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Genesis: truth and metaphor


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#1 Byron Jack Gaist

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 10:12 AM

I hope this topic justifies starting a new thread.

Someone recently asked me, if Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel, who did Cain procreate with to continue the human race?

I didn't know how to respond, although I´m sure I read somewhere that even the early Church Fathers did not insist on a literalistic reading of the book of Genesis. Can anyone confirm (or disconfirm this)? And how would you have responded to this question?

ICXC
Byron


#2 Owen Jones

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 12:47 PM

In response to this question, I would put on my bullet proof vest.


#3 Justin

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 01:25 PM

I would have said that Adam and Eve had many other children, and that Cain had relations with one of those other children. Given how long people were living at the time (cf Gen. 5), and given how rapidly a population can multiply over a relatively short period of time, it's not impossible to believe that there were many (perhaps even tens of thousands) of people around by the time Cain married. As to whether Genesis should be read literally or not... to be honest, I think the anthropological stuff in the Fathers that deals with our nature (which they base a lot of on certain texts in Genesis) is so much more interesting than the stuff that deals with our origins, that I don't give the latter much thought.


#4 Owen Jones

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 01:59 PM

That's the whole point. Genesis deals with our nature. Because our nature is rooted in mystery, the only way to reveal it is through the myth. By over-literalizing our origins, we over-literalize our nature, which is wrong in principle.


#5 Byron Jack Gaist

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 03:38 PM

Thank you Justin and Owen for your responses. I am still unsure, however, as to whether the Orthodox teaching concerning the stories in Genesis 1 is literalistic or figurative (Owen uses the word "myth" - is this an Orthodox term?). I have heard it said that anthropology and cosmology go hand-in-hand, so it seems to me quite important to be able to offer an Orthodox response to such questions, which (you are right, Owen) do require protection with a "bullet-proof vest".

ICXC
Byron


#6 Owen Jones

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 04:05 PM

I don't think there is an absolute Orthodox "position" on Genesis as literal in every sense, or otherwise. Some fathers allowed for the idea that a day was not necessarily a day in the literal sense, and of course the idea of the eon and the 8th day figure prominently in Orthodox symbolism, especially in Maximos. Other Fathers would, of course, demand literal assent.


#7 Owen Jones

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 04:18 PM

Here is the problem in a nutshell: I cannot explain you or me. I am not a fact. There are certain facts about me. Height, weight, hair color, born here, lived there, etc. But that doesn't explain who or what I am. To do that, I need to tell a story, or, better, someone else needs to tell a story about me. It could be a very compact narrative, and this could exist in various forms. A sonnett perhaps? A couple of highly suggestive, descriptive phrases. Or it could be differentiated, with analysis, and so on. It still won't describe or explain fully who and what I am. I can't. Ever. That is reality. Now, how do you think God is going to reveal Himself to man? Is he going to lay out certain facts? How does he explain, identify Himself? I Am Who I Am? What the heck does that mean? That's it. Other than through telling to us our own narrative in historical form. It's a story. A true story, not because of the factual veracity, necessarily, but because what it reveals about God and God's way with man is true, but only in the telling, and only dimly, opaquely, incompletely, because of the inherent mystery of both subjects, God and Man, and the relationship in between. It's not intendend to be a literally rendering of facts, which would destroy the mystery, and make faith irrelevant.

Unfortunately, today, we have redefined faith in terms of recognizing facts. Faith is about something that we don't really know about. I'm certain that if I jump off a tall building I will fall toward the earth because of the effect of gravity. That's a fact that I know. Faith does not enter into it. The more we base our faith on literal facts, the less faith we have. This paradox is at the very heart of human existence, and virtually all recorded history is the struggle between faith and the desire to escape living by faith. So history is a narrative of that Divine-human struggle, not a compendium of facts.


#8 Guest_Matt Keyes

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 04:22 PM

i'm not an authority by any means, but i've always been taught that it is the *point* of the early parts of Genesis that is important - not the literal aspect or not. The point is that God was the Creator, He has created things in a certain order and way, and He has a reason for creating.

In peace,
the_grip


#9 Guest_Matt Keyes

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 04:23 PM

Oops - forgot to add the (hopefully obvious) point that it doesn't matter if it was myth or not - either way it expresses a profound truth that is beyond the literal aspect of the text.

Yours,
the_grip


#10 Guest_Janine

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 04:38 PM

Thank you all for the interesting discussion and for keeping it on a sophisticated level, beyond literalism. The bible is theological writing, it is not science. From the beginning the Fathers recognized this. They also recognized the importance of all of the learning and knowledge particular to the Hellenic culture that informed their theology. We worship the Person who is Truth, so truth in any form must be accepted and inform us as part of Logos.


#11 Guest_Matt Keyes

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Posted 20 January 2005 - 04:42 PM

Heh, sorry - i've been using my handle on other forums in my signature (the_grip). My apologies!

~Matt


#12 Byron Jack Gaist

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 06:19 AM

It seems that we Orthodox (at least the ones on this discussion thread) are mostly affirmative of a non-literal reading of Genesis. I agree instinctively with Owen´s emphasis on the essentially mysterious nature of God and man, and their relationship. Religious "data", as Janine´s point implies, is different in kind from scientific data, and therefore whether we are looking at our own nature, or the history of the universe, it looks different through scientific eyes than it does through the eyes of faith. Nevertheless, many people today would not know what we are talking about when we say that the Bible is true, but not scientific data, since science and truth are for the most part equated in the modern world (even if postmodern scepticism even towards science has been to some extent embraced by the public at large). Not only this, but many inside the Church may be scandalised by the suggestion that Genesis or the rest of biblical narrative is anything but literal fact. Surely we who are content with seeing (for now) through a glass darkly, need to find ways of establishing dialogue with our more sceptical or literal brothers and sisters, which will not put them off or allow them to dismiss us as intellectual or spiritual lightweights.

Just thinking out loud.

With humility
Byron


#13 Moses Anthony

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 02:10 PM

Aspects of this discussion I believe, have been held before; or is that, elsewhere. Nope, I'm pretty certain that the Early Church Fathers discussed at length about whether allegory/symbolism, or fact was the proper method to employ in reading and interpreting the Old Testament.

It seems that in order to employ symbolism in instances where "literalism" would render a more consistant interpretation, one would have to construct a model by which Holy Writ could be judged. In other words, does one discount the passages which are discount difficult to believe as symbolic (or allegorical), such as Jesus being fully God and man at the same time. or, the donkey of Baalam talking.

Now while I'm not of sufficient intellect to argue a bunch of fine points; I believe that while the Bible is not a book of science, where it does speak about scientific matters, it is correct, i.e., the creation of man, the flood, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, etc, etc...

Now while I must accept as part and parcel the limitations of this flesh and blood, I am in no way content to see "through a glass darkly". That discontent I believe, is the entire point of theosis, of "working out our own salvation",. Which is itself the truth behind what the Apostle Paul's saying to the Roman Church that "...the whole creation groans,...and not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

Abram on his way back from conquering the 'kings', met a man, the priest of Salem, who was without mother or father. Is this symbolism, fact, or both, knowing that it would be impossible to be born without either mother or father.

Again, I believe that the Early Church Fathers had this debate centuries ago. And now that I think more about it, it seems that the core of this discussion bleeds over into that about "Preterism".

the sinful and unworthy servant

#14 Guest_Matt Keyes

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 04:11 PM

i (for one) would love to see any Church fathers on the subject. If anyone knows any sources on this, please post them.

i think the discussion also begs the following question: how did the early Church understand Scripture in general? i think our post-Englightenment minds can force a paradigm of interpretation on Scripture that was unknown to the ancient world. In other words, we look at elements in the Bible like creation and say, "Hm, unless this can be proven logically/scientifically, then it exists under great threat." We become frantic in our search to "prove" Scripture - but is this really necessary? A good analogy for our modern eyes might be the teaching on the dormition of our Lady that the Church brings to us. Do we have to literalize it for it to have bearing on our own lives?

Perhaps the ancient world *was* much more mystical about these kinds of things - did they really care if it was a literal seven days or not? Or, perhaps, did they see it through a whole different lens of understanding?

Of course, some things do indeed require literal interpretation - for example, our Savior *was* a literal human being who was one of the Holy Trinity.

Just thinking out loud.

Yours,
Matt


#15 Anthony

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 05:12 PM

My guess is that in an age when the best alternatives to Genesis were stories about cosmic eggs and gods swallowing their children, accepting the Genesis account as literal was about the sanest thing you could do. Thus it would not surprise me if many fathers thought of it as literally true, in the absence of any better accounts. To say that they may have believed it, however, is not to say that they taught it as doctrine. (The latter point I leave to Patristics scholars.)

Needless to say, also just thinking out loud.


#16 Justin

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 08:58 PM

While I didn't say so before, I don't have a problem with taking Genesis literally or allegorically/spiritually; I think it can perhaps be taken in both ways. Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote a book called Genesis, Creation, and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision, in which he argues that Genesis must be taken literally. I'm not aware of any books out there specifically defending the allegorical/spiritual interpretation of Genesis, though I'm sure there are some out there. A good overview of Orthodox anthropology as it relates to Genesis is Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person by Panayiotis Nellas.

Regarding patristic sources, St. Basil the Great's Hexaemeron is available online, and there have been numerous books and commentaries on Genesis by Orthodox Fathers published, including ones by St. John Chrysostom, Bl. Augustine, (which are available at Light-N-Life) and St. Symeon the New Theologian (The First-Created Man: Seven Homilies, which is available at Amazon.com). There is also the first volume from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series.


#17 Guest_Janine

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 09:19 PM

Just a quick note to jump in here -- even in a cursory look on-line at the Hexaemeron -- you will find a wide discussion of theological language in Genesis. Just taking a look at the very way the scriptures are discussed will tell you this is a not mind that believes literalism is the way to think theologically. I don't even see how it is possible that a mind trained in all the philosophy and education of the Hellenic inheritance could think in such limited terms, especially one trained in the finest educational background of his day and who would have through such education been in dialogue with philosophers of every stripe in his society.

Here is just one quick example:

But must we believe in a mysterious reason for this? God who made the nature of time measured it out and determined it by intervals of days; and, wishing to give it a week as a measure, he ordered the week to revolve from period to period upon itself, to count the movement of time, forming the week of one day revolving seven times upon itself: a proper circle begins and ends with itself. Such is also the character of eternity, to revolve upon itself and to end nowhere. If then the beginning of time is called "one day" rather than "the first day," it is because Scripture wishes to establish its relationship with eternity. It was, in reality, fit and natural to call "one" the day whose character is to be one wholly separated and isolated from all the others. If Scripturespeaks to us of many ages, saying everywhere, "age of age, and ages of ages," we do not see it enumerate them as first, second, and third. It follows that we are hereby shown not so much limits, ends and succession of ages, as distinctions between various states and modes of action. "The day of the Lord," Scripture says, "is great and very terrible,"42 and elsewhere "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord: to what end is it for you? The day of the Lord is darkness and not light."43 A day of darkness for those who are worthy of darkness. No; this day without evening, without succession and without end is not unknown to Scripture, and it is the day that the Psalmist calls the eighth day, because it is outside this time of weeks.44 Thus whether you call it day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea. Give this state the name of day; there are not several, but only one. If you call it eternity still it is unique and not manifold. Thus it is in order that you may carry your thoughts forward towards a future life, that Scripture marks by the word "one" the day which is the type of eternity, the first fruits of days, the contemporary of light, the holy Lord's day honoured by the Resurrection of our Lord. And the evening and the morning were one day."
from Homily II.-"The Earth Was Invisible and Unfinished."


#18 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 21 January 2005 - 10:53 PM

Within the Church we see iconographically: nothing refers only to itself but rather all comes from & leads to Christ. This is grounded in the fact that Christ is the recapitulation of all things & He is the Logos of all logoi. This is also what grounded the vision of the Holy Fathers.

When it comes to Holy Scripture the Fathers knew they were reading what was also a sacred & inspired vision of things. So their reverance for what is recounted in Holy Scripture was not based purely on honouring a sacred text. Rather it was a recognition that Scripture is an inspired, churchly vision of things. Scripture as they say is a verbal icon of the Divine & of God's providence.

Did the Holy Fathers accept that what was stated in Scripture was 'literally true'? For the most part they did as for example in the Six Days of Creation of St Basil the Great. But this 'literally true' had a different meaning from a modern day worldly 'fact' that by definition defines itself only in reference to itself.

We can see this for example in how the above quote from St Basil is preceeded by his saying, "It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there. Thus, every time that, in the revolution of the sun, evening and morning occupy the world, their periodical succession never exceeds the space of one day." We see here how St Basil defines a day as being the time it takes the heavens to make one revolution around the earth rather than the earth to make one revolution which is scientifically correct. At first reading we might be inclined to say, "well St Basil's intent was not a science lesson." But he does after all begin with what he takes to be the scientific fact of creation for his time even if we now know it is mistaken. From here however he moves on to ask, "But must we believe in a mysterious reason for this?"

As we continue reading we see that indeed there is a 'mysterious reason' for the day since it represents eternity. (Actually the wider implication is that God created time to always assume a circular character- & it is this which most clearly shows how time is an image of eternity).

So for the Fathers what is contained in Scripture is the truth of how creation is an icon of God's providence. It is not that this 'mysterious truth' is opposed to scientific fact. It is rather that the 'fact' is always an image of the Divine if we can only see this. In this sense then Scripture & how the Holy Fathers read it is a calling for us to deepen our insight within Christ & our Church. It does not ask us in any way to throw out scientific insight but rather to ground this insight in the sacred & to see with new eyes.

In Christ - Fr Raphael

#19 Marie+Duquette

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Posted 22 January 2005 - 12:38 AM

"How did the Early Church understand Scripture in general?

As Matt stated in a previous post: This begs discussion!?

I would suppose that one would identify the "Early Church" as a post Pentecost Church, a Church of the Apostles of Jesus the Risen Christ in the earliest of the Church's existence, that is, after 70 A.D. into the Diaspora, into the times of the persecutions, up to the time of Constantine in the 4th Centure. So, it would be safe, in my estimation to say the the "Early Church" would be this period of time. And, that would be before the time of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers as most of us understand this.

So, in answer to the question: "How would the Early Church understand the Scriptures in general?" That would means the OT as well as the "letters or Epistles" written by the Apostles, wouldn't it? }}


#20 Guest_Mark Kern

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Posted 22 January 2005 - 04:46 AM

It seems like almost everyone is reluctant to come out and admit that they might believe that the Genesis account is a literal one for fear of ridicule from the "scientific community" that claims to have "proof" of evolution. I'm from the "scientific community" and I believe that Genesis can be taken literally, but the real question asked in this thread was what the Church Fathers taught. I believe that I can provide a little help.

A few years ago, I did an exhaustive word search on my CD of the Ante and Post Nicene Fathers for the word "creat". Thus I picked up the words "create", "created", "creation", etc. I then copied and pasted what each of the Fathers had to say about Creation into a Word document, and then I edited it into the most significant and succinct comments. I boiled about 200 pages down into about 50 pages of quotes, and separated them into sections as follows:

1. Did God Create in an Evolutionary Manner or Instantaneously? p. 1
2. The Confusion of Science with Philosophical Theories including some of the theories addressed by the Church Fathers. p. 8
3. Did People Exist Outside the Garden of Eden before Adam? p. 16
4. Uncreated Matter Spawns Christology Errors p. 22
5. Creation Testifies of Its Creator p. 30
6. The End Must Be Like the Beginning p. 39
7. The Father Created Through the Son p. 42
If anyone would like to see a copy of my search, send me an email at "markkern2@netzero.net", and I'll forward you a copy.

Two things surprised me in this search:

A. I was specifically looking for references to the Fathers supporting either evolution -- which some people were claiming when I started the search -- or a literal 6-day creation. Nowhere did I find any support for evolution. But I didn't find a strong emphasis on a literal 6-day creation either. There was a bigger issue they were addressing.
B. The issue of whether uncreated matter existed prior to Creation was a huge issue. St. Athanasius even stated that the Nicene Creed was drafted to make it clear that the True Faith is in opposition to the notions held by the Greek philosophers in these matters. They were careful to distinguish the material creation from the essence of God.

In our day, we, in science, confuse creation and God by holding to the First Law of Thermodynamics, which says that one can't create or destroy energy or matter. We can convert one to the other according to E=Mc^2, but we basically hold that matter is eternal. By holding to this, we have nothing to say to idolators who want to worship matter. If God and matter are both eternal, it's anyone's choice about which one he should worship.

I would encourage everyone not to be intimidated by the wisdom of this world when it makes grand claims of "proof" that the wisdom of God is foolishness. Stick to your Faith! And BTW there are answers to these claims of "proof".




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