This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.
City of God 11.6–11.21.
11.6–8. Augustine discusses the first week of creation. He begins with a philosophical justification for the idea that time itself was created at the moment of creation. Time is a measure of change and movement. If no change or movement occurs then there is no time. Therefore, it’s inappropriate to talk about the elapsed time before creation because there was none. Though it’s not exactly a modern-day physicist’s definition of time, it’s probably closer to Einstein than Newton.
Augustine wrestles with the nature of the six days of creation. He says we must believe the Bible since it does not lie, but he admits that it’s difficult or impossible to understand what was actually going on during those six days.
He notes the difficulty of having three “days” before the creation of the sun. He offers a couple of ways in which Christians could think about this, but he doesn’t try to scientifically explain it away.
Instead he attempts to find a spiritual meaning in the first seven days of creation. The events of creation, he says, point to the creature’s knowledge of himself and the creature’s knowledge of God, a knowledge that brightens and fades depending on the creature’s praise and love of God.
His explanation of the seventh day of rest should sound familiar to those who have read his Confessions. A day of rest allegorically points to the creature’s need to find its ultimate rest in God.
11.9. In his discussion of creation, Augustine speculates about when God created angels. They couldn’t have been around before “in the beginning,” but Augustine thinks they must have must have shown up by the time God created the stars on Day Four because Job 38:7 reads, “When the stars were made, all my angels praised me with a loud voice.” This wording comes from the Septuagint. The Hebrew, which most of our modern-day translations follow, is a little different, but it has the same issue. If anything, the Hebrew seems to push the creation of both stars and angels earlier than Day Four.
Augustine speculates that there was just one day of creation and that the text repeats six times from different perspectives. The first six days represent knowledge of creation, and the seventh day of rest represents knowledge of God. Augustine gives spiritual significance to these numbers, and he’ll discuss them more a little later in the book.
11.10. Augustine takes a brief moment to discuss the nature of God as Trinity, since God is the source of the light in creation. There is one God in three persons. Augustine’s explanation that God is “simple” might be a bit confusing. Essentially what he says is that all three persons of the Trinity exist eternally and that all three persons contain the totality of what it means to be God. God is simple because his nature is identical to his attributes. If he lost one of his attributes he would no longer be God, whereas if I lost one of my attributes, then I would still be me.
Augustine digresses in explaining that even though an incorruptible body cannot be lost, it still cannot be considered “simple.” He needlessly confuses the issue, in my opinion.
11.11–13. Augustine discusses the degree to which angels and humans can be considered blessed at their creation. Enjoying the light of God at creation is a good thing, but Augustine does not consider it to be perfect blessedness unless it also contains the promise that the enjoyment will be eternal.
Augustine knows from Scripture that no more angels will fall and that no demons will be redeemed. He speculates that before the angelic rebellion, the angels didn’t know who was who, but now they have assurance of the eternality of their respective states.
Humans, however, have a chance for redemption. Augustine says that our first parents, in their pre-Fall state, were happier in regards to “present good,” but the continuation of that good was not guaranteed. Christians, he says, can gain an assurance of their persevering in righteousness, and these people have happiness regarding their eternal future blessedness. The assurance comes through revelation.
11.14–15. Augustine begins to work on the problem of evil by discussing the creation of the Devil. The main point he tries to make in this passage is that the Devil was not created with an evil nature. The Devil’s first sin, pride, is the beginning of his sin.
11.16. Chapter sixteen sounds like a digression on the hierarchy of all things, but Augustine needs to show that competing valuations exist. Traditionally the hierarchy was established based on life, sense, and rationality. Plants outrank rocks, animals outrank plants, humans outrank animals, angels outrank humans, and God outranks everything. Augustine points out that humans reorder this hierarchy to suit their own pleasures. Silver outranks fleas. We create a competing hierarchy. This allows Augustine to propose another category for the hierarchy that had no place before—righteousness. This new category allows Augustine to rank righteous men above demons, and it moves him into his next point were he talks about the nature of evil.
11.17. In Augustine’s explanation of evil, evil is not natural at all. It’s contra-natural. The natural thing to do is adhere to God’s goodness. The unnatural thing to do is withdraw from God’s goodness. This idea dovetails with what Augustine was saying in the preceding chapter. It isn’t that the righteous are ranked above the wicked in the hierarchy. It’s that the wicked push themselves down lower on the hierarchy.
God in his foreknowledge knew about this withdrawing from his goodness, but he allows it to happen in order to bring about even more good. According to Augustine, it’s part of his design. It would probably be worth rereading CoG 5.9–10 again to remind ourselves of the relationship between the divine and human will.
11.18. But why does God allow evil? Augustine says it makes for a more interesting human history. He compares the events of the world to poetry. All good poetry contains antithesis in order to enhance its beauty. God of course would be the best poet ever, so when he designs human events, he uses the opposites of good and evil to promote a certain kind of beauty.
Perhaps Augustine leaves himself open to the charge of making God in his own image. Augustine is a very literary-minded author, and so he thinks of God as the most literary-minded author. In Augustine’s defense, Scripture often uses language that promotes this kind of imagery. Even Genesis 1 begins with God speaking out creation, which evokes a kind of divine storytelling.
11.19–20. Augustine speculates that when God separates the light from the darkness in Genesis 1:4, he is separating the good angels from the fallen ones. A supporting detail for this argument comes from the fact that God recognizes the light as good before he separates light and darkness. The darkness of the fallen angels is not considered good, and it is not part of their nature. They chose darkness.
11.21. Augustine briefly discusses the relationship between God and his creation. God doesn’t see things like humans do because God doesn’t view the world with tenses.
Augustine also answers some of the fundamental philosophical questions about creation. The most philosophical questions are sometimes the simplest. Who? How? Why? Who created? God. How did he create? By speaking. Why did he create? Because a good God makes good things. Augustine cites Plato concerning this idea that God created in order to demonstrate his own goodness.