Augustine On What Adam and Eve Signify: A Brief Response to Steve Kepnes

Chad Pecknold
Cambridge University

Steve Kepnes reads Adam and Eve as signs, signifying ‘two modes of being in the world,’ and also ‘two different styles for scriptural reasoning,’ leading him to reflect upon, amongst other things, the nature of scripture and the goals of scriptural reasoning. I want to briefly respond to Kepnes by comparing his figural reading with the one Augustine offers in Book 12 of De Trinitate concerning the significance of Adam and Eve.


In Book 12 of De Trinitate, Augustine asks us an interesting question: ‘why does scripture make no mention of anything besides male and female in the nature of man made to God’s image?’ ( De trin. 12.8) He says that ‘what was made to the image of God is the human nature that is realized in each sex.’ ( De trin. 12.10) But he wants to look towards ‘something more mysterious in the obvious distinction of sex between male and female.’ ( De trin. 12.10) In fact, he takes Adam and Eve as powerful signs, pointing us to the truth about God (and worries that if we don’t understand Adam/Eve as such powerful signs, then ‘they will remain quite pointless’). In an interesting aside, he even writes that such signification is not only necessary, it is pleasing to the angels! What Adam/Eve signify as the image of God is a particular dynamic whole, one that he wants to liken to our minds, to the way we reason, or perhaps better, the spirit of our reasoning. He wants to read the image of God in Adam and Eve as the human capacity to recognize God, and wants to help readers renew this spirit of reasoning.

Augustine begins by reading Adam and Eve figurally, as parts of a whole, alternatively the inner and the outer functions of the mind, or the private and the public, wisdom and knowledge, and also the dyad Kepnes suggests, the contemplative and the active. At times, these distinctions seem fairly straightforward and even hierarchical; one is eternally directed and the other temporal. But at other times, Augustine is keenly aware of how inadequate these distinctions are. His ironic tone in this regard comes out even in the opening lines of the book: ‘let us see where we are to locate what you might call the border between the outer and the inner man.’ ( De trin. 12.1) He is fully aware of how difficult, nigh impossible, it is to locate ‘what you might call the border.’ At times Adam and Eve signify something like the faith/works distinction that corresponds to Kepnes’ contemplative/active distinction, but implicit in Augustine is a trinitarian concern to move beyond the dyad and say something akin to the Pauline phrase ‘ faith works through love .’ (Gal. 5.6) This scriptural way of reasoning through a dyad is like Kepnes’ suggestion that the contemplative and active are both needed. But what bridges them, and makes the two into one without obliterating difference?

There is something else about the tselem of God that is transcendent and mysterious, as well as earthly and immanent, and that third something, Augustine teaches, points us to the truth about God. The truth that the signs [Adam/Eve] teach us, according to Augustine, is that our capacity to recognize God is dependent upon our responsibility to the one who is different in being the same (however we understand this identity) . It is from this primal responsibility to the other who is in some sense the same that our responsibility for all of creation flows (the responsibility for creation is generated by this relation). In fact, renewal and restoration depend upon the ability to work together in the Garden, discovering that our best resource for change, transformation, and new life are available only in our joint, communal recognition of God with the neighbor who is other, whose difference seems to go all the way down to core of our created and creative identities (or, if you prefer, images ).

First, he considers the capacity of our reasoning to recognize God. Augustine cites Colossians 3.9, saying that it is ‘with his actions’ that ‘the spirit of the mind is renewed for the recognition of God according to the image of him who created him.’ ( De trin. 12.12) It is a kind of reasoning that is also a kind of labor; it is ‘with his actions.’ Here I would suggest that something much more than the Enlightenment understanding of reason is intended, and this is obvious just from the way Augustine qualifies the mind and the intellect with things like spirit and considers not simply ‘the rational mind,’ but the mind ‘which is capable of recognizing God.’ ( De trin. 12.12) So the reasoning that Augustine has in mind is much more akin to ‘faith,’ but a faith that works.

Next he considers the relationship between faith (the spirit of the mind) and good works by a meditation on what Kepnes calls ‘the fissure’ which ‘appears precisely in [Adam and Eve’s] nakedness.’ Augustine writes: ‘Thus they are both stripped naked of the enlightenment of truth, and the eyes of conscience are opened to see what a shameful and indecent state they have left themselves in. So they sew together as it were the leaves of delightful fruits without the fruits themselves, which is to say, they sew together fine words without the fruit of good works, in order while living badly to cover up their baseness by speaking well.’ ( De trin. 12.13) Augustine ascribes this fissure not so much to nakedness, however, as to greed, which is the beginning of sin and ‘strives to grab something more than the whole and to govern it by its own laws’ ( De trin. 12.14) rather than understanding by God’s laws ( torah ). In this sense, Augustine is a kind of Christian socialist, abhorring the notion of ‘private property’ for instance, and seeing anything true as irreducibly public (including ‘faith’). He writes that ‘enjoying something as one’s very own private good and not as a public and common good?is like the serpent addressing the woman. To consent to this temptation is to eat of the forbidden fruit.'( De trin. 12.17)

What he thinks has happened in this ‘fissure’ is that the ‘secret couple’ has been ‘shut off from the reasoning of wisdom.’ ( De trin . 12.17) Somehow, the dyad of knowledge and wisdom has become just a bridgeless chasm, and the tree of life seems ‘shut off’ from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden. Augustine is looking for ways to renew our reasoning in such a way that we can ‘unite the two so long dis’joined,’ and find our way back to the tree of life, find a way of bridging our knowledge towards wisdom, of uniting the private and the public, the inner and the outer, faith and the toil of labor for the sake of the common good. And this is another way of saying that ‘faith without works is dead,’ (James 2.17) or in the terms of our scriptural reasoning, ‘theory without practice is useless.’ Therefore the ‘secret couple’ should become an open couple who work together to overcome the dyad of reasoning that has been shut off from wisdom, and from life itself.

Public, communal recovery and restoration, then, is a theme that strongly unites Kepnes’ reading of the signs [Adam/Eve] and Augustine’s reading of the signs. Adam and Eve sinned together and together they would ‘return’ to face the One in whose image they were formed. But what unites the two without obliterating their difference? Kepnes’ words could have easily been Augustine’s: ‘so we have been looking for a kind of rational couple of contemplation and action in the mind of everyman.’ ( De trin. 12.19) This coupling is also a ‘bridging’ that does not obliterate the difference. Following Paul, Augustine wanted ‘to use the distinction of sex between two human beings to signify something that must be looked for in every single human being.’ ( De trin. 12.19) Despite Augustine’s frequent contextual difficulties with axiomatic issues in contemporary feminist thought, Augustine is arguing here for an egalitarianism that he thinks only a semiotic exploration can provide in thinking through the sign: /Adam and Eve/. He thinks a literal reading of the text delivers an unbearable hierarchy between men and women, and this suffering alone is a sign that we need another way of reading. This kind of bridging makes texts readable , it allows us to recover from the Fall, the fissure that shut us off from the tree of life.

Ultimately, Augustine does not always achieve the ‘bridging’ that his theology requires. His logic about these things can frequently remain dyadic even if he is obviously reaching out for something ‘more than’ what he says. But he just as frequently does convert the reader to think in triadic terms, and in this case, the Spirit plays the central role, as does something like ‘mutual love.’


Augustine’s comments are more of a footnote to what Kepnes has offered us in his paper concerning the contemplative and active dimensions of scriptural reasoning. But Kepnes also suggests that our resources for renewal are to be found in the gift of Torah . He says that the Torah is an antidote to sin, to that evil inclination, to the yetzer ha-ra . And I agree with him, but still ask how? How is the Torah an antidote to sin? How is torah an abundant resource for transformation and renewal rather than simply another source for conflict? How can our engagements with scripture, and one another, be sure to bear fruit and multiply? I think Augustine would answer something along the lines above, that we need to work together to recognize God , and out of this will flow our responsibility both to each other and to the entire created world.

In John 15.1-17 we discover Jesus teaching along similar lines as the texts from Genesis and the Song have taught us. Jesus reads his own life in relation to a fruitful vine (call it a grapevine), and reads his Father as the vinedresser. It is imagery that drinks deeply from the wells of Israel’s story, speaking of Israel in terms of its faithfulness to God as a prerequisite for fruitfulness. Here Jesus reads himself as a figural extension of Israel, and thinks deeply about this question of keeping commandments, of torah observance , not least of which is the one to Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This does have something to do with ‘Torah being an antidote to sin,’ as Jesus says, “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.’ (Jn 15.3-4) This abiding ( meinate ), this remaining, this inhabiting ‘the word which I have spoken to you,’ means something like ‘friendship,’ or whatever name we give to that relationship that inscribes trust, mutual love, and long-suffering into the hills and valleys of everyday life. As others might have it, it means listening to and learning through ‘the word which I have spoken to you.’ Jesus says that this is not only an antidote to sin, but is a recipe for bearing fruit, and by doing so, he says we will prove the quality of our friendships together (Jn 15.8). But the ordering is important to Jesus, and matters for how a Christian understands what it might mean to listen to and learn from the command to Adam, “be fruitful and multiply”:

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.” (Jn 15.10-17)

Perhaps it is better to speak about renewing the spirit of the mind, or the spirit of our reasoning, or to speak in terms of a return to wisdom, rather than simply to speak of loving one another. But surely friendship has become a central category for the way we think about our ethics as scriptural reasoners. And as we thicken our descriptions, the one thing needful is the bridging that allows us to recognize God together . We locate the recognition of God in our study of the scriptures, where we participate in ancient traditions of precisely this practice of recognition (which Augustine would call ‘faith’). Proving this, however, means nothing less than a response to God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ and this will entail border crossings (if we can even locate the border) between faith and works, between knowledge and wisdom, between private and public, or whatever signs signify fundamental differences as ‘modes of being in the world.’

The obvious corollary of all this, for scriptural reasoning, for children of Abraham, is a scriptural calling of ‘deep to deep,’ of one to another – as we already recognize God together in our collective reading of our scriptures, even in our differences. But as children of Adam and Eve, the corollary demands our engagement with all humans who are both different and the same in Adam. The scriptures provide that public location, that open space where we can make these boundary crossings. Our friendships provide us with that mutual love, that spirit of reasoning that repairs real fissures, makes scripture readable and enables us to contribute to the repair and renewal of the cities and societies in which we live. But the love that nourishes our friendships comes from God alone, and it is in this that the spirit of our reasoning must abide.

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