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How Catholics Read the Genesis Creation Accounts

Theological Truths and Types Hidden in the Creation Accounts of Genesis

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hat are the creation accounts of Genesis about? Are they simply a recalling of events which we are to take as historical facts with scientific measurements? Are they just the myths thought up by the pre-scientific mind of ancient man to explain the world around them? Conversely, are they just theological metaphors with no literal truth to them? The Catholic Church has officially taken the position that lies in the middle of those extremes which some Christians, both ancient and modern, have held as their belief. There are certain things we,  as Catholics, are required to believe about the beginnings of man, and other things which are understood to be, because of the literary genre of the first few chapters, metaphorical in nature and teaching theological truth over literal ones at some points.

From the writings of the Church Fathers, we can see that these are questions which Christians have pondered since the beginning. Some like Origen, saying such events taken literally would “seem incapable of containing truth,”[1] taught that they should mostly be understood anagogically; that is, they teach spiritual truths through allegories which make such abstract truths easier to understand. On the other hand, St. Basil affirmed in homily 9 of his Hexaëmeron, that they were literal 24 hour days.[2] St. Augustine said that we ought to only take literal what does not contradict what we know to be true through science and reason. He says in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” that “it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them [the authors of the Bible], to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.”[3] In short, since Augustine understood the role of reason and science in the interpretation of Genesis, he understood that what we take as literal, historical truth may need to be shaped by what we know from reason and science. In addition, all things included, whether they are to be understood literally or spiritually, would not be there if they did not have a theological truth attached which has a bearing on our salvation.

“Catholics are at liberty to believe that creation took a few days or a much longer period, according to how they see the evidence, and subject to any future judgment of the Church (Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis 36–37). They need not be hostile to modern cosmology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “[M]any scientific studies . . . have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life forms, and the appearance of man. These studies invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator” (CCC 283).”[4]

So, as we can see from Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, there are things which we must take to be literally true from Genesis, and others which each believer can decide for himself. Now, this does not mean that what each believer decides is necessarily true, but only that there isn’t an official interpretation regarding every part of Genesis, so those parts are relatively open to interpretation at this time, as long as they are in line with what is required. To be clear, what we must believe about the Creation account is at least this: that our race did not evolve without the help of God; that the first actual human, soul and all, came about through direct action from God and the input of that soul; that Adam and Eve were our first parents, not a representation of several parents a la polygenism; etc. There is much more we could get into regarding the topic of evolution, but this essay will be more focused on other aspects of the creation accounts. Notice, though, that based on what the Church teaches and has always held, evolution, to a certain extent, is not incompatible with Christianity.

That said, I believe a safe way to go about interpreting certain parts of the Bible theologically is through typology. Typology is the study of types in the Bible. These are prefigurements, or shadows, usually in the Old Testament, which point toward things to come in the New. While most of these types are fulfilled in Christ as the Messiah, there are others that are fulfilled through other means, such as Peter or Mary. As I’ve emphasized elsewhere, this is not a conspiratorial or new way of interpreting Scripture — it’s actually how Jesus taught the apostles to interpret it. We know this based on Colossians 2:17, where Paul notes “shadows” which point toward their fulfilment in Christ, and 1 Peter 3:31, where St. Peter describes the Flood, water which delivered eight people from physical death, as a prefigurement for baptism, which delivers all Christians, again through water, to eternal salvation. Jesus even teaches it to disciples on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27.

The Catholic Church is the only church today which employs this method to its logical conclusions, which end with the realities of the Papacy, the Eucharist, and Marian doctrines, among others. Now, one must stay within the confines of what the Church understands about typology to ensure they are not going too far with it, as Origen may have done with some of his allegorical interpretations. It should also be noted that typology, though it holds much rich theology, does not mean necessarily that anything that typology is incorporated in did not happen literally. Typology applies to real events just as much as it applies to metaphors, and this does not take away from the reality of the literal events in any way. God is the author of nature, reality, and history, and he incorporates typology into it without taking away from its historicity, and without taking away from our free will. The reality of the types often doesn’t come to life until we see them looking back, already knowing the reality of their fulfilment in Christ or other figures. The Catechism puts it this way: “Christians, therefore, read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself…Nor do the calling of the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt, for example, lose their own value in God’s plan, from the mere fact that they were intermediate stages.”[5] One crucial thing to understand about typology is that across the board, everything the Church understands to be typological follows this rule: All fulfillments are greater than their prefigurements. Each type points toward a greater reality, everytime, usually in regards to its bearing on our salvation.

So, using this method how the Church understands it, I will share my thoughts on how typology reveals another side to the Creation Accounts which you may not have considered before.

Beginning at Genesis 1:1, it should be immediately discernible that this is not meant to be a historical or scientific account. For instance, it says the earth was without form or shape, but there was an “abyss” and a “mighty wind.” This is before God creates wind or anything else but the earth, and “the heavens” which could mean a few different things at this point. Also, light and the days start occurring before the sun is created, but it’s made clear that the sun is what causes the seasons. It’s more likely that these words are meant to convey theological truths rather than empirical ones.

The earth “being without form” may even convey a hidden truth waiting to be discovered in the scientific advances we now know explain the constant geological changing of the world – if this was truly the beginning of the earth, it was without many of its mountains and other formations. It also may convey a theological truth about the earth – it is without form when it is without those things which God creates to inhabit it. The earth is not what holds value, its inhabitants give it its true intended value, though everything God makes has value because He made it just as well. God made us in His image, not the earth.

The “mighty wind” could only, as far as I can tell, be a typological inference to the Holy Spirit, which is often described as a wind throughout Scripture. To Jews who won’t accept the idea of typology in the Old Testament ever pointing toward the Holy Spirit, they may understand the wind as God Himself, though they only refer to it as the Father while we know it to be a whole other person of the Trinity.

This Trinitarian typology continues when we notice just how God creates: through words. He speaks, and things come into existence. John tells us, just after calling Jesus “The Word,” or “The Logos,” the Divine Wisdom that orders everything, that “He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be” (John 1:3). John, of course, knows all about typology, and employs it throughout his gospel. In the first part, he constantly references Genesis. What he shows us here is that all things that God the Father is creating in the Creation Accounts are being created through and with Christ, His Word.

Then there’s the water. What is this water to signify and why was it not explicitly told to us as having been created at any given point in this account? I believe it is another typological clue to a woman that would come later: Mary. Miriam, in the original Hebrew. The name’s origin is disputable, but many of the claimed meanings surround the theme of  “the sea” (Woman of the sea, drop of the sea, the sea of sorrow, the sea of bitterness).[6] There are other theories pointing toward “beloved.”[7] It is interesting that the two themes of the wind and the sea appear together here, because if they truly are typological clues to Mary and the Holy Spirit, they are fulfilled perfectly in the Virgin Birth, where Mary is “married” to the Holy Spirit in order to become pregnant with Jesus Christ. I say “married” because there is never mentioned a marriage between the two, but if God were to impregnate a person, He would surely follow His own laws of having to be married before having intercourse. That is how, biblically, two become one flesh. If the Virgin Birth is followed to its logical conclusion, then Mary had to have married the Holy Spirit, making her, in a way, “one flesh” with the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit doesn’t have flesh, the result is, I believe, an important truth.

Mary instead becomes of one will and mind with God, though still human (she doesn’t become eternal, omnipotent, etc as she still has a human nature and that does not change; we have no reason to believe it would, especially because it is a logical contradiction to “become” something that is, in its definition, eternal and purely actual). This would mean she is totally conformed to the will of God. This would be an incredibly logical thing for God to do, as Jesus, being her son, as any good, faithful son would want His mother to be as perfect as possible. Also, it would even be advantageous for Him because it would make everything that Jesus had to do to fulfill His role on earth run much more smoothly. Though He’s God, and doesn’t need help, He surely would want His mother, whom He undoubtedly loves more than we can imagine or comprehend, to have an important role to play alongside Him while He lived on earth with her. To be totally conformed to the will of God would also mean she would be sinless, which is also necessary for Jesus’ 100% human nature (but without the stain of original sin) to be passed on to Him through Mary.

Since there is still no sun, but God calls the ‘light’ into being, this can rightfully be assumed to be the angels. He separates them from the darkness, which we learn elsewhere in the Bible (Revelation at least) can be an inference to the demons who fell after following Satan’s prideful rejection of God. This would make sense because this must have happened before the fall of Adam, which occurs later in Genesis.

I am not sure why the days are separated as they are. I do not believe they are to be understood as literal days; at the very least they could be understood as “eras” of time of some indeterminable amount. Elsewhere we read in the Bible that to God, a day is like a thousand years. The Genesis account may even be teaching evolution, if it is to any extent grounded in truth, though the writer of Genesis likely had no understanding of such a concept. The order of the days may best be understood as the hierarchy of value of God’s creations. This would make the most sense when considering that man and woman are made last, being made in God’s image. They are God’s crowning creations, woman especially: the most beautiful creation in all existence. Even this chapter, just as the whole Bible can be understood to be, may be framed by the Virgin Mary. If she appears at the very beginning in the type of the sea, then she also appears at the end of the chapter as the type of Eve. So, too, she frames Jesus’ life as appearing at His first miracle at the Wedding at Cana, and at the foot of the Cross at the end of His life. And then she again appears at the end of the Bible, framing the entire volume of God’s Inspired Book, as the woman in Heaven, described as the Ark of the Covenant, and as Queen of Heaven.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Origen. De Principiis. Book IV, 15. Third century.

[2] St. Basil. Hexaëmeron, homily 9. ~370 AD.

[3] St. Augustine. The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 2:9. ~410 AD.

[4] “Creation and Genesis.” Catholic Answers, 10 Aug. 2004, www.catholic.com/tract/creation-and-genesis.

[5] “The Unity of the Old and New Testaments.” Catechism of the Catholic Church – Sacred Scripture, www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a3.htm.

[6] A. Maas, “The Name of Mary”, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), citing Franz von Hummelauer (in Exod. et Levit., Paris, 1897, p. 161)

[7] ibid.

Author Profile

Logan Winkleman
Logan Winkleman
Logan Winkelman was received into the Catholic Church on Pentecost, 2018 after a two-year, intensely researched conversion from non-denominational Protestantism with the original aim of disproving Catholicism. His educational background in philosophy and personal experience of Protestant Christianity has given him a unique perspective on his new-found faith and the Christian religion as a whole. He resides in Tustin, California, and has spoken at retreats and church events within his home diocese of Orange. He enjoys spending his free time finding God in nature, mountain hiking, spending time with family, and reading.

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