Ham-Handed Hermeneutics V: Some Inconclusive Thoughts After Reading Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Having just finished reading Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, I offer some inconclusive thoughts on this little work. My comments are inconclusive because Augustine himself is far from conclusive on this subject.

Now, the original impetus for this series of posts was to test the assertion of Ken Ham, founder and spokesperson for the YEC movement Answers in Genesis, that the church has always interpreted the early chapters of Genesis “literally.” In the article that occassioned my response, James R. Mook writes,

In its first 16 centuries the church held to a young earth. Earth was several thousand years old, was created quickly in six 24-hour days, and was later submerged under a worldwide flood. (Page visited 11/23/2015)

Having made this bold claim, Mook immediately acknowledges that three of the most significant and influential church fathers Augustine of Hippo, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria read these passages allegorically. In addition, he notes that from 600-1517, or the Middle Ages, the church largely followed Augustine’s lead. (I will eventually look up Aquinas view, if he gave one.) So, Mook’s bold claim about “the church” holding to young earth and interpreting Genesis 1 as referring to six 24 hour days must be softened a bit, don’t you think?

Later, in the article, Mook does soften this claim to “most” church fathers. If I were him, I would say “many” church fathers. Either way, the evidence that Mook cites indicates that there was no consensus in the church on how to interpret Genesis 1.

That the God of Israel created the cosmos is in creeds. The age of the earth is not in any of the creeds. It only appears in the “statements of faith” of modern organizations, schools, and some individual congregations. (Of course, those who write “statements of faith” are often suspicious of creeds and call them “the traditions of men”.)

One could read the evidence that Mook presents in a way that completely contradicts his assertion. That is, from his article, it seems like it is the 16th century Reformers who upon rejecting allegorical interpretations of Scripture begin to insist on an exclusively literal (and historical) interpretation of Genesis 1. Which is of course, what so many of us claim in arguing against the interpretation of AiG and what historian George Marsden so cogently argues in his books on Fundamentalism that the literal scientific interpretation of Genesis 1 is a modern interpretation. See my posts Ham is Really Bacon and Ham’s Humean Skepticism.

So, what could Ham, Mook, and the folks at AiG reasonably claim. They could claim that throughout the history of the church, there have been many significant theologians who believed that the earth was less than 7,000 years old and interpreted the days in Genesis 1 as literal 24 hour periods. This claim is reasonable but it is a long way from the AiG positions 1) that this interpretation is the only valid interpretation and 2) that the church held this view until the 16th century.

With respect to postion 2, even Mook’s own article demonstrates that this assertion is patently false. With respect to position 1, they must do more than assert that this is the only valid interpretation like Augustine (and the church fathers) they must argue for it based on Scripture and what we understand about the nature of the cosmos.

What Says Augustine?

Now, in accord with the claims of AiG, Augustine does state on a number of occasions that the earth is 6000 years old and he bases this view on what Ham and others would call the plain reading of Scripture. Yet, as I have noted elsewhere, Augustine is wary of claiming that Scripture says something patently false when compared to natural philosophy (or the science of the day). And, unlike Ken Ham, James Mook, and the folks at AiG, Augustine did not have access to the wealth of information about the physical cosmos (or multiverse) that we have today. So, just because he and many other learned Christians thought the earth was only 6000 years old based on their interpretation of the Bible, does not mean that we who are living in the 21st century ought to hold onto that view or that interpretation of Scripture.

They also thought the sun went around the earth. That salamanders were born spontaneously out of fire. And that we see because light comes from our eyes to illuminate the world around us. Talk about an optical delusion.

An Analogy from Biology

It is likely that Augustine and all the early church fathers would have held the standard view of the process of procreation that is also the perspective of Scripture itself. Up until recent history, everyone just knew that men provide the material for making a new human being and women are like the fertile soil for the man’s seed (spermatos). In this view, women provide no essential material for the developing child.

Given this perspective, if a woman did not conceive, there was obviously something wrong with the woman. She was barren. She was infertile soil. The man had obviously produced the seed. Not to be crass, but the observational data provided by ejaculation confirmed that the man had done his part. He produced the seed. The question of healthy sperm would not have entered their minds.

When one understands this not-so-ancient perspective, then one can perhaps understand why women in these times would consent to a man planting his seed in another woman. Again, this perspective is the biblical perspective.

Should I reject modern scientific knowledge about eggs, sperm, and DNA because the Bible presents an alternate understanding of biology that was believed by all Christians up until the last few centuries?

Of course, Ham will appeal to his spurious category, “historical science” and claim that we can observe eggs and DNA but we cannot observe the past. Of course, Ham can make all sorts of claims about the past so long as it is not explicitly ruled out by the Bible. See my posts Ham’s Humean Skepticism and

Yet, it is quite apparent that this ancient view of procreation is assumed in Scripture. With Ham’s particular view of inspiration, shouldn’t he conclude that secular science is wrong about human reproduction. All this talk of eggs and DNA is just more evidence of a feminist agenda or some such thing.

But Ham and the folks at AiG are consistently inconsistent. That is, they only see and promote the data that supports their position and reject everything else with their own set of stock phrases. Doublespeak.

For instance, while they are quite happy to cite Theophilus of Antioch because he seems to support their position, if I were to cite passages in Augustine that could be made to cohere with the theory of evolution (and there are such passages — like virtually all of Book 6), then Ham would want to know why I am trusting “the word of fallible man over the word of the infallible God.” They seem to be oblivious to the circularity and double standard at work here.

Based on Augustine’s own statements and his difficulty with interpreting Genesis 1 & 2 literally, I suspect he would be relieved by the discovery of the age of the earth an the cosmos. He would not longer feel compelled to interpret Genesis 1-11 literally. Unlike Ham, Augustine and the other church fathers are not hog-tied by a commitment to a literalist interpretation. Augustine could say, “Well, based on the overwhelming evidence for an old earth, it is now obvious that we should read the early chapters of Genesis spiritually (or allegorically or metaphorically).”

Moreover, being the scholar he was, he would likely be delighted by the availability of ancient contemporary texts that shed light on the genre of these difficult passages. Would he weigh them equally with Scripture? Of course not! But he could compare them for insight into the way the “Sacred Writers” responded to their pagan neighbors. Augustine’s Confessions give us some insight into how he viewed pagan writings. They were not fully devoid of truth. Rather, he gained some insight from different pagan authors on his journey to Christ. I suspect he would see recent scientific discoveries and ancient cosmogonies in this way.

He might even read John Walton and say, “Praise God. Now it all makes sense and I can focus on those cursed Pelagians.”

In a future post, I will delve more into what Augustine says about the relation of Genesis 1 to Genesis 2. The best of which can be found in Book 6 of On the Literal Meaning of Genesis.


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