From conversion to death, Augustine was captivated by Genesis 1–3. He kept writing and re-writing commentaries on these chapters, and they pop up his other works as well (many have noticed, often with puzzlement, that even the Confessions climax into an exegesis of Genesis 1). Then, for 15 years, he labored on a kind of “Summa Creatio”—his finished commentary on the literal meaning of Genesis (De Genesi Ad Litteram).
This body of reflection on the biblical creation and fall story is arguably unrivalled among the church fathers. Yet Augustine himself is quite modest about his efforts. He describes his hermeneutical method as “asking questions rather than making affirmations;” he concludes his finished commentary by emphasizing its “many uncertainties;” in his Retractions he calls it “a work in which more questions were asked than answers found;Just as Augustine’s vision of creation can expand our categories, so his humility can inform our method.and of those that were found only a few were assured, while the rest were so stated as still to require further investigation.”Augustine, Retractions 2.24, in Saint Augustine, On Genesis, trans. Edmund Hill (The Works of Saint Augustine 1.13; Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002), 167.
Those familiar with Augustine’s theological stature may initially regard these statements like Michael Jordan saying, “I’ve failed over and over and over again.” Is the speaker sincere? How can such impressive accomplishment be referenced in such hesitating terms?
Yet anyone who takes the time to slog through Augustine’s commentary work will sense a genuinely reverent quality to them. For him, creation was a deeply mysterious doctrine, only approachable through the kind of awe that a child feels in looking up at the stars on a cloudless night. In a time when the doctrine of creation is often shrugged at, this aspect of Augustine’s legacy may prove no less pertinent than the content of his views—indeed, here I suggest that just as Augustine’s vision of creation can expand our categories, so his humility can inform our method.
Humility before Scripture: Don’t Be “Head over Heels in Headstrong Assertion”
Augustine is very concerned to handle the Scripture carefully. He often warns against the danger of “rashness” (Latin: temeritas). This word comes up again and again in his commentaries. One of his signature maneuvers is to canvass a number of interpretative options, gesture toward a possible answer, but ultimately refrain from requiring a definitive stance from his reader. For instance, he offers two possible ways to understand the “expanse” of Genesis 1:7, and then counsels, “you may choose whichever you prefer; only avoid asserting anything rashly, and something you don’t know as if you did; and remember you are just a human being investigating the works of God to the extent you are permitted to do so.” De Genesis ad litteram liber unus imperfectus 9.30, in idem, 133.
For Augustine, humility before Scripture entailed this kind of willingness to countenance multiple interpretations of unclear passages. But it also entailed a restraint in how we wield those passages that we think allow only one interpretation. “Let us never,” he solemnly warns, “throw ourselves head over heels into the headstrong assertion” of our private opinion of a biblical passage, lest we find ourselves “championing what is not the cause of the divine scriptures but our own, in such a way that we want it to be that of the scriptures.”De Genesi ad litteram 1.18.37, in idem, 185-86. Augustine is shrewdly aware of how easy is to profess to defend the Bible when we are really defending ourselves.
Humility before Science: Don’t Be a “Rash, Self-Assured Know-all”
Moreover, Augustine called for not just humility before Scripture, but humility before science (that is, subjects like astronomy and geology—what we would categorize as natural sciences, and the ancients often conceived as a part of philosophy). In drawing up his commentary, Augustine sought to understand current opinions about topics like the cycle of the planets and the phases of the moon (while at the same time warning that the Bible did not intend to answer all of our curiosities on these matters). In one famous passage, he declared:
There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter.De Genesi ad litteram 1.19.39, in idem 186
The forcefulness of Augustine’s concern here is evident in his hyperbolic language, which conjures up an almost cartoonish image of Christians raving on in ignorance while non-Christian “scientists” are doubled over in irrepressible laughter. For Augustine, what is so troubling about this kind of scenario is that the Christian faith itself is misrepresented:
And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses. Whenever, you see, they catch some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment or by the surest of calculations? It is impossible to say what trouble and grief such rash, self-assured know-alls cause the more cautious and experienced brothers and sisters. De Genesi ad litteram 1.19.39, in idem 186-87. One must appreciate the color of Edmund Hill’s translation here: “should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses” could be rendered more plainly as “should be blamed and rejected as so ignorant;” and “rash, self-assured know-alls” is simply from temerarii praesumtores.
It is not difficult to appreciate how the concern Augustine articulates in this passage has fresh relevance in our modern, scientific world.
Does Humility Mean a Lack of Conviction?
But in closing, we may consider a potential objection. Someone could argue, “it is all-too-easy to advocate for humility in areas you consider less weighty. But if the issue at hand is the deity of Christ, you wouldn’t be warning about the dangers of rashness!”
Augustine, however, did not regard humility as an antonym to conviction, as though in order to be humble one must adopt a vaguely deferential mindset on every issue. Augustine did not regard humility as an antonym to conviction, as though in order to be humble one must adopt a vaguely deferential mindset on every issue.He made a principled distinction between the clear/central aspects of creation, on the one hand, and the relatively murky/peripheral, on the other—what he called “certainties” versus “opinions.” For him, humility entailed an unflinching allegiance to the former as much as a prudential discretion about the latter.
At the start of his unfinished commentary on Genesis, for instance, he advocates for a questioning posture toward the doctrine of creation, because the “rash assertion of one’s uncertain and dubious opinions … can scarcely avoid the charge of sacrilege.”De Genesis ad litteram liber unus imperfectus 1.1, in idem, 114.But he proceeds to warn that our doubts and questions must never exceed the rule of faith, offering an extended account of the Apostles’ Creed in its African form (with occasional references to the Nicene Creed) as a criterion for “the bounds of Catholic faith.” The particular areas he emphasizes as inviolable are Trinitarian agency in creation, creation’s non-eternality, the goodness of creation, and the redemption of creation through the work of Christ. The African form of the Apostles’ Creed was the baptismal creed of the African church. See the discussion in idem, 116.
Thus, for Augustine, humility within the doctrine of creation involves this kind of methodologically self-conscious balance, in which we are as eager to affirm the weighty matters of orthodoxy as we are circumspect in our private judgments about the more contested areas.
In other words, to put it as briefly and punchily as possible: humility does not mean saying “I don’t know” to every question. It means saying “I don’t know” when, in fact, you don’t.
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