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.

McGrath suggests that Augustine’s interpretative framework, developed in the fifth century, provides a useful approach for us today as we seek to meet the challenges of science and faith. We need not agree with all of Augustine’s conclusions to value and appropriate his approach. McGrath summarizes Augustine’s general view of creation as follows. (p. 107)

Augustine interweaves biblical interpretation, an appeal to “right reason” and a knowledge of contemporary science in his theological reflections concerning creation, which can be summarized as follows.

  1. God brought everything into being at a specific moment.
  2. Part of the created order takes the form of embedded causalities which emerge or evolve at a later stage.
  3. This process of development takes place within the context of God’s providential direction, which is integrally connected to a right understanding of the concept of creation.
  4. The image of a dormant seed is an appropriate but not exact analogy for these embedded causalities.
  5. The process of generation of these dormant seeds results in the fixity of biological forms.

Part of this reflects Augustine’s interpretation of scripture, part his interpretation of the world he saw and his understanding of the science of his day, part contradicts the contemporary wisdom of his day. Augustine rejected the common wisdom of his day that matter was eternal, he accepted the fixity of forms and he rejected the six days of Genesis 1 as literal 24 hour days. Augustine viewed nature through eyes informed by theology and scripture – he did neither dismissed nor placed undue reliance on contemporary scientific opinion.

Of particular interest here is Augustine’s suggestion that God created by potencies and process. Augustine’s interpretation of scripture led him to conclude that God created not by producing ready-made plants and animals but by potencies and process. He uses the analogy of seeds – not as literal objects but as a way to wrestle with “the theologically difficult notion of a hidden force within nature through which latent things are enacted.” (p. 102) McGrath describes Augustine’s basic argument as follows.

Augustine’s basic argument is that God created the world complete with a series of dormant multiple potencies, which were actualized in the future through divine providence. … God must be thought of as creating in that first moment the potencies for all the kinds of living things that would come later, including humanity.

This does not mean that God created the world incomplete of imperfect, since “what God originally established in causes, he subsequently fulfilled in effects.” God’s creation extends from actualities to potentialities, all of which were bestowed in the primordial act of origination. … This process of development, Augustine declares, is governed by fundamental laws, which reflect the will of their creator: “God has established fixed laws governing the production of kinds and qualities of beings, bringing them out of concealment into full view. (p. 103-104, with quotes from On the Literal Meaning of Genesis)

Of course this does not mean that Augustine had any clue of our current views of the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the big bang, or evolution – but it does suggest that the ideas of process and potential are consistent with the scriptural witness.

Darwinian theory of evolution and natural selection and Augustine’s approach.

Evolution is governed by fundamental laws – this is a foundational part of any scientific theory and the theory of evolution is no exception. As Christians we hold that these laws reflect the will of their creator. But there is a bit more to it than this. In his CT article McGrath notes that Augustine would have rejected any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason, Augustine would have opposed the Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God’s providence is deeply involved throughout. The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random.

There is a fine line here – but this is an important point – our Christian theology informs aspects of our interpretation of nature. This was true for Augustine and it is true today. A Christian worldview rejects the notion that blind cosmic chance without purpose or meaning rules the evolution of species.

Of course Augustine also held that time – an essential element of evolution – is part of the created order and that God is not constrained by time. Our perspective is not God’s perspective, what appears random to us need not be random from God’s perspective. God is not surprised by the result. It is interesting to consider how deterministic the creation and life must be however – it seems to me that there is an element of freedom built into creation and that this is in accord with God’s will and his fundamental laws.

Rejection of blind purposeless chance does not require and should not entail rejection of the embedded evidence for evolution and natural selection. At this point we would do well to heed another quote from Augustine.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, … 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 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. … 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? (Vol. 1, CH. 19:39)

Many of us are convinced that the gradual development of species over billions of years – evolution in broad outline – is as nearly proven as anything in science in general or biology in particular can be. It is certain that the controversy over the age of the earth and the general outline of evolution causes many educated persons to “show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn” or at least to think that that is what they are doing.

When is a theory contrary to Scripture and therefore to the catholic faith?

When should we take a stand against the wisdom of our day and when should we keep an open mind, holding our interpretation of scripture with an open hand?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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One Response to St. Augustine and Natural Theology

  1. You seem convinced of the veracity of neo-Darwinism, much as the BioLogos devotees. Perhaps you could some day post your reasons for this and provide your arguments against the significant scientific deficiencies brought against it, such as the paucity of morphological evidence.

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