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On the Dogma of Creation

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Written by Basil on 11/20/2004 11:11 PM. Filed under:

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Note: This essay is already at 1295 words (according to wc), and I’m only getting started. However, if you’ve suffered through all the so-called “modernism” of this blog but wondered about my orthodoxy — if I’m still on your daily reading list, not to mention your blogroll — then this one is probably worth the effort. I’ll probably not convince you of my position, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good. Gn 1.1,31a (NJB)

The doctrine of creation is that God created everything, both the visible worlds and the invisible, out of nothing. Without the continuing creative activity of God at every moment, the cosmos would not be; it would be naught. Speaking of the Logos-Word of God, holy John the Theologian writes, “Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.” (Jn 1.3 [NJB])

Moreover, the creation is good because it is created by God, who is the author of good. He is, himself, good and goodness, light and life, and so the work of his hands is innately good for that very reason.

God creates the cosmos out of nothing, and it is very good. That is the essential dogma of creation.

How, then, do we interpret the initial chapters of Genesis, with their wonderful stories of creation and fall?

An Orthodox believer receives the meaning of Scripture from the apostolic teaching as it is passed on to us (tradition). It often happens that the fathers make mistakes of fact which do not affect their primary insights into a matter. An easy example is the common patristic belief that the world is composed of only four elements, a belief received from the Hellenic science of the day. This susceptibility to be mistaken in matters of fact does not affect the main principle that the scriptural and patristic consensus guides our faith.

Before proceeding to examine the patristic consensus on creation, though, I must digress and explain why I cannot accept any interpretation that understands Genesis’ initial chapters literally. This may appear to contravene this patristic principle, but I believe it does not. If I am wrong, then I am a sinner and I beg your prayers. If I am right, though, literal interpretations of Genesis make a mistake of fact, and we must allow the fathers to transcend these mistakes of fact and reveal their divinely inspired guidance.

Growing up, I learned to interpret Scripture quite literally. I naturally understood the creation stories to mean exactly what they seem to mean. During my undergraduate work, my courses in Old and New Testament opened my eyes to a holistic understanding of the Scriptures.

To properly understand any particular book of the Bible, we must know its genre. This basic principle of hermeneutics undergirds any healthy understanding of Scripture. A book’s genre tells us whether the book is history, fiction, fable, prophecy, allegory, apocalypse, gospel, epistle, or something else. Here, the messiness starts. Most books — even books written today, in our post-Enlightenment rationalism — do not start out with a clear label of their genre. The audience picks up on the genre through cues in the text. In our case, readers populate the audience, but listeners constitute the original audiences of Scripture. Between two and four thousand years separate us from the world in which Scripture was written.

For a recent example:

From forth the loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

This opening of Romeo and Juliet tells us that this work is not to be taken as literal history, even if the characters are historical. How does it do this? The versed lines, ending with a standard A B A´B´ rhyme, tell us this opening is poetry, and it sets the stage for a poetic exposition to follow. There are similar clues in the creation stories of Genesis that tell us that the author is being poetic in describing the cosmos’ birth.

In Hebrew poetry, the main device is parallelism. It takes the place of rhyme in English poetry; parallelism immediately sets apart a piece of Hebrew writing as either poetry outright, or poetic prose. Parallelism is exactly what we see in the narrative of Genesis 1.

Day What is formed
(“Let there be…”)
Day What is formed
(“Let there be…”)
1 Light 4 Lights in the vault
of the sky (Sun/Moon)
2 Vault of the sky
Waters separated
5 Flying creatures
Water creatures
3 Dry land
6 Land creatures
Seventh Day: Sabbath; completion; perfection

You can see from the above table that there is a parallelism between what is formed in the first part of the week and what is formed in the second part of the week. (Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko rightly notes, by the way, that only the initial act is properly creation — creatio ex nihilo — every other act is one of forming or fashioning or crafting a new reality from an old one.)

On day one, light is formed; on the fourth day, the sources of light — the greater light and the lesser light — are formed. On the second day, the vault or dome of the sky is created, separating the waters above the heavens from the waters below the heavens; on the fifth day, flying creatures and water creatures are created. On the third day, the waters below the vault of the sky are gathered together, so that dry land can be formed and vegetation brought forth; on the sixth day, land beasts and man are formed. In each case, there is a parallel between what comes first and what comes last.

Another way of determining the genre of a text is by comparison with other works from the era. By examining Mesopotamian creation myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, we find that the narratives in Genesis owe much of their language and symbolism to the pagan myths which they aim to refute.

As evidence, note that the author of Genesis refuses to call the “lights in the vault of heaven” by names like “Sun” and “Moon.” As a child, this both fascinated and confused me. When we examine the Hebraisms involved, we find the Hebrews did not have separate words for “Sun” and “sun god,” or “Moon” and “moon god.” The odd construction is specifically designed to underscore that there are no other gods.

Note also that man is formed out of the dust of the earth, not out of the body of a deity. Tiamat does get borrowed for the Genesis creation stories, but as a generic creature — the serpent of Genesis 3 — not as a goddess. “Now, the snake was the most subtle of all the wild animals that Yahweh God had made.” (Gn 3.1 [NJB]) Although anthropomorphized, the serpent creature has no divine qualities and is clearly subject to the wrath of God as a creature.

What we find, then, is that these initial chapters of Genesis are an anti-myth in mythopoetic language. If we call them myth, it is only because they clearly label themselves so by their own internal structure and language and by their relation to other mythical literature of the time. These myths, unlike the fantasies they refute, are true on a level that transcends the meager factuality of modern discourse. Some truths can only be communicated at the mythopoetic level, because the merely factual level is unable to express the mystery.

On top of this, we must remember that both the writers and the audience of these narratives were premodern. By this we mean no disrespect, but we simply recognize that our questions of factuality and historicity are foreign to their worldview. Such scientific questions make distinctions they never made and would not understand.

This realization — that the Genesis narratives were not even intended to be taken literally — opened up the possibility that I could accept science on its own terms.

Which is where we begin Part the second (next in series).

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9 Responses to “On the Dogma of Creation”

  1. Erich Says:

    Kevin — Interesting analysis and I’d very heavily agree with most of what you say, especially at the end in terms of modern and premodern worldviews. This is one of the reasons that it is important to realize that fundamentalisms (Christian, Islamic, or whatever) are ultimately modern phenomena and not, as some would claim either to support or denounce them, the “true” interpretation of the Bible, Qu’ran, or whatever.

    However, I base my position more on the historical approach (which I’ll grant carries within it the seeds of contradiction because modern history is a “science” to some). In other words, historically speaking and considering the differences in mindset between us and them, it seems ludicrous to think that this could be anything other than a creation myth, spun to make a point. To say that someone writing a few thousand years ago would be struck by the hand of God to write something that is directed at the mind of 18th-21st-century man and his concept of scientific truth is absurd.

    However, I do wonder about your insistence on evolution as the necessary explanation for certain physical phenomena. Whereas I do not doubt that evolution exists on some level, you know as well as any that even natural “laws” are just consistent observation, and are often changing (historically speaking). Evolution as we currently understand it could simply be a stepping stone to a more refined understanding of scientific phenomena that could ultimately refute some of the broader assumptions about reality that have been made as a result of evolution.

  2. basil Says:

    Erich, good points.

    I only insist on accepting science on its own terms, or rejecting it consistently. I only insist on fully engaging the modern world, or withdrawing from it completely. We are aliens and strangers, who are in the world but not of it. But not to accept evolution. heliocentrism, or any other theory of science, and to arrogantly posture ourselves as knowing the scientists’ field better than they, seems beyond the pale.

    Might as well be Orthodox Amish. Even monks aren’t that fundamentalist.

  3. basil Says:

    I discussed this with the Archpriest D this morning. He reminded me of the distinction between spiritual reality and historical reality. He mentioned the present feast — that of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple — as an example where the history and the spiritual meaning do not align. I had already been thinking of the correlation between today’s commemoration, its disjunction between history and meaning, and the encounter of faith and science.

    Perhaps I’ll be able to flesh this out a bit more in the article as it continues.

  4. sockmonk Says:

    Interesting side note on the old four elements theory… there was a synaxarion reading a week or two ago about one of the bishops at the first ecumenical council who demonstrated the nature of the trinity. He held up a brick, called everyone’s attention to it, and squeezed. Fire shot up from the top of it, water dripped out of his hand, and he was left holding only a bit of dust in his hand, thus showing how the one brick had been made of the three elements of fire, water and earth. It appears that God chose to give a sign that would communicate to those gathered based on their current understanding of the composition of things.

  5. Creation, Part III: The Philosophy of Science | Kevin Basil Says:

    […] Part I in this series Part II in this series […]

  6. Creation, Part IV: Do Faith and Reason Conflict? | Kevin Basil Says:

    […] Part I in this series Part II in this series Part III in this series […]

  7. Creation, Part V: With Help from St. Maximus | Kevin Basil Says:

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  8. Creation, Part VI: Conclusion | Kevin Basil Says:

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