Augustine Project: Weeks Twenty-Six through Thirty

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.

The Augustine reading group is still in full swing over at Facebook, but I have been lax in posting updates to the blog. I got a request to resume updating the blog, so here’s my attempt to catch up.

City of God 14.12–14.28.

14.12–14. Augustine speculates that Adam and Eve had become sinners even before they committed the first sinful act. A sinful act must be preceded by a sinful will.

He ties together previous discussions. He explains how a good will can pervert itself. Sin tends toward non-being. Pride is the root of sin.

We also see Augustine employ one of his famous inversions. Humans are laid low in the act of their self-exultation. Humility, however, is a necessary characteristic for those in the City of God.

14.15–16. The first sin might seem inconsequential, but Augustine argues that the punishment had to be harsh since the commandment was so easy to keep. The punishment for that first sin is further disobedience. Obedience isn’t just more difficult now; it is impossible apart from grace.

The problem is not merely with the flesh. The will and soul are damaged too. Harmony has also been broken. Some of the distress we feel is a lack of accord between our bodies and souls and between ourselves and our world.

Augustine speaks specifically about sex and lust. He views this as a prime example of the lack of harmony. During sex, the intellect gets suspended. Also the body and mind sometimes act independent of each other in their readiness for sex. This lack of harmony is symptomatic of our fallen condition.

Augustine has a fairly negative view of sex, even sex within marriage. Many people suggest that Augustine’s prejudices stem from his youthful experiences with his common-law wife. I think it’s likely that the books he read influenced him more than his life experience. Augustine’s views don’t diverge much from the Christian and Pagan books that probably sat in his library.

14.17–19. Augustine discusses the sense of shame that after the Fall became associated with sexual matters. Even sex within the confines of marriage is disordered. He emphasizes that good and noble things do not shy away from the light of day, but sex is always done in secret. There’s a logical consistency to this argument, but I’m sure that some modern commentators have a different explanation. (I don’t read many modern commentators so I don’t know what they would be.)

14.20. The Cynics suggested that if sex is lawful and decent then it could be done in public. Augustine dismisses this suggestion as a publicity stunt.

The philosopher credited with the founding of the school of Cynicism was Diogenes of Sinope (d. 323 BC). He taught the benefit of divesting oneself of all property in order to free the mind. According to tradition, he lived in a bathtub. His critics compared his lowly lifestyle to that of a dog (“kyon” in Greek). The name stuck and his followers became “Cynics.”

14.21–22. Is procreation part of lust and the Fall? Some thinkers thought that there would be no sex and no children born without the first sin. Augustine believes differently.

The commandment to be fruitful and multiply came before the Fall. Therefore, marriage and procreation must belong to God’s original good creation. Though Augustine seems shy of sex in general, his approval of marriage is much stronger than most other bishops writing at the time.

Augustine says that God’s words in Genesis about being fruitful and multiplying must be interpreted literally. He’ll let someone look for an allegorical meaning within the passage, but they must also affirm the literal meaning.

14.23–24. Augustine continues to speculate about what sex and procreation would have been like without the Fall. Most of his reasoning hinges on the idea that the various parts of the soul and body ought to be subject to the rational mind.

Just in case his reader thinks that his speculations sound too fantastic, Augustine lists a number of fantastic things some humans can do.

14.25. Augustine pauses briefly to remind his reader of the main point. The point isn’t really about having sexual organs that are subject to the rational mind. The point is righteousness. No one is happy apart from righteousness. According to Augustine, the inability to control the sex organs is just one symptom of our wretched state in which we cannot live as we wish.

14.26. In wrapping up his discussion of sex, Augustine mentions some ways in which procreation might have been different for women. Most of his other speculations have dealt with the male side of things.

At the end, he sort of half apologizes for addressing this subject at all. It shouldn’t be shameful to talk about pre-Fall sex, but since we’re post-Fall, it is.

14.27–28. Augustine gets back on track. The topic of this book was humanity’s sin.

The first sin was not outside God’s foreknowledge, but God did not compel anyone to sin. You can go back and read a more detailed explanation for how this could be in 5.9.

Sin provides the opportunity for God’s grace to be manifest. Citizens of the City of God are characterized by this grace which allows them to glory in God himself. Citizens of the earthly city are characterized by their self-love, which is exactly what led to sin in the first place.

City of God 15.1–15.27.

15.1–2. Book Fifteen begins a new section in City of God, in which Augustine lays out the history of the two cities.

Citizens of the City of Man gain their citizenship through natural means, being born into a fallen nature. Citizenship in the City of God, however, comes through grace. Members of the City of God come from the same fallen stock as those who live in the earthly city, but God chose to fashion them into something good. Good is living by God’s standard instead of by the standard of self.

Allegorical interpretation characterizes Augustine’s discussion of the two cities. Cain came first, then Abel, symbolizing that the fallen nature comes before the spiritual nature. In Genesis Cain founded a city, symbolizing the City of Man and living by the standards of self. Abel doesn’t found a city because God founds the City of God.

In 15.2 Augustine briefly justifies the use of allegory. The Apostle Paul sets the pattern. Hagar symbolized Jerusalem below, while Sarah symbolized Jerusalem above. Heavenly realities have earthly shadows. The heavenly city of Jerusalem had a shadow in the earthly city of Jerusalem, but the earthly city also had a shadow in Hagar. The shadow cast a shadow. The signs and symbols can be many layered. We’ll see more examples of this style of interpretation in City of God.

Augustine believes that Ishmael was a historical person, but he also believes that Ishmael symbolizes all those born in the fallen nature. Isaac on the other hand symbolizes all those people who are reborn by grace into Christ. Isaac’s birth was not natural; it was a gift. That’s what grace is—a gift.

15.3. Augustine interprets the births of Abraham’s children from Genesis 16–21. Isaac symbolizes the citizens of the City of God. Abraham did not deserve a child, but Isaac’s birth was a gift, that is grace, to Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael’s birth symbolizes the City of Man because it symbolizes humanity’s attempt to attain something good apart from God’s grace.

15.4. One ought not think that the earthly city is utterly wicked. The earthly city strives for some of the same blessings that come from God. Augustine notes that the ultimate aim of war is peace. Unfortunately the earthly city attempts to use its own power and means to achieve these goods, instead of God’s. Even so an element of common grace exists.

15.5. Augustine thinks that the conflict between Cain and Abel in Genesis symbolizes the two cities, but he also sees this symbol being reflected in the story of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. The lesson to be learned in this case, however, is a bit different. Both Romulus and Remus are of the earthly city, and Romulus kills Remus to demonstrate that the earthly city is always divided against itself in its pursuit of what it considers valuable.

15.6. Humanity’s propensity towards sin is the result of Adam and Eve’s first sin. The cure for this sin must be applied both to the interior and exterior man. God’s commands work from the outside telling people how they should live, but God’s commands are insufficient according to Augustine. God must “guide our minds with his inward grace.” Augustine alludes to his version of the doctrine of predestination.

15.7. Augustine discusses the sin of Cain. He begins by speculating why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable to God and Abel’s was acceptable. Augustine is working from a Latin translation of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), so his version of Genesis 4 doesn’t match most modern translations.

Augustine suggests that Cain’s real problem was not the sacrifice, but his unwillingness to give himself over to God.

15.8–9. According to Augustine, the Bible records the lineage of Cain and his founding of a city as a counterpoint to the City of God. However, a mixing occurs before the Flood, and only Noah and his family remain of the City of God.

Augustine defends the historicity of these early passages in Genesis. He gives both literary and scientific arguments for their veracity. His scientific arguments don’t fit well with modern-day archeology, but his literary arguments still show up now and again in modern discourse.

These literary and scientific arguments, however, are only supplemental. Augustine teaches that Scripture is always to be considered trustworthy.

15.10–12. Scripture is always trustworthy, but what does one do when the versions of the Scripture disagree? Augustine prefers the Old Latin translation of the Old Testament. This Latin translation was based on the Septuagint (LXX), which had been the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament. This Greek version was created around the 2nd century BC.

Jerome had recently completed the Vulgate, which was a Latin translation based on the Jewish versions of the Hebrew text. The Hebrew text and the Septuagint contain some divergent readings, and in Book 18 Augustine will defend the authority of the Septuagint. He finds Jerome’s work helpful, but the Septuagint is the Bible of the Church.

The LXX and the Hebrew differ according to the recorded lifespans of early humans. In spite of his preference for the LXX, Augustine admits that the Hebrew reading is to be preferred. Keep in mind, however, that he’s reading both these versions in Latin translation.

Augustine supports reading the ages of these early humans in literal years, and dismisses claims that the recorded years are shorter than the standard 365 days.

15.13. How did this discrepancy between the versions occur? Augustine dismisses the rumors that the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew are the result of a conspiracy. It’s ridiculous to claim that all the Jews changed all their Hebrew copies to deny Christians access to the truth.

He also thinks it unlikely that the second-century Jewish translators of the Septuagint conspired to change the ages of these early people. Augustine seems to believe the tradition about the Septuagint’s creation. According to the tradition, in the third century, one of the Greek kings of Egypt asked seventy-two scholars to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. The seventy-two worked in isolation, but at the end of their work their translations agreed word for word. (In reality, a number of different people worked on the Septuagint over a period of two or three hundred years.) Augustine also discusses the authority of the Septuagint in 18.42–43.

Augustine suggests that an early copyist of the Septuagint changed the numbers with the intention of supporting the idea that ten of their years equals one of our years. He says that where the Hebrew and the Greek texts cannot be reconciled, go with the Hebrew.

15.14. Augustine continues to give proofs as to why the length of a year was the same in the antediluvian period as now. The precision by which the Bible lists the month and day of the Flood would make no sense if a year was only a tenth of a solar year.

He doesn’t want this discrepancy between the LLX and the Hebrew to shake his readers’ faith in the LXX text. It’s still the Bible for his Latin speaking church. He’ll return to this topic in Book 18.

15.15. Augustine suggests that the genealogies in Genesis do not refer to firstborn children. The purpose of the genealogy is to get to Noah. There’s no reason to believe that Seth waited over a hundred years to have sex. Augustine uses the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel to support his theory.

15.16. Augustine continues to talk about humanity before the Flood. Adam and Eve’s children had to marry their siblings, since no one else existed for them to marry, but Augustine explains why this kind of marriage is no longer appropriate. Incest is wrong because it limits love and kinship.

If one marries a close relative, then one doubles or triples one’s relationship. A man would be both brother and husband to one woman. When people marry outside their families, it connects them to more people in a variety of ways. These connections stabilize society.

15.17–19. Two cities descended from Cain and Seth, one earthly and one holy. Augustine interprets the details of the genealogies to support his overarching idea. He bases most of his argument in this passage on the etymology of the Hebrew names. As is often the case in Augustine, his etymologies shouldn’t be trusted. Augustine, by his own admission, didn’t know much Hebrew. His source seems to have led him astray concerning the meaning of “Abel” and “Seth,” which means that his allegory for Christ needs to be reworked.

15.20. In defending the historicity of the genealogies leading up to the Flood, Augustine speculates as to why Cain’s line only has eight generations and Seth’s line has ten.

He’s already suggested that Seth’s line isn’t first-born sons, but a line whose goal is Noah. Augustine can’t think of a good reason why the text would be trying to get to Lamech since his line drowns in the Flood. Perhaps these are the kings of Cain’s city, and the kingship didn’t pass to the eldest son.

Augustine engages in numerological interpretation in this passage. Lamech’s line symbolizes sin since it includes 11 people. Eleven goes beyond or “transgresses” ten, the number which symbolizes the law. On the other hand, ten generations exist from Adam to Noah, a fitting number for those who live by God’s standard. Add Noah’s two “good” sons to this number, and we get the spiritually significant number 12.

15.21. Augustine speculates as to why the wording in the genealogies of Cain and Seth differ. Seth’s genealogy reiterates the connection with Adam and the image of God, while Cain’s genealogy begins and ends with murderers.

Inclusion the City of God comes through God’s grace. Augustine says that free will allows humans to turn from good to evil, but to turn from evil to good, humans need God’s help.

15.22. The line of Seth was not immune, however, to turning away from God. Augustine believes that the beauty of Cain’s descendants seduced them and that they married with them. Physical beauty is good, but it should not be valued more than God.

This passage from Genesis is often interpreted as angelic beings mating with human women. Augustine will explain why he isn’t convinced by this interpretation in the next section.

Augustine includes a few lines of a poem that he wrote on the subject of ordering affection for good. These lines appear at the beginning of a 53-line work entitled De Anima, attributed to Augustine. He says that the poem was in honor of a candle, perhaps a votive candle.

Augustine gives the reader a helpful definition of virtue: “rightly ordered love.”

15.23. Augustine believes that the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6:1–4, refers to those men from the line of Seth. The line of Seth mixed in marriage with the daughters of Cain, and God decided to judge the earth with a flood.

Augustine rejects the notion that these sons of God are fallen angels. One of the arguments for angelic paternity is that the offspring of these unions are “giants” and “mighty men.” Augustine dismisses this argument by noting that there are plenty of latter-day giants. He also notes that the text reads, “My spirit will not stay in those men forever, for they are flesh.” Angels and demons aren’t flesh, so these sons of God must be mortal men.

Much of the speculation about the angelic or demonic nature of the sons of God comes from the Book of Enoch, which Augustine rejects as non-canonical even though Jude uses it in his letter.

Interestingly, Augustine affirms the possibility that demons can have sex with women; he just doesn’t think that the Bible refers to demonic sex in this passage.

15.24. When God says, “their days will be 120 years,” according to Augustine, God means that in 120 years he will send the Flood. He doesn’t mean that men won’t live longer than 120. Augustine’s interpretation makes better sense of the passage.

15.25–27. Augustine closes Book Fifteen with his thoughts on the Flood and Noah’s ark.

He says that readers must affirm both the historical meaning and the allegorical meaning of the text. However, he claims that commentators can interpret the text in multiple valid ways. These interpretations must adhere to the Rule of Faith, which says that scriptural allegory must illuminate Christ or his Church.

Augustine says the numbers in the text symbolize Christ’s spear-pierced body, through which many enter and are saved. He then provides many other allegorical interpretations that he has heard.

Many people think that incredulity regarding the Flood narrative began in the Early Modern period. Augustine shows us that this is not the case. Many people doubted the historicity of the text in antiquity. People have made the same arguments about size and logistics that each previous generation raised, always thinking they were the first to make them.

Augustine dismisses criticisms of the Flood’s historicity as ill founded. He thinks that applying a little thought to the problem can solve many issues, but fundamentally he says that the critics fail to take into account the miraculous.

City of God 16.1–16.25.

In Book 16, Augustine traces the City of God from Noah to Judah.

16.1–2. Here at the beginning of Book 16, Augustine explains how the story of Noah’s drunkenness and his dealings with his sons prophesies Christ and the Church. Noah represents Christ; Shem, the Jews; Japheth, the gentiles; and Ham, the heretics.

It is an excellent example of Augustine’s allegorical method. Not only does he explain the meaning, but he explains the method as well. The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible in order to point to the work of Christ. Therefore, interpreters should expect that the historical details prophesy about Christ. Augustine admits that not every detail should be allegorized, but many critics will suggest that he’s done just that.

Note, however, his repeated insistence that the text is historical. It isn’t merely allegorical. For Augustine, the power of the prophecy derives from the historicity of the events.

16.3. In this section, Augustine lists the descendants of Noah, explaining that these first sons and grandsons were the fathers of the world’s nations.

National genealogies were fairly popular in the ancient world. When the Romans claimed to have been descended from the Trojans, they are trying to situate themselves in the broader story of the Mediterranean.

Augustine uses these passages in Genesis as a key to explain why the peoples of the world are the way they are.

16.4–6. Augustine discusses the division of human speech at the Tower of Babel.

At Babel, these people sinned through pride. They try to build a tower to God, exalting themselves. Augustine says that the only way one can get to God is through humility.

Augustine says that Babel means “confusion.” There’s a play on the word in the Hebrew that Augustine misses. Babel actually means “gate of God,” but it sounds like the Hebrew word “confusion.”

Augustine believes that God used angels as his agents in this instance, and this is why God talks about “us.” He notes that one could think this is a reference to the Trinity, but Augustine does not think that is the case in this passage.

He briefly revisits the ways in which God speaks to his creatures. He can speak to them through the instantaneous recognition of Truth. He can speak through other creatures. He can speak to the spirit through spiritual images. He can speak audibly to the ear.

At the end of this section, Augustine tries to interpret the sentence, “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” into a negative question. The new sentence would basically say, “Will not everything be impossible?” Augustine is trying to communicate that God is not impressed with their efforts to build something apart from his Spirit. However, turning the statement into a question probably isn’t the correct way to read it. It seems far better to take the sentence as divine sarcasm. The author had just noted that they were using inferior building materials, bricks and pitch, rather than stone and mortar.

Augustine thinks that there must be 72 different language groups based on the descendants of Noah. Since there are more than 72 nations in the world, he thinks some must speak the same language.

16.7–9. Augustine finishes up his discussion of the consequences of the Flood.

He deals with the very practical question of how animals managed to get to islands. Augustine adhered to the science of his day and believed that some animals, for example frogs, generate from inanimate objects. He notes that since most animals don’t reproduce this way, either humans or angels brought them to the islands. Or perhaps God just created them on the spot. A miracle doesn’t bother Augustine since the whole Flood story is miraculous.

Next he asks about all the fabulous races of humans that men like Pliny and Herodotus included in their writings. Augustine seems skeptical of the existence of most of these races, but he doesn’t rule out their existence. He provides a moderate answer. If they are really human, then they descended from Noah.

But what about the Antipodes, the people that supposedly live on the other side of the world? Augustine dismisses their existence. He claims not to care whether the world is a sphere or a disk. Either way, he thinks it impossible for men to traverse so large an ocean.

16.10–11. Augustine discusses the generations from Shem to Abraham.

He’d like to locate the City of God with a certain people or line, but he admits that this is difficult. He’ll have to wait until he gets to the Israelites before he can make this identification.

He suggests that citizens of the City of God must have always existed on the earth, but that these individuals could have been present and mixed with earthly-minded men in the lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

What language did people speak before the division of the languages at Babel? Augustine believes that it was Hebrew, and that the language derives its name from Heber in line of Shem. This etymology is speculative, but no one is really sure of where the word “Hebrew” comes from.

16.12–14. Augustine claims that with the narrative concerning Abraham, our knowledge of the City of God becomes clearer. The reader will find in the biblical account a definite people marked out as belonging to God.

Even so, Augustine must maintain a certain level of speculation here. He claims that Terah and Abraham were the last true worshipers of God and that they left Chaldea due to persecution. He glosses over the biblical passages that refer to Abraham as an idol worshiper.

His concern over finding a genetic link between members of the City of God seems to be motivated by an attempt to rightly interpret the genealogies. Why include all those lists if they didn’t have a deeper spiritual meaning?

16.15–16. Augustine works on the chronology of Abraham’s departure to the Promised Land.

Much of this discussion might seem tedious, but Augustine is trying to iron out all perceived difficulties in the text in order to protect Abraham’s historicity. One of the book’s stated goals is to answer objections of the Pagans.

Augustine makes mention of the story that Abraham escaped from the “fire of the Chaldeans.” The name of the city of Ur looks much like one of the Hebrew words for fire. A tradition began that God saved Abraham from being executed by fire in Chaldea. Muhammad would eventually incorporate this tradition into his version of the Abraham story.

16.17–20. Augustine gives his reader a geography lesson about the days of Abraham. Augustine recognizes three divisions of the world: Asia, Europe, and Africa. In the Roman mind, everything was located relative to the Mediterranean Sea.

Augustine claims that at the time of Abraham, Assyria ruled most of Asia. As I noted back in Book Four when he first brought up legendary King Ninus, Augustine’s sources for Assyrian history are not reliable.

This section of City of God discusses the promises of Abraham, but interspersed within it are explanations about the life of Abraham. God said he would give Abraham a great name, and God promised the land of Canaan to the seed of Abraham. Augustine says that the word “seed” is singular because it does not refer to Abraham as being father of all nations. Rather “seed” refers specifically to the nation of Israel.

Often, commentators look at Abraham’s deception in Egypt, in which he calls Sarah his sister, as a lack of faith. Augustine says the opposite. He says that Abraham demonstrates hope in God and that Abraham didn’t want to test God. Admittedly, it’s a difficult story. Lying seems wrong, but the narrator doesn’t criticize or condemn Abraham.

16.21–23. God told Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the sands of the earth, which Augustine suggests is hyperbolic language meaning that Abraham’s seed cannot be counted. He notes that there’s some ambiguity over whom the “seed” refers to. Augustine prefers to think that it refers to the spiritual seed of Abraham, which would include faithful Jews and Christians, but he notes that it could refer to the physical descendants of Abraham since the Jewish people have filled most of the world and still reside in Canaan.

But Jews didn’t live in Jerusalem where the Romans had banned them since the Bar Kokhba Revolt in AD 135. Jews wouldn’t be able to travel freely to Jerusalem until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

One might suspect that since Augustine enjoys explaining how Old Testament events prefigure Christ, he would write a good deal on the mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek. Instead he merely passes over it saying that Christ’s priesthood is not like the Aaronic priesthood because Christ’s priesthood never passes away.

Abraham’s descendants would also be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. Augustine believes that this promise demonstrates the spiritual nature of the Abraham’s seed. God’s already promised that the seed would be as uncountable as the sand; it seems that this is a numeric step back since there appear to be fewer stars in the sky. The stars’ exalted status teaches something about the heavenly character of the City of God.

Augustine dismisses the claims of Aratus and Eudoxus, from the 3rd and 4th centuries BC respectively, who claimed that they had counted all the stars. God said the stars were uncountable, and besides maybe some stars are invisible to the human eye.

16.24. Augustine explains the sign that God gave Abraham concerning his descendants. As with most allegories, Augustine affirms that there may be other suitable interpretations.

16.25. Augustine defends the righteousness of Abraham regarding Abraham’s begetting a son through Hagar. Augustine thought that the danger of sex, even sex between married couples, was the lust that came with it. The biblical text doesn’t say that Abraham experienced lust, so Abraham cannot be guilty. He was merely honoring his wife’s request, proving himself to be a good husband.

I expect many people will interpret this event differently.

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