St. Augustine on Creationism

THIS is an excerpt from The Literal Meaning of Genesis by Augustine of Hippo (354 AD to 430 AD). According to Wikipedia:

[Augustine] is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. … He framed the concepts of original sin and just war.

[…]

In [the] Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran Church he is a saint and pre-eminent Doctor of the Church, and the patron of the Augustinian religious order; his memorial is celebrated 28 August. Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of Reformation teaching on salvation and divine grace.

Augustine is obviously important to a number of denominations, and what we’re going to quote here is relevant to the creationism-evolution controversy. It’s included in our List-O-Links, but we’re posting it here because it deserves more prominence.

The text comes from: AUGUSTINE’S COMMENTARY ON THE BIBLICAL BOOK OF GENESIS. To find our excerpt it at that link, search on “Chapter 19.” Just before that chapter begins, Augustine says something that isn’t often quoted in creationism debates, but it should be. It’s this, with bold supplied by us:

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.

Now for the part that is frequently quoted in creationism debates. To make this easier to read, we’re taking the liberty of breaking the text into paragraphs. Everything that follows is by Augustine; no Curmudgeonly commentary is required.

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 non-sense 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 the 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 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.”

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “St. Augustine on Creationism

  1. A very timely reminder of Augustine’s thought, particularly after your previous piece on the “accommodationalist” debate at other sites.

    Augustine IMHO does great credit to his faith. Less well known — but I think equally laudable — is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (ca. 865-925). Among many quotable gems, I’ll offer just the following:

    If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.

    A man ahead of his times — and an apt one for our own, I think.

  2. Thanks, Great Claw. I didn’t know about that fellow. It seems he had a good understanding of the situation.

  3. Augustine is mai FAV! Another quote of his is also a favorite of mine …

    ” Dear Lord – Grant me chastity and continence… But not yet.” :-)

  4. Colloquy, was Augustine incontinent?

  5. Penn Towers

    yes, but he was a catholic and the baptists know better . . .

  6. lmao! :-)

    Continence – the exercise of self constraint in sexual matters.

  7. St. Augustine’s statement was especially powerful in that it predated not just evolution, but even modern science, by centuries. Had he been alive today, he undoubtedly would have accepted evolution and would have been appalled at the actions of anti-evolution activists. Recently I heard speculation that even Rev. Paley, the IDers’ idol, probably would have thought likewise, had he been alive today.

    Of those prominent Christians who did have the luxury of reviewing some evidence, IMO Pope John Paul II had the most powerful words, namely (English translation) “convergence, neither sought nor fabricated” to describe the evidence for evolution. Whether intentional or not, it serves to remind us of the stark contrast of science with the anti-evolution movement. Despite 150 years of seeking and fabricating evidence to support a predetermined conclusion, all they have come up with is a divergence into “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

  8. Also note that St Aug is not an evolutionist either. His view was more like – God put the potentials into the soil and the sea so that living things as they are now would come into being at the right moment. Here’s what he says in the commentary you cited:

    Where, then, were they [plants, when they were created]? Were they in the earth in the “reasons” or causes from which they would spring, as all things already exist in their seeds before they evolve [develop—JSW] in one form or another and grow into their proper kinds in the course of time? … it appears [from Scripture—JSW] … that the seeds sprang from the crops and trees, and that the crops and trees themselves came forth not from seeds but from the earth.
    [De Genesi Ad Litteram, (The literal meaning of Genesis) c. 390 AD, Book V, chapt
    4 (Augustine 1982: 151f)]

  9. I agree with Frank J.

    I find John’s comment, “Also note that St Aug is not an evolutionist either.” rather amusing. Of course he wasn’t. Why would someone from 14-15 centuries ago have any idea about it? In general, knowledge increases over time (with a few step backwards such as in the ‘Dark Ages’). I bet Augustine also believed that the earth was the center of the universe since Copernicus came 1,000 years later. Dare I suggest that someone as intelligent as Augustine seems to be would now believe in both what Copernicus and Darwin discovered and that the “Bible” is more of an allegory than an example of fact?

  10. retiredsciguy

    Seems like St. Augustine should be on the required reading list of every Christian academy, college, university, “research” center (such as the “Discovery ” Center and the Center for Creation “Research”), and also for the staff at Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis Museum. And Ben Stein.

  11. retiredsciguy

    Why in the world is my comment “awaiting moderation”?

  12. I only mentioned this because Aug is often appealed to as a “precursor” to the evolutionary view (for example, by Butler and Osborn), when in fact he is better thought of as a “spontaneous generation” sort of thinker, which was common at the time.

  13. retiredsciguy asks: “Why in the world is my comment ‘awaiting moderation’?”

    It contained the word “Ken.” I’ll have to work on this a bit …

  14. I’m putting this in an older post because it’s OT. I’m on vacation so this is for you. :-)
    Creation Museum accidentally acknowledges macroevolution :-)

    http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/creationism-evolution/

  15. TheHellbinder

    I strongly suspect that these quotes are from the second Augustine from around 600 AD. He is a full on died in the wool Catholic and was already at that time completely heretical. The Augustine of 200 years earlier would simply *NEVER* have written such things. The other option is that these writing you are quoting are completely and utterly fraudulent. Evolution is a flat out lie from the pit of hell. We are not products of Chance and Mutation. There was no Death before Adams sin. God Manages Creation. Its that simple.

  16. Goodbye, TheHellbinder.