What I’ve Been Reading (4)–Augustine says “Don’t Be an Idiot”

For over 50 years, Paulist Press has produced the Ancient Christian Writers, a series of critical translations into English of patristic works. Currently at over 60 volumes, Paulist Press adds a book or two each year. They are indispensible for the serious theology student. Volumes 41 & 42 of the series are Augustine’s commentary, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (complete with introduction, synopsis, and annotations).

Augustine wrote the commentary towards the end of his life, while he was also writing two other noteworthy books, The Trinity and The City of God.  What an amazing output from a brilliant mind that was devoted to thinking about the things of God!  At the end of book one, Augustine gives advice about reconciling Genesis with the latest scientific theories of the day. I’ve summed up that advice under six headings along with a brief quote. Though he wrote these words 1,600 years ago, they are relevant today.

1. Don’t say things that unbelievers will immediately see as nonsense.

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world…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 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.” (1.19.39)

I think Augustine’s point can be summed up as, “Don’t be an idiot.”

2. Do not rashly commit to or become dogmatic about one particular interpretation.

“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. Where he cannot understand Holy Scripture, let him glorify God and fear for himself.” (1.40.20)

Even in Augustine’s day, Genesis 1-2 presented real challenges.  The Bishop advises us to recognize this, and therefore be charitable with those who disagree with us.

3. Do not let interpretative difficulties obscure the spiritual blessings available.

“But since the words of Scripture that I have treated are explained in so many senses, critics full of worldly learning should restrain themselves from attacking as ignorant and uncultured these utterances that have been made to nourish all devout souls. Such critics are like wingless creatures that crawl upon the earth and, while soaring no higher than the leap of a frog, mock the birds in their nests above.” (1.40.20)

We must not read Genesis 1-2 only with eyes focused on the trench warfare of the creation/evolution debate.  To do so runs the risk of robbing ourselves of the real spiritual nourishment the text is intended to provide.

4. Do not let the latest scientific or philosophical theories cause one to look down upon Scripture.

“But more dangerous is the error of certain weak brethren who faint away when they hear these irreligious critics learnedly and eloquently discoursing on the theories of astronomy or on any of the questions relating to the elements of this universe. With a sigh, they esteem these teachers as superior to themselves, looking upon them as great men; and they return with disdain to the books which were written for the good of their souls; and, although they ought to drink from these books with relish, they can scarcely bear to take them up. Turning away in disgust from the unattractive wheat field, they long for the blossoms on the thorn.” (1.20.40)

Sounds like something that could have been written in our day, doesn’t it?

5. Do not fear attacks on the biblical account of Creation.

“Someone will say: ‘What have you brought out with all the threshing of this treatise? What kernel have you revealed? What have you winnowed? Why does everything seem to lie hidden under questions? Adopt one of the many interpretations which you maintained were possible.’  To such a one my answer is that I have arrived at a nourishing kernel in that I have learnt that a man is not in any difficulty in making a reply according to his faith which he ought to make to those who try to defame our Holy Scripture.” (1.41.21)

In other words, Augustine is saying that though he couldn’t settle on one position, he is settled in his confidence concerning Scripture itself.

6. Take a discerning approach to the integration of Scripture and science.

When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt.” (1.41.21)

And this is truly the task before us all: discerning the proper way to assess the findings of science in the light of the Word of God.  The God of the Bible is Maker of heaven and earth.  Augustine gives us sound advice about studying God’s Word and His world.

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