Interpretation of Genesis Chapter 1 – Verse 1

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1

We begin the interpretation with the phrase “in the begin­ning” by asking, What are we to understand by this term? The meaning of “in the beginning” is connected with the idea of God and with the verb “created”, which expresses the action of the creative power of God. Consequently, until we have had in mind the idea of God, it is impossible to answer the question put.

God being a Mind complete and perfect with respect to knowledge as well as power, with respect to will as well as action, and with respect to feeling and joy, He is conceived as existing eternally and as being ever the same, undergoing no alteration or change whatever either for better or for worse, because His nature, being perfect and self-sufficient and wantless, has nothing to gain by way of improvement, nor is it possible for a Mind perfect in respect to both wisdom and power to lose any attribute. The completeness and perfectness and unalterableness of the substance of God constitute eternity conceived in contrast with time. Time implies a substance coming into being and going out of being, gaining and losing, moving and progressing and being determined by its motion. Eternity implies a substance existing eternally and being eternally and ever the same, and because of its perfection undergoing no alteration. Eternity and time are abstract ideas which cannot be conceived without the concrete substances of the eternally existent God and of the world coming into existence. For, an abstract idea is naturally abstracted from a concrete sub­stance, and in the absence of something concrete neither is abstraction possible nor can an abstract idea enter our mind. Abstract ideas must be predicated of the concrete substances from which they have been abstracted. Thus, for instance, eternity must be predicated only of God, by saying that God is eternal, because the idea of eternity has been abstracted only from God. Time, on the other hand, must be predicated of the world, by saying that the world exists in time or is subject to time, because the idea of time has been abstracted from the world. On the other hand, it is absurd and illogical to think that the world is eternal, or that God is subject to time. Eternity and time are ideas opposed to and excluding each other, and cannot both be predicated of the same object. Wherever eternity can be predicated, time is excluded; and wherever time is predicated, eternity must be excluded. What is eternal is not in time, and what is subject to time is not eternal. Eternity, however, is the cause of time, and time depends on eternity and cannot be conceived without it. In order to conceive the relation of time to eternity, and how time is born of eternity, we must pass from the abstract to the concrete.

God eternal, being a perfect Mind with respect to knowledge and power, cognizes everything that His power can produce or create. Anything that is not in existence, but can come into existence through the action of God’s power, is called contingent. If God decides to bring it into being, what is contingent becomes a being, or something actually existent. The transition of the contingent into being through the will and power of God is termed the genesis (origination) or fact (thing originated), and is the beginning, or principle, of time. The progress of which the fact is susceptible is called the future of time. As the fact progresses, time is divided into past and future, between which lies the present of the fact. For instance, before being born I was merely contingent, and, being contingent, I had been in the intellect of God for ages, for God is eternally cognizant of everything that is contingent. After passing from mere contingency into being, I was born, and my birth is my temporal beginning. But, having been born, I am capable of progress and development. All the progress and development that I can possibly pass through is my future. In proportion as I develop and progress my future becomes a past. The point at which I find myself is always the present. By thus turning the contingent into being, then, God creates the principle of time. Moreover, He creates all time through the progress and changes which the fact undergoes. God, then, being timeless and eternal, is the author, or living cause, of time, for without God the contingent cannot become a being, and without{ an essence already actualized and in process of development time cannot subsist. Wherefore we may say abstractly that eternity begets time, and that the relation of time to eternity is like the relation of an effect to its cause. Now that the idea of time and that of eternity have been explained by the idea of God, we can easily define the signification of the phrase “in the beginning”. By “in the beginning” is meant the transition of the contingent into being by virtue of the will and power of God. The transition itself is termed a genesis, and is the beginning of time. Let us conceive God to be eternal, and let us transfer all the facts, or all actuality, into mere contingency. Nothing will then be existent except only God eternal, who decides to substantify whatever contingent thing pleases Him. No sooner has the omnipotence of God acted than the contingent has begun to subsist and has become a being, capable of progress and change – such is the beginning of creation and of time, beyond which are God and eternity. The beginning of time has no past, but only a future, and this is the essential characteristic of the beginning of time. The end of time, on the other hand, that is, that epoch when all alteration and change shall cease, has no future, but only a past. A beginning without a past, and an end without a future, – such are the extremities of time, within which is embraced every finite creature. Every point of time between the two extremities cuts time into past and future, and is itself conceived as the present moment. Of course we are situated between the extremities of time, and cut it into past and future by our present existence. Behind us we have the past, before us we have the future. So when we read in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” we are carried back mentally to that point of time which has no beginning and which is connected directly with eternity. That is the beginning of time, and that is the meaning of “in the beginning”.

Now let us take up the meaning of the verb “created”. Among the ancient Greeks historical writers were distinguished from the class of poets, who were called “creators,” and who were imitated by later writers and are still imitated. Let us ask what is peculiar to the poet, and in what respect the poet differs from the historian. The peculiar business, or nature, of the poet is to suppose or assume the contingent to be a fact, and to speak of the supposed persons or things whatever may be conceived as possible and probable. The peculiar business of the historian is, not to suppose, but to report the fact as it actually occurred, without of himself adding or subtracting anything. The poet, or creative writer, gives birth to a poem by his poetic, or creative, power, and differs from the historian in so far that the latter narrates what has been perceived externally, or objectively, whereas the poet narrates what has been conceived internally, or subjectively. The poem depicts the thought of the poet, whose child it is. History, however, by no means depicts the thought of the historian, but the truth of whatever is related as facts of history. From this distinction between poet and historian it is to be gathered that the verb “create” means to produce something by one’s own power, or, in some way, to bring what is contingent into what is, in effect at least, a (new) being. But man’s creative power is one thing, and God’s creative power is another. Consequently the verb “create” in the case of God has one meaning, and in the case of men, another. Let us note the differences by a comparison. The creative, or poetic, power of man conceives the contingent, but is unable to substantify it by turning it out of non-being into being. That of God, on the other hand, can immediately bring into being everything contingent and nowise existent. The creative, or poetic, power of man cannot conceive or create anything out of nothing, for even when it conceives something, it conceives it out of what has been perceived, and even when it sometimes creates something it creates it out of matter that has already been subsisting. For instance, an architect, a mechanic, a sculptor, and a painter can conceive and create, but none of them can conceive or create out of nothing. God, however, because He is a perfect Mind, can conceive whatever is contingent, and instantly cause it to be whatever He pleases, out of nothing, because His power balances with both His intelligence and His will. Creation, then in the case of God does not signify quite the same thing as in the case of men. With reference to men, “to create” signifies, to form, to suppose, to imagine, or to produce something new out of things already existent. With reference to God “to create” means to originate, that is, to bring the contingent out of non-being into being. The word “created” being taken in this sense, the whole sentence, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, may be interpreted as follows. In the beginning, that is at that point of time which has no past before it, God created the heaven and the earth. Having elicited this thought out of the small book, and keeping it in mind, I gaze at the great book of the world, and scan the heaven and the earth. I understand by virtue of the Scriptural thought that the heaven and the earth are products of the creative power of God, and that they reflect the wisdom and power of their Creator. I judge that God possesses at least as much power as could produce so many and such wonderful beings, and as much wisdom as would make it possible to put together and arrange in order all these things so as to enable them to serve a single common end. Try as I may, I cannot encompass within my little intellect either the infinity of the power or the infinity of the wisdom of God copiously diffused throughout the great book of things; and overcome in wonder at the transcendent majesty of God. I cry aloud like David: “Great is our Lord, and of great power; His understanding is infinite.” This thought, of course, arises from the comparison of my extreme distinctiveness with the transcendent majesty of God, which is reflected and shadowed forth by heaven and earth. I, too, am conscious of my wisdom and of my power, because, being a mind, I can conceive and perform and create works on earth that none of the other animals can create. God, of course, created the heaven and the earth, but he did not create on the earth either the houses and temples and palaces of cities and states, nor the ships of the seas, whether steamships or sailing vessels, nor the railways of the continents, nor the steam engines, nor the submarine and aerial telegraph wires, or anything else of this kind. All these things are admittedly works of human wisdom and power; work which I, too, as a human being can appropriate in order that the human may be distinguished from the divine achievements. I assume, therefore, that I know and can do as much as all men put together, and that all the works of men on earth are my works, the works of man. Before drawing the comparison, I ask permission to put the following question. Can I identify my works with myself, or conceive them to have come into being without me? For instance, can I say that the houses, the ships, the steam engines, the railways, the telegraphs, and the like, are the same thing as the man who made them, or that they came into being spontaneously without the wisdom and power residing in man? I can say neither the first nor the second, for both are palpable falsehoods that only crazy persons and madmen can regard as true. What person of sound mind can identify the things created with the creator, or conceive the things created as having come into being without a creator? Yet the learned men of the nineteenth century, because they profess these ineptitudes as scientific truths, are conceited enough to think that they are superlatively wise. The pantheists hold that the things created by God are God Himself. The materialists, on the other hand, hold that the things created by God came into being spontaneously without the assistance of God. If the pantheists be asked, Are the things created by man, man? they will answer, No. If the materialists be asked, Did the things man has created, such as houses, ships, steam engines, and the like, come into being spontaneously without the assistance of man? they will answer, No. But how is it, then, that men who cannot identify the things man has created with man, or conceive the things man has created as having come into being without man, nevertheless identify the things God has created with God, or conceive the heaven and the earth as having come into being without God? lt is, of course, because they are insane, and not in their right minds. If they were sane, they would judge concerning God and His created works as they judge concerning man and the things created by him. Since, however, as concerns God and His created works they judge contrarily to their judgment concerning man and the things created by him, this fact bears witness to a loss of wits, or insanity. We, on the other hand, by the grace of the God of the Bible being of sound mind and able to distinguish God from His created works, precisely as we can also distinguish man from the things man has created, can draw the comparison. between things divine and things human, in order to see how great a disparity there is between God and man, and the reason why man cognizes the grandeur of God.

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