Augustine's Genesis

Paul Arveson (
Wed, 6 Nov 96 08:57:34 EST

Gene Dunbar Godbold requested:

2) Which particular church fathers/theologians spoke about the
non-literal interpretation of the first couple chapters of Genesis. I
believe that Augustine and Jerome did, but even with these if someone had
the book (and chapter) references off the top of their head, I would be
grateful. (I've only read the "Confessions" and I don't think it is in
Augustine's commentary De Genesi ad Litteram (The Literal Meaning of Genesis) is
available in English translation from Newman Press, NY. It is a copyrighted
translation by J. H. Taylor, S.J. The first sections of this book should be
read by all who are interested in the subject of science and faith. The
quality of Augustine's creative genius shines brightly in this book.

Let me give you a sample: Here is an excerpt from the introduction, written by

"A reader unfamiliar with Augustine's thought cannot progress very far in this
work without being puzzled by the fact that he as called it a literal
commentary. The days of creation, he suggests, are not periods of time but
rather categories in which creatures are arranged by the author for didactic
reasons to describe all the works of creation, which in reality were created
simultaneously. Light is not the visible light of this world but the
illumination of intellectual creatures (the angels). Morning refers to the
angels' knowledge of creatures which they enjoy in the vision of God; evening
refers to the angels' knowledge of creatures as they exist in their own created
natures. Can this sort of exegesis be literal interpretation? If so, what is
Augustine's notion of the literal meaning of Scripture, and what is he
attempting in this commentary?
"In the first chapter of Book 1 Augustine points out that the commentator
who wishes to expound the literal meaning of Genesis attempts to interpret it as
"a faithful record of what happened." Further on he reminds the reader that he
intends to explain Holy Scripture "according to the plain meaning of the
historical facts, not according to future events which they foreshadow." He is,
therefore, clearly distinguishing the literal or proper meaning from the
allegorical, prophetic, or figurative meaning. The literal meaning tells what
actually happened; the allegorical, prophetic, or figurative meaning tells what
the events foreshadow or typify...."
"His purpose, then, is to explain, to the best of his ability, what the
author intended to say about what God did when He made heaven and earth. But
Augustine does not claim that he as found the final answer to all problems in
the interpretation of the text. Far from it. Much of what he says is merely
proposed as theory, subject to revision if another interpreter can find a better
explanation. He urges his readers to keep an open mind when the meaning is not
clear, and he even suggests that certain passages of Scripture have been written
obscurely for the precise purpose of stimulating our thought...."

Now just a brief quote from Book 1, Chapter 21:

"Someone will say: "What have you brought out with all the threshing of this
treatise? What kernel have you revealed? What have you winnowed? Why does
everything seem to lie hidden under questions? Adopt one of the many
interpretations which you maintained were possible." To such a one my answer is
that I have arrived at a nourishing kernel in that I have learnt that a man is
not in any difficulty in making a reply according to his faith which he ought
to make to those who try to defame our Holy Scripture. When they are able, from
reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it
is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books
a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith,
either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or
at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. And we
will so cling to our Mediator, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and
knowledge, that we will not be led astry by the glib talk of false philosophy or
frightened by the superstition of false religion. When we read the inspired
books in the light of this wide variety of true doctrines which are drawn from a
few words and founded on the firm basis of Catholic belief, let us choose that
one which appears as certainly the meaning intended by the author. But if this
is not clear, then at least we should choose an interpretation in keeping with
the context of Scripture and in harmony with our faith. But if the meaning
cannot be studied and judged by the context of Scripture, at least we should
choose only that which our faith demands. For it is one thing to fail to
recognize the primary meaning of the writer, and another to depart from the
norms of religious belief. If both these difficulties are avoided, the reader
gets full profit from his reading. Failing, that, even though the writer's
intention is uncertain, one will find it useful to extract an interpretation in
harmony with our faith."

from Augustine, De Genesi Ad Litteram, c. 390 AD.


Paul Arveson, Research Physicist
Code 724, NSWC, Bethesda, MD 20817-5700
(301) 227-3831 (W) (301) 227-1914 (FAX) (301) 816-9459 (H)