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Saint Augustine on allowing science to inform
our interpretation of creation given in scripture

Post of the Month: February 2008


Subject:    | Alright, Ray, here is a full analysis of Augustine for you
Date:       | 31 Jan 2008
Message-ID: |

No quote-mining, but a full and thorough analysis of his entire thought on how to read Genesis and the relation between faith and science. There is no citation for the essay, since I wrote it myself:

What does Augustine say regarding conflicting views of Scripture? What did he think about allowing science to inform our interpretation? How did he, ultimately, read the Creation stories?

Let's look at what Augustine has to say:

First, here is his most famous statement on this issue and I don't think Augustine could have spoken more to the point of the current debate if he was here with us now:

"39. Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field in which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although "they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."

Next, he shows the proper humility about this interpretive process that we all can learn from, and he acknowledges that the writing of Genesis was NOT done with a meaning that was "obvious" or "plain". but instead was "obscure" :

"40. With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the Book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. I have thought that each one, in keeping with his powers of understanding, should choose the interpretation that he can grasp. . . ."

This seems dramatically contrary to the current polemics and dogmatism we see today.

Here is a general statement from Book 1, Chapter 19 of his book on Genesis:

"38. Let us suppose that in explaining the words, "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and light was made," one man thinks that it was material light that was made, and another that it was spiritual. As to the actual existence of spiritual light in a spiritual creature, our faith leaves no doubt; as to the existence of material light, celestial or supercelestial, even existing before the heavens, a light which could have been followed by night, there will be nothing in such a supposition contrary to the faith until unerring truth gives the lie to it. And if that should happen, this teaching was never in Holy Scripture but was an opinion proposed by man in his ignorance. . . . "

Here is what I think Augustine is saying here: when we read a particular text, often two people will agree that there is a particular spiritual or theological truth, based on our faith, but may differ as to whether a literal fact was meant as well. We should, then, agree on the theological truth. As for the material truth, there is nothing wrong with accepting this as well, unless and until there is evidence which shows that it can not be the true reading. When that happens, we know that the material interpretation was never part of Scripture to begin with.

Next, in Chapter 21, he states that if the scientist presents reliable evidence about nature, then we can be assured that it fits with what Scripture really says:

"When they [the unbeliever] are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture."

And I think this is an essential point. We, as Christians, should not DENY the evidence when it is reliable, we should instead show them how that it fits with Scripture, lest they attempt to use their evidence to disprove Scripture. Too often our knee-jerk reaction is "that is contrary to Scripture", when we really mean "that is contrary to how I have always read Scripture". Maybe instead, we should consider asking "if that WAS correct, knowing that Scripture is also correct, how could the two work together?"

St. Augustine also discusses the other three factors to consider in interpretation: 1) the author's intent, 2) whether it is consistent with Scripture and faith, and 3) if these other two are not possible to determine, one that our faith demands.

"When we read the inspired books in the light of this wide variety of true doctrines which are drawn from a few words and founded on the firm basis of Catholic belief, let us choose that one which appears as certainly the meaning intended by the author. But if this is not clear, then at least we should choose an interpretation in keeping with the context of Scripture and in harmony with our faith. But if the meaning cannot be studied and judged by the context of Scripture, at least we should choose only that which our faith demands."

There are a few very important truths expounded here.

First, he acknowledges that often a wide variety of possible and arguable doctrines can come from a given text. This is contrary to the idea that the true meaning is always "obvious" or "plain".

Second, it is not always clear what the author intended!

Third, it may not even be possible to determine the meaning from the context of Scripture itself. This, then, is pointing to the fact that sometimes it is necessary to consider evidence and argument outside the Scripture.

Lastly, among competing interpretation, we should choose the one our faith demands. So, for me, if I find the evidence against a literally historical reading of Genesis such that my faith demands a figurative reading, and it does not contradict the other factors, that is the one I must follow.

Augustine also warns against the serious danger of reading a text literally that was meant to be read non-literally:

"At the outset, you must be very careful lest you take figurative expression literally. What the apostle says pertains to this problem: "for the letter killeth, but the spirit quikeneth." That is, when that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is understood carnally [carnalia]. Nor can anything more appropriately be called the death of the soul than that condition in which the thing which distinguishes us from beasts, which is understanding, is subjected to the flesh in the passing of the letter" [hoc est, intelligentia carni subjicitur sequndo litteram] (On Christian Doctrine 3. 5).

So, with all of these interpretive rules and markers in place, how did Augustine end up reading the Creation stories in Genesis? In the end, Augustine rejected the idea of a literal six day creation and believed that Creation occured in an instant, but that not all was immediately present. Instead, God planted "seminal seeds" within His Creation of many things that would develop later. As one writer summarized it:

Augustine saw three phases of creation: the "unchangeable forms in the Word of God," "seminal seeds" created in the instant of creation, and a later "springing forth" in the course of time.

Some get confused about what he actually believed, because he phrased it almost as obscurely as Genesis! He notes that the text discusses "six days" of creation (which is true, that IS what is in the text, the question is whether it is read literally or figuratively), then he mentions that the text also describes it as being made "all together". He then explains why the "six day" motif was there: for the benefit of the general readers' understanding of the process. He said that some might not be able to grasp the concept of God creating all things at the same time, so he chose to describe it instead as a step by step process, setting out the six figurative days.

Aquinas discussed Augustine's view of immediate creation, and contrasted it with other commentators view that the six days were literal. In his Summa, he said "So as not to prejudice either view, we must deal with the reasons for both."

In the words of Louis Berkhof, Augustine "was evidently inclined to think God created all things in a moment of time, and that the thought of days was simply introduced to aid the finite intelligence." Looking at Augustine's own words, taken from his Genesis commentary, we read, "In this narrative of creation Holy Scripture has said of the Creator that He completed His works in six days, and elsewhere, without contradicting this, it has been written of the same Creator that He created all things together . . . Why then was there any need for six distinct days to be set forth in the narrative one after the other? The reason is that those who cannot understand the meaning of the text, He created all things together, cannot understand the meaning of the Scripture unless the narrative proceeds slowly step by step . . . For this Scripture text that narrates the works of God according to the days mentioned above, and that Scripture text that says God created all things together, are both true."

So, Augustine did not think the six days of Creation were historically literal, but they were still TRUE. And I think that is a crucial point. You do not have to believe the text is strict literal historical narrative to believe it is TRUE and even INFALLIBLE. It is true in the sense that it truly conveys what God intended it to convey, a method for us to grasp and hold on to the great truths of God's Creative work. If it is not MEANT to be literal historical narrative, then it is still TRUE even if it is not literal historical narrative.

And ultimately, Augustine argues for some flexibility in reading such Scripture:

"37. In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture [and remember, he IS speaking of Genesis here], different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture. "

I think this says it all perfectly:

1. When Scriptures are not crystal clear (and he has already said Genesis in NOT), there are different interpretations which are possible.

2. We should NOT take a stand on one interpretation such that, if it was proved wrong, our faith would suffer. And if we should not even privately hold to a particular interpretation in this fashion, we definitely should not be teaching it!

3. It points out that further search for truth CAN undermine a position, which indicates, once again, that he believes we should factor in the evidence from nature to our interpretive process.

4. That holding tight to an interpretation in the face of the evidence is NOT to battle for the Holy Scripture, but for our personal interpretation. Rather, after taking all these interpretive factors into consideration (which includes evidence from nature), we should CONFORM our beliefs to that proper interpretation.

Overall, I think the "take away" message from this overview of Augustine is that we should avoid dogmatism in these non-essentials, since there is great danger in doing so. Taking a dogmatic "either/or" stance can be a stumbling-block to non-believers and even other Christians, and it can even damage our own faith. I am all for battling for truth, but let's choose our battles wisely.

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