How to Read the First Chapter of Genesis

George Sim Johnston

The first chapter of Genesis remains a great stumbling block for the modern mind. The average educated person “knows” that the creation account in Genesis is contradicted by what science tells us about the origin of the universe and the animal kingdom. The confusion over this issue, which Pope John Paul II addressed in 1996 in his highly publicized letter about evolution, boils down to the question of how to read the biblical creation account.

The first chapter of Genesis remains a great stumbling block for the modern mind. The average educated person “knows” that the creation account in Genesis is contradicted by what science tells us about the origin of the universe and the animal kingdom. Charles Darwin himself discarded a mild Protestant faith when he concluded that the author of Genesis was a bad geologist. To his mind, the biblical six days of creation and Lyell’s Principles of Geology could not both be true.

The discomfort with Genesis, moreover, has not been restricted to the educated classes. According to the famous French worker-priest Abbe Michonneau, the apparent conflict between science and the six-day creation account promoted atheism among the poor far more effectively than any social injustice. Darwinian evolution is a major ingredient of that “science.” So is the “Big Bang” model of the universe, which plausibly asserts that the cosmos is billions, and not thousands, of years old.

The confusion over this issue, which Pope John Paul II addressed in 1996 in his highly publicized letter about evolution, boils down to the question of how to read the biblical creation account. In his letter, John Paul simply reiterated what the Magisterium has argued tirelessly since Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893): The author of Genesis did not intend to provide a scientific explanation of how God created the world. Unfortunately there are still biblical fundamentalists, Catholic and Protestant, who do not embrace this point.

When Christ said that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds — and it is about the size of a speck of dust — He was not laying down a principle of botany. In fact, botanists tell us there are smaller seeds. Our Lord was simply talking to the men of His time in their own language, and with reference to their own experience. Similarly, the Hebrew word for “day” used in Genesis (“yom”) can mean a 24-hour day, or a longer period. Hence the warning of Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), that the true sense of a biblical passage is not always obvious. The sacred authors wrote in the idioms of their time and place.

As Catholics, we must believe that every word of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, a claim the Church will not make even for her infallible pronouncements. However, we must not imagine the biblical authors as going into a trance and taking automatic dictation in a “pure” language untouched by historical contingency. Rather, God made full use of the writers’ habits of mind and expression. It’s the old mystery of grace and free will.

A modern reader of Genesis must bear in mind the principles of biblical exegesis laid down by St. Augustine in his great workDe 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. He opposed the idea of a “Christian account” of natural phenomena in opposition to what could be known by science. He viewed such accounts as “most deplorable and harmful, and to be avoided at any cost,” because on hearing them the non-believer “could hardly hold his laughter on seeing, as the saying goes, the error rise sky-high.”

As early as 410 A.D., then, the greatest of the Western Church Fathers was telling us that the Book of Genesis is not an astrophysics or geology textbook. Augustine himself was a kind of evolutionist, speculating that God’s creation of the cosmos was an instantaneous act whose effects unfolded over a long period. God had planted “rational seeds” in nature which eventually developed into the diversity of plants and animals we see today. St. Thomas Aquinas cites this view of Augustine’s more than once in the course of the Summa Theologiae. St. Thomas, author Etienne Gilson writes,

was well aware that 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 Ambrose, Basil, Chrysostom and Gregory, and is suggested by the letter of the text . . . Or we can with Augustine take it to refer to the simultaneous creation of all beings with days symbolizing the various orders of beings. This second interpretation is at first sight less literal, but is, rationally speaking, more satisfying. It is the one that St. Thomas adopts, although he does not exclude the other which, as he says, can also be held.

In this century, Cardinal Bea, who helped Pius XII draft Divino Afflante Spiritu, wrote that Genesis does not deal with the “true constitution of visible things.” It is meant to convey truths outside the scientific order.

While 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. (It is not as though there was a camcorder in the Garden of Eden.) You might say that they are history written in mythic language — a poetic compression of the truth, as it were. We are obliged to believe the fundamental truths expressed by the sacred author — for example, that our first parents, tempted by the devil, committed a primal act of disobedience whose effects we still suffer (cf. Catechism, no. 390). But the Catholic doctrine of original sin is entirely outside the realm of physical science. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, Newman’s remark that the more he contemplated humanity, the clearer it became to him that the race was “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.” Biblical fundamentalism — and its corollary, creation science — is a distinctly Protestant phenomenon. Although it has roots in the commentaries on Genesis written by Luther and Calvin, its real beginning was in early 20th century America. Biblical literalism was a defense against the onslaught of rationalist criticism launched by German scholars who were intent on undermining Christian belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Certain Protestant denominations that were already suspicious of science took refuge in a semantic literalism that sheltered the Bible from the invasive procedures of agnostic scholarship. The intellectual simplicity and doctrinal clarity of this position make it attractive to some Catholics today. This appeal is understandable. They are seeking refuge from the attacks of heterodox theologians who seem as eager as their 19th century forebears to deconstruct the faith. The temptation to biblical literalism should be avoided, however. The Bible was never meant to be read apart from the teaching authority established by Christ. Even many Catholics are not aware of the “Catholic” origins of the Bible. It was not until the end of the fourth century that the twenty-seven books which comprise the New Testament were agreed upon by two Church councils, subject to final approval by the pope. And it was the Church that insisted, against the protests of heretics, that the Old Testament be included in the Christian canon. The Bible was never meant to stand alone as a separate authority. It is the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, that preserves the deposit of the faith, of which Scripture is an integral part. St. Augustine, as usual, got it exactly right: “But for the authority of the Catholic Church, I would not believe the Gospel.”

Since Leo XIII, the Magisterium has progressively discouraged the literalistic reading of Genesis favored by Protestants. Can a Catholic nonetheless read Genesis as a scientific treatise? Yes, if he wants to — but he may find himself in the dilemma of trying to force scientific data into a biblical template which was never meant to receive it. And he will be severely handicapped in doing apologetics in a post-Christian world. He will, in fact, be the reverse of apostolic if he tries to explain to anyone the doctrine of creation in the terms of ancient Hebrew cosmology.

The test of a first-rate intellect, it has been said, is the ability to hold two seemingly opposed ideas and retain the ability to function. A brilliant 20th century Catholic apologist, Frank J. Sheed, wrote of the creation account in his masterpiece,Theology and Sanity. His words are an invitation to Catholics tempted by biblical literalism to use their reason and not engage in overly simplistic readings of Scripture. The author of Genesis, Sheed writes,

tells us of the fact but not the process: there was an assembly of elements of the material universe, but was it instantaneous or spread over a considerable space and time? Was it complete in one act, or by stages? Were those elements, for instance, formed into an animal body which as one generation followed another gradually evolved — not, of course, by the ordinary laws of matter but under the special guidance of God — to a point where it was capable of union with a spiritual soul, which God created and infused into it? The statement in Genesis does not seem actually to exclude this, but it certainly does not say it. Nor has the Church formally said that it is not so.

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. They should be extremely cautious about mixing the two. The Magisterium learned this the hard way in the Galileo affair. 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.


Johnston, George Sim. “How to Read the First Chapter of Genesis.” Lay Witness (September, 1998).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City and a contributing editor for Crisis magazine and the National Catholic Register. His articles and essays have appeared in Harpers, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Crisis, and Catholic World Report. He is a recipient of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. His most recent book, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution is published by Our Sunday Visitor and may be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.

Copyright © 1998 Lay Witness