Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On the Literal and Figurative Understanding of Genesis 2 (St. Augustine of Hippo)

By St. Augustine of Hippo

The listing of the seven days and the presentation of their works is given a kind of conclusion, in which everything that has been said already is called "the book of the creating of heaven and earth" (Gen. 2:4), even though it is only a small part of the book as a whole. But still it was entirely appropriate to give it this name, because these seven days furnish us with a miniature symbolic picture of the entire span of world history from start to finish. Then it goes on to tell the story of the man in more detail; and this whole account is to be analyzed in figurative, not literal terms, to put the minds of those who seek the truth through their paces, and lure them away from the business of the world and the flesh to the business of the spirit....

So then, this text must first be discussed in terms of history, and then in terms of prophecy. In terms of history deeds and events are being related, in terms of prophecy future events are being foretold. One should not look with a jaundiced eye, to be sure, on anyone who wants to take everything that is said here absolutely literally, and who can avoid blasphemy in so doing, and present everything as in accordance with the Catholic faith; on the contrary one should hold up such a person as an outstanding and wholly admirable understander of the text.

If, however, no other way is available of reaching an understanding of what is written that is religious and worthy of God, except by supposing that it all has been set before us in a figurative sense and in riddles, we have the authority of the apostles for doing this, seeing that they solved so many riddles in the books of the Old Testament in this manner. Let us then stick to this way which we have in mind, assisted by the one who urges us to ask, to seek and to knock; let us in fact unravel all these figurative statements in accordance with the Catholic faith, whether they be statements of history or of prophecy, without prejudice to any better or more diligent commentary, whether by ourselves or by any others to whom the Lord may be good enough to reveal the meaning of the text.

From On Genesis: Refutation of the Manichees.