St. Augustine on Theological Modesty



I’ve been reading “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” by St. Augustine. Here are a couple of timely quotes from a 5th Century author. (page, chapter and paragraph numbers are added.)


“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such as case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side, that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to with ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” P. 41 (18.37)

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycle of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame in not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts when they themselves have learnt from the experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of the Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one if their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.  For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statement, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”  P. 42 (19.39)

St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., Newman Press, NY, 1982



Reading an old Book


I am reading St. Augustine’s “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” and found this quote. It is interesting because I am curious what pre-scientific era Christians had to say about Genesis.

Book 1, paragraph 25

“…although water still covered all the earth, there was nothing to prevent the massive watery sphere from having day on one side by the presence of light and on the other side,  night by the absence of light.” (underline added)

Hmmm. So much for flat earth thinking.

Genesis 22 and Jesus – Fair?

John Walton says that it is not really fair to compare Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac to the sacrifice of Christ.  He says that it is not mentioned in the New Testament.  (Bible Story Handbook)  Then again, a good OT scholar, Derek Kidner is not averse to making the link. (Tyndale OT Commentary).

One question is whether the NT is the only fair interpreter of the OT when it comes to Christological passages.  That is, we can only go where the NT has already gone.  On the other hand, it would seem in several places that there is a rich mine in the OT that is fairly compared to the NT, not all of which is in the NT.  Note these two comments:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  Luke 24:17  This is the risen Christ giving a tutorial to the disciples on the Emmaus Road.  the book of Hebrews makes many connections as does Paul in I Corinthians.  For example, ” Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, to whom the end of the ages has come.”

There needs to be some care taken, so we don’t make up what is not there.   So what then is the case for comparing Isaac to Jesus?

1.  The phrase “your son, your only son, whom you love” evokes the feel of John 3:16 “…who sent his only son.”

2.  Isaac is the entire promised Seed of Abraham (seed can be singular or plural as in english) at that point of Genesis 22, all of the promises of God to Abraham, to bless him and the nations are down to Isaac.  There is much exegetical material indicating that Christ is the fulfillment of the “seed” promise, first mentioned in Genesis 3:15.

3.  The idea of a sacrifice and of a substitution is in Genesis 22.  The NT sees the cross as a sacrifice and as a substitution of Christ for the sinner in bearing the cost of sin.

4.  Isaac does not, in the end, have to experience death, but Christ does.

5.  God will provide (twice in Genesis 22) fits with Christ as God’s provision – for example John’s call, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (Jn 1:29)

Now what for the arguments against.

1.  The NT does not cite this event in this way.

2.  Abraham’s sacrifice is a test, not a substitute.

3.  Jesus was willing, but we don’t know what Isaac thought.


In all it is fair to be careful, and not to overstate or over emotionalize the passage. However, it seems to me that the comparison is in the text when viewed from teh NT perspective.  Just as it seems to be that Moses offered to give his life in exchange for the people is also fair. (Ex 32:32)  What Moses was not permitted to do was what Christ did.  This also is not mentioned in the NT.

Also, we need to be careful not to allow the typology overwhelm the actual NT teaching.  There is a suggestion or a shadow of what is to come.  What came later can be understood in the light of what came before.  However, what came later more or less supersedes the previous.  The light of Isaac is not from Isaac, so much that he is a suitable surface from which the light of Christ can reflect.




Genesis 22 – not for the Kiddos?

John Walton in his book , The Bible Story Handbook, has some good notes on Genesis 22. However the last line says, “Finally, this is not a story to tell young children.”

So we are telling the story in church before the Children’s Church leaves the service.  this means all kids over 5 years are in church.

It is a hard story – Abraham asked to take his own sons life.  Is it too much for kids?  Will they become insecure at home?

It also depends on the telling – how much the story-teller magnifies the drama and the fear and loathing that went along with this event.  Something else to ponder this

Genesis 22 – approaching a text

So Genesis 22, where Abraham is asked to offer Isaac as a sacrifice is an amazing passage. For example:

  • How could God ask this?
  • Does this condone human sacrifice?
  • Would Abraham be in Jail if he tried this today?
  • Is this a description of how God did offer his own Son on a hill?
  • Does this compare to the passage later where Moses offered to remove himself from “the book” if God would forgive the people?
  • What does the text intend for us to understand?

Just starting, I’ll let you know later what I come up with.

Two Texts, Two Reasons to Rest

The two times the 10 commandments are given, in Exodus 20 (the first time) and in Deuteronomy 5 (re-stated) contain some differences. One is the evident different reason given for the Sabbath command.  Read for yourself:

Exodus 20:8-11 ESV –  8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but theseventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Deuteronomy 5:12-5 – 12“‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Genesis gives a Creation-related explanation and Deuteronomy gives one related to the Exodus.  In the first case, we rest because God “rested” from his work of creation.  In the second case, we rest because God’s salvation liberated them from the bondage of oppressive work under the hand of slave-drivers.

Since God’s rest is not caused by the Almighty growing tired, we look for a reason.  John Walton suggests that when a god rested, in ancient near east religions, it meant that he took his place in a temple.  Genesis then is saying that the Lord on the 7th day was done with the initial creative act, and that he fully inhabited his universe as the One who is in charge.  We Rest then not in imitation (bc our “rest” is different that God’s “rest”), but in trust.

The oppression of work was the life of the Slaves in Egypt – the very concept of slavery is that a person is only meaningful so far as his or her work provided value.  Now Israel has a newer Master, it is no longer the Pharoah.  This new Master gives them one day in 7 without work.  This is a reminder that life is more than work and the things that work produces.  Note that servants and aliens in Israel were also to keep the Sabbath rest.

We should observe the Sabbath, because it goes back to the beginning, beyond the covenant law of Israel.  Since we know the Lord is Lord, we can rest.  We should observe it also because life is more than work, food, clothing and money.

The Lord Rested….in a hammock?

On the 7th day the Lord rested from all his work.  On the basis of that, Exodus 20:8 says that we ought to rest.

Now is this because God somehow needs to rest as we do?  It seems contrary to the uniform description of God as the Almighty who does not grow tired (Isaiah 40, Psalm 121).  Most of us have read this at a simple level.  From the greater to the lesser: If God has to rest, so should you.

What if we apply the concept that John Walton suggests.  In Ancient Near East culture, a “god” rested in its temple in the sense that it took possession and assumed control.  So the rest of God is not that he is akimbo in a hammock.  It is rather that on the 7th day (which is not terminated in Genesis 1 like days 1 through 6) God assumes possession and control of the heavens and the earth as his dwelling place.

We then rest, not in imitation, but to show that we trust that the Almighty can in fact take care of us on that one day in seven when we do not work, or the one year on 7 when the land rests or the one year in 49 when debts are forgiven.  Our rest is not imitation but response.

This makes more sense theologically.  It fits the core meaning of the word for sabbath, which means to stop or cease.  God stopped creating (because he was done, and the world was “very good”); we cease from working to rest and to enjoy life with our Creator.