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 very fact that the material resists intellectual dissection reminds us that this is the testimony of God's faithfulness in bringing the creation to fulfillment in Him. In other words, the authority of Genesis does not rest in what a human writer has produced.
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. This represents the view that the Bible was authored by humans in response to the sacred, but the Bible has no absolute authority if it is something written by humans in response to religious impulses. Further the dualistic view is an inaccurate representation of the binary structure observed in creation (but that’s another matter.)
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. God, being without beginning or end, is the One who 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.
Watch for St. Augustine on Genesis, Part II, coming up soon.