What are the ‘days’ of Genesis 1, according to Augustine? (Reflections on Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’ #4)

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We have looked previously, in our series of reflections on Augustine of Hippo’s 5th-century text On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, at some of the good science which it is to be found in it. To some of us, the level of scientific understanding which Augustine shows more than 1,500 years ago may come as a surprise.

 We will now consider, from Augustine’s point of view, that most contentious question in modern society whenever one approaches the Genesis creation account: what does the creation account mean by a ‘day’?

Contents

Recap: What is ‘literal’?

It is worth pausing again to consider what Augustine means by a ‘literal’ interpretation of Genesis. We considered this in some detail in the first instalment in this series. Some brief remarks by way of recapitulation would not be amiss here.

“For Augustine, the literal interpretation of a text does not mean, ‘This text must be understood as narrating something which happened exactly thus.’ Rather, it means, ‘What did the author intend by writing such and such?’”

For Augustine, the ‘literal’ interpretation of a text does not mean, “This text must be understood as narrating something which happened exactly thus.” Rather, it means, “What did the author intend by writing such and such?”

Thus, when we approach Augustine discussing the ‘literal’ interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 & 2, we should not understand this as Augustine being slavishly ‘literal’ about the text. “It says the heavens and the earth were created in six days, so that’s all there is to it,” for example.

Rather, “What did the author wish to convey?” And this is in contrast to the (then more popular) way of handling a text, which was to allegorize it into something universally Christian. This is certainly something Augustine himself was capable of doing, and I gave examples of this in the first instalment.

Some considerations

For Augustine, how we understand the creation account is influenced by a number of important observations:—

1. God cannot be understood as taking a whole day to do what it takes us two seconds to say

For Augustine, it’s simply not possible that the events described as taking a day in the Genesis 1 account could really have taken God a day. For example, the separation of light from darkness. Even supposing that God uttered in audible syllables,

“Let there be light,”[1]

or,

“Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters,”[2]

it would be very strange if it took God longer to execute these things than it takes us to say them![3]

2. The ‘days’ cannot be what we commonly understand by ‘day’

Moreover, if Scripture says that there was evening and morning, the first day, and so on,[4] how can this be understood as the day and night that we see, when — as Augustine frequently points out — the sun was not created until the fourth day?[5]

3. How can ‘days’ have elapsed if time was not created until the fourth ‘day’?

In 2.14 he recognizes the difficulty of interpreting the “days.” Commenting upon the passage,

“Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons (= tempora in Latin Vulgate = ‘times’), and for days and years…,”[6]

he asks how three days (as we understand them) could have elapsed if only on the fourth ‘day’ did time commence.[7]

“The exercise shows the difficulty of interpreting Genesis chapter 1, and the need to wrestle with the meaning of the text. It is precisely this wrestling in which Augustine engages in his Literal Interpretation, and which causes him so many circuitous routes and dead-ends. A lesson to all of us, surely, in humility when we approach the text!”

As a possible solution to this, he proposes a theory based on the Neoplatonic philosophy that was prevalent in his day: namely, that ‘day’ refers to the form of what was created, and ‘night’ to the privation of that form. Hence the ‘day’ would connote the clothing in form of unformed matter, rather than a lapse of time.[8]

This is not a serious argument. Of course the obvious answer is not to understand the sun, moon and stars as causing the commencement of time, but as marking off time for us into days, and seasons, and years. And this is the conclusion he reaches within the space of a chapter.[9]

But the exercise shows the difficulty of interpreting Genesis chapter 1, and the need to wrestle with the meaning of the text. It is precisely this wrestling in which Augustine engages in his Literal Interpretation of Genesis, and which causes him consciously to go down so many circuitous routes and eventual dead-ends. A lesson to all of us, surely, in humility when we approach the text!

4. Scripture also says that God created all things simultaneously

“For Augustine, all Scripture speaks the truth. Any apparent contradiction between scripture and scripture is just that: an apparent contradiction.”

For Augustine, all Scripture speaks the truth. Any apparent contradiction between scripture and scripture is just that: an apparent contradiction. If we see two passages of Scripture conflicting with one another, that is because our understanding of one or other of them is defective.[10] It is therefore imperative, for Augustine, to interpret any two apparently contradictory passages of Scripture in such as way as to reconcile the apparent contradiction.[11]

In this vein, he notes that Scripture elsewhere says, “He created all things together.” This is a quotation from a book of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus (or The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach), which in our versions reads,

“He who lives for ever created the whole universe.”[12]

However, in Augustine’s copies the passage read,

Qui vivet in aeternum creavit omnia simul[13] (= “He who lives for ever created all things at once”).

Augustine understands this to be a clear statement that the world was created in an instant, and interprets Genesis 1 in light of this.

(Note that, unlike some other contemporary and near-contemporary theologians in the Christian Church, Augustine regarded Ecclesiasticus as part of divinely-inspired Scripture.)

Some conclusions

1. That God created all things simultaneously

In view of the above considerations, Augustine reaches the conclusion that God created all things simultaneously.[14]

2. That God also created all things “in six days”

Since Scripture endorses it, we can also legitimately say that God created all things both simultaneously and in six days.[15] The ‘days’ here are, of course, not to be understood as intervals of time, but as narrative sequence.

3. That the ‘six days’ of creation were really one day

Not only so, but he later goes on to describe these six days of creation in Genesis 1 as in fact being ‘one day’ — not a day of elapsed time, but a ‘day’ in the sense of a single creative act of God.[16]

4. That everything up to Genesis 2:5 was instantaneous creation, but everything after Genesis 2:6 was creation in time

He goes on to say that everything in the creation account up to Gen. 2:5,

“When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground…”[17]

was an instantaneous act of creation; but from Gen. 2:6 onwards,

“and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground…”[18]

is creation within time. This is certain because, from this point onwards God interacts with finite, bodily creatures such as the animals and, of course, man.[19]

5. Why the Genesis 1 narrative therefore divides the creation account up into six ‘days’

Finally, it may be asked, If the act of creation in Genesis 1 was an instantaneous act, why does the account divide the narrative of creation into six days?

Augustine asks this very question himself, and answers that it was thus written for the benefit of the reader who would find the idea of simultaneous creation difficult to comprehend.[20]

Final remarks

“The lesson from this, surely, is that when we come to Genesis 1 we do not need to be rigid — certainly not simplistically rigid — in our understanding of the account.”

It will be seen from the above analysis that Augustine’s ‘literal’ interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1 is subtle and nuanced.

He poses various interpretations of the ‘days,’ which are intended to be understood not as mutually exclusive, but as different angles on the same event — the same event seen in different ways. Hence something which was instantaneous can correctly be described both as happening in “six days” and in “one day.”

The lesson from this, surely, is that when we come to Genesis 1 we do not need to be rigid — certainly not simplistically rigid — in our understanding of the account. And likewise, when skeptics denounce Christians as unthinking cretins for believing in such piffle, perhaps they might do well not to assume quite so much about how Christians really approach the account.

 

Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (ISBN 0-8091-0326-5; 0-8091-0327-3) is available in two volumes from Newman Press / Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Ecclesiasticus 18:1 is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Genesis 1:3

[2] Genesis 1:6

[3] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.10; in Augustine and John Hammond Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 41 (New York, N.Y: Newman Press, 1982), p.30.

[4] Genesis 1:5

[5] The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.10, p.31; 4.21, p.128; 4.22, pp.129-130.

[6] Genesis 1:14

[7] The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2.14, pp.65-66.

[8] Ibid., 2.14, p.66.

[9] Ibid., 2.14, pp.66-67.

[10] Ibid., 1.19—21, pp.42-45.

[11] Ibid., 4.33, p.142; 4.34, p.143.

[12] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiasticus+18%3A1&version=NRSVA

[13] Ecclesiasticus 18:1, Latin Vulgate.

[14] Augustine and Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 4.33, p.141-142.

[15] Ibid., 4.34, pp.143-145.

[16] Ibid., 5.5, p.155; 5.6, p.157.

[17] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2%3A5&version=ESVUK

[18] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2%3A6&version=ESVUK

[19] Augustine and Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 5.11, pp.162-163.

[20] Ibid., 4.33, pp.141-142.

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