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St. Augustine: Taking Scripture Literally

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April 28, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
St. Augustine: Taking Scripture Literally

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

Anderson’s post concerns Adam and how Augustine understood him with respect to Eve’s culpability in the fall. This post does not directly affect the kinds of scientific matters that normally occupy us here, but there is value of this post for other reasons. Anderson is reminding us that interpreting the notion of the “fall” in the Garden episode has numerous dimensions of complexity and ambiguity, and that brilliant and capable minds have been trying to get their arms around it since before the Christian era.

In I Timothy 2:14-15 we find those fateful lines which have proved such a problem in our modern age:

Adam was not deceived, but Eve, having been deceived, came into transgression. So Eve will be saved through childbirth, if she remains in faith, love, and sober chastity.

The message is about as clear as it could be: Adam was absolutely innocent; Eve was entirely guilty.

It would be hard to overstate the difficulty these verses have provided modern readers. Richard Hays, has elegantly summarized the problem,

The assertion that women will be saved through bearing children clashes flagrantly with Paul's profound conviction that all human beings are saved only by virtue of the death of Christ. The lame exoneration of Adam (2:13-14) also sits oddly in conjunction with Paul's portrayal in Romans 5:12-21 of Adam as the source of sin and typological representative of sinful humanity. The peculiarity of the passage has given rise to various imaginative exegetical attempts at damage control, but the overall sense of the text is finally inescapable: women (or perhaps wives) are to be silent and submissive and to bear children. (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 67-68)

For Hays, the danger of this text can be cordoned off by noting its peculiarity within the larger set of writings we call the New Testament. Hays believes that in order for a text to carry a strong moral voice it must resonate across a broad spectrum of New Testament writings. Because I Timothy is at variance to other voices in the New Testament, Hays is able to isolate and defuse its potentially combustive results.

Yet surprisingly, the Fathers of the Church did not always follow what would seem to be the misogynist implications of Paul’s epistle. The most radical approach––and, by far, the most influential––is found in the writings of St. Augustine. At first, this may strike one as all the more curious for St. Augustine, in general, strives to be faithful to the literal sense of scripture. As we will see, part of the problem lies in the fact that moderns are heirs to a much different sense of the "literal sense" than was prevalent among the ancients. Augustine's interpretation will appear far more sensible if we bear in mind his approach to the Bible's compositional history.

The problem that exercises St. Augustine is the relation of I Timothy to Romans 5:12-21, or to be brief, the relation of a text that focuses blame on Eve as over against a text that pins all blame on Adam.

(W)e cannot believe that the man was led astray to transgress God's law because he believed that the woman spoke the truth, but that he fell in with her suggestions because they were so closely bound in partnership. In fact, the Apostle was not off the mark when he said, 'It was not Adam, but Eve, who was seduced', (I Tim 2:14) for what he meant was that Eve accepted the serpent's statement as the truth, while Adam refused to be separated from his only companion, even if it involved sharing her sin. That does not mean that he was less guilty, if he sinned knowingly and deliberately. Hence the Apostle does not say, 'He did not sin,' but, 'He was not seduced'. For he certainly refers to the man when he says, 'It was through one man that sin came into the world', and when he says more explicitly, a little later, 'by reproducing the transgression of Adam' (Rom 5:12ff). (City of God XIV, 11)

In brief, Augustine will not allow I Timothy to usurp the picture drawn by Romans 5. For Augustine believes, not unlike Hays and other moderns, that the affirmations made in Romans 5, like those of I Corinthians 15, proceed from the very heart of Paul's theology. If we are forced to read Romans 5 and I Timothy as part of the same inspired Bible, then the meaning and force of Romans will trump I Timothy.

Hitherto, moderns and St. Augustine are on equal footing: both de-center I Timothy in favor of Romans. But things become more difficult and delicate when we consider what Augustine must do with I Timothy once he has subordinated it to Romans 5. Unlike Hays and other moderns, Augustine cannot propose that I Timothy is a pseudepigraphic letter, or that the doctrine of original sin was still taking shape in the first century and therefore allowed for several overlapping if not contradictory positions. Just because Romans has trumped Timothy, this does not mean that Timothy has lost all value. Augustine is bound by his sense of the inspired nature of all scripture to take every recess and corner of the canon seriously, however obscure and out of the way it may seem.

The text of Timothy as it stands must be interpreted and not in a way that sets it in contradiction to Romans. So, Augustine must reason, if we learn from Romans that Adam sinned and in so doing introduced death into the world, then I Timothy must qualify the nature of that sin not the fact of sin itself. "Adam was not deceived" cannot mean Adam was innocent; this would contradict the fact of Adam's sin, which was established in Romans 5. It can only mean that Adam's sin differed from Eve's in the manner by which it took place. Adam's sin, Augustine is forced to conclude, was possessed of higher volitional content.

Augustine does not ignore I Timothy; he re-conditions it. I Timothy, so retrofitted, can now be read smoothly within the larger corpus of the Pauline writings. In a profound, yet ironic sense, a reading one might have dismissed as wholly contrived appears more and more to be "the plain sense." Augustine's reading appreciates and respects the unity of the Biblical witness. And this witness was not without significant heirs.

Gary Anderson is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Notre Dame. Anderson’s interests concern the religion and literature of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible with a special interest in the reception of the Bible in early Judaism and Christianity. His interests span the entire Bible, but as of recent he has put special focus on the book of Genesis as well as priestly literature. He is also interested in biblical narrative, canonical exegesis, biblical theology, Jewish culture and religion, and Jewish-Christian relations.

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Lenny - #11590

April 28th 2010

I don’t see any “retrofitting” here. Paul plainly says that Eve was “deceived” but Adam wasn’t “deceived.” That’s a far cry from saying the fall was all Eve’s fault! Indeed it makes Adam’s sin worse: Eve sinned because she was fooled by the serpent’s reasoning; but Adam, who was not fooled, sinned knowingly.

The application to “keeping silence in the church” would seem to be that Eve, as the gullible one, was not suited to be Adam’s teacher, but rather that Adam was responsible for teaching Eve—as illustrated further by the fact that God’s commandment was given to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 before Eve was even created, which implies that Eve would have learned of it through Adam.

At the same time, taking Paul’s statement about Adam and Eve “literally” is one thing; it’s quite another to conclude that Paul is “literally” claiming that “all women are gullible,” or some such. Paul’s “literal” insight into Adam and Eve is clearly meant to be taken as an illustration of divinely appointed roles, not as a call to misogyny.

Chris Massey - #11608

April 28th 2010


Pleased to see you here. Just last night I watched your paper presentation “What About the Caananites” from the Sept. 2009 conference at Notre Dame. I really appreciate the way Biologos is getting input from scholars in various fields of study.

I have a question on a point you mentioned in passing. What is your view on the issue of the authorship of 1 Timothy (and the other pastoral letters)? Is there good reason to think it’s a pseudepigraphic letter? Not being a biblical academic, I have trouble discerning whether someone like Bart Ehrman (for example) represents mainstream academic views or fringe views on topics like this. Can you assist?

BenYachov - #11631

April 29th 2010

Actually as a Catholic I would say 1 Timothy Chapter 2 is one of the many biblical texts whose teachings justify an exclusively all male clergy(i.e.Clergy as defined in the Catholic/Orthodox sense not Protestant).  Adam was seen as a guardian over Eve to protect her from the attacks of the Devil a duty he clearly failed to preform responsibly.  In the all male clergy of the Apostolic faith men are called to be the leaders & spiritual fathers their original failed to become when he let Eve fall & followed her into sin.(BTW what could Adam have done?  Well he could have done anything from kill the damn snake or send up a prayer for Divine Aid).

HornSpiel - #11633

April 29th 2010

I certainly agree with Augustine’s interpretation as you present it. Like Lenny says, this makes Adam’s sin worse.

However, if men more willfully sin that women, how does that qualify them to have authority over women? I do not think that follows logically, though that seems to be the point.

Paul wants to advise Timothy regarding the roles of men and women, so of course the place to go Is Genesis. Paul looks for clues in the text that point to principles that will help Tim. I think the specifics of Paul’s council should not be considered to be too theologically significant.since the point of the passage is not about eternal salvation but about human relations.

On the other hand the Roman’s passage is clearly about eternal salvation so theologically trumps 1 Tim.

If the specifics of Paul’s advice are not for all cultures and all times, what should we learn from it? Perhaps the timeless principle is that we need to mine Genesis for all it has to tell us about our relationships to one another, to God, and to Creation.

What do you think?

William Doolittle - #11652

April 29th 2010

“The message is about as clear as it could be: Adam was absolutely innocent; Eve was entirely guilty.”

I have read many things written concerning this passage. “Clarity” was never one of them.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #11699

April 29th 2010

I think this is one of the most willfully mistranslated passages in Scripture.

The clause in the second half of verse 15 begins with “they” not “she” or “the women” as it is commonly translated.

I believe vs. 14 is actually a parenthetical comment.  They refers specifically to the woman and man in vs. 12.  This means the pronoun translated “Eve” in verse 15 is also the woman in vs. 12.  (If I am wrong about the parenthetical comment, they is still a woman and man, not women.)

If they in vs. 15 is a woman and man, then it is a woman and man that are to remain in faith, love, and sober chastity.

That is, the man and woman are husband and wife, just as Young’s Literal states.

The passage does not place every man over every woman as is often taught, but says that the Church is not to place a woman over her husband.  The wife’s primary duty in the church is to raise her husband’s children.  The church is not to interfere with that.


Rev. Grover M. Wooten - #11905

April 30th 2010

Excellent information Mr. Vaughn! 

I want to speak about Adam for a moment and I want to state this clearly:  This passage does not mean that Adam was innocent!  It says that Eve was deceived into transgression.  Adam was not deceived.  Adam KNEW he was sinning and did it anyway.  “Sin, properly so called, is a WILLFUL, transgression against a known law of God by a morally responisble agent.” ~ John Wesley (emphasis mine)

That is the point that this passage is making.  Adam wasn’t deceived.  He knew it was wrong and didn’t care.

Rich - #11958

May 1st 2010

I’m puzzled by Gary Anderson’s conclusion.  Is he saying that it is proper to employ readings which, considered in relation to one text alone (in this case Timothy), are contrived, if that contrivance is necessary to avoid the conclusion that Scripture is at variance with itself?

I don’t mean, does Augustine accept this hermeneutical principle; apparently, on Gary Anderson’s reading of Augustine, he does.  I mean, is this credible as a hermeneutical principle, from a modern scholarly point of view, as opposed to an apologetic point of view?  Does international Biblical scholarship accept, as a working principle, that the teaching of one New Testament book cannot contradict the teaching of another?

This is not irrelevant to TE.  It is far from clear that all TE/Biologos proponents accept the traditional Augustinian doctrine of the wholeness and consistency of Scripture.  When they comment on Biblical interpretation, they often sound more like cosmopolitan Bible scholars than like Augustine.

Robert - #12671

May 7th 2010

Thank you also Mr. Vaughan for pointing out the plural pronoun in v.15. In fact the translation I am currently reading (ESV) says it like this:

“Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

Further, I have always thought the first clause in this passage to be ambiguous. It certainly is in English, I don’t know about Greek. Does it mean that the women’s/wife’s salvation is somehow dependent on her bearing children (problematic with the rest of NT teaching on salvation) OR does it mean that she will be kept safe during the risky business of giving birth, provided she and her husband continue in faith, etc.?

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12751

May 7th 2010


If childbirth is literally the issue, then the command only applies to those who are pregnant or could become pregnant.  If that were true, Paul should have said young woman.  That is, a young woman shouldn’t be put in authority over her husband.  But once she turns 40, ...

I think v.15 is subordinate.  Don’t put a woman in authority over her husband.  She is his helpmeet/helper, not the church’s.  Her duty is to her husband, not the church.

The church runs on volunteers, primarily women volunteers.  Always has.  Always will.

Could it be that the Corinthian Church was getting the women so involved, that they were “too tired?”  They were using their involvement in church as an excuse for not cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc.?  I’ve heard rumors it happens today.


tomana - #20590

July 5th 2010

Regarding the guilt or innocence of Adam:

Gen 3:17 And unto Adam he said, ” BECAUSE THOU HAST HEARKENED UNTO THE VOICE OF THY WIFE, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it:

Adam was talked into eating the forbidden fruit - by his wife. He chose to obey her rather than God. The word “hearkened” in Hebrew is shama‛ and means “to hear intelligently”. Adam actually failed on at least two accounts:

#1 He failed to guard Woman. God made Adam the guard of the garden, as well as the groundskeeper [Gen 2:15]. In Gen 2:15 the word “keep” means to Guard, to protect.

Protect what ,or whom? Why did Adam let Woman get close enought to the tree to pick the fruit in the first place? After all, he was right there with her [Gen 3:6]. Regarding this, there is no mention in Scripture of God punishing Adam for failing at his job as guard.

#2 Adam disobeyed God’s command. God punished Adam for obeying His command (HIs voice)

This message is about as clear as it could be: Adam was guilty as charged and was definately not “absolutely innocent”.

Jas 3:1 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation [the Greek is ‘krima’ = a decision, avenge]

Mairnéalach - #20779

July 7th 2010

This text means to contrast Adam with Christ. For Adam, being made in Christ’s image, shares the urgings of Christ, and he cannot help but love his bride and seek to please her. Yet, because his will is bound, his very attempts to please her will bind him in her own sin, such that they share it together as one flesh.

Christ comes and fulfills what Adam could not. The will of Christ is not bound like Adam’s; he has his Father’s own will. He does not follow his bride into temptation and sin, but stands innocent apart from her—apostate Israel, hardened in heart. Yet the bridegroom does not divorce her; his ardor is unquenchable and he must become one flesh with her. Thus he pleases her, not as Adam did in partaking of her sin, but in taking of her sin upon himself. Thus in the cross their union is consummated and the stain of Eve erased.

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