Ham-Handed Hermeneutics VI: More Hippo, Less Ham

Or the Harmonization Temptation

This post continues and concludes (for now) my engagement with Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis.
I simply want to note some of the intriguing and insightful elements in this work. I will give particular attention to Augustine’s suggestion that Genesis 1 presents God’s causal creation of all things, including human beings, while Genesis 2 describes the formal or material creation of human beings which for Augustine is God’s ongoing creative activity. Finally, I suggest that one of the errors that is common to Ham, Augustine and many errors is the desire to harmonize Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

[For related Ham-Handed posts follow these links: Augustine IAugustine II, Augustine III)

First, let’s briefly review what Augustine and the Church fathers meant went they referred to the “literal” meaning. Origen used the Greek term meaning “bodily” and contrasted that with the “soulish” or spiritual meaning. For these authors, a metaphor was not the concrete meaning but already a spiritual meaning. For example, in Isaiah 55:12, when the trees clap their hands. To interpret this literally or concretely would mean that oak trees have hands, palms and fingers, at the end of their limbs and slap them together to produce a sound. To read this text concretely would be nonsensical. Even to nightmarish for Dr. Seuss. So, not all of Scripture has a literal meaning. [For a basic review of the differences see the initial post in this series: Ham-Handed Hermeneutics I: Origen]

Now, the literal meaning can also denote what we refer to as the historical meaning or “what actually happened.” Yet, as we shall see in what follows, what we attend to in “actuality” is already shaped by our cultural and historical context.

Augustine on the Literal Meaning of Genesis

1. The Literal Trinitarian Reading

When Augustine looks at “what really happened”, in his post-Nicene context, it is obvious to him that if God is doing something, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing something. So, it becomes an obvious question for Augustine to ask what each of the persons are doing in Genesis 1. Can we identify what role the Son and the Spirit play in the text?

It is common for Christians to see a reference to the Holy Spirit as “the ruach/pneuma hovers over the waters.” Because of the plural, it is also common for Christians to see the Trinity indicated in God’s comment, “Let us make humankind, in our image.” Augustine discusses these possibilities and goes far beyond these to consider the ways  God, the Son, is involved in the act of creation.

In all likelihood, upon reading Augustine, most modern readers will ask, “How does he get there from here?” They will not be able to follow Augustine in this “literal Trinitarian reading” of Genesis 1. But, then again, it is very likely that Augustine would not be able to follow modern interpreters as they pursue their “literal scientific reading” of Genesis 1.

A modern reader asks, “Where’s the Big Bang?” and “Where are the millions of years?”

Augustine might say, “Who cares about the Big Bang, whatever that is, what is the Son doing? When were the angels created? Are angels active agents in creation as well?”

Ken Ham, is asking the modern questions, he sees no mention of a Big Bang or billions of years. And being hog-tied (pun totally intended) due to his uncompromising commitment to “scientific literalism”, he cannot turn to metaphor, therefore he must conclude that there was no actual Big Bang and there weren’t millions of years.

One might argue (and it might make an interesting academic paper) that the reason that many of the Church Fathers simply accept a young earth is precisely because it is not a live or interesting question for them. It may only become interesting as it bears on the nature of God. In Augustine’s terminology from On The Trinity, the question is whether the term Creator is a term of substance or a term of relation.
If Creator is a term of substance, then creation (though not necessarily the earth) is eternal for God does not change. God is always creator. If Creator is a term of relation, then it describes God’s relation to the invisible and visible cosmos at its beginning. Of course, time itself is a creature.

The point of the above is that our culture shapes the kinds of questions when we ask, “What really happened?” The kinds of questions we ask already shape the kinds of answers we expect to receive.

Computer programmers have an acronym that summarizes one of the problems with not reflecting on the types of questions we ask. GIGO or Garbage In, Garbage Out

2. Causal Creation and Formal Creation

Those of us who take the Hebrew Bible as in some sense authoritative [see either N.T. Wright’s excellent book on this topic Scripture and the Authority of God *
or John Walton’s slightly more difficult but incredibly insightful work The Lost World of Scripture]
, understand and appreciate the commitment that Augustine (and, even, Ken Ham) make to taking both Genesis 1 and 2 seriously. Some critics think that simply pointing out that there are two creation accounts in Scripture ought to be enough to undermine their value and any authoritative role they might play in our lives. Yet, Christians have been aware of the differences for a long time. It doesn’t bother us in the same way. Remember, we have four gospels.

That said, the efforts to give equal weight to these takes both highlights and creates problems for interpreters. Noting the differences between the two accounts, Augustine takes them not as describing the same event (or moment in time, if I may put it that way) but in describing two ways in which God can be said to create.

Among other reasons, two particular reasons are worth highlighting to help us see what Augustine is doing.

First, it is clear to Augustine (as it is to modern critics) that the two versions are different. Nevertheless, Augustine seems to take the two accounts somewhat chronologically. That is, the events of Genesis 2 follow chronologically after the events in Genesis 1. Moreover, it seems to Augustine, and I would think to most readers, that Genesis 1 with its culmination on the Sabbath suggests that creation is in some sense complete. Yet, it is also quite clear that God is still actively creating in Genesis 2. This observation and conundrum leads us to Augustine’s other way of reasoning.

Augustine turns to the words of Jesus who says that the Father is still working to this day. With this in mind, Augustine suggests that what we have in Genesis 2 is the kind of creative activity of God that is ongoing and is in some sense distinct from the kind of creative activity completed in the first week. So, Augustine is able to say the following,

According to the division of the works of God described above, some works belonged to the invisible days in which He created all things simultaneously, and others belong to the days in which He daily fashions whatever evolves in the course of time from what I might call the primordial wrappers. Book VI.vi.9

Now, it is tempting here to argue contra Ham that what Augustine states here can be readily harmonized with evolutionary theory but, as I will suggest below, I think this harmonizing approach to both Genesis 1 and to Augustine are as problematic as Ken Ham’s literal scientific reading. [Still, it is tempting. The translator even uses evolves.]

What we can see is that Augustine divides the creative activities into “the invisible days” and “the visible days”. Which he will also further define in terms of causal creation and formal (or material creation). The difference becomes clearer when he turns to the creation of human beings, male and female, which in a “plain reading of the text” seems to occur twice and, yet, seem to refer to the same first two people. So, Augustine continues,

Then, in the first creation, man was made, male and female. This happened, therefore, both then and later. It cannot be then and not later, nor can it be later and not then. Nor were there different persons later, but there were the very same ones in one way then and in another way later. One will ask me how. I shall reply: “Later visibly, in the form of the human body familiar to us; not, however, generated by parents, but the man formed from the slime and the woman formed from his rib.” One will ask how they were created originally on the sixth day. I shall reply: “Invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as things that will be in the future are made, yet not made in actuality now.” Book VI.vi.10

Augustine uses the analogy of the seed, the seed has in it the potential to become a fruit bearing tree. In as much as the proper causal conditions are set in place for the fruit bearing tree to come into existence, to be made in actuality, the tree has been causally created but not yet formally created.

[Whatever, you think of Augustine’s interpretation, it is clear that Augustine is not reading Genesis 1 & 2 in the same way as Ken Ham & AiG even if Augustine thinks the earth is only a few thousand years old.]

Now, here, I think Augustine has indeed hit upon an excellent philosophical argument which rooted in Christian theology could be brought into harmony with the theory of evolution. However, I still resist any notion that such a harmonization of theology, philosophy, & modern scientific theory should extend to Genesis 1 and 2.

Again, in proper humility, a term which many would not likely associate with Augustine, he recognizes his own limitations especially when it comes to these difficult passages. So, in summary, he says, whether one agrees with him or not it seems quite clear that

Scripture does not permit us to understand that in this manner [materially] the man and woman were made on the sixth day, and yet it does not allow us to assume that they were not made on the sixth day at all. Book VI.vi.11

Now, I think Augustine is correct here but only if interpreters are compelled to harmonize Genesis 1 and 2. As I will now set forth, I do not think it is necessary to harmonize Genesis 1 & 2 and so, in this case, I think Augustine is wrong. Pace Augustine from whom I have learned so much. In fact, I think it is the effort to harmonize the two narratives with each other and, subsequently, to harmonize them with the science of the day, whether that be the fifth or twenty-first century, is the source of many or our hermeneutical problems.

3. The Harmonization Temptation

Each in their own way, Augustine, Ken Ham, Hugh Ross, William Dembski, etc. seek to harmonize Genesis 1 with Genesis 2 and then to harmonize that with the science (or philosophy) of the day. They may or may not be doing good science or philosophy but when it comes to the early chapters of Genesis, they are not doing good exegesis.

As I noted above, in the Christian Scriptures, there are four gopsels set side by side. We also have Chronicles in addition to Samuel-Kings. In our Scriptures we do not have harmonizations of these writings.

Early on Christians began making harmonizations of the gospels which asked questions about how many times Jesus visited the Temple and when or how many demoniacs there were or were these two separate occasions. In my view, these are the wrong sorts of questions, even if they are sometimes interesting to note and discuss. Rather than harmonies, we have differing accounts of the same events written for somewhat different purposes with somewhat different agendas. The harmonizations did not enter our Canon.

I see the relationship of Genesis 1 to Genesis 2-3 to be something like the relation of Mark to John. Yes, they are relating the same events but in significantly, though not radically, different ways. The confusion comes, I think, because we see Genesis 2 following Genesis 1 in the same way we see Genesis 41 following Genesis 42. What if the editor set Genesis 1 and 2 adjacent to each other on his scroll in the same way we now place John after Luke?

Permit me to make another suggestion which I think is in accord with much Biblical scholarship that seeks to interpret the early chapters of Genesis in their ANE context. It’s my blog, so you can’t really stop me ;). What if together Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, in addition to testifying that the Creator God and the God of Israel are one and the same God, what if together they form an overture to the historical narrative of Genesis thru Kings.

Genesis 1 is the primordial Exodus out of the chaos & darkness culminating in God’s creation of a people who enter into his Sabbath rest (the Pentateuch). Does this not make sense of why the Fourth Commandment can refer both to creation and the exodus. Genesis 2-3 is the primordial narrative of from land to exile (Joshua thru Kings). [See my post When is a Serpent not Merely a Serpent for an example of how these themes illuminate the text.]

The primordial couple as some scholars have already suggest are the representative heads, the founding parents, of the people of God from their creation as a people (exodus, Israel is my son) to their exile.

In the above suggestions, I do not believe I am saying anything new here. Yet, perhaps, I might be saying it in a new way.

Please, share your thoughts.

*All book links link to Amazon.

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