St. Augustine: Taking Scripture Literally

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St. Augustine: Taking Scripture Literally


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.


About the Author

Gary Anderson

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. Anderson’s book Genesis of Perfection has been featured as a "book of the week" on His most recent book Sin: A History has received wide acclaim and was featured in Christianity Today.

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