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.



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.”

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

  1. I had a very similar reaction to this section, including seizing on the two gems you highlight. The first one, about holding an opinion that may not be what the author intended but is nevertheless true, is a crucial one, I think. First, because we can never really know what the author meant (unless he or she is around to tell us) but more importantly because it highlights the living nature of Scripture and the fact that God speaks truth to all of us who are willing to hear through those words and that truth may be very different in specific than the “original” intention. It has been my experience that God speaks different truths to me at different times through the very same passage of Scripture, which is why the Bible is so different from any other book in that the author behind it all is still speaking to us through it.
    I was also struck by Augustine’s comment about Genesis not mentioning everything God created and his specific reference to the angels. If you hold (as orthodox doctrine does) that God created everything, than you have to realize that the account in Genesis is suggestive not exhaustive. It solves the angels (and demons) problem, as well as extraterrestial life and anything else that might come along. I think your comment that God only revealed to us what it is profitable for us to know is quite correct, and has lots of implications beyond just exegeting Genesis.
    I also liked your comment about dogma being a fence around a mystery (not original to you, I don’t believe). If nothing else, reading Augustine reminds one of the necessity of theological humility.
    In terms of your coda, what a surprise–it’s about relationship.
    Thanks again for all you thoughts and work on this.

    Liked by 1 person

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