Aquinas: Was Eden Real?

In 1a.102.1, Aquinas asks whether the Garden of Eden is a physical place. His basic answer is that the Genesis account is both literal and spiritual, and therefore yes, it’s a real place. Obviously the reality of the Garden is controversial, even within Christianity, so it’s useful to go through and just check out what the different arguments are. It probably won’t change minds one way or the other, but it’s useful as a bit of knowledge to have.

Aquinas opens with an Augustine quote, where Augustine notes three separate views about the Garden of Eden. Paradise as physical, Paradise as spiritual, and Paradise as both. Augustine notes that his personal preference is for the last one – Paradise understood as both. That’s fine, that’s his opinion – what’s especially interesting, though, is that Augustine actually names all three of those as existing opinions. Augustine’s living in the fourth and fifth century, right, nearly sixteen hundred years ago. And nearly sixteen hundred years ago, some people thought that the Garden of Eden, as depicted in the Bible, was purely meant to be understood as a spiritual place, rather than anywhere physical. That was one of a few different views that existed all the way back there. People sometimes have this really crude idea that everyone used to believe in a literal Paradise and then science came along and taught everyone different. But that’s – I mean obviously it’s really crude and stupid. Augustine’s chilling out as far back as the fourth century and people even then thought the Genesis story might be a metaphor. Just an interesting little historical detail for you to tuck away.

Aquinas carries on by contending that “what Scripture says about Paradise is set forth in the form of historical narrative, and in all matters that are so related in Scripture we must accept the truth of the history as our foundation and only build spiritual explanations on top of it.” The first part of this line is really significant. Aquinas asserts that the description of Paradise is set forth like a historical narrative. That’s a literary claim about the actual Biblical text – it’s a book question, right, about genre and meaning and so on. It’s also a claim that most contemporary biblical scholars would disagree with. I don’t want to get bogged down by the whole debate, so I’ll just point out one little argument. If you sit down and read Genesis, you’ll find two stories about the creation of humans – one in Gen 1, and one in Gen 2. There’s a bunch of scholars who’ve looked at that and said you know, this doesn’t read like one continuous story written by Moses. It reads like a compilation of a number of different sources and traditions. Over time, most biblical scholars have come around to the multiple authorship theory. The ones who haven’t come around are predominantly conservative Christian thinkers committed to the religious belief that Moses wrote Genesis as a literal historical narrative. I’m not saying they’re biased, but it’s curious how all the people on that side of the argument have the same key religious belief.

In the second part of the line, Aquinas argues that you have to put the historical reading front and center, and then after that you can tack on your weird spiritual interpretations. He’s not against metaphorical readings per se, but they come second. There’s a little hint of the more recent Catholic approach here – first they assume that Genesis is historical record, like Aquinas did, and then they say, well, you’ve got to accept the truth of history as your foundation. History as a discipline has to begin with the assumption that the Genesis story is historical, because Aquinas says it’s historical and that’s a theological belief and actual history has to serve that theological belief. We talked ages back about Aquinas’s view on science – basically, he sees theological belief as the basis of all other knowledge. All the way back at the start of the Summa, in 1a.1.6, he writes For whatsoever is encountered in the other sciences which is incompatible with its truth should be completely condemned as false.” It’s that same logic. There’s the Bible, and the Bible says that there’s seven days of creation (isn’t that just one interpretation?), and that belief (‘the truth of history’) has to come before any actual historical inquiry. That’s where you get things like the Oath Against Modernity, where Catholic scholars and teachers had to swear against trying to do historical research that might contradict the teachings of the Church. Published 1910, compulsory until 1967 for all Catholics in authority. The more you know.

Given all that, Aquinas has a curious response to the practical questions about the Garden’s location. It’s something that you might have seen from creationists or others of that sort. In the initial arguments, Aquinas writes that “there are writers who have industriously investigated all the places of the habitable earth, yet none of them mention the place of Paradise. So it does not seem to be a physical place.” In his response, he suggests that Paradise has just been closed off to humans – hidden away behind mountains and so on. “That place has been cut off from where we live by barriers such as mountains or seas, or some torrid region which cannot be crossed. That is why geographers have never mentioned it.” There’s this weird process of excuse-making, of pushing the explanation just beyond the limits of knowledge. As our knowledge grows ever greater, the explanations have to be pushed further and further out. The historical Garden exists only in the gaps of human knowledge. Why couldn’t they find the Garden in the 13th century? Maybe it was cut off by deserts or mountains. Today that explanation wouldn’t fly – we can get everywhere now, right, we’ve been basically everywhere. And still no Garden. How would people explain the Garden’s existence today? They’d say it dried up, that all the plants and trees must have died. Or they’ll say it’s still hidden, in the Amazon or in African jungles. And once we’ve explored the Amazon or the African jungles, they’ll come up with another reason, or they’ll push harder into the reasons that can never be disproven. And – I mean, you know, maybe it’ll turn out that they’re accidentally right. But you can make something up and still be accidentally right. They’re not mutually exclusive. More importantly, even if they are right, that doesn’t really justify the way in which the belief is maintained.

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