Posted by jlwile on July 7, 2011
As I have pointed out previously, the oft-repeated claim that the church has always been united in its interpretation of the creation account is demonstrably false. It sounds reasonable to think that the church always read the creation account as historical narrative with 24-hour days, but then evolution or some other aspect of modern science “forced” theologians to reinterpret the creation account. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Even as early as 225 AD, Origen wrote:1
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first and second and third day existed without a sun and moon and stars and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally.
So even in very early church, some influential people were interpreting at least parts of the creation account figuratively. It turns out that as church history progressed, a figurative interpretation of Genesis never lost its momentum.
During my speaking tour of New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea, I read an interesting book by Dr. James Hannam, who earned a PhD in the history of science at the University of Cambridge. The book’s title is The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. It is an incredibly interesting read, and I plan to review it in an upcoming blog post. For right now, however, I wanted to quote from a section of the book where the author is talking about William of Conches, a major figure in the Medieval church who lived in the mid-to-late 1100s. He discusses Conches’s view of creation and says the following:2
He states explicitly that a literal understanding of parts of Genesis would be absurd. Rejecting such a literalistic interpretation of Scripture, he wrote: “The authors of Truth are silent on matters of natural philosophy, not because these matters are against the faith, but because they have little to do with the upholding of such faith, which is what those authors were concerned with.” Such a view was widespread, if still controversial, in William of Conches’ time.
In case you were wondering, science was called “natural philosophy” in that day and age. So what Conches basically said was that Genesis does not give a scientific account of the creation of the universe. Instead, it provides a ‘story’ of creation that can be used for upholding the faith, which is the main purpose of the Bible. Note what this Cambridge-educated historian then says of this view – it was widespread during Conches’s time, which was the mid-to-late 1100s! Sure, it was controversial, but it was widespread.
Hannam goes on to make the point that this is not surprising, since the Medieval church was already interpreting lots of Scriptural passages figuratively:
We have already seen how, in practice, biblical passages that support a flat earth were not read as accurate descriptions of nature. In a similar vein, the Genesis creation account refers to both the sun and the moon as “great lights,” which implies that they both produce their own illumination. However, no less a churchman than Pope Innocent III (c 1160-1216) was perfectly aware that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun, and seemed to assume that this was widely known.
So the idea that the Bible is not a reference when it comes to science has enjoyed a long, rich history in Christendom. To deny this fact is simply to deny church history.
Indeed, as I read Dr. Hannam’s description of how William of Conches viewed the creation account, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what the Biologos people say. For example, one article on their website says:
the Bible is not a book of science, but a book to meet the Lord.
I expect William of Conches would be in complete agreement with that statement, even though he lived about 800 years before it was written.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not supporting a figurative view of the creation account, nor am I supporting what the Biologos foundation is saying. I think Genesis is best read as historical narrative, with the days of creation being 24-hour days. However, I am readily willing to admit that this is not the only reasonable (or orthodox) way to read the creation account. Those who try to say otherwise can only do so if they ignore vast amounts of orthodox theology as well as significant portions of church history.
1. Origen, The Fundamental Doctrines, 4:1:16, AD 225.
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2. James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, (Regnery, 2011), p 55.
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