Augustine, Genesis, and “Removing the Mystical Veil”: Part 1
Saint Augustine (354-430 C.E.) was not always a saint. His famous Confessions show him to be a self-indulgent hedonist, a seeker looking for satisfaction in something, anything. Philosophy, rhetoric, friendship, sex—whatever sounded good at the time drove him to experiment.
His devout Christian mother, Monica, pushed the resistant Augustine toward Christianity at every opportunity. Later, as he indicates repeatedly in The Confessions, he saw every turn of his past as part of his path toward the faith. He eventually made his way to Milan, where he sat at the feet of the bishop Ambrose, but the intellectual roadblocks along the way were not easy for him to overcome. Perhaps the most difficult issue Augustine ran into was his lack of appreciation for the Bible—the central text of the faith he was resisting—as a source of knowledge.
In this two-part series, I will show that, for Augustine, coming to the Christian faith involved reading the biblical text through a philosophical-theological worldview that transcended the literal words of the text, a worldview that included Christian Platonism. This proved particularly handy in his interpretation of Genesis 1. Augustine is an example of what appears often in the history of Christianity; each new Christian generation reads Scripture not with neutrality but within the accepted worldview of the culture or sub-culture to which they belong.
Augustine’s Intellectual Road Bump
Like Origen (see my previous posts), Augustine did not discard his intellectual past when he started taking the Bible seriously. Rather, under the right tutelage, he discovered a new way of understanding the Bible that allowed him to lower his guard against it. Like any Christian of any generation, his religion was informed by his world in unavoidable ways. He understood his faith through the best philosophy available to him in his day.
What bothered Augustine about Scripture was, in part, its apparently simplistic or childish nature. Augustine was a scholar who loved beautiful words and ideas, and when he read Scripture he saw it as “unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero” (The Confessions 3.5). It just seemed too simple. “I disdained to be a little beginner,” he writes. “Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult” (The Confessions 3.5).
But when Augustine met Ambrose, his thinking changed significantly.
I was also pleased that when the old writing of the Law and Prophets came before me, they were no longer read with an eye to which they had previously looked absurd…And I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: ‘The letter kills, the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6). Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil (The Confessions 6.4).
Ambrose’s method of spiritual interpretation—which was growing in popularity in the West, but found its first home in the East—helped Augustine come to grips with the Bible, and his sense of theological mystery, which became a central theme and justification for accepting it as deeper and more spiritual than he previously thought. By the time of the medieval church this methodology became a standard for biblical interpretation.
Unraveling the Mystery of Scripture
Scripture, as Augustine came to believe under Ambrose’s influence, was to be interpreted as possessing multiple senses: the historical (or literal) and allegorical (or spiritual), being those he found to be most helpful for a fuller explanation of the meaning of the Bible (Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis 1.5).
Augustine’s worldview, Christian Neoplatonism, provided the tools for this methodology (The Confessions 7.10). Neoplatonism was a 3rd–century revival of Platonism, which included founding figures like Plotinus (ca. 205-270 C.E.) and the Christian theologian, Origen (ca. 185-254 C.E.).
According to his Christian Neoplatonism, this world is a shadow of the eternal world. So, the literal words of Scripture are shadows that represent something above and heavenly. For the philosopher Plato, all things in this world are made after an eternal pattern or archetypes that he calls the “World of Forms.” For Augustine’s Christian Platonism, these archetypes exist not in the “Word of Forms,” but in the mind of God. The earthly or literal reading of Scripture cannot be discarded as unimportant, but the literal reading is that which works as a sign post to the heavenly or allegorical meaning. While the literal has this important role, the higher, heavenly interpretation is what the interpreter should seek because it gives us a glimpse into the meaning intended by the mind of God in inspiring the text (On Christian Doctrine 2.14).
Like Greek philosophers, Augustine identified the “soul’s eye” or spiritual senses as that by which God raises the human being beyond the physical world into that which is deeper (The Confessions 7.10). The allegorical is that level of interpretation that requires the soul to be enlightened by God, according to Augustine. Thus Scripture had previously appeared absurd to him because, as he understood it, the darkness of his life left him bereft of its spiritual sense.
The Phenomena of Platonism
Augustine’s approach to the Bible, then, is inseparable from his Neoplatonic worldview. He had no qualms about borrowing from philosophy. As the Jews plundered the Egyptians, taking their gold, Augustine believed Christians should take the gold of great thinkers, since gold belonged to God “wherever it was.” Biblical figures, like the Apostle Paul and his citing of a poet and philosopher in Acts 17:28, provided justification for such an approach (The Confessions 7.9).
“A person who is a good and true Christian,” notes Augustine, “should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found” (Christian Doctrine 2.72). This reasoning provides the room that Augustine needs to read Genesis with fresh philosophical eyes. Augustine revisits Genesis several times throughout his life, and as we will see in part 2, this approach to interpretation affects his reading of the first chapter of the Bible in interesting ways. What is already evident, however, is that Augustine—often praised for his creative thinking—could no more easily escape his world, context, or presuppositions than any other theologian of his day.
Brandon G. Withrow (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Historical and Theological Studies and Director of the Master of Arts (Theological Studies) program at Winebrenner Theological Seminary (Findlay, OH). He also teaches courses for a joint Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies program with the University of Findlay. His specialization is the history of Christianity, with research interests in ancient and early-modern Christianity. He is the author most-recently of Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen. His blog, The Discarded Image, focuses on "living ontologically" by exploring the intersection of faith, philosophy, and science through literature.