The Allegorical Interpretation of Creation by the Early Church Fathers

Sistine Chapel

I've compile several quotations by Early Church Fathers showing their unified allegorical interpretation of the Genesis 1-2 narrative. Irenaeus, Barnabus, Augustine, Origen, and Basil the Great are available online here:

There are other quotations by Early Church Fathers, but this displays how the allegorical method was used in the early church. I post this as to raise questions about how we come our dogmatic conclusions about the Scriptures. Does our hermeneutic method exclude the consensus of the historical Church?

Irenaeus  - Against Heresies Book V.XXIII.2

2. Thus, then, in the day that they did eat, in the same did they die, and became death’s debtors, since it was one day of the creation. For it is said, “There was made in the evening, and there was made in the morning, one day.” Now in this same day that they did eat, in that also did they die. But according to the cycle and progress of the days, after which one is termed first, another second, and another third, if anybody seeks diligently to learn upon what day out of the seven it was that Adam died, he will find it by examining the dispensation of the Lord. For by summing up in Himself the whole human race from the beginning to the end, He has also summed up its death. From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death, in obedience to His Father, upon that day on which Adam died while he disobeyed God. Now he died on the same day in which he did eat. For God said, “In that day on which ye shall eat of it, ye shall die by death.” The Lord, therefore, recapitulating in Himself this day, underwent His sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created; thus granting him a second creation by means of His passion, which is that [creation] out of death. And there are some, again, who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year; for since “a day of the Lord is as a thousand years,”465246522 Pet. iii. 8. he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence of his sin. Whether, therefore, with respect to disobedience, which is death; whether 552[we consider] that, on account of that, they were delivered over to death, and made debtors to it; whether with respect to [the fact that on] one and the same day on which they ate they also died (for it is one day of the creation); whether [we regard this point], that, with respect to this cycle of days, they died on the day in which they did also eat, that is, the day of the preparation, which is termed “the pure supper,” that is, the sixth day of the feast, which the Lord also exhibited when He suffered on that day; or whether [we reflect] that he (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit,—it follows that, in regard to all these significations, God is indeed true. For they died who tasted of the tree; and the serpent is proved a liar and a murderer, as the Lord said of him: “For he is a murderer from the beginning, and the truth is not in him.”46534653John viii. 44.

Basil the Great - The Hexæmeron. -- “The Earth was Invisible and Unfinished.” Homily II.8

8.  “And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night.”14471447Gen. i. 5.  Since the birth of the sun, the light that it diffuses in the air, when shining on our hemisphere, is day; and the shadow produced by its disappearance is night.  But at that time it was not after the movement of the sun, but following this primitive light spread abroad in the air or withdrawn in a measure determined by God, that day came and was followed by night.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.”14481448Gen. i. 5.  Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day.  It was to give day the privileges of seniority that Scripture put the end of the first day before that of the first night, because night follows day:  for, before the creation of light, the world was not in night, but in darkness.  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.14491449    lxx.  The Heb.=literally “And evening happened and morning happened, one day.”  On the unique reckoning of the day from evening to morning, see the late Dr. McCaul in Replies to Essays and Reviews.  Scripture means the space of a day and a night, and afterwards no more says day and 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,”14501450Ps. xc. 10. says the Psalmist.  “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been,”14511451Gen. xlvii. 9. said Jacob, and elsewhere “all the days of my life.”14521452Ps. xxiii. 6, LXX.  Thus under the form of history the law is laid down for what is to follow.  And the evening and the morning were one day.14531453Gen. i. 5, LXX. and Heb.  Why does Scripture say “one day the first day”?  Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series?  If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain.  Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day—we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration.  It is as though it said:  twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.  Thus, every time that, in the revolution of the sun, evening and morning occupy the world, their periodical succession never exceeds the space of one day.  But must we believe in a mysterious reason for this?  God who made the nature of time measured it out and determined it by intervals of days; and, wishing to give it a week as a measure, he ordered the week to revolve from period to period upon itself, to count the movement of time, forming the week of one day revolving seven times upon itself:  a proper circle begins and ends with itself.  Such is also the character of eternity, to revolve upon itself and to end nowhere.  If then the beginning of time is called “one day” rather than “the first day,” it is because Scripture wishes to establish its relationship with eternity.  It was, in reality, fit and natural to call “one” the day whose character is to be one wholly separated and isolated from all the others.  If Scripture speaks to us of many ages, saying everywhere, “age of age, and ages of ages,” we do not see it enumerate them as first, second, and third.  It follows that we are hereby shown not so much limits, ends and succession of ages, as distinctions between various states and modes of action.  “The day of the Lord,” Scripture says, “is great and very terrible,”14541454Joel ii. 11. and elsewhere “Woe unto you 65that desire the day of the Lord:  to what end is it for you?  The day of the Lord is darkness and not light.”14551455Amos v. 18.  A day of darkness for those who are worthy of darkness.  No; this day without evening, without succession and without end is not unknown to Scripture, and it is the day that the Psalmist calls the eighth day, because it is outside this time of weeks.14561456    The argument here is due to a misapprehension of the meaning of the term eighth in Psalm vi. and xi. title.  cf. n. on De Sp. S. § 66.  Thus whether you call it day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea.  Give this state the name of day; there are not several, but only one.  If you call it eternity still it is unique and not manifold.  Thus it is in order that you may carry your thoughts forward towards a future life, that Scripture marks by the word “one” the day which is the type of eternity, the first fruits of days, the contemporary of light, the holy Lord’s day honoured by the Resurrection of our Lord.  And the evening and the morning were one day.”

But, whilst I am conversing with you about the first evening of the world, evening takes me by surprise, and puts an end to my discourse.  May the Father of the true light, Who has adorned day with celestial light, Who has made the fire to shine which illuminates us during the night, Who reserves for us in the peace of a future age a spiritual and everlasting light, enlighten your hearts in the knowledge of truth, keep you from stumbling, and grant that “you may walk honestly as in the day.”14571457Rom. xiii. 13.  Thus shall you shine as the sun in the midst of the glory of the saints, and I shall glory in you in the day of Christ, to Whom belong all glory and power for ever and ever.  Amen.

ORIGEN – First Principles Book IV. 16 (Greek)

16.  Nor was it only with regard to those Scriptures which were composed down to the advent of Christ that the Holy Spirit thus dealt; but as being one and the same Spirit, and proceeding from one God, He dealt in the same way with the evangelists and apostles.  For even those narratives which He in365­spired them to write were not composed without the aid of that wisdom of His, the nature of which we have above explained.  Whence also in them were intermingled not a few things by which, the historical order of the narrative being interrupted and broken up, the attention of the reader might be recalled, by the impossibility of the case, to an examination of the inner meaning.  But, that our meaning may be ascertained by the facts themselves, let us examine the passages of Scripture.  Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate,27742774    Consequenter, alii “convenienter.” that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars—the first day even without a sky?  And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood,27752775    Lignum. so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil?  No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.  The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will manifestly cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it.  But not to extend the task which we have before us beyond its due limits, it is very easy for anyone who pleases to gather out of holy Scripture what is recorded indeed as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having rea­sonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account.  The same style of Scriptural narrative occurs abundantly in the Gospels, as when the devil is said to have placed Jesus on a lofty mountain, that he might show Him from thence all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.  How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world (as if they were lying beneath his bodily eyes, and adjacent to one mountain), i.e., the king­doms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians? or how could he show in what manner the kings of these kingdoms are glorified by men?  And many other instances similar to this will be found in the Gospels by anyone who will read them with atten­tion, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted his­torically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.2776

BARNABAS – Epistle

Chapter XV.—The false and the true Sabbath.

Further,16541654    Cod. Sin. reads “because,” but this is corrected to “moreover.” also, it is written concerning the Sabbath in the Decalogue which [the Lord] spoke, face to face, to Moses on Mount Sinai, “And sanctify ye the Sabbath of the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart.”16551655Ex. xx. 8Deut. v. 12. And He says in another place, “If my sons keep the Sabbath, then will I cause my mercy to rest upon them.”16561656Jer. xvii. 24, 25. The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: “And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.”16571657Gen. ii. 2. The Hebrew text is here followed, the Septuagint reading “sixth” instead of “seventh.” Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is16581658    Cod. Sin. reads “signifies.” with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth,16591659    Cod. Sin. adds, “to me.” saying, “Behold, to-day16601660    Cod. Sin. reads, “The day of the Lord shall be as a thousand years.” will be as a thousand years.”16611661Ps. xc. 42 Pet. iii. 8. Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And He rested on the seventh day.” This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man,16621662    Cod. Sin. seems properly to omit “of the wicked man.” and judge the ungodly, and change the-sun, and the moon,16631663    Cod. Sin. places stars before moon. and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day. Moreover, He says, “Thou shalt sanctify it with pure hands and a pure heart.” If, therefore, any one can now sanctify 147the day which God hath sanctified, except he is pure in heart in all things,16641664    Cod. Sin. reads “again,” but is corrected as above. we are deceived.16651665    The meaning is, “If the Sabbaths of the Jews were the true Sabbath, we should have been deceived by God, who demands pure hands and a pure heart.”—Hefele. Behold, therefore:16661666    Cod. Sin. has, “But if not.” Hilgenfeld’s text of this confused passage reads as follows: “Who then can sanctify the day which God has sanctified, except the man who is of a pure heart? We are deceived (or mistaken) in all things. Behold, therefore,” etc.certainly then one properly resting sanctifies it, when we ourselves, having received the promise, wickedness no longer existing, and all things having been made new by the Lord, shall be able to work righteousness.16671667    Cod. Sin. reads, “resting aright, we shall sanctify it, having been justified, and received the promise, iniquity no longer existing, but all things having been made new by the Lord.” Then we shall be able to sanctify it, having been first sanctified ourselves.16681668    Cod. Sin. reads, “Shall we not then?” Further, He says to them, “Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure.”16691669Isa. i. 13. Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.16701670    “Barnabas here bears testimony to the observance of the Lord’s Day in early times.”—Hefele. And16711671    We here follow the punctuation of Dressel: Hefele places only a comma between the clauses, and inclines to think that the writer implies that the ascension of Christ took place on the first day of the week.


Chapter 30.—Of the Perfection of the Number Six, Which is the First of the Numbers Which is Composed of Its Aliquot Parts.

These works are recorded to have been completed in six days (the same day being six times repeated), because six is a perfect number,—not because God required a protracted time, as if He could not at once create all things, which then should mark the course of time by the movements proper to them, but because the perfection of the works was signified by the number six.  For the number six is the first which is made up of its own501501    Or aliquot parts. parts, i.e., of its sixth, third, and half, which are respectively one, two, and three, and which make a total of six.  In this way of looking at a number, those are said to be its parts which exactly divide it, as a half, a third, a fourth, or a fraction with any denominator, e.g., four is a part of nine, but not therefore an aliquot part; but one is, for it is the ninth part; and three is, for it is the third.  Yet these two parts, the ninth and the third, or one and three, are far from making its whole sum of nine.  So again, in the number ten, four is a part, yet does not divide it; but one is an aliquot part, for it is a tenth; so it has a fifth, which is two; and a half, which is five.  But these three parts, a tenth, a fifth, and a half, or one, two, and five, added together, do not make ten, but eight.  Of the number twelve, again, the parts added together exceed the whole; for it has a twelfth, that is, one; a sixth, or two; a fourth, which is three; a third, which is four; and a half, which is six.  But one, two, three, four, and six make up, not twelve, but more, viz., sixteen.  So much I have thought fit to state for the sake of illustrating 223the perfection of the number six, which is, as I said, the first which is exactly made up of its own parts added together; and in this number of days God finished His work.502502    Comp. Aug. Gen. ad Lit. iv. 2, and De Trinitate, iv. 7.  And, therefore, we must not despise the science of numbers, which, in many passages of holy Scripture, is found to be of eminent service to the careful interpreter.503503    For passages illustrating early opinions regarding numbers, see Smith’s Dict. art. Number.  Neither has it been without reason numbered among God’s praises, “Thou hast ordered all things in number, and measure, and weight.”504504Wisd. xi. 20.

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