I’m a bit behind, and today won’t catch us up entirely, but I’ll finish book 11 today and start book 12 tomorrow. Just a reminder, book 11 is a description of the origins of the two cities. Specifically, it’s a discussion of the origins of angels good and bad, who are like founders of their respective cities. Augustine makes a case for seeing the first day of creation as the day when when God created the angels – seeing “Let there be light” as the creating word that brings light into existence along with all the angels, who were created good. Without getting too deep into the physics of that conversation (though Augustine does get into the science as he understood it when he starts talking about other days when God might have made the angels and suggests that maybe God is talking about angels when He separates the waters on day two), it does seem plausible to me that angels are involved in the nature of light, especially as we now know light to be both wave and particle. Angels as light photons or something. But maybe that’s just the mystic in me that can’t understand the claims of physics.
I’m very interested by Augustine’s interpretive methods and he makes a few compelling statements about interpretation here at the end of book 11. First, the fact that he is working hard to explore science, Scripture, and his own theological understanding and how they all work together feels both faithful and unusual. He has moments where he is taking his best scientific understanding, applying his best understandings of Scripture, and trying to work out his theological conclusions based on what he sees in science in Scripture. But he holds all of this loosely. He suggests that science hasn’t fully explained the world, so he doesn’t seem too reliant on the scientific consensus of his day. He also recognizes that Scripture can be read in different ways, and so he holds even his interpretations of Scripture loosely, as long as they remain within the bounds of the creeds and councils. Twice in these few chapters, Augustine indicates that interpreting Scripture is not a perfect science: “Let each interpret these words as he will, then. For they are so profound that they can give rise to many different opinions which are not at odds with the rule of faith; and this is a challenge to the intellects who read them.” And, “even if we have been unable to discover the true intentions of the author of that book, we have nonetheless not departed from the rule of faith, which is sufficiently known to the faithful from other writings of equal authority. For even if it is of the material works of God that our author speaks, these do behind doubt bear no small resemblance to spiritual things.” Our job is not to know perfectly but to work toward understanding faithfully.
“Faith seeking understanding”, in Augustine’s famous phrase. I love this as an interpretive method because it relieves us of the burden of knowing completely which is beyond human ability, and frees us to love God with whatever knowledge He has given us. I will never be fully versed in physics, but whatever physics understanding I have can be used to serve God and to see Him more clearly. As much as I study, I will never have a perfect understanding of the Scriptures and so I can be free to see, love, and worship God as He has revealed Himself to me. And it frees Augustine and myself to see the value of other ways of reading and interpreting passages of Scripture. And that allows me to value others and the gifts that God has given them even though we may disagree about some of the specifics. He is a good God who is mysterious to me, but good and loving and faithful. I don’t need to understand all the details, though I will keep pursuing Him in humility and faith.