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Reading Genesis in the Reformation

Roughly half of American Protestants and a majority of self-identified evangelicals currently reject at least a portion (and in some cases, nearly all) of the modern scientific consensus about the age of the earth and the evolutionary development of life. There are myriad biblical and theological issues involved—not to mention broader social, cultural, and political dynamics—but for many skeptics, everything turns on the early chapters of Genesis.

Theologically orthodox Christians have long defended the inerrancy of the Bible, and for many modern Christians committed to biblical authority, an old earth and evolution appear incompatible with the “clear” teaching of the text. This idea is reinforced by the claims of a small but vocal cohort of apologists for young-earth creationism who insist that history is on their side. Theirs is the traditional position, they argue, and alternative approaches to the text are novel aberrations. John MacArthur once declared, “Until Darwinian evolution undertook a campaign to co-opt the story of creation and bring it into the realm of naturalistic ‘science’. . . no one who claimed to be a Christian was the least bit confused by the Genesis account.”[1] For many evangelicals (and some confessional Protestants as well), the pervasive notion that all faithful Christians have always read Genesis a particular way transforms this issue into a litmus test of faith itself. This historical sentiment, though, is simply mistaken. This is not how Christians have always read the Bible.

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The Literal Sense and Accommodated Language

Ancient and medieval biblical commentators wrote extensively about the different senses, or meanings, of Scripture. The traditional four senses were the literal (or historical), allegorical (or spiritual), tropological (or moral), and anagogical (or eschatological). Most commentators offered their own idiosyncratic variations on this standard quartet, expanding, contracting, rearranging, and recombining categories in various ways, but there was widespread agreement that each text contained multiple layers of meaning. The Reformation upended this status quo rather dramatically. Most Protestants—Lutherans and Reformed alike—championed the primacy of the literal sense and often disparaged the others, with allegorical interpretation bearing the brunt of their wrath. Nevertheless, the Protestants did not eliminate alternative readings altogether. It would be difficult, after all, to read Daniel without considering its eschatological message, or Job without discussing its moral implications. In some cases, Protestants actually added new senses to the text. The Reformed emphasized the typological dimensions of many Old Testament texts, for example, and many Protestants read their own current events and national histories into the redemptive and eschatological narratives of the Bible.[2]

Despite these nuances, the Protestant emphasis on the literal and historical sense of the Bible was very real and very persistent. When today’s evangelicals speak of reading the Bible literally, this is the lineage they stand within (knowingly or not), but it is more difficult than they often assume to delineate the meaning of this literal sense. The Bible is filled with standard discursive phenomena—from symbols, metaphors, and analogies to hyperbole, sarcasm, synecdoche, polysemy, and more. It not always clear which texts ought to be read literally and which ought to be read figuratively. When Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he is clearly speaking metaphorically, but when he says, “This is my body,” what exactly does he mean? When Luther and Zwingli met in Marburg, their inability to agree on the precise meaning of those four words—hoc est corpus meum—turned the Reformation on its head.

A different but related question concerns the truth-claims of such a text. How ought one to view the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language the Bible uses to describe God? The Bible speaks of God’s eyes, ears, hands, and feet, even though he does not have a body. It speaks of God resting in Genesis 2 (when Isaiah claims God does not grow tired or weary) and repenting of his actions in Genesis 6 (when 1 Samuel and Numbers both claim God does not change his mind).

Long before the Reformation, ancient and medieval exegetes wrestled with similar questions, and one of the answers they offered was the doctrine of divine accommodation. God, they argued, accommodates his revelation to human finitude. He deigns to speak and act in ways suitable to humanity’s epistemic and moral capacities. More colloquially, God uses common human language so that humans understand him, and precisely because God communicates through common human language, his communication bears the marks of ambiguity and finitude that characterize all human discourse. The message is constrained by the limits of the language and the listeners, and there are many ways it might be understood (or misunderstood). This idea appears in a host of ancient thinkers, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Augustine, and John Chrysostom, and it was embraced in the Middle Ages by Aquinas and many others. The details varied from one thinker to the next—some focused on the accommodation of divine language to humanity’s epistemic capacities, while others focused on the accommodation of divine commands to humanity’s moral weakness—but there was broad agreement that such language existed in the Scriptures to help humans comprehend the truth and actions of an incomprehensible God.[3]

The Protestants seized this doctrine and ran with it. Calvin, perhaps the chief proponent of accommodation among the early Reformers, wrote, “As nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us. Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity.”[4] Bullinger offered a similar explanation, insisting that the Bible “doth minister unto us some means, forms, and phrases of speech, by them to bring us to some such knowledge of God as may at leastwise suffice us while we live in this world.”[5]

Appeals to divine accommodation were widespread, explaining various texts that would have been problematic if read literally, including references to God’s body, God repenting, God rejoicing, God learning new information, and even the comparison between God and a sleeping, drunk man in Psalm 78. Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, David Pareus, and many others made use of this idea. On the Catholic side of the aisle, Erasmus and Thomas Cajetan incorporated the doctrine of accommodation into their hermeneutics, and even Luther himself—with his dogged insistence on reading the text literally—appealed to this idea to explain Genesis 6.[6]

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Accommodation and the Natural World

This doctrine of accommodation also proved quite useful when readers confronted passages about the natural world. Sixteenth-century Christians may not have possessed the knowledge and insights of twenty-first-century science, but they nevertheless faced the task of squaring their knowledge of nature—including insights gleaned from mathematics, astronomy, geology, geography, natural history, and medicine—with their reading of the Bible and their understanding of its authority.

The early modern view of nature was shaped by Aristotle’s libri naturales, a collection of Aristotle’s works covering a wide variety of subjects, from physics and astronomy to anatomy and natural history. The discipline that provided an overarching framework for all other natural inquiry was known as natural philosophy. Natural philosophy dealt with the foundational principles upon which other disciplines were built. It was concerned with motion, matter, and even the structure of the cosmos.

When Aristotle’s natural philosophy first filtered into Western Europe from the Muslim world—where it had been translated into Arabic and passed down over the centuries—it was condemned by the church, most notably in 1210 and 1277, for its ostensible incompatibility with Christianity. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, western Europe had embraced Aristotelianism as generally amenable with the Christian faith. Nevertheless, there were certain unavoidable points of contention. Aristotle postulated an eternal world, while the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo taught of a created world with a definite beginning. Similarly, Aristotle proposed a mortal soul, and Christianity insisted on the soul’s immortality. On these two points, most Christians simply rejected Aristotle’s ideas, but on many ambiguous issues, Christians worked to join their faith and their Aristotelianism. Biblical statements about divine providence, for instance, had to be reconciled with Aristotle’s metaphysics. Similarly, and perhaps humorously to modern readers, concerns about God’s freedom to move the universe—quite literally, to pick it up and move it somewhere else—colored debates about the existence of a vacuum, a significant point of contention in the Middle Ages. On every such issue, what Christians believed about the world—not only their natural philosophy but also their astronomy, geography, and geology—had to be reconciled with the biblical text, and they turned frequently to the idea of divine accommodation to do this.

In Genesis 1:6, God creates the raqia (usually translated “expanse” or “firmament”), separating the waters under it from the waters above it, and God calls this expanse “heaven.” Many ancient cosmologies involved a dome-like structure that stretched over the earth, and Aristotle’s cosmos included a similar idea. In the Aristotelian system, the universe was a series of nested, solid spheres, like a cosmic matryoshka stacking doll, with the innermost terrestrial sphere containing the earth, each of the subsequent (and increasingly larger) spheres containing one of the planets, and the outermost sphere containing the fixed stars. Thus when late medieval or early modern Christians read this reference to the firmament, they would not have struggled to map it onto their own cosmology in one way or another. Problematically though, this verse suggested that there were waters beyond the firmament. For an Aristotelian, this was an impossibility, as their entire cosmic structure was premised on the idea that the heavens—which encompassed everything beyond the earth, including the planets and stars—were perfect and incorruptible. Water was imperfect and corruptible, so it could not exist in the heavens. Here is how Calvin dealt with this difficulty in his commentary on Genesis:

Moses declares the special use of the expanse, to separate the waters from the waters, from which words a great difficulty appears. For it is inconsistent with common sense and truly incredible that waters are above the heavens. For to me, it is a certain principle that only the visible form of the world is treated here. Whoever wishes to learn astronomy and other recondite arts must go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God desires to teach everyone without exception; . . . it is undoubtedly the book of the unlearned.[7]

This was an appeal to divine accommodation. For Calvin, just as descriptions of God did not describe God in an exact and literal sense but rather accommodated that knowledge to our slight capacity, so also this biblical description of nature did not describe the world in an exact and literal sense but rather accommodated its depiction to human capacity. The text, he argued, was simply speaking in the common manner of the Israelites, describing how the world looked to ancient and unlearned eyes. It was not making any claim about the actual physical structure of the cosmos, and anyone wishing to explore that cosmos ought to look elsewhere. This is not unlike the sentiment Galileo famously expressed in his letter to the grand duchess of Tuscany, writing, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

Calvin offered a similar explanation of “the two great lights” in Genesis 1:16. Early modern commentators viewed this passage as problematic, for it calls the sun and moon “the two great lights,” but astronomers had shown that the moon, despite its appearance, was smaller than many other planets in the sky. Calvin therefore concluded,

Here, Moses does not precisely examine the secrets of nature as a philosopher. . . . Moses wrote with popular language which, without instruction and literary knowledge, all unlearned people will understand by their sense. But the astronomers investigate whatever the height of human intelligence is able to understand. . . . Let the astronomers possess their higher knowledge.[8]

Throughout the early modern period, Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic commentators alike leveraged the doctrine of accommodation to deal with biblical passages about the natural world. Accommodation was a common recourse for many Protestants who embraced heliocentrism in the sixteenth century. The Aristotelian cosmos was geocentric, and numerous biblical passages seemed to support this idea. Psalm 104:5 says the earth cannot be moved, while Psalm 19:6 indicates the sun moves across the sky. Most notably, in Joshua 10:13, Joshua commands the sun to stand still over Gibeon. For early modern readers, read literally, these texts implied that the sun revolved around the earth. Many Christians, convinced instead that the earth revolved around the sun, explained these passages as little more than accommodated language.[9]

To be clear, few early modern Christians assumed the Bible was devoid of information about the natural world, and when its statements were in harmony with their respective natural philosophical systems, they did not hesitate to say so. Thus for every Copernican describing Joshua 10:13 as accommodated language, there was an Aristotelian ready to wield the same passage against Galileo when his writings on heliocentrism ran afoul of the pope.

Some mixed their philosophy and theology more than others. Benedict Pereira engaged in extended natural philosophical discussions in the midst of his biblical commentary while others, like Calvin, generally avoided such issues. But even those deeply committed to the synthesis of theology and philosophy did not insist on reading every biblical passage about nature literally and rigidly. They shared a certain flexibility when dealing with biblical claims about the natural world.

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Mosaic Natural Philosophy

This longstanding approach to the Bible and nature was upended in the closing decades of the sixteenth century. At the time, the hegemony of Aristotelianism was beginning to crumble under the sustained attacks of alternative Renaissance philosophies and various novel alternatives. Platonic, Stoic, Epicurean, Hermetic, and neo-Pythagorean texts flowing out of Spain and Italy offered countless radical alternatives to Aristotle’s cosmos. This was accompanied by increased appeals to empiricism, experimentation, and the “new science” that features in modern textbooks on the so-called Scientific Revolution. Our modern world today often looks back on this period rather triumphantly as the dawn of modern science, but at the time, it was sheer chaos. Copernicanism had undone the very structure of the Aristotelian universe, endless “new sciences” competed to take its place, and everything appeared to everyone to be in flux. In this midst of this philosophical turbulence, many thinkers succumbed to skepticism. Others turned to syncretism, weaving various aspects of multiple philosophical traditions into one tangled amalgamation. But a small group, who often called themselves “Mosaic philosophers,” turned to the Bible.

The Mosaic philosophers proposed a novel approach to natural philosophy with the biblical text as its foundation. The fundamental principles of natural philosophy, they argued, must be found not in texts from ancient Greece or the creative minds of contemporary revolutionaries but rather in the one text that could not err. This was more than a shift from one textual authority to another. It was an iconoclastic epistemological claim—a turn to revelation over reason, observation, or experimentation as the source of natural knowledge—and a significant expansion of the scopus of the Bible that challenged traditional biblical hermeneutics.

The urtext for this movement was Lambert Daneau’s Physica christiana. Daneau, a French Calvinist, argued that the fundamental principles of natural philosophy “are contained in the first chapter of Genesis.”[10] He set his position in contrast to those who turned to “the books of prophane philosophers” and insisted instead that natural philosophy must be drawn “chiefly out of holy Scriptures.”[11] In a conversation with his textual interlocutor, Daneau considers a particularly common objection to his approach:

What is the other argument of those who think otherwise?

This evidently: those things which Moses wrote have been unfolded most simply and spoken generally, because it is fitted and accommodated entirely to our capacity and to a sense of human weakness, but not expressed and determined according to the true nature of things. Finally, that Moses does not explain things themselves and their natures exactly and precisely, nor are they examined. Therefore, they wish to extract and learn the true, definite, and accurate knowledge of this part of physics from elsewhere.[12]

This summary of Daneau’s opponents reads a great deal like Calvin’s comments on accommodation in Genesis 1, a commentary that Daneau had surely read. Calvin wrote, “Moses does not precisely (subtiliter) examine the secrets of nature as a philosopher” and “Whoever wishes to learn astronomy and other recondite arts must go elsewhere.” Daneau reports that his opponents say, “Moses does not explain things themselves and their natures exactly and precisely (subtiliter)” and “Therefore, they wish to extract and learn . . . this part of physics elsewhere.” The parallel is so striking that it stretches the boundaries of credulity to imagine that Daneau was thinking of anyone else.

In his counterargument to this position, Daneau conceded that Moses used language “nude and simple, and as it were, stripped of all adornment and vestiture such that it would be easier to perceive.” But he continued,

Although it is granted he spoke simply, he did not, however, say anything deceptively, falsely, or ignorantly. . . . It is one thing, then, to admit the style of Moses is nude and simple, a type of speech suitable for truth, but another to call it false and deceptive. . . . Therefore simply indeed, but truly; nude, but rightly; popularly, but honestly he teaches us these things about the world. . . . I confess Moses accommodated himself to the capacity of our senses. However, I deny that which they claim, that he did not focus upon and attend to the truth of the matter.[13]

It followed, Daneau concluded, that the principal parts of the world and its causes and effects—the very substance of natural philosophy—could be found in the biblical text. This is the critical difference between Daneau and Calvin. For Calvin, the accommodated language of Genesis 1 was simple and plain, depicting the world through the eyes of an ancient Israelite, who looked to the sky and imagined endless depths of water stretching across the heavens. But the text did not mean there were actually waters in the heavens. It made no truth-claim about the physical structure and composition of the cosmos.

For Daneau, accommodated language may have been simple and plain, but it did reflect the physical structure and composition of the universe. It depicted the world not through the eyes of an ignorant ancient Israelite but rather through the eyes of one accurately observing the world, relaying—albeit with unadorned language—the truth about its structure, composition, formation, and more. Thus Calvin comfortably dismissed the waters in the heavens and urged his readers to look elsewhere for such knowledge, while Daneau proceeded to explore in great detail the shape of the world, the characteristics of matter and elements, the depths of water and their formation, the physical effects of the Spirit moving across the waters, the process by which water and earth were separated, the composition and structure of the stars and the heavens, various general principles about motion and metaphysics, and even geography—all drawn from the text of Genesis. This was not only a different natural philosophy; it was also a different way to read the Bible.[14]

Although Daneau was the most prominent, he was far from alone in this venture (nor was he the first). In the latter half of the sixteenth century, biblical natural philosophies were penned by Protestants and Catholics alike. Francisco Valles, Otto Casmann, Thomas Lydiat, Cort Aslakssøn, Johann Heinrich Alsted, John Amos Comenius, and many others produced Mosaic philosophies during these years. The Mosaic philosophers did incorporate traditional philosophical authorities into their work at points, often insisting that the general principles of natural philosophy must be drawn from Scripture but conceding that secondary details could be found in extrabiblical sources. Nevertheless, the Bible served as the primary and foundational source of natural knowledge for the Mosaic philosophers.

Several contemporary groups, most notably the Paracelsians, also turned to the Bible as an authority on nature—only they read it metaphorically rather than literally. Some philosophers, like Benito Arias Montano, the editor of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, constructed systems that existed somewhere in the liminal space between these groups. Montano’s approach fluctuated between traditional literal interpretation and a curiously esoteric philology that explored the hidden correspondences between the divine Hebrew language and the natural world. Despite their differences, these groups shared a common epistemological commitment: namely, that the Bible was a rich source—and, for some, the source—of information about the natural world. This represented a departure from the prevailing orthodoxy of prior centuries, and the Mosaic philosophers regularly and explicitly claimed as much, often listing their peers who had embraced a similar Mosaic methodology to express solidarity and delineate the boundaries of their renegade approach.[15]

Mosaic natural philosophy eventually faded from view in the seventeenth century. Most Mosaic authors struggled to extract a natural philosophical system from the pages of text that addresses the natural world only sporadically. Some, like Montano, managed to squeeze water out of rocks and construct something resembling a coherent natural philosophical foundation, but more broadly, the movement failed to produce a popular alternative to Aristotelianism. Nevertheless, the underlying epistemology and hermeneutics spread far beyond the realm of natural philosophy, and many writers applied similar Mosaic (or biblical) approaches in their respective fields.

Franciscus Rueus offered a biblical approach to minerology with his treatise on gems. Levinus Lemnius produced a biblical account of herbs and trees. Johann Georg Gross tackled not only philosophy but also medicine and law. This approach spread beyond the walls of Christianity as well. In Italy, Jewish naturalists and physicians like Abraham Portaleone turned to the Old Testament and the Jewish Talmud to construct a novel natural history that challenged the received wisdom of Hippocrates, Galen, and Pliny. These biblical approaches to other disciplines proved more resilient than the formal natural philosophy of Valles or Daneau. Long after attempts at formal Mosaic natural philosophy had ceased, the Bible remained deeply intertwined with natural history, medicine, geology, and more.[16]

Not everyone embraced this new biblical approach, though. During this same time, new factions of empiricists and experimentalists rose to prominence. Many in such circles insisted on a separation between the “two books”—the book of Scripture and the book of nature—arguing that each was concerned with different material. The two books were valid and authoritative within their own domains, but only by reasserting proper limits on the scopus of each would there be space for the authority of the other. One proponent of such a separation, Francis Bacon, famously railed against the mixture of science and religion, and as Ann Blair has noted, although he does not identify his target, it is not difficult to imagine whom he had in mind.

But the corruption of philosophy by superstition and an admixture of theology is far more widely spread, and does the greatest harm, whether to entire systems or to their parts. . . . Yet in this vanity some of the moderns have with extreme levity indulged so far as to attempt to found a system of natural philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, on the book of Job, and other parts of the sacred writings; . . . from this unwholesome mixture of things human and divine there arises not only a fantastic philosophy but also a heretical religion.[17]

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Rethinking the Historical Narrative

If we return to where we began, with the common evangelical assumption that Christians have always read the Bible as they do today—namely, as an authoritative source of literal information about the natural world—several helpful correctives might now be in order. All Christians have not always read the Bible in any one particular way. Humans are complex and unpredictable creatures. Large groups of individuals spread over vast reaches of time and space rarely, if ever, behave uniformly. Any claim that all Christians have always read a particular text a particular way is a reductionist historical absurdity that elides the many idiosyncratic differences between two millennia of Bible readers. We might reasonably surmise, though, that many Christians committed to the authority of the Bible have approached questions about the literal meaning of the text with far more nuance and flexibility than some evangelicals dealing with Genesis today. Most Christians did read the creation narrative as a literal seven-day period, but the science of their day offered no reason to imagine an alternative. It is more relevant to ask how they responded when insights from astronomy, geography, or other disciplines challenged other interpretations of the Bible; and in many cases, they responded by adjusting their interpretations of the Bible. Their hermeneutics thus stand in clear opposition to those of modern evangelicalism. Anyone truly concerned with the historical views of the church ought to ask not merely “Did they believe in a seven-day creation?” but more holistically “How did they approach the text? And which factors did they take into account?”

Many in the science-skeptical evangelical crowd instinctively cringe at the notion that science ought to be used to inform and adjust one’s approach to the Bible, and almost all proceed with the assumption that any alternative reading must be justified primarily exegetically. Because exegetical evidence functions as the sine qua non for any reconsideration, all discussion about the creation narrative devolves into the minutiae of Hebrew poetry, hendiadys and chiasms, and what counts as a “shrub” (Gen 2:5). This is not to say, of course, that textual considerations are unimportant. Nevertheless, for many historical Christians, evidence from the book of nature served as a valid impetus to rethink the book of Scripture, even in the absence of some exegetical smoking gun. What’s more, modern Christians today do this as well, whether they realize it or not. No one feels the need to offer a detailed exegetical justification for reading Joshua 10:13 as a figure of speech. Everyone reads it in a way consistent with the heliocentrism of modern science, and to read it any other way would make no sense.

A variety of political and sociocultural currents that have converged at our present historical moment are steadily increasing the animosity and skepticism that many people feel toward the scientific community. Given the current trends, young-earth creationism appears unlikely to disappear anytime soon. A better understanding of the history of biblical interpretation will not resolve the issue, but it certainly would not hurt.

Wesley Viner is a doctoral candidate in the history of science at Princeton University, where he is completing a dissertation on biblical interpretation and natural philosophy in the early modern period.