St. Augustine and Natural Theology

Chapter eight of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with the views of Augustine of Hippo on creation. Augustine reflected at length on Genesis, creation, and time. These reflections fill the second half of Confessions (Penguin Classics) and crop up in other works. Augustine also wrote several commentaries on Genesis, some readily available today including 41. St. Augustine, Vol. 1: The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Ancient Christian Writers) and a collection of several texts in Saint Augustine on Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees and on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis : An Unfinished Book (The Fathers of the Church, 84). His writings contradict at times and reflect an ongoing wrestling with science, reason, and the text of scripture.

One of Augustine’s oft quoted passages is found in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis where he reflects on the search for truth and the interpretation of scripture:

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. (Vol. 1, CH. 18:37)

The possibility of multiple interpretations requires Christians to hold the interpretation with an open hand – able to modify if progress in the search of truth, guides one way or another. Augustine’s conviction that science and reason cannot conflict in any foundational way with the faith is expressed even more strongly in a later section of the same book.

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. (Vol. 1 CH. 21:41)

Augustine is convinced first, that the sacred scripture is written to nourish our souls; and second, that truth is consistent. The difficulty is to discern the literal (as opposed to allegorical) meaning of the text and to determine the truths that are taught. Because many passages are capable of varied interpretation we can have a spiral where scripture feeds reason and reason helps to interpret scripture. Augustine does take a firm stand however – that truth cannot be contrary to the faith – and this guides us to the key question.

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It is God’s Story

In chapter six of Adam and the Genome Scot McKnight starts by outlining the ancient Near Eastern context of the biblical creation narratives, including those in Genesis 1-3.  Several texts have come to light a few in a variety of forms. Scot considers Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Sumerian version of the Atrahasis creation story. There are others that could be brought into the discussion as well. The point is not that the biblical authors copied the narratives of the other communities, including Mesopotamia and Egypt, but that many of the ideas contained in the myths were part of the “common knowledge” of the original authors and audience. Some ideas show up in the biblical narratives because they were simply known and others are being explicitly countered and repudiated. Both the similarities and the differences can direct us toward the most important themes in the narrative.

Creation was not the result of a divine battle, with the winner making humans to perform the work the lesser gods despised. Gods do not come and go, they do not hunger, kill each other and assume or lose power. All of these are standard themes in the ancient Near Eastern literature. Marduk, the god of Babylon assumes dominance in many of the stories we have – but not in all. It depends which community was telling the story. The image to the right is Marduk’s symbol animal from Nebuchadnezzar II’s Ishtar Gate in Babylon.

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A Trinitarian Natural Theology

The first section of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with his vision of a Trinitarian natural theology. The section is rather academic. As McGrath sets up his vision for natural theology, he runs through the ideas advanced by many other Christian thinkers and apologists. Doing this he seems to ramble through a wide range of ideas. The section is well worth reading, even if it seems to take awhile at times to get to the point. What follows is a summary of some of the major points from his first six chapters.

Several significant criticisms have been leveled against the notion of a natural theology and McGrath agrees with most of them. These criticisms are focused (1) on the use of natural theology as an apologetic for God, (2) on the tendency to search out gaps and insert God, and (3) on the emphasis in many expressions of natural theology on epistemology (how we know and basis for knowledge) rather than ontology (the nature of the world we see). When natural theology is viewed, as was common in the 18th to 20th century, as a way to know God on the basis of human reason alone, without recourse to God’s self-revelation in Christ, Church, Scripture, through the power of the Spirit, it will fall short. It may point to a God – it will not point to the God.

Not a foundation but a synthesis. The power of natural theology is not in its ability to provide a foundation for knowledge of God but in its ability to provide a synthesis of information and a Christian vision of reality.

[Christian natural theology] offers an alternative way of viewing nature, which may at times challenge exaggerated versions of the scientific method, yet welcomes and sees itself as part of the human quest for truth, whether scientific or religious. It expects to find, and does in fact find, a significant explanatory resonance with what is known of nature from other sources, while at the same time insisting on its right to depict and describe nature in its own special way – as God’s creation. (p. 29-30)

Christian natural theology is a tool – a powerful tool – for making sense of the world we see. It provides a lens for engagement with observation and empirical data. McGrath, taking his cue from Paul in Romans 12:2 (do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind) notes that faith, Christian faith, transforms the human understanding of the world and revolutionizes the way we inhabit the world.

The human mind is not replaced or displaced; rather it is illuminated and energized through faith. … Faith is about the transformation of the human mind to see things in a certain manner, involving the acquisition of certain habits of thinking and perception. (p. 39)

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The Culmination of Creation

There is a fundamental difference between the biblical stories of creation in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 2 and the secular materialist narrative common in our modern Western culture. Justo González emphasizes this his short book [Creation] The Apple of God’s Eye. Although there are two stories of creation in Genesis 1-2, with details that cannot be neatly harmonized, the stories agree on the important theological points of overlap. Most significantly, they agree that humankind, male and female, is the culmination of creation.

In the first story, humankind is created on the sixth day, after which God rests. In the second, the man is created first, then the plants and the animals – which are created in order to provide company to the man, but are not able to achieve that goal – and finally the story culminates in the creation of woman. (p. 33)

Even more to the point we see the value of humankind as the culmination of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 through the incarnation. “Jesus is not only God’s response to sin, but the culmination of creation.” (p. 37) The Son puts on human flesh, being born of woman. González digs into the incarnation a little in this discussion. There has been some debate in the church as to whether the incarnation is solely the remedy for sin, or whether incarnation was always part of God’s plan for creation. The story of creation-fall-redemption-culmination has often led Christians to conclude that without sin there was no need for the incarnation. This isn’t the sole view, however, and probably isn’t the correct view.

For Irenaeus [second century theologian], and for many other Christians then and through the ages, God always intended for creation to develop, for humans to till the earth and build cities, and eventually become closely united with God. In this Christian tradition, quite ancient and often forgotten, the incarnation of God in Jesus is not only a response to sin, but also the culmination of creation, the point for which all creation was made and toward which creation is moving. (p. 37)

It is significant that God puts on human flesh when and where the time was right. Humankind, male and female, are not accidents of evolution. Nor are they merely another kind of animal. Humans were created in the image and likeness of God to care for the earth (the garden in Genesis 2) and to be God’s representatives on the earth. The incarnation puts to rest (or should put to rest) any dismissal of the flesh as degrading and humankind as insignificant. Continue reading

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Natural Theology – An Introduction

OxfordAlister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. With a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and extensive study in theology, including an additional doctorate or two, he is well qualified to speak on the subject of science and Christian faith. book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology digs into the question of natural theology from a twenty-first century perspective. How do we find God in what we know and see? This book is an enlarged version of his 2009 Gifford Lectures in which McGrath examines the evidence for and interpretation of fine-tuning in the universe. You can find the texts of his lectures online along with the PowerPoint slides used in the talks.

CS Lewis is quoted as saying “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

This quote provides a theme for McGrath’s understanding of Natural Theology and his understanding of fine-tuning in the universe. There are two related questions he addresses.

Is it reasonable to suggest that the universe was designed for our existence?

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On to Adam

Dennis Venema, a Christian biology professor, spent the first half of the new book Adam and the Genome outlining the evidence that leads scientists, including the majority of Christian biologists, to conclude that evolution is a strong theory with massive explanatory power and that the evolving population that eventually led to humankind was never smaller than ca. 10,000 individuals. Whether you accept the evidence and the conclusions or not, it should at least be obvious that Christians like Dennis Venema, like Francis Collins, like Darrel Falk, like me, who accept the evolutionary origin of the human body … have strong reasons for this conclusion.

Now it is Scot McKnight’s turn. The scientific evidence outlined by Dennis sends us back to the Bible. How are we to understand the Adam of Genesis 2-3, the Adam of the genealogies (Genesis 5, 1 Chronicles 1, Luke 3) and the Adam of Paul (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15)? Scot starts chapter five telling something of his background and the factors that led him to consider this a significant question that must be wrestled with. One of the most significant is personal interactions with a number of Christian scientists.

I found these Christian scientists to be faithful in their discipleship and humble in their knowledge of science, but clearheaded in believing that while science didn’t offer all the answers, there was very good reason to trust much of what was being claimed. Their trustworthiness at the personal level made their science more credible as an option. (p. 95)

Here we have the first, and perhaps the most important lesson from the book. We grow and learn through personal interactions with trustworthy witnesses. Minds are seldom changed by simple appeals to authority or incessant badgering. Relationships are key. These relationships must include honest and open discussion.

Scot goes on to introduce four principles that should guide our approach to reading the Bible: respect, honesty, sensitivity, and primacy.

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Creation as an Act of Love

I recently picked up yet another book on Creation, this one by Justo L. González, a United Methodist minister and scholar. [Creation] The Apple of God’s Eye is a short book (99 pages) ideal for a small group study from high school through adult. This book isn’t a Bible study, rather it is a theological discussion of the nature of creation. In this post I want to look at two of the points González brings up in the second chapter.

God is Love. González starts the discussion of creation with 1 John 4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. If God is love, then this will be a feature apparent in his creation, much the way that a painting or a evening gown or other creative human work reflects something of the one who created it.

Creation is born of God’s love. “In the very act of creation the love of God is made manifest. God does not need creation. God needs no one but God. Yet, God has created. God has taken the awful chance of creating something that is not God, something beyond Godself.” (p. 5) A little later: “God has decided that there will be another, an entire creation at once reflecting God’s nature and free to rebel against God’s will. This is God’s first, mysterious, inscrutable, yet wonderful act of love.” (p. 7)

When we say that God is the Creator, we are not just trying to explain how things came into being. We are saying that the ultimate reality, that beyond which there is no other, is God and that this God is love!” (p. 7)

This emphasis is different from that found in most books discussing the nature of creation. God intentionally created something other than himself, including creatures with the free will to rebel and the moral sense to reflect on right and wrong.This was an intentional act of love. Love requires something or someone other to love. González points out that this does not mean that love was lacking prior to creation. The Trinity of one God in three persons means “that even God does not exist in solitary splendor. True love, that which exists in God, is such that even within the one God there is sharing, there is communion; and it is this sharing, this communion, that makes God one.” (p. 23) Nonetheless, we should view creation first and foremost as an act of love.

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