St Augustine of Hippo on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis


It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation

St Augustine of Hippo wrote these words about 1600 years ago.

Do they still have relevance today?


The words of Genesis aren’t supposed to limit themselves to one scientific or historical theory. Discoveries in all fields keep shedding new light on Scripture rather than taking light away from them, and always have done. I’m glad to know he knew this as far back as then!

In my own application, I like the word “concrete” more than “literal”. It is the latter that he is critiquing.


The book of Genesis has 50 chapters. What are the obscure passages?


Today’s relevance is contained in the Catholic doctrines which are the result of the guidance of the promised Holy Spirit, chapter 14, Gospel of John.


If there was no real Adam to whom God gave His breath of life to, no real Eve, the Mother of all living, no fall from grace through sin, no seven days of creation originating from God’s mere words, no lineage to Christ Our Savior, no Noatic flood, no Babel dispersion, etc you have undermined the Christian faith and destroyed its foundation.

Do you trust an atheistic scientist or the Word of God?



No one is saying that we must view Genisis as completely non-historical. St. Augustine’s point is simply about how some people will use the Bible as counter-proofs against certain scientific discoveries.

Consider someone using the Bible today as proof that the sun does not revolve around our earth. The geocentric and heliocentric models were historically debated, but there is no dispute on which is the correct model today. If someone were to try and denounce heliocentricity using the Bible as his proof, then it would do nothing good for the Church. It would not bring atheists to the faith, but turn them further away from taking it seriously.

This is the kind of problem St. Augustine is trying to avoid. I have a further quote that I can add to the OP’s quote, but I’ll have to dig it up later.


Here is the quote that I have:

From The Literal Meaning of Genesis by St. Augustine:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As you can see, St. Augustine’s point is that we can undermine our efforts of spreading the gospel by using Scripture as proof text against things that Scrupture was never meant to refute. The Church does not see reason and faith as contradictory with each other, and St. Augustine said as much all those years ago.


The question is not what does a scientist, atheist or otherwise, say. It’s where does the physical evidence point.


Thanks for that.

Augustine really was a man ahead of his time.


The book of Genesis reveals truths that are critical for Jews and Christians, in particular, and for all people, in general.

The book was written long ago to an audience whose world view and view of everything cannot be known with certainty, except in what it does assert explicitly and implicitly. How did the audience know how to interpret that an angel, specifically a cherubim, was stationed at the entrance to Eden to prevent anyone from entering – we have to assume that somehow they understood what a cherubim was.

There is one God who is the creator of everything (hence nothing except God is to be worshiped).

Man and woman were both created in the image and likeness of God and there is an implied equality of man and woman.

modern scholarship has collected internal evidence that leads them to believe that the book was written by various authors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, from different traditions over a long period of time.


The Church has discovered and teaches that there is a spiritual sense of scripture, which is based on the literal. the literal meaning of Genesis cannot be understood as telling the whole truth.

The Church also teaches that ultimately the whole Bible is the context within which to understand any of the individual books. So, Genesis does not make sense without the rest of the Bible.


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