Augustine on Genesis One

In light of my recent attempt to examine interpretations of Genesis One in Second Temple Judaism, I thought that I would move on to how the account was received among early Christian writers. I did not find, in my opinion, enough to hold my interest, but I did find Augustine’s take interesting. In reviewing one part of Augustine with Jeremy, he reminded that Augustine’s Hebrew was not the best, to say the least. Of course, he does sound a bit like Philo at one point, but that could be chalked up to Augustine’s use of neo-Platonism instead which would have led him to nearly plagiarize the Hellenize-Jew.

These snippets comes from Augustin’s work, The City of God, chapter 11.5-9.

Next, we must see what reply can be made to those who agree that God is the Creator of the world, but have difficulties about the time of its creation, and what reply, also, they can make to difficulties we might raise about the place of its creation. ….

Augustine commences on a conversation regarding this issue, and ends here:

But if they say that the thoughts of men are idle when they conceive infinite places, since there is no place beside the world, we reply that, by the same showing, it is vain to conceive of the past times of God’s rest, since there is no time before the world.

It maybe that Augustine is speaking about the universe when he says ‘world’ or perhaps merely the inhabited planet. Of course, there is the notion today that this universe is one of many created simultaneously, which is completely beyond me and would require more faith to believe that God created.

For if eternity and time are rightly distinguished by this, that time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change, who does not see that there could have been no time had not some creature been made, which by some motion could give birth to change,–the various parts of which motion and change, as they cannot be simultaneous, succeed one another,–and thus, in these shorter or longer intervals of duration, time would begin? Since then, God, in whose eternity is no change at all, is the Creator and Ordainer of time, I do not see how He can be said to have created the world after spaces of time had elapsed, unless it be said that prior to the world there was some creature by whose movement time could pass. And if the sacred and infallible Scriptures say that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in order that it may be understood that He had made nothing previously,–for if He had made anything before the rest, this thing would rather be said to have been made “in the beginning,”–then assuredly the world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time. For that which is made in time is made both after and before some time,–after that which is past, before that which is future. But none could then be past, for there was no creature by whose movements its duration could be measured. But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world’s creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!

Here, Augustine would loose the respect of the Creationists, it seems, as he notes that the Scriptures were set about in such a way as to tell us something more than that which was said. Here, is is noting that the reason heaven and earth’s creation is at the beginning is that it tells us that nothing existed before then.

We see, indeed, that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting, and no morning but by the rising, of the sun; but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day. And first of all, indeed, light was made by the word of God, and God, we read, separated it from the darkness, and called the light Day, and the darkness Night; but what kind of light that was, and by what periodic movement it made evening and morning, is beyond the reach of our senses; neither can we understand how it was, and yet must unhesitatingly believe it. For either it was some material light, whether proceeding from the upper parts of the world, far removed from our sight, or from the spot where the sun was afterwards kindled; or under the name of light the holy city was signified, composed of holy angels and blessed spirits, the city of which the apostle says, “Jerusalem which is above is our eternal mother in heaven;”1 and in another place, “For ye are all the children of the light, and the children of the day; we are not of the night, nor of darkness.”2 Yet in some respects we may appropriately speak of a morning and evening of this day also. For the knowledge of the creature is, in comparison of the knowledge of the Creator, but a twilight; and so it dawns and breaks into morning when the creature is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator; and night never falls when the Creator is not forsaken through love of the creature. In fine, Scripture, when it would recount those days in order, never mentions the word night. It never says, “Night was,” but “The evening and the morning were the first day.” So of the second and the rest. And, indeed, the knowledge of created things contemplated by themselves is, so to speak, more colorless than when they are seen in the wisdom of God, as in the art by which they were made. Therefore evening is a more suitable figure than night; and yet, as I said, morning returns when the creature returns to the praise and love of the Creator. When it does so in the knowledge of itself, that is the first day; when in the knowledge of the firmament, which is the name given to the sky between the waters above and those beneath, that is the second day; when in the knowledge of the earth, and the sea, and all things that grow out of the earth, that is the third day; when in the knowledge of the greater and less luminaries, and all the stars, that is the fourth day; when in the knowledge of all animals that swim in the waters and that fly in the air, that is the fifth day; when in the knowledge of all animals that live on the earth, and of man himself, that is the sixth day.

At present, since I have undertaken to treat of the origin of the holy city, and first of the holy angels, who constitute a large part of this city, and indeed the more blessed part, since they have never been expatriated, I will give myself to the task of explaining, by God’s help, and as far as seems suitable, the Scriptures which relate to this point. Where Scripture speaks of the world’s creation, it is not plainly said whether or when the angels were created; but if mention of them is made, it is implicitly under the name of “heaven,” when it is said, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” or perhaps rather under the name of “light,” of which presently. But that they were wholly omitted, I am unable to believe, because it is written that God on the seventh day rested from all His works which He made; and this very book itself begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” so that before heaven and earth God seems to have made nothing. Since, therefore, He began with the heavens and the earth,–and the earth itself, as Scripture adds, was at first invisible and formless, light not being as yet made, and darkness covering the face of the deep (that is to say, covering an undefined chaos of earth and sea, for where light is not, darkness must needs be),–and then when all things, which are recorded to have been completed in six days, were created and arranged, how should the angels be omitted, as if they were not among the works of God, from which on the seventh day He rested? Yet, though the fact that the angels are the work of God is not omitted here, it is indeed not explicitly mentioned; but elsewhere Holy Scripture asserts it in the clearest manner. For in the Hymn of the Three Children in the Furnace it was said, “O all ye works of the Lord bless ye the Lord;”1 and among these works mentioned afterwards in detail, the angels are named. And in the psalm it is said, “Praise ye the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the heights. Praise ye Him, all His angels; praise ye Him, all His hosts. Praise ye Him, sun and moon; praise him, all ye stars of light. Praise Him, ye heaven of heavens; and ye waters that be above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for He commanded, and they were created.”2 Here the angels are most expressly and by divine authority said to have been made by God, for of them among the other heavenly things it is said, “He commanded, and they were created.” Who, then, will be bold enough to suggest that the angels were made after the six days’ creation? If any one is so foolish, his folly is disposed of by a scripture of like authority, where God says, “When the stars were made, the angels praised me with a loud voice.”3 The angels therefore existed before the stars; and the stars were made the fourth day. Shall we then say that they were made the third day? Far from it; for we know what was made that day. The earth was separated from the water, and each element took its own distinct form, and the earth produced all that grows on it. On the second day, then? Not even on this; for on it the firmament was made between the waters above and beneath, and was called “Heaven,” in which firmament the stars were made on the fourth day. There is no question, then, that if the angels are included in the works of God during these six days, they are that light which was called “Day,” and whose unity Scripture signalizes by calling that day not the “first day,” but “one day.” For the second day, the third, and the rest are not other days; but the same “one” day is repeated to complete the number six or seven, so that there should be knowledge both of God’s works and of His rest. For when God said, “Let there be light, and there was light,” if we are justified in understanding in this light the creation of the angels, then certainly they were created partakers of the eternal light which is the unchangeable Wisdom of God, by which all things were made, and whom we call the only-begotten Son of God; so that they, being illumined by the Light that created them, might themselves become light and be called “Day,” in participation of that unchangeable Light and Day which is the Word of God, by whom both themselves and all else were made. “The true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,”5 –this Light lighteth also every pure angel, that he may be light not in himself, but in God; from whom if an angel turn away, he becomes impure, as are all those who are called unclean spirits, and are no longer light in the Lord, but darkness in themselves, being deprived of the participation of Light eternal. For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name “evil.”6

Here, Augustine answers questions which I believe some wrestled with today – if Genesis is an accurate description, then where were the angels?

You will remember from Philo that Creation can be said to have occurred one Day, which might fair well with the rest of Scripture’s use of ‘Day’ to indicate a large portion of time, such as the Last Day, or ‘That Day’ of Paul’s work. I note that in Augustine’s letter to Januaris, he notes that the Seventh Day has no evening, no ending, which speaks of the prophetic Rest of God’s people.

When it is said that God rested on the seventh day from all His works, and hallowed it, we are not to conceive of this in a childish fashion, as if work were a toil to God, who “spake and it was done,”–spake by the spiritual and eternal, not audible and transitory word. But God’s rest signifies the rest of those who rest in God, as the joy of a house means the joy of those in the house who rejoice, though not the house, but something else, causes the joy. How much more intelligible is such phraseology, then, if the house itself, by its own beauty, makes the inhabitants joyful! For in this case we not only call it joyful by that figure of speech in which the thing containing is used for the thing contained (as when we say, “The theatres applaud,” “The meadows low,” meaning that the men in the one applaud, and the oxen in the other low), but also by that figure in which the cause is spoken of as if it were the effect, as when a letter is said to be joyful, because it makes its readers so. Most appropriately, therefore, the sacred narrative states that God rested, meaning thereby that those rest who are in Him, and whom He makes to rest. And this the prophetic narrative promises also to the men to whom it speaks, and for whom it was written, that they themselves, after those good works which God does in and by them, if they have managed by faith to get near to God in this life, shall enjoy in Him eternal rest. This was pre-figured to the ancient people of God by the rest enjoined in their sabbath law, of which, in its own place, I shall speak more at large.

I found the emphasized phrase interesting, as it is perhaps the light in which Augustine sees Genesis One – that of a continue narrative which stands for something later fulfilled.

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23 Replies to “Augustine on Genesis One”

  1. I have not read “City of God” yet, but I have read “A Literal Genesis” by Augustine.
    I’m not sure why he called it literal when it doesn’t seem that he took it that way all of the time.

  2. AUGUSTINE: “. . . the firmament was made between the waters above and beneath, and was called ‘Heaven,’ in which firmament the stars were made on the fourth day.”

    Nice. Augustine noted that Genesis 1 depicts waters above the stars. He even cited the psalm about “waters above the heavens.” In his work on Genesis Augustine even wrote: “The term ‘firmament’ does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven: we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the water above and the waters below.” Augustine adds, “Whatever the nature of the waters [above the firmament], we must believe in them, for the authority of Scripture is greater than the capacity of man’s mind.”

    Augustine’s last phrase above was even echoed by Martin Luther as late as the fifteenth century:

    “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which . . . are the waters. . . . We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding” [Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan (St. Louis, MI: Concordia, 1958), pp. 30, 42, 43].

    The idea of waters above the stars was of course not an uncommon view in the ancient Near East. I’m curious how Beale and Walton interpet “waters above the stars” when it comes to their interpretation of Genesis 1 as a huge temple?

    Lastly, do you accept that Genesis 1 is as much a myth as the idea found in the end of Revelation, about a New Jerusalem descending from heaven? So, does the Bible both BEGIN and END with myths?

    1. Edward, I ‘think’ that Walton sees the waters as a symbol of Chaos.

      Do I believe that Genesis 1 is biblical myth (classical)? Sure, although that term needs to be redefined for some. Further, I believe that Revelation is prophetic language, so if that fits into myth, sure, why not.

  3. On the difference b/w ancient cosmologies and ours, I sent this to a friend recently (I also have a chapter coming out in April on “The Cosmology of the Bible” in a book titled, The Christian Delusion) :

    The difference b/w ancient cosmologies and ours: They interpret acts of nature as direct acts of God, personally decided upon by the Deity. Crops fail? God had a reason. Plague, war? God’s will. Good harvest? We have pleased God. Today we concentrate more on finding practical ways to beat nature, not accept our fate as if everything that happened was God’s personal decision being foisted on us. We invented the lightning rod for instance. (Catholics used to ring holy bells and say prayers to avoid tall church steeples being hit by lightning.) And we developed medical and agricultural science. And we have peace-making committees and movements. Neither do we sacrifice goats before rolling up our sleeves and doing cancer research. We don’t imagine we can actually change God’s mind or obtain blessings or avoid curses with sacrifices and prayers. We wear seat belts. We do statistical analysis to determine where the greatest most likely dangers lay, or where the most likely profits may be gotten. At most, we say a little prayer, just in case God’s listening. Most people don’t pray and fast for days or practice literal sacrifices to try and get things done in this life. We’ve gone from religious to practical. But back then it was considered practical to build the biggest damn ziggurats that could be seen for miles in every direction, or pyramids, or other temples. Temples were big business, the more gorgeous and expensive the better. GOD MUST BE SHOWN HOW MUCH WE BELIEVE IN HIM AND HOW CERTAIN WE ARE THAT HE WILL HELP US! HE MUST BE APPEASED! HE MUST BE PETITIONED INCESSANTLY. THAT’S WHAT PRIESTS ARE FOR! IT’S THEIR JOB! Today, if we worship anything, it is CAUSALITY. We try to figure out how things work, from engines to electronic circuits to the synapses of the human brain. We seek causes by looking outward with telescopes and looking inside with microscopes, even electron microscopes. And we certainly don’t fear peeking in in God’s backyard with telescopes or sending probes as far as Pluto or walking on the moon, even after KNOWING what happened to the folks who tried building a brick tower to heaven, and even though we know that “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but God has given man the earth.” ONLY the earth.

    Also see Jason Rosenhouse’s blog entry on “Interpreting Genesis” which is getting a lot of hits. It’s in response to Kent Spark’s latest BIOLOGOS piece.

  4. The “worst kind?” The worst kind of what, snide non-answers like yours? Don’t you even see the questions?

    The NT still features the three-tier cosmos with beings/people “under the earth,” and God in “heaven above,” and shedding of blood as necessary before God can forgive anyone anything.

    What exactly was the point of having human beings develop from apes and having early ape species eventually go extinct, and even some early human species go extinct, until we reached the point where we developed language, and later reached the point where we could handle “fire” and “invent the wheel?” And tens of thousands of years later, if not a couple hundred thousand years later, we developed art and even writing, and people were probably so astonished at the invention of writing that they naturally began to assume that “words” were somehow divine, god-like?

    And that line of development was all part of what, “a fall?” Sounds like we weren’t falling, at least not out of trees as our pre-primate ancestors once did. Sounds like we were rising.

    And through all that time, what revelations were given to various hominids species from the Biblical god? Animism seems to have been the earliest form of religion, as even evidenced by a recent altar in Turkey with animals pictures carved into it, or by the caves in France with animal totem-like pictures drawn there.

    God waited for Moses to finally write down Scriptures? Did Moses exist? If he did, did he write the Pentateuch all by himself and in his own day? The OT books about Moses merely discuss him in the third person. Other nations already had entire civilizations and sacred writings for long before the days of Moses. And God saw fit to PRESERVE those writings more ancient than the Bible, from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Those writings appear on stone and baked clay tablets. But God couldn’t come up with a similar form of preservation for His holy word that allegedly reaches much further back in time?

    I don’t even see a recipe for soap in the Bible, let alone anything that’s so special in its revelatory contents that only God could have revealed it to Moses. Evolutionists would agree, humanity was childish, for millions of years in fact. But how does that prove anything special about the Bible, how does that demonstrate special inspiration?

    1. Edward, how am I sure that you exist?

      The point is, is that we approach things differently. I’m pretty happy, and more than that, infinitely more confident that there is a God, that the Scriptures are His words to us, that Christ is the Son which has brought redemption from the Fallen.

      You remarked that you once knew the power, and dwelled in His presence. I hope that you return to that, Edward.

  5. I am pretty sure you exist Poly, because we converse.

    Compare our conversation with reading writings that are over 2000 years old and the fact that you have to rely on others who offer their interpretations to you, as colored by one particular theology, and via historical and grammatical knowledge. That is not the same as having a conversation with someone who speaks exactly the same language, lives in the same time frame, knows the same things about the world today that we both inhabit, and who replies to specific questions.

    1. But, Edward, that doesn’t describe me all that much. I actually prefer to find my own interpretation, etc… When the text ceases to be alive to you, then it is indeed 2000 years old.

  6. Here’s why young-earth creationists LOVE Augustine and the early church fathers . . .


    The recorded Egyptian dynasties extend back some thousand years or more before Noah, the flood, or the Tower of Babel. Roughly speaking the great pyramid at Giza was constructed ca. 2560 B.C.E. approximately the same time as the Genesis narrative places the flood, with continuous Egyptian civilization predating and postdating this time. David N. Livingstone in ADAM’S ANCESTORS notes that Augustine (354-430) confronted these ideas. Indeed, the continuing dispute over chronology was sufficiently strong that Augustine devoted a whole chapter of THE CITY OF GOD to “the falseness of the history which allots many thousand years to the world’s past” and another chapter to the “mendacious vanity” and “empty presumption” of the Egyptians in claiming “an antiquity of a hundred thousand years ” for their accumulated wisdom. (Livingston, p. 9)

    While Augustine had no doubt that these reports were false, the seeds of inconsistency and discrepancy were present and were factors to be considered – if only to be refuted soundly.

    SOURCE: David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. The author is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast. His book looks at the history of the idea of pre-adamic or non-adamic humans in western Christian thinking from the early church (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine) through the middle ages, the explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the debates on racial supremacy, and on to the present day.

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