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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 21

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 21.—Of Paradise, that It Can Be Understood in a Spiritual Sense Without Sacrificing the Historic Truth of the Narrative Regarding The Real Place.

On this account some allegorize all that concerns Paradise itself, where the first men, the parents of the human race, are, according to the truth of holy Scripture, recorded to have been; and they understand all its trees and fruit-bearing plants as virtues and habits of life, as if they had no existence in the external world, but were only so spoken of or related for the sake of spiritual meanings.  As if there could not be a real terrestrial Paradise!  As if there never existed these two women, Sarah and Hagar, nor the two sons who were born to Abraham, the one of the bond woman, the other of the free, because the apostle says that in them the two covenants were prefigured; or as if water never flowed from the rock when Moses struck it, because therein Christ can be seen in a figure, as the same apostle says, “Now that rock was Christ!” 607   No one, then, denies that Paradise may signify the life of the blessed; its four rivers, the four virtues, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice; its trees, all useful knowledge; its fruits, the customs of the godly; its tree of life, wisdom herself, the mother of all good; and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the experience of a broken commandment.  The punishment which God appointed was in itself, a just, and therefore a good thing; but man’s experience of it is not good.

These things can also and more profitably be understood of the Church, so that they become prophetic foreshadowings of things to come.  Thus Paradise is the Church, as it is called in the Canticles; 608 the four rivers of Paradise are the four gospels; the fruit-trees the saints, and the fruit their works; the tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the will’s free choice.  For if man despise the will of God, he can only destroy himself; and so he learns the difference between consecrating himself to the common good and revelling in his own.  For he who loves himself is abandoned to himself, in order that, being overwhelmed with fears and sorrows, he may cry, if there be yet soul in him to feel his ills, in the words of the psalm, “My soul is cast down within me,” 609 and when chastened, may say,” Because of his strength I will wait upon Thee.” 610   These and similar allegorical interpretations may be suitably put upon Paradise without giving offence to any one, while yet we believe the strict truth of the history, confirmed by its circumstantial narrative of facts. 611



1 Cor. 10.4.


Song of Sol. 4.13.


Ps. 42.6.


Ps. 59.9.


Those who wish to pursue this subject will find a pretty full collection of opinions in the learned commentary on Genesis by the Jesuit Pererius.  Philo was, of course, the leading culprit, but Ambrose and other Church fathers went nearly as far.  Augustin condemns the Seleucians for this among other heresies, that they denied a visible Paradise.—De Hæres. 59.

Next: Chapter 22

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