The Meaning of Yom in Traditional Catholic Creation Theology
by Justin Soutar
September 14, 2011
In his well-researched book, The Doctrines of Genesis 1-11: A Compendium and Defense of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins, Father Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S. strives to faithfully transmit the essentials of Catholic creation doctrine as drawn from Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and Magisterial teaching; he also delves into the theological exploration of this doctrine by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church over the centuries. Father Warkulwiz presents this doctrine and theology in the form of sixteen theses drawn from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which he interprets literally, and he assembles an impressive array of theological, philosophical and scientific arguments to defend them.
Although I have been enjoying my study of Father Warkulwiz’s scholarly work, there is one part of it that really bothers me. It’s where he insists that the Hebrew word yom (“day”) in Genesis 1 can only be reasonably interpreted to mean a literal natural day, in opposition to two of the greatest Doctors of the Church, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who preferred a symbolic interpretation of yom. Father Warkulwiz takes this position in support of his sixth thesis, “God created the world in six natural days,” and defends it on the following grounds: 1) The word yom is never used in Sacred Scripture for a period of time of a definite length other than a natural day. 2) A literal interpretation of yom in Genesis 1 is in accordance with the hermeneutical principle of Pope Leo XIII, originally formulated by Saint Augustine, that Scripture must be understood in its literal and obvious sense except where reason or necessity force us to do otherwise. 3) Nearly all of the Church Fathers and Doctors held a literal interpretation of yom in Genesis 1. 4) The creation day is the prototype of the natural day, which sets the rhythm for our lives and life in general. 5) The natural sciences are unable to confirm or refute the idea that God created the world in six literal natural days.
The key point here is whether the interpretation of yom is a matter of doctrine or of theological opinion. A reliable test to distinguish between the two is this: 1) If the Church Fathers and Doctors are in perfectly unanimous agreement on a certain point, it is a doctrine of the faith. 2) If they are not in unanimous agreement on a certain point, it is a matter of theological opinion. Most, but not all, of the Church Fathers and Doctors believed in a literal six-day creation. The outstanding exceptions were Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who held that God created the world instantaneously and that the six days of Genesis 1 are symbolic. So the idea that God created the world in six natural days is a traditional, widely held, non-binding theological opinion within Catholicism, not a compulsory doctrine of the faith.
Father Warkulwiz concludes that “it is not reasonable to take the word yom in Genesis 1 to mean other than a literal natural day.” (p. 171) But Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas took it to mean other than that, and their reasons for doing so seemed quite reasonable to them. Augustine interpreted the word “day” in Genesis chapter 1 as referring to the creation of light and of the angels. The following quotation from his commentary on Genesis 1 appears in Father Warkulwiz’s book:
The obvious conclusion is that if the angels are among the works of God of those days, they are that light which received the name of “day.” And the unity of that day is underlined by its not being called “the first day,” but “one day.” Thus the second day, and the third, and the rest are not different days; the same “one day” was repeated to complete the number six or seven, to represent the seven stages of knowledge [in the minds of the angels], the six stages comprehending the created works, and the seventh stage embracing God’s rest….Thus, the angels, illuminated by that light by which they were created, themselves became light and are called “day” by participation in the changeless light and day, which is the Word of God, through whom they themselves and all other things were made.And Saint Thomas sided with Saint Augustine:
…Ambrose and other saints hold that there was an order of time by which things were distinguished. This opinion is indeed more generally held, and seems to accord better with the apparent literal sense (of Scripture). Still, the previous theory (that of Augustine) is the more reasonable, and ensures a better defense of Holy Scripture against the derision of unbelievers. To this, insists Augustine, must the fullest heed be given: “the Scriptures are so to be explained that they will not incur the ridicule of unbelievers”; and his theory is the one that appeals to me.
(p. 167, footnote [bold added])
Aquinas not only did not interpret the word yom in Genesis 1 literally, he actually commended Augustine’s symbolic interpretation as being more reasonable! And he did this with full awareness that he was swimming against the tide of most of the Church Fathers and Doctors before him, who held a different and more literal view of this same Scripture passage. Augustine, moreover, who first laid down the general rule of sticking to the literal sense of Scripture, himself did not apply it to the word yom in Genesis chapter 1. Father Warkulwiz appears to have taken Saint Augustine’s principle out of context in order to justify a strict literal interpretation of yom that the saint himself opposed.
Unfortunately, the logical breakdown doesn’t end there. Father Warkulwiz goes so far as to state unequivocally in the preamble to his sixth thesis that “there is no justification for a Catholic to deny that God created the world in six natural days.” (p. 164) This is insulting to the intelligence of the reader as well as to the two great saints and Doctors quoted above. Is Father Warkulwiz implying that two of the most renowned minds in Church history had no justification for their positions?
The Church, the ultimate authority for teaching the truth and interpreting Sacred Scripture, has not formally defined the meaning of yom in Genesis 1; rather, she has opened it to discussion. In 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a statement (which is still in force) authorizing Catholic biblical interpreters to freely discuss the question of whether the word yom in Genesis 1 means strictly “a literal natural day” or less strictly “a certain space of time.” Yet while admitting in his book that the Church has permitted discussion of the meaning of yom in Genesis chapter 1 (and that Augustine and Aquinas held symbolic interpretations of it), Father Warkulwiz effectively negates this permission by arguing that the hermeneutical principle of Pope Leo XIII forbids a less strict interpretation of yom. This raises the question of the proper application of that principle. How is one to decide which passages of Sacred Scripture must be interpreted in the literal and obvious sense; which must be understood symbolically; and which may be interpreted either way? The answer is that no individual Catholic has the authority to make such decisions on his or her own. Only the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can infallibly guide the interpretation of Scripture by the faithful.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 337, we are told: “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.” As Father Warkulwiz correctly points out (p. 164), this does not mean that the six days and the work of the six days weren’t real. However, in this passage the Church is clearly and officially teaching a symbolic interpretation of Genesis 1 that in no way denies the literal and historical truth of that Scriptural text—that God, at the beginning of time, created the world and everything in it. Father Warkulwiz opines that the Church “could someday declare that yom in Genesis 1 means a literal day because that interpretation has strong support in Scriptural exegesis and in Tradition.” (p. 189) But the Church cannot make a doctrinal declaration that contradicts the teaching of her own Catechism. The Catechism is a “statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine” (Pope John Paul II, Fidei Depositum, § 3), not a handbook of theological opinion. As “a sure norm for teaching the faith” (Ibid), it is free from error in matters of faith and morals.
For the benefit of his Catholic readers, out of respect for the Church and her Doctors, and for the sake of logical consistency, I hope that in a future edition of his book Father Warkulwiz will concede the validity and reasonableness of less than strictly literal interpretations of yom in Genesis chapter 1. It is not reasonable to oblige Catholics to accept a particular theological opinion, whatever merits it may possess. Maintaining the proper distinction between binding Church doctrine and matters of non-binding theological opinion is essential to an accurate and fair presentation of traditional Catholic creation doctrine and theology.
Copyright © 2011 by Justin D. Soutar.
Fr. Warkulwiz did send me a written response, which I reprint below for the sake of fairness and out of respect for a Catholic priest:
Reply to J. Soutar on the Meaning of Yom in Genesis One
Mr. Soutar seems to be saying that since St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas felt free to deny the interpretation of yom in Genesis One as a literal natural day, we are free today to interpret yom in any symbolic way that we please. That is simply not so. First of all, Augustine and Aquinas held that everything in the universe was created at once. That is not the interpretation pressed on us today. Today we are told that yom means an immensely long undefined period of time because the universe as we see it today was not created that way but slowly evolved from an amorphous state over billions of years. St. Augustine and St. Thomas would have certainly found that interpretation outrageous. Augustine castigated those who stretched the length of the history of the world beyond its biblical limits.
Second, we do not necessarily have the same freedom of interpretation today that Augustine and Aquinas had. Influenced by the false science of his day, St. Thomas also denied the Immaculate Conception. The Church eventually declared that such denial is not merely unreasonable and unjustifiable but heretical. That is not an insult to St. Thomas. It is a development of doctrine. I am saying that the issue of the meaning of yom has reached the point in development that no one can provide a theological, philosophical or scientific reason good enough to justify denying its literal interpretation as a natural day. One must have a very good reason, not just an opinion, for denying that God created the world in six natural days because the literal interpretation is the one favored by the Church in light of the hermeneutical principle of Leo XIII. The 1909 decree of the Pontifical Biblical Commission did not nullify that principle but presumes it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in saying that the six days are symbolic is not affirming that a purely symbolic meaning (as opposed to a symbolic meaning superimposed on the literal meaning) is permissible because the Catechism must be read in the light of Catholic Tradition, which was formally elucidated by Leo XIII. I did not say that such denial is heretical but that it is unreasonable and unjustifiable. But it is possible that some time in the future if the Church may formally affirm the literal interpretation of yom as she did the Immaculate Conception. Its denial would then be heretical. This issue is immensely important because denial of the six natural days of creation lends support to the atheistically-inspired notion of universal evolution; which has poisoned the faith of many Catholics, leading them eventually to declare that there are errors in genuine passages of Sacred Scripture.
Rev. Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S.
I think my original argument stands. Note that I was NOT saying that Catholics are free to interpret yom any way they want to but that they should interpret it as the Church does--and the Church, in her own official Catechism, has unambiguously sided with the symbolic interpretation of yom. The Church will never formally affirm the literal interpretation of yom as binding doctrine of the faith because it isn't. The Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, is a binding doctrine of the faith, so comparing it to the meaning of yom is comparing apples to oranges. Fr. Warkulwiz claims that "the Catechism must be read in the light of Catholic Tradition," but the Catechism itself does not say this. The Catechism itself is a synthesis of 2,000 years of Catholic tradition; it contains exactly what the Church teaches and has always taught, and as an authoritative text of the Magisterium it can stand on its own.
The actual content of the Church's creation doctrine is pretty basic and succinct. The Church teaches that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1); that God created "all things visible and invisible," including the universe, angels, and human beings; and that He brought them into existence ex nihilo (out of nothing). That is the literal and historical truth about creation that the Church has always upheld and will always uphold. However, the Church leaves open the question of how God accomplished his work of creation. He could have done it instanteously, or in six literal days, or in six thousand years, or in six million, or even in six billion years. After all, He is God. He is all-powerful. The point is that He did it. That is our faith. How He did it is a mystery. We don't know for sure how he did it because we weren't there. Only God was there. The divinely inspired Genesis creation account is not meant to give us scientific data or to satisfy our curiosity about how it happened, but to teach us the essential truth that God created the world. It's not the business of the Church or of science to explain how God created the world. That is purely a matter for philosophical speculation, theological opinion, and personal preference. I personally happen to be a young-earth creationist who favors the literal six-day creation scenario. Many Catholic leaders today happen to be theistic evolutionists who believe that God carried out His creative work through gradual evolutionary processes over an immensely long period of time. Both positions are ultimately opinions, neither of which affects the basic principle of our faith that God created the world and holds it continuously in existence.
Many atheists today use the theory of evolution as scientific support for their absurd idea of the universe having come into existence without a Creator. But the theory of evolution no more proves their atheism than young-earth creationism proves my faith in God the Creator. How the world came into existence is irrelevant to the central issue here. The crux of the matter is: Do we believe in an all-powerful God who created the world, or do we not? That is the important question facing us, the crucial choice we must make.
It's not the theory of evolution that threatens the faith of individual Catholics. It's the godless, radically secular social and political ideology of evolutionism that does that. As Cardinal Christoph Schonborn (a leading theistic evolutionist) has pointed out, the problem is not Darwin, but Darwinism. Darwin chose to believe in the Creator of the world. The Darwinists, by contrast, have chosen to reject faith in God the Creator.
Catholic biblical fundamentalists and traditionalists like Fr. Warkulwiz are certainly well-intentioned and sincere. They are passionately devoted to Catholic doctrine and anxious to carefully preserve and vigorously defend that doctrine, and their writings have a certain appeal to those of like mind. The problem is, they have a flawed understanding of some of the teachings of the Church and they look to their own flawed understanding, rather than to the Magisterium (the Pope and the bishops in union with him), as the ultimate authority on what the Church teaches. Deep down they don't really trust that the Holy Spirit is continuing to protect the modern Church from teaching error in the post-Vatican II era, and they see themselves as the few faithful guardians of true Catholic doctrine. The danger of Catholic biblical fundamentalism as exemplified by a book like The Doctrines of Genesis 1-11 is that ordinary lay Catholics in union with Rome will become subtly and unconsciously infected by the traditionalist mentality and begin to distrust the Magisterium, listening more to what the traditionalists are saying than to what the Church is saying. By devouring traditionalist literature and neglecting official magisterial texts like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a person's Catholic faith can become seriously distorted and he or she may end up breaking off from full communion with the Catholic Church due to refusal to accept certain binding Church teachings (such as that the Holy Spirit protects the Church from teaching error).
Due to the immense importance of us Catholics being properly formed in our faith, I would strongly discourage reading Fr. Warkulwiz's book. Instead I would like to recommend Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith by Cardinal Schonborn. Another great read is The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Dr. Francis Collins, a convert to Christianity and world-renowned DNA expert who was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.