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41. St. Augustine, Vol. 1: The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Ancient Christian Writers) Hardcover – January 1, 1982
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It is a good translation with excellent notes.
For the best contemporary reading of Genesis 1, see John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One.
I have both Volume I and II, but virtually all of the material of interest to me came from Volume I, so I would recommend that you get Volume I (this book) first and then browse Volume II on Amazon to see whether you want it too.
The subject is, of course, the interpretation of the Genesis creation account. This is something to which St. Augustine repeatedly returned. He addressed the subject in the Confessions,City of God and lastly in this manuscript. His approach changed over time, generally from an allegorical to a "literal" interpretation of the Scripture (although it must be said that his idea of "literal" can sometimes be pretty allegorical in my view!)
For the most mature interpretation of the creation account, one should definitely favor this one (415± AD) over the others (mostly from the late 300s).
As a scientist, I have developed a great respect for how St. Augustine faced the interface between the Holy Scriptures and (then) contemporary science. His understanding of science and the proper approach to scientific thought is surprisingly modern. It is remarkable how balanced his views are, and how well he balances the authority of scripture and science.
Given that the science of the Fifth Century was stuck in the mire of the fire-air-water-solid concept of the elements (and yes, you do have to slog through some of that!) his theological applications reflect an amazing ability to distinguish between gold and dross. Not that he discards the dross, but he has an ability to distinguish between what we know for sure and what is just the (possibly erroneous) wisdom of the age, and he warns theologians against making confident pronouncements on things that they don't have true knowledge about (a warning that some modern theologians would be well-advised to heed).
I learned a surprising amount of information about the science of his day -- a good bit of which would be considered accurate today!
Here are some examples worth noting. Incidentally, since Amazon allows a person to do keyword searches on the book, I suggest you do that to find the context of these quotes.
p. 30 light on the reverse side of the Earth (assumed to be a sphere). Note that the science of the day did NOT assume a flat earth (nor did it in Columbus' time!)
p.41 Caution to Expositors: "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."
p. 42-3 Caution to Expositors: [widely cited quotation] "Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics... in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn... If they hear a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the reasurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser breathen when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions...."
p. 47 [an argument regarding the translation of "firmament" that continues with Bible translations today] "What is the firmament? Is it that heaven which extends beyond all the realm of air... or is the air itself called the firmament?"
p. 59: [continuation of a warning to theologians who teach that Scripture makes certain pronouncements about science] "It is also frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture. Many scholars engage in lengthy discussions on these matters... What concern is it of mine whether heaven is like a sphere and the earth is enclosed by it and suspended in the middle of the universe, or whether heaven like a disk above the earth covers it over on one side? But the credibility of Scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering something in Scripture or hearing from it something that seems at variance with the knowledge he has acquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives, or declarations. Hence I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation [and thus theologians should not imply that scripture teaches their own view of science. Would that the theologians in Galileo's day had heeded this advice! -- dcb]."
p.69 Accurate today: "[Moon] illuminated by the rays of the sun."
p. 70: [On the meaning of greater and lesser lights in Genesis 1:16] "Certain persons ... go as far as to maintain that many [stars] are the size of the sun, or even larger than it, but that they appear small because of their greater distance.
p.70 [on the interpretation of St. Paul, 'there is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another of the stars' (I Cor 15:41)] "But, of course, one may reply, without attacking St. Paul, 'they differ in glory to the eyes of men on earth.' ...Even in themselves the stars differ in glory, yet some are larger even than the sun. ... But let those who are strangers to our Father who is in heaven say what they will about the heavens. For us it is neither necessary nor fitting to engage in subtle speculation about the distances and magnitudes of the stars... They will certainly grant this at least to our eyes, that these two lights obviously shine more brightly upon earth...."
In summary, this book remarkable in what it reveals about the wisdom of St. Augustine -- wisdom that is even impressive in this super-sophisticated day. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of the interaction between the Church, the Bible, and Science.
David C. Bossard
Although it is published in two volumes, readers should not be intimidated by this. The work proper is only about 400 pages long (a third the length of Augustine's "City of God"), and reads quite easily.
As to why it was broken in two volumes, the answer lies in the 300 pages supplemental material, which would have made it quite bulky had it been published in a single volume. The quality and readability of this material, mostly presented in notes to the text, is quite high, and I found that it made an already enjoyable and interesting work even more so.
As to the work itself, it is concerned with the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, ending with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The subjects addressed through this work are biblical exegesis, God, the angels, Satan, heaven and earth, man, the soul, and the fall.
Augustine began his work on the subject of biblical exegesis - how scripture is to be interpreted. He proposed four senses: "the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given." In this work, Augustine focused on the second of these - the facts that are narrated, which he called the literal sense. It is important to understand that although we tend to think of a 'literal' reading of scripture as one taking the words to have their most obvious meaning, that is not what Augustine meant by it. For Augustine, a literal reading meant only that the text was referring in some way to events that actually occurred, without any implication that the reference might not be very obscure. For example, Augustine understood morning, day, and evening in the days of creation to refer not to a particular times of day, but to a particular phases in the angelic knowledge of creation - the phase in which the things are known directly from God (morning), the phase in which they actually exist (day), and the state in which they are known from the senses (evening). In fact, Augustine held that in terms of time the six days of creation were actually simultaneous and included the creation of time itself.
Of course, the problem of how to interpret Genesis, particularly with regard to scientific knowledge, is very much a live problem today. It was however, a question even in Augustine's day, and his take on it is of considerable interest, especially for those who do believe in scripture as revelation and are unsure how to read Genesis. In his reading, Augustine on the whole was a scientific agnostic, he neither believed nor disbelieved much of what his contemporary science said about the world. He did, however, offer suggestions as to how this or that passage could be reconciled with this or that scientific belief, in order to take into account the possibility the scientific belief might well be true. If a passage seemed to him to be particularly mysterious in light of its scientific possibility (the reference to a spring that watered all the earth was one such passage), he neither sought to use scripture to determine scientific truth nor concluded that the passage was therefore false - for Augustine, a passage in scripture must be true, but it was perfectly possible for it to be true in a sense he did not understand.
If the first half of the work is concerned with the creation of heaven and earth, the second half is concerned with the creation and fall of man. The bridge between the two are the sections on the creation of man's body and soul. Augustine was not terribly interested in the creation of body, but the creation of the soul was another matter, one that Augustine pondered throughout his life. Were the souls of all men created at the beginning and sent to bodies later? Were souls created at the beginning and reincarnated in new bodies? Were they created by God directly at the start of each person's life? Were they generated from the souls of the parents? Were they generated from the body? While some of these positions Augustine regarded as certainly false, with regard to others he was never sure.
One issue that came up with regard to how the soul was created was the problem of the transmission of original sin. In Augustine's view, original sin was the decision to disobey God and eat from the tree of knowledge; the tree itself had no significance other than that God had forbidden it; by disobeying God, Adam turned man from God's grace, necessitating the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem man. While Augustine was anything but blind to metaphorical readings of the story, he also believed it to be history as well - there was a real tree, and a real man named Adam really did eat of it.
Augustine ended with a rather odd consideration of a short comment made by Paul in Corinthians concerning a man's (whom Augustine takes to be Paul himself) having been taken up into the third heaven and whether that heaven is the paradise from which Adam fell. It is an interesting piece, but an odd way to end a work on Genesis; but then Augustine always felt free to digress when writing, but he was seldom less interesting for having done so.