Different views on creation in the church today are often summarized in terms of whether one takes the biblical creation story “literally.” Similarly, Augustine’s crowning achievement on the doctrine of creation was, as we have noted, the production of a “literal” commentary on Genesis 1-3.
Yet what Augustine means by “literal” is quite different from many modern uses of this term. To quote the great theologian Inigo Montoya: “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Previously we have sought Augustine’s help for both widening our vision of creation and cautioning our method. Here in our final post in the Confessing Creation with Augustine series, we will enlist him to “weigh in” more directly on a current area of dispute: what does it mean to read Genesis 1 literally?
Augustine’s Development from Allegorical to Literal Interpretation
When Augustine described his later works on Genesis as “literal,” he intended to distinguish them from the allegorical approach of his earlier two-volume work on Genesis against the Manichees. These works had included such ideas as taking the days of Genesis 1 as 7 epochs of redemptive-historical history, and 7 stages of the Christian life.De Genesis contra Manichaeos 1.23.35-1.25.43, in Augustine, On Genesis, 62-68. With his turn to a “literal” commentary Augustine wants to move from such allegorical uses of the text to its historical signification. Thus, in his Retractions, he qualifies the word “literal” in the title The Literal Commentary on Genesis as meaning “not the allegorical meanings of the text, but the proper assessment of what actually happened.”Retractiones 22.24, in idem, 167. This adjustment of interpretative strategy did not entail a rejection of allegorical exegesis wholesale—as Yoon Kyung Kim points out, in the course of his development Augustine’s understanding of the literal meaning progresses to encompass the allegorical as well.Yoon Kyung Kim, Augustine’s Changing Interpretations of Genesis 1-3: from De Genesi contra Manichaeos to De Genesi ad litteram (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 163-167. Hence, in his literal commentaries one can find affirmations of the validity of allegorical interpretation,De Genesis ad litteram liber unus imperfectus 2.5, in Augustine, On Genesis, 116 as well as repetitions of specific allegorical interpretations contained in his earlier works.De Genesis ad litteram 2.9.22, in idem, 202.
Thus, for Augustine, the term “literal” was concerned with historical referentiality, not with the particular literary genre or style in which that history is recounted. For instance, Augustine did not employ the term “literal” to exclude the possibility of language that is metaphorical, figurative, pictorial, dramatic, stylized, or poetical. This is consistent with how the word “literal” is often used today—for instance, Kevin Vanhoozer describes a good/soft literality, distinct from a hard/bad literality, as an interpretation that is “sensitive to the way language works, and acknowledges intended figures of speech as part and parcel of the literal sense.” Augustine’s literal commentaries display this kind of sensitivity. It is not uncommon, in fact, to find him pausing to worry whether an interpretation he has just advanced is not, in fact, an “altogether absurd and literal-minded, fleshly train of thought.”De Genesi ad litteram 1.2.5, in idem, 170. Though he is writing a “literal” commentary, Augustine appears worried to avoid “literalistic” interpretations.
Augustine’s View of the Creation Days
So what specifically does Augustine think Genesis 1 “literally” means? In his finished literal commentary, Augustine emphasizes the ineffability of the creation act, and our difficulty in accessing its meaning: “it is indeed an arduous and extremely difficult task for us to get through to what the writer meant with these six days, however concentrated our attention and lively our minds.”De Genesi ad litteram 4.1.1, in idem, 241. Ultimately, Augustine affirms that ordinary 24-hours days “are not at all like [the days of Genesis 1], but very, very different.”De Genesi ad litteram 4.27.44, in idem, 267. In Augustine’s view, God creates all things simultaneously, and the 7-day construct in Genesis 1 is an accommodation in which “the Scriptural style comes down to the level of little ones and adjusts itself to their capacity.”De Genesi ad litteram 2.6.13, in idem, 198. Augustine has a thoroughgoing appreciation of the notion of accommodation, i.e., the idea that God has adjusted his revelation so as to be comprehensible to the particular people to whom he is communicating. Elsewhere, for instance, he will speak of Scripture speaking “in a weak and simple style” when communicating to the weak and simple (De Genesi ad litteram 5.6.19), or compare biblical language to a mother teaching a toddler how to walk (De Genesi ad litteram 5.3.6). Specifically, he affirms that the ordering of Genesis is not according to temporal sequence but rather the ordering of angelic knowledge.E.g., De Genesi ad litteram 4.25.56, in idem, 275. Thus, Augustine not only distinguished the days of Genesis 1 from ordinary 24-hour days, he also distinguished God’s initial creative act from his subsequent activity in creation:
When we reflect upon the first establishment of creatures in the works of God from which he rested on the seventh day, we should not think either of those days as being like these ones governed by the sun, nor of that working as resembling the way God now works in time; but we should reflect rather upon the work from which times began, the work of making all things at once, simultaneously.De Genesi ad litteram 5.5.12, in idem, 282.
Textual Reasons Why Augustine Held This View
Although Augustine was alert to broader philosophical issues in his context, his interpretation of Genesis 1 was ultimately rooted in certain exegetical concerns. For example, Augustine wrestled with the nature of the light in days 1-3 before the creation of the luminaries on day 4. Noting the phrase “let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” in Genesis 1:14, Augustine asked, “who can fail to see how problematic is their implication that times began on the fourth day, as though the preceding three days could have passed without time?”De Genesi ad litteram 2.14.28, in idem, 207. This problem greatly vexed Augustine. Ultimately, he identified the pre-solar light of day 1 with the spiritual/angelic creation. Angelology is a significant complicating feature of Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1—for instance, he correlated the morning/evening structure of Genesis 1, and the phrases “let there be” and “thus it was,” with different modes of angelic knowledge.De Genesi ad litteram 4.23.40, in idem, 264-65; De Genesi ad litteram 4.26.43, in idem, 266-67. He also assigned angels a significant role in the oversight of creation; at one point, for instance, he ponders whether the stars are “enspirited” by angels or merely “directed” by them.De Genesi ad litteram 2.18.38, in idem, 214.
Another textual difficulty that weighed on Augustine was the challenge of relating Genesis 2:4-6 to the creation week of Genesis, particularly the different usage of the word “day” in 2:4 and the apparent dischronology introduced in 2:5 (“when no shrub had yet appeared”). He devotes the entirety of Book 5 of his literal commentary to how Genesis 2:4-6 “with all their problems, confirm the opinion that creation was the work of one day.” Anticipating the charge that his notion of instantaneous creation draws too heavily on Sirach 18:1 in the Old Latin version (“he who remains for eternity created all things at once”), Augustine appeals to the textual proximity of these verses: “now we get evidence in support, not from another book of holy Scripture that God created all things simultaneously, but from next door neighbor’s testimony on the page following this whole matter.”De Genesi ad litteram 5.3.6, in idem, 279. Augustine also drew attention to God’s rest on the Sabbath after the completion of creation in Genesis 2:1-3. Insisting that “God did not delight in some kind of temporal period of rest after hard toil,” he argued that this language must be taken analogically.De Genesi ad litteram 4.14.25, in idem, 256.
Many features of Augustine’s treatment of Genesis 1 run counter to modern inclinations, in both fundamentalist and historical-critical canons of interpretation. But rarely are the differences unique to Augustine over and against other patristic and medieval exegetes. Indeed, Augustine’s taking the days as a kind of framework or literary device had precedent in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Didymus the Blind, and Athanasius, and it was Augustine’s own view, as qualified later by Gregory the Great and then propagated by Isidore of Seville and Bede, that so dominated the medieval discussion that Andrew Brown calls it “the defining statement with which every medieval and Renaissance commentator on Gen. 1:1-2:3 would wrestle.”Andrew J. Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (History of Biblical Interpretation Series 4; Dorsett, UK: Deo, 2014), 53. Cf. his historical survey, e.g., 26-31, 57-59, 62-64, 102.
Our efforts today to discern a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 should reckon with this legacy of Augustinian exegesis. Even if we ultimately regard the days as 24-hour periods of time, we should appreciate the sincerity of the struggle that many devout interpreters—including many pre-Darwinian interpreters—have had with textual details such as the nature and sequence of light, the different meanings of day (Hebrew yom) throughout the passage, and the presentation of divine activity such as rest. If we can accept that different views in this area can be orthodox even when wrong, we can avoid the unwelcome implication that St. Augustine must be anathematized as a “liberal.” That sounds like a wise idea to me.