Augustine of Hippo on the Creation Story in the Bible

The Genesis 1 creation.

Genesis 1 Creation Examined, part 5

5   Augustine of Hippo

The Catholic thinker Augustine of Hippo wrote considerably about Genesis, also in his Confessions. His main text on the subject, though, is The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which he wrote in the beginning of the 5th century. He struggled considerably with the subject, and admitted it frankly. Before his major work on it, he had written one text that he was quite displeased with, and later another that he even destroyed when The Literal Meaning of Genesis had been completed.

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       He insisted on finding the literal meaning of the words in Genesis, and not allegorical ones, but he still allowed himself some abstractions and quite a lot of symbolic reasoning. And he was very modest about the result of his massive work in twelve books. Later in life, he had this to say about the text:

In this work there are more questions raised than answers found, and of the answers found not many have been established for certain. Those that are not certain have been proposed for further study.

       Indeed, his text is full of questions, and not that firm in the answers he suggests. He has obvious problems with inconsistencies and seeming absurdities in Genesis, and he is quite good at finding them. For example, about the words God spoke during the creation in Genesis 1, Augustine asks what language they could have been, and who was intended to hear them. And regarding the way God made land appear by removing the water he writes:

But if water covered the whole wide world, where would it go in order to leave some of the land exposed?

       Also, he points out the problem of time, but concludes that it is not relevant for either God or the Word, who are eternal. To him, time as we know it is irrelevant before there are celestial bodies by which to measure it, and those appear only on what Genesis 1 calls the fourth day. So, he concludes that the days mentioned before are not regular days, but simply marks for when new phases of creation are commenced:

But evening, during all these three days before the creation of the heavenly bodies, can perhaps be reasonably understood as the end of each work accomplished, morning as an indication of a work to follow.

Augustine, by Sandro Botticelli 1480.
Augustine, painting by Sandro Botticelli 1480.

       Being a convinced Christian, Augustine insists that Christ is present at the dawn of time, as the Word by which God performs his creation. Of course, his support for this is in the beginning of the Gospel of John, where Jesus is described as the Word turned into flesh. By this reasoning, Augustine makes Christ the actual creator of the world, since it is done by words. Thereby, Augustine finds the whole trinity present in Genesis 1: God, the son, and the Holy Spirit, which is the spirit of God mentioned in the second verse, "whereby the Divine Goodness and Love are to be understood."

       Augustine has too keen an eye to miss the inconsistency of heaven and earth being created both in the first verse and later on. He is firm in the belief that God's creation is ex nihilo, out of nothing, so he reads the first verse as an initial act of God, creating heaven and earth. But then he must ask himself why they are created again, later on, and why there is no mention of God using the word to accomplish his first two creations. His explanation is a rather strained argument about the Creator forming his own substance and receiving his proper form, by which he seems to mean the appearance of Christ in form of the word, but he also refers to the idea of primal matter. Actually, he seems to dodge the subject, somewhat. The problem reappears when he finds that there is no mention of God creating water and earth:

Why do we not read, "God said: 'Let there be earth,' and earth was made"; and "God said: 'Let therre be water,' and water was made"?

       Another issue that he speaks at length of, is the light that God creates on the first day, and also the very creation of day and night. About the latter he confesses:

I fear I shall be laughed at both by those who have scientific knowledge of these matters and by those who can easily recognize the facts of the case. At the time when night is with us, the sun is illuminating with its presence those parts of the world through which it returns from the place of its setting to that of its rising. Hence it is that for the whole twenty-four hours of the sun's circuit there is always day in one place and night in another.

       Furthermore, he cannot accept the idea of day and night created before the sun is. His solution to the problem is that the light created is a spiritual one. As for the days and nights before the creation of the sun, he regards them as markings of new phases of creation, as mentioned above, and not proper days and nights.

God creates the sun, the moon, and the stars, by Jan Brueghel II, 17th century.
God creates the sun, the moon, and the stars, by Jan Brueghel II, 17th century.

       Most, if not all, of the problems that Augustine wrestles with in his reading of Genesis 1, are the conflicts it creates with his reason and with science as he knows it. His uncompromising premise is that the Bible speaks the absolute truth, and that this truth is in accordance with the basics of Christian faith.

       This makes his explanations complicated, and he admits to the weaknesses of them, but his faith gives an overruling escape: any mistake in the interpretation of the Holy Scripture is that of the reader, and never of the text itself. Human ignorance is at fault, if no explanation is found to the seeming anomalies of the text. He also believes that some of the cryptic parts of the Bible are intended by its high originator: words have been "written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought."


6   Martin Luther

Genesis 1 Creation

The first creation of the Bible

  1. Genesis — The Text

  2. The seven days

  3. Good for man

  4. Commentaries

  5. Augustine of Hippo

  6. Martin Luther

  7. Some conclusions

This article was originally written for a seminar at the Department of History of Ideas and Learning, Lund University, as a part of my dissertation in progress on creation myths and their patterns of thought. Transforming the text to webpages, I have excluded footnotes, or edited them into the text.

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