The contemporary relevance of Augustine’s view of creation
by Davis A. Young
Deptartment of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies, Calvin College
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 40.1:42-45 (3/1988)
A common impression exists among lay Christians and many non-Christians that the church interpreted Genesis 1-3 literally until the last two centuries. This allegedly traditional rendering includes the idea that God created the cosmos over a span of six ordinary 24-hour days, that there was no death in the world until the fall of Adam, and that at the time of the fall God introduced many other unpleasantries into the world-order as a punishment for sin. Included is the notion that thorns and thistles were not part of the original creation. Moreover, one encounters the suggestion that the church firmly held to these traditional ideas until the early 19th century, when geology proposed the concepts of an old earth and death before the appearance of man. The conclusion for many evangelicals is that these traditional ideas are the plain teaching of Scripture, and that attempts to avoid these plain teachings arose because of an unholy desire to accommodate biblical teaching to the dictates of an anti-Christian modern science.
That such a reading of church history is simplistic becomes clear when we consider the views of Augustine, the church’s greatest theologian between Paul and Aquinas, on Genesis 1-3. Although we can gain an inkling of Augustine’s approach to Genesis 1-3 from scattered comments in Confessions and The City of God, deeper insight is now possible for a wide audience with the recent publication of a fresh English translation of his great work, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis.’ The few studies of Augustine’s view of creation that are based on the Latin text are not widely accessible. It is my judgment that anyone seriously interested in the Genesis-science discussion should take the time to study this new translation. It is full of surprises. I wish to make a few observations about Augustine’s general approach and his specific interpretations of the text of Genesis 1-3.
General Comments About Interpretation
Intriguing as Augustine’s interpretations of specific texts may be, let’s first look at some general attitudes that Augustine displays towards the text and its interpretation.
1. Augustine stresses that his interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is literal and not metaphorical or allegorical
Augustine had tried his hand earlier at interpretation of Genesis (A Commentary on Genesis: Two Books against the Manichees) and adopted a more allegorical method. He later came to reject that method and in this more mature work, written in his late fifties just before The City of God, he is concerned “to discuss Sacred Scriptures according to the plain meaning of the historical facts, not according to future events which they foreshadow” (p. 39). Given his strong commitment to literal interpretation, it is fascinating to recognize that the outcome bears absolutely no resemblance to modern literal interpretations. For example, he concludes that in Genesis I the terms “light,” “day,” and “morning” bear a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning. Yet for Augustine, spiritual light is just as literal as physical light, and the creation of spiritual light is just as much a historical event or fact as the creation of physical light. What is literal for one person may not be literal for others.
2. Augustine claims that the interpretation of Genesis I is not at all obvious and is fraught with difficulties.
Commitment to a literal interpretation does not solve all problems, nor does it lock the exegete into only one reading of the text. Perhaps more than any other interpreter, Augustine was painfully aware of the difficulties of the text. On point after point he lays out the various possibilities and often does not know how to commit himself. He freely acknowledges the many problems and options. He says that he has
worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. I have thought that each one, in keeping with his powers of understanding, should choose the interpretation that he can grasp. Where he cannot understand Holy Scripture, let him glorify and fear for himself. (pp. 43-44, emphasis mine)
He further observes that “It is a laborious and difficult task for the powers of our human understanding to see clearly the meaning of the sacred writer in the matter of these six days” (p. 103). How different is his attitude than those who, disregarding the labors of many of the church’s greatest minds over the past two millennia, have convinced themselves that the fundamental interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is perfectly obvious. If we follow Augustine’s lead, we will be very careful before using the words “the clear teaching of Scripture” in connection with these chapters.
3. Augustine claims that we ought to be willing to change our minds about the interpretation of Genesis 1-3, particularly as new information comes to light.
Consistent with the claim that Genesis 1-3 is difficult and obscure, Augustine repeatedly urges restraint, flexibility, openness to new interpretations, and openness to new knowledge that may provide insight into the text. He says that “in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture” (p. 41).
4. Augustine is particularly emphatic that we ought not to make absurd statements about what the Bible says when such statements flatly contradict what people already know from other reliable sources.
We ought not to rigidly and dogmatically commit Scripture to interpretations that can easily be shown to he false on the basis of physical evidence.
It seems to me that the following lengthy quotation cannot be heard enough because it is so terribly relevant to the present discussion about Genesis and earth history. Augustine says:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men…. Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by these who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. (pp. 42-43)
It seems to me that some of the young-earth, flood geology proponents of this century exemplify those whom Augustine had in mind. One can only guess at the damage done to evangelistic efforts among scientists by the persistent claims of Christians that the Bible teaches a young earth and a global deluge.
Augustine sees only trouble in committing Scripture to interpretations that supposedly provide information about the physical structure of the earth or the cosmos. Consider these two examples:
Let no one think that, because the Psalmist says, He established the earth above the water, we must use this testimony of Holy Scripture against these people who engage in learned discussions about the weight of the elements. They are not bound by the authority of our Bible; and, ignorant of the sense of these words, they will more readily scorn our sacred books than disavow the knowledge they have acquired by unassailable arguments or proved by the evidence of experience. (pp. 47-48)
But someone may ask: “Is not Scripture opposed to those who hold that heaven is spherical, when it says, who stretches out heaven like a skin?” Let it be opposed indeed if their statement is false…. But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofs that cannot be denied, we must show that this statement of Scripture about the skin is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions. (p. 59)
Augustine shows respect for scientific activity, and does not want to put Scripture in a situation of conflict with it.
5. Augustine is obviously interested in the science of his own day and interacts with it. He takes extra-biblical knowledge seriously.
For example, it is clear that he accepts spontaneous generation of organisms and the four elements of Greek thought. He expends considerable effort in relating Genesis I to the four elements and to the Greek theory of natural places: “One must surely not think that in this passage of Holy Scripture there has been an omission of any one of the four elements that are generally supposed to make up the world just because there seems to be no mention of air in the account of sky, water, and earth.” (p. 76).
From his general approach to this text, it would appear that Augustine, the great theologian, a man saturated in Holy Scripture, actually encourages the church not to cling dogmatically to specific renderings of the text but to rethink its interpretations in the light of genuine extra-biblical knowledge. Perhaps we should pay him serious attention.
Now let’s look at some of Augustine’s specific interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis.
1. Augustine says that God created all things simultaneously.
There can be no mistaking that Augustine teaches that God created everything simultaneously in the beginning. Some things were made in fully developed form as we see them today, and other things were made in a potential form, so that in time they might become the way we see them now. Augustine went far beyond any superficial reading of the text by claiming that neither the creation nor the subsequent unfolding took place in six ordinary days. He is explicit that God did not create the world over the course of six temporal days. “The sacred writer was able to separate in the time of his narrative what God did not separate in time in His creative act” (p. 36).
2. Augustine says that the six-day creation structure has nothing to do with the passage of time during creation but is a logical framework
Augustine repeatedly stresses that the six days are not six successive ordinary days. They have nothing to do with time. For him, this is unequivocally the case for the first three days before the making of the sun, but he is equally inclined to say the same of the last three days. The days are repeatedly claimed to be arranged according to causes, order, and logic. For example: “These seven days of our time, although like the same days of creation in name and in numbering, follow one another in succession and mark off the division of time, but those first six days occurred in a form unfamiliar to us as intrinsic principles within things created” (p. 125). The days of creation “are beyond the experience and knowledge of us mortal earthbound men … we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation but without in any way being really similar to them” (p. 135). Further, “we should not think of those days as solar days…. He made that which gave time its beginning, as He made all things together, disposing them in an order based not on intervals of time but on causal connections” (p. 154). And finally, “But in the beginning He created all things together and completed the whole in six days, when six times he brought the ’day’ which he made before the things which He made, not in a succession of periods of time but in a plan made known according to causes” (pp. 175-176). Why does the narrative employ the device of the six days? “The reason is that those who cannot understand the meaning of the text, He created all things together, cannot arrive at the meaning of Scripture unless the narrative proceeds slowly step by step” (p. 142).
As the six days have nothing to do with the passage of time, Augustine relates them to the knowledge that intellectual creatures-that is, angels-have of created things, both as they exist in the Word of God and as they exist in themselves. This knowledge was made known to the angels in the six ordering steps: “That day, which God has made, recurs in connection with His works not by a material passage of time but by a spiritual knowledge, when the blessed company of angels contemplate from the beginning in the Word of God the divine decree to create” (p. 134). Or, “The seven days … with which we are familiar … are like a shadow and a sign reminding us to seek those days wherein created spiritual light was able to be made present to all the works of God by the perfection of the number six” (p. 145). There is no doubt that Augustine’s view is strange and difficult to absorb, but he has a ready comment for us: “And when you hear that all things were made after day was made, you may possibly understand this sixfold or sevenfold repetition which took place without lapse of time. If you cannot yet understand it, you should leave the matter for the consideration of those who can” (p. 150).
3. Augustine does not envision the fall resulting in fundamental structural changes in the cosmos, or even the introduction of death into the animal realm.
For many Christians, Genesis teaches that substantial changes occurred in the structure of creation at the time of Adam’s fall. There is widespread belief that thorns and thistles were specifically introduced into the world to be an annoyance to sinful human beings. Such plants, it is thought, did not exist in the original creation. That was certainly not Augustine’s view. He says:
We should not jump to the conclusion that it was only then that these plants came forth from the earth. For it could be that, in view of the many advantages found in different kinds of seeds, these plants had a place on earth without afflicting man in any way. But since they were growing in the fields in which man was now laboring in punishment for his sin, it is reasonable to suppose that they became one of the means of punishing him. For they might have grown elsewhere, for the nourishment of birds and beasts, or even for the use of man. Now this interpretation does not contradict what is said in the words, Thorns and thistler shall it bring forth to you if we understand that earth in producing them before the fall did not do so to afflict man but rather to provide proper nourishment for certain animals, since some animals find soft dry thistles a pleasant and nourishing food…. I do not mean that these plants once grew in other places and only afterwards in the fields where man planted and harvested his crops. They were in the same place before and after; formerly not for man, after- wards for man. And this is what is meant by the words to you. (p. 94)
It is a further surprise to note that Augustine does not even see animal death and corruption as a direct result of the fall. In answer to the question as to why animals eat each other, he claims that it is because that is the way they were made. Human sin is not considered as the cause. Moreover, it is because we are fallen that we perceive animal death and corruption as an evil.
One might ask why brute beasts inflict injury on one another, for there is no sin in them for which they could be a punishment, and they cannot acquire any virtue by such a trial. The answer, of course, is that one animal is the nourishment of another. To wish that it were otherwise would not be reason- able. For all creatures, as long as they exist, have their own measure, number, and order. (p. 92)
He also speaks of death as follows: “For He has wrought them all in His wisdom, which, reaching from end to end, governs all graciously; and he leaves not in an unformed state the very least of His creatures that are by their nature subject to corruption, whose dissolution is loathsome to us in our fallen state by reason of our own mortality” (p. 90, emphasis mine).
4. Augustine suggests that the bodies of Adam and Eve were created mortal
Augustine raises the interesting question: why would Adam and Eve have to eat if they were created immortal? “It is difficult to explain how man was created immortal and at the same time in company with the other living creatures was given for food the seed-bearing plant, the fruit tree, and the green crops. If it was by sin that he was made mortal, surely before sinning he did not need such food since his body could not corrupt for lack of it” (p. 97). His solution is that Adam and Eve were created with mortal bodies. Their death was the result of their sin, but Augustine suggests that, had they not sinned, they would have been given the spiritual bodies with which we will be endowed at the resurrection.
He was mortal … by the constitution of his natural body, and he was immortal by the gift of his Creator. For if it was a natural body he had, it was certainly mortal because it was able to die, at the same time immortal by reason of the fact that it was able not to die. Only a spiritual being is immortal by virtue of the fact that it cannot possibly die; and this condition is promised to us in the resurrection. Consequently, Adam’s body, a natural and therefore mortal body, which by justification would become spiritual and therefore truly immortal, in reality by sin was made not mortal (because it was that already) but rather a dead thing, which it would have been able not to be if Adam had not sinned. (pp. 204-205)
Those interested in the issue of human origins should take a closer look at Augustine’s views.
1. It is historically inaccurate to maintain that modern science alone forced the church to come up with ideas about Genesis 1-3 that differ from the allegedly traditional views. Many of Augustine’s interpretations are plainly at variance with what are commonly perceived in evangelicalism as traditional views of Genesis. And, I might add, he was never accused of heresy for his views. It is plain that we cannot accuse Augustine of departing from the plain meaning of Scripture in order to make peace with science as we know it. Obviously, Augustine was not looking over his shoulder at scientific geology or paleontology. It is therefore all the more remarkable and significant that he adopts positions generally not perceived as the traditional church positions.
2. Given that a theological thinker of Augustine’s genius arrived at the views he did after years of careful study of the text, it is incumbent upon us to approach the early chapters of Genesis with far less dogmatism and far more humility and caution than we often do. Augustine’s interpretations should help us guard against facile claims about the obvious meaning of these texts. The point here is not that we should adopt Augustine’s specific interpretations (I’ve got problems with some of them myself, but that we should recognize what Augustine recognized: namely, the early chapters of Genesis are in fact complex and do not tender easy, pat answers. Once the entire evangelical world comes to grips with that simple conclusion, we will have made some progress.
1. St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols. (New York: Newman Press, 1982). All page references in the text of this paper are to pages in volume 1.