Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Augustine on Genesis

Augustine (354-430 AD), one of the great theologians of the early church, wrote at length on the work of God’s creation outlined in Genesis. His work, entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis, was a revision of his earlier commentary. This church father is cited by creationists of differing viewpoints in support of one belief or another. It is clear that Augustine, in an era when very different cosmic concepts prevailed, possessed the ability to revise his own view in light of the novel discoveries of his day.

Since Augustine lived in an age which may be termed conceptually pre-science, it may not be wise to quote him or any other early church figure concerning areas of knowledge which clearly have scientific dimensions in the 21st century. His thought processes, however, should be studied carefully because they have enormous relevance today. He was far ahead of many modern creationists who rigidly insist their interpretations of scripture trump today’s scientific discoveries and interpretations about which there is virtually no dispute. By modern standards Augustine knew little science, but he was willing to let the knowledge of his day inform him in his interpretation of scripture.

Examples from Augustine’s treatise on Genesis effectively illustrate this point. In Chapter 18 he says that “in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, 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.”

Later, in Chapter 20, he comments “I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better.” Contemporary Christians would do well to heed such advice and take it to heart. Additional quotes further reveal Augustine’s deep insights with respect to the truth search: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and other elements of the 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…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 following startling quote further informs us of Augustine’s fear that respect for Christian principles across a wide range of knowledge could be damaged: “If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know 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?” We may easily identify with Augustine’s perceptive thinking across fifteen centuries.