Saturday, May 9, 2009

St. Augustine, Scripture, and evolution

Writing at Christianity Today, Alister McGrath, in "Augustine's Origin of Species," explains how St. Augustine's approach to Creation can illuminate the modern debate.
North African bishop Augustine of Hippo (354–430) ... interpreted Scripture a thousand years before the Scientific Revolution, and 1,500 before Darwin's Origin of Species. Augustine didn't "accommodate" or "compromise" his biblical interpretation to fit new scientific theories. The important thing was to let Scripture speak for itself.

Augustine wrestled with Genesis 1–2 throughout his career. There are at least four points in his writings at which he attempts to develop a detailed, systematic account of how these chapters are to be understood. Each is subtly different. Here I shall consider Augustine's The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which was written between 401 and 415. Augustine intended this to be a "literal" commentary (meaning "in the sense intended by the author"). ....

Augustine was deeply concerned that biblical interpreters might get locked into reading the Bible according to the scientific assumptions of the age. This, of course, happened during the Copernican controversies of the late 16th century. Traditional biblical interpretation held that the sun revolved around the earth. The church interpreted a challenge to this erroneous idea as a challenge to the authority of the Bible. It was not, of course. It was a challenge to one specific interpretation of the Bible—an interpretation, as it happened, in urgent need of review.

Augustine anticipated this point a millennium earlier. Certain biblical passages, he insisted, are genuinely open to diverse interpretations and must not be wedded to prevailing scientific theories. Otherwise, the Bible becomes the prisoner of what was once believed to be scientifically true: "In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it." ....

So does Augustine's The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let's be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates. .... [more]
Augustine's Origin of Species | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

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