Saint Augustine on Interpreting Genesis

The church father Augustine wrote around 400-430 A.D. He was bishop of the city of Hippo in North Africa. His views are deeply respected by orthodox Christians of all types. Roman Catholics, along with the Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans, celebrate him as a saint. The early Reformers such as Luther and Calvin drew heavily on his theology of sin, salvation, and divine grace.

In his commentary The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine laid out some rules for interpreting Genesis and other parts of the Bible. These guidelines are still relevant today, especially in regards to controversies over interpreting the Genesis creation story.

As a young man, Augustine regarded the Genesis story as a literal six-day creation [1]. On further reflection, however, he came to a different opinion. The text clearly states that the sun was created on Day 4, yet all the six days of creation are marked by “evening and morning”. He concludes that these features show that the “days” could not be our regular 24-hour days.

What, then, were these days? Well, with the information available, Augustine noted that we simply cannot tell with any certainty:

What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, to determine. (City of God 11.6)

Hence, Augustine counsels great caution and humility in presenting any particular interpretation of Genesis 1-3:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, 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.   – – Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 1: 18.37

The attitude of many young earth creationists differs markedly from Augustine’s approach. They treat their six 24-hour day interpretation of Genesis as being as authoritative as the Scripture itself. Hence they insist that their view is the only possible correct one, and they strongly denounce Christians who disagree with them as “compromisers”.

Augustine leaned towards taking a literal interpretation of Scripture if possible, and not too quickly moving to a figurative reading. Nevertheless, if there are sound reasons to reject a simple literalistic interpretation, it should be rejected; it should be then assumed that the intended meaning of the passage in question is something more figurative. Thus, for Augustine, the “literal” or actual meaning of a passage can something more mystical than the simple superficial reading. 

The figurative meaning can in fact be more profound than the simple literal reading, so no disrespect towards the scripture is implied by going with a more subtle interpretation of a text.  Also, it is possible that a passage could have more than one valid level of meaning. For instance, when the apostle Paul referred to the rock which split open to yield life-giving waters for the people during the Exodus (Exod. 17:6, Num. 20:11), he stated that this rock (in some sense) “was Christ” (I Cor. 10:4).

Some reasons for seeking a non-literal meaning would be if the simple literal meaning led to some sort of logical absurdity, or to contradiction of other Scriptures, or contradiction of observations from the physical world. It happens that for Augustine, it was comparisons with other sacred texts which drove his nuanced interpretation of Genesis.  His readings of Genesis 2:4 and of a passage in the book of Sirach led Augustine to believe that God created the world all in one instant, not over the course of six consecutive days. [2]     Augustine regarded the six days of Genesis 1 as a repeated literary (not chronological) device, to stretch the story out and help unlearned readers to grasp the full scope of what was accomplished in Creation. [3]  

Augustine took very seriously the insights that could be obtained from studying the physical world. He warned strenuously against promoting interpretations of the Bible which contradict what is known from science, lest educated people be driven away from considering Christianity:

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 the 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 non-sense 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. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

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 those 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.”  [citing I Tim. 1:7]    – – Literal Meaning, Book 1:19.38, Translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1982). Retrieved from http://inters.org/augustine-interpretating-sacred-scripture .  Bolded emphases added.

The GeoChristian blog noted some takeaways from this passage by Augustine:

  • Augustine, even though his work was entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis, does not read Genesis 1 in the same “literal” way that modern young-Earth creationists do. Augustine believed that the creation was an instantaneous event rather than being spread out over six literal days, and that the six days of Genesis 1 were a literary structure rather than a statement of the order or timing of events. This is a remarkable insight from a deep thinker, who was in no way influenced by modern understandings of the age of the universe. This also should remind us that modern interpretations that understand Genesis as not requiring a 6000-year old Earth are not just forcing a modern interpretation on the text. Instead, the idea that Genesis doesn’t tell us how old the Earth is could be something that flows out of the text.
  • Augustine believed that non-Christians were perfectly capable of understanding the world, and he was convinced that whatever the Bible teaches, it won’t contradict the world as it really is.
  • Augustine came down hard on Christians who said things that the “scientists” of his day knew were foolish. This applies to us today as well: how will the world believe the Bible when it speaks about salvation if we also try to convince them that the Bible requires belief in dinosaurs living with humans, all the sedimentary rocks being deposited in Noah’s Flood six thousand years ago, or that all evidence of human prehistory can be compressed into less than a thousand years. These are all things taught as dogma by some Evangelicals, but none of them are explicitly taught in Scripture. And the world laughs, not only at us, but at the Creator.

(My bold emphases added)

SOME APPLICATIONS TO CURRENT CREATION CONTROVERSIES

There is obvious relevance here to the position of young earth creationism. Young earth creationists, such as Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, maintain that their six 24-hour day interpretation of the Genesis creation story is the only possible correct one. As noted above, they accuse Christians who disagree with their interpretation of having “compromised” the true faith. However, there are alternative interpretations of Genesis which allow for an old earth and for evolution, while respecting what the Bible itself (II Tim. 3:15-17) states is the purpose of the Bible (see Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2).

The physical evidence (see  Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth; also Annual Layers (Varves) in Lake Sediments Show the Earth Is Not Young) clearly shows that the earth is far older than the 6000 years demanded by a literal reading of the genealogies in Genesis. Young earth creationists try to bring forth geological evidences which show the earth is in act young, but examination of those evidences (see Evidences for a Young Earth ) shows them to be fatally flawed, based on misrepresentations of the full facts.  (It may be of historical interest to note that nearly all conservative evangelicals, even the most “fundamentalist”, held to an old earth position for most of the twentieth century; it was the publication of the deceit-laden but persuasive book, The Genesis Flood, in 1961  which launched the current young earth creationism – – see Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism ).

Obviously, it brings ridicule on the Bible and the Christian faith to have prominent Christians insist that the Bible teaches a 6000 year old earth. This issue is particularly poignant when young people who have grown up in conservative Christian homes take coursework in geology or astronomy and find that what their pastor and parents have been telling them about reality is utterly wrong. University faculty members who happen to be believers routinely recount stories of these troubled Christian students weeping in their offices, wondering if they can still retain their faith. But many other young Christians, who are not fortunate enough to find sympathetic mentors to help them navigate this crisis, are understandably are driven away from their faith when faced with a stark choice between the supposed teaching of the Bible and the obvious, demonstrable truths of the physical world.

The issues with so-called Intelligent Design are somewhat more subtle than for young earth creationism. The epicenter of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Since the early 1990’s scholars there such as Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe have been publishing books and articles trying to cast doubt on evolution. ID advocates oppose evolution because they see it as driving unbelief and moral decay. Most ID advocates accept an old earth, though they typically downplay that in order to avoid antagonizing their young earth creationist allies.

ID advocates try to show that natural processes cannot account for the complexities of today’s life-forms.  However, the fossil record and the recently available genetic evidence are clearly in accord with evolution. See, for instance, Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils and Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates.

Nevertheless, many Christians remain skeptical of macro-evolution because they don’t like its ethical implications, because it seems to contradict the Bible, and because present evolutionary theory cannot offer a detailed explanation for all the data for this very complex area.  While the evidence for evolution is compelling for almost everyone who actually engages it, to fully appreciate that evidence may take more scientific training than possessed by the average college graduate.   So it is fairly easy for ID proponents to keep up a steady stream of publications which keep feeding the doubts that evangelicals have about evolution.

ID proponents engage in the following tactics:

(A) Ignore or belittle the vast explanatory and predictive power of the theory of evolution (i.e. the concept that today’s life-forms have developed over eons from earlier, different organisms).

(B) Call attention to issues where scientists cannot yet provide complete explanations or where scientists disagree and to poorly-worded or erroneous claims by advocates for evolution.

(C) Ignore or belittle the explanations or clarifications offered by mainstream scientists regarding the issues in (B).

(D) Avoid offering any concrete, testable alternative to the scientific narrative of changes occurring from generation to generation by natural processes such as mutations and natural selection.

See

Gorilla, Orangutan, Chimp and Human Genomes: Population Genetics and Intelligent Design

and Junk_DNA_Design for some examples of how ID authors subtly misrepresent the facts.

Given the complexities of the science involved, it is perhaps less obviously ridiculous for Christians to deny evolution than to deny an old earth. That said, it still brings disrepute onto the Christian Scriptures, as Augustine warned so long ago. As with the age of the earth issue, untold numbers of young Christians are driven away from their faith by their elders telling them, “If evolution is true, the Bible is false.”

The fact this effort to discredit evolution involves consistent deception and misrepresentation should lead theists to reconsider the ID god-of-the-gaps strategy. It may be more fruitful to take a step back and consider the Intelligent Design of the entire universe, including the out-workings of all of its initial created conditions via observable natural laws.  Physicist Howard van Till has described this perspective as the “fully-gifted creation”, where God graciously endowed the universe from the start with all the properties needed to form stars, planets, and even life.  Christians who believe that God is providentially at work in their day-to-day, non-miraculous lives, and who take seriously “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11), should have no problem with this.

ENDNOTES

[1] On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, I, 20(14), cited here.

[2]    The Book of Sirach, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach or the Book of Ecclesiasticus is a book of ethical teachings, written around 200 to 175 B.C. It is accepted in the canon of Scripture by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, while Reformation churches typically classed it among the Apocrypha. Augustine used a Latin translation, and understood Sirach 18:1 there as meaning “he created all things simultaneously.” Modern scholars looking at the more original Greek version of the text believe that Augustine misunderstood it, due to ambiguities in the Latin translation; this verse probably teaches that God “created all things that exist”, not that he created “all things in a single instant”.

Genesis 2:4 may be translated as “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (New American Standard Version). Augustine, perhaps influenced by the Latin translation he used, took this to mean that God made heaven and earth in just one day. Most modern commentators think that this is not the only viable interpretation of this verse.

 [3]  Augustine proposed that morning and evening in the creation day denoted states of knowledge in the angelic onlookers, rather than literal dawn and dusk: “morning” corresponds to their knowledge of the spiritual realm, and “evening” denotes their enlightenment regarding the material realm, as the intentions of God for the physical world become realized. Also, the creation of “light” denoted creation of spiritual beings, not the appearance of ordinary visible photons. We would call this a “mystical” reading of the Genesis text, though for Augustine this was the “literal” (i.e. the actual) meaning.

The following passage, which fleshes out Augustine’s view of the six days as a repetitious literary device to assist the readers of Genesis, is an excerpt from a Patheos blog article which presents some findings by Craig Allert, in his volume Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristic Exegesis and Literal Interpretation:

We are told in Genesis how God finished his work in six days, but Scripture elsewhere tells us that he “created all things simultaneously together.” For Augustine, we should not see this as a contradiction because this one day repeated six or seven times was made simultaneously. The reason why Genesis so “distinctly and methodically” recounts the days is “for the sake of those who cannot arrive at an understanding of the text, ‘he created all things together simultaneously,’ unless scripture accompanies them more slowly, step by step, to the goal to which it is leading them.” (p. 288)

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at www.letterstocreationistists.wordpress.com . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
This entry was posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation, Evolution, Geology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Saint Augustine on Interpreting Genesis

  1. Blitzking says:

    “Nevertheless, many Christians remain skeptical of macro-evolution because they don’t like its ethical implications, because it seems to contradict the Bible,”

    We also remain skeptical that Phlogistan exists and for the same reasons that have nothing to do with the Bible.

    The Fantasy of Evolutionism is ANTI Science…. The Bible also happens to CONFIRM what is obesrvable testable repeatable falifiable empircal SCIENCE… ALL flora and fauna bring forth after their own kind.. That means that they NEVER bring forth a creature different than it is in any morphologically significant way PERIOD.

    HOWEVER. According to the Planet of the Apes Science Fiction Novel about “Long Ago and Far Away” .the SAME microbe / bacteria / amoeba / protista / SCO / small living creature …S L O W L Y ….evolved into….Apples ants, aardvarka antelopes asparagus apes, anteaters bees bats butterflies badgers buffalo Bristlecones beetles Barracuda bugambilia bears Bobcats beavers boas bison billygoats bass boars cows crocodile crayfish corn crickets dogs dolphins dandelions ducks elephants earthworms eagles Finches fireflies fawns gorillas geese hens horses humans iguanas jackals kangaroos koalas lemons lilacs lilies ladybugs leopards manta rays moreys monkeys mangos mongooses maples mice nuts otters ostriches Oranges olives Porcupines pears porpoises pigs plums rats roses ravens radishes rhubarb rabbits rice starfish scorpions skunks salamanders tadpoles … ALL FROM THE SAME CREATURE……

    • Blitz,
      Many natural processes are just plain slow, and so we do not see dramatic changes in the course of a human lifetime or over the several thousand years of recorded human history. The rocks at the top of Mt Everest were clearly deposited in ocean waters, but we cannot observe marine sediments being elevated to 29,000 ft in our lifetime.

      Biological evolution is a slow process – – it has to be, else life would be too unstable to survive. So of course we cannot see dramatic physical changes in the lab.

      However, to the extent that evidence IS available, it supports macroevolution over long time periods. For instance, the first animals that show up in the lowest (oldest) sedimentary rock layers are simple organisms like worms and trilobites. No modern mammals like rabbits. Then jawless fish, then jawed fish. Then amphibians… a solid sequence of fossils have been found, showing fish with amphibian-like features, then in-between species, then amphibians with still fish-like features, then more modern amphibians. Still no rabbits. Then reptiles, then reptile-like mammals, but still no rabbits or horses or wolves. Finally, AFTER all dinosaurs were wiped out, the rock layers show modern mammals. All this is consistent with evolution over long ages, not compatible with recent creation + global Flood.

      Recently available genetic evidence likewise comports with evolution, not recent creation. Links were given.
      Happy holidays to you.

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