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Brandon Withrow
 on October 11, 2010

Augustine, Genesis and “Removing the Mystical Veil”

Augustine, like any theologian, read the Bible through the lens of his world, context, and presuppositions.


Augustine, like any theologian, read the Bible through the lens of his world, context, and presuppositions.

In this article, I will show that, for Augustine, coming to the Christian faith involved reading the biblical text through a philosophical-theological worldview that transcended the literal words of the text, a worldview that included Christian Platonism. This proved particularly handy in his interpretation of Genesis 1. Augustine is an example of what appears often in the history of Christianity; each new Christian generation reads Scripture not with neutrality but within the accepted worldview of the culture or sub-culture to which they belong.

Saint Augustine (354-430 C.E.) was not always a saint. His famous Confessions show him to be a self-indulgent hedonist, a seeker looking for satisfaction in something, anything. Philosophy, rhetoric, friendship, sex—whatever sounded good at the time drove him to experiment.
His devout Christian mother, Monica, pushed the resistant Augustine toward Christianity at every opportunity. Later, as he indicates repeatedly in The Confessions, he saw every turn of his past as part of his path toward the faith. He eventually made his way to Milan, where he sat at the feet of the bishop Ambrose, but the intellectual roadblocks along the way were not easy for him to overcome. Perhaps the most difficult issue Augustine ran into was his lack of appreciation for the Bible—the central text of the faith he was resisting—as a source of knowledge.

Augustine’s Intellectual Road Bump

Like Origen, Augustine did not discard his intellectual past when he started taking the Bible seriously. Rather, under the right tutelage, he discovered a new way of understanding the Bible that allowed him to lower his guard against it. Like any Christian of any generation, his religion was informed by his world in unavoidable ways. He understood his faith through the best philosophy available to him in his day.

What bothered Augustine about Scripture was, in part, its apparently simplistic or childish nature. Augustine was a scholar who loved beautiful words and ideas, and when he read Scripture he saw it as “unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero” (The Confessions 3.5). It just seemed too simple. “I disdained to be a little beginner,” he writes. “Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult” (The Confessions 3.5).

But when Augustine met Ambrose, his thinking changed significantly.

I was also pleased that when the old writing of the Law and Prophets came before me, they were no longer read with an eye to which they had previously looked absurd…And I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: ‘The letter kills, the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6). Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil (The Confessions 6.4).

Ambrose’s method of spiritual interpretation—which was growing in popularity in the West, but found its first home in the East—helped Augustine come to grips with the Bible, and his sense of theological mystery, which became a central theme and justification for accepting it as deeper and more spiritual than he previously thought. By the time of the medieval church this methodology became a standard for biblical interpretation.

Unraveling the Mystery of Scripture

Scripture, as Augustine came to believe under Ambrose’s influence, was to be interpreted as possessing multiple senses: the historical (or literal) and allegorical (or spiritual), being those he found to be most helpful for a fuller explanation of the meaning of the Bible (Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis 1.5).

Augustine’s worldview, Christian Neoplatonism, provided the tools for this methodology (The Confessions 7.10). Neoplatonism was a 3rd–century revival of Platonism, which included founding figures like Plotinus (ca. 205-270 C.E.) and the Christian theologian, Origen (ca. 185-254 C.E.).

According to his Christian Neoplatonism, this world is a shadow of the eternal world. So, the literal words of Scripture are shadows that represent something above and heavenly. For the philosopher Plato, all things in this world are made after an eternal pattern or archetypes that he calls the “World of Forms.” For Augustine’s Christian Platonism, these archetypes exist not in the “Word of Forms,” but in the mind of God. 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. While the literal has this important role, 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 (On Christian Doctrine 2.14).

Like Greek philosophers, Augustine identified the “soul’s eye” or spiritual senses as that by which God raises the human being beyond the physical world into that which is deeper (The Confessions 7.10). The allegorical is that level of interpretation that requires the soul to be enlightened by God, according to Augustine. Thus Scripture had previously appeared absurd to him because, as he understood it, the darkness of his life left him bereft of its spiritual sense.

The Phenomena of Platonism

Augustine’s approach to the Bible, then, is inseparable from his Neoplatonic worldview. He had no qualms about borrowing from philosophy. As the Jews plundered the Egyptians, taking their gold, Augustine believed Christians should take the gold of great thinkers, since gold belonged to God “wherever it was.” Biblical figures, like the Apostle Paul and his citing of a poet and philosopher in Acts 17:28, provided justification for such an approach (The Confessions 7.9).

“A person who is a good and true Christian,” notes Augustine, “should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found” (Christian Doctrine 2.72). This reasoning provides the room that Augustine needs to read Genesis with fresh philosophical eyes. Augustine revisits Genesis several times throughout his life, and as we will see in part 2, this approach to interpretation affects his reading of the first chapter of the Bible in interesting ways. What is already evident, however, is that Augustine—often praised for his creative thinking—could no more easily escape his world, context, or presuppositions than any other theologian of his day.

So far, 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 hisConfessions (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.

About the author

Brandon Withrow Headshot

Brandon Withrow

Brandon 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.