Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis
I recently finished The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll, and will be sharing a few insights and quotes from this important book. The first quote is a long one from St. Augustine of Hippo, from his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, written in about AD 415.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [quoting 1 Tim 1:7].
(emphasis added; quoted from Noll, pp. 202-203, from the John Hammond Taylor translation of 1982)
Here are a few of my thoughts on what Augustine said:
- Augustine, even though his work was entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis, does not read Genesis 1 in the same “literal” way that modern young-Earth creationists do. Augustine believed that the creation was an instantaneous event rather than being spread out over six literal days, and that the six days of Genesis 1 were a literary structure rather than a statement of the order or timing of events. This is a remarkable insight from a deep thinker, who was in no way influenced by modern understandings of the age of the universe. This also should remind us that modern interpretations that understand Genesis as not requiring a 6000-year old Earth are not just forcing a modern interpretation on the text. Instead, the idea that Genesis doesn’t tell us how old the Earth is could be something that flows out of the text.
- Augustine believed that non-Christians were perfectly capable of understanding the world, and he was convinced that whatever the Bible teaches, it won’t contradict the world as it really is.
- Augustine came down hard on Christians who said things that the “scientists” of his day knew were foolish. This applies to us today as well: how will the world believe the Bible when it speaks about salvation if we also try to convince them that the Bible requires belief in dinosaurs living with humans, all the sedimentary rocks being deposited in Noah’s Flood six thousand years ago, or that all evidence of human prehistory can be compressed into less than a thousand years. These are all things taught as dogma by some Evangelicals, but none of them are explicitly taught in Scripture. And the world laughs, not only at us, but at the Creator.
Noll follows the long Augustine quote with this observation:
Augustine’s claim is nothing less than that a Christian who attempts to interpret passages of the Bible with cosmological implication s will misinterpret the Bible if that believer does not take account of what can be learned “from reason and experience.” To limit oneself only to the Scriptures in such instances, says Augustine, is to misread the Bible. (p. 203, emphasis in original)
Grace and Peace