Augustine’s Confessions, Part 4—Creation Theology

Augustine's ConfessionsAugustine’s Confessions, Part 4—Creation Theology

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I broke this review up into four parts—my first four-part review of any book. In the first part, I give an overview of the Confessions and why we are interested. In the second part, I review the life of Augustine and sin, as he describes it. In the third part, I will focus on Augustine’s coming to faith. Here in the fourth part, I review his theological writings, which focus on the creation accounts in Genesis.

Why a four-part review?

Augustine offers the reader a lot to think about. Dissertations have been written on this book probably in every generation since Augustine wrote it, but this is neither a dissertation nor an academic review, which would review its historical context, its contributions, and previous interpretations. Here I only attempt to understand a few important points about what Augustine is trying to say for my own benefit and, hopefully, yours. Obviously, much more could be written.

Books X to XIII

The final third of Augustine’s Confessions are qualitatively different than the first two, which is immediately obvious from the titles. Books 1 to IX have chronological titles, (e.g. Book One: The First Fifteen Years) while Book X summarizes his present condition and Books XI to XIII have theological titles referencing verses in the Book of Genesis. While it may seem odd to modern eyes that a memoir contain lengthy theological discourses on scripture, in Augustine’s Confessions the transition is from short discourses to long ones. In other words, only a matter of degree and emphasis—the entire book debates theology alongside of personal experience.

Augustine and His Present State

Augustine’s exploration of sin includes an inventory of temptations, based on the sense that yields pleasure, writing:

“Pleasure goes after objects that are beautiful to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, but curiosity for the sake of experiment can go after quite contrary things not in order to experience their unpleasantness, but through a mere itch to experience and find out.” (220)

How many pastors would admit to being people pleasers? Augustine calls it a temptation (222).

Augustine and Creation

Augustine turns to the creation accounts in Confessions for a very interesting reason, writing:

“For You, O Lord, are my judge, because through no man knows the things of a man, save the spirit of a man that is in him, yet there is something of man that the very spiritual of that is in him does not know. But You, Lord, know all of him, for You made him.” (192)

In a sense, Augustine views the creation accounts as a kind of divine blue-print (the divine image) for humanity. In other words, he is saying, in so many words, here is what I know about me; now, let’s see what the blue-print says. For Augustine, the inner journey and the faith journey are hand in glove.

Allegorical Interpretation

Augustine makes liberal use of allegory in his interpretation of Genesis. Allegory imputed a symbolic meaning to a physical object. For example, Augustine writes:

“In the beginning God made heaven and earth, that is in His Word co-eternal with Himself God made the intelligible and sensible or, to put it another way, the spiritual and corporeal creation.” (276)

Creation

Here Augustine associates heaven with the spiritual creation and the earth with corporeal creation, a kind of mind-body dichotomy commonly associated with Plato’s dualistic philosophy. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul uses allegory to talk about the new covenant in Christ when he writes:

“Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” (Gal 4:24-26 ESV)

Reformation Interpretation

Allegorical interpretation fell into disrepute in the Reformation, in part, because of its association with Plato and disregard for the Hebrew tradition, which treated mind and body as indivisible. The reformation principle of “solo scriptura” implied that scripture itself provided the sole guide to salvation. John Calvin (1539) focused on four interpretative principles, including understand the author’s intent, communicate effectively, consult the original texts (Greek and Hebrew), and consider the text and its application in the context of the canon of scripture. What is striking about this list is that the four principles used in medieval exegesis about which Luther reminisced (historical, allegory, tropology, and anagogy interpretation) are nowhere found (Thompson, 58-62, 67, 71).

Assessment

Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions remain a Christian classic and has sometimes described as the beginning of Western civilization, which focuses on the role of the individual. In demonstrating through his memoir that God works out his will actively through the lives of ordinary people, male and female, Augustine laid the groundwork for doctrines, such as human rights, which remain in the forefront of political dialogue between the West and other parts of our world even today. Needless to say, Augustine’s Confessions are a book worthy of being read by every practicing Christian.

References

Calvin, John. 1539. Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans.

Translated and Edited by Reverend John Owen. Strasbourg. No pages. Cited 6 June 2009. Online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38.iii.html.

Thompson, John L. 2004. “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter.” Pages 58-73 in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Edited by Donald A. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

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Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 2

Robert Gagnon, the Bible and Homosexual PracticeRobert A. J. Gagnon.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press. (Goto part 1; goto part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be human?

The focus of the modern church since the nineteenth century has been on finding new interpretations of the Bible’s view of anthropology—anthropology is the study of what it means to be human.  According to one definition of anthropology, it is:  “the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.”[1]  Much of what the Bible says about the nature of humanity comes from the Old Testament, especially the Book of Genesis.  One of the Old Testament’s core teachings is that—whatever else we are—we are all inherently sinful by nature.

Old Testament Teaching

Gagnon appropriately devotes more than 100 pages at the beginning of The Bible and Homosexual Practice to the Old Testament.  These topics are covered:

  1. The Ancient Near East (ANE; outside of Israel) laws and practices pertaining to homosexuality;
  2. The creation accounts in Genesis 1-3;
  3. Noah’s curse of Ham in Genesis 9:20-27;
  4. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:4-11;
  5. The rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:22-25) and the image of women in Judges (19-21);
  6. Homosexual cult prostitution in Israel;
  7. The prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 where it is described as an abomination ( תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה); and
  8. David and Jonathan.

Because most conversations about homosexuality sexuality within the church revolve around the creation accounts and only occasionally stray as far as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, let me focus my comments accordingly.

The Creation Accounts

The creation accounts in Genesis 1-3 are important because they set the standard for “acceptable sexual practice”— homosexuality is not specifically mentioned (56).  Only human beings were created in God’s image and given the task of ruling God’s creation.  Only human beings are capable of working the garden and resting on the seventh day to consciously worship God. Ruling requires populating the earth with human beings and procreation makes this happen.  Gagnon (57) writes:  “The complementarity of male and female is thereby secured in the divinely sanctioned work of governing creation.”

Gagnon views male/female complementarity in Genesis to be more than simply physical—it is physical, interpersonal, and procreative sexual complementarity—that is blessed by God, anchored in a stable family structure, and given a mission (58, 62).  God said:

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28 ESV)

Adam and Eve were blessed to be co-regents (having dominion) in the Eden kingdom working on God’s behalf—procreation was part, but not all, of being a co-regent.  Animals were rejected as suitable partners for Adam; Eve was acceptable because she was “bone of my bones and flesh from my flesh” (Gen. 2:23)—part of what it meant to be a complete human being (61).  Furthermore, the marriage was more important than parental obligations—an uniquely Hebrew concept in the Ancient Near East (ANE) where family and clan had priority over everything else.

The story of Eden, however, does not end well.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were cast out of the garden (Gen. 3:24). Much of the remainder of the Book of Genesis outlines the corrupting power of sin. This corruption runs deep—polluting both our hearts and minds—and no one is immune. Sin affects who we are (our identity) and everything that we do.  Confusion is not the exception; it is the norm.  The good news is that in Christ we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves of righteousness (Romans 6).

Sodom and Gomorrah

Gagnon describes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as the classic story about homosexuality.  More recently, critics have argued that the story only deals with homosexual rape or merely being inhospitable.  However, Gagnon makes the point that this narrower reading focusing on rape is inappropriate. The text, like other texts such as the curse of Ham[2], uses the reference to same-sex intercourse as expressing an “inherently degrading quality” which is, for example, why Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God himself (71, 75).

The interpretative dilemma arises because in Genesis 18, where the reason for God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is discussed, the first 9 verses in the chapter portrays Abraham as the ultimate hospitable host—the first 3 verses of Genesis 19 do the same thing for his nephew Lot.  Meanwhile, Genesis 19:5-11 shows the men of Sodom as an angry mob bent on homosexual rape. The key verses spoken by the men of Sodom to Lot is: “Where are the men [angels] who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know [יָדַע] them.” (Gen. 19:5 ESV) [3]. This verse accordingly explains, presumably, why: “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave” (Gen. 18:20 ESV).

Is Genesis 19 being used by the author, presumably Moses, as a case of an inhospitable community or is it displaying an arch type of wickedness?

Gagnon opts for the latter interpretation and uses other scripture passages in the Old and New Testament to argue his case.  For example, the Book of Leviticus, also written by Moses, could not condemn homosexuality more strongly than saying:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Lev. 20:13 ESV)

Why would Moses treat homosexuality more leniently in one place as another? (75, 83)  Gagnon interprets later references to Sodom and Gomorrah in Ezekiel 16 as displaying—in addition to immoral conduct, pride, child sacrifice, and contempt for the poor (injustice)—arrogance in relation to God.  Gagnon additionally cites 2 Peter 2:6-10 and Jude 7[4] as New Testament passages supporting this interpretation (85, 89).

Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though  Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured it as a prize of war (Genesis 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Genesis 18:20-33).  If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those around us caught up in gender confusion [5].

Hostility in Old Testament?

More generally, why is there such hostility to homosexuality in the Old Testament?

The usual answer among Jewish scholars is that homosexuality is contrary to nature, as created by God (159-183). Reviewing extra-biblical sources, such as Philo and Josephus (160), Gagnon cites 4 reasons for why only heterosexual intercourse was natural:

  1. Homosexual intercourse cannot lead to procreation;
  2. Physical complementary of male and female sex organs;
  3. Homoerotic desire reflects an  excess of passion; and
  4. Animal do not normally practice homosexuality (163).

Of these 4 arguments, Gagnon sees the first two arguments as constituting the primary concerns (180-181).   Because God is first identified as a creator in Genesis, procreation in the accounts of Adam and Eve plays an important role in bearing God’s image (Gen 1:27).

Assessment

The gist of Gagnon’s argument is that homosexuality is clearly inconsistent with the Old Testament witness and that this inconsistency entails health consequences even today. Therefore, the moral teaching on marriage and prohibitions in the Bible on homosexual practice remain binding on the church today (theological statement).  Our response, however, should be to stand with those caught up in gender confusion—much like we would stand with someone caught up in alcoholism—and, at a minimum, to pray for them (ethical dilemma).  Obviously, because it is hard to hate or to ostracize someone that you pray for, God’s instruction here implies that we should do much more than simply pray.

In part 3, I will explore Gagnon’s arguments based on the New Testament.

Footnote

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/anthropology.

[2] Commentators frequently argue that Ham’s son Canaan was cursed to be a slave of his brother because he homosexually raped his father Noah.  Therefore, because his sin involved his “seed” then the curse would fall on his “seed”. Theologically, this is an important argument because it essentially justified the genocide practiced against the Canaanites—the sin of homosexuality, especially the rape of one’s father— was so extreme that an extreme remedy was thereby justified.

[3] In the Hebrew, to know [yada] someone was a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

[4] “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day–just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” (Jude 1:6-8 ESV)

[5]  This same prayer template is repeated in the enigmatic story of Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech (Gen 20) which also focuses on sexual sin (adultery/polygamy).  In this story, Abimelech takes Sarah into his harem and God informs him in a dream that he would die because he has done this.  Abimelech protests that he has not touched Sarah.  God then instructs him to return Sarah to Abraham and to ask Abraham intercede in prayer for his life.  Abimelech faithful adheres to God’s advice—he returns Sarah to Abraham; grants Abraham a huge reparation payment; asks Abraham to pray for him; Abraham prays for him; and Abimelech’s life is spared.  Why is prayer successful in Abimelech’s case and unsuccessful in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah?  My guess is that it is because Abimelech repented of his sin.

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 2

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