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How Augustine Reined in Science

The conflict between creationists and mainstream science pushes on as strongly as ever. Fundamentalist Christians continue to denounce godless evolution as a plague on society, and renown scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins insist on the undoubted truth of the grand evolutionary scheme. The late Carl Sagan, a prominent spokesman for naturalism in science, fueled the antagonism in the 1970s with his famous declaration in the PBS series “Cosmos,” that the “universe is all there ever was, all that is, and all that ever will be.” Creationism too is on the rise. No longer are young earth creationists content to criticize evolution as a social evil. They have begun major efforts to produce an alternative science, one not ruled by what they see as evolutionary dogma.

What is a Catholic to think about such science wars? What are we required to believe about God’s creation, and what are we required to reject? This cultural issue is extremely complex but at its root it is an issue of naturalism vs. supernaturalism. An unexpected voice has appeared in recent years from University of California law professor Philip Johnson in his book Darwin on Trial. Johnson has taken evolutionary science to task for its assumed dogma of naturalism. While Johnson differs significantly from creationists of the ilk of Henry Morris and Duane Gish, he shares their critique of mainstream science as doctrinaire in its assumption of uniformitarian evolutionism.

Johnson’s critique studiously avoids problems of biblical interpretation. Morris, Gish, and other creationists more openly proclaim their dependence on Genesis and other biblical texts in offering their version of natural history. Many modern theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, have embraced the non-historical character of Genesis and have said in essence that it is impossible to affirm anything historically valid or reliable from the text of Genesis about the actual history of the cosmos.

Catholics are in a difficult position. We are bound to affirm all that the Church teaches as matters of faith and morals. We share with other supernaturalists a rejection of pure naturalism, and we believe that the universe was made out of nothing by the free will of God. The Catholic Church believes Genesis teaches us truth about the origin of the world because the Bible is God’s infallible revelation. But if we affirm the Bible as God’s inspired book, must we look askance at all secular science as somehow a vehicle of ungodly forces? If we take Genesis chapters 1 and 2 seriously, are we required to believe that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days, even if scientific research tends to indicate otherwise?

Into this confused situation steps the wisdom of the Bishop of Hippo. From this most unlikely place came the most influential theologian in the history of western Christianity, Augustine. Well known for an exquisite account of his spiritual journey in the Confessions, Augustine also penned numerous works on philosophy, rhetoric, music, literature and biblical commentary. He was familiar with the science of his day and offered valuable advice for Christians facing a non-Christian world with its ideas about nature. This article cannot begin to answer all the questions related to the current creationist controversies, but it can plumb the wisdom of the past for guidance.

Augustine, bishop of Hippo from 395 to his death in 430, wrote commentaries on the Genesis creation narratives five times in his life. His first attempt was a short work in which he defended the integrity of Genesis against the philosophy of the Manichees (De Genesi Contra Manichaeos). His second was in the Confessions (books 12 and 13), an attempt that combines literal and allegorical interpretations into a seamless garment. His third was a work he left unfinished, probably because he was unhappy with the result (De Genesi liber imperfectus). His fourth and most important was the Literal Commentary on Genesis and it is here that Augustine gives his greatest advice on how to deal with the Bible and its relation to nature. His final attempt, probably written around the same time as the Literal Commentary appears in books 30 to 33 in the City of God.

Why did Augustine spend so much time on the Genesis creation narratives? The years of his spiritual wanderings, from his nineteenth to his thirtieth year, saw Augustine encountering different philosophies of his day. These belief systems left a deep impression on him, and he was convinced later that he had to defend the Christian faith against them. Although he was not of an argumentative disposition, he produced some of the most powerful arguments ever offered in defense of God’s creation.

Augustine felt that the most dangerous philosophy of his day was Manichaeanism, a system he adhered to prior to his conversion. As he tells us, the Manichees criticized Genesis as cleverly spun tales that had no rational (scientific) value. They derided a God who would need six days to create the world and castigated the same God for creating man in his image. The Manichees often asked questions designed to show the folly of believing Genesis to be true. If man is made in God’s image, does God have arms and legs? If God created at a moment of time, what was he doing before he created? For all that, Manichees did not reject everything in Christianity but assimilated it into a non-Christian form of religion of their own making. Ironically, Mani and his followers proudly offered rational explanations for scientific phenomena that Augustine found fantastic and irrational. Out of his encounter with the Manichees, Augustine learned important truths about reconciling natural and scriptural knowledge.

He was convinced that two of the most powerful tools in combating false science were reason and sense experience. But a word of caution is in order. Augustine never used the term “science” in its modern sense nor did any other ancient writer, Christian or pagan. This was not because there was no science in antiquity but because it was called natural philosophy. Natural philosophy, up until the nineteenth century generally, meant the knowledge of a specific science and the philosophy of nature implied by that knowledge.

Augustine’s first guideline is to recognize the purpose of Scripture. Human language is slippery. To understand what someone is telling us, we must hear the words and discern the person’s intention. The Bible is a special case because it has human authors but behind each one there is a divine author, the Holy Spirit. When we read the Bible, we want to know both the human and divine authors’ intentions. The divine intention or purpose of Scripture may be discerned from the language used in a biblical text.

The purpose of the Bible is redemptive, said Augustine. God gave us the Bible to instruct us in the knowledge of salvation, not science. In his Literal Commentary Augustine asked what Scripture teaches about the shape or the form of the heavens, a topic that many ancient writers addressed. Are the heavens spherical or flat like a disc? Or, does it matter? He responded: “Many scholars engage in lengthy discussion on these matters, but the sacred writers with their deeper wisdom have omittedthem. Such subjects are of no profit for those who seek beatitude, and, what is worse, they take up very precious time that ought to be given to what is spiritually beneficial.” These words may seem to suggest that Augustine disparaged science, and he has been interpreted that way by secular-minded readers. He did not think that natural knowledge was worthless, only that it was inferior to knowledge of God, who made nature. Augustine was saying that the biblical authors were not giving a definitive theory of the heavens in a scientific fashion.

Augustine warned against a danger among Christians of his day and ours. If the Christian insists on a certain scientific theory as if it were the teaching of th e Bi ble, and it turned out to be wrong, then the unbeliever will reject the Bible wholesale and miss the saving purpose God has in composing it. This danger is so real that Augustine emphasized it a number of times in his writings. Unreliable knowledge of nature is not damning but it can be a stumbling block “if he thinks his view of nature belongs to the very form of orthodox doctrine, and dares obstinately to affirm something he does not understand.” In this case, the Christian’s lack of true knowledge becomes an obstacle to the unbeliever’s embracing the truth of the gospel. The great harm, says the bishop of Hippo, is not that “an ignorant individual is derided” but that “people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions and . . . the writers of Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.”

Christians sometimes make themselves obstacles to the salvation of others rather than instruments of it. They do so when they equate a scientific theory with the meaning of the Bible. Augustine was well aware of this danger already in the fifth century. Not much has changed. His solution is humility both in the interpretation of nature and the interpretation of Scripture. 

How can such humility be engendered? By recognizing that the Bible is more about “the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven” than it is about “the motion and orbit of the stars, their size and relative positions, and the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon.” He warns against self- imposed authorities in biblical interpretation: “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.”

Is there nothing then in Scripture that bears on science? If the Bible is not a book of science, how can we ever say anything about the natural world with divine authority? Augustine did not think that the Bible was irrelevant to nature. That would be to divide truth, and for Augustine truth is one. His second guideline is to recognize the harmony between natural knowledge and scriptural knowledge. Science and interpretation do not teach the same subjects, but neither do they contradict one another. You will find not cytology in the Bible. The pages of the sacred text say nothing about the structure, functions or interactions of cells. Nor does cytology teach us about the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

But suppose a biologist says that the only explanation for the origin of cells is spontaneous generation, that is, origin without any previous cause. The Christian immediately knows that something is amiss, for several reasons. This contradicts the statements of Genesis that all things have their origin from God. Even if we interpret the chaos and formlessness (in Hebrew tohuand bohu) of Genesis 1:2 as a primordial soup, verse one still affirms that the primordial soup came from God (“In the beginning God created the heavens and earth”). What should we do?

The Literal Commentary advises a two-step procedure. First, we must evaluate whether the scientific claim has any validity. This must be done by the methods of science, empirical observation and theoretical reasoning. It is not enough to quote the Bible against a scientific theory. If we are unsure about the conclusion, we can consider it false. “The truth is rather in what God reveals than in what groping men surmise.” This would be true in the case of spontaneous generation. It is a very different claim from those made about the structure of cells. Cell structures can be verified and tested. Spontaneous generation cannot be verified. It is a global statement about what cannot be-that is, no previous cause. And science cannot make statements about what cannot be, only about what is. So, A ugustine would s ay that we can regard spontaneous generation as false unless someone can verify it.

Suppose someone says that the earth is no more than ten thousand years old, as Christians in the West believed for centuries. Again, we should test this claim by the means that science has at its disposal. For well over a hundred years historical geology has developed tests to show that the earth must be far older than ten thousand years. These tests are cross-checked and rechecked to make sure the time estimates are not flawed. Now what should we do? Shall we insist that the Bible teaches that the earth is no more than ten thousand years old? Could it be that our interpretation is wrong? Augustine advises the second step: “But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofsthat cannot be denied, we must show that this statement of Scripture . . . is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions.” He urges us to change our interpretation of Scripture, not because Scripture is to be ruled by science, but because no two truths made by God will contradict one another. All truth comes from God, whether discovered by science or by the Church in its interpretation of Scripture. The first question we must ask is whether a particular scientific theory is well-founded. If it is, then we must make sure we don’t read the Bible in a manner that contradicts sound knowledge of nature.

The most striking feature of Augustine’s commentaries on Genesis is his lack of firm conclusions. He offered different ways of reading the text but made few of them binding on his readers. How did he know when his reading was acceptable, and how can we know how to read Genesis properly? The Catholic Church has been guided by Augustine’s wisdom because it has never definitively ruled on how Genesis should be read.

Yet Augustine’s interpretations were not open-ended. He suggested the following procedure that applies to Genesis as well as any other biblical text. He said that we first should seek to expound the author’s meaning according to the historical or literal sense. The literal sense for Augustine is the sense the words bear in their original historical-linguistic context. If we are unable to agree on the author’s meaning, we at least should interpret Scripture according to the wider context of the Bible as a whole. We should make sure that our interpretations of a particular text are consistent with what the Bible says elsewhere. If this proves difficult, we must interpret the Bible within the boundaries of the Catholic faith. Augustine directs this advice against those who rashly assert the meaning of the Bible on uncertain and doubtful matters. It is better to be humble than to proclaim boldly opinions on Scripture that might be wrong. The key to Augustine’s approach to the Bible lies in his willingness to read the Bible with the Church.

How does Augustine’s wisdom guide us in our present situation? Application of his principles can be seen in one of the most misunderstood episodes in the history of science and religion, the Galileo Affair. Augustine’s Literal Commentary played a key role in Galileo’s many-sided interactions with the Church. Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, written in 1615, appealed to Augustine’s authority by arguing that Scripture was intended to lead us to salvation, not to give us theories of natural science. But Galileo recognized that the Church was under no obligation to endorse the heliocentric theory of the universe unless he or someone else could provide proof of its truth. Galileo fully believed in the truth of the Copernican theory, but he did not have sufficient proof of its truth in 1616, when the Church’s Congregation of the Index ruled on the matter.

The Catholic Church, represented by Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, also recognized the saving purpose of Scripture. Bellarmine said that if the Church had in its possession proof of the truth of the new astronomy, it would have to refrain from any judgment. But that proof was lacking by the standa rd s of the day. The Church hierarchy would not have ruled on the question at all had Galileo and others not tried to offer a theological defense of the theory. When the Congregation of the Index issued its decision, it did not totally condemn the heliocentric theory. It simply said that Copernicus’ book was forbidden “until corrected.” It condemned totally two other books that gave theological defenses of the new theory because they claimed that a moving earth was compatible with Scripture. Since there was no proof that the earth was moving in the early seventeenth century, Church officials thought it rash to defend that notion without sufficient proof.

How does this example help us today? The Catholic Church recognizes that it is called to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ in matters of faith and morals, not to rule on the validity of scientific theories. The latter judgment must be left to the scientific community. Yet, scientists sometimes make claims that their theories imply a certain philosophy of life. Carl Sagan, for example, often espoused a materialist and naturalist philosophy, claiming that it grew out of modern science. A materialist philosophy is incompatible with Genesis and Christian belief. The Church is called not only to teach the truth of the gospel but to warn the faithful against philosophies that are not consistent with the gospel. When the Church is uncertain about a scientific claim, it can ask for proof for these claims. When proof according to some measure is forthcoming, the Church must weigh this proof in the light of its total mission to articulate the truth. If proof is not forthcoming, the Church rightly can withhold judgment.

Augustine was not afraid of knowledge from any direction because he knew the Source of all truth. He was open to all truth from any direction. The God who made nature also inspired Scripture and never would contradict himself. The Catholic today lives in a different world from Augustine’s, but he can use the same principles in approaching Scripture and science. God is the final authority. He has revealed himself in both nature and Scripture. Science does not teach the truths of Scripture, nor does Scripture attempt detailed theories of science. Sometimes scientists make claims that are more theological than scientific, and Christian believers sometimes aver views of nature that are not well-founded, either scripturally or scientifically. This crossing of boundaries is where most of the problems arise.

Christians can be sure that God’s truth in nature does not contradict God’s truth in Scripture. The Catholic has a decided advantage over other Christians in his allegiance to the Catholic Church. Deciding how to reconcile an apparent conflict between science and the Bible does not depend on the interpretation of an individual. The Catholic knows that the truths of Scripture will be elucidated by proper Church authorities with full respect to bonafide truths of science and the infallible character of sacred Scripture.


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