Augustine, Genesis, and “Removing the Mystical Veil”: Part 2
In part 1, I introduced the background for understanding Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1. His Christian Neoplatonism provided the tools for this methodology; i.e., this world is a shadow of the eternal world, and so the literal words of the Bible represent something above and heavenly. 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. 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. This higher, spiritual interpretation or deeper layers of Scripture, can be seen, according to Augustine, by the person with an enlightened soul. This week, I will show how this perspective plays out in Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1.
The Days of Creation
It is now standard practice for any study on the history of Genesis 1 to note Augustine’s view—that creation was instantaneous. Some see this as a clear precedent for rejecting literal creation days. It probably best serves as another example of how one’s culture or subculture can influence an interpretation.
Like a few ancient Christians (Origen, for example), Augustine argued for an instantaneous creation rather than a piecemeal one over successive days. There are several reasons behind his view, the first being that he is reading the apocryphal book of Sirach along with Genesis. In Sirach 18:1, the Latin reads that God “created all things at once” (or together) with “at once” being the word simul, a mistranslation of the Greek. Augustine and others read this as God creating everything at the same time.1
Secondly, God does not need time to create, leading Augustine to his famous snarky comment in The Confessions. When asked what God was doing before he made heaven and earth, his recalls a joke: making hell for people who ask such questions (The Confessions 11:12). The real problem with the question is that time itself is a creation, according to Augustine, and therefore there is nothing before its creation. Those who ask the question are attempting to “taste eternity when their heart is still flitting about in the realm where things change and have a past and a future…” (The Confessions 11:11). “Time could not elapse before you made time,” says Augustine (The Confessions 11:13).
If everything is created instantly, why mention six days in Genesis 1? We live in a world of change and time, but the divine being cannot change—something Augustine understood as verified by both Scripture and Plato. And so in Genesis, he argues, God is accommodating his language to our time-based circumstances by using the narrative of days (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.33.52).
What comes from eternity has to be presented according to the limitations of the human world, the lower world of time. God uses the number six because it represents something immaterial, perfect, and mystical. Platonists were fond of mystical meanings in numbers and a number like six, being equal to the sum of its divisors (e.g. 1x2x3 or 1+2+3), made it easy to look for hidden meaning. (Porphyry, the student of Plotinus, for example, broke Plotinus’ Enneads into six books of nine treatises as a reference to its perfection.)
“God…accomplished the works of His creation in six days,” writes Augustine, “a perfect number of days” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.2.6). In this way, God has combined the shadowy world of change with the immutable reality of the perfect, spiritual meaning of six. Six transient earthly days represent the true, unchanging perfect form of six in eternity—which itself exists in the mind of God, according to Augustine’s Christian Neoplatonism (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.3.7; Miscellany of Eighty-Three Questions, Question XLVI).
Understanding the nature of time, the nature of a divine being, and the meaning of six is therefore key to understanding the greater spiritual meaning of the passage. For Augustine, God accommodates himself to our limitations so that we may transcend them. In his accommodation, he does not always tell us every detail. Sometimes the Spirit of God, as Augustine sees it, only reveals what is “necessary” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 5.8.23).
One last illustration, however, will show how complicated and sometimes inconsistent Augustine’s mixing of interpretive methods can be. Genesis speaks of the firmament (Gen. 1:6-7) as that place that divides the earthly waters from the heavenly waters. Augustine offers a lengthy allegorical interpretation of the firmament in his Confessions (book 13)—seeing it as a symbol of Scripture and its place between the earthly and the heavenly—but the presence of an allegorical interpretation does not mean that he also rejects the literal existence of a firmament.
He is intrigued by the idea of a firmament which separates heaven and earth, and the waters above and below. His passion for it even becomes a warning, as some philosophers of his day argued that the waters would be too heavy to stay in the sky. For Augustine, “if God ever wished oil to remain under water, it would do so” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 2.2).
The “term ‘firmament’ does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven,” says Augustine, “we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is a solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 2.10.23). And while he appears later in life to question his confidence in the exact nature of the firmament (Retractions 2.6.2), he continues to hold to its literal existence.
Augustine is caught between two worlds. He is committed to the newest philosophy of his day, plundering it for its benefits and allowing himself to re-imagine Genesis. He also becomes strongly immersed in a Christian world that still accepts the idea of a firmament. He accepts not just a firmament that existed at one time, but one that he sees as still existing in his day, an idea that no one, no matter how literally they read Genesis, is likely to accept today.
Thus Augustine is one example of the elusiveness of human neutrality in interpretation. We can and do have game-changing moments that help bring a transition in perspective and maybe a better understanding of our presuppositions. But we remain tied to the phenomena of life, interpreting books like Genesis through our own worldviews, our version of Augustine’s veil of mystery.
1. Augustine scholar John Hammond Taylor explains that “a more accurate translation…would probably be: He who lives forever created the whole universe (RSV)” (St. Augustine, Vol. 1 of The Literal Translation of Genesis: Books 1-6, ed. By John Hammond Taylor , S.J. [New York: Newman Press, 1982] 254, n. 69).