Ham-Handed Hermeneutics 4: St. Augustine II:  More on Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis

A Fundamentalist is a person who thinks he doesn’t have a hermeneutic. — Richard Beck

Shortly after reading Book II of Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, I came across the above quote via facebook. Beck’s statement rings true and helps me articulate an important difference between Augustine’s “literal interpretation” of the early chapters of Genesis and the modern “literalist reading” of Ken Ham and other Fundamentalists of the same material. Even where Augustine sounds a great deal like Ken Ham, and at times, he does, Augustine is aware of his role as an interpreter and so of his limited understanding of God, the cosmos, and the text.

Augustine turned to the early chapters of Genesis on more than one occasion. As is evident, from this particular work and by his own admission, his attempts at a literal or historical interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis prove more difficult for him than a figurative or allegorical approach. Augustine even refers to a book he had considered burning but decided to keep to illustrate his own struggles and developing ideas.

In some ways, this text is fun to read (for those of us who like this sort of thing) as we see Augustine, one of the most brilliant theological minds, struggle to get the historical gist of this text. Moreover, from the perspective of a modern exegete, with respect to giving answers and getting to the heart of the text, Augustine fails. Augustine frequently calls himself back to the task at hand as he strays either in the direction of speculative philosophy or figurative interpretation.

Nevertheless, the quality of Augustine’s failures remain a valuable resource, especially as he reflects upon his own shortcomings in this regard and the dangers of falling in love with one’s own interpretation.

Aware of his own limitations, he offers this advice to interpreters who have come up with a tentative theory.

Meanwhile we should always observe that restraint that is proper to a devout and serious person and on an obscure question entertain no rash belief. Otherwise, if the evidence later reveals the explanation, we are likely to despise it because of our attachment to our error, even though this explanation may not be in any way opposed to the sacred writings of the Old or New Testament.(II.18.38)

In other words, in light of further evidence, interpreters of Scripture must be willing to let go of their “pet” theories. From the rest of this work, it is clear that the relevant evidence may arise either from within Scripture itself or from extra-biblical sources, including non-Christian sources.

For Augustine, it is possible that more than one theory or interpretation will fit the evidence. Moreover, in accord with the advice above, Augustine warns of the danger of taking so firm a stand on one side of a debatable issue.

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.(I.18.37)

For many Christians, the discovery of Ancient Near Eastern texts and modern scientific discovery (i.e. dinosaur fossils, unlocking the human genome, intergalactic telescopes, etc.) are taken as “further progress in the search of truth” that “justly undermines” the belief in a young earth.

Of course, if this evidence is not convincing (assuming that one has actually engaged the evidence), then Augustine might still suggest that “different interpretations are sometimes possible.” It is obvious that there is debate among Christians on this point. Yet, as Augustine suggests, the true danger for the individual Christian and the Church is when a secondary, debatable, and obscure issue like the age of the earth is elevated and given a central and decisive place in Christian teaching.

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