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A NEO-PATRISTIC RETURN TO THE FIRST FOUR DAYS OF CREATION
by Msgr. John F. McCarthy
PART II. THE LITERAL SENSE OF GENESIS 1:1-5: THE FIRST DAY OF CREATION
MY EXEGETICAL POSITION.
In undertaking the following exegesis of Genesis 1, as of certain other passages of Sacred Scripture expounded earlier, I do not present myself as an expert in Hebrew, Greek, or other biblical languages. Nor do I present myself as a philologist, archaeologist, natural scientist, or historian. What I bring to bear upon the following study is a certain acquaintance with what we call the "neo-Patristic method" (still largely unfinished) along with a rather good grasp of theory of science as applied to history and to theology. For the basic meaning of Hebrew and Greek words and other points of linguistic expertise, I depend on what the experts say, both those of the present and those of the past, and I am grateful for the knowledge that they have made available. The problem of this study is not so much with the vocabulary as with the methodological use that many modern exegetes, especially form-critics, are making of their linguistic knowledge. The neo-Patristic interpretations that I propose are an unfinished product, and I openly invite exegetes and theologians to examine them and improve them. The door is open to a whole new era of biblical interpretation.
The following discussion is undertaken principally in terms of the literal sense of the neo-Patristic chart. The big distinction that will be emphasized is that between the simple and the subtle literal sense. The plain reading of the text, although often imprecise from a technical point of view, is understood to be allowed by the Holy Spirit as a sufficient understanding to convey the spiritual meaning of the text. Where there seems to be a more precise reading, I refer to the plain reading as simple or 'naive.' The subtle readings are usually ambiguous, not only because the Author is using popular words without drawing attention to the technical level of the discourse, but also because there is no guarantee from the text that the model of physical or historical truth that we hold up to the text is actually true. The introductory English text is from the Douay-Rheims Bible.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. This majestic opening couples the beginning of the Book of Books with the absolute beginning of all time and history, introduces the name of God as the great Protagonist of history, and presents the entire universe as the locus of its narrative. In the beginning. Most versions translate the Hebrew bér'shîth as "in the beginning." The Septuagint Fathers and St. Jerome translated it thus. Variant translations by some Fathers of the Church and early commentators are due in large part to the expounding of senses other than the strictly literal meaning of the text. The neo-Patristic method of interpretation begins with an examination of the plain literal sense and then searches for more subtle literal meanings, especially where the simple literal sense presents problems or seeming contradictions. After the literal sense has been determined to the best of our ability, we proceed to an examination of whatever spiritual meanings of the text we are scientifically able to discern. As we go along we keep in mind that the text is worded as it is partly because of its plain literal meaning and partly because of the other levels and patterns of meaning that the same words may convey. Not even the literal sense of the text can be adequately understood unless the spiritual sense has at least to some degree been discovered. It is, therefore, very important to keep in mind the neo-Patristic exegetical framework and to distinguish carefully between the different senses of the text.
The translation "in the beginning" fits the context of this opening sentence and of the entire chapter, because these words declare the absolute beginning of time. Before this initial act of creation, there was no time. The introduction of the temporal conjunction "when" into the translation, as is done in some modern versions, takes away the absolute quality of the "beginning" in that this presupposes contrary to the text that something material was already existing in time. Intruding "when" into the text also makes it evocative of certain Middle Eastern myths often cited by form-critics, such as the Babylonian creation hymn Enuma Elish ("When on High"), and thus artificially injects a mythological flavor into the biblical narrative. Richard Clifford, for instance, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, translates these opening words as "When God began to create heaven and earth." His reason for starting with "when" is not so much the tenor of the Hebrew words themselves as his conviction that "authentic stories of 2d-millennium ancestors have been revised and added to in the long course of their transmission; recovery of the 'original' stories is impossible because of the lack of extrabiblical sources." He bases this conviction on a more general conclusion: "In Mesopotamian culture, evidently the model for most of the stories in Genesis 1-11, scribes explored beginnings through stories and cosmogonies, not through abstract reasoning. ... Gen 1-11 then is a single story, an unusually sustained 'philosophical' and 'theological' explanation of the human race." Thus, Clifford revises the text backwards as he adjusts it according to his idea of where the story may have come from. In his view, "The biblical writers have produced a version of a common Mesopotamian story of the origins of the populated world, exploring major questions about God and humanity through narrative." 1
While Clifford excludes any genre of abstract reasoning from Genesis 1-11, our method compels us to ask how rigorous is Clifford's own reasoning. He concludes that Genesis 1-11 is but "a version of a common Mesopotamian story of the origins of the populated world," and a revision of "authentic stories of 2d-millennium ancestors." But he admits that "recovery of the 'original' stories is impossible because of the lack of extrabiblical sources." What he means is that he has no solid historical evidence for holding that what is written in Genesis 1-11 is a revision of an often revised 'authentic' story that goes back to the second millennium. His conclusion has rather been derived from studious meditation on form-critical presuppositions such as the idea that, wherever pagan parallels are found, the exegete is to try to make the biblical account depend upon the pagan story, or the presumption that biblical writers were not even resourceful enough to make up stories of their own, but needed to borrow stories from the surrounding pagan culture. As neo-Patristic researchers, we have to ask form-critics why second millennium B.C. ancestors could invent stories, but first millennium descendants could not, and what makes a pagan myth "authentic." We think that an "authentic" myth or legend is still just a myth or legend; it is not authentically real.
Clifford presents the early chapters of Genesis as "an unusually sustained 'philosophical' and 'theological' explanation of the human race," that is, as a kind of parable using fictitious episodes to illustrate truths about God or about the human race. But how valid or compelling could such an explanation be? What would such writers really have to tell us? It is our position that Genesis 1 (which is what we are immediately considering in this essay) is a true historical account based upon authentic revelation from God which probably came down to Moses from an earlier time and which he was guided in expressing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Form-critics believe without reason that the biblical writers, and certainly the writer of Genesis 1, were prelogical persons unused to abstract reasoning. But neo-Patristic exegesis finds considerable abstract reasoning in the authorship of this chapter. It is our neo-Patristic task to examine the popular and figurative language in which this reasoning is expressed and to penetrate the insight that lies behind it.
Bruce Vawter, in his commentary on Genesis in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, allows that the Hebrew bér'shîth in Gen 1:1 may be taken either as an absolute, as in the traditional translation, or "as a construct introducing a temporal clause." Although he gives three good arguments in favor of the traditional reading, he, nevertheless, finds the 'when' alternative "syntactically justifiable" on the ground that the punctuation br' ("created") of the (eleventh century A.D.) Massoretic text could just as well have been rendered bér'. Vawter admits, however, that this 'when' construction "was given added encouragement in modern times because of the supposed similarity of this opening verse to the Enuma elish." 2 "But speaking of Enuma Elish, the Babylonian epic of creation, Sir Frederic Kenyon rightly says: 'There is almost nothing to link the narrative to that of Genesis.'" 3
On the other hand, Edmund Sutcliffe thinks that the 'when ... then' construction is possible here even with the Massoretic vocalization. He is, however, immediately faced with the difficulty that "according to this rendering of the text God's first recorded act was the creation of light." 4 Sutcliffe's problem is that in his reading, while Genesis 1 does not deny that God made the basic matter of the universe, neither does it affirm it, whereas in the historical context of the whole chapter the first sentence does affirm that God created the basic matter of the universe.
God created heaven and earth. The word for God used here is 'elhîm, which is plural in form but singular in meaning. In the Old Testament, when 'elhîm is used to refer to the one true God, it takes a singular verb, but when it is used to refer to false pagan gods, it takes a plural verb. 5 The singular form is 'elôah. The verb br' is in the singular. In the common Hebrew vocabulary it means 'created' in the wider sense of 'made' or 'fashioned,' but in this context it means 'created out of nothing.' It is obvious that the common vocabulary did not contain specific words for the special meanings of this inspired text; they must be gathered from the context. Whoever understands that "in the beginning" means "at the beginning of time," and that "heaven and earth" means "all finite reality" will also understand that "created" means "made out of nothing" (ex nihilo sui et subiecti), and that the author is excluding the eternity of matter. 6
Cornelius a Lapide understands hashamayim as meaning literally "the heaven of the blessed." He lists twenty-two early and medieval commentators who express this interpretation, including St. Clement as "having heard this from the lips of St. Peter," together with five or six other Fathers of the Church, and St. Bonaventure, who calls it "the more common opinion." "St. Chrysostom says on this point (Homily 2): 'God, in constructing His edifice in a way beyond human practice, first laid out heaven, then put the earth under it: first the apex and then the foundation." 7 A Lapide understands this to mean the empyrean heaven, the highest level of the material heavenly spheres. Access to the beatific vision and the abode of the blessed are in some way presented in this verse, but, if either of these is literally intended, it is a second and less immediate literal sense which I would prefer to treat later in connection with the anagogical sense of the text.
The Hebrew word hashamayim is plural in form. In some versions it is translated as plural in meaning ("the heavens"), and in others like the Septuagint and the Vulgate as singular in meaning ("heaven"). It is derived from a root meaning 'high' or 'on high,' and would seem most literally to mean "the things on high." The word 'erets means originally 'ground,' and by extension 'land' or 'earth.' In the opinion of many exegetes the two words together represent the physical cosmos. Thus Sutcliffe observes: "... 'heaven and earth' here stands for the universe, which Hebrew had no one word to express. The verse is thus a summary of what follows." 8 But if this first verse is only a summary of what is to be said afterwards, light becomes the first thing created and the "earth" with the primal "waters" is not affirmed to have been created by God. When the way in which Moses narrates the creation of the physical universe on the second day is situated by neo-Patristic analysis in its proper historical sequence, it becomes clear that the first verse is not talking about the fashioning of the physical universe. 9
From a technical point of view the opening words of Genesis simply say that "In the beginning God created the things on high and the ground." There is a natural tendency, of course, to supply a model for these simple words. Exegetes over the centuries have interpreted haarets to mean "the earth," and they have supplied the model of a disk or a globe. But neither of these models is actually given, and, in fact, the text of Genesis places the creation of the planet earth on the third day (vv. 9-10). Similarly, most exegetes have interpreted "the things on high" to mean the material bodies in outer space high above the planet earth, but the text of Genesis places the creation of the galaxies in outer space on the second day (vv. 7-8). St. Augustine was more discerning when he identified the "things on high" to mean the angels and the "ground" to mean the most elemental matter in the following words: "Where Scripture speaks of the world's creation, it is not plainly said whether or when the angels were created; but if mention of them is made, it is implicitly under the name of 'heaven,' when it is said, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,' or perhaps rather under the name of 'light,' of which presently. But that they were wholly omitted, I am unable to believe .... Since, therefore, He began with the heavens and the earth - and the earth itself, as Scripture adds, was at first invisible and formless, light not being as yet made, and darkness covering the face of the deep (that is to say, covering an undefined chaos of earth and sea) ...." 10
On the technical level of the literal reading, the Hebrew word 'erets in the sense of 'ground,' can be taken to represent the lowest natural form of created things, and the word hashamayim, in the sense of 'the things on high' to represent the highest natural form of created things. From the outset of this eminently spiritual book, the writer can well be considered to have presented the spiritual as well as the material level of reality. It follows that the expression "the heavens and the earth" is a statement of what was created at the beginning of time as the starting condition of the two realms of created reality, the angelic world and the primal matter of the physical universe. Outstanding in this regard is the following definition of the Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council (1215 A.D.):
We firmly believe and profess without qualification that there is only one true God, ...; the one and only principle of all things - Creator of all things visible and invisible, spiritual and corporeal, who, by his almighty power, from the very beginning of time simultaneously created out of nothing both the spiritual and the corporeal creature, that is, the angelic and the mundane. And afterwards he formed the creature man, who in a way belongs to both orders, as he is composed of spirit and body. 11
And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; .... "Void and empty" translates the Vulgate "inanis et vacua." The Hebrew words are thû wbhû, which the Septuagint translate as "invisible and unstructured" (or "unequipped"). Vawter translates them more freely as "a formless wasteland," while indicating that literally they convey the notion of "disorder and aimlessness." 12 Clifford translates them as "formless and void," while pointing out that thû literally means "without shape or form," and metaphorically "groundless or unreal." Bhû, he adds, combines with thû to make an assonant hendiadys. 13 Cornelius a Lapide, using the same model, understands these words to mean that the earth was empty of men and beasts, of plants and minerals, and of all the other things with which it would subsequently be adorned. He also brings in an interesting parallel from Wisdom 11:18: "For thy almighty hand, which made the world of matter without form ...." 14 The Septuagint word here is amórphou ("formless"), which suggests a neo-Patristic distinction regarding the literal sense of Gen 1:2. On the one hand, a macroscopic image of the earth as a disk or a globe (depending upon the educational background of readers over the centuries) is, indeed, suggested by the graphic popular wording; the text does allow the reader to interpret it on this level. The text is not teaching the origin of the universe on a technically precise level, but neither does it contradict true technical knowledge regarding the universe and its origin. On the other hand, when we substitute a model that fits what contemporary physics and astronomy seem to know about the universe (and much of what they say is provisional), we are then approaching the sacred text on the level of its subtle literal sense, and we expect to find no contradiction there. We note here on a technical level that the text is saying that the "earth" was "formless and unstructured". Taking, then, a model of modern physics, we can interpret the text as saying that, on the most elementary subatomic level, the "earth" spoken of here is the primal matter which was created as the "ground" of all more organized matter and which was infinitesimal, unstructured, minimally informed, and in a totally fluid state.
According to Vawter: "The abyss (téhôm) is the watery chaos that was conceived to have engulfed the earth at the time of creation." 15 Clifford, seeing a possible etymological relationship of téhôm to thû, interprets these words as saying that the earth was entirely covered by water, as in Ps 103:6. 16 A Lapide interprets the LXX ábyssos as a "bottomless profundity," or, quoting Eustathius, "an excess of water having infinite profundity." He notes also that the darkness is understood to have been, not merely "over" or on the outside of the abyss, but penetrating throughout the abyss. 17 These three interpreters are using a macroscopic model suggested by the popular wording. Looking technically at the same clause, we can interpret it as saying that the original matter either was diffused throughout much or all of what we see today as the locus of the physical universe or occupied a very small space. In either case it was an abyss, because, having no order or structure, and having no form of physical being below it, one could conceptually proceed down into it indefinitely without ever coming to the bottom.
and the spirit of God moved over the waters. According to Clifford "the Hebrew rûah ('air in motion'; hence, 'wind' - 'breath' - 'spirit') here means wind." He gathers this meaning by comparison with the mythologies of neighboring pagan cultures. 18 Vawter maintains that the "spirit of God" is here rightly understood to mean "God's breath, conceived as the source of life and order." He does see in the figure of God's breath "a mighty wind soaring over the abyss," but the figure is not just a wind, because " 'elhîm does not appear to be here or elsewhere in the OT merely a superlative epithet." 19 A Lapide points out that Jewish interpreters (followed by Theodoretus and Tertullian) saw in the "wind of God" the figure of a brooding hen flapping her wings gently and thus sending a current of warm air over her eggs. A Lapide recalls that Christian writers like Basil, Jerome and Diodorus retained the figure of the setting hen, but that, together with Athanasius and other Fathers of the Church, they saw the "spirit of God" as referring directly to the Holy Spirit, and they used this reading as a proof for the divinity of the Holy Spirit. 20
In a neo-Patristic framework, to read rûah as meaning literally only a material wind deprives the text of its spiritual connotation, as does interpreting it in conformity with pagan mythologies. The Holy Spirit is called a "spirit" for the reason that He is eternally "spirated" ("breathed") by the Father through the Son in the divine act of love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father. 21 This spiration necessarily suggests the image of "air in motion." It is proper to the Holy Spirit to be sent by the Father and the Son for the sanctification of creatures. 22 When we look at these words of Genesis with the insight of Christian faith, we realize that the Author of this verse (who is the Holy Spirit) is telling us through divine inspiration (which is a 'breathing by God into' the consciousness of the sacred writer) that God the Father and God the Son sent God the Holy Spirit down upon the "waters" of the abyss to 'touch' them in some way in the act of creation. The Jewish interpreters were not able to see God the Holy Spirit in this, since there was a veil over their eyes, 23 but they did see that God had descended in some way. In my view, the figure of the brooding hen pertains to the allegorical meaning of the text. In this verse the popular term "waters" technically means 'fluids,' and the elemental particles are seen to have been fluid in nature. To limit the word "spirit" in this verse to the technical concept of a material wind is an inadequately slavish interpretation that misses the point of the statement, even though this creative act could well have sent some kind of electromagnetic 'wind' through the elemental particles that composed the abyss. The Holy Spirit under His revealed image as a 'breath' or 'wind' is thus seen to be the veiled literal subject of this clause.
And God said: Be light made. And light was made. God spoke as one God in Three divine Persons. All of the operations of God outside of His own life (ad extra) are done by the Three Persons together, but from the aspect of their procession as Persons different acts are appropriated to different divine Persons. Power is appropriated to God the Father; wisdom and understanding are appropriated to God the Son; and goodness is appropriated to God the Holy Spirit. In the words of St. Thomas: "For the power above all manifested in creation is attributed and appropriated to the Father, and, therefore, to be the Creator is attributed to the Father. To the Son is appropriated the wisdom through which an agent acts intellectually, and, therefore, it is said of the Son 'through Whom all things were made.' To the Holy Spirit is appropriated the goodness in the guidance of things to their fitting ends and the giving of life: for life consists in a certain interior motion whose first incentive is its purpose, the goodness [that it seeks]." 24
The exposition of the Trinitary aspect of this inspired writing comes especially under the anagogical sense, but the basis of the anagogical sense is in the literal sense. It is proper to the Father to send the Son. It is proper to the Father and the Son to send the Holy Spirit. In verse 1 we have seen that "God created," that is, God the Father created by His omnipotent divine power through His Word, which is the Son, and through His Love, which is the Holy Spirit. Again to quote St. Thomas: "The processions of the divine Persons are envisioned according to the acts of the intellect and the will. For the Son comes forth as the Word of the intellect and the Holy Spirit as the Love of the will. Thus in rational creatures with an intellect and a will there is to be found a representation of the Trinity after the manner of an image to the extent that there is found in them a word conceived and love issuing forth. But in all creatures there is to be found a likeness to the Trinity after the fashion of a vestige, seeing that in any creature there are some things that must of needs be referred back to the divine Persons as to their cause. For any created thing subsists in its own existence, and it has a form by which its species is determined, and it is ordered toward something else. Hence, inasmuch as it is a particular created substance it reflects its cause and origin and thus indicates the Person of the Father, who is the origin having no origin. And to the extent that it has a definite form and species it reflects the Word, seeing that the form of a thing made comes from the plan of the maker. And inasmuch as it is an ordered thing it reflects the Holy Spirit as Love, because its being ordered to something else comes from the will of its maker." 25 In verse 2 we have seen that the Spirit of God descended, that is, was sent down by God the Father and God the Son over the primal "waters." In verse 3 we see that "God said," that is, that God the Father spoke the Word, who is His only-begotten Son, and in the Word and through the Word were the order and beauty of the world created. And this order had a vestige or trace of the goodness of God instilled into it by the descent of the Holy Spirit.
In the Patristic-Scholastic exegetical tradition there have been two contrasting interpretations of the word "light" in this verse. Cornelius a Lapide summarizes the two traditions as follows. On the one hand, according to the interpretation of St. Augustine, followed by Rupert, Venerable Bede, and the Interlinear Gloss, the words "Let there be light," literally mean "Let there be the angel." A Lapide allows this as a "symbolic" meaning but rejects it as literal for the reason that the angels had already been stated in verse 1 to have been created in the first instant of time. On the other hand, he agrees with the second, more common, literal reading proposed by St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, Theodoretus, Hugo, Peter the Lombard, Bonaventure, and the majority of exegetes, that these inspired words literally regard the creation of physical light. 26 St. Thomas examines both interpretations without rejecting either. He understands the tradition of St. Augustine to mean, not that the angels were created in this second instant, but that they were raised to the light of supernatural faith and a supernatural vocation: while by nature the angels are beings of light in the sense that they are pure intelligences, light could still be created in them on the supernatural plane. He then expounds at length on the physical interpretation. 27
From my viewpoint the reading of St. Augustine cannot easily be excluded as a literal meaning of the text, since the Author began with the creation of the angels and since we know from revelation that they were historically raised to a supernatural state. However, it also seems clear that in verse 2 the Author has placed the historical focus upon the "ground" of physical existence and has begun to describe the upward process of elemental matter to higher states by means of a series of divine creative interventions. Therefore, if the angelic reading is literal, it is a second and more spiritual literal sense of the text and can well be examined later in connection with the spiritual sense of the text.
A problem faced by those traditional exegetes who have taken the creation of physical light to be the literal reading of the text is that the sun, the source of daylight, is presented in the text only on the fourth day. A Lapide, having assumed a geocentric focus of the first day of creation, sees the earth in the center of an abyss of water and proposes (along with a good number of earlier exegetes) that this light was a luminous spherical or columnar body in the sky made of matter that was like the matter that would later compose the sun, the moon, and the stars, and moving from east to west on a 24-hour cycle during the three days of its existence. 28
St. Thomas assumes this same general model of the earth suggested by the popular terminology of the text, but he makes more careful distinctions. He points out that all matter was substantially created at the first instant of time and was subsequently fashioned according to accidental forms, among which the first in order was light. He sees two stages in the production of light. "With Dionysius [Pseudo-Dionysius], the light created on the first day was the light of the sun, formless as yet in this respect that there was already the substance of the sun having common illuminative power, but afterwards it was given special and determinate illuminative power (virtus) for particular effects." 29
In our neo-Patristic approach, we admit the image of the creation of light in the midst of the waters, but we caution against trying to draw technical conclusions from this image without putting the popular words into a technical framework. The technical model that I propose takes the word "waters" to be fluids in the most general sense, the "earth" to be the primal matter, and "light" to be physical light. But what is light? Those who like me are unversed in the science of modern physics can nevertheless easily see how complicated a question this is by looking at any good encyclopedia article on the subject. I invite those who are learned in the field to improve upon what I have briefly to say here. To begin with, physicists don't know whether light is a substance or an accident. (Logically it has to be one or the other, since this is an absolute dichotomy.) To the physicist light reacts unresolvably sometimes as a substance (a photon) and at other times as an accident (a wave).
This is what Robert Ditchburn refers to as the "wave-particle nature of light": "Experiments with the photoelectric effect show that energy can be transferred from one atom to another in a way that suggests that photons are corpuscles - i.e., localized concentrations of energy and momentum. Other experiments imply equally clearly that the light emitted from an atom, when it loses energy, must be represented by wave groups. Both of these sets of experiments are equally valid, and together they require that the photon must have both wave-group and particle properties at the same time." 30 In the perspective of our discussion of Gen 1:3, we don't know on the basis of what modern physics can tell us whether in creating light God added a new and higher substantial form to the existing primal matter or made certain waves in the primal matter. In the second half of the last century, as a result of the experiments of James Maxwell, light was described as consisting of electromagnetic waves. "Such waves were visualized as analogous to those on the surface of water .... The analogy is valid up to a certain point, but ... the experimental results obtained at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century ... led to the quantum theory of light, which in its primitive form asserted that, at least in regard to its emission and absorption by matter, light behaves like particles rather than waves." 31
We can see in these quotations how on a technical level in the creation of light God could have caused waves to appear on the waters, where the "waters" are actually an electromagnetic field. Ditchburn also reports that "light from ordinary sources is emitted by atoms," 32 and I, therefore, am inclined to see in the words "Let light be made": first the creation by God of atoms and atomic structures out of the minimally formed primal matter together with all the laws of atomic physics, and then the emission of light from the atoms so created. The scene of this emission of light is not focussed on the planet earth as such but wherever the primal matter was.
And God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness. On both the spiritual and the physical levels of the text God saw that the light was good. The physical light was good because, having been created by God the Father through God the Son and with the mission of God the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, it had upon it the mark or vestige of the Holy Spirit by which it contained a certain resemblance to the goodness of God Himself. The atomic structures and the order of their laws are also seen as good under the figure of the light, because they reflect the intelligence and beauty of God appropriated to the Word. The Hebrew and Greek wording indicates that God made a separation "between the darkness and the light," which may be a bit stronger than mere division. The separation was chronological in that there was first darkness and then light. It was spatial in that there was light in one place and darkness outside of it. And it was qualitative in that the atomic order had been raised above the chaos of the primal matter like a higher kingdom and crowned with the beauty of physical light. The vision of this light, however, was at this time intellectual rather than ocular.
And he called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day. A Lapide, using a 24-hour-day model, calculates that the world was created at about six o'clock in the morning of the first day, which was a Sunday, and that the globe or column of light that anteceded the sun was created six hours later at around noon in the center of the sky (presumably over western Europe, where a Lapide lived). 33 This technical model is obviously inadequate. A clue to a more subtle reading of the text is the fact that Moses places the fixing of the 24-hour day on the fourth day of creation (verse 14: "for signs and for seasons and for days and years"). This leads us to suspect that Moses is talking in general about a different kind of day, and, in fact, he defines what he means by a 'day' as he repeatedly specifies that it was "evening and morning," which subtly means, in my estimation, an unspecified period of darkness followed by an unspecified period of light. The "evening" of this first day was the period of time during which the primal matter of the abyss lay in absolute darkness; the "morning" dawned with the creation of light. This first "day" could have lasted only a fraction of a second or it could have lasted billions of years. We don't know, and Genesis does not tell us. It simply gives us the image of a "day," which is sufficient for the spiritual message that it contains.
On 30 June 1909 the Biblical Commission replied in the negative to the following question:
Whether, since it was not the intention of the sacred author, when writing the first chapter of Genesis, to teach in a scientific manner the innermost nature of visible things as well as the complete order of creation but rather to furnish his people with a popular account, such as the common parlance of that age allowed, one, namely, adapted to the senses and to the mental preparation of the persons, we are strictly and always bound, when interpreting these chapters to seek for scientific exactitude of expression. Answer: In the negative. 34
On the same day and attached to the same response there was another reply of the Biblical Commission concerning the word yôm in Genesis 1:
Whether the word yôm (day), which is used in the first chapter of Genesis to describe and distinguish the six days, may be taken either in its proper sense as the natural day, or in an improper sense as signifying a certain space of time; and whether free debate on this question is permitted among exegetes. Answer: In the affirmative. 35
I understand these responses to mean that Genesis 1, as a popular account, should be given the leeway of a popular account. But in keeping with what is said also in other documents of the Magisterium of the Church, to the extent that interpreters compare the popular account with technical models of their choosing, in order not to convict the text of non-factuality without a trial, they must give the text a chance on a technical level, which is what we are doing here. That is the import of the response concerning the word yôm. Since Genesis is an inspired writing, it is inerrant even on a technical level. We cannot know how much technical knowledge Moses had of the physical development of the universe, and we do not need to know, because what he wrote was guided by divine inspiration, however much he knew. Moses could have reflected only on the level of the popular images without attempting to supply in his mind any technical models. But it is the inspired text that is the subject of our study, not the mind of Moses. And the inerrancy of that text is very important, seeing that our faith is rooted in reality, not in warmed-over mythology. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that our neo-Patristic approach "identifies biblical statements too closely with the changing and shifting theories of modern science," 36 because any model offered by modern science that it holds up in comparison with the text is only ambiguously confirmed at best. Neither does the text of Genesis 1 teach any technical model nor can any true technical model contradict it.
1. R.J. Clifford, "Genesis," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), pp. 8-9.
2. B. Vawter, "Genesis," in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1969), pp. 173-174.
3. E.F. Sutcliffe, "Genesis," in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (London: Nelson, 1953), p. 184.
4. Sutcliffe, "Genesis," p. 183.
5. Cf. Vawter, "Genesis," p. 174.
6. Cornelius a Lapide (Cornelius Van Steen), Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, vol. 1, Genesis et Exodus (Paris: Vives, 1874), pp. 41-43.
7. A Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, p. 45.
8. Sutcliffe, "Genesis," p. 182.
9. In his De Genesi contra Manichaeos, ch. 7, St. Augustine takes this position, although in his De Genesi ad litteram he emphasizes this as a priority of nature rather than of time. See a Lapide, Gen.et Exod., p. 44.
10. St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, bk. 11, ch. 9. Eng. trans., in R.M. Hutchins ed., Great Books of the Western World, (Chicago: Wm. Benton, 1952), vol. 18, pp. 326-327.
11. Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, no. 80. Cf. Eng. trans. in J.F. Clarkson et al. eds., The Church Teaches (St. Louis: Herder, 1955), p. 146.
12. Vawter, On Genesis. A New Reading, p. 40.
13. Clifford, "Genesis," p. 10.
14. A Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, p. 46.
15. Vawter, "Genesis," p. 174.
16. Clifford, "Genesis," p. 10.
17. A Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, p. 47.
18. Clifford, "Genesis," p. 10.
19. Vawter, "Genesis," p. 174.
20. A Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, p. 47.
21. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 36, art. 3.
22. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 43, art. 8.
23. Cf. Rom 11:8.
24. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 45, art. 6 ad 2.
25. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 45, art. 7 corp.
26. Cf. a Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, pp. 48-49.
27. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 67, art. 4.
28. Cf. a Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, p. 48.
29. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 67, art. 4 ad 1 et ad 2.
30. R.W. Ditchburn, "Light," in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed.: Chicago, 1974), vol. 23, p. 21.
31. Ditchburn, "Light," p. 1.
32. Ditchburn, "Light," p. 3.
33. Cf. a Lapide, Genesis et Exodus, p. 50.
34. DS, 3518. Cf. Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture, p. 124.
35. DS, 3519. Cf. Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture, p. 124.
36. R. Bandas, Biblical Questions, p. 58.
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