How are we as Orthodox Christians to interpret Genesis? First, we must respect the Text and recognize that it contains the Truth. We cannot discount what it says or relegate it to an ancient outdated myth. We believe that all Scripture is given to us through Divine inspiration. Because it is a spiritual text, we must resist making our own interpretations and seek help from those who have greater wisdom that ourselves.
There are many who insist on a strict literal interpretation of Genesis and believe that the seven days of Creation are the same as our current measure of seven twenty-four hour days. But we must remember that creation took place out of nothing and before time existed. Therefore, the idea of a “day” in Genesis cannot be the same as we know it today.
Fortunately, our Church Fathers have written extensively on this subject to guide us (see sidebar on next page). We must begin our understanding of the Creation story in Genesis by studying what they have written. Genesis is not a scientific journal article, but is about the spiritual nature of God who is the Creator and the proper relationship of Mankind with Him. The main point is that it is God who created all that we know.
The Church Fathers were not scientist but were theologians. They had little scientific knowledge when compared to what is generally known today, yet they embraced what was known at that time about the physical world, and encouraged Christians to explore the natural world. It was a way to know God through his Creation. They felt such exploration can lead us to know God by appreciating its awesome beauty and wonder. Orthodoxy has not been involved in arguments that pit science against Religion. They accepted that science can never give us the whole truth, because it it limited to a study of the physical realm.
The Holy Fathers were steeped in wisdom about the spiritual realm. As theologians, they had a direct experience with God. They prayed and meditated for long periods each day. They were actively engaged in the sacramental life of the Church. They knew the Scriptures. They had a deep personal relationships with God. We must seek out their wisdom accepting their limited scientific knowledge and remain humble in making our own interpretations about Biblical texts.
Religion and science use different methods. Science uses the physical world to search for an understanding of how things work. But religion is based on faith which is based on our trust and belief in God. Truth comes from a relationship one has with God. A scientific approach is limited because its tools and methods are limited to the study of the physical attributes. We must not look to a spiritual document like the Bible to tell us about the mechanics of the physical realm. We would not have the wonders of modern medicine and the advancement in living conditions if we did. There is a place for science as there is one for the study of spiritual matters. They are two simply different approaches. There can be no conflict between what is revealed to us thorough a scientific exploration of God’s creation and the Truth of His revealed Word in the Scriptures.
There are three kinds of knowledge. There is natural knowledge that comes from our senses. This is the knowledge of science. There is spiritual knowledge that comes from the spirit of immaterial realities. And then there is supra-spiritual knowledge which is based on direct divine revelations to the soul. The knowledge presented in Genesis is supra-spiritual knowledge. It is the result of a direct revelation from God through Moses.
We have to be humble and accept that the story of Creation is something that is beyond our total comprehension. It can never be fully explained to us creatures. We are the created and are therefore forever limited in what we can know about the nature of the Creator and his powers and methods.
Saint John Chrysostom writes:
"With great gratitude let us accept what is related (by Moses), not stepping out of our own limitations, and not testing what is above us as the enemies of truth did when, wishing to comprehend everything with their minds, they did not realize that Human nature cannot comprehend the creation of God."
We must accept that the process of Creation is series of miracles. The six days of creation also produced the laws of nature. The six days are miracles which are not confined to the natural laws which can be seen as the hand of God governing the world which we now observe.
Ask yourself, before the creation of this physical world, what was it like? The answer is simply that we don’t know. It is beyond the reach of science. It is a mystery. Genesis gives us some important supra-spiritual knowledge about Creation for the benefit of our salvation. It emphasizes our need to honor and recognize God as our Creator.
Genesis is a very important Book for Orthodox Theology.