Ham-Handed Hermeneutics 3: St. Augustine (354-430 AD) and The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Vol I, Book 1.i-xvi)

The Ham-Handed Hermeneutics posts serve two main purposes. On the one hand, I seek to test Ken Ham and AiG’s claims that the Church has always interpreted the early chapters of Genesis in a literal fashion and in such a way that it entails a belief that the cosmos is approximately 7,000 years old. On the other hand, out of personal and scholarly interest, I seek to present thoughtfully and faithfully how the Church Fathers interpreted the early chapters of Genesis and their assumptions about the age of the universe.

In previous entries, I have already demonstrated that in Origen of Alexandria we have at least one example of a theologian who did not read Genesis literally and argued that the cosmos could be eternal so long as it was created. In another post, we see that Theophilus of Antioch did calculate the age of the earth in a way similar to Bishop Ussher and AiG. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that, as a third century writer, Theophilus may be excused for his ignorance of scientific data in a way that Ken Ham and AiG may not.

Related posts: Origen of Alexandria, Theophilus of Antioch

Some other purposes related to this topic are how Christians have interpreted Scripture in the past and how they understood the various genres in Scripture, i.e. history, poetry, etc. and how those judgments shaped their interpretive practice. For instance, for the bulk of Church history, Song of Songs has been understood as poetry with no “literal” meaning and thus interpreters read it figuratively and allegorically.

The Song of Songs taken literally.
The Song of Songs taken literally.
Indeed, from Origen up until just prior to the Reformation, most Christians would assume that while much of the Old Testament had a literal meaning not all of it did (i.e. Song of Songs) but all Scripture had a spiritual, figurative, or, even, allegorical meaning beyond the merely literal meaning.

Before entering his exposition of Genesis, Augustine himself writes,

In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. (Chapter 1.1)

In other words, Augustine like all other learned Christians of his day assumed the figurative sense of Genesis, what they might question and what Augustine is grappling with is whether or not Genesis 1-3 is also attempting to present “a faithful record of what happened.”

If the genre or logic suggested that a particular sentence, passage, or even book of Scripture ought not to be taken “literally” or concretely, this discovery posed no real problem for Christians. Indeed, for Augustine and the majority of learned Christians at the time interpreting something literally may cause more problems than it solves. It may undermine the faith and may make it appear unneccesarily foolish in the eyes of the world and impressionable believers. Augustine’s concern expresses my own concern with the teachings of Ken Ham and AiG.

So when St. Augustine titles his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he is assuming that the work has meaning beyond the literal meaning. Genesis may be read figuratively and allegorically but can it be read literally in any meaningful way? Augustine who is perhaps the most influential and enduring theologian of the Church (pace Aquinas) grappled with the first few chapters of Genesis a number of times in various works and for various purposes. For instance, the last few books of Confessions is a prayerful engagement with the early chapters of Genesis.

From the outset, a literal reading of Genesis poses myriad problems for Augustine that a figurative reading does not. For instances, he engages with a question that many ask, “How can you have light without the sun? How do you measure a day without the movement of the sun?” (Of course, he assumes the sun goes around the spherical earth. I was surprised to see Augustine note even the problem that while it is “day” on one side it is “night” somewhere else. So, from whose perspective is it day?)

Just to pick one example, the simple but repeated phrase, “And God said,” For Augustine, and dare I say, for most Christians, we affirm that God is spirit and thus does not have a mouth and a voice so to speak. As Augustine knew a voice implies a material interaction and suggests an hearing organ to receive it.

And was there the material sound of a voice when God said, Let there be light, as there was when He said, Thou art my beloved Son? In this supposition did He use a material creature which He had made, when in the beginning He created heaven and earth, before there existed the light which was made at the sound of this voice? And, if so, what was the language of this voice when God said, Let there be light? There did not yet exist the variety of tongues, which arose later when the tower was built after the flood. What then was that one and only language by which God said, Let there be light? Who was intended to hear and understand it, and to whom was it directed? But perhaps this is an absurdly material way of thinking and speculating on the matter. (Chapter 2.5)

As he suggests, this way of thinking about Genesis 1 is “an absurdly material way of thinking and speculating on the matter.” If we take this passage literally and historically in the same way as we take David cutting Saul’s robe as “a faithful record of what happened,” then it seems to lead to absurd questions. What language did God speak? Who was there to hear it? Do we need to re-read Genesis 1:1 as suggesting that the angelic creatures are being referred to in “the heavens”? Does God’s voice create sound waves that vibrate the ear drum?

I feel safe in sayining that for the majority of Christian theologians throughout Church History, a simple statement such as “God speaks” is understood figuratively rather than literally or concretely. After all, God has no body, no mouth, and no vocal cords. In On the Trinity, Augustine insightfully argues that God’s appearances (theophanies) and audible voice are the result of “creature manipulation.” This suggestion resolved an ongoing problem having to do with Christ’s divinity and Old Testament theophanies. God being Spirit is by nature invisible. So, how do people “see” God in the OT?

Many argued that the Son is the visible God and so all appearances in the OT were of the Son. This suggestion creates a problem (especially post-Nicaea) when Christians want to affirm that the Son is not simply “like” God (homoiousios) but fully God (homoousios). If the Son is visible by nature, then the Son is not fully God who is invisble by nature. So, Augustine argues that such Christological interpretations of the OT theophanies are problematic and incorrect. In these appearances, the particular person cannot be identified. Rather, God manipulates light or sound such that human beings can see and/or hear a visual and/or audible representation of God’s presence. All three persons are by nature invisible. The Son is visible in as much as in, the incarnation, he is fully human.

In my understanding of how God speaks, Augustine’s solution makes sense. Indeed, is not Scripture itself testimony to the fact that when God speaks God does so through God’s creatures, i.e. prophets. Not in the overiding sense of the divine dictation to which some modern Christians seem to subscribe but in a participatory and co-operative sense by the indwelling and inspiration of the Holy Spirit as with the building of the Tabernacle.

Keep in mind that for the Church Fathers a simple literary device such as a simile or a metaphor fall under the category of figurative or spiritual interpretations. It is clear to Augustine and others that a simple phrase such as “And God said,” is to be taken figuratively not literally. If we are also to take it literally, then in what way did God make an audible sound before he had begun creating, how did such a sound travel, and who was there to hear it.

You have heard it asked, if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? Well, I ask you, if God speaks before a creature is made, then does God make a sound?image

Although I intend to spend some more time on Augustine in future posts, let me give some summary statements to bring this post to an end.

First, like Origen’s, in this work, Augustine’s basic assumptions about the proper interpretation of Genesis stands in stark contrast to the claims of Ken Ham and AiG. Augustine assumes Genesis ought to be read figuratively but asks whether or not it also ought to be read and defended on a literal level. At this point in the text, a literal reading seems to raise more questions than it resolves.

Second, I think reading Augustine’s attempt at literal interpretation of Genesis suggests by way of contrast what many of us feel when we encounter AiG so-called literal interpretation. AiG is quite inconsistent and unmethodical in its hermeneutical practice. Despite their insistence on literal interpretation of the text, they unreflectively understand certain elements as metaphorical and inconsistently apply their literalist hermeneutic. In doing so, they downplay the numerous problems that  arise from such an interpretive approach to Genesis 1. They have not told me why I should not take “the trees clapped their hands”, “the mountains skipped” and God ripping open the serpent Rahab literally but I should take “And God said,” and the separation of waters literally.

Third, it does take some effort to understand how people read Scripture before the modern period. While I do not think we can or necessarily ought to go back to a fourfold/threefold sense of Scripture, the pre-modern Church interpreters should not be so quickly dismissed. Seek first to understand before offering a judgment. There is a logic to their ways of reading from which we moderns and post-moderns can learn a thing or two.

Suggested Reading: Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, Henri DeLubac’s Medieval Exegesis (this link is to Volume 1 of 3)


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