One of the oldest principles in the practice of biblical interpretation is summed up by Augustine (354 AD-430 AD) in this clear statement: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old becomes clear in the New.” And, on occasion, I see just how important it is that we keep this principle of reading Christian scripture at the top of our minds.
One thing that this claim implies is that context is all-important in the practice of biblical interpretation. In part, Christian faith implies that creation be understood as God’s initiative through the ‘logos’ (or ‘word’) as the gospel of John puts it. The creation of the world and the revelation of Christ are inseparable aspects of God’s glory from the beginning. As Paul states in Ephesians (2:10): “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” And Christ’s power is salvific because it is exercised on a cosmic scale as Paul proclaims about God’s action in Ephesians 1:20: “when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.”
The connection between creation and Christ is one that Christians came to assume from a very early date in the history of the church. That connection affects how we understand both ourselves and the Bible. The realities of the person of Christ, and the entire universe, are intertwined realities. Creation and salvation are deeply personal realities in Christian life. The theme of personhood − our being created in God’s image − and our moral horizon reflect this foundational ‘hermeneutic’ of Christian theology.
The term hermeneutic acknowledges the fact of interpretation. Beginning with Plato and other ancient thinkers, the Greek word hermeneutice identified the context or tradition behind a statement, rather than its straightforward truth value. Augustine, Martin Luther, and the 19th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher have each introduced important nuances in Christian hermeneutics of the Bible – emphasizing different elements of grammar, history, and perspective that affect our interpretation of the text. So, in summary, biblical texts speak more clearly, not less clearly, when we understand the context within which they are read. And the twofold distinction between Old and New is a fundamental guide to our reading.
Augustine devoted a great deal of thought to the literal meaning of the Bible because, as he saw it, carelessness arises if we rely upon an overly spiritual interpretation of the text without properly considering the intentions of the author and the various contexts of the text. As Mark H. Mann and Brandon Withrow have ably suggested in previous posts on the BioLogos Forum, Augustine’s contributions have important contemporary significance for reading the Book of Genesis in particular.
Augustine’s contemporary relevance may be even greater than we realized. Over the course of his career as a bishop and theologian, Augustine grew more wary of the allegorical method to which he was previously drawn. He became more attentive over time to the subtleties and salvific significance of the biblical text in its details, thus more attentive to its vibrancy. Scholars of Augustine’s thought see this hermeneutical change as part and parcel of Augustine’s gradual shift toward a more straightforward orthodox Christianity. He had shifted away from Manichaeism, a gnostic sect of the ancient world that exaggerated the association of matter with evil. In short, the more Augustine embraced the goodness of created matter, the more this entailed for him a serious affirmation of the resurrection and a vivid appreciation of the plain sense of the biblical text.
Mark H. Mann, Brandon Withrow, and others (see John Doody, Adam Goldstein and Kim Paffenforth eds.,Augustine and Science [Lexington Books, 2013]) have indicated how Augustine’s attention to the literal meaning of the Genesis text is consistent with an evolutionary narrative for God’s creation of the world, including the species that lay dormant in ‘seed’ form until their later emergence. For Augustine, the literal sense of scripture is not a scientific narrative of physical reality, but a liturgical and poetic narrative of God’s awesome power at the dawn of history. This is a vital thread in the story of how to read Genesis.
But there is another, deeper aspect of Augustine’s attention to the literal sense – the connection between the personal and the exegetical approach to the biblical text: the tools of analysis that were the most plausible means to foster Christian conversion. In his mature writings, Augustine paid great attention to the intertwining of the reading of scripture with the person doing the reading. In his four part De doctrina christiana, written in two stages − thirty years apart − Augustine developed a theory for how to read scripture that turns on the meaning of God’s love and our love for God. A proper reading of scripture, he held, is one that is fundamentally oriented to the counsel to love. He states:
“anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not succeeded in understanding them.” (DDC I.35.40)
How does this apply to the Genesis creation narratives? If we believe that the Christian claim about God as creator and savior is a claim that God is both of these things simultaneously, we must also understand that salvation is, in fact, a new creation. God is continually acting in the power of love. It is a kind of love that moves the universe into existence. It is a kind of love that moves Israel and thence the world through the person of Christ into a loving relationship with God. God the creator and God the savior are two ways of talking about the God who is love. If we were to separate these two as two separate qualities of God, we would be advancing a dualistic God of the sort that the church rejected in the second century when it stood up to various forms of Gnosticism and Manichaeism.
The key to the unity of God is reflected in the church’s choice to bring unity to the Old and New Testaments as two parts of one grand narrative. And the distinction between God’s creation and God’s promise of a new creation is reflected in the cyclical responses of Israel – a movement toward and then away from God − evident in episodes such as Noah’s ark, the birth of Moses, and chapters 40-66 of Isaiah.
This theme of new creation has received a great deal of attention from evangelical New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, as a key to understanding Paul in particular but also the history of Israel and the rest of the Bible by extension. Most famous in this light is the language used in the letter to the Colossians, chapter one, in speaking of Christ’s cosmic significance: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things in heaven and earth were created … and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” (vv. 15-16, 20)
As N.T. Wright suggests, reading the Genesis creation narratives with the expectation of some chronological precision instead of the prism of God’s love for us − expressed in repeated offers of salvation, culminating in the salvation offered by Christ − is not only to miss out on the significance of the text, it is to miss the meaning of God.
This brings us back to Augustine, whose advice for us to read the Bible in the spirit of asking for God’s love “to flood our hearts” (Rom. 5:5) is based in his insight into the holy Trinity: God is love. God’s love is the basic dynamic behind created and saved reality:
“See, there are three things: lover, beloved and love. What is love but a kind of life that unites or endeavors to unite two with one another, namely lover and beloved?” (de Trinitate VIII, 10)
So, the best way to read Genesis is through the hermeneutic of love, which is not a love that comes from us, but which comes from God, in whose image we are made and from whose love we are created. Creation is known by Christians as God’s initial act of love and Christ is God’s invitation to us that we be renewed by love as a new creation.