Augustine (354-430 C.E.), bishop of Hippo, an ancient city in Roman Africa, was an enormously influential theologian. His interpretation of Eve in Gen 2-3 has triggered enduring controversies. Feminist theologian Mary Daly accused Augustine’s exegesis of being a major cause of Western Christianity’s denigration of women, human physicality, sexuality, and the goodness of nature. While there is some truth in these accusations, Augustine’s actual understanding of the role of Eve in the Genesis story is much more nuanced and multidimensional than the critiques would suggest.
In his early works, Augustine had proposed that human embodiment and gender differentiation were the results of the fall into sin. Augustine associated Eve particularly with carnal lust. But Augustine articulates his mature view of Eve in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, books 6-11, and in The City of God, books 12-14. In these works Eve functions as the archetype of the way God intended women to be before the fall, as well as a contrasting example of the actual condition of women after the fall. Augustine celebrates the goodness of Eve and her spiritual equality with Adam before the famous turning away from God. Augustine also maintains that the rational soul was the image of God in both Adam and Eve. (By rationality, Augustine primarily meant not the ability to perform logical operations but the capacity to contemplate and delight in the eternal things of God.) However, it is post-fall where Eve suffers and loses her Edenic equality: now subordinate to male authority, now giving birth in pain, and now the lesser partner in marriage.
Although the focus on rationality seems to disparage embodiment, Augustine insists that the primal constitution of human nature by God included physicality and the differentiation of male and female genders. In this context Augustine stresses the goodness of the human body as created by God—and that includes the goodness of the female body, which was designed for procreation and is in that sense the basis of human society. The corruptible bodies of both Adam and Eve were capable of becoming incorruptible spiritual bodies through a process of spiritual maturation, Augustine says. He is clear that gender differentiation was necessary for procreation even in Eden, and that sexuality existed before the fall. If the fall had not happened, Eve’s sexuality would have been subject to her rational love for God, her childbearing would have been painless, and marriage would have been free of patriarchal coercion. However, in some contexts Augustine does describe Eve as being ontologically inferior to her husband, arguing that Eve was not as rational as Adam, having been created from his rib. (Augustine conflates the two creation stories of Gen 1 and Gen 2.)
Augustine treats the story of Adam and Eve as the primal narrative of the origin of all corruption and chaos in the created order. Contrary to the popular interpretation of his work, Augustine did not attribute the fall and the inception of original sin to Eve’s lasciviousness. Because (he says) Eve was less rational than Adam, her will was more susceptible to the wiles of the serpent. Eve mistakenly believed that eating the fruit of the tree would enhance her and Adam’s power to secure their own eternal happiness. Consequently, according to Augustine, the desire for autonomy and control, not sexual desire, is the root of all evils, leading to susceptibility to death, the alienation of body and soul, and the disordering of the passions. It is significant that the incapacity to control passion, including sexual passion, is the result of the fall and not its source.