Fundamentalist Readings of Genesis is Rooted in Christian Tradition

Since the cool pope, Francis, made his recent statements about evolution, the internets have been abuzz. Voices like Ken Ham have argued that this is another indication that the pope is undermining Biblical authority. Others have rightly pointed out that this consistent with Catholic teaching.

However, that does not mean current Catholic teaching reflects the consistent reflection of the Church, especially the early Church.
To hear certain segments of the Christian population tell it, the history of Christendom features centuries of enlightened allegorical interpretations, and then Pat Robertson was born, confusing everyone about the sophisticated symbolic meaning of Genesis giving rise to New Atheism. If only we would eschew this modern innovation called fundamentalism, we would see that there is no conflict between the theory of evolution and Genesis.

Like much of apologetics, this is a distortion of reality.

The term fundamentalism was undoubtedly coined last century. A series of threats to Christian dominance in the West culminated in the 19th century with not only Darwinian evolution but also Scripture exegetical approaches, namely higher criticism, which made believers nervous.

The Catholic Church reacted to the modernist threat with Papal statements like The Syllabus of Errors. While Protestants produced a series of 90 Essays between 1910 and 1915, which were compiled into a book called The Fundamentals, hence our word fundamentalist.

While the word fundamentalist has becoming synonymous with extremism, The Fundamentals actually features pretty ordinary Protestant apologetics, such as a defense of the deity of Christ. Far from bringing forth new teachings, The Fundamentalist movement simple sought to affirm what had previously been widely accepted Christian doctrine, especially for Protestants.

While previous generations of Christians would not have called themselves fundamentalist—because the word had not been invented—their beliefs could be characterized as such. In fact, the Church Fathers, who in many ways defined doctrines for all branches of Christianity, often had fundamentalist views. Despite the vocal apologetic claims to the contrary, they read the creation accounts of Genesis quite literally. I have catalogued some key statements demonstrating this. 

Concerning the six days of creation, Ephrem the Syrian:

So let no one think that there is anything allegorical in the works of the six days. No one can rightly say that the things pertaining to these days were symbolic, nor can one say that they were meaningless names or that other things were symbolized for us by their names. Rather, let us know in just what manner heaven and earth were created in the beginning. They were truly heaven and earth. "Commentary on Genesis" 1.1.13 in The Fathers of the Church 91:74.
Genesis says, “And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day” (1:6-8)

The reader should note that the dome (sometimes translated as firmament) is solid. Ancient Near Eastern cosmology included a solid sky. Do the fathers offer an allegory for this erroneous description of the heavens? No, they affirm it.
Augustine said:

The matter was separated by the interposition of the firmament so that the lower matter is that of bodies and the higher matter that of souls. "On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis" 8.29 in The Fathers of the Church 84:165.
Basil “the Great” said:

But as far as concerns the separation of the waters I am obliged to contest the opinion of certain writers in the church who, under the shadow of high and sublime conceptions, have launched out into metaphor and have seen in the waters only a figure to denote spiritual and incorporeal powers. In the higher regions, accordingly, above the firmament, dwell the better; in the lower regions, earth and matter are the dwelling place of the malignant. So, say they, God is praised by the waters that are above the heavens, that is to say, by the good powers, the purity of whose soul makes them worthy to sing the praises of God. And the waters that are under the heavens represent the wicked spirits, who from their natural height have fallen into the abyss of evil. Turbulent, seditious, agitated by the tumultuous waves of passion, they have received the name of sea, because of the instability and the inconstancy of their movements. Let us reject these theories as dreams and old women’s tales. "Hexaemeron" 3.9. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 8:70-71.

 It is of course doubtful that the purveyors of such ludicrous allegories were in fact women.

 Even Origen who can usually be counted on to offer an allegorical interpretation completely divorced from the text finds that the heavens were composed of a very solid dome:

Although God had already previously made heaven, now he makes the firmament. For he made heaven first, about which he says, “Heaven is my throne.” But after that he makes the firmament, that is, the corporeal heaven. For every corporeal object is, without doubt, firm and solid; and it is this that divides the water which is above heaven from the water which is below heaven. "Homilies on Genesis" 1.2. The Fathers of the Church 71:48-49.

In the Genesis account, God creates the sun after plants. This would have been a great time for the fathers to have intervened to tell us not to read the text too literally for even in their day there were “heretics” who quibbled with such a problematic ordering. But alas, the fathers insist on a literal reading.

Basil “the Great” said:

The adornment of the earth is older than the sun, that those who have been misled may cease worshiping the sun as the origin of life. "Hexaemeron" 5.1 in The Fathers of the Church 46:67.

He adds:

Look at the plants of the earth, which preceded in time the light of the sun. The bramble preceded the sun. The blade of grass is older than the moon. Therefore, do not believe that object to be a god to which the gifts of God are seen to be preferred. Three days have passed. "Hexaemeron" 4.1 in The Father of the Church 42:126

 John Chrysostom said:

He created the sun on the fourth day lest you think it is the cause of the day. "Homilies on Genesis" 6.14 in Fathers of Church 74:85. 
Augustine said: 

The Manichaeans ask how it could be that the heavenly bodies, that is, the sun and the moon and the stars, were made on the fourth day. How could the three previous days have passed without the sun? For we now see that a day passes with the rising and setting of the sun, while night comes to us in the sun’s absence when it returns to east from the other side of the world. We answer them that the previous three days could each have been calculated by as great a period of time as that through which the sun passes, from when it rises in the east until it returns again to the east. This would be our answer if we were not held back by the words and evening came and morning came, for we see that this cannot now take place without the movement of the sun. Hence we are left with the interpretation that in that period of time the divisions between the works were called evening because of the completion of the work that was done and morning because of the beginning of the work to come….The day and the night had already been distinguished but not yet in relation to the heavenly bodies. "Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichaeans" 1.14.20-23 in The Fathers of the Church 84:68-70.

If you are thinking, Augustine completely misses the point, you’re right.

The literal reading of the Fathers makes it difficult to reconcile their position with what we know about the slow, progressive evolution life. Ephrem and Basil certainly do not conceive of a slow development of forms. The plants are created instantaneously, fully developed.  

Ephrem the Syrian said:  

Although the grasses were only a moment old at their creation, they appeared as if they were months old. Likewise, the trees, although only a day old when they sprouted forth, were nevertheless like trees years old as they were fully grown and fruits were already budding on their branches. The grass that would be required as food for the animals that were to be created two days later was thus made ready. And the new corn that would be food for Adam and his descendants, who would be thrown out of paradise four days later, was thus prepared. "Commentary on Genesis" 1.22.1-2.9 in The Fathers of the Church 91:90. 
Basil “the Great” said:
At this saying all the dense woods appeared; all the trees shot up. Likewise all the shrubs were immediately thick with leaf and bushy; and the so-called garland plants all came into existence in a moment of time, although they were not previously on the earth. “Let the earth bring forth.” This brief command was immediately a mighty nature and an elaborate system which brought to perfection more swiftly than our thought the countless properties of plants. "Hexaemeron" 5.6, 10 in The Fathers of the Church 46:74, 82.

Lastly, a key aspect of Darwinian evolution is malleability. Forms have changed and do changed. Nothing was created as it is today. However, the fathers, reading Genesis literally, describe the creation of living things as being made of well-defined and static forms in one moment of creation.  

Ambrose said:  

The rivers were in labor. The lakes produced their quota of life. The sea itself began to bear all manner of reptiles. We are unable to record the multiplicity of the names of all those species which by divine command were brought to life in a moment of time. At the same instant substantial form and the principle of life were brought into existence. The whale, as well as the frog, came into existence at the same time by the same creative power "Hexaemeron" 5.2-3 in The Fathers of the Church 42:160-62.


The bishop also said:

The Word of God permeates every creature in the constitution of the world. Hence, as God had ordained, all kinds of living creatures were quickly produced from the earth. In compliance with a fixed law they all succeed each other from age to age according to their aspect and kind. The lion generates a lion; the tiger, a tiger; the ox, an ox; the swan, a swan; and the eagle, an eagle. What was once enjoined became in nature a habit for all time. Hence the earth has not ceased to offer the homage of its service. The original species of living creatures is reproduced for future ages by successive generations of its kind. "Hexaemeron" in The Father of the Church 42:232

Basil “the Great” said:

The nature of existing objects, set in motion by one command, passes through creation without change, by generation and destruction, preserving the succession of the kinds through resemblance until it reaches the very end. It begets a horse as the successor of a horse, a lion of a lion and an eagle of an eagle. It continues to preserve each of the animals by uninterrupted successions until the consummation of the universe. No length of time causes the specific characteristics of the animals to be corrupted or extinct, but, as if established just recently, nature, ever fresh, moves along with time. "Hexaemeron" 9:2 in The Fathers of Church 46:137.

How very wrong was he? How very off the mark they all were? And How very literally they read Genesis?

There is someone who reads less literally—Origen, but his interpretations should comfort no Christian. His readings are clearly eisegesis with no connection to the text before him. For example concerning the creation of lights, Origen said:

Just as the sun and the moon are said to be the great lights in the firmament of heaven, so also are Christ and the church in us. But since God also placed stars in the firmament, let us see what are also stars in us, that is, in the heaven of our heart. Moses is a star in us, which shines and enlightens us by his acts. And so are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, David, Daniel, and all to whom the Holy Scriptures testify that they pleased God. For just as star differs from star in glory so also each of the saints, according to his own greatness, sheds his light upon us. Homilies on Genesis 1.7. Fathers of the Church 71:55.

 Beautiful spirituality perhaps, but tells us more about Origen's imagination than how to interpret Genesis.