Book XII, Chapters 1-11: Our Changeable World and God’s Eternal Heaven

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.

–Psalm 102:25-27 (ESV)

Chapter 1:  “The penury of human understanding is apt to lead to excessive wordiness for to seek requires more talking than to find.”  Is Augustine poking fun at himself here?  We’re about to start a second book speculating about the nature of creation itself, so I guess he feels a need to apologize to the reader for his wordiness.  For my part, I am grateful that Augustine opens his thought process up to us, not shying away from admitting what he doesn’t know, and allowing us to see the dead ends that he has encountered in his search.  That, I think, is what has kept Confessions so fresh over the centuries — we can truly see his mind thinking.  However frustrated I may become with Augustine’s tendency to get entangled in minutiae, I appreciate that he sees the Christian life not as a proclamation of settled answers but as a journey through mysterious questions.  His ability to turn questions and doubts into prayer and wonder is a model for all of us who can never leave well enough alone.

Chapter 2: The key verse for the following chapters is Psalm 115:16: “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”  Augustine calls the place where God abides “heaven’s heaven”.  Some other translations: “highest heavens” (NIV); “heavens of the Lord” (NASB); “heaven, even the heavens” (KJV); “the heaven of heaven” (Douay-Rheims).  Clearly, this is a different place than the “heavens and the earth” mentioned in Genesis 1:1.  The key point here is that God abides in a place outside of the universe He created — we are not pantheists.  God is, in the words of St. Paul, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:15-16).  This is what we mean when we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven”

Chapters 3,4&5: We have finally made it to Genesis 1:2!  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.”  Augustine views this darkness in the same way he sees evil.  Just as evil is not a substance but merely the absence of good, so is darkness merely the absence of light (in terms of physics he is correct, of course).  He writes that “when the earth is said to be invisible and unorganized [without form and void], this is a convenient way of making clear to people what formless matter is”.  We can’t really conceive of matter without some kind of form, so the writer of Genesis uses terms that call to mind a fathomless abyss.  This, perhaps, is the ex nihilo out of which God made creation.  Interestingly, this may be the only way that God could convey to ancient people how the earth was formed.  The leading theory among physicists about planet formation is the “nebular hypothesis” which states that the planets were formed from a cloud of material produced by our sun.  At the time, the sun was not much more than a chaotic mass of matter that began revolving at enough velocity to form a star and spin off planets.  Basically the earth started out as undifferentiated gas then cooled into a fluid and finally a solid.  In other words, God took that which was formless in the darkness and made the earth.  Pretty cool, huh?

Chapter 6: Augustine dismisses the idea that “formless” merely means “ugly”.  Our imagination cannot really conceive of the true nature of formless creation, existing as it does between non-existence and the form that creation currently takes.  I love his attempt at terms for this: “a nothing something”; “an-is-that-is-not”.  We have entered the realm of paradox again, and thus of that which must be pondered rather than explained.

Chapters 7&8: Creation derives its existence from God through whom all things exist.  However, “not from your own substance did you make heaven and earth.”  Jesus was made from God’s own substance, which is why we say in the Creed that He was “begotten, not made”.  But God “made heaven and earth out of nothing” (Augustine’s first explicit reference to ex nihilo).  Augustine is really trying to emphasize the separation between God in the “heaven’s heaven” from His creation.  Unlike the eternal nature of God’s heaven, the earth is changeable, beginning in a primal abyss of almost-nothingness whose formlessness took on the forms we see.  Creation is thus synonymous with change just as “heaven’s heaven” is synonymous with eternity.  This ties back to the idea of time, since time is always moving while eternity is an unchanging “now”.  We may live in a world that is forever changing, but the Lord does not change and stands forever (cf. Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Jam. 1:17).

Chapters 9&10: What, then, is the “heaven’s heaven”?  Augustine conceives of it as an “intellectual creation”.  It is not coeternal with the Trinity, but it contains that Trinity in an eternal state.  Contemplating this mystery leads Augustine to write another poem/hymn to God, in which he prays for access to the light of God to illumine his darkness.  He is “fevered and panting for your fountain”, the Living Water that is the only source of true life.  Once again we are reminded that all of this is not idle philosophical speculation, but an earnest search for the living God who saves us from sin just as surely as he formed the earth from the primordial abyss and spoke light into the unfathomable darkness.

Chapter 11: Augustine turns here to the ethical implications of this theory of creation.  “If our will moves away from you, who are, toward anything which less truly is, that movement is transgression and sin.”  Thus, sin is a return to the chaos and formlessness of creation day zero, while moving toward God is to become, in a sense, more real.  God created us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29) just as he formed the earth.  Which is not to say we will ever become eternal as God is eternal.  Only the Trinity exists eternally, although we have the promise that we can live with Him forever in “your household, which contemplates your entrancing beauty, never tiring, never turning aside to any other joy”.  In the New Jerusalem, we will be the Bride of Christ, united to Him yet still distinct, just as a human bride becomes one flesh with her husband yet is still a distinct person.  We always carry with us a little bit of the formlessness of that primeval creation, at least until the day that “the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54).  With that in mind, let us hold fast to God and remember that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).  For Christ has told us that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).  Let us abide in the eternal God while we pass through this temporal world.

Quote for meditation: “Let me not be my own life: evil was the life I lived of myself; I was death to me; but in you I begin to live again.”

One thought on “Book XII, Chapters 1-11: Our Changeable World and God’s Eternal Heaven

  1. I really appreciate your comments about Chapter 1–not only does Augustine make that comment about excessive wordiness, but later he questions whether his reader will have stamina to go along with him and I was kind of getting to that point. I like the image of Christianity as a journey through mysterious questions.
    It is also interesting how the more we learn about physics, etc. (the nebular hypothesis you reference) the more science reflects what theology has always held to be true, provided you can avoid being a complete literalist. Of course, creation ex nihilo goes one step beyond where science can venture. (By the way, did you see the news story about the black hole in the Milky Way that just spat a star out of the galaxy? God is still at it!)
    It seems his reference to “intellectual creation” refers not just to the heaven’s heavens (whatever that may be) but also to the angelic host, who appear, in this argument, to have been created before Genesis 1:1.
    I also like your comment about sin as a return to chaos and formlessness and the movement toward God making us more real. (That reminds me of someone in the Narnia books–Eustace maybe?).

    Liked by 1 person

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