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.