St Augustine of Hippo: Are You Turned Toward Your Creator?

Feast of St Joanna the Myrrhbearer

Augustine_Square_4.jpgSACRED SCRIPTURE, taken as a whole, is divided into two parts, as our Lord intimates when He says: “A scribe instructed in the kingdom of God is like a householder who brings forth from his storeroom things new and old” (Mt. 13.52). These new and old things are also called testaments.

In all the sacred books, we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given. In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: “Now all these things that happened to them were symbolic” (1 Cor. 10.11). And he explains the statement in Genesis, “And they shall be two in one flesh” (Gen. 2.24), as a great mystery in reference to Christ and to the Church.

If, then, Scripture is to be explained under both aspects, what meaning other than the allegorical have the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Gen. 1.1)? Were heaven and earth made in the beginning of time, or first of all in creation, or in the Beginning who is the Word, the only-begotten Son of God? And how can it be demonstrated that God, without any change in Himself, produces effects subject to change and measured by time? And what is meant by the phrase “heaven and earth”? Was this expression used to indicate spiritual and corporeal creatures? Or does it refer only to the corporeal, so that we may presume in this book that the author passed over in silence the creation of spiritual beings, and in saying “heaven and earth” wished to indicate all corporeal creation above and below? Or is the unformed matter of both the spiritual and corporeal worlds meant in the expression “heaven and earth”: that is, are we to understand, on the one hand, the life of the spirit as it can exist in itself when not turned towards its Creator (it is by this turning towards its Creator that it receives its form and perfection, and if it does not thus turn, it is unformed); and, on the other hand, bodily matter considered as lacking all the bodily qualities that appear in formed matter when it is endowed with bodily appearances perceptible by the sight and other senses?

But perhaps we should take “heaven” to mean spiritual beings in a state of perfection and beatitude from the first moment of their creation and take “earth” to mean bodily matter in a state that is not yet complete and perfect. “The earth,” says Holy Scripture, “was invisible and formless, and darkness was over the abyss” (Gen. 1.2). These words seem to indicate the formless state of bodily substance. Or does the second statement imply the formless state of both substances, so that bodily substance is referred to in the words, “The earth was invisible and formless,” but spiritual substance in the words, “Darkness was over the abyss”? In this interpretation we should understand “dark abyss” as a metaphor meaning that life which is formless unless it is turned towards its Creator. Only in this way can it be formed and cease being an abyss, and be illumined and cease being dark. And then what is the meaning of the statement, “Darkness was over the abyss”? Was there no light? If there was any light at all, there would be a great abundance of it, for that is the way it is in the case of a spiritual creature that turns to God, the changeless and incorporeal Light.

—St Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

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