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Augustine’s Literal Adam

Throughout his life Augustine (AD 354-430) returned repeatedly to reflect upon Genesis. In addition to commentaries and sermons on the biblical text, he often found the issue of creation at the root of a theological debate.

Augustine’s beliefs are not normative for the Christian church. No individual should usurp the final authority of Scripture. However, Augustine’s theology has shaped and set the agenda for almost every major doctrinal endeavor of the church for 1,500 years. Exploring his reflections is an excellent way to gain a fresh perspective, unencumbered by the neuroses and prejudices burdening late-modernity. A journey into the mind of one of Christendom’s most profound theologians offers fresh perspectives, stimulating us to new insights from Scripture.

Each Stage a Literal Adam

Over the course of about 40 years Augustine developed his views on Genesis. His approach to reading Scripture changed. The role and importance he accorded to Adam matured. It is striking that throughout these vicissitudes, at each stage Augustine believed in the existence of a literal Adam.

We shall consider the development of Augustine’s views on Adam in four stages, summarized in the table below.

1. A literal Adam in the background of a spiritual reading

Augustine’s first commentary on Genesis was a rebuttal of the Manichees. Before becoming a Christian, Augustine had himself been a Manichee. The Manichees argued for their dualistic view of the universe using a literalistic reading of Scripture. They made God appear ludicrous by refusing the appropriateness of metaphor or anthropomorphism. So Augustine observed that “the Manichees taunt us for believing that man was made in the likeness of God. They think of the shape of our bodies and are misguided enough to ask whether God has nostrils, teeth, and a beard.”[1]

Such overly literal reading of Genesis prompted Augustine to adopt a spiritual reading. This allowed him to teach basic Christian doctrine to the Manichees while challenging their reading of Genesis. Augustine’s spiritual reading led him to suggest the six days of creation could be read as representing stages of a Christian's discipleship or future stages of salvation-history. The rivers in Eden represented virtues.[2] This spiritual reading led Augustine to see the temptation in Eden as paradigmatic of all temptation. “Even now, when any of us slide into sin, nothing happens other than what occurred between the serpent, woman and man.”[3] This sort of insight has proven both profitable and problematic.

It is all the more striking—in light of this preference for a non-literal, spiritual reading of Genesis—that Augustine still maintained Adam and Eve were literal humans created by God. The spiritual, figurative reading of Scripture did not erase the existence of literal realities. So Augustine thought that the creation of a woman from Adam’s rib symbolized the sacraments. He still believed Eve was actually made in the literal manner described by Genesis. “It was surely not without reason that she was made like that—it must have been to suggest some hidden truth. Was there a shortage of mud that the Lord could have made her from?”[4]

At this early stage in his reflections upon Genesis, Augustine accepted Adam was created by God as a literal, physical man. But such a reality did not have much bearing upon his wider theological system. The lessons drawn from Genesis were dominated by his spiritual, figurative reading. Some of these figurative interpretations would now be regarded as fanciful; others were insightful interpretations with which modern readers concur.[5]

2. New Creation of Conversion at the center of a literal reading

Augustine was unsatisfied with his spiritual reading of Genesis. At the end of his life Augustine compiled the Revisions, a catalogue of his vast corpus of writings, noting his many errors and inadequacies, which he hoped the church would not be misled by. About his first book on Genesis he observed, “My work on Genesis against the Manichees treated the words of Scripture in an allegorical sense, because I did not dare expound in the literal, that is, strictly historical meaning, such great mysteries of the natural order.”[6] Augustine observed that there were places in that book where, “I did not understand the apostle in the way he himself meant it in quoting the text of Genesis.”[7]

Consequently Augustine embarked on a commentary that would aim to offer a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis. As the spiritual reading had not excluded literal events, so the literal approach would not exclude figurative implications. However the emphasis of interpretation shifted to the literal. Rather than just assuming Adam was a literal human, Augustine explicitly affirmed his physicality. “We must observe both a connection with and distinction from the animals. On the one hand, man was made on the same day as the animals—they are all together land animals, after all. Yet, on the other hand . . . man is made in the image of God.”[8]

Augustine found the challenge of writing this literal commentary too great, and abandoned it. Hence it is known as his Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis.

Within a few years Augustine began the project afresh, this time completing The Literal Meaning of Genesis. It took him 15 years.

This massive work placed great value in a literal reading. There was no doubt in Augustine’s mind that God actually created the universe from nothing and made a literal Adam. The unique nature of creation, and the fact that Genesis looks forward to an unfolding narrative, meant that “no Christian would have the audacity to deny there is a figurative sense.”[9] Nevertheless, his renewed interest in literal interpretation led Augustine to reflect upon the relationship between science and Biblical interpretation. Anticipating modern debates, Augustine observed:

Frequently non-Christians have knowledge they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. One should guard at all costs against Christians spouting nonsense which can only make them laugh. . . . To the detriment of those about whose salvation we are concerned, our authors are written off and consigned to the trash.[10]

Despite this increased emphasis on literal interpretation and clear acceptance of a literal Adam, Augustine maintained the validity of many figurative readings. For example, he never accepted the idea that the days in Genesis 1 were literal, for example. And he did not accord the literal Adam much of a role in his theological system.

At the center of Augustine’s reading of Genesis was not a literal Adam but conversion in general.

The Confessions began with ten chapters about his conversion to Christianity. There followed three chapters meditating on creation. The literary impact of this odd feature of the first ever autobiography suggests that at this point in his development, Augustine was emphasizing the centrality of conversion. When a person becomes a Christian, he or she is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15). The journey Augustine so beautifully describes in his own life is the journey all of creation will make. While many have thought the final chapters of Confessions arbitrary or megalomaniac, in fact they are an evocative and fitting way to round off the book which opened announcing, “We humans are a part of your creation . . . you have made us for yourself.”[11]

3. A literal Adam in the background of a redemptive-historical reading

Two very different challenges prompted Augustine to focus on a redemptive-historical reading of Scripture. They were pagan accusations that Christianity had undermined the Roman empire and Marcionite separations of the biblical testaments.

In City of God Augustine interweaved a narrative of the people of God with the world, which rejected God. Much of this involved a treatment of the Bible’s plotline, moving from Genesis through to heaven. The sweep of Augustine’s vision was vast and provided a vantage point from which he could espy the irrational accusations leveled at Christians. In the process of telling the story, Augustine affirmed a literal Adam as the origin of all humanity:

God chose to make a single individual the starting point of all mankind. His purpose in doing this was that the human race should be united in a society of natural likeness and harmonious unity.[12]

Though a literal Adam was part of the narrative, he was in the background of salvation-history at this stage in Augustine’s theological development. Adam was significant in that he was the father of the human race, but he was not yet analyzed as a central theological locus. The focus in City of God was redemption-history in general, rather than Adam in particular.

When refuting an anonymous Marcionite writing, Augustine affirmed the goodness of Adam and Eve’s physical natures:

God saw that they are good insofar as they are human beings, insofar as they are composed of a body and a rational soul, insofar as the members of their bodies have their distinct functions and work together in a wonderful unity.[13]

Again, Augustine affirms the goodness of a literal Adam but keeps him in the background of his redemptive-historical reading. The challenge of Marcionism needed a more general focus on the Bible’s plotline to defend the validity of Old and New Testaments.

The Adam in the background of Augustine’s theological system at this point in his ministry was the real, physical and literal origin of all humanity. However, it was only in the final decade of his life that Augustine would be prompted to bring the literal Adam he had believed in for more than 30 years to the foreground.

4. A literal Adam in the foreground of a redemptive-historical reading

Augustine’s final decade of ministry was dominated by the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversies. In these he responded to the outrage his earlier teachings on grace had caused in Pelagius and his disciples. Pelagius believed that Augustine’s belief that God must take the initiative in salvation, and that all humans are born enslaved to sin, would promote immorality. Pelagius thought that people learned habits of sin as they reached an age of accountability, but he could not envision a deeper doctrine of sin.

This theological dispute had such pastoral implications that Augustine was compelled to address it. As he did so he developed his doctrine of predestination, original sin, and grace into the mature Augustinian positions which a thousand years later would renew the church in the Reformation.

The theological developments Augustine embraced in this process arose from his bringing of the literal Adam into the foreground of redemptive-history.

On the basis of passages such as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 Augustine presented Adam as not only the origin of the human race, but also the forerunner of Christ, the second Adam. Upon the reality of a literal Adam depended not just the goodness of creation (contra the Manichees) or the unity of the Bible (contra the Marcionites). With Adam in the foreground of redemptive history, a literal Adam was one of the foundations upon which rested the certainty of God’s wrath being quenched, and grace being poured out:

You will see that the anger of God came upon the human race through one man and that reconciliation with God comes through one man. This is for those who are graciously set free from the condemnation of the entire race. The first Adam was made from the earth; the second Adam was made from a woman. In the former flesh was made through a word, in the latter the Word was made flesh.[14]

In this section, Augustine goes on to cite Romans 5, highlighting his indebtedness to that passage.

Augustine had long affirmed a literal Adam. In facing the Pelagian challenge to grace and original sin, Augustine realized he had to bring into the foreground what had till that point been in the background. This enabled him to explore more carefully the nature of Adam’s sin and its impact on all his descendants.

Gaining Perspective

One would not have expected a theologian coming from a Platonic and Manichean background to care much about a literal Adam. More likely would be a focus on key lessons and practical behaviors that can be learned from ideas. That Augustine affirmed a literal Adam through his entire ministry indicates how important it was to him, and how much he was able to let his reading of the Bible challenge the prevailing assumptions of his day.

The full theological fruit of his long-held convictions about a literal Adam were not born till the final decade of his life. The insights that arose from bringing the literal Adam into the foreground of redemptive history gave expression to the doctrines of grace and sin that are so distinctively Augustinian and have been at the heart of faithful gospel proclamation ever since.


[1] Gn. adv. Man. 1, 27.

[2] Gn. adv. Man. 2, 13.

[3] Gn. adv. Man. 2, 21.

[4] Gn. adv. Man. 2, 17.

[5] e.g. The serpent represented the Devil; Adam’s nakedness indicated innocence (Gn. adv. Man. 2, 20).

[6] Ret. 1, 18.

[7] Ret. 1, 10.

[8] Gn. litt. imp. 55.

[9] Gn. lit. 1, 1.

[10] Gn. lit. 1, 39.

[11] Conf. 1, 1.

[12] Civ. Dei. 14, 1. (This chapter was probably written in AD 418.)

[13] c. adv. leg. 1, 9.

[14] c. Jul. 6, 77.

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