The Genesis Problem

I’m continually amazed how often the “problem” of Genesis comes up in my work of evangelization and apologetics. What I mean is the way people struggle with the seemingly bad science that is on display in the opening chapters of the first book of the Bible. How can anyone believe that God made the visible universe in six days, that all the species were created at the same time, that light existed before the sun and moon, etc., etc? How can believers possibly square the naïve cosmology of Genesis with the textured and sophisticated theories of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking?

One of the most important principles of Catholic Biblical interpretation is that the reader of the Scriptural texts must be sensitive to the genre or literary type of the text with which he is dealing. Just as it would be counter-indicated to read Moby Dick as history or “The Wasteland” as social science, so it is silly to interpret, say, “The Song of Songs” as journalism or the Gospel of Matthew as a spy novel. By the same token, it is deeply problematic to read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific treatise. If I can borrow an insight from Fr. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, no Biblical text can possibly be “scientific” in nature, since “science,” as we understand it, first emerged some fourteen centuries after the composition of the last Biblical book. The author of Genesis simply wasn’t doing what Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Hawking were doing; he wasn’t attempting to explain the origins of things in the characteristically modern manner, which is to say, on the basis of empirical observation, testing of hypotheses, marshalling of evidence, and experimentation. Therefore, to maintain that the opening chapters of Genesis are “bad science” is a bit like saying “The Iliad” is bad history or “The Chicago Tribune” is not very compelling poetry.

So what precisely was that ancient author trying to communicate? Once we get past the “bad science” confusion, the opening of the Bible gives itself to us in all of its theological and spiritual power. Let me explore just a few dimensions of this lyrical and evocative text. We hear that Yahweh brought forth the whole of created reality through great acts of speech: “Let there be light,’ and there was light; ‘Let the dry land appear’ and so it was.” In almost every mythological cosmology in the ancient world, God or the gods establish order through some act of violence. They conquer rival powers or they impose their will on some recalcitrant matter. (How fascinating, by the way, that we still largely subscribe to this manner of explanation, convinced that order can be maintained only through violence or the threat of violence). But there is none of this in the Biblical account. God doesn’t subdue some rival or express his will through violence. Rather, through a sheerly generous and peaceful act of speech, he gives rise to the whole of the universe. This means that the most fundamental truth of things—the metaphysics that governs reality at the deepest level—is peace and non-violence. Can you see how congruent this is with Jesus’ great teachings on non-violence and enemy love in the Sermon on the Mount? The Lord is instructing his followers how to live in accord with the elemental grain of the universe.

Secondly, we are meant to notice the elements of creation that are explicitly mentioned in this account: the heavens, the stars, the sun, the moon, the earth itself, the sea, the wide variety of animals that roam the earth. Each one of these was proposed by various cultures in the ancient world as objects of worship. Many of the peoples that surrounded Israel held sky, stars, sun, moon, the earth, and various animals to be gods. By insisting that these were, in fact, created by the true God, the author of Genesis was, not so subtly, de-throning false claimants to divinity and disallowing all forms of idolatry. Mind you, the author of Genesis never tires of reminding us that everything that God made is good (thus holding off all forms of dualism, Manichaeism and Gnosticism), but none of these good things is the ultimate good.

A third feature that we should notice is the position and role of Adam, the primal human, in the context of God’s creation. He is given the responsibility of naming the animals , “all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts” (Gen. 2:20). The Church fathers read this as follows: naming God’s creatures in accord with the intelligibility placed in them by the Creator, Adam is the first scientist and philosopher, for he is, quite literally, “cataloguing” the world he sees around him. (Kata Logon means “according to the word”). From the beginning, the author is telling us, God accords to his rational creatures the privilege of participating, through their own acts of intelligence, in God’s intelligent ordering of the world. This is why, too, Adam is told, not to dominate the world, but precisely to “cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2: 16), perpetuating thereby the non-violence of the creative act.

These are, obviously, just a handful of insights among the dozens that can be culled from this great text. My hope is that those who are tripped up by the beginning of the book of Genesis can make a small but essential interpretive adjustment and see these writings as they were meant to be seen: not as primitive science, but as exquisite theology.

Father Barron can be found on the Internet at:

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About the Author

Father Robert Barron is an author, speaker and theologian. He is also the founder of the global media ministry Word on Fire (www.WordOnFire.org), which reaches millions of people by utilizing the tools of new media to draw people into or back to the Catholic Faith.

Father Barron is the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award winning documentary series about the Catholic Faith. The series has aired across the country on PBS and EWTN, and has been seen and broadcast in parishes, universities, schools and media outlets throughout the world. The documentary received a Christopher Award for excellence. Father Barron and Word on Fire also released the documentary "CATHOLICISM: The New Evangelization" in 2013.

Father Barron currently serves as the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake. He was appointed to the theological faculty of Mundelein Seminary in 1992, and has also served as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was twice scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican.

Ordained in 1986, he is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Father Barron received a Master's Degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in 1982 and a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992.

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13 Comments

  1. May I contribute the following thoughts to the debate? Extracted from https://sites.google.com/site/catholictopics/theological-issues/creation-evolution-and-intelligent-design

    Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design

    [Interpretations of Genesis]…

    3. The “framework” interpretation. This view holds that the six days of creation are not intended to convey anything in particular about the time or sequence in which God created things. Instead they represent a literary/theological framework into which the events of creation are fitted. S. Thomas calls them “instants” in the Eternal Plan of Creation. When all six (or seven) ‘instants’ are manifested, the Universe is in existence.

    The six days of creation are divided into two sets of three.

    [A] The Work of Division or Distinction In the first set, God divides one thing from another: day from night, waters above from below, and land from water.

    [B] The Work of Adornment. In the second three days, God goes back over the realms he produced by division and populates or adorns them. He populates the day and night with the sun, moon, and stars; the waters above and below with birds and fish. And lastly he populates the land (between the divided waters) with animals and man.

    This is supported by the beginning and end of the narrative. At the beginning we are told that “the earth was without form and void” (Gen. 1:2). The Work of Distinction addresses the “without form”, and the Work of Adornment addresses the “void”. Likewise, at the end of the narrative we are told “the heavens and the earth were finished [i.e., by distinction], and all the host of them [i.e., by adornment]” (2:1).

    The ‘Framework’ interpretation …accords well with the text of Genesis, with what modern science suggests, and with the Catechism’s interpretation of the six days. There is a vast amount of supporting evidence. To name but one item, the global deposit of iridium clay at the K-T boundary cannot, as far as I can see, be reconciled with a worldwide flood, but provides convincing proof of worldwide extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous.

    All over the world, at the precise line of division between the Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks (according to Mainstream science), there is a very thin layer of clay, anomalously rich in the element iridium, and with traces of pure carbon. This accords well with the hypothesis that a large iridium-rich meteorite struck the Earth, spraying the entire planet with its unusual dust, and setting off worldwide brush fires that provided the charcoal – the carbon. If these rocks were really laid down by a very sudden flood, and do not represent a chronological sequence, how did the iridium clay get itself inserted in precisely this position worldwide?

  2. St. Augustine of Hippo had problems with Genesis, too. It is important to know that the Church is not simply trying to “explain away” a passage which modern science has made embarrassing. The primordial history in Genesis has always been challenging to understand, yet the Church has always found it to be most meaningful when read by grown-ups thinking like grown-ups.

    Anyone who is interested should read St. Augustine on Genesis, ISBN-13: 978-0813210889.

  3. Fr. Baron,
    Your post strikes me as amazingly odd. When I read, “How can believers possibly square the naïve cosmology of Genesis with the textured and sophisticated theories of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking?”, I literally thought that you were using sarcasm, or simply tongue in cheek. Then the rest of the article seemed to praise the fools. Scripture is clear that the fool does not believe in God. To believe in chance with time, and mutation as the ultimate cause of creation is the epitome of foolishness. They choose not to believe what they can clearly see revealed because they don’t want to believe. They don’t want to submit.

    You seem to ask the wrong questions about genesis. Was Adam perfect in body, mind, and soul? What did that perfect body look like? Did “preman” evolve to some point only for God to breath into some monkey/man and make him perfect in everyway in every cell, incorruptible, perfect in will, perfect to the last valence shell of his electrons. Why would God use such junk to make such perfection? He never does that. Mary seems to contradict evolution. God intervenes in a moment to create something immaculate to simply prepare not only the receptacle of the New Adam, but the egg, the gamete containing genes from Eve, from Adam’s side to pass to The WORD incarnate. I would likely have to spend more time making my case for how the Immaculate Conception contradicts evolution, but let me throw that out there anyway.

    It makes no sense. Maybe my post makes no sense to you, but to think that with “no death”, he created through billions and billions and billions of deaths, survival of the fittest, random mutations. If by some billionth of a chance God choose to do that with man rather than literally form him from the dust of the earth as the Bible states then it would take a lot more than a bunch of atheists trying to convince me. It would take a Papal Bull and that isn’t going to happen. It might happen to put an end to the evolution speculation which does nothing but diminish the dignity of man.

    It is impossible to evolve even a single cell due to its astronomical complexity and yet somehow you accept that multiorganed systems evolved. This mystifies me to no end. Please help me understand what I am missing.

    Similarly, the nay-sayers that like to claim the Israelites crossed over a couple feet of water to somehow diminish God’s miraculous powers, fail to acknowledge that the entire Egyptian army miraculously drowned in a tiny puddle. Was Adam perfect or not perfect? Was there no death or did God create by death? It really seems so simple any 5 year old could understand creation and any genius remained mystified.

  4. David,

    You wrote: >> Then the rest of the article seemed to praise the fools <<

    This statement grossly mischaracterizes Fr. Barron’s article. What the rest of the article actually addresses are the eternal truths conveyed in the sacred text.

    Deacon Mike

  5. Deacon Mike,
    I can see your point. I was speaking in regard to the “sophisticated theories” that Fr. Baron went on to expound. I don’t think his point was to praise the fools, but in a way doesn’t it? It seems like all the “catholic” schools today teach evolution dogma and none of the kids know any theological dogma. I cannot even count the number of Catholics that grew up in all Catholic schools and went to a “Catholic” university and they simply don’t know their faith. It means so little to them and yet global warming means so much to them as well as defending homosexuality. The Godless, mindless, relativistic “science” of evolution is by far one of the biggest tools of satan today. Of course most Catholics don’t really believe in a person Lucifer anymore because he is just another lovely myth like Noah and the ark.

    As for earth age and space age, it only makes sense that God might have created a mature world in a moment or 6 days. He made mature wine in a moment from water. He made the atrophied muscles whole in a moment. I will believe the moment until the Church clearly teaches otherwise since that is what scripture does say. The “science” for evolution looks more and more far fetched the more I learn.

    Just one more example. Try to convince about any doctor, even a prolife protestant that contraception is harmful. They ignore the real science, let alone the common sense argument. Just about every teen in the USA today is on some contraception. They’ve learned to be blind in our schools. They are a bunch of intelligent fools.

  6. Hi David,

    Thanks for the reply.

    You wrote: >>I can see your point. I was speaking in regard to the “sophisticated theories” that Fr. Baron went on to expound.<<

    But he did not go on to expound on those theories. He made a point: The study of cosmology in its scientific sense does contain a set(s) of complex, sophisticated theories. But underlying those theories (Fr. Barron never indicated he believed the theories) are observable data (no, I am not speaking of inter-species evolution, there is no such data) that the story of Genesis cannot be squared with.

    His point is not the truth or error of the theories put forth by the scientific community. His point is that Genesis is not a scientific textbook, that the content presented is not science, but theology concerning God, the universe He made and us – His special creation – and our place in creation and our relation to Him. Therefore, those who insist on treating the creation accounts as if they are science or going to needlessly get themselves wrapped around the axle.

    His article is trying to reach those who do not understand the distinction and relation between science and religious faith as it regards this particular passage.

    What Fr. Barron actually went on to “expound” is what the author intended to convey.

    Deacon Mike

  7. I am still confused. So “How can believers possibly square the naïve cosmology of Genesis with the textured and sophisticated theories of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking?”

    Is Fr. Baron saying the cosmology of Genesis is naive? Is he saying Darwin’s theory of evolution is sophisticated? Why does he lump a Christian, Newton, with this group? What is his point?

    In an eternal perspective I would propose that Genesis is infinitely far from naive and Darwin and Hawking are simpletons. However, I would grant that one could make a case that Genesis is simple and Darwin is complex in some ways. So what is Fr. Baron really saying? That is what frustrates me.

    It frustrates me because of what I said in my last two posts. The vast majority of Catholics don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in this country, our institutions (schools, charities, hospitals) are decadent, and our bishops passive at best. They all seem to have a “Genesis Problem”. Perhaps naively by Fr. Baron’s assessment, I believe that the problem is not with Genesis. He seems to concede the “problem” while saying we assuage this problem by simply catagorizing Genesis. Let’s keep the focus on what Genesis is – Truth – not what it isn’t, a scientific text. I think he is moving in the wrong direction with this and missing the point, possibly making a wrong point altogether. That is why I am confused.

  8. David,

    Fr. Barron is “continually amazed” when people insist on reading the Book of Genesis as if it were a science text. The whole point of the article is to teach people that they are wrong to do that… that instead, a different content is conveyed.

    Genesis does appear to be naive if we think it a science text. The observable data does not support its science. But guess what? Fr. Barron reminds us it is NOT science and therefore there is no problem.

    Deacon Mike

  9. David, while I agree w/ you that many Catholics have a very shallow understanding of the faith I’ve come to understand that it is more complex than simply “not being taught” in the Catholic classes; albeit that has had a huge impact.

    There is a resistance to truth & fidelity to God by our human nature & a willingness to grasp what is easier to take in. And Satan is happily at work, using every opportunity to destroy any good work God has done on earth, including an attempt to either read more into or extract out of what Fr. Barron has said in this piece.

    He is simply saying we rely on Genesis as our source of God’s role in all of creation including the works of the great scientists of all time. It matters not what method of man-made scientific classification & understanding of creation we employ, but that we use that (or not) as a means to seeing God’s role in creation.

    I might add that in another piece of work by Fr. Barron, he describes the danger of ‘scientism’; whereby we worship only what we know as revealed to us by scientists…to me that’s really scarey.

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