The first three chapters of Genesis teach fundamental truths about God, Creation, and mankind; but neither the Book of Genesis nor the rest of the Bible were meant to instruct us on matters of natural science. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in 1893 in his encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus,
“The sacred writers … did not intend to teach mankind these things, that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe … . Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language or in terms that were commonly used at the time … .” 1
Figurative or symbolic ways of understanding scriptural passages go back to the very beginnings of the Church and indeed are used extensively in Scripture itself. It is clear, for example, that the “sacred writers” who composed the first chapters of Genesis could not have meant them to be read in a narrowly literal way, for chapters 1 and 2 contain two different creation accounts that disagree in obvious ways in matters of detail.
Several of the greatest theologians and commentators of the early Church, including Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) and St. Augustine (354 – 430), read many of the things in the creation accounts of Genesis in highly symbolic ways. To take just one example (but a very important one), they did not even understand the “Six Days” of creation to be an actual sequence of time. Rather, they held that the universe was created in an instant, followed by a gradual and natural process of development through the unfolding of potentialities which God originally implanted in it at creation, and which existed in “the very fabric, as it were, or texture of the elements… [requiring only] the right occasion actually to emerge into being.” 2 St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, agreed. St. Thomas admitted that the idea of a temporally successive creation was more commonly held and was “superficially more in accord with the letter” of Scripture, but said that he preferred St. Augustine’s interpretation because it was more “in accordance with reason.” 3
Of course, not everything in Scripture is figurative or symbolic; many statements are meant to be taken literally. Different parts of Scripture belong to different “genres” or types of writing (such as history, legal codes, poetry, proverbs, prophecy, moral instruction, and theology) and are meant to be read in different ways. (CCC 110) Indeed, it is traditionally accepted that a Scripture passage can have multiple layers of meaning, including both literal and figurative. (CCC 115) For example, the Church understands the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning,” as implying that the universe began a finite time ago. But both the early Church Fathers4 and the rabbis of antiquity5 saw the word “beginning” in this verse as having also the deeper meaning of the “first principle” or “source” of the world, and therefore as referring to the divine Wisdom.
One meaning that theologians have seen in the “Six Days” of the first creation account of Genesis is that the wisdom of God has given to the created world both order and purpose. In the first three “Days” the various parts of the world are established; in the next three Days, the various living things that inhabit those parts are made, culminating in mankind; and finally comes the seventh Day, the sabbath day of rest and worship. This sequence symbolizes that the physical universe was made for life, especially rational beings such as ourselves, and that we ourselves are made for communion with God, in whom we shall find rest.
Among the many other fundamental truths taught in the creation accounts of the Book of Genesis, according to the Catholic Church, are that God is the source of being to all things; that he creates freely and intelligently; that what he has created is good; that human beings are made in the image of God and have a nature that is spiritual as well as corporeal; that humanity, though created good, is in a state of alienation from God due to sin; that man and woman are distinct and complementary and of equal dignity; and that marriage as a faithful, exclusive, and life-long union of man and woman is part of God’s plan. These are not the kinds of truths that the natural sciences study, but neither do they contradict those truths.
1.. Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 18. The pope is quoting St. Augustine, De genesi ad litteram, I.21.41.
2. St. Augustine, De Trinitate 3.9.16. Cf. De genesi, 3.9.16; 5.23.45.
3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences 18.104.22.168c.
4.. “In the beginning, O God, you made heaven and earth in your Word, in your Son, in your Power, in your Wisdom, in your Truth, speaking in a wondrous way, and working in a wondrous way. … ‘How great are your works, O Lord, you have made all things in wisdom!’ (Ps 103:24) That wisdom is the beginning, and in that beginning you have made heaven and earth.” St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 9.
5.. “And the word ‘beginning’ refers only to the Torah, as the Scripture says, ‘The Lord made me [Wisdom] as the beginning of his way.’ (Proverbs 8:22)” Quoted in Confronting Genesis: How Judaism Reads Genesis, An Anthology of Genesis Rabbah, Jacob Neusner (University of South Carolina Press, 1991), p. 15.
Resources for further study
In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) (Eerdmans, 1995)
Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (2nd edition), Christopher T. Baglow (Midwest Theological Forum, 2019) Chapter 4.
On Genesis (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century), Saint Augustine (New City Press, 2004). Most important is the third work by St. Augustine contained in this book: “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” (pages 155-506).