Note: In Part 1, Mark Mann described Saint Augustine’s background and influence on the development of Christianity. Here in Part 2, Mann examines how Augustine interpreted Scripture, particularly the opening chapters of Genesis.
Scripture and Creation
Augustine had a great deal to say about those chapters in Genesis that are especially controversial within Christianity today. In fact, Augustine dedicated about as much as any other Christian writer to the first few chapters of Genesis, so there is little guesswork we have to do in ascertaining what he believed Scripture to claim about creation. First of all, Augustine clearly rejected the notion that God had created the earth in six 24-hours periods. Instead, he believed that the universe was created instantaneously, and that the six days reported in Genesis were a metaphor for the various levels of dimensions of the created realm—something akin to what ancients referred to as the ‘Great Chain of Being’. But this is not to say that Augustine believed that the world was created as it is today in that instant. Rather, he affirmed that God created the world with inchoate potential for further development, like an acorn that will grow into a great tree when planted in the ground.
Augustine therefore affirmed that Creation has evolved and continues to evolve, though not driven by random natural processes, as affirmed by classical Darwinism. Instead, such evolution is governed providentially both via the inchoate potentialities present in the world from its beginning and by God’s ongoing governance of the universe.4 We should be careful not to turn Augustine too quickly into a modern advocate of theistic evolution, but the similarities are nevertheless significant. Augustine affirmed these ideas not on the basis of an attempt to accommodate Scripture to scientific discovery, but based upon his own reading of Scripture! Indeed, I think it fair to say that the great father of Western Christianity was something of a proto-evolutionary theist, and therefore one whose work deserves far more attention by those seeking to be faithful to both Scripture and Christian tradition while making sense of the claims of contemporary science.
Of course, we need to be careful not to push such claims too far. Augustine himself resists such a move by recognizing both the contingency of human interpretations of Scripture and the dangers of unintentionally imposing our own views on Scripture. A rather long, but significant quote from Augustine makes this point all too clear:
Let us suppose that in explaining the words, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and light was made,” one man thinks that it was material light that was made, and another that it was spiritual. As to the actual existence of “spiritual light” in a spiritual creature, our faith leaves no doubt; as to the existence of material light, celestial or supercelestial, even existing before the heavens, a light which could have been followed by night, there will be nothing in such a supposition contrary to the faith until unerring truth gives the lie to it. And if that should happen, this teaching was never in Holy Scripture but was an opinion proposed by man in his ignorance.
On the other hand, if reason should prove that this opinion is unquestionably true, it will still be uncertain whether this sense was intended by the sacred writer when he used the words quoted above, or whether he meant something else no less true. And if the general drift of the passage shows that the sacred writer did not intend this teaching, the other, which he did intend, will not thereby be false; indeed, it will be true and more worth knowing. On the other hand, if the tenor of the words of Scripture does not militate against our taking this teaching as the mind of the writer, we shall still have to enquire whether he could not have meant something else besides. And if we find that he could have meant something else also, it will not be clear which of the two meanings he intended. And there is no difficulty if he is thought to have wished both interpretations if both are supported by clear indications in the context.
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 nonsense 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.5
I am tempted here to let Augustine have the final word, but I think there are three final points worth highlighting here as a way of connecting this quote to the two books theory and thereby concluding our discussion of Augustine:
- The Book of Nature is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ, and even nonbelievers are capable of comprehending its complex order through the proper use of reason and experience (i.e. science properly understood).
- The Book of Scripture is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ, and therefore is true and authoritative in all matters. The problem is that we often misinterpret Scripture by imposing our own preconceptions upon it rather than allowing it to speak for itself.
- God’s two books can and should be read together in harmony when we are open to allowing them to speak for themselves on their own terms. Ultimately, they cannot contradict each other because the source of both is the same God and if they seem to be in contradiction it is because we have misread one or both of them, and we need to be willing therefore to allow ourselves to be open to thinking about either one in different ways, trusting that God will ultimately lead us to see the truth of the whole.
4. In truth, these two kinds of providence are one and the same for Augustine because God in some ‘stands’ outside of time as its eternal creator. So, for Augustine, eternality is not everlasting time, but the complete lack of temporality altogether. In this sense, all of creation at all times is eternally present to God, and there is ultimately no difference between God’s governance over creation at its beginning from God’s governance at any other moment in its history. In a way, God governs all of history all at once.
5. This quote is excerpted from St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2 vols., translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, SJ (Paulist Press, 1982), volume one of which can be read here.