St Augustine’s final two chapters, Books 12 and13, are an exegesis of Genesis 1:2-2:3. There are even links to the previous chapter which touched on Genesis 1:1. Book 12 deals with Genesis 1:1-2 and Book 13 deals with Genesis 1:2-2:3. Vaught notes that Augustine “connects the last three Books of the text as links in a chain.”[i]
Following the Greek translation of Psalm 113 (115):16 Augustine contrasts ‘Heaven’s heaven’ with the earth. ‘Heaven’s heaven’ is the dwelling place of God and is contrasted to the ‘heaven that overarches our earth’ or what we would call the sky (12.2.2). Focusing on Genesis 1:2, Augustine notes that God created a ‘formless matter’ which may be described as undifferentiated in its order. He sees this state as ‘midway between form and nothingness’ (12.5.5, cf. 12.12.15).[ii] He states that “the mutability of mutable things itself gives them their potential to receive all those forms into which mutable things can be changed” (12.6.6). But since God is immutable, he did not create heaven and earth from his own substance but out of nothing (12.7.7).
Initially God created two realities. One near to himself, Heaven’s heaven and one bordering on nothingness—“invisible and unorganized, an abyss over which no light dawned” (12.8.8). From this abyss of primal nothingness God created heaven and earth. Heaven’s heaven was created before any ‘day’ existed. Augustine refers to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning god created heaven and earth” but in Genesis 1:2 “the earth was a formless wasteland” or “abyss.” From this ‘formless matter’ God creates earth, sky and the visible creation in a series of ‘days.’ Heaven’s heaven is some kind of ‘intellectual creation’ which participates in eternity but is still not coeternal (12.9.9). There are no day’s mentioned in relation to the ‘primal formlessness’ since without form there is no order and ‘nothing comes or passes away’ (12.9.9).
God is eternal and exists with “no alteration of form.” Nothing is able to change God and his will does not vary with changing times (12.11.11). God created all natures and substances which are not him but still have being. Only that which has no being is not created by him.
Together these truths lead us to acknowledge that God is eternal and so not subject to variance and change. God “did not bring creation into being by some new act of will, nor is his knowledge subject to any impermanence” (12.15.18).
In the section (12.17.24-12.22.31) Augustine discusses at length a series of alternative interpretations of Genesis 1:1 (12.1928). He allows these alternate interpretations to play out their views and then highlights certain truths which they articulate and attempts to integrate them with the second verse of Genesis. This leads to a discussion of truth and meaning in relation to Scripture. He identifies questions about the truth of what is said, and secondly questions about the intension of the person who spoke. (12.23.32). Is what Moses tells us about the process of creation true? Do we understand what Moses intended? He has little patience with those who doubt the truth of Moses’ account, but he is willing to journey together with those in the second who struggle to find his intension. He admits that there are a great variety of legitimate interpretations (12.24.33) and therefore he needs to argue his point calmly to show its strength (12.25.34). Ultimately the answer is found in the “immutable truth itself that towers above our minds” (12.25.35). The truth of Scripture is illuminated by God’s Truth, and is opposed to our pride. Augustine notes, “Since, then, so rich a variety of highly plausible interpretations can be culled from those words, consider how foolish it is rashly to assert that Moses intended one particular meaning rather than any of the others” (12.25.35).
Vaught points out,
In fact, “Truth” as Augustine understands the term can be identified with infinite riches, where Truth itself is the highest truth, the meaning of Truth, and the distributive collection of all true propositions . . . the concept of truth points in all three directions, calling our attention first to a cluster of truths, then to the standard by which they are measured, and finally to the arche [source, beginning] to which they can be referred.[iii]
This does not mean that Augustine is willing to accept any interpretations. They must at least be coherent and consistent (12.29.40). Augustine distinguishes four priorities for non-contradiction. On must be able to distinguish,
. . .what precedes in virtue of eternity, what precedes in time, what precedes in order of choice, and what is purely logical priority (12.29.40).
Eternity and logical priority are the most difficult to understand. Logical priority is compared to a song. In singing we hear sound and song both at once. “The song, therefore, happens in its sound, and this sound is the matter of the song” (12.29.40). The matter which is sound has priority over the form that is sung. Yet he notes that,
The song is not mere sound, but sound endowed with beautiful form. But the sound does not have logical priority, because it is not the song that is given form to make it into sound, but the sound which is formed to turn it into song (12.29.40).
This analogy leads Augustine back to creation and his view that primal matter was made first and called “heaven and earth” (12.29.40). He points out that because the matter was formless the term ‘first’ is meaningless since only the forms of things give rise to time.
Returning to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, he notes that dual authorship implies that “God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people” (12.30.41). He sees this divine tempering as the ability to “reinforce for each reader whatever truth he was able to grasp” rather than “to express a single idea so ambiguously as to exclude all others” (12.31.42). Having said this certain interpretations are still false (12.31.42). Finally he proposes that God may have hidden things in Scripture to be revealed to later generations of readers (12.32.43).
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)
[i] Ibid. p. 153.
[ii] He later summarizes this as “an absolute privation of all from without pushing the idea to nothingness” (12.12.15).
[iii] Vaught, Access, p. 186.