Augustine found his voice when he came to write the Confessions (397), of which Books 11-13 are an extended commentary on Genesis 1. It is often described as an allegorical commentary, but wrongly so: most of it is quite literal by Augustine's standards, which are unlike ours. Only in Book 13, chapter 12, does the real allegory begin: Augustine sees in the story of the divine making of the formless world another story about the divine remaking of the sinful soul. After the Confessions came two works not intended as sustained commentary: Quaestiones evangeliorum (399-400) is a loose collection of replies to a correspondent's questions about Matthew and Luke; and the Adnotationes in Job (399) were compiled and published, not very skillfully, by others. De consensu evangelistarum (399-400), by contrast, was a product of more careful composition; in it Augustine discusses the authority and nature of the Gospels and attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions between them.
The greatest of Augustine's exegetical writings, mostly long works composed over the course of many years, came between 400 and 420. De Genesi ad litteram (401-415) is a wide-ranging and open-ended work intended to show the consistency of Scripture with the science of the day; polemic against the Manichees no longer figures in the title, but it is by no means forgotten. Perhaps his greatest work on Scripture is the Tractatus in evangelium Iohannis (406-421; the dates are much disputed), a collection of sermons treating the whole text of the Gospel. It is a masterful blend of literal and allegorical exegesis, philosophical speculation, moral exhortation, and theological polemic. The commentary on First John (Tractatus in Iohannis epistulam ad Parthos, 406-407) is another collection of exegetical sermons, as is the highly allegorical Enarrationes in Psalmos, which Augustine began in 392 and put in final order around 417. (A number of the sermons in the Enarrationes, however, were composed specially for the work and were never preached.) Augustine's other Sermons (392-430) are also generally exegetical. An Expositio epistolae Jacobi ad duodecem tribus, probably written around 412, is no longer extant.
In 419 Augustine wrote two commentaries on the first seven books of the Bible. Locutiones in heptateuchum deals with obscurities in the Latin text that arise from peculiarities of Hebrew or Greek idiom; Quaestiones in heptateuchum offers more developed exposition of difficult passages. Near the end of his life Augustine made a collection of moral injunctions in the Speculum Scripturae (Mirror of Scripture, 427).
De octo quaestionibus ex veteri testamento is of uncertain date, and its authenticity is controversial.
"In the beginning God made heaven and earth." In Augustine's view, the change and variation of created things is itself evidence that they have their existence from some source other than themselves. Moreover, the beauty, the goodness, indeed the very existence of heaven and earth points to the perfect beauty, goodness, and being of their Creator, whom they mimic in their fragmentary and defective way. So heaven and earth were made, and it was God who made them: but how? He cannot have used any pre-existing material in order to make them, because all such material is itself part of heaven and earth. Thus, purely rational argument shows that God created ex nihilo, and Augustine often relies on such philosophical argument in his commentaries. But rational argument has left us with an unanswered question: ‘How did God create heaven and earth?' To find the answer, Augustine relies on another favorite exegetical technique: he uses one part of Scripture to illuminate another. For Scripture itself tells us how God made heaven and earth: "He spoke and they were made" (Psalm 33:9) and "By the word of the Lord were the heavens established" (Psalm 33:6). What sort of word was this? It could not have been a word produced by a physical voice and having temporal duration, for there were as yet no physical voices and no time. It must have been an eternal word—in fact, the Word of which John the Evangelist wrote. "And so you call us to understand the Word, God with you, O God, the Word that is uttered eternally and by which all things are uttered eternally" (Conf. 11.7.9). This Word, as Truth itself, is rightly called the Beginning, since "if he did not abide when we went astray, there would be nowhere for us to return to. Now when we return from going astray, we certainly return through knowing; and in order that we might know, he teaches us, since he is the Beginning and also speaks to us" (Conf. 11.8.10).2
So "in the beginning" means "in the coeternal Word." Since the Word is eternal, the divine act of creation is eternal, and there is no room for questions like "What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?" Augustine accordingly embarks on a long explanation of the nature of eternity and time,3 all aimed at showing the folly of such questions and providing us with some insight, inevitably dim and partial, into a mode of existence utterly different from our own life in this realm of beginnings and ends.
Having explained "In the beginning," Augustine moves on to "God created heaven and earth." Here he relies on a passage from the Psalms (115:15-16) where Scripture itself comments on Scripture: "May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth. The heaven of heaven is the Lord's, but the earth he gave to the children of men." Here, "heaven" is identified with the heaven of heaven, and earth means the whole visible creation—including what we conventionally call the heavens (the skies). Augustine understands the "heaven of heaven" to be some sort of intellectual creature that ceaselessly contemplates God and is everlastingly happy in that contemplation. Although it is capable of change, it does not in fact change—so that it is not bound by time.4
Then we are told something about the earth (that is, the whole material creation): "The earth was invisible and unformed." That is, the first step of material creation is formless matter: "Was it not you, O Lord, who taught me that before you gave form and variety to this formless matter, it was not anything: not color, not shape, not body, not spirit? And yet it was not altogether nothing; it was a sort of formlessness, devoid of all beauty" (Conf. 12.3.3). It is not that God actually created formless matter first and then proceeded to form it; this is not a case of temporal succession but of logical priority. Rational analysis shows that underlying all change from one form to another there must be some "stuff" that itself has no form but is capable of taking on form; this is the formless matter of which Augustine speaks.
This formless almost-nothing is timeless, because time is present only where there is change in form. The temporality of creatures means mutability, which is in a sense a limitation; but it is also the sphere in which God can work by forming them. The heaven of heaven is also not temporal, because although changeable, it is never in fact changed. Hence, there is no mention of "day" when "God created the heaven [i.e., of heaven] and the earth [i.e., unformed matter]," because neither of these creations is temporal. We get days only when God starts to form matter in various ways.
In his response Augustine lays out the theory that legitimates his exegetical practice. He begins by stating some things he is quite sure of, things that "truth says to me with a strong voice in my inward ear" (Conf. 12.15.18). Now he had used this expression three times in 12.11, where he was laying out his exegesis in the first place, except there it was "You, Lord, have said to me with a strong voice in my inward ear." Note two crucial differences in the expression as it appears here. First, it has changed from second person to third; the subject now is ‘Truth', which to Augustine means specifically God the Son. Second, it is no longer perfect tense ("you have said") but present ("Truth is saying"). These changes hint at some significant elements of the theory that will emerge. What we learn from Scripture is learned from Truth himself. And Truth is not past but present, always accessible. It is in intellectual "memory," where we see not the images of past realities that are now gone (as is the case with sense memory) but the present—in effect timeless—realities themselves.
There is a careful parallelism in Augustine's invocation of what is said to him "with a strong voice in [his] inward ear." In 12.11 he uses that expression to introduce a discussion of (a) God's eternity, then of (b) the relationship between God and creatures, then of (c) the heaven of heaven; he then adds, independently of that expression, a discussion of (d) the timelessness of unformed matter. The sequence recurs in 12.15. These are the three things he is sure of, because Truth himself tells him: (a) God is eternal and immutable, so there is no succession in him, and therefore no change in his will regarding creatures; (b) everything that exists comes from God, who supremely is; and (c) there is a sublime creature, not coeternal with God, but also not temporal. Finally, he says, (d) there was also formless matter, which was created by God and also was not temporal. At each of these points he imagines asking his objectors, "Is this true?" and they invariably reply, "We do not deny it."
But if the objectors concede all these points—which together constitute almost the whole of Augustine's exegesis—what is their objection? Simply that when Moses wrote of "heaven," he was not thinking of the "heaven of heaven," and when he wrote of "earth," he was not thinking of the whole material creation. So Augustine goes on to consider several rival interpretations of these expressions. What is important for our purposes is not specifically what the different accounts say, but the fact that Augustine maintains that all the accounts are true. He insists that what he says is true, and the objectors should not deny it. But what they say is also true, and he will not deny that either.
This extraordinary generosity towards other interpretations makes perfect sense in light of Augustine's epistemology and philosophy of language. Written words are signs of spoken words, and spoken words in turn are signs of the speaker's thoughts. If all goes well, the written words will exactly capture the spoken words, and the spoken words will perfectly convey the speaker's thoughts; one who reads those words will in turn understand exactly what they mean, and thus the contents of the reader's mind will exactly match the contents of the author's mind. But Augustine is always keen to draw our attention to the many ways in which things might not go so well. A speaker may be lying or self-deceived about what he thinks. The author's thoughts might surpass his skill—perhaps any human skill—to signify them by words. The reader might be too dull or too distracted to make use of the words properly so that they carry his mind to just those realities which they were meant to signify, or the words themselves might be ambiguous. Augustine is, moreover, at least intermittently mindful that he is reading the Scriptures in Latin translation,5 and translation complicates the story even further.
The words of Genesis are ambiguous, at least in the sense that as they stand they do not rule out a variety of rival interpretations, all of them plausible. Now what Moses wrote signifies what Moses would have said, so we could reduce the ambiguity if we could get Moses to speak to us—which, of course, we cannot do:
With Moses matters are somewhat different, since we can assume that Moses knew his own mind and intended to communicate his thoughts faithfully, and since we have a prior commitment to believing that whatever Moses thought and said under divine inspiration was true. Even so, would an interview with Moses be all we needed to overcome the deficiencies of signs? It would not. If he spoke in Latin, Augustine says,
Suppose, then, that Augustine says Genesis 1:1 means x, and I say it means y; suppose further that upon consulting Christ as Inner Teacher we find that both x and y are true. The only question is, which did Moses mean, x or y? Augustine asks, why not both?
Second, notice that I have been speaking thus far only of intelligible realities, since those are the timeless and unchanging realities of which Truth speaks to us in our inward ear. There are also truths that belong to the realm of time and change, and our only independent access to those truths is through our senses. I do not consult Christ the Inner Teacher in order to find out whether my office door is open; I just look. The senses can tell me only about the present; sense memory also tells me about the past—only my own past, though, and not even all of that. This means that most of the past is not merely unknown but unknowable: I cannot know it through the Inner Truth, because it is not a timeless intelligible reality, and I cannot know it through sense or sense memory, because it is not now and never was present to my senses. In that unknowable past are truths that, Augustine believes, I desperately need to be aware of; the most important, of course, is that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The words of Scripture make us aware of such truths in the unknowable past; if we did not believe them on the authority of Scripture, we could not have any beliefs about them at all. Thus, Scripture is indispensable not only because it directs our reason to see what we might otherwise miss, but because it informs us of things that neither reason nor sense can now reveal to us.
For charity is the ultimate aim of all worthy exegesis. "Whoever thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that his understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor has not yet understood them at all" (doctr. chr. 1.36.40). Charity is, moreover, the unifying and animating theme of Augustine's treatise on biblical interpretation, De doctrina christiana (On Christian Teaching). Its message is this: Be always mindful of the end, and be on your guard against the pernicious tendency of means to encroach upon the ends. The end of all things, Augustine insists, is God. He alone is to be loved for his own sake—"enjoyed," in Augustine's terminology. Whatever else is to be loved should be "used," that is, loved for the sake of God. Even human beings, including ourselves, should be "used" in this sense, which does not mean "exploited." But Augustine cannot quite bring himself to talk consistently of "using" ourselves and our fellow human beings, and he defines charity as "the motion of the soul toward enjoying God for his own sake and oneself and one's neighbor for God's sake" (doctr. chr. 3.10.16). Its opposite, cupidity, is "the motion of the soul toward enjoying oneself, one's neighbor, or any bodily thing for the sake of something other than God" (Ibid.). Scripture, Augustine says, "commands nothing but charity and condemns nothing but cupidity" (doctr. chr. 3.10.15).
Interest in Biblical interpretation for its own sake is one such form of cupidity; exegesis is to be used for the sake of charity, not enjoyed for its own sake. In Augustine's metaphor, it is not the distant land where we will be happy, but merely a vehicle by which we may be conveyed there.
The most important tool for understanding unknown literal signs is a thorough knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, so that the interpreter can resolve any doubts that arise from conflicting translations.8 To understand unknown figurative signs the interpreter needs a wide grounding in the nature of the plants, animals, and other things that Scripture uses in its figures; otherwise we will not know (for example) why the dove brought an olive branch back to the ark or why the Psalmist says, "You shall sprinkle me with hyssop." Interpreters must also understand the figurative significance of numbers and should know something of secular history. They should be acquainted with music, the arts, various trades and professions, and sports—not as practitioners, but in order to understand the Scriptures when they use figurative expressions drawn from these areas. Astronomy is only tangentially useful and is too closely allied with the pernicious superstitions of the astrologers to be quite safe. "The science of disputation is of great value for understanding and solving all sorts of questions that arise in the sacred writings" (doctr. chr. 2.31.48), although interpreters must be on their guard against the love of controversy and "childish showing-off in deceiving an adversary" (Ibid.). Moreover, a clever person will recognize fallacious arguments even without studying the rules of inference, and a stupid person will find it too hard to learn the rules. If you can recognize a bad argument when you see it, you do not need to know the technical name for the fallacy it exhibits; and such specialized knowledge is always a temptation to pride in oneself and disdain for others.
In acquiring the knowledge that will permit an intelligent reading of the Scriptures, the Christian exegete is free to draw upon pagan wisdom, even pagan philosophy—especially the Platonists. When the Israelites fled from Egypt, they left behind the idols but took with them the gold and silver, treasures of Egypt that the Israelites could put to better use. So also the Christian must repudiate the "fraudulent and superstitious imaginings" of the pagans but appropriate whatever truths they might have found, the gold and silver that the pagans "extracted from the mines of divine providence" (doctr. chr. 2.40.60). After all, "every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord's" (doctr. chr. 2.18.28). Still, just as the treasures of Israel under Solomon surpassed the Egyptian gold, so also the truths to be found only in Scripture are far more precious than any that can be appropriated from the pagans.
Having discussed the interpretation of unknown signs in Book 2, Augustine proceeds to consider ambiguous signs in Book 3. Ambiguities of punctuation and construction are to be corrected according to the "rule of faith" as it is found in unambiguous passages of Scripture and the teaching of the Church, and by attention to the context, since any good interpretation must preserve internal consistency.9 More difficult are the ambiguities of figurative words. We need some principle for determining whether a locution or a story is literal or figurative, and here Augustine recurs to the theme of charity. "For figurative expressions a rule like this will be observed: what is read should be given careful consideration until an interpretation is produced that contributes to the reign of charity. If such a reading is already evident in the text taken literally, the expression should not be considered figurative" (doctr. chr. 3.15.23). For example, when Scripture says "If your enemy is hungry, give him to eat; if he is thirsty, give him to drink," we should take the admonition literally. But when it goes on to say, "For in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head" (Proverbs 25:21-22, Romans 12:20), we must take this figuratively. A literal heaping of coals of fire would, after all, harm our enemy. We cannot even take the expression figuratively—but uncharitably—as meaning that our act of kindness will shame and confound our enemy; rather, "charity should call you to beneficence, so that you understand the coals of fire to be burning sighs of penitence that heal the pride of one who grieves that he was an enemy of a man who relieved his suffering" (doctr. chr. 3.16.24).
By the same principle, even stories of the evil deeds of great men and women of the faith can be taken literally, since they stand as a warning against pride in our own goodness. (The stories can be taken figuratively as well, but such readings do not take the place of a literal reading.) On the other hand, "no one would seriously believe that the Lord's feet were anointed with precious ointment by a woman, as is the custom among extravagant and worthless men whose entertainments we abhor" (doctr. chr. 3.12.18). The only reading conducive to charity is a figurative one: "the good odor is the good fame that anyone leading a good life will have through his deeds, when he follows in the footsteps of Christ, as if anointing his feet with a most precious odor" (Ibid.).
1. James J. O'Donnell, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), I:xlii-xliv, discusses how "one literary project after another fell to pieces in [Augustine's] hands" in the period between his ordination and the writing of the Confessions. Back.
2. John 8:25 in Augustine's version reads, "So they said to him, 'Who are you?' Jesus said to them, 'The beginning, because I also am speaking to you'." Notice again a familiar pattern: by purely philosophical argumentation Augustine shows us what the creative word could not have been, and then through Scripture he shows us what it was. Back.
3. For Augustine's view of eternity and time, see chapter 3C of this volume. Back.
4. The classic discussion of this mysterious creature (or possibly creatures) is Jean Pépin, Archivium Latinitatis Medii Aevi 23 (1953): 185-274. Back.
5. See, for example, doctr. chr. 2.11.16-2.15.22. Back.
6. Augustine makes a similar argument at doctr. chr. 3.27.38. Back.
7. Book Four discusses rhetorical strategies for teaching and preaching and therefore falls outside our concern in this essay. Back.
8. Augustine's precept is better than his practice: his Greek was mediocre, and he had no Hebrew at all. Consequently, he knew Scripture chiefly in Latin translation. For an overview of what we know about Augustine's version of the Bible, see O' Donnell, 1992, I: lxix-lxxi. Back.
9. Augustine emphasizes this requirement in a number of places. See, for example, Conf. 12.29 and doctr. chr. 1.36.41, 3.2.2, and 3.3.6. Back.