Living in Holy Saturday

PART I: THE PRESENT CRISIS

It would come to be called Holy Saturday.  For the disciples it felt like anything but.  They had run away, literally and figuratively, from their Lord in the garden.  Now they are holed up in a locked room somewhere in Galilee, in grief and shock, praying that this will all pass soon.  They want to just get back to “normal”, to their fishing nets, their account books, their quiet and unassuming lives.  This whole Jesus thing had been a wild gamble, a reckless and ill-conceived pipe dream that had blown up in their faces.  Now their “savior” was dead and their hopes for the future with him.  If they could escape from this predicament with their lives, they would try to forget that it ever happened and just go back to being the backwater Jews they always knew themselves to be.  There had been false messiahs before Jesus and there would be more afterward.  Now was the time to be sensible and rational.  Living in fear may not be fun, but it is also the best way to stay safe.  All you have to give up is your dreams.

Mary Magdalene had seen where they laid him.  She had laughed bitterly at the irony of this poor carpenter being put to rest in the tomb of a rich man.  The wealthy and powerful had ignored Jesus, and then, when they took notice, they conspired to kill him.  Occupying a rich man’s tomb was, perhaps, His way to get the last laugh.  At least it was some solace in this whole miserable affair.  Watching them roll the stone into place, she didn’t cry.  She had no more tears to give.  She was filled instead with purpose.  She would go home and prepare the spices to anoint the body.  The past few days she had been at at a loss for what to do; she just felt so powerless.  But this…this was something she could do.  She had some of the necessary ointments and spices in jars; some of the other women had the others.  Thank God it was spring and she could harvest what she was missing.  She would do what she must, just as we all do what we must.  She would anoint the body and then return to her “normal” life.

But Mary knew, just as the disciples did, that there was no going back to “normal”.  Everything had changed.  Jesus might be dead, but He was still alive in their minds and in their hearts.  He haunted their dreams.  He had given them a new vision for life, a miraculous and hopeful message of love and radical generosity.  He had obliterated everything they thought they knew about God.  How could they possibly return to “normal”?  Sometimes the world upends all of our comfortable assumptions.  During such times, we cannot go back to the way things were.  We can only move forward.  But how?  How can we go on living when everything we hoped for lies dead on the floor in front of us?  The disciples hid in a room and waited for the sky to fall on top of them.  Mary and the other women planned to muddle through as best they could.  In either case, “abundant life” (John 10:10) was off the table. Wherever Jesus might be, He wasn’t there.  The disciples, Mary Magdalene, even Jesus’ own mother, were alone.

PART II: THE HIDDEN WORK

The harrowing of hell and the victory of Christ | Joel J. Miller

Meawhile, Jesus was in hell.  He “descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9, KJV) where “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19) and “preached even to those who are dead” (1 Pet. 4:6).  The Apostles Creed puts it bluntly: “he descended into hell” (sometimes translated “the dead” for our delicate modern ears).  It sounds even better in the Latin of the Athanasian Creed: descendit ad inferos (descended into hell).  All well and good, but it begs the question: what in God’s name is He doing down there?  The one guy who actually deserves to go to heaven is in hell?  Talk about the death of hope!  Yet it is here, in the depths of hell itself, that we find the first glimmers of new life.

Let me be clear: what exactly Jesus was up to during that holy Saturday is speculation.  However, we know that before Christ there was no salvation, even for the most faithful of the Jewish patriarchs.  The Law and the whole sacrificial system simply existed to remind people of their sins and the holiness of God.  In the blunt words of Hebrews, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4).  So what happened to faithful Jews who did their best to follow God?  Well, according to the Old Testament, they ended up in sheol a.k.a. “the grave”.  Where is that?  I haven’t the foggiest idea.  Jesus himself refers to “Abraham’s bosom” in Luke 16:22 during the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but that doesn’t really clear things up either.  The sense is that sheol was some sort of prison or holding pen, which sounds a bit like hell to me.  Perhaps the patriarchs and prophets were huddled together just as the disciples were, wondering when God would show up and fearful of what could come next.  The arrival of Jesus in both these locked rooms came, to say the least, as a shock.

This whole episode is known in Christian theology as the Harrowing of Hell.  It upends the idea that Jesus’ resurrection power began on Sunday morning.  He was already busy liberating prisoners, defeating Satan, and raising the dead on Saturday.  In the icon above, you can see Jesus hauling Adam and Eve out of the grave while various Old Testament figures (and John the Baptist) look on.  That icon is symbolic of Christ saving all of humanity from hell (as represented by our primordial father and mother), but it also might be literal.  This certainly seems to be implied by Matthew’s account of the moments after Jesus’ death on the cross: “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (27:51-53).  Christ’s resurrection power began at the moment of His death.  He was never, not for one moment, defeated.  The moment of His greatest humiliation and weakness was also the moment of his greatest triumph.  The harrowing of hell was fait accompli from the second that the devil made the mistake of killing Our Lord.

So while the disciples were huddled in fear behind locked doors and the women were preparing to anoint the dead body, Jesus was doing a hidden work.  Christ is here to chew bubblegum and save souls, and He’s all out of bubblegum.  Salvation is what Christ does; it’s who He is.  Just because His followers could not see Him working did not mean that He had stopped doing His work.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, never stopped being with those whom He loved.  He was just working in unexpected and hidden ways.  He left the disciples alone on earth (for all of 36 hours or so) to accomplish an even greater work than they could possibly imagine.  It is true that the disciples had buried all their hope with the dead body of their Savior.  But that was actually good news.  Because their hope was too small, their vision too limited.  God’s plan was far greater than they could possibly see with mortal eyes.  And in the dark of that early Sunday morning, Christ would complete His plan and bring it (and Himself) back to the earth.

PART III — HOPE

So what is hope, that thing with feathers?  Well, that’s far too big a topic to append to the conclusion of a blog post.  It’s tricky because, of course, we can’t see it.  As Paul puts it, “for in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:24-25).  Hope, by definition, always exists in the future.  We never achieve “hope” because it always runs ahead of us, disappearing like a mirage as we reach it.  I’m reminded of the conclusion of The Great Gatsby: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eludes us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther….And one fine morning —  So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

One verse of Scripture that seems demonstrably false is this one: “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5 NKJV).  But hope does disappoint, all the time.  It’s all well and good to have God’s love and the Holy Spirit.  But whence hope?  We hope and pray that the child with cancer does not die, and they die anyway.  We hope that we can defeat our addictions only to fall into them time after time.  We hope for economic security and health only to see a global pandemic kill the most vulnerable and destroy the economy.  Hope disappoints again and again and again and again.  It is foolish to hope, for at best you will look stupid and at worst you will be ruined.  The best course of action is to hide away as best you can, give up on your dreams, and just try to survive.  That is the nature of life on this earth: nasty, brutish, and short.  Why does God keep promising to fulfill our hopes when He clearly has no intention of following through?  Why does He say that He will be “with us always” (Matt. 28:20) when He abandons us at the hour of our greatest need?  There is a storm and the sea is so big and our boat is so small.  And Jesus is just laying there, fast asleep.

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is to read the verse in context (a radical notion!).  Here is the whole passage (Rom. 5:1-11 ESV):

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Like the disciples, our hope is set on the wrong things.  We hope to “get back to normal”.  We hope for prosperity, health, fulfilling labor, family, friendship, and all the rest.  None of these are necessarily bad things; most are good.  But if we set our hope on them, they will disappoint us and put us to shame.  Our hope lies in the fact that through our faith in Christ, by the power of his death and resurrection, we have peace with God.  In the verses right before the verse I just attacked, Paul discusses how we must rejoice in suffering.  He had no illusions about the nature of life, and how our little hopes can be dashed.  But he points us higher, toward our living Hope.  As Peter put it, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).  Even if everything around us is falling apart, we know that God is doing a hidden work.  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).  We cannot change our circumstances — we can only control how we react to them.  Having hope, putting our faith in the solid rock of Christ amid the shifting sands of this world, is an intentional act.  That hope, the hope we choose, does not disappoint and will not put us to shame.

To be totally honest, I was struggling mentally and spiritually even before COVID-19 made its unwelcome appearance.  My prayer life had dried to nothing; my Bible was collecting dust; I was irritable and withdrawn from my family and the world at large.  I still feel disconnected from the world, like I’m looking at everything through a pane of glass or a dense fog.  I’m just marking time, trying to cobble together some semblance of “normal”.  But I’m afraid that ship has sailed.  I say all of this to show that I’m no expert in hope and certainly not someone you should come to for advice on how to handle this crazy time.  But I’m trying to have hope.  And it seems to me that this pandemic makes our situation clearer than ever.  We are living in Holy Saturday, in a time between the death of our false hopes and the realization of our true Hope.  How this will all play out is anyone’s guess.  But we must learn to set our hope not on what is seen but what is unseen. “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18b).  Jesus has a way of showing up in locked rooms to those who are quarantined, for whatever reason.  Let us wait in eager anticipation of His arrival.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

[Jesus said,] “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

–John 16:33 (ESV)

There is a picture hanging in my room over my dresser, right next to my icon of St. Christopher.  It features three men in dapper attire (sport coats, dress shoes, hats) browsing the shelves of a library.  An ordinary, even pedestrian, scene.  Except for the fact that the library has no roof, just a few exposed wooden beams.  Debris is strewn over the floor of the library, with roof tiles and wooden beams lying next to ladders and upturned chairs and what looks to be a shelf from a card catalog.  Dust hangs in the air, catching the sunlight streaming through the open roof.  The patrons seem undisturbed by this, however; one of the men has his foot jauntily propped on a piece of rubble.  You see, this is Holland House Library, London in September, 1940.  London was undergoing the Blitz, a furious bombing campaign by the Nazi Luftwaffe that would last for eight more months.  In this time, the resolve of the British people was stretched almost to the breaking point.  But, inspired by Winston Churchill’s admonition to “never surrender”, the “Blitz spirit” prevailed over Nazi bombs and England stood strong as the last holdout of freedom and democracy in Western Europe.  It was in these eight months that the tide began to turn in the war and, thanks to people like the men in this photograph, the United States was able to use the British islands as a staging area for the great counterattack of D-Day.

This picture is deeper than just the historical context, though.  To me, it represents the irrepressible human urge to seek higher things, even in the midst of Armageddon.  To get through the crisis was not just a matter of surviving, but of holding on to that which makes us human.  It’s not just staying alive, but remembering what life is for.  These men could hardly have been in denial about the gravity of the situation in which they found themselves.  But to cower in fear like a wounded animal would be to let the Nazis win, to give them exactly what they wanted.  Evil wishes for us to live in fear, suspicion, selfishness, and hatred.  It demands that we close ourselves off from one another, treating our neighbors as a threat.  To fight that requires a choice to live in hope, compassion, humility, and love.  I hung that picture on my wall to remind myself to live in the “Blitz spirit” every day.

*****

My kindergartner daughter is, like many other children, out of school for the foreseeable future.  My wife, a former preschool teacher and all-around superhero, has tried to keep her on a normal schedule, doing “school” at home.  Ruth loves this new regime (so far).  I’ve noticed that, unlike adults, children relish change.  I think that may be because their life is just an endless series of changes.  A crisis is more exciting that scary because they exist in a kind of constant state of crisis.  Life comes at you fast when you’re five, so what’s a global pandemic to them but just another challenge to face, like learning to read or how to tie their shoes.  A child, at least a well-loved and emotionally adjusted child, views new challenges more as opportunities than catastrophes.  It’s a chance to try a new way of existing, a new window that has been flung open due to the forceful closing of all the doors.  Perhaps once this enforced isolation has become “normal” it will chafe, but for now it’s still new and exciting.  Maybe we could all learn to experience this crisis as an opportunity for hope.

*****

I don’t really have anything new or profound to say about the outbreak of COVID-19.  The Gospel Coalition (to pick among many options) has two good articles on this:  8 Things the Coronavirus Should Teach Us and Responding to Pandemics: 4 Lessons from Church History.  Many Christians much smarter than me are writing about it, and I don’t feel I have much to add.  Speaking of smart Christians, now is a good time to read C.S. Lewis’s sermon “Learning in War-Time” on why we should continue to pursue more than just survival, even as the world falls down around our ears.  I keep bringing up the Blitz because I think living in wartime is a good analogy for dealing with a pandemic.  Life will change dramatically and we must adjust our lifestyles to the new reality and not stick our heads in the sand.  At the same time, especially as Christians, we must also not give way to fear or despair.  As Lewis points out,

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.

Replace the word war with “pandemic” and the point stands today.  Situations like these disabuse us of the idea that we shall live forever and that we can create heaven on earth.  It reminds us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1).  That all of this is happening during this season is no accident I think.  As Andy Crouch, former executive editor of Christianity Today, joked on Twitter: “Honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent”.  We are being called by God to make extraordinary sacrifices during this penitential time; the world has just caught up for once.  Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise.  “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’” (Joel 2:2-3a).

*****

So what are we to do?  I find it helpful, when I don’t know what to do (and I don’t know what to do), to return to first principles.  What is the greatest commandment, the guiding star for our life as Christians?  Jesus gives us a very clear answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-9).  So how do we love God and our neighbor in such times?  Well, one obvious way to love our neighbor is not to get them sick.  While social distancing may feel like an unloving act, it is actually a self-sacrificial service to our vulnerable neighbors.  By listening to the guidance of those in authority over us (keeping in mind Romans 13:1), we act as good stewards of the grace given us.  This virus is a demonic attack and we can fight the devil best by stamping out this attack by every reasonable means necessary.  If that means staying home, we stay home.  I have seen some Christians act like it’s an act of faith to deny the virulence of COVID-19 and live normally.  That’s not faith — it’s arrogance and denial.  We live in a fallen world, ridden with disease and sin.  To act like the grace of God gives us some magic immunity to suffering and death is not just stupid, it’s un-biblical, un-Christian, and denies the great commandment.  We love others, the sick and the sinful, the lonely and the faithless, because we are no better than they are.  We are all saved by grace alone, and Jesus expressly said he would not remove us from the world or its troubles (“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” [John 17:15]).  Prudence is not a lack of faith; it is loving God and our neighbor with our minds as well as our hearts.

All that said, we are not called to live in fear either.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).  In order to love, we must pray to overcome fear.  I am an anxious person.  In some ways this helps me deal with a crisis, because the crisis gives my anxiety something to latch on to.  But then again, it can also lead to utter paralysis, a constant asking of “what if?”  We do well to remember that we always live under the shadow of our mortality and that we cannot, by our worrying, add a single hour to our life (Matt. 6:27).  In times like these, we are called to do what we should always be doing.  Seek first the kingdom of God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Choose life.  Become like a little child.  The message of the Gospel has not changed and it will not change.  How to live that out in our day calls for careful thought and prayer.  So, as the famous sign from the London Blitz put it, “keep calm and carry on”.  We all have difficult choices to make, especially those in political and Church leadership.  We should pray for such people and show them grace as they make hard decisions.  Trust God, wash your hands, and we will get through this.  “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20).

Need Some Lenten Reading?

Hello again, everyone!  Life has been crazy for me of late, so, unfortunately, I will not be blogging through Lent as I have from time to time in the past.  However, if you haven’t read some of my previous series, Lent is a great time to jump in.  I have put links to the beginning of each series and brief descriptions below.  I may also post occasionally this Lent as inspiration strikes.  May God bless you as you seek to draw closer to Him!

Every 3:16 in the Old Testament: Each day in this series I take a look at a chapter 3, verse 16 from a different book of the Old Testament (inspired by that most famous verse in the Bible from John’s gospel).  This somewhat random way to survey the Old Testament opened up some fascinating insights that I would have never come to otherwise.  Every verse of Holy Scripture is truly precious.  Join me on this strange, exhilarating, moving, and inspiring ride!

The Book of Philemon, verse-by-verse: From the macro to the micro, this study takes a deep dive into the book of Philemon, covering just one verse per day.  Again, slowing down opens up new insights that a quick reading might otherwise miss.  This warm and personal book would make a wonderful companion for the season of Lent.

Catching Fire, Becoming Flame: A Guide for Spiritual Transformation: This study, based on a wonderful book by Albert Haase, opens up many avenues to spiritual growth and gives practical, down-to-earth advice on how to catch the fire of the Holy Spirit in daily living (click here to buy the book).  If you don’t want to buy the book, that’s fine; the meditations were written to stand alone as well.  This is the only one of these studies designed to be done during Lent and fits in well with anyone wanting to take on new spiritual practices or who just wants a closer walk with God.

Augustine’s Confessions: This is my most recent series, a study of one of the timeless classics of Christian literature.  This book, despite being “important”, is also remarkably relatable and, for lack of a better word, modern.  Augustine’s journey from doubt to faith, and sin to salvation, is a perfect fit for the season of Lent.  While there are more than 40 meditations, you can easily finish books one through nine (the “autobiography” part of the work) during Lent.  This is one of those “bucket list” books, and what better time than this holy season to experience it.  Here is a link to my favorite translation.

And, if you are not feeling ambitious, I have a meditation on the meaning of Ash Wednesday.

Thanks for reading and God bless you!

Book XIII, Chapters 28-38: The Good Creation and The Rest of God

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

–Hebrews 4:9 (ESV)

Chapter 28: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Gen 1:31).  While each part of creation is good in itself, taken together it is “very good”.  “Severally good, they are exceedingly good all together.”  Just at the parts of the body are good, they only become “exceedingly good” when working together (the analogy to the Body of Christ should be clear).  God created the universe to work together in harmony for the good of all His creatures.  The piecemeal nature of creation does not mean that it was haphazardly thrown together.  Nothing was left to chance — all of creation (before the Fall, at least) conformed to the plan and the will of God.

Chapters 29&30:  After reminding us again that the succession of days does not mean that God experienced the passage of time, Augustine gets one last shot in at the Manichees before finishing his book.  Essentially, it seems that they believed that God was “forced” to create the world by welding together a bunch of pre-existing parts.  God constructed this cosmos to defeat his enemy, although much of what we see in the world was actually created by an evil “god”.  “People who allege this are mad,” Augustine declares.  This concept of creation simply does not logically hold together.  To be clear on the orthodox view of creation:  God created the world from nothing and of His own free will.  There is no pre-existent enemy, but rather an enemy who rebelled against God by using the free will given him by God.  At the point of creation, the entire universe, everything visible and invisible, was created good.  Nothing and no one, not even Satan himself, is inherently evil.

Chapter 31:  How do we know all of this?  The only person who knows God is the very Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11).  But, of course, we have the Spirit dwelling inside of us (see, e.g., Rom. 8:9).  Therefore, we can know and perceive the goodness of God by His Spirit who lives within us.  In some mysterious way, God is looking at His world through our eyes and seeing the goodness therein.  That, I suppose, is what it means to put on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).  “Through him we see that everything is good which in any degree has being, because it derives from him who has being in no degree at all, but is simply He Is” (see Ex. 3:14).  Our perception of reality becomes more accurate the more we are united with the basis of that reality, God Himself.  And the reality is that everything and every person, no matter how twisted by evil, retains some good simply because they exist and that existence came from our infinitely-good God.

Chapters 32,33&34:  In these chapters, Augustine summarizes both the literal meaning of Genesis 1 and his allegorical interpretation of it.  There’s not much new to say, as this is just summary, but I didn’t want you to think I was skipping anything.  Moving on!

Chapters 35&36:  Augustine concludes this book and the Confessions as a whole, appropriately, with rest.  He prays for “the peace that is repose, the peace of the Sabbath, and the peace that knows no evening.”  Of course, this is a reference to the seventh day of creation: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:2-3).  I love the image of the Sabbath rest of God as eternal.  “But the seventh day has no evening and sinks toward no sunset, for you sanctified it that it might abide forever.”  The book has come full circle.  Just as our hearts are unquiet until they rest in God, so Augustine reminds us that God’s Sabbath rest is eternal life.  As the author of Hebrews puts it (in the verses following the epigraph for today): “Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:10-11).  We enter the rest of God through obedience to Him, through a life united to God in the Holy Spirit.

Chapters 37&38:  Of course, we still have work to do and God is still working in His world.  “But you yourself, Lord, are ever working, ever resting.”  Paradoxically, we rest in God even as we continue to work and strive in this fallen world.  God exists beyond all that, in eternal rest, yet He has come to dwell with us in time through Jesus Christ and in each believer by the Holy Spirit.  Thus, he is ever working and ever resting.  So must we be until we achieve that final rest promised to all who put their hope in Him.

In the end, we see all created things because God made them, but for God it is the reverse: “they exist because you see them”.  Everything that is exists because God sees it and wills it to continue being.  Read Psalm 104 for a beautiful picture of God’s all-encompassing providence over creation and His care for everything from the starry host to wild donkeys.  All of these things are good, and we are good, at least as much as we share in the gift of God.  But even that goodness is transient, for “the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17).  Whatever rest we have on this side of the grave is temporary and partial.  “But you, the supreme Good, need no other good and are eternally at rest, because you yourself are your rest.”  God is already at rest.  No matter what happens in this crazy, temporal world, God is not perturbed. If we abide in Him, we too can share in His rest.  So Augustine ends the book by reminding us to ask, seek, and knock (Matt. 7:7-8).  For God has promised to open the door to all who seek Him.  May we, like Augustine, seek God with all that we have and are, and, in doing so, enter the rest of God.

Quote for meditation:  “Your creation sings praise to you so that we may love you, and we love you so that praise may be offered to you by your creation.”

Book XIII, Chapters 22-27: God’s Image and Man’s Dominion

…you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

–Colossians 3:9b-10 (ESV)

Chapter 22:  We now move on to the rest of day six, which is the creation of mankind: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen 1:26a).  Augustine notes that, unlike the animals, we were not made “according to our kind”.  Instead, we were made in the image of God.  This means that the standard of what it means to be human is not whatever our fellow man has gotten up to, but rather the Triune God Himself.  Augustine points out that God says to make man in our image and after our likeness, both plural pronouns.  Yet in verse 27 it says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”, which are singular pronouns.  The Holy Trinity, Three persons in one God, created us to be like him, both plural and singular, containing being, knowledge, and will and yet still only one creature.  To settle for anything less than reflecting the image of God is to deny that which we were created for.

Chapter 23:  Genesis 1:26 continues, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  This passage is quite controversial in our own day, as it has been used to justify environmental degradation or at least disregard for our human vocation as stewards of creation.  Augustine is, once again, concerned more with the allegorical interpretation of “dominion”.  What, exactly, are we in charge of?  He begins by eliminating some things.  We are not in dominion over Scripture or any of “the splendors of wisdom ablaze in the vault of heaven”.  God’s revelation is sacrosanct.  It is also not for us to declare who is saved and who damned.  We cannot tell on the basis of virtuous (or sinful) action alone the state of someone’s soul.  Such judgments are only God’s to make, a state of affairs for which we can all be thankful (cf. Matt. 7:1).  Rather, we are to judge the actions themselves (“they judge and approve what they find done rightly, but condemn anything they find amiss”).  We have “dominion” over the actions we and others take.  This dominion is carried out in both Word and Sacrament.  It seems like Augustine is mainly speaking about clerical authority here, but earlier he said that this applied to all believers.  He doesn’t go into detail about how this “dominion” should be carried out within the Church or toward the non-believer.  Perhaps he doesn’t see that as the point of this study.  Oh, well.

Chapter 24: On to verse 28 — “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”.  Augustine is very concerned with this special command to be fruitful and multiply.  Only the sea creatures (v. 22) and humanity are given this command, but clearly all the animals on the earth are fruitful and multiply.  “What sort of mystery have we here?” Augustine muses, with some consternation.  After much hemming and hawing, Augustine concludes that “the fecundity of our human reason leads us to interpret the breeding of humans as a symbol of truths processed by the intelligence”.  In other words, we are to increase and multiply knowledge to all the world, presumably the knowledge of God through preaching and evangelism.  In such a way to we increase and multiply the members of God’s household by incorporating new members and by increasing the knowledge of God.  This seems reasonable, although perhaps it’s about more than just reason and knowledge.  I think Augustine’s intellectual nature and Neoplatonic training have gotten the better of him again.  I believe that we increase and multiply the kingdom through the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.  This involves everything we are, requiring that we love God with our hearts and souls as well as with our minds (Matt. 22:37).  In other words, I agree that the verse can be read figuratively, but I don’t think Augustine goes far enough.

Chapters 25&26: Verses 29 & 30 — “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’”  Augustine reiterates that the fruit of the earth represents “the works of mercy produced by fertile soil to meet the needs of this present life.”  As Christians, we are nourished through performing good works (and as beneficiaries of those same works).  Augustine inserts a caveat: “Only those who find this food delicious are nourished by it; people whose god is their belly do not enjoy it” (cf. Phil. 3:19).  At this point, Augustine meanders off on a long example from Philippians chapter 4 of how this is lived out which I found only sporadically illuminating.  The main point is succinctly summarized: “What is your food, then? Joy!”  By rejoicing no matter the circumstance (Phil. 4:11-13), St. Paul was able to be fed by works of mercy and by seeing the fruits of his labor for the Church.  Paul rejoices over the growth that his disciples are showing “as though over a once-fertile field brought back into good heart”.  I sense Augustine the bishop identifying with Paul the apostle here.  By all accounts, Augustine cared deeply about those under his care in Hippo, and his “food” was to see the Church grow in the knowledge and love of God.  In any case, it is surely by works of mercy that the Body of Christ is fed and brought to greater unity.

Chapter 27: I’m not sure what Augustine is getting at when he says that unbelievers “do not truly feed their guests” when they give aid to believers.  He could just be trying to make his analogy work, or perhaps there’s something deeper here.  Maybe he’s simply saying that doing good works without a relationship with the Giver of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (Jas. 1:17) is ultimately fruitless.  We are not saved by works, and being a “good person” without God does not lead to a fruitful life that will feed others.  Perhaps it would be better to say that the unbelieving “do not fully feed their guests” for even the unbeliever benefits from common grace and can show that grace (and love) to others.  In charity to Augustine, that’s how I’ll choose to read this chapter.

Conclusion:  You can feel Augustine straining to fit each verse into a singular, figurative analogy for the Church.  It mostly works, but it’s a bit lumpy around the edges.  I do like the figurative reading of these verses, though, and I think taking each verse in turn and trying to discover deeper meaning can be fruitful.  The basic point of these chapters, that we were created in the image of God to serve Him and our neighbor and to become like Him, stands tall and is worth reflecting on.  May we never forget that we bear the image of God and may we use our dominion over the earth to bring forth life and to bear good fruit in the Holy Spirit.

Quote for meditation: “Our spirit feeds on what gives it joy.”

Book XIII, Chapters 18-21: Creation and the Life of Faith

[Jesus said,] “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”.

–Matthew 5:14 (ESV)

In these chapters, Augustine continues his allegorical interpretation of the days of creation in Genesis chapter one.  Let’s dive right in.

Day Four (Chapters 18&19; Gen. 1:14-19):  When God created “lights in the expanse of the heavens”, Augustine is reminded of the day of Pentecost.  On that day, the Spirit lighted on the disciples as flames of fire (Acts 2:3).  “So they became luminaries in the vault of heaven, endowed with the word of life.”  We can join the disciples as luminaries in the heavens if we “lay hold on the Word of Life above…firmly set in the vault that is your scripture.”  Through prayer and contemplation of scripture, we become the light of the world.  I find it interesting that Augustine sees the works of mercy as coming first since they are the natural outgrowth of faith.  He assumes that we will, of course, be about works of mercy and must be convinced to pray, study, and meditate.  I feel like it is often the other way around.  In any case, the Christian life involves both and they feed on each other, just as the land and the sky are united through the cycles of nature.

Augustine equates the specific lights in the heavens with the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.  He equates the sun (“the greater light to rule the day”) with the gift of wisdom and the moon (“the lesser light to rule the night”) with the gift of knowledge.  It is entirely unsurprising that Augustine would choose these two gifts to represent the greatest lights in the heavens, as he has spent twelve books delving into his own wisdom and knowledge to discover God.  Also, those are the first two gifts that Paul lists, so maybe it’s just that.  As for the remainder of the gifts (faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, and tongues), “all these are like stars”.  As someone in the charismatic tradition, I find it fascinating that Augustine seems to view the spiritual gifts as a primarily evangelistic.  Signs and wonders convert the lost, just as they did on the day of Pentecost in Acts.  Maybe John Wimber was on to something with his idea of “power evangelism”!  The “race of the elect…shine in the firmament that the heavens may proclaim his glory.”  Augustine sounds like a modern evangelical here, ending the chapter with the exhortation: “Run, then, and make him known to all nations.”

Before we move on, though, I wanted to point out one way that Augustine is different from many modern evangelicals.  Using Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler as a model (Mark 10:17-31), Augustine declares “if you want to be perfect, follow the Lord in the company of those to whom he speaks wisdom”.  Just as Jesus told the rich man that he could only be perfect if he joined His disciples, so must we join the community of Christ’s Church in order to reach perfection.  Evangelism, even power evangelism, can only be truly effective if it is practiced within the Body and has as its end the growth of the Church.

Day Five (Chapter 20; Gen. 1:20-23):  On this day, God made the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air.  Augustine is helpfully lucid about the analogies: “these aquatic creatures represent your holy signs, O God…the birds represent the voices of your messengers.”  If the luminaries are the gifts of the spirit, then these more corporeal manifestations of God’s creation represent the sacraments and the miracles.  The sea “baptizes” these creatures and the wonders inherent in sea and sky proclaim the glory of God.  Augustine had little patience for those who ran after miracles and believed that such signs existed for the ignorant or at least the neophyte.  I imagine that he would not lump the sacraments in with this assessment, but his writing is not very clear here.  For example, I’m not sure how or whether Holy Communion is included in this.  The point of day five seems to be that signs and sacraments serve a primarily evangelical function.  I think that is true to an extent, although I also believe that signs and sacraments can strengthen the faith of even the most seasoned believer.

Day Six, part 1 (Chapter 21; Gen. 1:24-25):  Our meditation today will only cover the first part of God’s busy day six, the creation of the “living creatures” on the earth.  Augustine equates this with the creation of the soul, particularly the soul of the believer.  Unlike those who must depend on signs and wonders to maintain faith, these are the mature believers who need no such things.  They have already received baptism and have learned to transcend the merely physical: “only believers profit by so restraining themselves from attachment to this world.”  This feels like Neoplatonism creeping back in, with its emphasis on transcending the physical world to achieve unity with “The One”.  This otherworldly emphasis could lead to both spiritual pride and a detachment from the very works of mercy that have been commended to us.  On the other hand, one positive of this reading is the emphasis on self-denial (“the soul that dies by craving lives by avoiding what it craved”), which Augustine analogizes to wild animals being domesticated.  We learn this self-denial by imitating our fellow believers, just as God created each animal “according to its kind”.  We must tame our wild impulses, domesticating them under the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd.

Conclusion:  While some of these analogies are a bit of a stretch, there are some good points in here.  It does feel like a natural progression from the gifts of the Spirit fueling evangelism which calls to the “sea creatures” and “birds” (aka non-believers) who may one day become “living creatures” on the land.  The story of creation is not just about the one-time event of salvation, but about our entire life of faith and how we share it with others.  It may be “immature” to seek after signs and wonders, but the greatest sign of God’s presence is changed lives.  May we be Augustinian “living creatures” who, through self-denial and the gifts of the Spirit, declare the message of the gospel with our lives.

Quote for meditation: “Run everywhere, you holy fires, you fires so beautiful, for you are the light of the world, and your place is not under a meal-tub.”

 

Book XIII, Chapters 12-17: Genesis 1 as the Story of Salvation

EDITORIAL NOTE: I fell behind, so this is the second meditation I’ve uploaded today.  For the previous meditation, scroll down or click here

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

Psalm 27:1a (ESV)

Augustine spends the remainder of this books walking through the days of creation in Genesis 1.  However, unlike most modern commentators, he is not particularly interested in the creation of the physical world.  Instead, he sees these passages as highly allegorical and applicable to our personal lives and, more importantly, to the life of the Church.  Augustine is not denying the literal meaning of Genesis 1, but is merely searching beneath the surface for “the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).  It’s a fascinating way to read Scripture, so let’s see what he has to say…

Day One (Chapters 12-14; Gen 1:3-5):  Just as God created the heavens and the earth, so did He create His Church.  Christ’s call to repentance (Matt. 3:2) is the same as that primeval declaration of light in the midst of darkness.  Our very salvation is a response to God’s creation of light: “Disgusted with our darkness, we were converted to you, and light dawned.”  Of course, we only see this by faith, not by sight, for we are saved in hope and hope that is seen is no hope at all (Rom. 8:24).  Just as God cried into the primordial abyss with His declaration of light, even now “deep still calls unto deep, but at the roar of your waterfalls” (cf. Ps. 42:7).  This process of moving from darkness into light is not a one time event, but a lifelong process.  “Even Paul…does not consider himself to have laid hold of his salvation already” (cf. Phil. 3:12-14).  We yearn and groan inwardly to see God’s salvation fully revealed in us.  The Light that God created thus represents his abundant grace and provision for us and for our salvation.  “What, then is this fair light? A light by which we shall see him as he is, a light to put an end to the tears that have become bread to me, daily, nightly.”

Despite all this good news, Augustine says that “still my soul is sad”.  He is still burdened by sin.  However, there is an antidote: “But my faith takes [my soul] to task, that faith which you have kindled, lamp-like, on my nocturnal path.”  The light that God created in the beginning is “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105).  Thus, Augustine simply declares: “hope in the Lord,” for “saved only in hope we may be, but we are at home in the light and in the day.”  Thus, our salvation is pictured when Genesis says that God separated light from darkness calling the light “day” (salvation) and the darkness “night” (sin).  Thus, Augustine’s full allegorical reading of these verses is as follows:  The Spirit was “hovering over the dark chaos of our inner being” until God shed “the light of salvation on my face”.  This salvific light separated us from our previous darkness and from those who still walk in darkness.

One quick side note: I find it fascinating that he sees Paul (and, by extension, us) as being both the Bride of Christ and the friend of the Bridegroom (cf. John 3:29).  Thus we long for Christ as His Bride and are jealous on behalf of Christ as His friend.  In some ways, the analogy breaks down because one person cannot be both things, but paradoxically it remains true.  Just an interesting thought.

Day Two (Chapters 15&16; Gen. 1:6-8):  “You alone, our God, have made for us a vault overhead in giving us your divine scripture.”  The sky which God stretched over the earth is pictured as being like the skin of a tent (Ps. 104:2) and at the last day will be rolled up like a scroll (Rev. 6:14).  This is enough for Augustine to equate the expanse over our heads with Holy Scripture.  The Scriptures are over us in authority just as the sky rules over the earth.  The sky also protects us from (for example) the sun’s rays, just as Scripture protects our minds from falsehood.  I think the analogy is a solid one.

Genesis goes on to say that God separated the water above the expanse from those below.  As you might expect, Augustine uses the waters “above the expanse” to symbolize “your angelic peoples above the heavens”.  These are the creatures who live in “heaven’s heaven” who choose to love God and live in his presence forever.  “Their book is never closed, their scroll never rolled up, for you are their book.”  They have no need for the “expanse” of scripture because they live in the very presence of God Himself.  They live in eternity, while we live in time (“clouds are wafted away, but heaven abides”).  God exists above the expanse He created in heaven in unchanging eternity.  This whole analogy should not be construed as making Scripture the mediator between God and man (that’s Jesus, of course).  Rather, just as the sky illuminates our physical reality, so does Scripture illuminate the spiritual reality of God.

Day Three (Chapter 17; Gen. 1:9-13):  “Who else gathered people brewing bitterness into a single mass?”  So, just as the waters were gathered to together to form the land, so God gathers people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9) to form His Church.  Only God could accomplish such a task, only God could “control even the unruly urges of our souls.”  And just like God tells the sea “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11), so does he limit the urges of our souls.  In the Bible, the sea usually represents chaos and disorder.  Therefore, the image of God setting limits to the sea naturally leads to the conclusion that He can (and does) limit the chaos and disorder in our lives and our souls if we turn to Him.

The newly-formed land sprouts vegetation, seeds and fruit.  In the same way, once God incorporates us into His Church, “the soil of our souls grows fertile in works of mercy according to its kind”.  Jesus calls his disciples to bear fruit (cf. John 15:8) and Paul calls upon us to “sow [seeds] to the Spirit” by “doing good” (Gal. 6:8-9).  Faith must bear fruit, for faith without works is dead (Jam. 2:17).  The works of mercy to which we are called are a natural outgrowth of the grace we receive in Christ just as vegetation is a natural outgrowth of the land.  Separated from the darkness and illuminated by Holy Scripture, God calls us to plant seeds of faith and bear the fruits of the Spirit.

Conclusion:  I must say, I like this way of reading Scripture.  It forgoes a simplistically literal interpretation of the Word for a deep exploration of God’s work in us.  It’s easy for something like Genesis 1 to be a source of philosophical curiosity or even political polemic (see the cultural war over evolution, for example).  But if “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then there must be more to Genesis 1 than just a retelling of how the physical world came to be.  And, just as Augustine saw his life as recreating the story of the Fall and redemption in Genesis, so does he see Genesis 1 as the story of salvation in miniature.  May our meditation on these verses lead us to a greater appreciation of God’s gift to us and to an attitude of worship and adoration of Him.

Quote for meditation: “[Christ] peeps through the trellis of our flesh, and coaxes us, and enkindles our love until we run after him, allured by his fragrance.”  What a great image (cf. Song of Solomon 2:9)!

 

Book XIII, Chapters 1-11: The Holy Spirit, the Gift of God

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

–Psalm 36:9 (ESV)

Chapter 1: Augustine begins this book, as usual, with a prayer.  It’s such good, dense stuff — it reminds me of the early sections of a Pauline epistle.  “Into my soul I call you, for you prepare it to be your dwelling by the desire you inspire in it.”  Even the desire for God is a gift from God.  He calls to us “multiplying and varying your appeals that I might hear you from afar”.  This is as good a summary of Confessions as any — the Hound of Heaven used every tool at His disposal to capture Augustine’s heart.  Now that he has been forgiven, Augustine declares that “over all that I am…your goodness has absolute precedence”.  I love the idea that, of all the qualities of God, “goodness” is the one the precedes all and rules over all.  God is great, but God is most of all good.  He ends the chapter with a call to worship and serve the God “who granted me first to exist, that I may enjoy well-being”.  This reminds me of the justly famous passage from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever”.  We were created for goodness and joy.  What a beautiful idea!

Chapters 2&3: We now turn to another imponderable question: why did God create the universe?  Why there is something instead of nothing is one of the foundational questions in all of philosophy.  Augustine asserts strongly that creation is not some sort of necessary emanation of the divine Being.  God created the world by choice even though “it could be of no profit to you”.  In the end, only God exists non-contingently: “You alone are, because you alone exist in utter simplicity.”  In a continuation of the thought from the previous chapter, a part of the answer to the “why” question seems to be that the goodness of God is the basis of creation.  This is why any creature becomes more “real” the more they cling to God’s goodness.  Just as corporeal objects can be beautiful or ugly, so can spirits live in either wisdom, goodness, and light or ignorance, evil, and darkness.  This is the reason that Augustine applies God’s declaration “let there be light” (Gen 1:3) to “your spiritual creation”.  Even the angels are dependent upon God not only for their existence, but for the blessings of life in the presence of God.  It’s grace all the way down.

Chapter 4:  After reiterating that God did not need to create the world, Augustine turns back to the second half of Genesis 1:2: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  The Spirit was not dependent upon the primordial “waters” for existence but rather vice versa.  This is true down to today: “When your Spirit is said to rest upon people, it means that he causes them to rest in himself.”  That sentence stopped me short.  We often ask the Spirit to come into our lives when He is already there.  Rather, we ought to pray the He will incorporate our lives into His, that we may rest in Him.

Chapters 5, 6&7:  As I said back in the introduction to these final books, this last book focuses on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  God the Father created the world through “the Wisdom who is your Son, coequal and co-eternal with yourself”.  Thus, in Genesis 1:1, “God” refers to God the Father, while the word “beginning” refers to the Son.  So we only lack the spirit, and lo and behold, here He is in verse 2!  To Augustine, the Spirit represents the love of God, which is why He hovers over all that God the Father and Son have made.  In the same way, He hovers over each of us, as Paul says in the verse Augustine quotes: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5b).  We have a choice, then, between two loves.  “One is the uncleanness of our own spirit, which like a flood tide sweeps us down, in love with restless cares; the other is the holiness of your Spirit, which bears us upward in a  love for peace beyond all care.”  Living in the Spirit allows us to transcend, to hover over, the cares and concerns of this world.  Only by the Spirit will we find peace, which is a fruit of that same spirit (Gal. 5:22).

Chapter 8:  Augustine obliquely mentions the origin of the demonic here. “When spirits slide away from you they are stripped of their vesture of light and exposed in their native darkness.”  Even the angels only receive light from the source of Light.  “For it is you, Lord, who will light up our darkness.”  God calls us to walk in the light (1 John 1:7) and we can only exist in the light (that is, in righteousness) if we walk with Him.  As St. John says, “in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).  Clearly, then, when Genesis has God say “let there be light” he was talking about more than photons.  God’s first words call all of life into existence and invites all life to take part in his eternal life.  All else is darkness.

Chapter 9:  Of course, by mentioning the Spirit hovering over the waters, the Bible is not suggesting that the Trinity was or is in any way divided.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were poised over the waters as the unchangeable Godhead “far above all that is changeable”.  Augustine postulates that the Spirit is specifically mentioned because He is God’s gift to us (see 2 Tim. 1:6-7) that we may find rest and enjoy Him.  He uses a great analogy here about weight.  “Drawn by their weight, things seek their rightful places.”  Fire goes up; stones fall down; oil floats on water; water sinks below oil.  Such things only rest once they have reached their rightful place.  Augustine continues: “Now, my weight is my love, and wherever I am carried, it is this weight that carries me.”  The Spirit carries the weight of our love up to the father, while our sins drag the weight of our love back to earth.  Fanning into flame the gift of God means turning our hearts of stone, which trend downward, into hearts of fire for God, which reach upward.  “By your fire, your beneficent fire, are we inflamed.”  Only then will we find true rest.

Chapters 10&11:  After reminding the reader that it was God who turned our darkness to light (just as he turned the primordial abyss into life), Augustine takes all of one paragraph to explain the Trinity.  To be fair, he wrote an entire, lengthy book on the subject, so he probably felt a simple analogy here would do.  Appropriately for a work so concerned with psychology, Augustine uses our selves as an analogy for the Trinity.  We have within us “being, knowledge and will.  I am, and I know, and I will”.  Despite containing these three things within us, we have “one inseparable life: there is one life, one mind and one essence.”  I exist and have knowledge and use my will, but there is only one “me”.  This is not a perfect analogy (there is no such thing as a perfect analogy), but it gets at how multiplicity and unity can paradoxically co-exist.  We live with a sort of “tri-unity” within ourselves every day, yet we sometimes consider God’s nature to be nonsensical.  Of course, the Holy Trinity is far greater than the triad within us in that God exists eternally, is fully known to Himself, and the Trinity “is its own all-sufficient joy without variation forever”.  God is complete and perfect in Himself because He is a community of persons in absolute unity of being.  Our God is as simple and as complicated as that.

Conclusion:  I feel like Augustine got back on track here after getting lost in minutiae in book XII.  This beautiful meditation on the Holy Spirit reminds us of the incomparable gift He is to us.  May we pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our lives today, that we may rest in Him, all the while fanning into flame this gift of God in us.  May we walk in the light as He is in the light and find it to be a path of goodness, joy, and peace.

Quote for meditation:  “This alone I know, that without you all to me is misery, woe outside myself, and woe within, and all wealth but penury, if it is not my God.”

Book XII, Chapters 27-32: True Opinions about the Truth

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

–John 8:32 (KJV)

Chapter 27:  Augustine begins this final section of the book with two apt metaphors.  The first is of a stream, which is a small source that can produce a great river, just as these two verses are the source of deep theology (“this narrative, destined to supply a theme for many messengers of the word, is a spring whence rivers of limpid truth gush forth”).  We all draw from this spring at different points, and perhaps that is why we reach different conclusions (Augustine’s version of the elephant metaphor).  The second analogy Augustine uses is a mother cradling her child or a mother bird building a nest for her young.  People who only see the surface meaning of scripture “are still children with their carnal outlook, but while their weakness is cradled in scripture’s humble mode of discourse as though in their mother’s arms, their faith is being built up for salvation.”  This feels a bit condescending, but I don’t think it’s meant that way.  Augustine simply means that baby Christians can feel safe in the arms of scripture even if they do not yet have the tools to unlock its deeper meanings.

Chapter 28: “There are others for whom these words are no longer a nest.  For them they are shady thickets in which they espy hidden fruit.”  Mixing his metaphors a bit, scripture is no longer a nest for him, but a grove of trees in which he can pick choice fruits.  It may be a stretch, but this is perhaps a nod to the parable of the mustard seed, where a small seed produces a large tree where “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:32).  In any case, Augustine feels that mature Christians should be able to see the symbolic layers underlying the text.  The rest of chapter reiterates (ad nauseam if you ask me) the arguments that he has already made in this book about God’s eternity, the nature of “heaven and earth”, and Wisdom at “the beginning”.  We’ve already covered this, so (unlike Augustine) let’s move on.

Chapter 29:  “Rare indeed, and exceedingly arduous for us, Lord, is contemplation of your eternal being which, though immutable in itself, makes mutable creatures, and is in this sense prior to them.”  This is Augustine’s long way of saying that its nearly impossible for finite creatures to understand an infinite God.  When we say God was there “in the beginning”, we do not mean that He participates in time, but in the sense that His immutable nature comes before (that is above in rank to) the creation.  The final paragraph of this chapter is the best short encapsulation of his argument, so I’ll reproduce it here for anyone not reading the book:

Primal matter was made first and called “heaven and earth” because from it heaven and earth were made.  We must understand, though, that “first” does not mean earlier in time, because it is the forms of things that give rise to time, whereas matter was formless; but once time exists, we can observe within time both matter and form.  Yet nothing can be told with regard to formless matter without our seeming to attribute to it temporal priority, although in terms of value it is of the lowest rank, things endowed with form being unquestionably better than what is unformed; and certainly it is preceded by the eternity of its creator.  And rightly, so that the matter from which something was to be made should itself be made from nothing.

Chapters 30, 31&32:  “Amid this profusion of true opinions let Truth itself engender concord.”  Here Augustine reiterates that Truth can speak through multiple interpretations.  The little-t truths of the Bible all exist to serve the Truth, who is Jesus.  When looking at conflicting interpretations of a passage, we can say with Augustine “Why not both, if both are true?”  As long as we avoid outright heresy and Jesus is glorified, we can each believe different things about the same scriptures.  “What if human vision is incomplete?” Augustine asks.  It is, of course, so we need each other in order to get a full picture of what scripture is telling us about God.  This is why we must not assume that just because someone is a different denomination from us that they must be wrong.  Perhaps they have something to teach us about the revelation of God that we, in our human myopia, have not discovered.  We all have a piece of the full picture and only by coming together can we begin to put the puzzle pieces together.

Conclusion:  “Mark how much we have written about so few words, O Lord my God, how remarkably much!”  Indeed, Augustine, indeed.  We have only gotten through the first two verses of Genesis and it’s taken two whole books and eight days of meditations.  As Augustine points out, “if we continue in this style, where shall we find sufficient energy or time to cover all your books?”  I, of all people, cannot criticize Augustine for taking a deep dive into a single verse.  But the point stands that we cannot do this kind of study for every part of scripture or we will exhaust ourselves.  Most of the time, its best to read a short passage of scripture and seek God for “one meaning only”, one message to take away for that day or week or year.  This sort of exercise can be fun, but like a physical exercise done too much can damage the muscles, so can arduous spiritual exercises damage the mind and spirit.  May these deep dives into scripture point us back to the relationship, back to Jesus.  For it is only in knowing Him and being known by Him that we will find hope and love and eternal life.  Whatever truths we may discover, there is only one Truth that will set us free.

Quote for meditation: “May our God have mercy upon us and grant us to make lawful use of the law for the purpose envisaged by his commandment, pure charity.”

Book XII, Chapters 18-26: The Multiplicity of Interpretations and the Limits of Intellect

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

–1 Corinthians 2:11 (ESV)

Since today’s chapters all constitute one basic thought, I’m not going to divide this meditation into chapters.  I will give my general thoughts, then end with a coda on Neoplatonism and the “GOD project”.  Let’s get to it…

“A great variety of interpretations, many of them legitimate, confronts our exploring minds as we search among these words to discover your will.”  This basically constitutes the thesis statement for these chapters, and it demonstrates an admirable humility from Augustine.  He admits that his way of viewing Scripture is not the only way, and that is rare to see from any theologian.  That said, there is an almost whiny self-defensiveness about much of this book, a sort of “can you do any better?” to his critics.  Perhaps he was getting a lot of grief for his allegorical interpretation of Genesis (so much so that he would later write a book entitled De Genesi ad Litteram “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”).  Even so, all this hair-splitting over five different interpretations of Genesis 1:1 (see ch. 20) and five interpretations of Genesis 1:2 (see ch. 21) feels like overkill to me, especially since the distinction between many of these interpretations eludes me.  Augustine is trying to anticipate and address every possible objection to his theology and it is exhausting (at least to this reader).  Here is where the combination of Augustine’s self-doubt and rhetorical training kind of eats itself.  There are a few gems in here though, so let’s just cover those.

“What harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you…show to be true, even though it was not intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?”  In other words, Augustine is advocating for “death of the author” exegesis.  Maybe Moses didn’t mean what Augustine is saying, but that doesn’t mean that either of them is lying.  Moses wrote in truth and Augustine interprets in truth, and God speaks to them each in their own way.  We can’t really know what Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis) was thinking.  As Augustine says, “I do not see with equal certainty into his mind.”  Exegesis is not mind-reading.  It is, instead, seeking God through the words of Scripture and allowing Him to speak through those words.  To say that what God spoke to us in Scripture is the only way that God can speak through those words is reductive.  “Let no one henceforth try to pick a quarrel with me by telling me, ‘Moses did not mean what you say; he meant what I say’….So reckless an assertion is a mark of presumption, not of knowledge; it is the fruit of no vision but of conceit.”  Again, humility and charity must be at the forefront of our theology.  As St. Paul says, “charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14).  The truth “belongs to all of us” and is found in the community of the Church, which is His Body.  Just as Paul tells the Corinthians, who were fighting over theology by saying they followed Paul or Apollos, “we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9).  Augustine goes on to quote from chapter 4 of that same book where Paul reminds us “not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (v. 6).  Augustine seems to feel the temptation that he could have written Genesis better than Moses, but he demurs.  “Well, we come from the same lump of clay after all,” he muses.

“Now scripture does not record that God made this formless matter, but neither does it record that he made many other things — the cherubim and seraphim for instance.”  This is actually a crucial point.  Many people seem to think that Genesis 1:2 negates the idea of ex nihilo creation by positing a primordial, chaotic abyss.  But the list of created things in Genesis 1 is clearly not exhaustive.  This has implications for the existence of extraterrestrial life, for example, which has been posited as something that would disprove the Bible.  God has only revealed to us that which is profitable for us to know.  The Lord clearly created orders in the spiritual realm that we know little about (cf. Col. 1:16).  So God could create that “formless matter” of Genesis 1:2 without scripture having to spell it out for us.  Augustine concludes: “If Genesis is silent about God’s making something, still a healthy faith and clear intellect are in no doubt that God did make it.”  This allows us to view the discoveries of modern science through a lens of faith without having to deny them because we adhere to a narrow fundamentalism.

Conclusion:  If nothing else, these chapters indicate just how deep the Holy Scriptures truly are.  Any time that we try to understand such literally incomprehensible subjects as the creation (or the end) of the universe we will be confronted with multiple possible interpretations.  Charity requires that, if we stray off what the text explicitly says, we treat those Christians with whom we differ with respect and deference.  We must always remember that dogma is merely a fence surrounding a mystery, the mystery of God Himself.  We must hold to the faith proclaimed in the Creed, but we must realize that such a faith takes many forms.  Such an attitude is the only hope for achieving the unity of the Body for which Christ prayed.

*****

CODA: NEOPLATONISM AND “THE GOD PROJECT”

Much of the struggle that Augustine has in these final books of the Confessions comes down to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  The Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus and Porphyry brought Augustine to Christ.  Indeed, the mystical contemplation that Plotinus taught him brought him into the presence of God.  So Augustine really wants the Bible and Plato to get along with each other, and they do to a remarkable degree.  But Plato, brilliant as he was, was still a pagan and pagan philosophy can only be reconciled with Biblical faith to a point.

Not that this would stop anyone.  My college philosophy professor, Dr. Jim Edwards at Furman, used to speak of the GOD project” in Western philosophy.  Basically, he felt that philosophers beginning in early Christianity almost up to the 20th century were trying to find a unifying principle for everything, religious and secular.  This they called “God”.  So when Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead”, he wasn’t talking about Yahweh or Allah or Jesus.  He was saying that this great project to discover God through philosophy had failed.  Of course, Nietzsche believed that it had failed because there was no God to be found and we had to move beyond this moribund idea in order to make anything of our lives.  I think that the “GOD project” failed because it was the intellectual equivalent to the Tower of Babel.  We were trying to reach God in our own power, through our minds, and thus God confused our language and frustrated our intentions.

The only way to God is through relationship, and the only way to have that relationship is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I argued as much with Dr. Edwards (who was an atheist), saying that mystical encounter with God, much like Augustine’s, necessitated a response beyond the intellectual.  That is why we must experience God in our personal relationship with Him and through the corporate relationship with the Body found in Christ’s Church.  God is not found through intellectual assent (or ascent).  It is found through worship, both individual and corporate.  No intellectual project will save us — salvation always requires a leap of faith.  Speaking of a leap of faith, perhaps I can best sum this meditation up with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”