (“the heavens and the earth”) upon God. This is the ex nihilo doctrine. But they weren’t just pulling things out of a hat—they were drawing clearly from and building upon John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word.” And so, they connected this doctrine of the simultaneous creation of all things with the architectonic logos, the Son of God. The Son is the framework within which, and through which, all created things are designed and expressed.
Following the teachings of Scripture and the interpretation of the Early Fathers, we can go further—with Church Doctors such as Augustine and Bonaventure—and explore, in an even deeper way, why it matters that God’s Son is called the “Word” of God. Augustine and Bonaventure do this by using the metaphor of the Son as God’s “Divine Idea.”
Explanation of the Divine Idea Metaphor
God has but one “Word”—the Son. God’s Word can thus be understood as the single Divine Idea that perfectly expresses the Divine Essence. Put another way—using language from the Creed—the begotten one (the Son, the Word) is the conduit through Whom the unknowable depth of the unbegotten one (the Father, the thinker and speaker of the Word) is expressed.3
All of this happens, of course, through the Love of the Holy Spirit—Who ensures that the process of God the Father expressing his “unbegottenness”4 through the Son happens harmoniously and perfectly. The Holy Spirit thus finalizes the bonds of community within this majestic, unparalleled Supreme Reality of the Godhead.
The Word of God, the Son, can be understood as a divine idea—a mental “thought” through which God the Father expresses himself. And yet this expression of God’s thought is not confined to God’s mind alone. Rather, creation emerges when that thought is spoken, or uttered—resounding forward from the intrinsic Godhead to create something extrinsic—from the supernatural5 to the natural, from God to creation. All that exists is grounded in the Triune God. All things exist insofar as they participate in God, who is existence itself. And yet, our awareness of this true existence is constantly and always colored by our distended and fragmented experience as finite beings in time, living in the world of causes and effects.6 The recognition of that experience brings us to the second level of creation.
Level 2) Creation Changes, and Proceeds According to the Plan Set into Motion by God
Level two is governed by, and “played out” through, a broad process that Augustine calls the “Seminal Reasons.” Augustine put forward this idea of “Seminal Reasons” to account for the fact that time is an inescapable byproduct of God’s creation of the universe (see City of God 11.4–6).7
We humans are aware of two parallel processes: 1) the timeless act of creation (Level One) that is already completed and perfected through Christ the logos, and 2) the expansive process (Level Two) through which we are experiencing that original creation—in other words, we are part of this process. Within this second level,creation has been “gifted” its own existence (esse) by God. In this second-level process, creation can make use of its existence to “return” its gifts back to their source. See Psalm 42:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
Deep calls to deep [the depth of our created being, our soul, calls to God’s depth]
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
As we established above (see footnote #1), there is no such thing as any “new” part of creation after the original speaking-into-being of all things. Nonetheless, we experience the reality of time, change, and motion. Yet these three things are not the “highest mode”of existence. In Heavenly Beatitude, we come to eternity [no time], perfection [no change or mutability], and rest [no motion]. It is unfortunate but inevitable that these “static” concepts of eternity, perfection, and rest may take on negative connotations … but this is due to our lack of understanding and our distance from them (however, see footnote 6, on mystical and sacramental experience), not due to any imperfection in their reality.8
Because we exist in a world of time, change, and motion, we are part of the process (Level Two) through which all created things are slowly returning back to their Creator. The exact details of this process are never fully knowable to human beings. We can understand the broad contours, but our perspective will always be limited. Nonetheless, we can in fact learn and know more about the shape of the universe and the operation of time and its effects. Such enhanced knowledge of time and space in no way invalidates previous expressions of “Second Level” truths about creation (such as Augustine’s doctrine of seminal reasons). These expressions are, after all, themselves only approximations of a simultaneous process (Level One) that can never be fully grasped.9
Application to Scripture
With regard to Levels One and Two, we need to recognize when Scripture is speaking in one way, and when it is speaking in another. For example, sometimes the Scriptures describe the general creation of all things ex nihilo—a “Level One” truth that is fundamental to our understanding of God’s identity. Other times, the Scriptures describe aspects of the “Second Level” understanding of creation. They speak of the processes through which God’s creation is expressed and made known to us in time—processes which (I believe) are ordered and governed by “seminal reasons.” These processes through which creation is expressed are not directly linked to God’s identity (as opposed to the initial, simultaneous creative act—which is linked directly to God through the speaking of the Word). Note: A basic explanation of “seminal reasons” is that God instilled a certain order—at the beginning—within all created things. This order then “plays out” in the development of creation.10
I believe that this second way of describing creation, the “second level” of this schema, can be seen in Genesis 1:3–5:
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
If one were to read this text literally—without keeping an eye out for where it may be describing God’s primary Act of creation, and where it might simply be elaborating on the unfolding of that Act through various secondary causes and effects—one could easily fall prey to the notion that the passage describes God creating light and darkness as we humans know them in space and time. In fact, light and darkness as we know them are inseparable from the movement and constitution of celestial bodies—which are not mentioned in Genesis 1 until verse 16: “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.”
It is abundantly clear, then, that the meaning of Gen 1:3–5 cannot be literal, or necessarily taken at “face value,” based on our experience of light and darkness. But how should it be interpreted? We should understand it as describing the second level of creation; describing part of the process of creation’s unfolding.Following Augustine’s suggestion, we see in this passage the first sign in canonical Scripture that God created a higher class of being than us, called the angels (Augustine observes the creation of the angels in the words, “let there be light”). We would learn from this passage that angels were the first beings to be “separated from the darkness,” and that this separation occurred in some way “prior” to the creation of other things in the universe. There is probably more than one way to understand this (allegorical) text, but I think Augustine’s is convincing.
And if indeed this passage was written during the Babylonian exile, it makes sense that it was never meant to be read at face value—as a literal description of God’s creation of things that we can know and see directly in the universe today. We can say that this passage does not describe the creation of “light” and “darkness” as we know them and as we have access to them. Rather than claiming to delineate the exact methods by which God brought light and darkness into being, the Scribe instead was inspired to poetically express the crucial concept of light being separated from darkness.11 Because of the broad semantic “field of meaning” elicited by the terms “light” and “darkness,” these words of the Scribe can be understood as describing either the First or the Second Level of Creation. Genesis 1:3–5 can be seen either as an expression of God creating all things from nothing (separating Light from Darkness), or as an expression of the first stages of the process of God’s creation, namely, the entry of the first beings (the angels) into this universe that was created from nothing. But it cannot be understood to depict the creation of light and darkness as we experience them today.
Does all of this, in any way, imply that the Scribe was not inspired? No! I resist those who would jump to such a conclusion. It simply means that the Scribe was given a glimpse of understanding into one way that human language can be used to approximate both:
- A) The divine reality of simultaneous creation (Level One); and
- B) The process through which that reality is played out in the time-bound universe (Level Two)
This “glimpse of understanding” was preserved, through the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit, across the time and space of history. It thus maintains its value and its central place in human thought about the beginnings of the world. To paraphrase Northrop Frye, this text is rightfully the foundational “mythos” of Western culture.
To complete the theme as to why the Genesis 1 account is special, there are at least three considerations:
#1) It is canonical, and thus was inspired by God and is useful for our salvation and our encounter with Christ.
#2) It tells us something not only about the second level of creation (the bulk of the chapter), but about the first level, namely, that God created all things from a “formless void” of nothingness.
#3) Because of 1 and 2, it also gives us a unique window into another human time, into the zeitgeist of an era when the answers to questions about the origin of all things were expressed poetically.
Our era is different: today we have the idea that we must also try to express mysteries through the lens of what we can observe, with the evidence we can find. We have recently discovered many deep secrets about the universe—secrets that were previously hidden in plain sight. We have come to understand gravitational waves, we have mapped out countless stars and galaxies, we have created magnificent models of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. All of these accomplishments reveal something different (but not necessarily something less true) than what is revealed by #3, above.
I hope that you have successfully made it through all of this, with your mind fully engaged and your heart opened to the marvelous philosophical and theological vistas that yet remain unexplored. Read the footnotes! 🙂
1) This nothingness is not a coequal or co-terminate “substance” with God—as Aristotle said “nothing comes from nothing”—and thus nothing cannot be considered as a “thing” but rather as a privation. But even this language of “privation” is limited, for it implies potential to exist when, in reality, the nothingness into which God spoke the Word “let there be” was in fact incapable of “potentially” being anything.
2) Bonaventure: “The entire world machine was brought into existence in time and from nothing.” See Breviloquium 2.1.1 (trans. Dominic V. Monti, WSB vol. IX, 59). Augustine also speaks in his final commentary on Genesis of the interaction between two levels of creation: simultaneous and “in time.”
3) On the relation between “thinking” and “speaking,” note that words are first expressed or “thought” in the mind, before they are put forward into space and time as sound (speech).
4) Greek: bythos, “depth.”
5) Super means “above,” so from what is “above” nature.
6) The exception to this rule involves mystical and/or sacramental experience. In the former, discursive thought recedes into the darkness of divine super-illumination (see Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology). In the latter, which is a broader category than the former (but can include the former), Eternal Reality makes itself known directly through material and temporal means.
7) Here, he gives an account of the mystery of what God was “doing” before God created the universe. Here’s the money quote: “For if eternity and time are rightly distinguished by this – that time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change – who does not see that there could have been no time had not some creature been made, which by some motion could give birth to change? The various parts of motion and change, as they cannot be simultaneous, succeed one another—and thus, in these shorter or longer intervals of duration, time begins.”
8) This is why I appreciate Bonaventure’s inclusion of “joy” and “ecstasy” in Heaven alongside the concepts of rest and the cessation of all desires.
9) You can see where Plato got something right here, in his Timaeus, when he speaks of time as an image of eternity. In a similar way, “second level” understandings of the process of creation are but an image of the simultaneous reality in which they exist most actually.
10) Makes sense so far, right? Where we run into difficulty is when we try to describe “natural” causality. This manner of thinking did not arise until after Augustine (thinking about “natural causes” came to fruition in the 12th century, see M.D. Chenu’s The Twelfth Century Renaissance). Nonetheless, the theologians and philosophers who claimed that nature (as opposed to super-nature) has its own set of rules and causes that we can observe did not give up on the project of understanding God as the primary influencer or “governor” of the entire created order. What they did, simply, was demarcate more specifically a realm of causality (“natural” causality) within which humans can clearly and logically access causes and effects. This demarcation of natural causality eventually led to discoveries such as the Law of the Conservation of Matter (mentioned above).
11) Later – for example, in the Gospel of John – this dichotomy between light and darkness would be even further explained by the Divine Author (the Holy Spirit). Directly after describing the Word through Whom all things came into being (John 1:1, see above), the passage continues: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”