This page is the twelfth entry in the Core Book: Confessions series at Wheaton College. Below you will find an abridged version of Dr. Leland Ryken's commentary on Book 12, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
Book 12 is a collection of thoughts on how to interpret Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” ESV). Augustine cites many proposed interpretations of the Genesis text, only to conclude all of the interpretations are true, and that the intention of Moses the author cannot be determined or function as a curb on interpretation.
Books 11–13 of the Confessions seem unrelated to the preceding books, but the context within which Augustine wrote them provides a partial explanation. Augustine had just been appointed Bishop of Hippo when he wrote his Confessions. He was a public spokesman for the Church and was highly active in combating various heresies. He wanted to give direction to the Church in Africa. Naturally, he was concerned to set a model for how to interpret the Bible. Book 12 raises exegetical issues.
We can value Augustine’s encouragement to be charitable to each other when people disagree in their interpretation of the Bible.— Dr. Leland Ryken, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH
Ongoing dialogue between God and Augustine punctuates the book. Augustine treats Scripture as God’s speaking to him—the counterpart of his speaking to God. Furthermore, the skillful weaving together of biblical verses into the texture of Augustine’s discourse carries over in Book 12. We can value Augustine’s encouragement to be charitable to each other when people disagree in their interpretation of the Bible.
Although Book 12 is commonly regarded as a work of biblical exegesis, it is helpful to work our way through it with the genre of meditation. His first meditation is on what heaven means in the first verse of Genesis. Then Genesis 1:2 enters his reflections, with his wondering about what it means that the earth was formless (with related thoughts on the nature of matter itself). Then Augustine slides into the question of rival interpretations of the Genesis text on creation. The survey of interpretations ends: we cannot know what Moses intended; even if we could ascertain Moses’s intention, that would not be the correct interpretation because it would rule out interpretations beyond what he intended; it would be dogmatic to insist on a given interpretation; we must all show charity to each other.