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Academic paper:
Interpreting Genesis in an allegoric way; consulting Augustine

Organization: VU University Amsterdam
Course: Theology
Student: Misha Stoutenbeek

This paper attempts to answer one of the many questions that arose during the combined study of church history and the old testament, in particular when studying the first chapter of the bible, the book of Genesis ( the creation story). The following contents might especially be of added value for those who are relatively new to ‘systematical’ Bible studies ( entry-level ) and with little theological backgrounds but with a strong desire to at least try to grasp the inner significance and essence of Genesis.

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  • 1. Interpreting Genesis in an allegoric way; consulting Augustine Student name: Student number: MishaStoutenbeek 2539813 Organization: Course: Professor: VU University Amsterdam Theology - Old Testament K. Spronk
  • 2. INTRODUCTION This paper attempts to answer one of the many questions that arose during the combined study of church history and the old testament, in particular when studying the first chapter of the bible, the book of Genesis ( the creation story). The following contentsmight especially be of added value for those who are relatively new to ‘systematical’ Bible studies ( entry-level ) and with little theological backgrounds but with a strong desire to at least try to grasp the inner significance and essence of Genesis. This as part of the ultimate goal to be able to better defineand understand the old testament, it’s backgrounds and origin. The complexity of interpreting Genesis Whatever one might think or believe it’s probably fair to state that understanding Genesis is a difficult task. Partly due to its complex overall nature, time of existence and the redaction process to which it has been subject during history. For some Christian traditions it is really clear how Genesis should be interpreted. In their view this should not be questioned at all since this would question the holiness of the bible as a whole or the authority of Mosesin specific. However, when using an academic approach to the matter we quit rapidly run into theworld of systematical bible studying using the ‘documentary hypothesis’ a 20th century invention which is widely used among scholars as a standard starting point for bible analyses. It proposes the idea that the Pentateuch was originally derived from originally different sources which were later combined in their current form by a series of redactors (1: Michael D. Coogan2011, p.43 and 2:Fred L. Horton 2007).  This of course is all very interesting but the documentary hypothesis mainly provides a framework. It doesn’t really give a clear answer to theapparently simple question this paper attempts to answer: Canwe interpret Genesis in a grounded allegoric way? Please note that this paper does not promote the statement that one should seek such a way, it just examines apossibilities in this direction. Searching the answer And so in order to try to answer this question I would like to go back to the early periods of church history when broadly accepted academic standards like the documentary hypothesis did not yet exist in the way they do now. A period when church fathers wherechallenged to find answers to difficult theological questions and problems sometimes on their own ( or at least having to represent them on their own ), often with the risks of prosecution and so on. This journey back into time would become too long and complex if we would stand still at every phase and figure in church history that tried to answer this or a similar question so we have to narrow our path. When diving into history and especially into a history so complex as that of the church one easily gets lost so therefore I would like to set our compass in the direction of the so
  • 3. called architect of the middle ages (6. Ferguson 2005 p.268), ‘Saint Augustine of Hippo’, (13 November 354 – 28 August 430) latin; Aurelius AugustinusHipponensis. The reason tochoose for Augustine ( also known as Saint Augustine or Saint Austin ) is that he like no other has left us with a treasure of information regarding his thoughts, believes and reasoning on the subject of Genesis.Defining and interpreting this book Genesis was apparently a point of focus in his work. GENESIS ACCORDING AUGUSTINE Since we are searching for an allegory we first have to define more clearly what this is before diving into Augustine. According to the Cambridge dictionary an allegory is a story, play, poem, picture, or other work in which the characters and events represent particular qualities or ideas, related to morals, religion, or politics. Allegory has been used widely throughout the histories in many forms, probably because of its power to illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are easily digestible and tangible to its viewers, readers, or listeners. In this case we are looking for an illustration of the complex story of Genesis. His works When analyzing St. Augustine’s inherited material we can see that he paid quit a lot of special attention to the book of Genesis. A grasp from his oeuvre: The final three books of the work Confessions are dedicated to Genesis In his work Magnum opus, The City of God Book XI is also dedicated to Genesis Three commentaries on the book where written: o The Literal Meaning of Genesis o A Refutation of the Manichees o There is also an unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis Augustine has also written about the topic of creation in many of his other works. (4. Fiedrowicz2002, p.14) Focus on Confessions For this paper we focus on Augustine’s work ‘Confessions’. The work Confessions (latin: Confessiones) is the name of his autobiographical work, consisting of 13 books where he explicitly dedicates the last three entire chapters to Genesis. Another reason to choose for Confessions is because it shows that Augustine was not afraid of controversy in his time and that makes this work an extremely interesting source.
  • 4. Augustine’s interpretations Before turning over to a more Platonistic approach of philosophy Augustine was a supporter of Manichaeism (a gnostic religion in former Perzia). Augustine had believed a literal interpretation of the biblical texts could led to unrealistic ideas about what God is. As we start analyzing his first commentary ( book eleven ) Augustine starts with speaking humbly and directly to God in the form of a prayer and clearly debates his doubts and questions regarding topics as time and the creation of the world: Book eleven Chapter 1: 5· ‘’Let me hear and understand how in the beginning thoumadest heaven and earth . I 4 Moses wrote of this ; he wrote andpassed on-moving from thee to thee-and he is now no longer before me’’. Chapter 30: 40. "What did God make before he made heaven and earth?" or, "How did it come into his mind to make something when he had never before made anything?" Chapter 5: ‘’7·All these things praise thee, the Creator of them all . But how didst thou make them? How, 0 God, didst thou make the heaven and earth?’’ Chapter 10. On 7 Cf. Ps. 33 :9. I S Matt. 3 : 1 7. 12. ‘’For the will of God is not a created thing, but comes before the creation-and this is true because nothing could be created unless the will of the Creator came before it.’’ Chapter 10: 13. ‘’But if it was the eternal will of God that the creation should come to be, why, then, is not the creation itself also from eternity?’’ In book eleven Augustine extensively rethinks and debates the notion of time and creation with God. The notion of the eternity of this world was widely held in Greek philosophy and the notion of the world fashioned from pre-existent matter ofsome sort was a universal idea in Greco-Roman cosmology. As Augustine’s commentary unfolds itselfanswers to his earlier questions follow according his own ideas and views. Chapter 31: ‘’As in the beginning thou knewest both the heaven and the earth without any change in thy knowledge, so thou didst make heaven and earth in their beginnings without any division in thy action.’’ From here Augustine moves from his analysis of time towards his exploration of the mystery of creation and the truth of scripture in book twelve. More specifically, he explores the relation between all that is created with the situation when all was not yet created. Augustine also explored the possibility that God created itself from nothing ( unformed matter ). He finds a reference to this in the misconstrued scriptural phrase "the heaven of heavens. " Realizing that his interpretation of Gen. I : I , 2 , is not self-evidently the only possibility, Augustine turns to an
  • 5. elaborate discussion of the multiplicity of perspectives in hermeneutics and, in the course of this, reviews the various possibilities if true interpretation of his Scripture text. He emphasizes the importance of tolerance where there are plural options, and confidence where basic Christian faith is concerned ( 9. Cook Outler2006, 11 chapter 11 ). Book twelve In book twelve we find the basis of Augustine's defense of allegory as both legitimate and profitable in the interpretation of Scripture. He did not mean that there is a plurality of literal truths in Scripture but a multiplicity of perspectives on truth which amounted to different levels and interpretations of truth. This gave Augustine the basis for a positive tolerance of varying interpretations which did hold fast to the essential common premises about God's primacy as Creator ( 9. Cook Outler 2006, 12 chapter p.285 ). Chapter 18: 27. ‘’Therefore, since every person tries to understand in the Holy Scripture what the writer understood, what harm is done if a man understands what thou, the Light of all truth-speaking minds, showest him to be true, although the author he reads did not understand this aspect of the truth even though he did understand the truth in a different meaning? Book thirteen Here Augustine tries to interpret Gen. 1:2-31 in an allegorical and mystical way. Creation remains his favorite topic by also touches topics as God’s power, love, wisdom. Also he shapes the concept the Trinity which is never mentioned in the Bible. Chapter 3: 4· ‘’Now what thou saidst in the beginning of the creation" Let there be light : and there was light"- I interpret, not unfitly, as referring to the spiritual creation…’’ Chapter 9: 1O. But was neither the Father nor the Son "moving over the waters" ? If we understand this as a motion in space, as a body moves, then not even the Holy Spirit "moved. " Chapter 21: 21. That brought forth, not "the creeping and the flying creature that has life," but " the living soul" itself! ( An allegorical ideal type of the perfecti in the Church. ) Chapter 24: 35· But what is this ; what kind of mystery is this? Behold, 0 Lord, thou dost bless men in order that they may be "fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. " In this art thou not making a sign to us that we may understand something [ allegorically]?
  • 6. CONCLUSION Augustine never comments on the full book of Genesis. Rather he limits himself to the opening verses. However, his comments on the opening verses are already enough to quickly obtain an answer to the main question this papers tries to answer being; yes, it is possible to interpret Genesis in a grounded allegoric way. When studying Augustine’s commentaries on Genesis we can see quit quickly that he is allegorizing narrative passages and reinterpreting the text based on the science of the day. He especially relied heavily on an allegorical hermeneutic in book twelve. Where he literary starts to use the word interpretation and clearly seeks for interpretations. Searching among historical individuals for answers oninterpreting GenesisAugustine’s Confessions is a priceless source of information. Here we learn how we caninterpret the book of Genesis in a grounded allegoric way. He clearly leaves space to questioning and exploring anything written in Genesis and even though in a very humble tone, hisanswers use creativity and strong philosophical reasoning. Still, everything said about Augustine has to be donewith great nuance since Augustine also has to be interpreted in his context. A WORD AFTER The debate on how to interpret Genesis is lasting for many century’s now and is not likely to end anytime soon. Anyway, by writing this paper I obviously did not intend to end this debate, rather than that I was just wondering if a nonliteral interpretation about Genesis can be found in church historyhoping that it might help me to better understand it’s true meaning. By reading into a part of Augustine’s work I only saw the tip of the iceberg without feeling the need to dive under the water in order to try to see it all. It’s wise to study things in the context of their timeand to compare and consider different possible interpretations but where it concerns faith, I honestly don’t think this needsto be taken into extremes. In the end we are all limited in our power of understanding. Like Schopenhauer once said, ‘’Every human being measures the depth of an artwork according to its own capabilities.’’ So when searching for the true timeless meaning of the scriptures we might best pray that we may understand what we are reading and I think Augustine would agree with that. Reasoning from the belief that all things are created by one true God, both Bible and science emerge from Him. So as it is wise to study the old testament scientifically it somehow seems equally wise to let the Bible speak for itself. If not we might discard the change that it speaks to us. When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, lest you make nonsense (8: Cooper 1970, p. 11).
  • 7. References 1. Michael D. Coogan, ‘’A brief introduction to the Old Testament’’. Oxford University press 2012 2. Fred L. Horton, Kenneth G. Hoglund, and Mary F. Foskett, ‘’A Basic Vocabulary of Biblical Studies For Beginning Students A Work in Progress’’.Wake Forest University, 2007 3. Wenham Gordon, "Pentateuchal Studies Today’’. Themelios 22.1, October 1996 4. Fiedrowicz ed. J. E. Rotelle O.S.A, ‘’General introduction on Genesis’’. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2002 5. M. Boulding, ‘’ Augustine The confessions’’. Hyde Park New York New City Press, 1997 6. Everett Ferguson, ‘’Church History From Christ to Pre-Reformation’’. Zondervan Grand Rapids Michigan, 2005 7. Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann, ‘’The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’’. Cambridge University Press, 15 mrt. 2001 8. Cooper, D. L., ‘’The world’s greatest library graphically illustrated. Los Angeles’’. California: Biblical Research Society, 1970 9. Albert Cook Outler. ‘’Augustine Confessions and Enchiridion’’.Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville Kentucky, 2006