In Book XII, Augustine brings his ideas of memory and time (from Books X and XI) to bear on issues surrounding the story of the creation. His main concern here is to address the diversity of opinion regarding the precise meaning of Genesis by focusing on the use of language. While accepting that scripture has more than one 'true' interpretation, Augustine devotes significant time to delineating the limits of possible exegeses. This Book contains a great deal of hair-splitting with regard to phrases like 'heaven and earth,' and repeats much of Augustine's own reading of Genesis found in Book XI--take the more involute and confusing parts with a grain of salt. This Book retains import chiefly for its basic layout of the concepts of formless matter and the 'heaven of heaven.'
[XII.1-8] Augustine begins with the question of priority in the creation (he loosely defines 'priority' later in Book XII). The text of Genesis describes a nascent earth as 'invisible and unorganized,' in Augustine's reading - an earth comprised of fluid 'formless matter.' Genesis further implies that the initial 'heaven' was not the starry firmament but rather the 'heaven of heaven'--God's 'house,' the angelic order of being nearest to him.
It's important to remember here that Augustine has already posited the non-temporal sense of the phrase 'in the beginning' (Book XI): the beginning is not a time at which God created the heavens and the earth, but rather the eternal, unchanging wisdom (which is also the nature of Christ) in which he created them.
Augustine argues that the visible heavens and earth are not primary in creation; rather, God constructed their concrete physical aspects from a totally 'formless matter' that was created 'first' (again, this 'first' has an ultimately non-temporal sense). This, he says, is the sense of the 'earth invisible and unorganized.'
This formless matter is virtually a quasi-nothingness; it is at the bottom of the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, furthest from God, since it is matter (which is unlike God) without form (form being more godly than formlessness), and possessing the weakest claim to actual existence. The idea of formless matter is often difficult to grasp - the definition itself refers to the inscrutable quality of this type of 'unintelligible' matter. Augustine again partly blames Manichee theology for muddying his conception of this idea. With an emphasis on the visual, Augustine previously pictured formless matter as 'many different' horrible forms in constant flux rather than viewing it as completely lacking all form.
To reiterate, Augustine emphasizes that formless matter is almost nothing--a kind of 'nothing something' with so little existence that he freely refers to it simply as 'nothing.'
Along with formless matter, the 'heaven of heaven' also precedes the visible 'heaven and earth' in the order of creation. God first made the heaven of heaven and formless matter, then forged the visible heaven and earth out of this formless matter.
[XII.9-16] Here, Augustine elaborates on the concept of a heaven of heaven, God's 'house' or 'city.' His reading of the phrase is inspired by the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, who recognized a 'world-soul,' which is neither God himself, nor the human soul, but a created order which rests in eternal contemplation of God. Augustine refers to the heaven of heaven as 'the creation in the realm of the intellect'-- a static dimension composed purely of mind. Although it is not 'co-eternal' with God (i.e., it is neither part of God nor equal to him in perfection), it nonetheless 'participates' in God's eternity in a direct and open way. (Some of Augustine's language regarding an unmediated, face-to-face view of God recalls the vision he shared with Monica at Ostia). If formless matter is almost nothing, the heaven of heaven is, in a basic sense, almost God.
Both formless matter and the heaven of heaven, though not necessarily eternal in the same way as God, also exist 'outside time.' Formless matter is atemporal precisely because it has no form. Time, Augustine points out, has no relevance if nothing whatsoever changes. Formless matter, by its very definition, lacks any forms that might change. Put simply, objects without form can not change and without change there is no time.
The heaven of heaven, on the other hand, has a kind of absolute, extreme version of form that precludes change, and therefore any temporal interaction. We might think of it as having an absolutely rigid, perfect form. Since it does have form, it is capable of change. It's proximity to God, however, insures that this never happens: it is 'so given form that, though mutable, yet without any cessation of its contemplation [of God], without any...change, it experiences unswerving enjoyment of [God's] eternity and immutability' (author's italics).
Here Augustine offers further explanation of the proposition that the heaven of heaven is eternally 'contemplating' God. The heaven of heaven 'knows' God without any obstacle: 'the intellect's knowing [in this case] is a matter of simultaneity...in total openness [to God].' The knowledge of God associated with this realm of creation is not like human knowledge, in which we know 'one thing at one moment and another thing at another.' It is knowledge 'without any temporal successiveness,' a kind of instantaneous, universal knowledge not subject to the affects of time.
With these descriptions Augustine elaborates on the two aspects of creation that 'precede' the visible creation. Though in essence these spheres are virtual opposites, both are, by nature, atemporal. Augustine claims that freedom from time accounts for the fact that the days of in Genesis are not numbered until after God creates 'heaven and earth.' Again, Augustine reads this description of the initial creation as covering only 'heaven of heaven and formless matter.'
[XII.17-31] The remainder of Book XII is primarily a response not to Manichee critics--a position which Augustine spent considerable time denouncing--but rather to Catholic critics of Augustine's very figurative reading of Genesis. Augustine is most concerned with the charge that Moses, in writing Genesis, didn't anticipate or invite such lofty interpretation. Some Catholic critics would argue that Moses simply meant exactly what he said, and that we must read phrases like 'beginning' and 'heaven and earth' literally. In rebuttal, Augustine defends the validity and even the necessity of certain fundamental aspects of his spiritual reading before asserting that no one can really know what Moses was thinking.
Augustine then extends a reinforced argument for God's immutability and atemporality: God's nature 'will never vary at different times,' and 'his will is not external to his nature.' Augustine claims this interchangeability as an inherent truth, spoken in 'the inner ear' by God. The literal sense of Genesis cannot be its deepest and truest, since it shows God making decisions at different points in time. Rather, writes Augustine, 'once and for all and simultaneously, [God] wills everything that he wills.'
Continuing to defend his reading of Genesis, Augustine turns to a statement from scripture--'wisdom was created before everything.' Since he has previously linked 'wisdom' (that in which everything was made) to the 'Word' referred to at the beginning of Genesis, Augustine must now address the implication in this phrase--that 'wisdom' is itself a created thing. He does so by arguing that 'wisdom' in this particular case refers to the heaven of heaven, the order of being that rests in pure contemplation of God but which is nonetheless part of his creation. The heaven of heaven is 'an intellectual nature which is light from contemplation of the light,' 'not Being itself' but the closest thing to it. Based on these assumptions, 'wisdom' can be both a created thing, and the eternal divine in which creation takes place, as expressed in the first lines of Genesis.
Following this retracing of the heaven of heaven, Augustine embarks on a painfully intricate exegesis of all the possible alternate readings of 'heaven and earth.' He ventures an interpretation that includes 'heaven of heaven [which has form] and formless matter [which has none],' but it could also be read as anything from 'formless spiritual creation and formless physical creation' to simply 'formless matter and its products [one product being 'heaven,' the starry firmament].' This enumeration of other readings acts as an expedient, a proof for Augustine's conclusion that there is no single true interpretation, provided the interpreter is honestly pursuing truth.
Nevertheless, after arguing against the possibility of the one true reading, Augustine quickly lists ten 'axioms' that seem to be required of all readings. Though covered previously, the interpretive principles provide a decent summary of Augustine's main assumptions about Genesis: 1) God made heaven and earth; 2) The 'beginning' refers to God's wisdom; 3) 'heaven and earth' is a label for 'all natures made and created' (for Augustine, this means the heaven of heaven and formless matter); 4) mutability implies 'a kind of formlessness' in that everything mutable is in a state of flux; 5) what is so totally mutable as to be without form and therefore changeless (as in the case of formless matter) has no experience of time; 6) what is totally formless cannot suffer temporal successiveness (essentially the same point as 5); 7) a source sometimes takes the name of its product (as in Augustine's reading of 'heaven and earth' as 'heaven of heaven and formless matter'); 8) 'earth and the abyss' in Genesis refers to formed objects that possess almost total formlessness; 9) God made everything that has form as well as everything capable of receiving form; and 10) anything that 'acquires form' is first formless. Augustine does not number these points--they are presented in list form.
Following these axioms, Augustine briefly presents seven possible readings of the creation story. Most are quite similar to his own, differing only in what God made first; some readings assert that the initial creation includes only the formless matter that would become the physical world, others broach the possibility of two distinct realms, and still others postulate one realm with two implicit sub-realms. The reading that Augustine singles out for criticism holds that God made heaven and earth out of a pre-existing formless matter. For Augustine, this view is untenable because it suggests that there is something that God did not make. Augustine, speaking for those who maintain this perspective on Genesis, offers a reply on their behalf--God did indeed make this formless matter, but the act is not mentioned in Genesis.
[XII.32-37] After considering the possible and potentially proper readings of the creation story, Augustine separates the most common disagreements over the meaning of the text into two fundamental areas of debate. The first is reserved for issues regarding the 'truth of the matter in question.' The second category centers upon the 'intention of the writer.' In the former case, there is no leeway: the essential and basic truth of Genesis is, undeniably, God's unchanging truth, and all parties must appeal to this single truth for justification. The latter case, in which readers argue about Moses' intended meaning and the words he used to express it, leaves room for multiple interpretations and therefore, disagreement, since no one can know Moses' motivation when he wrote Genesis. For this very reason, however, it is somewhat futile to speculate on Moses' authorial intention--to do so is to ignore the deeper truths for which his 'articulation is appropriate.' Moses, whatever he desired to write, created the best possible version of God's truth.
Augustine derides all who claim to know Moses' original intentions as overly-proud and arrogant--such people love their own opinion rather than the truth in the text. No one can own the truth expressed in Genesis, since it is open to all practitioners of devotion and reason. When people see truths in any number of interpretations, they are really seeing truth in God.
Augustine reasons that scripture, with its basic and easily understood language, allows for so many different 'true' readings (that is, many different apprehensions of its truth) precisely because it aims to reach the widest possible audience. Even if people are inspired by the literal narrative--a story about a large deity who made things over time--this remains a 'true' reading in that it is a step toward faith in God as creator of the universe. Augustine justifies this view with a reminder of the Neoplatonic idea that all of creation, no matter how lowly, wants to return to God: 'it returns to you, the One, according to the capacity granted to each entity.'
[XII.38-43] Continuing to vacillate between this admission of interpretability and an insistence on tenets of interpretation, Augustine eventually moves against what he sees as a common mistake regarding priority in the creation. He emphasizes again that God's self (his nature) is interchangeable with his will, so God did not have to 'decide' to create--there was no 'before,' before creation. It makes no sense to say that God made everything 'first' in a literal sense, since there would be nothing that remained for him to create 'before' or 'after.' In order to explicitly denote the proper sense of 'first,' Augustine repeats three of the five types of priority set out in Aristotle's Categories: priority in time, priority in preference, and priority in origin. To these he adds his own fourth type, priority in eternity.
Priority in eternity is the sense in which God is prior to everything else: namely, everything else is more closely bound in time than he is, since he is altogether distinct from it. Priority in time and in preference are self-explanatory. Priority in origin is more difficult to understand, and is the type of priority Augustine wants to apply to Genesis. Sound is prior in origin to a song, for example, not because the song is made from it in time, as a carpenter makes a bench from wood, but because the song is made from sound at every moment--it subsists in sound, and sound must always be present in order for there to be a song, but not vice-versa. The sound is quintessential, the most basic element from which the song comes into being.
Augustine contends that the relationship between formless matter and the visible heaven and earth is based on priority in origin--analogous to that of sound and its corresponding, co-existent song. Formless matter did not precede the physical in time, but rather in origin. The visible creation is not made from formless matter, but rather is of it--an entirely more dynamic and interactive dependency.
After concluding this discussion, Augustine closes Book XII with a reminder that we need not offer much consideration to Moses' authorial intention. If we insist on developing a definitive understanding of the specific thought process by which Moses produced the scripture, we should appease such curiosity with the assumption that he had all possible 'true' interpretations in mind.