[This is a guest post from Steven Leckvold, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]
In the last few years, movie theaters have become inundated with origin stories. They often manifest in the form of science fiction or super hero movies: Captain America, Hulk, Ironman, the Star Wars prequels (I’m almost ashamed to mention these), the new Star Trek prequel, Spiderman (undergoing yet another remake), X-Men: Origins, and X-Men: First Class, just to name a few among many. In their entertainment choices, American’s flock to movies that show us where the famous, the infamous, and the superhuman find their beginnings. We love to be told stories of humble beginnings, tragedy, and redemption. We root for the hero, and we feel his pain along with him as he struggles to conquer evil and overcome obstacles, even those within himself. No matter one’s worldview, we’re fascinated with origins, particularly the origin of our world and our people. Even the atheist would agree that the study of the origin and fabric of the universe captivates them, and rightly so. We want to know where it all came from, and different perspectives provide different hypotheses.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It could be argued that these words at the beginning of Genesis, and the chapters that follow, form the theological backbone of the rest of Scripture. While both Augustine and Chrysostom sought to understand the literal meaning of Genesis, their interpretations are strikingly different for several reasons.
- They have different philosophical or hermeneutical influences.
- The translations and languages known and used by each impacted their interpretations of certain passages and phrases.
- Their definition of the meaning of “literal” interpretation nuances their understanding of God’s revelation through Scripture.
According to The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine believed that God created all things simultaneously first in potential form (causal formulae) and later in actual appearance in due time in accordance with his sovereign plans. This creation was ex nihilo. The six days are not literal days as we know them; they represent God’s declaration to the angelic host what he would make. They are repeated over the course of six days because six is a perfect number, and God was revealing to the angels his perfected creation. God rested on the seventh day, not in that he stopped working or need rest, but in that he stopped creating new things. The seventh day was the beginning of time and history. Creation, from that point on, was to find its rest in God.
Chrysostom believed that God created all things and brought them into being from non-being. Humans and light were created from this ex nihilo creation. The order in which God created all things and revealed it through the first account in Scripture is of the utmost importance. God created the heavens before the earth in order to direct humans to cherish the things of heaven above the things of the earth. He created light and plant life prior to the sun, moon, and stars in order to demonstrate how all things are ultimately dependent upon him, not things he has created. He created humanity last, not because it was the least, but because it was the greatest part of his creation that would rule over all of it as if a king. In the second account of creation, Moses summarizes the first and elaborates on certain details in order to squelch evil intentions and clarify what God had done through his creative acts.
For several reasons they do not agree on the literal meaning these chapters carry. How have two men using literal hermeneutics arrived at two quite distinct interpretations from the same passage? The answer lies in the shade of their hermeneutical nuances. These shades include their distinct influences, translations and textual issues, and their views concerning the considerateness of revelation.
Augustine’s theory of causal formulae did not arise from a desire to explain the origin of species. He was operating within the framework of his philosophical context, just as we all do. Augustine’s theory of was not a new idea. It has, however, been greatly altered from some of its Neoplatonic influences. As John H. Gay put it, he “translated the neo-Platonic quest into Christian terms.” On the other hand, Chrysostom did not view his theological task through Neoplatonic eyes, and this perhaps accounts for the largest factor in these differing interpretations. He stands as a grand figure in the Antiochene tradition of literal interpretation. Chrysostom and others like him saw within the language of this text the considerateness of God; he communicated his word so clearly in order that there should be no confusion in its literal meaning.
Differing Languages and Translations
Augustine’s interpretation relied on the Latin text, most likely Jerome’s Vulgate, with all its strengths and weaknesses. This translation came from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint (LXX). Augustine also relied heavily on Sirach 18:1, and how God “made all things simultaneously.” Both Augustine and Chrysostom believed in the providential formation of the LXX, including the apocryphal books. Unlike Augustine, Chrysostom could read it as a native speaker of Greek. For both, Hebrew inadequacies were surpassed (in most cases) by their exemplary ability to elucidate the biblical text as well as the vast reservoir of Scripture they committed to memory. So while language and translation was not the chief factor that led to these men’s divergent interpretations, it played an important role in their differentiation.
Augustine believed that the Holy Spirit inspired the author (Moses) in a precise way to communicate the truths about the “days” of creation, and that he did so literally (through metaphor) so that we could understand. His literal interpretation shows how God used metaphor to reveal literal truths. Chrysostom explains how and why God inspired Moses to write things the way he did and in the order he wrote them. The order of events, from the creation of light to the creation of man, is by no means arbitrary. It is all with great purpose and done with God’s considerateness. Augustine read this considerate literalness within his own philosophical and hermeneutical framework, as did Chrysostom. While Augustine saw God’s considerate inspiration of literal metaphors, Chrysostom saw the words themselves as being intentional literal and to be understood as such. As a result, he believed the words were so literally clear, by intention, that we should not misunderstand them or take them to mean otherwise.
What do you think? Is this a fair assessment? What other factors might account for their differing interpretations? What implications does this have for us as we seek to interpret Scripture, or as we engage in the discipline of historical theology?
 John H. Gay, “Four Medieval Views of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 4 (O 1963), 251.