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


Dual Dual Natures

creation_of_man_by_hel999We are reading and I am preaching Genesis, John and later Revelation side by side.  This is an interesting way to see these books from a different perspective. The text’s should not be forced to correlate, but it is interesting how often they do.

In Genesis 2, there is a clear statement of the dual nature of the first human.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”    Genesis 2:7

So this states that humanity is of the dust of the earth – we are made of the matter that surrounds us.  Unlike some views that see the world as a trap or an illusion, the Bible calls the material world (before sin) good. It is doing what it was made to do.  And so human nature ties us to the world.  Adam and Eve are created in the context of a material place – Eden.

While all creatures have the breath of life in them, even the mouse living in your attic has that. Only of “adam” was it said that God directly breathed into him the breath of life.  So this is to say there is a spiritual nature.  The word for “breath” is used here, but it suggests the spiritual nature of humanity.

We have a dual nature – we live and are tasked with working, caring for and enjoying life on the earth – together with others.  Yet we in a unique way have a bond with the creator that is unlike the members of the animal kingdom.

In John 2, there is a wedding.  Jesus and his disciples are in attendance. This is the same Jesus who was described in John 1 with this statement.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14.   In this chapter the Word is the pre-existent, eternal Son of God – present with the father at the creation of the world.  So we see the divine nature of Jesus.  yet the Word became flesh. He did not take up humanity as a disguise, but he became a man.  Jesus has a dual nature that is far beyond ours. He is Divine (“the word”) and Human (“became flesh”)

At the wedding, Jesus took water and with the power of the Creator (“through him all thins were made” John 1:3) turned it into wine.  Compared to Genesis 1, this is a small act.  but compared to how men and women usually make wine, it is a sign of his divine nature. “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”  John 2:11


The church councils did a lot of work to hammer out our confession that in Jesus we have one person who is fully God (the Word) and fully man (became flesh).

People sometimes accuse these theologians of splitting hairs, but it seems to me that Genesis and John are written in simple terms (we can all understand words like word, dust, breath and flesh) but are also deeply theological.

Not everything can fit into Twitter.


Helper in Genesis 2 – Partner or Go-fer?

adam-and-eve-~-vmo0001Genesis 1 is the wide angle lens.  Genesis 2 is the close up.  Here we learn more about the husband and wife relationship.  Read Genesis 2:18-25

             Helper.  All through Genesis 1 the Lord says, “It is good.”  When any part of the world is brought into functioning order, the lord says “It is good.”  At the creation of humanity, he says, it is very good.”  Yet here the Lord looks at Adam alone in the world and says, “It is not good.”

            The Lord is not alone in this opinion.  Man and women have been looking for a partner in life from the get go.  We don’t care much in grade school, and then something happens in middle school to high school and we are maybe even obsessed with trying to find a match.

            I like to say that I met my match and married her.

            Look at all the computer dating sites!  People are looking for someone to partner with.  Yet the word in Genesis 2 is “helper.”    

            In English “helper” sounds like an inferior.

            I was a carpenter’s helper in seminary for a summer.  I learned a lot. But you know I was not the equal of the carpenter.  He got paid more than me.  Whatever he paid me, he charged the customers double and paid himself half of that! 

            I was a UPS driver helper one Christmas.  That was real work and good pay. Now the driver organized packages in the truck and I delivered them to the door. This was in December in Montana – so who got to stay warm and who got cold?  No equality there.         

            Is Eve to be seen as Adam’s helper in that sense?  She is the Go-fer.  She gets the jobs that Adam does not want?

            The trouble with this is that the word Helper in Hebrew is also used of God.  If we say that Eve must be lesser because she is called a “helper” we have to say that the Lord is less than us because he is sometimes called our helper.  Consider just one example of many. Ps 33:20

            “We wait in home for the Lord;

            He is our help and our shield”

             It is the exact same word.  A study of this word shows that it does not contain the idea of being a lesser.  We bring that in because of what “helper ” means in English.  Rather the word simply indicates that one person is offer aid or help, strength or partnership to another.  Only the context indicates if there is some inherent difference.

             Poetry.  Adam composes a little love poem to Eve when he meets her.  He is fascinated. He met all the other creatures in Eden, but Eve, well she was something else.  She was like him, only different!  V. 23.  She will be called woman (ishah) for she was taken out of man (ish).  Man in Hebrew is “ish” – no jokes allowed!  To add a feminine ending in Hebrew you put an “h” at the end.  He is “ish” she is “ishah”, it is the same word with a different ending.  We know that men and women are the same and different.

            It has been pointed out that God did not take from Adam’s foot or head to create Even but from his side.  So she is beside him and near his heart.

             The marriage Verse.  V. 24 is quoted in many places as the foundational verse on marriage.  What does it say?

             There are three parts.  Leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh. 

            The Man leaves his family to be joined to the wife – she does not become a servant of his household.  He leaves so they can start something new.

            He cleaves – this indicates being united as if they were glued together.

            He becomes one flesh with her – this also indicates unity.

             The emphasis here, as I read it, is that a man and a woman are jointed together not as boss and servant. But as two parts of one new unity.  Both belong to each other.  They are to be united in marriage, in the bond of love and in physical unity.


Partnership in Genesis 1 and 2

adam-and-eve-~-vmo0001There are two accounts of human creation.     Genesis 1 is like a photograph with a wide angle lens.  Genesis 2 is like a close up of the specifics.  We start with Genesis 1

Image and Likeness.  Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.  This is what Genesis 1:26-27 says.  The Lord says, “let us make man (adam) in our image and after our likeness…”  The word for “man” is Adam. Sometimes it means “male” sometimes it means “human being”.

Some have said that only men were made in the image of God.  There are some obscure references to support that. However, in the first instance where this arises, in Genesis 1, it is clear to me that “adam” here means both male and female. I give you and immediate and a close reference.


Immediate: Genesis 1:27 

“So God created man (adam) in his own image

In the image of God he created him’

Male and female he created them.”

            The immediate context, verse 27, clearly states that both male and female are ‘adam’ and are created in the Image of God.  How could it be made clearer?  Not just men, not just adults, not just the healthy or the strong, but every human being is made in God’s image.  One reason we respect life – all life – is to show respect for the image of God in another.

Near: Genesis 5:1.  From time to time Genesis makes summary statements that show a transition from one major section to another.  One of these is Genesis 5:1

This is the account of Adam’s line. When god created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God.  He created them male and female and blessed them.  He named them “mankind” (adam) when they were created.”

This summary comment, just 3 chapter later seas the deal.  God created male and female both in the image and likeness of God.  He called them both “adam”. The NIV translates that word “Mankind” to show that it is both male and female.

Partnership.  Notice what the Lord says in Genesis 1:28

“And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth….”

Notice that the Lord did not speak to Adam. He spoke to Adam and Eve; he said to “them” that they are to do these things.

So it is clear in the original text on humanity that men and women were made for partnership.

Naming – Genesis 2:19

   “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  Genesis 2:19

Spring has arrived and the world is returning to life from a winter of sleep.  The birds are loud enough to wake us up through the opened windows.  The trees are budding and some hearty flowers have made it to the sunlight.

When God placed the man and the woman in Eden it was to tend it.  It was also to extend the garden quality of Eden to the world – that is what it meant to “fill the earth and subdue it.”  It is the glory of humanity to bring the peace (shalom) of Eden out into the world.

Adam and Eve failed and we have been failing ever since.  We have worshipped nature, we have abused it, we have given in to it, and we have shaken our fists at its inconveniences.  But that is not our calling

Jesus returned to the world which he had made with the Father and the Spirit (John 1).  His human body was given to death for us – because the Eternal One never needed to die. He accepted death so we can live by faith.

Resurrection Sunday is coming soon, and we are reminded that Jesus was buried in the earth and that by God’s power he sprung up again to life eternal.  He is the first fruit of all the new creation.

So as spring comes around, we of all people ought to enjoy the world that God gave us.  There remains great joy in naming the flowers, trees and birds – for us that is learning their names and their qualities.  Can you identify a Cardinal in the trees?  How about that woodpecker?

We of all people ought to see our relationship with Nature restored to its right place, as part of our whole life being restored by the Gospel

Easter is not about eggs and bunnies. It is about new life, and a new perspective on heaven and earth.

Incognito: My Brother’s Keeper

President Barak Obama spoke to a crowd of over 20,000 at the University of Wisconsin library mall in Madison on September 28, 2010.  In his address, he used a parable about a car driven into the ditch by his predecessors.  But what struck our interest was his comment:  “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.”

this reference goes back to Genesis 4:9.  Cain murdered his brother Abel over a religious argument – The Lord accepted the offering of Abel but not that of Cain.  So in rage he killed his own brother.  Later the Lord confronts Cain and we have this:

Genesis 4:9  ESV
    Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”

    He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Cain’s negative, cynical, murderous attitude speaks for itself.  It is not footnoted in the text with an attached moral, but it is clear that we are to understand that we are our brother’s keepers.

The President applied it to political policy regarding programs to achieve fairness and access to health care.  He also felt the need to re-state the negative as an affirmation, and to add both genders.