Allegorical Creation: Not Exactly Heresy

The creation story is a biblical account which has lead to much controversy over the centuries. Many critics of Christianity have used it as a starting point to launch attacks and criticisms at the faith, while those who consider themselves believers are in debate as to whether such accounts are literal historical events, or allegorical means to convey a deeper message. This is not a decision that needs to be taken lightly, since there are theological consequences that emerge no matter where you stand. The creation account is one of the most important passages of scripture in the Bible. It sets the theological foundation upon which the rest of the scriptures build upon. As a result, the debate about how one should interpret the creation account is one of extreme importance.

Some have argued for a literal interpretation, believing that unless such events occurred exactly as described the Bible, the Bible cannot be said to be inerrant and infallible. I am close friends with many people like this, and a conversation I had recently revolving around whether or not the earth is 6,000 years old or not is the reason I decided to write this post. My goal is not to attack anyone’s beliefs as much as it is that I wish to demonstrate that my belief in an allegorical creation is not as much of a heresy as some people might think it is. There are many scholars I respect who hold to the “young earth” ideas, and hopefully I will be able to be fair in giving my reasoning for rejecting that theory without coming off like a condescending tool.

I’ll be the first one to come out and say that not all scripture is infallible. I hold that all scripture has importance, be it philosophical, historical, theological, or in some artistic sense, but infallible is not the choice of words I would use. I believe that all scripture was God inspired, though I’m not going to be the one to say that God held every biblical author’s hand so that they could write down the perfect and divine words of the creator. If that were the case then I question why the book or Revelation has so many gramatical errors. I guess what I’m saying is scholars who run an “all-or-none” theology open themselves to the risk of having a crisis of faith every time a new translation, copy, or discovery reveals something about the texts, or  (as is the case with the creation story) there are two different accounts of the same event. I personally find it unnecessary to limit one’s understanding of scripture to two extremes of literalism and falsity. It is possible for some scripture to be inspired without it being taken literally. The creation account can reveal truth, just as easily as Jesus Christ spoke truth through parables that did not actually occur outside of the parable itself.

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Origen

Some of the more fundamentalist biblical scholars have tried to write off ideas of an allegorical creation as being a new idea, but this could not be further from the truth. The concept of an allegorical creation is not a means of modernistic apologetics, and the allegorical understanding predates any theories of evolution, big bang, carbon dating, or fossil records. The famed theologian Origen of Alexandria made arguments for an allegorical reading of Genesis in 230 AD when he wrote:

“What man of sense will argue with the statement that the first, second and third days, which the evening is named and the morning, were without sun, moon and stars? What man is found such a fool as to suppose that God planted trees in Paradise like a husbandman?… I believe every man must hold these things for images under which a hidden sense is concealed.”

– Origen of Alexandria (230 A.D.)

Origen wasn’t the earliest to make such claims. St. Irenaeus argues for an allegorical creation in his work Against Hereses in the 108 A.D, and St. Augustine denies the literal seven-day creation in his work The Literal Interpretation of Genesis in 408 A.D. Such evidence provides validity too the allegorical creation theory while proving it to be more than merely a modern attempt to bend scripture in order to appease recent scientific discoveries.

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Moses Maimonides

In the 12th Century a Jewish scholar by the name of Moses Maimonides said:

“The foundation of foundations and pillar of all wisdom is to know that the First Being is, and that He gives existence to all that exist.”

– Maimonides

According to Maimonides, the purpose that the author of the creation account is trying to convey is the foundational truth on which existence is based. The author seeks to establishes the existence of a singular God, from whom the universe was created. Such a notion lays the framework for all Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology that will follow. Keeping that in mind it becomes clear that the goal of this passage is one of theological and religious significance, rather than one of historical or scientific nature.

To argue that the creation account is to be taken as a literal scientific history raises a great number of questions. The first problem comes from the contradictions that form between what science and Genesis say about the order in which the universe is formed. A study of the Astronomy reveals that the Sun pre-existed the Earth (Gen. 1:16), biological and geological records seem to contradict the order in which life appears (Gen. 1:11-12, 24), and fossils reveal animals feed on other animals before man first set foot on the earth (Gen. 1:30). Assuming that several areas of scientific study are not built upon falsities, we are left with two possibilities. Either God created the universe with the appearance of false age and misleading records, or the author of Genesis wrote the order of creation with the best ideas available at the time to demonstrating the power and wisdom of God as creator. Both options are possible with an all powerful God, and so readers are left to come to their own conclusion.

If one were to side on the opinion that God created everything in a literal seven days, and that the order of events is literal and factual, another problem emerges. There are two creation accounts (Gen. 1:1-2:4, 2:4-25) that depict a different order of events in which the earth is created. The first account has the creation of plants (Gen. 1:11-12), followed by animals (Gen.1:20-25), and ending with male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). This is not so in the second account which places the order of creation as man (2:7) followed by plants (2:9), animals (2:19),and finally ending with woman (2:21-22). The passages also suffer from differing styles of speech and structure, implying that they were written years apart, and possibly by different authors. Such questions require a great deal of explanation and theorizing on the part of the literal interpreters.

Examining the first creation story alone, does not lend itself free of problems for those who take a literal approach. The creation account shows that God existed, not in a state of nothingness, but rather in a state of darkness and chaos (Gen.1:1-2). This changes when God spoke and created the first of creation; light (Gen. 1:3-5) and the combined light and darkness formed the first day. In this act time and order seem to come into existence as every moment after this point is referred to as a day. The problem arises when one comes to question what the author meant when he mentions “a day.” It is entirely possible that the author meant to relate an indefinite passage of time, just as it is just as possible that the author was writing in the context of the Jewish weekly calendar’s concept of a day. There is no clear way to know, and such matters are confused even further when one considers that God doesn’t create the Sun and Moon until the fourth day (Gen.1:16). Because time on earth is measured using the Sun and Moon, it is difficult for humans to consider what a day consisted of prior to their existence. Such passages leave the literal reader with many questions to ponder.

The second day of creation, much like the first, has many issues when taken literally.  According to some biblical scholars, the ancient peoples saw the sky or heavens as a solid mass. In their understanding the sky was a dome like structure that separated realms, and acted as a throne for God (Ex. 24:10; Ezk. 1:26). Such theories point to the way that the sky separates the waters, which later are seen flooding down upon the earth when they are opened (Gen. 7:11). Since we today know that the sky is not a dome holding back water, the logical conclusions to be drawn are that either the creation account was written to be allegorical, the creation account was written to be literal and the author made mistakes, or the creation account was written literally and God has since altered the state of the world and universe around us.

The fourth day is an interesting day of creation, which holds special theological significance worth mentioning. It was quite common in the ancient times for societies both primitive and advanced to worship celestial bodies as deities. We see such notions reflected in various cultures on every continent all over the globe.Yet in spite of this trend, the author of Genesis seems assured in his assertion that the celestial bodies were not beings of worship, but rather aspects of the creation just like the rest of the universe. Although an astronomer might argue that it does not dismiss the notion that the sun and moon were created simultaneously, such a notion does imply unique theology on the behalf of the author of Genesis. It could be argued that such ideas lead one to argue that the creation account is divinely inspired,although it should be noted that divine inspiration does not assert a literal or allegorical translation.

The Creation of Adam on the sixth day is another point of discussion in terms of literal vs.allegorical debates. The Hebrew term for “Adam” literally translates into “man”which opens up the possibility that Adam is a representation of humanity,rather than a singular being. The first creation account makes no reference to male and female being created on separate days and is more likely to be viewed as an analogy for mankind, while the second account seems more in favor of Adam and Eve as unique individuals.  When one views Adam as an analogy for man, the reader is presented with a much broader story of humanity being given a sense of good and evil, and choosing evil. This would have occurred over a much longer time than if the accounts truly speak of a single man and woman, and raises questions as to the truth behind the doctrine of original sin.

It is worth mentioning that in the grand scale of things it doesn’t really matter whether one takes a literal or allegorical interpretation of creation account. The general themes and concepts are the same regardless of whether one believes the truths are literal or implied.

  • God is the ultimate and He creates all things that exist. God created all things good and in harmony.
  • God created mankind, and when mankind obtained the knowledge of good and evil he chose to sin.
  • Because of this mankind is out of sync with nature and the result is a broken world and a separation from God.

The book of Genesis is based around the major theme of creation, rejection, and redemption. These will be themes found in most of the books of the Bible, especially in the Gospels of Christ. In either line of reasoning, the foundation on which the rest of scripture to build upon is set, and the author fulfills his purpose in writing the account. This is not to say that both sides are on equal footing. One makes a bold assumption that throws much of the known sciences into question while the other opens up questions regarding the ideas of original sin and when did man truly become man. Neither is full proof and both interpretations need to be seriously considered.

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