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More On Teaching Genesis, Chapters 1-3

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By ARTHUR HIPPLER

(Editor’s Note: Arthur Hippler is chairman of the religion department and teaches religion in the Upper School at Providence Academy, Plymouth, Minn. See the November 23 issue of The Wanderer for more by Dr. Hippler on this topic.)

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Every Catholic schoolchild knows that the “six days” in Genesis are not six “twenty-four hour” days. But if you ask them how they know this, their reason is from outside Scripture, outside the text. They “know” from science the vast age of the Earth and indeed the universe, and hence the “twenty-four hour” day becomes unbelievable.
While it is true that one should interpret the days as figurative, students should be lead to see the reasons for this interpretation come from the text itself. Otherwise, the method used here corrodes faith, for science is seen as the real authority, and the Bible must conform to scientific theories if it is to have any credibility.
Church fathers such as Augustine understood the term “day” as figurative, but not from the presuppositions of science, even of his own day. Rather, “We see, indeed, that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting, and no morning but by the rising, of the sun; but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day” (City of God, XI.7).
Since there is no sun until the fourth day, plainly the “days” are not solar days. From this same principle, Augustine argues that when God declares “let there be light,” this is not a physical light, but rather a spiritual light: “if the angels are included in the works of God during these six days, they are that light which was called Day” (ibid, XI.9).
Augustine notes that in the creation account, the term for the first day is not “first” but “one”: “he called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day” (1:5). From this, he infers that all creation happened in “one day,” and that the sequence of “days” describes not the creation of the world, but the revealing of this creation to the angels, part by part. Hence the use of the terms “morning” and “evening” distinguish the knowledge of things from the Creator against the knowledge of things from the creature’s own power:
“The knowledge of the creature is, in comparison of the knowledge of the Creator, but a twilight; and so it dawns and breaks into morning when the creature is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator.” (ibid, XI.7).
The reading of the “six days” as figurative long preceded the pressures from modern science. In the first century before Christianity, Philo Judaeus was already arguing that “it would be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed at all in time; because all time is only the space of days and nights, and these things the motion of the sun as he passes over the earth and under the earth does necessarily make. But the sun is a portion of heaven, so that one must confess that time is a thing posterior to the world. Therefore it would be correctly said that the world was not created in time, but that time had its existence in consequence of the world” (The Allegories of the Sacred Laws, After the Work of the Six Days of Creation, I.1).
Philo does not interpret from modern science, but from a philosophical reflection on time. The creation in some way precedes time and brings time into existence. Therefore the “days” cannot be literal days.
Christian interpreters followed the same pattern. Whether one reads St. Augustine’s City of God or St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis or St. Basil’s Work of the Six Days (“Hexaemeron”), the commentators of the early Church read the days as expressing some indefinite amount of time or as some stage or part of God’s creative act.
It is difficult if not impossible to find someone in the early Church who describes the days of creation as solar days. The Fathers saw more deeply into Scripture because they took the letter of the text seriously, and did not take secular knowledge as their authority.
The lesson for our young people is this — the Bible is a great book, and like any great book needs to read on its own terms. One will get more out of the book presuming that is the work of a great mind, instead of an ignorant or superstition one. Hence, deep reading is not merely an act of the intellect but also of the will. If our young students of the Bible are never helped to make this choice to be open to the depth of Scripture, the word of God will remain to them unknown.

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