Creation: How Does the Bible Interpret Genesis 1?

As we consider the debate between those who hold to believe in some form of evolution and those who believe in the traditional Christian belief in direct creation by God over the course of six 24-hour days; one question that has to be answered is “What does the Bible say about the creation of the universe.” In other words, it does not really matter what the traditional Christian belief is. The central question is, “What does the Bible, in fact, teach?” Or, to put it more humbly, “What does the Bible seem to teach?” As we consider texts that speak directly about the creation of the universe, what is the picture they paint?

Genesis 1 is obviously an important place to start. Several aspects demand our attention. First, there are the repeated “let there be” statements followed by “and there was;” “and it was so;” or “God made.” It is hard to escape the immediacy that these statements imply. Furthermore there are the repeated “there was evening, and there was morning, the first [second/third/fourth etc.] day.” In any other discourse if someone talked like this there would be little chance of being misunderstood. If someone made an appointment and said, “After three evening and mornings, after three days, I will meet you.” It would be, or should be, pretty clear when the meeting was supposed to happen. Granted, there are some biblical contexts in which “day” does not mean a 24-hour time period. But our basic methodology is not to ask what a word can possibly mean from other contexts, but what a word most likely means in its present context. We must investigate how the Bible speaks about creation and its days in other contexts that speak of creation; not how it speaks about “days” in contexts that have nothing to do with creation.

This leads to a consideration of Exodus 20:8-11 a context that speaks of days and creation. The Israelites were commanded to work 6 days of the week and cease from their labor on the seventh day of the week. There is no ambiguity here and all interpreters can only assert that such a command was understood and practiced with a literal understanding of the words. The Israelites worked Sunday through Friday and ceased labors on Saturday. Even now, nearly 4,000 years later, the Jewish people practice this. Verse 11 appears to be equally unambiguous: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The six days of labor for the Israelites match the six days of labor of the Lord. What indication is there in the text that anyone should take verses 8-10 literally, but not verse 11? Indeed, the very basis for a literal interpretation for verses 8-10 is a literal interpretation of verse 11. When the Bible speaks of days and creation, the Bible seems to interpret the event literally.

But what about the act of creation? How does the Bible present the act of creation outside of Genesis? Consider the following texts:

 Psalm 33:6-9  By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Psalm 148:1-5- Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created.

Isaiah 45:12, 18- I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Romans 4:17  as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

2Peter 3:5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God,

Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Again, what is the impression that these verses leave the reader with. It certainly seems that the Bible wants its reader to believe that everything that came into existence came into existence because of the command of the Lord. It appears that the Psalmist, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, and author of Hebrews all understood Genesis chapter one in a “literal” manner.

A common method of contrarians is to atomize the Bible. They seek to separate texts off from one another and explain away details through using irrelevant data. It is certainly important to know the lexical meanings a word can have: even the word day.[1] But the safest way of interpretation is to seek what a word means in its own context and in contexts that are closest in content. If you want to know what “day” means in Genesis 1, look for how the Bible speaks about creation.

When the Bible talks about creation it constantly does so in a way that reinforces a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Maybe that is why the church has believed it for 2,000 years.


[1] Basil the Great makes a forceful point: “It is the opposite of day which was called night, and it did not receive its name until after day. Thus were created the evening and the morning, Scripture means the space of a day and a night, but calls them both under the name of the more important: a custom which you will find throughout Scripture, Everywhere the measure of time is counted by days, without mention of nights. ‘The days of our years,’ says the Psalmist. ‘Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been,’ said Jacob, and elsewhere ‘all the days of my life.’ Thus under the form of history the law is laid down for what is to follow.” (Hexaemeron, Homily 2). Critics debate over what the word “day” means all the while ignoring that God himself define is in the the text: evening and morning.

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John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 2

In sermon 2 Chrysostom does not leave any doubt about his feelings toward the Anomoeans. In the previous sermon they were seen as guilty of madness, obstinacy, and folly.  In the very first sentence of the second address they are described as “unbelieving and infidel.” Chrysostom goes on to say they are guilty of dishonoring the faith and disgracing themselves (1)[1]. Yet even with such harsh words, Chrysostom insists he is acting gently. He encourages his hearers to treat the Anomoeans “as you would treat people who have suffered a mental illness and lost their wits” (51). Indeed, the claim to be able to comprehend God is one of insanity.

The preacher rightly identifies one of the consequences of this false belief: the elimination of faith (6). If God can be known completely; known for who he is in his essence; what room is there for faith? For mystery? For wonder? As mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the underlying questions in the debate about the knowability of God is, “What kind of God is God?” Again, if God can be comprehended, is he that much of a god?

Unlike the first sermon, Chrysostom does not base this address on a single passage of Scripture. Rather, he uses multiple Scriptures to prove his point. In his first sermon, the preacher demonstrated the incomprehensibility of God by focusing on the Scriptural teachings of his attributes. The Bible consistently says that even God’s individual attributes are incomprehensible, so how much more sure is it that God himself is incomprehensible? In this sermon Chrysostom turns from the attributes of God to his actions. If what God does cannot be understood, how can God himself be understood? He will also turn attention to the nature of man. How can the finite grasp the infinite?

Chrysostom’s first example is the angelic announcement of John’s conception to his father Zechariah (9-16). While the preacher makes a few historically inaccurate statements[2], his treatment of the substance of the Scripture is sound and supportive of his thesis. Zechariah was judged by God because he was not content to take God at his word and wanted to know how God was going to accomplish the sign spoken of. The Anomoeans display the same lack of faith and sense. Not content to trust the word of God, the press on to find out the unknowable.

Before treating even more Scripture, Chrysostom mentions the summary of the Anomoeans’ error (17). He describes it as a destructive force and root of all their evils. The claim of the Anomoeans is: “I know God as God himself knows himself.” It is hard to disagree with the preacher’s statement that the mere repetition of this belief demonstrates its folly (18). If such an affirmation were indeed true, the Anomoeans are rightly called godless. Since it is clearly untrue, they are certainly guilty of “unpardonable madness, a new kind of impiety and godlessness.”

Chrysostom then changes track and concentrates on the nature of man (19-22). The preacher ransacks Scripture to describe man as “dust and ashes, flesh and blood, grass and the flower of grass, a shadow and smoke and vanity…” And just in case anything is left out “…and whatever is weaker and more worthless than these.” These attributes are shown in stark contrast to the nature of God who simply looks at the earth and it trembles.

This leads the preacher into a lengthy meditation on the smallness of man in nature (23-31; 49-50). The heavens have stood gloriously for 5,000 years.[3] The mountains and seas of earth dwarf man. Yet all these are accounted as nothing before their Maker: no wider than his hand; dust on the scales; drops in the palms. Man does not even know his home, but has the audacity to claim full knowledge of its Maker?

Following this, there is argument from the book of Romans (32-39). Chrysostom reminds his hearers that they are but clay in the potter’s hand. As such, they have no foundation from which to question the work of God. In Paul’s hypothetical dialogue, the question was not over God’s nature, but his decisions of judgment and mercy. If man has no way of knowing the mysteries of God’s sovereign decrees, what hope has he of knowing the essence of God himself?

 When Paul did not permit the Romans to meddle in these matters, what about you Anomoeans? Do you not think that you deserve to be seared with ten thousand thunderbolts? You are being meddlesome and pretending to know that blesses essence which manages all the universe. Is this not a mark of ultimate madness?[4]

Chrysostom spends the rest of the sermon bringing up other Pauline statements of ignorance. Devoting most of the discussion to Philippians 3:13, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended…” and the surrounding context. If the apostle Paul could only claim informed ignorance, who can dare say he knows God as God knows himself?

As in the first sermon, Chrysostom concludes by exhorting his hearers to be gentle but direct when dealing with those “blasphemers” (55). Yet their interaction must be guarded. Weaker believers in the truth should flee the heretics and have nothing to do with them. Indeed, all the faithful should “avoid any association with them” but instead

 …only pray for them and beseech the loving-kindness of God, who wishes all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, to free them from this deceit and snare of the devil, and to lead them back to the light of knowledge, that is, to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in union with the all holy Spirit, the giver of life, to whom be glory and power now and forever, world without end. Amen.[5]


[1] All parenthetical references refer to chapter divisions in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] i.e. that Zechariah was high priest and was in the holy of holies.

[3] An indication that John Chrysostom understood Genesis 1-11 literally.

[4] §39 pg. 86

[5] §55 pg. 93-94.