Creation & Genesis According to the Saints | Old Testament Studies

Most of the early church fathers were learned scholars who studied philosophical theories of how creation came to be. It was the work of these theologians to reconcile what they knew about the world from science and philosophy with their theology whenever that was possible. In this episode, we will examine how the early Christian interpreters of scripture understood the relationship between the Creator and the created order in Genesis 1.

Creation Ex-Nihilo

The theory of the four elements was infamous in the fourth century when most commentators on scripture were meditating on the book of Genesis. The theory entailed a belief that the elements of earth, air, fire, and water were the first elements created by God and that all things came from them. The prevalence of this theory made it feature in the writings of the fathers though they insisted that these four elements were also created by God.[2] For the early fathers, God creating all things ex nihilo, that is out of nothing, was a matter of necessity.

For many of us, the word nothing implies a mere vacuum. However, for the early church fathers who were immersed in Greek culture, the assumption was that “nothing” was a state of nonbeing since “nothing” cannot exist as an entity of its own. Christian theologians used the doctrine of creation from nothing as an affirmation of (1) God’s freedom and God’s otherness to the world, being transcendent, (2) the world being created from nothing implies its contingency and dependence upon God for both existence and continuity, and (3) there is a gulf between the nature of the Uncreated Creator and the created order.

The Beginning

However, the way the created order came to be was very much an area where divergent perspectives could be sustained. For example, Origen links the “in the beginning” of Genesis with the “in the beginning” of the prologue of the Gospel of John leading him to see that all creation began in and through the Son, the Savior of all and the firstborn of all creation.[3] Taking a more literal approach, Basil of Caesarea sees the beginning as a temporal reality marking the start of creation of the visible order. Basil then reasons that before the creation of the visible order, God created the world of angels with their intellectual and invisible natures for the happiness of all who love the Lord.[4] Whether one takes Origen or Basil’s interpretation to be normative, the truth remains that God began the creation of the world because of His beneficent love.

The Days of Creation

Another area where the fathers tolerate disagreement was how one interprets the days of creation. Are we reading about twenty-four-hour days or are we merely being guided to think of periods of time being called days as a matter of convenience? We find Augustine of Hippo reasoning that these days of creation are in no way the same as the days we are familiar with.[5] Cyprian suggests that each of these days is really a period of thousand years.[6] As for Ephraim the Syrian, he finds no reason to assume anything allegorical about the days of creation yet he takes the liberty to insert the theory of the four elements into the narrative suggesting that God created them on the first day.[7] Finally, John Chrysostom sees in the arrangement of the created order an opportunity to be overwhelmed by the wisdom and love of the Creator,

“It wasn’t simply for our use that he produced all these things; it was also for our benefit in the sense that we might see the overflowing abundance of his creatures and be overwhelmed at the Creator’s power, and be in a position to know that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.”[8]

The Trinity as Creator

In addition to the centrality of the world being created by God from nothing, the early fathers highlighted the involvement of all three persons of the Trinity. If the Son and the Spirit are involved in creation since the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep and the Father creates all things by His Word, then both the Son and the Spirit are properly considered divine. This line of thinking served the fathers in the context of the trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth century. The intimacy of the collaborative act of creation is best described by Irenaeus of Lyon’s metaphor that the Father created the world from nothing by His Wisdom or Son and Spirit as one makes things with their two hands.[9] Early Christians believed that God continues to sustain the world and all its creatures by His Wisdom and Spirit.

Convergences and Divergences

The differences among the fathers commenting on the way God created the world did not amount to rivalries. This was largely a matter of opinion and implementation of different exegetic methods, as in whether one is using a literal, spiritual, or allegorical approach to the text. For the fathers, the fundamental questions that could not tolerate disagreement were: Who created the world? Was there anything before the creation of the world? And why did God create the world? A summary of their answers to these questions would be that the Father created the world from nothing by the Son through the Spirit and before that nothing was made that has been made because of His love for humankind. These divergences in interpretation are best described by Augustine of Hippo in his work On Christian Doctrine,

“And if a man in searching the Scriptures endeavours to get at the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit spoke, whether he succeeds in this endeavour, or whether he draws a different meaning from the words, but one that is not opposed to sound doctrine, he is free from blame so long as he is supported by the testimony of some other passage of Scripture. For the author perhaps saw this very meaning lay in the words which we are trying to interpret; and assuredly the Holy Spirit who through him spoke these words, foresaw that this interpretation could occur to the reader… [and] made provision that it should occur to him, seeing that it too is founded on truth. For what… more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?”[10]

In other words, there is room for blameless disagreement given that the explanation provided by different commentators does not amount to an opposition to the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. In fact, the Spirit might allow for the inspiration of a text that leads different readers to different interpretations for the greater benefit of the faithful.

[1] Most of the references and translations of patristic quotes used throughout this episode are retrieved from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume on Genesis 1-11 edited by Andrew Louth.

[2] Basil of Caesarea, Hexameron 2.2-3

[3] Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Genesis 1.1 

[4] Basil of Caesarea, Exegetical Homilies 1.5

[5] Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 4.27; 5.2

[6] Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 11:11

[7] Ephraim the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 1.1; 1.14.1; 1.15.1.

[8] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 7.13

[9] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, Book 5, 6.1

[10] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 3, Ch. 27.