Augustine on Christ, Time, and Eternity in Genesis 1

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is one of the most famous works of spiritual autobiography and, in the minds of many contemporary psychoanalysts and phenomenologists, the spiritual forerunner to psychological interiority and phenomenology. The book is not excessively long, but it is exceptionally dense; particularly Books X-XIII which shift from spiritual autobiographical confession to psychological, philosophical, and theological exegesis and reflection.

While long recognized as the world’s first autobiography, many modern scholars have begun to assert that Confessions probably started as an attempt to defend his earlier reading of Genesis 1 which was directed against the Manicheans and to answer criticism of dialectical Catholic critics. Books X-XII certainly make allusion and references to theological disputes in North Africa and Augustine’s own person. Whatever is the case, I am not looking at the abundant wealth of spiritual and intellectual food offered up in Books I-IX. Instead, I am going to focus on Augustine’s incredible—or shockingly scandalous—reading of Genesis 1 contained mostly in Book XIII but referencing back to Books XI and XII to set the stage.

In Books XI and XII, it is clear that Augustine is trying to respond to both Catholic critics of his reading of Genesis 1 which he had employed in an early attempt to refute the Manicheans. The Manicheans were a radical dialectic and dualistic set of Christians more common to the Latin West than to the “Gnostics” who were more common to the Greek East. Theologically and cosmically, however, the Manicheans can be understood as a sort of Gnostic group in declaring corporeality evil for containing the spiritually pure, or good, soul and preventing its return to the One. Like the Gnostics, the Manicheans belittled the importance of baptism and the eucharist, and also had tendentious relationships to the Scriptures (especially the Old Testament but also to parts of the New Testament as well).

Augustine’s Catholic critics are an unknown bunch; he references them but makes no clear indication as to who they were. Augustine sees them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, unlike the Manicheans, but thinks their thinking—especially on Genesis 1—is deeply flawed. It is possible that these Catholic critics of Augustine were hyper dialectical Platonists of some sort; this is seen through the lines in the battle of the issue of time and Genesis 1:1-2. Augustine’s argument in Book XII, which is the exposition of Genesis 1:1-2 before Book XIII concludes his fascinating accounting of Genesis 1, is that there was no time until after God formed formless matter. Augustine argues that those who take “In the beginning” to literally invoke the concept of “time” are in a serious error. The error is that their time-bound literality which leads to their six-day literalism on creation, ends up doing speculative damage to God like ‘what was he doing before creation?’ Augustine does believe in a literal creation, but not as contained in Genesis 1 as we’ll see. Augustine’s historical account of creation begins with Genesis 2:4 with the story of Adam in the Garden.

As such, Augustine offers up many deeper interpretations of Genesis 1. His preferred, which is also a defense of the Trinity, is that ‘In the Word, God created the heaven and earth.’ Augustine says, ‘In the beginning God mad heaven and earth’ means that by his Word coeternal with himself God made the intelligible and sensible worlds’” (xii.xx.29). Augustine defends a time-honored tradition in patristic exegesis: God created the world in Christ (the Word) through the Spirit. This explains creation, Christ, and the Spirit hovering over the Deep in the first few verses. The Trinity is already present in the first few passages of Genesis 1 for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Heaven, for Augustine, means the heavenly host—the intelligible spirits who were created by God: the angels, seraphim, and cherubim. Earth means ethereal matter, formless, and not yet structured. Earth, here, does mean the corporeal substance that will eventually be called forth into ordering. Augustine rhetorically thrusts the knife into the strict dialectical literalists: Nowhere does Genesis mention the creation of angels and other heavenly beings, but we know, through other parts of the Scriptures, that he did. He rhetorically bemuses that there is no mention, explicitly, of creating water—yet we would be fools to think water was coeternal with God. ‘Well…um…let me…’, those who clause their literalist readings, in their claused remarks, show the greater likelihood of the spiritual-allegorical reading rather than the dialectical time-bound reading. ‘Read between the lines’ they might retort; exactly, Augustine answers—which is what he is doing.

Having convincingly showed why time was not bound to the “In the beginning” creation, and having offered many alternative interpretations to Genesis 1:1-2, Augustine moves beyond the debate over the question of time to delve into his exposition on the whole of Genesis 1.

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Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1 is multilayered. On one hand, he reads it as an exposition of theological-anthropology: What does it mean to be human and made in the image of God? On another hand, he reads it as reflective of Church reality—thus, in Genesis 1 we already see Augustine developing his ecclesiological hermeneutic. On another hand, he reads Genesis 1 as a prefiguration of the formation, history, and destiny of man—thus, in Genesis 1 we already see the skeleton structure of the two cities. Which reading is the correct one? They all are according to Augustine. In fact, it is because Scripture has multifaceted layers to it that to isolate only one of the many valid readings is to have a depreciated faith; the true meaning of Genesis 1 is that it is a commentary on the nature of man, that it deals with the Church, and that it is a preface to the rest of the Scripture prefiguring the whole of human history and salvation! For the sake of brevity, I am only to tie the anthropology and Church readings with the prefiguration reading where it seems most appropriate.

Given this reality of Genesis 1, Augustine sees the first chapter of the first book as a sort of preface to the rest of Scripture and informing, in a deep yet skeletal manner, of what the rest of the Scriptures and, indeed, human history is about.

Picking up from Book XII, Augustine double-downs on creation in the Word. Humans are made in wisdom for wisdom, and in love for love. Humans have an instinctive desire for happiness, which is manifested through their knowing of truth. This constitutes the “renewal of the mind” which Saint Paul speaks of in his Epistle to the Romans. It is also what Augustine seizes on when God speaks “Let us make man in our image” (Gn. 1:26). This is not the first instantiation of the image of God—which is already contained earlier in the chapter, but the declaration of God’s saving grace to regenerate our fallen wills.

As created beings, we either live in accordance with wisdom or live in a privation of wisdom. The movement away from wisdom—the wicked will Augustine talks about in Book VII when he is discussing the nature of evil—leads to a life of sinful chaos (a life in the sea). The movement to embodying wisdom, to seek after and be guided by “the light” is to know thyself, know others, know the world, and, therefore, know God. The will’s movement to wisdom—the regenerate or sanctified will—leads to a life of love and goodness which produces happiness.

Augustine reads the unformed matter and crashing waves of the sea as the image of sinful humanity. Throughout Confessions he has used the image of the sea and waves as being an image analog to sin so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find it here. Augustine’s point of sinful humanity being unformed and chaotic sea is that this represents man’s unordered, or disordered, desire. Like the sea, our disordered desire leads to a rough life of chaos and lack of rest. Indeed, the common trope of the seafaring life is to traverse through the chaos to reach a homeland of dry land.

So God’s Spirit hovering over the face of the deep awaits the command by God, in the Word, to create light (Gn. 1:3). For Augustine, the creation of light in Genesis 1:3 represents wisdom. Since the Spirit is Love, we already see the traces of the image of God in Genesis 1:2-3 with the Spirit being Love and light being wisdom made in Wisdom (Christ). God’s subsequent division of the light and darkness (Gen 1:4) was the separation of the two cities; those who are reprobate and those who are Elect. While Augustine wouldn’t develop his theology of predestination more fully until his debates with the Pelagians, we already see the traces of the two cities as early as Confessions and its reality contained in Genesis 1 (at least Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1).

The importance of the Spirit hovering over the deep is that, as Augustine says, “Love lifts us there” (xiii.ix.10). Love is that which allows humans to climb and sing those songs of ascent to the Light which is the Trinity in Truth, Wisdom, and Love. Taking an aside to comment more definitely on being made in the image of God, Augustine comments that being in the image of God means to have being, knowing, and willing (xiii.xi.12). Each constitutive part corresponds with one person of the Trinity in and their hypostatic union with each other constitutes the full person like how the relations of the Trinity in the economic Godhead constitutes the fullness of God. Being is related to God the Father, through whom all things come about. Knowing is related to Christ the Son, the Word of creation, and the mediator between God and man (i.e. the mediator leading to Truth since God is Truth). Willing is related to the Spirit since willing is an action of love and the Spirit is Love; those who love truth move closer to the light and those who despise truth, i.e. love falsity, drift away from the light into the darkness of the void (which is Hell).

Concerning the firmament which stretches over all creation (Gn. 1:6), Augustine interprets the firmament to mean the Scriptures. “Who but you, O God, has made for us a solid firmament of authority over us in your divine scripture? For ‘the heaven will fold up like a book (Is. 34:4),’ and now ‘like a skin it is stretched above us’ (Ps. 103:2). Your divine scripture has more sublime authority since the death of the mortal authors through whom you provided it for us” (xiii.xv.16). Drawing on other Old Testament symbolism, Augustine draws the connection of the firmament with the scriptures since the scriptures are depicted in the language of an overstretching skin, or dome, which protects the faithful. The firmament placed over us is the Scriptures which shelter us, not a literally dome of water like the fundamentalists claim. That firmament, i.e. the Scriptures, is also only relevant for us humans below; the angels who exist above and beyond the firmament simply behold God directly are in no need of the Scriptures to protect them and be their authority over them.

Reflecting upon the movement of the water to dry land (Gn 1:9), Augustine interprets this as the movement of unformed man (in his state of sin) into a state of regeneration and rational ordering of desire to the Good, i.e. God (xiii.xvii.20). The coming forth of fruit “after its own kind” Augustine interprets to mean the blossoming of the works of faith according to the spiritual faith of each member of the Heavenly City—who live on the dry land and desire God and can move to God by being members of this city (xiii.xvii.21-xviii.22). The many fruits and seeds born “after its own kinds” also represents the diversity of spiritual gifts in the Church which multiply after the spiritual faith of its members which fill the earth (the Church) and make it a beautiful place of ripe diversity.

Dealing with the luminaries of the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars (Gn. 1:14-18), Augustine argues that these represent the different guiding lights for believers. The stars are the basic gifts and spiritual lights that the lesser-minded Christians gravitate to. The sun and moon represent the deeper and more profound teachings which fewer Christians are capable of traveling with and understanding but all the different gradations of lighted luminaries exist for the relative faith of each Christian (xiii.xix.25).

Moreover, the land creatures and sea creatures represent the archetypes of sinful and regenerate humanity. Sea creatures and sea monsters represent the reprobate in the Abyss that is the city of man; sea creatures often confront and eat each other in the sea of domination. Other sea creatures, those who will be called unto the land (like the great whales), represent the not yet regenerated Elect who will be brought forth to the land by the net of the Church and the call of the Spirit.

Augustine’s treatment of land creatures is most fascinating because there are several layers to just the land creatures in of themselves. Land creatures archetypically represent different Christian vocations: the birds soaring over the earth are like the ministers of the word (xiii.xvii.40), the cattle are perfectly nourished pilgrims who “experience neither excess if they eat nor want if they do not eat” (xiii.xxi.31), and the good serpents are “not harmful and dangerous but astute in their caution” (ibid.). So the land creatures archetypically represent a type of heavenly pilgrim. But the land creatures also mean the natural land creatures to which humans judge and give names by their scientific experiments and knowledge of them (xiii.xxiii.34). Lastly, the land creatures from things that creepeth and crawl to cattle that roam to, eventually, man (made in the image of God) is the evolution of the pilgrim’s progress with insects representing the immature and intellectually rather base pilgrim moving up to the astute and knowledgeable pilgrim which is man. The command to “be fruitful and multiply,” (Gn. 1:28) in Augustine’s mind’s is the call to spiritual gifts and growth; to be fruitful is to bear the fruit of good works which come from one’s faith and to multiply in spiritual wisdom through spiritual growth, “because of the fertility of reason, I interpret the generation of humanity to mean concepts in the intelligible realm” (xiii.xxiv.37).

*

Through the ordering and chronological development of Genesis 1, Augustine sees what was contained in the first book of Moses as a prefigured preface to human history and the story of salvation. The seventh day, the Sabbath day of rest, “has no evening and has no ending. You sanctified it to abide everlasting. After your ‘very good’ works, which you made while remaining yourself in repose, you ‘rested the seventh death.’ This utterance in your book foretells for us that after our works which, because they are your gift us, are very good, we also may rest in your for the sabbath of eternal life” (xiii.xxxvi.51).

Augustine’s longwinded reflections on time, eternity, and creation, leading up to Book XIII, were done so to prep the reader for his ‘literal’ reading of Genesis. In the ancient world, the Christian fathers meant ‘literal’ to often mean what we now call ‘allegorical’ or ‘spiritual’ readings. To them, the real meaning of Scripture was spiritual; it must always be. In rebuffing the dialectical physicalists—in their Manichean form or their Catholic form—Augustine paved the way for us to see and agree with his spiritual reading of Genesis 1 as a foretelling of the history of salvation.

The dark and disorderly sea represents the city of man. The great whales and other fishes which will heed the call of the Spirit and the lights of the heavens will be the saved caught by the nets of Christ’s Church. The land creatures are, at once, archetypes of the types of Christians (because in antiquity ancients often gave personal distinctiveness to animals as reflective of their traits); so too does Augustine employ this method of categorization to give us the double-meaning concerning Christians who are “like the fowl or birds of the air” or the “cattle” and “serpents” of the earth). The movement from crawling creature to upright and erect man made in the image of God which is the “renewal in the mind” leading to contemplation, understanding, and truth (xiii.xxii.32) is the work of God’s salvation. It isn’t a surprise, then, as Augustine notes, that having completed His own work God says, “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Then on the Sabbath Day he rested; which Augustine interprets as that foreshadowing of eternal rest which the restless heart seeks (i.i.1). It is a beautiful and literary accomplishment unlike that seen elsewhere in the ancient world. The restless and wandering heart comes to the Father’s door and knocks to enter and enjoy rest and eternal felicity, “Only you can be asked, only you can be begged, only your door can we knock. Yes indeed, that is how it is received, how it is found, how the door is opened” (xiii.xxxviii.53).

It is clear from Augustine’s pen and mind that Genesis 1 serves as a sort of preface to the rest of the Bible. It is the chapter that tells us what the rest of the Scriptures is about. In doing so, it tells us—foretells and prefigures—the pilgrim’s progress from out of the sea and onto the fertile land of rationality and the ascent from a putrid and ugly creepy crawly into a beautiful and erect man with a mind for knowledge and beholding the Light of beauty and wisdom itself. This pilgrim’s journey produces fruits, trees, and seeds of good works relative to one’s faith—since faith without works is dead faith (Jm. 2:14). Having run the race, ascending those stairs singing songs of praise to God, we join him on that eternal ‘day’ of happy rest which is eternal life with God in heaven; the eternity of the ‘seventh day’, in Augustine’s mind, ought to be the biggest spiritual clue that Genesis 1 is not a book dealing with physicalist creation. His ending reflections on Genesis 1, which coincide with the ending of Confessions, informs us that he reads Genesis 1 as a preface to the rest of the Scriptures and a prefiguration of the Church and Sacred History.

 

Note: Citations from Confessions come from Henry Chadwick’s translation and follows his notations. For those with R.S. Pine-Coffin’s edition (Penguin Books), Chadwick’s numerical ending in his notation refers to Pine-Coffin’s “chapter” divisions in his translation.

6 thoughts on “Augustine on Christ, Time, and Eternity in Genesis 1

      • Hippo indeed. Jump ahead about 100 years though. Enduring figure; I’m something of an Augustine scholar. Yale thesis on him, an academic article published on him, numerous essays and op-eds directly dealing with him or alluding or referencing him.

        Interestingly enough, also very popular with Lacan, Derrida, and Zizek. As well as with traditionalist Catholics, Calvinists, and confessional Lutherans. Progressives and conservatives. He gets around just like in his boyhood days! 😛

        Though his views were always upheld and influential. Except with the heretics. The late Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale shout out!) put it best, “There has, quite literally, been no century…since the conversion of Augustine in which he has not been a major intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force. For more than a millennium and a half, continuity with the thought of Augustine has been one of the most persistent themes of Western intellectual history.”

        I’ll eventually cover a lot more of Augustine, especially City of God; have a couple of essays on him set up for my bimonthly column in March. Albert Camus also did his M.A. thesis on Augustine and referred to him, quite rightly, as the “bishop of all North African writers.”

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      • Cool. I think you have done some posts on City ofGod , no?

        read Confessions in undergrad Phil of religion .

        Perhaps you might hear some resonances in my book also.

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      • Yeah. Back on HC I did a few posts on the political aspects of CoG.

        May very well be the case I see resonances. I plan to read some of your book next week when I finish Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

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