Catholic Teaching


Genesis and Creation

By Patricia Johnson


Fundamentalist Christians often make it a test of Christian orthodoxy to believe the world was created in six 24-hour days, as we presently understand the notion of time, and that no other interpretations of Genesis are possible. The writings of the Early Church Fathers who were much closer than we are in time and culture to the original audience of Genesis show that this was not the case. There has always been wide variation of opinion on how long creation took.


The creation stories found in the first two chapters of Genesis are deeply meaningful accounts of our relationship with God as He intended it from the very beginning. They show us who we are created to be, and who we are in relation to God. The main message of these stories is not how God created the universe, but why He created the universe.


The Church has maintained that the first three chapters of Genesis contain historical truth. Their inspired author used a popular literary form of his day to explain certain historical facts of Creation. These were named specifically by the Pontifical Biblical Commission with the approval of Pope Pius X in 1909. The Church, however, said nothing definite about how, in specific detail, God created the world and its various forms of life or how long any of this took. The only "special creation" mentioned is that of man, who is unique in having a spiritual, immortal soul. In the Church's eyes, Genesis deals with historical fact, not scientific process -- with the what of creation, not the how.

According to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in the designation and distinction of six days with which the account of the first chapter of Genesis deals, the word for "days" can be assumed either in its proper sense as a natural day, or in the improper sense of a certain space of time. In other words, for such a question there can be free disagreement among exegetes (Scriptural interpreters). In interpreting the passages of these chapters, which the Early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church have understood differently, but concerning which they have not taught anything certain and definite, it is permitted while preserving the judgment of the Church and keeping the analogy of faith to follow and defend differing opinions.

Many of the accepted scientific conclusions which contradict the days of creation and the great flood are based on a variety of unproven premises. Many feel the complex issues of cosmogony, astronomy, astrophysics, mathematics, nuclear science, evolutionary theory, geological uniformitarianism, radiocarbon dating, big bang theory, and others can be readily, properly and easily explained by such Genesis factors as direct creation by God and the Genesis Flood.


Did God create the world in seven days? With confidence we may answer that He certainly could have! But does it really matter if God created the world in seven literal days? Whether He actually created the world in seven days (or seven ages, or seven stages, etc.), or whether He inspired the Creation Story to say that He did, the importance of the number seven goes far beyond simple scientific fact. The Hebrew word for "seven" is also the word for "covenantal oath." According to scripture scholar Scott Hahn, whenever two tribes or nations swore a treaty oath with each other that bonded them together as "family," scripture says in Hebrew they "sevened themselves." So, when God created the world in seven days, the significance of this act is that in doing so He "sevened Himself" to us. He formed a covenant with us that bonded us to Him in a sacred family bond. The unity of the human race derives theologically from the fact that all people and all things are created in Christ and for Christ.


A modern reader of Genesis is to bear in mind the principles of biblical exegesis laid down by St. Augustine in his great work, 'De Genesi Ad Litteram' (On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis). Augustine taught that whenever reason established with certainty a fact about the physical world, seemingly contrary statements in the Bible must be interpreted accordingly.


St. Thomas Aquinas cites this view of St. Augustine's more than once in the course of the Summa Theologiae. St. Thomas, author Etienne Gilson writes, was well aware the Book of Genesis was not a treatise on cosmography for the use of scholars. It was a statement of the truth intended for the simple people whom Moses was addressing. Thus it is sometimes possible to interpret it in a variety of ways. So it was that when we speak of the six days of creation, we can understand by it either six successive days, as do Saints Ambrose, Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus and is suggested by the letter of the text...or we can, with St. Augustine, take it to refer to the simultaneous creation of all beings with days symbolizing the various orders of beings. This second interpretation is the one St. Thomas adopts, although he does not exclude the other which as he says can also be held.


Catholics are at liberty to believe that creation took a few days or a much longer period according to how they see the evidence and subject to any future judgment of the Church (Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis 36-37). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, "Many scientific studies...have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life forms, and the appearance of man." These studies invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator" (CCC 283). Still, science has its limits (CCC 284, 2293-4).


In 1943, Cardinal Bea, who helped Pius XII draft Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit), wrote that Genesis does not deal with the "true constitution of visible things." It is meant to convey truths outside the scientific order. 0While they do not teach science, the early chapters of Genesis are history and not myth. But they are not history as it would be written by a modern historian. Genesis expresses literal, historic, symbolic, and metaphoric meanings. It expresses basic truths about the human condition and about humans. Rather than biology being the main expression of Genesis, Christology is at the center of Genesis.


Our Creed begins with the creation of heaven and earth, for creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God's works (CCC 198). Creation is the foundation of "all God's saving plans," the "beginning of the history of salvation" that culminates in Christ. Conversely, the mystery of Christ casts conclusive light on the mystery of creation and reveals the end for which "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth": from the beginning, God envisaged the glory of the new creation in Christ (CCC 280).

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies, prompting us to give Him thanks for all His works and for the understanding and wisdom He gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements...for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me" (CCC 283).


Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation -- its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the "beginning": creation, fall, and promise of salvation (CCC 289).


Since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is the important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written" (Dei Verbum, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it:

1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture". Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart.

The phrase "heart of Christ" can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted (St. Thomas Aquinas).

2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Early Church Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture "...according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church" (Origen).

3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By "analogy of faith" we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation (CCC 112-114). According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

The literal sense: This the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal" (St. Thomas Aquinas).

The spiritual sense: Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

         The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.

         The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".

         The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem (CCC 115-117).


The temptation to biblical literalism should be avoided. The Bible was never meant to be read apart from the teaching authority established by Christ. The Bible was never meant to stand alone as a separate authority. It is the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, which preserves the deposit of the faith, of which Scripture is an integral part.


Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: "The world was made for the glory of God." St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it", for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand." The First Vatican Council explains:


This one, true God, of his own goodness and "almighty power", not for increasing his own beatitude, nor for attaining his perfection, but in order to manifest this perfection through the benefits which he bestows on creatures, with absolute freedom of counsel "and from the beginning of time, made out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal..." (CCC 293).


The ultimate purpose of creation is that God "who is the creator of all things may at last become 'all in all,' thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude" (1 Corinthians 15:28).


We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance. God creates freely ex nihilo ("out of nothing").


Catholics in reality have no cause to be timid about Scripture or science. They simply need to distinguish between two complementary but distinct orders of knowledge -- theological and scientific -- and allow each its due competence. A faithful Catholic should be calmly anchored in the proposition that truth is indivisible, and the works of God cannot contradict what He has chosen to reveal through Scripture and Tradition.


In the creation of the world and of man, God gave the first and universal witness to his almighty love and his wisdom, the first proclamation of the "plan of his loving goodness," which finds its goal in the new creation in Christ (CCC 315).


God created the world to show forth and communicate his glory. That his creatures should share in his truth, goodness and beauty -- this is the glory for which God created them (CCC 319).


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