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Does Symbolism Undermine Biblical Authority?

Jimmy Akin

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis wrote, “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality” (LS 66).

Later, he comments on the stories of Cain and Abel and the story of Noah: “These ancient stories, full of symbolism, bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others” (LS 70).

Pope Francis’s point in these passages has to do with the relationships between God, man, and creation, but the fact that he says these passages contain symbolism sets off concerns in some quarters.

Is this some new, modernistic development? Does it undermine the authority of the book of Genesis? If there is symbolic language, how do we know everything isn’t just a symbol?

The short answers to these questions are “No,” “No,” and “Because reasons.” Let’s unpack these answers and make them a little more informative.

In the beginning

It’s true that the Church has undergone a development in its understanding of how Genesis is to be read. For most of Church history, people believed that Genesis taught that the world was created in six, twenty-four-hour days a few thousand years ago.

With the development of modern science, a strong case began to be made that the world was much older and that it developed over a long period of time. This prompted a reconsideration of how Genesis is to be interpreted.

Scholars took a closer look at the text and began to notice clues that had been overlooked. For example, in the creation account in Genesis 1, the day/night cycle is created on the first day, but the sun is not created until the fourth day. The ancients knew as well as we do that the sun is essential to the day/night cycle, and various authors from the age of the Church Fathers—such as Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Basil of Caesarea—commented on this and the implications it has for how we should read the text.

In recent times, archaeology has unearthed many ancient texts that have deepened our understanding of how ancient literature worked, and this also has contributed to a reexamination of how different aspects of the text in Genesis were meant to be understood. Perhaps the sacred author used more symbolism and figurative language than was previously realized. Perhaps we’d been taking what he wrote more literally than he intended.

When scholars began discussing these ideas, bishops were not sure what to do, and in the first two decades of the twentieth century they posed a series of questions to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was at that time an organ of the Church’s Magisterium. (This later changed.) Initially, the commission was cool toward reading Genesis non-literally. But as the twentieth century progressed, the commission became more open to seeing non-literal elements in the text, as did the popes and the Magisterium in general.

Language in the primordial history

Biblical scholars have long noted that the material in Genesis 1-11 has a somewhat different character than the material found later in the book. Because these chapters are concerned with the world’s earliest ages, they are often called the “primordial history.” The idea that the primordial history contains figurative elements thus is not something new with Pope Francis. Since before Vatican II, popes have acknowledged it.

In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Bl. Pius XII wrote, “The first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes” (HG 38).

He went on to say that the same chapters “in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people” (ibid.).

Subsequently, various magisterial documents have identified specific elements as involving symbols.

The “six days”

The first creation account in Genesis (1:1-2:4a) presents God fashioning the world during the course of a week. He performs various acts of creation on the first six days and then rests on the seventh. The Magisterium views these “days”—which are clearly depicted as twenty-four-hour days, since each has an “evening” and a “morning”— as symbolic.

According to St. John Paul II, this account “distributes the work of creation over a series of six days” (General Audience, Jan. 29, 1979). By “distributing” the work of the Creator over the course of a week, “the author of the first chapter of Genesis wished to confirm the teaching contained in the Decalogue by inculcating the obligation to keep holy the seventh day” (ibid.).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is even more explicit about the figurative nature of the days: “Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337).

After this explanation, the Catechism regularly places the words “six days” in quotation marks, indicating that they are to be understood in a qualified sense, not as literal days (CCC 339, 342, 345—be sure to see the official Latin edition for the last of these passages).

The creation of Adam

In 1986, John Paul II recognized the presence of figurative, anthropomorphic imagery in the creation of Adam found in Genesis 2:

This account uses a stage setting and anthropomorphic images. We read that “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The continuation of the biblical text helps us clearly understand that created in this way, man is distinguished from the entire visible world, and in particular from the animal world (General Audience, Apr. 16, 1986).

Again, the Catechism is even more explicit about the symbolic nature of the text:

The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” [Gen. 2:7] (CCC 362).

The creation of Eve

John Paul II also saw the creation of Eve from Adam’s side in metaphorical, figurative terms:

The woman is made “with the rib” that God-Yahweh had taken from the man. Considering the archaic, metaphorical, and figurative way of expressing the thought, we can establish that it is a question here of homogeneity of the whole being of both (General Audience, Nov. 7, 1979).

In other words, the depiction of Eve being created from Adam’s rib signifies the fact that they are fundamentally the same in their humanity.

The Catechism similarly puts quotation marks around the word fashions when it describes the creation of Eve, indicating that this is to be understood in a qualified sense rather than a straightforward, literal one:

The woman God “fashions” from the man’s rib and brings to him elicits on the man’s part a cry of wonder, an exclamation of love and communion: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” [Gen. 2:23] (CCC 371).

The fall of man

In Genesis 3, we find the account of the fall of man, and the Catechism indicates that it too is non-literal:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents (CCC 390).

This passage in the Catechism does not indicate which elements in the account are expressed figuratively, but this has been dealt with in other texts.

The forbidden fruit

The Catechism also points to the forbidden fruit as one of the symbolic elements in the text:

The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” [Gen. 2:17] symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust. Man is dependent on his Creator, and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom (CCC 396).

The serpent

One of the elements in Genesis 3 that has often been proposed as symbolic is the role of a talking snake in the fall of man.

Thus, it is no surprise to find John Paul II interpreting the serpent as symbolizing the devil (as opposed to being the devil in physical form).

He comments that man found himself in a fallen state, “after having disobeyed the Creator’s command at the prompting of the evil spirit, symbolized by the serpent” (General Audience, Sept. 17, 1979).

What parts are literal?

People accustomed to reading the early chapters of Genesis in a literal manner, who are likely to be uncomfortable with all this, may ask how binding these magisterial interpretations are.

None of them have been proposed infallibly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t carry authority. These statements belong to the ordinary teaching of the Church, and thus the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent, which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it” (CCC 892).

Having said that, the Church has not invested these statements with a high level of authority. They have been proposed only recently, often in passing remarks and sometimes in documents with a low level of intrinsic authority (i.e., general audiences).

Further, the statements concern only specific details. The Magisterium has not said that the texts in question don’t contain historical elements. To the contrary, the Catechism states that Genesis 3 “affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man” (CCC 390).

Precisely how much is to be taken literally and how much is to be taken figuratively is an open question, and a wide range of views are possible. Indeed, the fact that something has a symbolic aspect doesn’t mean it isn’t literal. Events that happen in biblical history can operate on more than one level, occurring at specific points in time and yet also pointing to something beyond themselves.

Thus, a person could say that everything in the flood narrative literally happened and yet was also symbolic of other realities, corresponding to Pope Francis’s statement that the narrative is “full of symbolism.”

Scripture and science

The potential for a both literal and symbolic interpretation has to be determined on a text-by-text basis. It would misrepresent the Magisterium’s intention, in the case of at least some of its statements, to insist on a fully literal view of Genesis. In particular, one should be wary of trying to find in Genesis the answers to scientific questions. John Paul II expressed the Magisterium’s attitude on this point:

The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of humanity with God and the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 3, 1981).

He also stated that Genesis 1 should not be looked to for answers of a scientific nature:

Above all, this text has a religious and theological importance. It doesn’t contain significant elements from the point of view of the natural sciences. Research on the origin and development of the individual species in nature does not find in this description any definitive norm or positive contributions of substantial interest (General Audience, Jan. 29, 1986).

The Catechism echoes this positive attitude toward the findings of modern cosmology and biological sciences:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms, and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers (CCC 283).

The authority of Genesis

If you think about it, what we’ve seen should go a long way toward reassuring people that the Magisterium isn’t in any way undermining the authority of Genesis. What it has done is suggest that the early portion of Genesis contains symbolic elements that have not always been recognized as such, but the question of what is symbolic and what is authoritative are two separate issues.

This can be seen by considering the use of symbolism anywhere else in the Bible. Nobody would dream of saying that the parables of Jesus aren’t authoritative for us simply because they are symbolic narratives. Neither would anybody say that the writings of the prophets—whether in the Old Testament or in the New Testament’s book of Revelation—aren’t divinely inspired and authoritative simply because they use symbolism.

Indeed, biblical prophecy is highly authoritative, because “no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21). If it turns out that Genesis contains symbolic elements that weren’t always recognized, that does nothing to undermine its inspiration, truth, and authority.

How much Is symbolic?

This brings us to the last of the questions we started with: If Genesis contains symbolic elements, how do we know that everything in it—or in all of Scripture—isn’t just symbolic?

It should be obvious that Scripture contains many lengthy narratives of a non-symbolic nature. No scholar of any persuasion or however skeptical doubts this. It is clear as day.

The question is thus one of identifying the symbolic elements among the non-symbolic ones, and we’ve already seen instances that illustrate this is possible.

Everybody recognizes that Jesus’ parables are symbolic narratives, not literal accounts of specific, historical events. Neither does anybody doubt that the writings of the prophets contain numerous symbolic passages. It’s just a question of learning to recognize the cues in the text that tell us whether a particular thing is meant literally or not.

On the question of how to apply that principle to Genesis, Pius XII gave us the answer in 1943. It’s a matter of making a careful study of how the ancients wrote and what they meant:

The interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use.

For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East (Divino Afflante Spiritu 35-36).

We thus needn’t be afraid of what closer study of the Genesis text may reveal, for it is God’s inspired word, and we have the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church—“the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)—which the Holy Spirit leads “into all truth” (John 16:13).

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