Wednesday, April 23, 2008

St. Augustine on Genesis



St. Augustine wrote: “It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are... In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.” The Literal Interpretation of Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram) 1:19–20, Chapter 19

Augustine recognized that we should be willing to reconsider our ideas about creation/reality as new information becomes available, but he appears never to entertain the idea that new information might contradict the biblical revelation. Augustine holds that scripture is to be interpreted according to four sensible functions:
  • the eternal truths that are taught
  • the facts that are given
  • the future events that are foretold
  • and the precepts or counsels that are given.
Augustine didn’t envision original sin as bringing structural changes to the God-ordered universe. The sun would still appear to rise in the east. The lands and the seas would still have boundaries. Augustine's analysis of Genesis is based on Plato’s idea of eternal unchanging Forms. He describes how God created the Forms in The Literal Interpretation of Genesis.

Augustine believed that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God. He is explicit that God did not create over the course of six consecutive 24-hour days. He writes, "The sacred writer was able to separate in the time of his narrative what God did not separate in time in His creative act." In his view, the six days of creation convey the logical order of and relationship of created things, rather than a passage of time. He wrote, "But in the beginning He created all things together and completed the whole in six days, when six times he brought the 'day' which he made before the things which He made, not in a succession of periods of time but in a plan made known according to causes."

Augustine’s ontology and interpretation of Genesis are thoroughly Platonic. He regarded the metaphysical as more real than the physical because it is the realm of the eternal, while this world passes away. This is why he believed that the bodies of Adam and Eve were created mortal. The Fall meant not the loss of immortality, since the soul is eternal, but the loss of enjoyment of God.

While St. Augustine recognizes the great philosophical and theological challenges of the first chapters of Genesis, he never loses sight of the miraculous nature of God's self-revelation. The material resists intellectual grasp by its cosmic dimensions: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  This is only the beginning, the setting of the stage for the drama of God's faithfulness and the fulfillment of the first Biblical promise in Genesis 3:15. In other words, Genesis is the foundation and the patterns and themes found throughout the Bible are first encountered here.

Emile Durkheim hypothesized that religion is the basis of math, science and technology because it forced humans to think in dualistic terms: sacred-profane, good-evil, etc. For Durkheim this means that the Bible was authored by humans in response to the religious impulses, but the Bible has no absolute authority if it is written by humans responding to religious impulses. The Bible itself claims to be the Word of God written in response to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Further the Biblical worldview is not dualistic. It is instead binary, observing binary sets in which one entity of the set is empirically and universally observed to be superior in some way to the other. We find this from the beginning of Genesis where we are told that God created two great lights in the sky: the Sun to govern the day and the Moon to govern the night, but the Sun is the greater light and the Moon's light is refulgent, that is, it reflects the greater light.

The Manichees and pagans mocked the Genesis creation stories. St. Augustine met their challenge by asking a fundamental question: “Why did God create?” The whole of the Bible addresses that question and reminds us that God created time, space and all that exists, both visible and invisible. God, being without beginning or end, calls the shots. The Bible is God’s story, like it or not, accept it or not. Whatever one decides, it is wise to remember who the real Author is.

Related reading: St. Augustine on Divine Illumination; St. Augustine on Chronology in Genesis; Binary Sets in the Ancient World; The Binary Distinctions of the Horites; Binary Distinctions and Kenosis, Blood and Binary Distinctions; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions

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