Augustine of Hippo on the Creation Story in the Bible
Genesis 1 Creation Examined, part 5
5 Augustine of HippoThe 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, painting by Sandro Botticelli 1480.
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:
God creates the sun, the moon, and the stars, by Jan Brueghel II, 17th century.
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."
Genesis 1 CreationThe first creation of the Bible
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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