A CREATURE OF NEEDS1
(1) Smitten by the words of your Holy Scripture, my heart is much concerned over many things, amid this poverty which is my life. Most often on this account the poverty of man’s understanding is spendthrift of words, because searching speaks more than does finding, pleading takes longer than acceptance, and the hand that knocks is busier than the hand that receives. We hold the promise: who shall destroy it? “If God is for us, who is against us?”2 “Ask, and you shall receive.”3 “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, it shall be opened.”4 The promises are yours, and who fears deception, when Truth makes the promise?
THE TWO HEAVENS
(2) The lowliness of my tongue confesses to your highness1 that you have made heaven and earth, this heaven which I see, this earth on which I tread and from which comes this earth2 I bear about with myself. You have made them. But where is that heaven of heaven,3 O Lord, which we hear of in the words of the psalm: “The heaven of heaven is the Lord’s, but the earth he has given to the children of men”4? Where is the heaven that we do not see, before which all this which we see is earth? For this corporeal whole, since it is not everywhere whole, has in such wise received form and beauty in its least parts, of which the very lowest is our earth, but to that heaven of heaven even our earth’s heaven is but earth. Not unreasonably are both these great bodies but earth before that indescribable heaven which is the Lord’s and not the sons’ of men.
MATTER AND FORM
(3) Assuredly, this earth was invisible and without order, and there was I know not what profound abyss, upon which there was no light, because there was no form in it. Whence you commanded it to be written that “darkness was upon the deep.”1 What else was this but absence of light? If there were light, where else would it be except up above, standing visible and shedding its rays? Therefore, where there was yet no light, what way: the presence of darkness except the absence of light? So darkness was upon it, because there was no light upon it, just as where there is no sound, there is silence. What does it mean that silence is in a place, except that sound is not there? Lord, have you not taught this soul which confesses to you? Lord, have you not taught me2 that before you formed this unformed matter3 and fashioned it into kinds, there was no separate being, no color, no shape, no body, no spirit? Yet there was not absolutely nothing: there was a certain formlessness devoid of any specific character.
A PROPER NAME
(4) What then should it be called, if not by some familiar word, so that it may also be instilled in some way even into our more sluggish minds? Among all the parts of the world, what can be found closer to utter formlessness than earth and the deep? Because they occupy the very lowest place, they are less beautiful than the other higher parts, all of them transparent and brilliant. Why, then, may I not perceive that the formlessness of matter, which you made without beauty, but from which you made this beauteous world, is effectively indicated to men when called “earth invisible and without form”?
THE PROBLEM OF MATTER
(5) Hence, when thought seeks what mind may attain to in it, and says to itself, “It is not an intelligible form, like life, or like justice, because it is the matter of bodies. Nor is it a sensible form, because what may be seen and what may be sensed is not found in what is invisible and unordered,” when human thought says such things to itself, does it not strive either to know it by not knowing it, or to be ignorant by knowing it?
AN APPEAL TO REASON
(6) Truly, Lord, if by my mouth and my pen I may confess to you whatsoever you yourself have taught to me concerning such matter—the very name of which I heard but did not understand when men1 who themselves did not understand it repeated it to me—I formerly conceived it as having countless different forms, and therefore I did not conceive it at all. My mind turned over forms foul and horrid in confused array, but still forms. I called it formless, not because it lacked all form, but because it had such form that, if it ever showed itself, my senses would have turned away from it as from something strange and improper, and man’s frail powers would be disturbed by it. But what I was thus thinking about was formless not from lack of all form, but by comparison with better formed things. Right reason2 persuaded me that I must divest it utterly of every remnant of every form, if I desired to conceive it as completely formless. This I could not do. It was easier for me to conclude that it lacked all form than to conceive of something between form and nothing, neither formed nor nothing, an unformed near-nothing.
My mind ceased to question my imagination on this subject, for it was filled with pictures of formed bodies, and it was arbitrarily shifting and changing them about. I fixed my thought on the bodies themselves, and peered more deeply into their mutability, by reason of which they cease to be what they once were and begin to be what they were not. This same transition from form to form I suspected to be made through something formless and not by means of absolute nothing. But I desired to know this, not merely to guess at it. If my voice and hand were to confess to you all the knots that you have untied for me concerning this question, what one among my readers will persevere so as to grasp it all? But not for that fact will my heart cease from giving you honor and from raising a hymn of praise for those things which it cannot dictate. The mutability of mutable things is itself a capacity for all the forms into which mutable things are changed. What is this? Is it mind? Is it body? Is it a variety of mind or body? If it could be said, “a nothing-something,” “an is-is-not,” I would say that it is such. Yet it already somehow existed, so that it might receive these visible and ordered forms.
HEIGHTS AND DEPTHS
(7) Whence and in what manner was it, if it was not from you, from whom are all things, in so far as they are? But so much more distant is anything from you, in so far as it is more unlike you, and this distance is not of place. Therefore, Lord, you who are not one thing at one time and a different thing in another, but the Selfsame, and the Selfsame, and the Selfsame,1 “holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty,”2 in the Beginning,3 which is of you, in your Wisdom, which is born of your own substance, you created something, and that something out of nothing. You made heaven and earth, not out of yourself, for then they would have been equal to your Only-begotten, and through this equal also to you. But in no way was it just that anything which was not of you should be equal to you.
There was nothing beyond you from which you might make them, O God, one Trinity and trinal Unity. Therefore, you created heaven and earth out of nothing, a great thing and a little thing. For you are almighty and good, to make all things good, the great heaven and the little earth. You were, and there was naught else out of which you made heaven and earth: two beings, one near to you, the other near to nothingness, one to which you alone would be superior, the other to which nothing would be inferior.
DARKNESS OVER THE DEEP
(8) But that “heaven of heaven is yours, O Lord,”1 but the earth, which you gave to the sons of men to be seen and felt, was not such as we now see and touch. It was invisible and not set in order, and it was an abyss above which there was no light. Or else the words “darkness was upon the deep” mean that there was more darkness above the deep than in it. For in fact the watery deep now visible to us has even in its lowest parts a light that is proper to its character and can in some way be sensed by the fishes and the animals creeping on its bottom. But that entire abyss was close to non-being, since it was still altogether devoid of form. Still, it was already something that could be given form. Lord, you made the world out of formless matter;2 this letter you made out of nothing into a near-nothing, thereof to make the great things that we, the sons of men, wonder at.
Truly wonderful is this, the corporeal heaven, this firmament between water and water, of which, on the second day after the creation of light, you said: “Let it be made,” and so it was made.3 You called this firmament heaven, namely, heaven of this earth and sea. These you made on the third day by giving visible form to formless matter, which you made before the beginning of all days. Already, before all days, you had made a heaven, but it was heaven of this heaven, for in the beginning you made heaven and earth. The earth itself, which you made, was formless matter, because it was invisible and not set in order, and darkness was above the deep. Out of this unordered and invisible earth, out of this formlessness, out of this almost-nothing, you made all things, of which this mutable world stands firm, and yet does not stand firm,4 in which mutability itself is apparent, in which tracts of time can be perceived and numbered off. For tracts of time result from the changes of things, according as the forms, for which the aforesaid invisible earth is the matter, are varied and turned about.
THE HIGHEST HEAVEN
(9) Therefore, when the Spirit, the teacher of your servant,1 recounts that in the beginning you made heaven and earth, he says nothing of times and is silent of days. Doubtless, that heaven of heaven, which you made in the beginning, is some kind of intellectual creature. Although in no manner coeternal with you, the Trinity, it is yet a partaker of your eternity, and because of its most sweet and happy contemplation of you, it firmly checks its own mutability. Without any lapse from its first creation, it has clung fast to you and is thus set beyond all the turns and changes of time. This formlessness, this earth invisible and without form, is not numbered among the days. Where there is no form, no order, nothing comes or passes away. Where this does not take place, surely there are no days and no change of time.
THE FOUNTAIN OF LIFE
(10) O may it be the Truth, the light of my heart, not my own darkness, that speaks to me. I fell away to those material things, and I became darkened over, but from there, even from there, I loved you. I went astray, but I did not forget you.1 “I heard your voice behind me,”2 calling me to return, but because of the tumult of men hostile to peace,3 I scarcely heard it. But now, see, I return, burning and yearning for your fountain. Let no man forbid me! I will drink at this fountain, and I will live by it. Let me not be my own life: badly have I lived from myself: I was death to myself: in you I live again. Speak to me, speak with me. I have believed in your books, and their words are most full of mystery.
THE SOUL A PILGRIM
(11) Already you have said to me with a strong voice into my interior ear that you are eternal, you who alone have immortality,1 since you can be changed by no kind of motion and your will is not varied with time, for no will is immortal which is now one thing, now another. In your sight this is clear to me, and may it become more and more clear, I beseech you, and under your wings let me persevere soberly in what you have made manifest. You have also told me with a strong voice within my interior ear, O Lord, that you have made every nature and every substance, things that are not what you are but yet exist. The only thing that does not come from you is what does not exist, together with any movement of the will away from you who are and towards that which is in a lesser way, for such movement is crime and sin. You have told me that no man’s sin either hurts you or disrupts the order of your government, whether in the beginning or in the end. In your sight this is clear to me: may it become more and more clear, I beseech you, and in this which you have made manifest let me persevere soberly under your wings.
(12) Again, you have told me with a strong voice within my interior ear that not even that creature is coeternal with you, whose delight you alone are, and who with most persevering chastity, drawing its nourishment from you, has nowhere and never asserted its own mutability, and with you yourself ever present with it, to whom it clings with all its powers, having neither future to look forward to nor transferring to the past what it remembers, is neither altered by any change nor distended into any times. O happy creature, if there be such, for cleaving to your happiness, happy in you, its eternal dweller and enlightener! I do not find anything which I may more fittingly judge should be called “the heaven of heaven, which is the Lord’s,”2 than your own house, which contemplates your delight3 without any fault of going to another, a pure mind, most harmoniously one by the established peace of holy spirits, citizens of your city in heavenly places above these present heavens.
(13) From this may the soul, whose pilgrimage has become long, understand that if she now thirsts for you, if her tears are now made her bread, while it is said to her each day, “Where is your God?”4 if she now seeks of you one thing,5 and desires it, that she may dwell in your house all the days of her life—and what is her life except yourself? and what are your days except eternity, just as are your years, which do not fail, because you are ever the same?6—from this, then, may that soul, which can do so, understand how far above all times are you, the Eternal. For your house, which is not on pilgrimage, even though it is not coeternal with you, yet unceasingly and unfailingly clings to you and thus suffers no change in time. In your sight this is clear to me: may it become more and more clear, I beseech you, and in this which you have made manifest let me persevere soberly under your wings.
(14) See, there is I know not what formlessness in those mutations of the latest and lowest things! Who will tell me, unless it be such a one as through his inanity of heart wanders about and tosses up and down amid his own fantasies? Who but such a one will tell me, if all form be lessened and consumed away and there remain formlessness alone, through which a thing was changed and turned from one kind to another kind, that it could exhibit temporal change? In no way could it do so, because without variety of motions there are no times, and there is no variety where there is no form.
THINGS IMMUNE TO TIME
(15) These things I have considered in so far as you have given it to me to do so, O my God, in so far as you have aroused me to knock, and in so far as you have opened up to my knocking. I find two things which you have made immune to time, although neither one is coeternal with you. One of them has been so formed that, without any interruption of its contemplation, without any interval of change, subject to change yet never changed, it enjoys eternity and immutability. The other was so formless that it could not be changed from one form into another form whether of motion or of rest, and thus be made subject to time. But you did not abandon this second being to remain formless. For before all days, “in the beginning you made heaven and earth,”1 those two things of which I was speaking. The earth was invisible and without order, and darkness was above the deep. By these words you have instilled the idea of formlessness, so that gradually aid might be given to minds that could not conceive complete privation of form without arriving at nothing. From it would be made another heaven and earth, visible and set in order, and beautiful bodies of water, and whatever else is recorded as being made thereafter, but not without days, in the creation of this world. For such things exist, so that in them temporal changes may take place because of ordered alterations of movements and forms.
IN A GLASS, DARKLY
(16) Meanwhile, I conceive this, O my God, when I hear your Scripture saying, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth, and the earth was invisible and without form, and darkness was upon the deep,” and making no mention of the day on which you made these things. Meanwhile, I interpret the heaven of heaven as the intellectual heaven, where it belongs to intellect to know all at once, not in part, not in a dark manner, not through a glass, but as a whole, in plain sight, face to face,1 not this thing now and that thing then, but, as has been said, it knows all at once, without any passage of time. By the earth invisible and without form, I understand an earth without any change of time, which change is wont to have now this thing, now that. For where there is no form, there is nowhere separation of this from that.
Because of these two, the one formed from the very beginning and the other completely unformed, the first heaven, but the heaven of heaven, the second earth, but the earth invisible and without form, because of these two I meanwhile understand what your Scripture says, without mention of days, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth.” For immediately it subjoins which earth it spoke of. Also, since it is recorded that on the second day the firmament was made and was called heaven, it indicates which heaven was previously spoken of as being without days.
THE TWO-EDGED SWORD
(17) Wondrous is the depth of your words, for see, their surface lies before us, giving delight to your little ones. But wondrous is their depth, O my God, wondrous is their depth! It is awesome to look into that depth: an awe owed to honor, and a trembling arising from love! Strongly do I hate its enemies! Oh, that you would slay them with a two-edged sword,1 that they would no longer be its enemies! Thus do I love them, that they be slain to themselves, so that they might live for you.
But see, there are others, not objectors to the book of Genesis but praisers of it, and they say: “The Spirit of God, who by his servant Moses wrote down these things, did not will that all this be understood from these words. He would not have what you say taken from them, but something different which we say.”
To these men I thus make answer as follows, with you, O God of us all, as our judge.
ANSWERS TO OBJECTORS
(18) Will you claim that those things are false which Truth with a strong voice speaks into my inner ear concerning the true eternity of the creator, that his substance is in no wise changed in time, and his will is not outside his substance? For this reason, he does not will now this, now that, but once, and all at once, and forever he wills all that he wills. It is not again and again, now these things, now those. He does not will later on what he once willed against, nor does he will against what he previously willed to do. Such a will is mutable, and no mutable thing is eternal. But our God is eternal.1
Again, truth speaks into my inner ear that expectation of things to come becomes complete intuition when those things come to pass, and this same contuition* becomes memory after they pass away. Now all thought that varies in this manner is mutable, and no mutable thing is eternal. These things I gather up and fit together, and I find that my God, the eternal God, did not establish all his creation by any new act of will, nor did his knowledge suffer any transmutation.
(19) What, then, will you say, O contradictors? Are these things false? “No,” they say. What then? Is it false that every formed nature, or matter capable of formation, exists only from him who is supremely good because he supremely is? “We do not deny this,” they say. What then? Do you deny this, that there is a certain sublime creature that cleaves with so chaste a love to the true and truly eternal God that, although not coeternal with him, it still does not detach from him and does not dissolve away into any variation and change of times, but finds rest in a most veracious contemplation of him alone? For you, O God, reveal yourself to a being that loves you as much as you command, and you are sufficient to it. Therefore, he does not fall away from you and to himself. This is the house of God, not earthly, and yet not of celestial, corporeal shape, but spiritual and partaking of your eternity, because it is forever without defect. For you have “established it forever and for ages of ages.” You have “made a decree, and it shall not pass away.”2 Yet it is not coeternal with you, because it is not without beginning, for it was made.
(20) Although we do not find time before it, for “wisdom has been created before all things,”3 surely it is not that wisdom which is altogether coeternal and equal with you, its Father, O our God, through which wisdom all things were created, and in whom, as the Beginning, you created heaven and earth. Rather it is that wisdom which is created, namely, an intellectual nature, which, through contemplation of the Light, is light. For this is also called wisdom, although a created wisdom.
But great as is the difference between the Light which brings light and that light which is brought, just so great is the difference beween the Wisdom which creates and that which is created, even as there is between justice that justifies and justice that is brought about by justification. For we are also called by your justice. A certain servant of yours has said: “That we might be made the justice of God in him.”4 Therefore, a certain created wisdom was created before all things, the rational and intellectual mind of your chaste city, our mother, which is above, and is free and eternal in the heavens.5 In what heavens was it, if not those which praise you, the heaven of heavens, for this is also the heaven of heaven for the Lord?6 Although we find no time in it, for that which was created before all things also precedes the creation of time, yet the eternity of the creator himself is before it. For being made by him, it took its beginning from him, not indeed in time, for time itself was not yet, but in its very creation.
(21) Hence it is in such wise from you, our God, that it is completely other than you and not the Selfsame. Not only do we find no time before it, but not even in it, because it is adapted always to behold your face and is never turned away from it. Thus it comes about that it is never varied by any change. Yet there is in it a certain mutability, from which it would become dark and cold, unless it clung to you with a mighty love so as to shine and glow from you as at eternal noontide. O lightsome and beautiful house! I have loved your beauty and the dwelling place of the glory of my Lord,7 your builder and possessor! May my pilgrimage sigh after you! I speak to him who made you, so that he may also possess me in you, because he has likewise made me. “I have gone astray, like a sheep that is lost.”8 Yet upon the shoulders of my shepherd,9 your builder, I hope to be borne back to you.
(22) What do you say to me, O contradictors to whom I was speaking, who yet believe that Moses was a devout servant of God and that his books are the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Is not this house of God, although not coeternal with God, nevertheless according to its condition eternal in the heavens, where in vain you seek for changes of time, because you do not find them there? This house, for which it is good ever to adhere to God,10 surpasses all distention and all turning tracts of time. They say, “It is.” What then of all those things that my heart cried out to my God,11when inwardly it heard the voice of his praise,12 what part of them do you contend is false? Is it that matter was without form, wherein, since there was no form, there was no order? But where there was no order there could be no change of time. Yet this “almost nothing,” in as much as it was not completely nothing, was surely from him, from whom is whatever is, whatever is anything in any way. They say, “This also we do not deny.”
THE CITY OF GOD
(23) I desire to converse for a little while in your presence, O my God, with these men who grant that all these things, of which your truth is not silent inwardly in my mind, are true. For those who deny these things, let them bark as much as they wish, make only a din for themselves. I will attempt to persuade them, so that they may become quiet and leave open a way into themselves for your Word. But if they refuse and repel me, I beseech you, my God, “do not be silent to me.”1 Speak in my heart, with truth, for you alone speak thus. I will leave them outside, blowing into the dust and raising up dirt into their own eyes. I will enter into my chamber2 and there I will sing songs of love to you, groaning with unspeakable groanings3 on my pilgrimage, and remembering Jerusalem, with heart lifted up towards it, Jerusalem my country, Jerusalem my mother,4 and you who over her are ruler, enlightener, father, guardian, spouse, pure and strong delight, solid joy, all good things ineffable, all possessed at once, because you are the one and the true good. I will not be turned away until out of this scattered and disordered state you gather all that I am into the peace of her, the mother most dear, where are the first fruits5 of my spirit, whence these things are certain to me, and you conform and confirm me into eternity my God, my mercy.
But with those who do not assert to be false all these things which are true, but honor your holy Scripture put forth by holy Moses, and like us place it on the summit of authority that must be followed, and yet contradict me in some matter, I speak thus: Do you, our God, be judge between my confessions and their contradictions.
(24) They say: “Although these words are true, yet Moses was not considering the two things you name when by the revelation of the Spirit he said, ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’ By the term ‘heaven,’ he did not mean that spiritual or intellectual creature which forever contemplates God’s face, nor by the term ‘earth’ did he mean formless matter.” What then? They say: “That man meant what we say. He stated this in those words.” What is that? They answer: “By the terms ‘heaven’ and ‘earth,’ he first wanted to signify in an all-inclusive and brief manner, the whole visible world, so that afterwards by enumeration of days1 he could point out, in detail as it were, all the things which the Holy Spirit was pleased to announce in this manner. That rude and carnal people to which he spoke was made up of such men that he judged only the visible works of God should be set down for them.” However, they agree that the invisible and unformed earth and the darksome deep, out of which, as is later shown, all these visible things were made and set in order during those various days, things which are known to all men, are not unfittingly interpreted as being that formless matter.
(25) But what if another man says that this same formless and confused matter was first indicated to us by the terms “heaven” and “earth,” because out of it there was established and perfected this visible world, together with all the natures which most manifestly appear in it, which visible world is often accustomed to be called by the terms “heaven” and “earth”? What if another man says that invisible and visible nature is not improperly called heaven and earth, and hence the universal creation which God made in his wisdom, that is, “in the beginning,” was comprehended in two words of this sort? Nevertheless, all things have been made, not out of the very substance of God, but out of nothing, since they are not the same as he is, and because there is a certain mutability in all things, whether they stand fast, as does God’s eternal house, or are subject to change, as are men’s soul and body. Therefore, it follows that the common matter of all things visible and invisible, still unformed but certainly capable of being formed, out of which heaven and earth would be made, that is, the visible and invisible creature when actually formed, was designated by those names, by which “the earth invisible and without form” and “the darkness over the deep,” are called. But it was with this difference, that “the earth invisible and without order” would be understood as corporeal matter before being qualified by any form, and “darkness above the deep” as spiritual matter before any restraint was put upon its almost unbounded fluidity and any enlightenment from wisdom.
(26) If any other man2 so wishes, the following may still be stated. The natures, both visible and invisible, of heaven and earth, already perfected and formed, are not meant by the phrase “heaven and earth” when we read, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth.” Rather, the still formless commencement of things, matter capable of form and creation, was called by these names, because contained in it in a confused manner, and not yet distinguished by qualities and forms, were those things now arranged in order and called heaven and earth, the one being a spiritual and the other a corporeal creature.
INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
(27) Having heard and considered all these problems I do not wish to “contend in words, for it is to no profit, but to the subversion of the hearers.”1 But “the law is good” to edify, “if a man use it lawfully.”2 For the end of it “is charity, from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith.”3 Our Master4 has known upon which two commandments he would make the whole law and the prophets depend.5 What harm comes to me, O my God, “light of my eyes”6 in secret, if I zealously confess these things to you, what harm comes to me, if various meanings may be found in these words, all of which are true? What harm comes to me, I say, if I think differently than another thinks as to what he who wrote these words thought?7 All of us who read strive to trace out and understand what he whom we read actually meant, and since we believe him to speak the truth, we dare not assert that he spoke anything we know or think to be false. Therefore, while every man tries to understand in Holy Scripture what the author understood therein, what wrong is there if anyone understand what you, O light of all truthful minds, reveal to him as true, even if the author he reads did not understand this, since he also understood a truth, though not this truth?
(28) True it is, O, Lord, that you made heaven and earth. True it is that the beginning is your Wisdom, in which you made all things.1 True it is also that this visible world has as its greater parts heaven and earth, by way of brief description of all made and created natures. True it is, too, that every mutable being suggests to our mind a certain formlessness, by reason of which it receives a form, or is transmuted or changed about. True it is that that being suffers no temporal changes which so clings to the immutable form that, although itself mutable, it is not changed. True it is that that formlessness which is almost nothing cannot have changes in time. True it is that that out of which a thing is made may already bear, in a certain figure of speech, the name of the thing made out of it. Hence a certain formlessness, out of which heaven and earth were made, could be called heaven and earth. True it is that of all formed beings, none is closer to unformed being than earth and the deep. True it is that you, from whom are all things,2 have made not only created and formed being, but also whatsoever is capable of being created and formed. True it is that every being that is formed out of that without form is itself first unformed and then formed.
EXEGESIS OF GENESIS 1:1
(29) Out of all these truths, concerning which they do not doubt whose inward eye you have granted to see such things, and who steadfastly believe that your servant Moses spoke in the Spirit of Truth,1 out of all these, then, he selects one who says: “ ‘In the beginning, God made heaven and earth,’ that is, in his Word, coeternal with himself, God made intelligible and sensible, or spiritual and corporeal, creation.” He takes another who says: “ ‘In the beginning, God made heaven and earth,’ that is, in his Word, coeternal with himself, God made this universal mass of this corporeal world, together with all the manifest and known natures that it contains.” He takes another who says: “ ‘In the beginning, God made heaven and earth,’ that is, in his Word, coeternal with himself, God made the formless matter of spiritual and corporeal creation.” He takes another who says: “ ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth,’ that is, in his Word, coeternal with himself, God made the formless matter of corporeal creation, wherein, still confused, lay heaven and earth, which we perceive now distinct and formed in the mass of this world.” He takes another who says: “ ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth,’ that is, in the very beginning of his making and working, God made that formless matter, confusedly containing within itself heaven and earth, from which matter they now stand forth fully formed and are apparent, together with all things that are in them.”
INTERPRETATIONS OF GENESIS 1:2
(30) This holds also for an understanding of the words following. Out of all these truths, a man chooses one meaning for himself when he says: “ ‘But the earth was invisible and without form, and darkness was upon the deep.’ That is, that corporeal thing which God made was as yet the formless matter of corporeal things, without order, without light.” He chooses another who says: “ ‘But the earth was invisible and without form, and darkness was upon the deep.’ That is, this whole being, which is called heaven and earth, was as yet formless and darksome matter, out of which would be made the corporeal heaven and the corporeal earth, together with all things in them known to bodily senses.” He takes another who says: “ ‘But the earth was invisible and without form, and darkness was upon the deep.’ That is, this whole, which is called heaven and earth, was as yet formless and darksome matter, out of which would be made the intelligible heaven—which elsewhere is called the heaven of heaven—and earth, namely, all corporeal nature, under which name may be understood likewise this corporeal heaven, that is, that from which would be made all invisible and visible creation.” He takes another who says: “ ‘The earth was invisible and without form, and darkness was upon the deep.’ Scripture has not called that formlessness by the name of heaven and earth, but there already was formlessness itself,” he says, “which Moses named ‘the earth invisible and without form’ and ‘the darksome deep,’ out of which, as he had said before, God made heaven and earth, namely, spiritual and corporeal creation.” He takes another who says: “ ‘But the earth was invisible and without form, and darkness was upon the deep.’ That is, formlessness was already a certain matter, out of which, as Scripture said before, God made heaven and earth, namely, the whole corporeal mass of the world, divided into two immense parts, higher and lower, together with all the usual and familiar creatures in them.”
OBJECTIONS AND ANSWERS
(31) Someone might attempt to oppose these two last opinions in this fashion: “If you will not grant that this formless matter seems to be called by the names of heaven and earth, then there was something which God did not make, out of which he made heaven and earth. Scripture has not recounted that God made this matter, unless we understand that it was signified by the phrase heaven and earth, or earth alone, when it was said, ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’ Hence by what follows, ‘But the earth was invisible and without form’—although it pleased him to describe formless matter in this way—we are to understand no other matter but that which God made in it, whereof it is written above, ‘He made heaven and earth.’ ”
The proponents of these two opinions which we placed last, whether of one or of the other, will respond, when they hear these things, and they will say: “We do not deny that this formless matter was made by God, from whom are all things exceeding good,1because, just as we have asserted that that is a greater good which is created and formed, so we admit that that is a lesser good which is made creable and formable, but yet a good. However, we say that Scripture has not recorded that God made this formlessness, just as it has not recorded many other things, like the Cherubim and the Seraphim, and those which the Apostle distinctly names, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, and Powers.2 Yet it is manifest that God made all of these. Or if in the words, ‘He made heaven and earth,’ all things are comprehended, what shall we say of the waters above which moved the Spirit of God? For if they are all to be understood together when earth is named, how then can formless matter be understood by that term earth, since we see the waters to be so beautiful? Or if it is taken in this sense, why then is it written that the firmament was made out of this same formlessness and was called heaven, and why is it not written that the waters were made from it? For the waters, which we see flowing in so fair a form, are not still formless and invisible. But if they received that beauty, when God said, ‘Let the water which is under the firmament be gathered together,’ so that this gathering together is itself a formation, what will they answer with regard to those ‘waters which are above the firmament’? For if they are formless, they would not merit to receive so honorable a seat, and it is not written by what word they have been formed. Hence if Genesis is silent as to anything that God made—and that God did make it neither sound faith nor sure reasoning doubts—no sober teaching will dare to affirm that these waters are coeternal with God, merely because we hear them mentioned in the book of Genesis but we do not find when they were made. Why should we not understand, with Truth teaching us, that also formless matter, which Scripture calls earth invisible and unformed and darksome deep, was made by God out of nothing, and therefore is not coeternal with him, although this narrative may omit to state when those things were made?”
MEANING AND REALITY
(32) Therefore, when all these views have been heard and considered according to my feeble capacities, which I confess to you, my God, who know them well, I see that two types of disagreement may arise when anything is uttered by means of signs by truthful reporters. One concerns the truth of things; the other is argument about the intention of the speaker. In one way we inquire what may be true with regard to the process of creation; in the other way as to what Moses, that excellent servant of your faith, wished the reader and hearer to understand by his words. With regard to the first kind of objection, may they depart from me all those who deem that they know things that are false. With regard to the second kind, let all those also depart from me who deem that Moses spoke things that are false. May I be united to them, O Lord, in you, and in you may I rejoice with them who feed upon your truth in breadth of charity. Let us together approach the words of your book, and let us seek in them for your will by means of the will of your servant, by whose pen you have dispensed those words.
TRUTHS SEEN AND STATED
(33) Among the many truths that occur to investigators as these words are interpreted in different ways, which of us finds an answer such that he may say with equal confidence that Moses meant this and wished this to be understood from his account as he says that this meaning is true, whether Moses meant this or something different? For behold, O my God, I, your servant,1 who have vowed to you a sacrifice of confession in these writings, and pray that by your mercy I may pay my vows to you,2 behold with what confidence I say that in your immutable Word you made all things, visible and invisible. Can I say with the same confidence that Moses meant nothing else than this when he wrote, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth”? I do not see him thinking this within his mind as he wrote those words, in the way that I see this for a certainty in your truth.
He could have thought about the very start of God’s creative action when he said, “In the beginning.” He could have wished that the words “heaven and earth” in this passage be interpreted not as meaning a nature already formed and perfected, whether spiritual or corporeal, but as meaning both as just started and still unformed. I see that the truth could have been spoken, whichever of these was said. But which of them he meant by these words, this I do not see in the same manner. However, whether it was either of these, or some further meaning which I have not mentioned, that this so great a man gazed at in his mind, when he uttered these words, I have no doubt that he saw the true meaning and stated it correctly.
A REDUCTION TO FIRST PRINCIPLES
(34) Let no man attack me by saying to me: “Moses did not think as you say, but as I say.” If he should say to me, “How do you know that Moses thought what you infer from his words?” I ought to take this calmly and perhaps respond to him in the way I have already answered him, or somewhat more fully, if he were stubborn. But when he says, “Moses did not mean what you say, but what I say,” and still does not deny that what each of us says is true, then O my God, O life of the poor, in whose bosom there is no contradiction, rain down into my heart soothing drops, so that I may patiently put up with such men. They do not say this to me because they have a divine spirit and have seen in the heart of your servant what they assert, but because they are proud and have not known Moses’s meaning, but love their own, not because it is true, but because it is their own. Otherwise, they would have an equal love for another man’s true opinion, just as I love what they say when they speak the truth, not because it is theirs but because it is true. Therefore, because it is true, it is by that very fact not theirs. Therefore, if they love it because it is true, then it is both theirs and mine, since it is the common property of all lovers of the truth.
But in so far as they contend that Moses did not mean what I say but what they say, this I do not like, this I do not love. For even if it is so, this is the temerity not of knowledge but of rash judgment: not insight but pride begot it. Therefore, O Lord, your judgments are terrible, since your truth is not mine, nor his, nor any other man’s, but belongs to all of us whom you publicly call to its communion, warning us in a terrible manner that we must not will to keep it for ourselves lest we be deprived of it. Whosoever arrogates completely to himself that which you propose for the enjoyment of all men, and desires that to be his own which belongs to all men, is driven from what is common to all men to what is really his own, that is, from truth to a lie. For he who “speaks a lie speaks of his own.”1
(35) Give heed,2 O God, best judge, truth itself, give heed to what I shall say to this contradictor, give heed. I speak before you, and before my brethren, who lawfully use the law unto the end of charity.3 Give heed, and see, if it pleases you, what I shall say to him. For I return this fraternal and peaceful word to him: “If we both see that what you say is true, and if we both see that what I say is true, where, I ask you, do we see it? Surely, I do not see it in you, nor do you see it in me, but both of us see it in that unchangeable truth which is above our minds. Therefore, since we do not contend about the light itself of the Lord our God, why do we contend about our neighbor’s thought, which we cannot see in the same manner? If Moses himself appeared before us and said, ‘This I have thought,’ would we see it in this way or rather believe him? Therefore, ‘Let us not be puffed up one for another against another, above that which is written.’4 ‘Let us love the Lord our God, with our whole heart, and with our whole mind, and with our whole mind, and our neighbor just as ourselves.’5 By reason of these two commandments6 of charity, if we do not believe that Moses meant whatsoever he did mean in these books, we shall make the Lord a liar,7 since we opine otherwise of our fellow servant’s mind than he taught. See now how stupid it is, amid such an abundance of true meanings as can be taken out of these words, rashly to affirm which of them Moses chiefly meant, and with pernicious quarrels to offend against charity, for the sake of which he spake everything, whose words we strive to expound.”
HAD I BEEN MOSES
(36) Yet I, O my God, loftiest height above my lowliness and rest from my labor, who hear my confessions and forgive my sins, since you command me to love my neighbor as myself,1 I cannot believe that to Moses, your most faithful servant, you would grant a lesser gift than I would will and desire from you for myself, had I been born in the same time as he, and had you established me in that office, so that by ministry of my heart and tongue there might be promulgated those books of yours which for so long after were to profit all nations, and by such supreme authority were to vanquish the words of all false and proud teachings throughout the whole world.
In truth, I should have wished, had I then been Moses—for we all come from the same clay,2 and what is man, unless because you are mindful of him?3—I should have wished, if I had then been what he was and had been enjoined by you to write the book of Genesis, that such power of eloquence be given to me, and such ways to fashion words that not even they who cannot yet understand how God creates things would reject my words as beyond their powers; while they who can already understand, no matter what true interpretation they have arrived at in their thought, would not find it passed over in your servant’s few words; and if some other man by the light of truth had perceived a further meaning, it should not fail to be understood from those same words.
(37) It is like a fountain, which in its narrow confines is more fruitful and supplies the flow of many streams over wider expanses than any of those rivers which take rise from it and flow through many regions. So also, the account given by the dispenser of your words, which was to provide material for many future commentators, out of a small amount of words pours forth floods of clear truth. From them each man for himself may draw the truth he can attain to concerning these matters, one man this truth, another man that, through their longer and more involved discussions.
When they read or hear these words, some men think that God, like a man, or like some power infused into an immense mass, by some new and sudden decision, operating outside himself and as it were, in distant regions, made heaven and earth, two great bodies, one up above, one below, in which all things would be contained. When they hear, “God said, ‘Let this be made,’ and that thing was made,” they think of words that began and ended, sounding out at certain times and then passing away, and they think that after their departure there forthwith came into being what had been commanded to exist. They conjecture other things of this sort in accordance with ordinary sense operations. In such men, still little ones and wholly sense-conscious, while their infirmity is carried in this most lowly way of speech as if in their mothers’ bosom, faith is strengthened in a healthful manner. Through it, they have and hold with certainty that God made all the natures that in wondrous variety their senses view about them. If any man despises your words, as if they were of little worth, and if with prideful weakness he stretches out too far beyond the mother’s nest, alas! he will fall. O Lord God, have mercy,1 lest they who pass along the way trample2 upon the featherless birdling! Send your angel3 to put it back into the nest, so that it may live until it can fly!
VARIOUS VALID INTERPRETATIONS
(38) But other men, for whom these words are no longer a nest but shady bowers, see the fruits that lie therein and joyously fly about, and pipe songs and look carefully at them and pluck them. When they read or hear your words, eternal God, they see that all times past and future are surpassed by your stable perduration, and yet that there is no temporal creature which you have not made; that by your will, since it is identical with you, not by any change of that will and not by an assertion of will which before did not obtain, you made all things; that these things were not out of yourself, in your own likeness, the form of all things, but out of nothing, a formless unlikeness, which would be formed to your likeness, returning to you, the One, according to its appointed capacity, in so far as it is given to each thing in its kind; and that all things were made exceeding good, whether they abide around you, or being removed from you in gradation throughout time and space, produce beautiful variations or are fashioned into them. These things they see, and they rejoice in the light of your truth, to the little degree that they can in this world.
(39) Another of them concentrates on what is said, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth,” and therein beholds Wisdom, the Beginning, because it also speaks to us.1 Another likewise concentrates on the same words, and by beginning he understands the commencement of things created, and takes the passage thus: “In the beginning he made,” as if to say, “At first he made.”2 Among them who understand “In the beginning” to mean, “In Wisdom he made heaven and earth,” one believes that the words “heaven and earth” mean the matter from which they would be created, and are thus named; another, natures already formed and made distinct; another, one formed nature, a spiritual nature, given the name of heaven, and a second formless nature of corporeal matter, with the name of earth. Nor do those who by the names of heaven and earth understand matter as yet formless, out of which heaven and earth were to be formed, understand it in a single manner. One means that out of which both intelligible and sensible creation would be perfected. Another means only that out of which would be fashioned this sensible, corporeal mass, containing in its mighty womb natures now visible and lying before us.3 Those too who believe that creatures already arranged and organized are in this passage called heaven and earth do not understand it in one single way. One means both invisible and visible creation; the other only visible creation in which we perceive the luminous heavens and the darksome earth and the things that are in them.
FOUR KINDS OF PRIORITY
(40) But he who understands “In the beginning he made heaven and earth” as if it meant, “At first he made,” has no valid interpretation of “heaven and earth” except as meaning the matter of heaven and earth, namely, of universal creation, that is, both intelligible and corporeal creation. If he wished to understand by it the universe as already formed, it could rightly be asked of him, “If he made this first, what did he make later on?” As he will find nothing after the universe, he must perforce hear another question, “How was this at first if there was nothing later on?” But if he says that God first made formless and later formed matter, he does not contradict himself,1 if he is able to discern what precedes by eternity, what in time, what by choice, and what in origin: by eternity, as God precedes all creatures; in time, as the flower precedes the fruit; by choice, as the fruit precedes the flower; in origin, as the sound precedes the melody.
Of these four, the first and the last that I have mentioned are understood with great difficulty, the two in between very easily. It is a rare and exceedingly arduous vision, O Lord, to behold your eternity, immutably making mutable things, and for this reason prior to them. Again, who can mentally perceive so subtle a thing as to be able to distinguish without great labor how sound may be prior to a melody? The reason is that a melody is formed sound, and, whereas an unformed thing can exist, what does not exist cannot be formed. In this way, matter is prior to what is made out of it: it is not prior because it makes the thing, for contrariwise it is itself made, and it is not prior by any interval of time. We do not at an earlier time utter formless sounds without the melody, and at a later time adapt or fashion them into the form of a song, like wood, out of which a chest is fashioned, or silver, out of which a vessel is made. Such materials, of course, precede even in time the forms of the things made out of them, but in a melody this is not the case. When it is sung, its sound is heard, for there is not first a formless sound that is afterwards formed into a melody. What first in some manner sounds forth passes away, and there is nothing of it that you can find, gather up, and put together by art.
Hence the melody depends for its being on its own sound, and this sound is its matter. This same sound, of course, is formed, so that there may be a melody. Therefore, as I was saying, the matter of sounding is prior to the form of singing.2 It is not prior because of any power to make the melody, nor is the sound the artist producing the song, but it is supplied out of the body to the soul of the singer, and out of it he can make the melody. It is not prior in time, but it is uttered simultaneously with the melody. Nor is it prior by choice: a sound is not better than a melody, since a melody is not only a sound, but a beautiful sound as well. But it is prior in origin, for a melody is not formed so that there may be sound, but sound is formed so that there may be a melody.
By this example,3 let him who can do so understand how the matter of things was first made and called heaven and earth, because heaven and earth were made out of it, and that it was not first made in time, since the forms of things give rise to times. It was formless, and now, in tracts of time, it is perceived together with them. Yet nothing can be told of that matter, unless it is described as prior in time. It is the lowest thing in value, for things formed are obviously superior to things without form. It is preceded by the eternity of the creator, so that that from which something would be made would itself be made from nothing.
A TEST OF TRUTH
(41) Amid this diversity of true opinions, let truth itself beget concord. “May our God have mercy on us,”1 so that we may lawfully use the law, according to the end of the commandment, in pure charity.2 By this, if a man requests of me which of these interpretations Moses, your servant, meant, these are not words proper to my confessions, if I do not confess to you, “I do not know.” Yet I know that these opinions are true, with the exception of the carnal ones, concerning which I have stated the judgment that I passed. May these words of your book, lofty but humble and few but abundant, not terrify those little ones who have good hope. But all of us whom I affirm to discern and to speak the truths found in those words, let us love one another3 and let us likewise love you, our God, the fountain of truth, if we thirst for it and not for vain things. Let us so honor this same servant of yours, dispenser of this scripture and filled with your Spirit, as to believe that when he wrote these words by your inspiration he intended that sense in them which supremely excels both in the light of truth and in the fruit of profit.
LEVELS OF TRUTH
(42) So when one man says, “He meant what I say,” and another, “No, what I say,” I deem that I speak more reverently when I say, “Why not rather as both, if both be true?” If there is a third, and a fourth, and any other truth that any man sees in these words, why may we not believe that Moses saw all these truths? For through him1 the one God has adapted the sacred writings to many men’s interpretations, wherein will be seen things true and also diverse. Surely I myself—and I speak this fearlessly from my heart—if I were to write anything for the summit of authority, I would prefer to write in such manner that my words would sound forth the portion of truth each one man could take from these writings, rather than to put down one true opinion so obviously that it would exclude all others, wherein there was no falsity to offend me. Therefore, O my God, I do not want to be so hasty as to disbelieve that this man did not merit this from you. Assuredly, when he wrote those words, he perceived in them and conceived whatever truth we here have been able to find, and also whatever we have been unable to find, or have not yet been able to find, although it can be found in them.
WHAT GOD WANTS US TO KNOW
(43) Lastly, O Lord, who are God and not flesh and blood, even if man saw less than is there, could anything lie hidden from your good Spirit, who shall lead me into the land of righteousness,1 anything which you yourself by those words were about to reveal to later readers, even though he through whom they were spoken perhaps had in thought but a single meaning among the many that were true! If this is so, may that which he thought about be higher than all others! But to us, Lord, you point out either that meaning or such other true meaning as pleases you. Hence, whether you uncover the same meaning to us as to that servant of yours, or some other meaning on the occasion of those words, you will still nourish us and error will not delude us.
Behold, O Lord my God, I beseech you, how many things we have written concerning these few words, how many! What strength of ours, what tracts of time would suffice to treat all your books in this manner? Permit me, then, in these words more briefly to confess to you, and to choose some single true, certain, and good meaning which you shall inspire, even though many should occur, where many can occur, in this faith of my confession, that if I should say that which your minister intended, I will say what is right and best. For this should I strive, and if I do not attain to it, I would still say that which your Truth willed by his words to say to me, which also spoke to him what it willed.
* Contuition: A word fashioned by the translator from the Latin contuitus as a stronger expression of St. Augustine’s thought rendered by “complete intuition” immediately preceding.—Editor’s note.