Augustine, Genesis, and “Removing the Mystical Veil”: Part 2

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October 19, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Brandon Withrow. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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).

The Firmament

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.

Notes

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).


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.

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John VanZwieten - #35354

October 19th 2010

I enjoyed this post.  Thanks, Brandon!


Samuel Sutter - #35360

October 19th 2010

Enjoyed this - made me think about how great God is compared to Humanity. Thanks for that.


beaglelady - #35365

October 19th 2010

I’ve learned a lot from your excellent posts. Thanks so much.


Cal - #35371

October 19th 2010

I’m not sure about your reading of “six” into the text. Perhaps it was Platonic perfection, but in my readings of the Bible, the perfect number is 7. 7 Lamps, 7 spirits, 7 eyes and 7 days of creation (last being the sabbath, yet the 7th day has not ended yet). Satan, the great deceiver, who wants to be god can not and is imperfect, that is why his number is 666, a sign of in-completion.

What do you think?


John VanZwieten - #35372

October 19th 2010

Cal,

It’s Augustine “reading ‘six’ into the text.”  Brandon is just showing us how Augustine read the text.


Cal - #35373

October 19th 2010

John:

Oh, I understand, nevermind my point.


Norm - #35390

October 19th 2010

I find the following Augustine evaluation of the six Days of Creation as the best example of how probably Gen 1 – 2:3 was intended to be understood. Notice the emphasis he puts on the 6th Day.

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701009.htm 

6. But observe what Himself says, The things which were written in the law, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me. And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world.

continued


Norm - #35391

October 19th 2010

Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets.

Hence there were there six water-pots, which He bade be filled with water.
Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies


Brandon Withrow - #35854

October 22nd 2010

Thanks all.  Glad you enjoyed the post.


conrad - #36041

October 23rd 2010

Well the Big Bang theory assumes an instantaneous creation of everything.
But it was not formed.
It was in the Planck epoch.


DWD - #37250

October 28th 2010

It is very helpful to see how this great thinker had to blend the prevailing philosophy of his time with a view of the Bible which he took as his starting point - that Scripture contains direct revelation from God. Some of Augustine’s viewpoints sound very “advanced” while others, like the idea of a concrete “firmament,” sound silly. What gives me even more confidence in the Bible, though, is that Augustine is just one in a long line of theologians who have interpreted the truth of Scripture as best and as honestly as possible could in order to develop a systematic and coherent worldview. Despite all the debate and wrangling over what this and that passage means, the core truths of who God is as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Lord -  and who we are as his children and his representatives in the Creation, are still communicated to each generation despite the massive shifts in our understanding of science and history. This flexibility makes the Bible MORE alive to me, not dated or irrelevant.


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