t f p g+ YouTube icon

Augustine of Hippo and Two Books Theology, Part 2

Bookmark and Share

January 5, 2013 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Augustine of Hippo and Two Books Theology, Part 2

Today's entry was written by Mark H. Mann. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: In Part 1, Mark Mann described Saint Augustine’s background and influence on the development of Christianity. Here in Part 2, Mann examines how Augustine interpreted Scripture, particularly the opening chapters of Genesis.

Scripture and Creation

Augustine had a great deal to say about those chapters in Genesis that are especially controversial within Christianity today. In fact, Augustine dedicated about as much as any other Christian writer to the first few chapters of Genesis, so there is little guesswork we have to do in ascertaining what he believed Scripture to claim about creation. First of all, Augustine clearly rejected the notion that God had created the earth in six 24-hours periods. Instead, he believed that the universe was created instantaneously, and that the six days reported in Genesis were a metaphor for the various levels of dimensions of the created realm—something akin to what ancients referred to as the ‘Great Chain of Being’. But this is not to say that Augustine believed that the world was created as it is today in that instant. Rather, he affirmed that God created the world with inchoate potential for further development, like an acorn that will grow into a great tree when planted in the ground.

Augustine therefore affirmed that Creation has evolved and continues to evolve, though not driven by random natural processes, as affirmed by classical Darwinism. Instead, such evolution is governed providentially both via the inchoate potentialities present in the world from its beginning and by God’s ongoing governance of the universe.4 We should be careful not to turn Augustine too quickly into a modern advocate of theistic evolution, but the similarities are nevertheless significant. Augustine affirmed these ideas not on the basis of an attempt to accommodate Scripture to scientific discovery, but based upon his own reading of Scripture! Indeed, I think it fair to say that the great father of Western Christianity was something of a proto-evolutionary theist, and therefore one whose work deserves far more attention by those seeking to be faithful to both Scripture and Christian tradition while making sense of the claims of contemporary science.

Of course, we need to be careful not to push such claims too far. Augustine himself resists such a move by recognizing both the contingency of human interpretations of Scripture and the dangers of unintentionally imposing our own views on Scripture. A rather long, but significant quote from Augustine makes this point all too clear:

Let us suppose that in explaining the words, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and light was made,” one man thinks that it was material light that was made, and another that it was spiritual. As to the actual existence of “spiritual light” in a spiritual creature, our faith leaves no doubt; as to the existence of material light, celestial or supercelestial, even existing before the heavens, a light which could have been followed by night, there will be nothing in such a supposition contrary to the faith until unerring truth gives the lie to it. And if that should happen, this teaching was never in Holy Scripture but was an opinion proposed by man in his ignorance.

On the other hand, if reason should prove that this opinion is unquestionably true, it will still be uncertain whether this sense was intended by the sacred writer when he used the words quoted above, or whether he meant something else no less true. And if the general drift of the passage shows that the sacred writer did not intend this teaching, the other, which he did intend, will not thereby be false; indeed, it will be true and more worth knowing. On the other hand, if the tenor of the words of Scripture does not militate against our taking this teaching as the mind of the writer, we shall still have to enquire whether he could not have meant something else besides. And if we find that he could have meant something else also, it will not be clear which of the two meanings he intended. And there is no difficulty if he is thought to have wished both interpretations if both are supported by clear indications in the context.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, 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. 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.

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?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.5

I am tempted here to let Augustine have the final word, but I think there are three final points worth highlighting here as a way of connecting this quote to the two books theory and thereby concluding our discussion of Augustine:

  1. The Book of Nature is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ, and even nonbelievers are capable of comprehending its complex order through the proper use of reason and experience (i.e. science properly understood).
  2. The Book of Scripture is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ, and therefore is true and authoritative in all matters. The problem is that we often misinterpret Scripture by imposing our own preconceptions upon it rather than allowing it to speak for itself.
  3. God’s two books can and should be read together in harmony when we are open to allowing them to speak for themselves on their own terms. Ultimately, they cannot contradict each other because the source of both is the same God and if they seem to be in contradiction it is because we have misread one or both of them, and we need to be willing therefore to allow ourselves to be open to thinking about either one in different ways, trusting that God will ultimately lead us to see the truth of the whole.


4. In truth, these two kinds of providence are one and the same for Augustine because God in some ‘stands’ outside of time as its eternal creator. So, for Augustine, eternality is not everlasting time, but the complete lack of temporality altogether. In this sense, all of creation at all times is eternally present to God, and there is ultimately no difference between God’s governance over creation at its beginning from God’s governance at any other moment in its history. In a way, God governs all of history all at once.
5. This quote is excerpted from St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2 vols., translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, SJ (Paulist Press, 1982), volume one of which can be read here.

Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.

< Previous post in series

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
sy - #75810

January 6th 2013

Beautiful and astounding. We can clearly see that Augustine’s predictions regarding the reactions of those “outside the household of the faith” to Christians who “defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements” has come true beyond anything he could have imagined in a scientific culture dominated by atheists.  If only that quote could be read to every congregation, and emblazoned in the hearts of all Christians, our work would be nearly done. Thank you for sharing this incredibly inspiring ancient text here.

a.m.sibley - #75812

January 6th 2013

I think we need some more work here than this rather one-sided view of Augustine presents. For instance he held to the early Christian millennial view that the history of the world, from creation to the second advent, would be 6,000 years followed by a seventh ‘day’ of rest. He seems to have moved towards literal creation days in the City of God, at least from days 4-6.

Augustine was perhaps influenced by Aristotle’s spontaneous generation in his belief in the rationes seminales, although for Augustine life arose out of the grond because of the spoken word of God implanted as ‘seeds’ in the ground. If this view were presented today it would be dismissed by theistic evolutionists as a form if intelligent design because it breaks the rule of methodological naturalism. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Where as Aristotle’s geocentricism was left behind thanks to Galileo, a belief in spontaneous generation lives in naturalistic explanations for the origin of life, and regrettably supported by many theistic evolutionists.


PNG - #75849

January 9th 2013

Augustine’s specific beliefs on scientific issues were obviously shaped by what was considered solidly based science in his day, a spherical unmoving earth with an estimate of its size and the size of the observable universe. It is clear from the famous passage above that as a more general principle, Augustine thought that we have to take empiricism seriously - what is revealed by careful observation and good reasoning is something that has to be taken seriously and not rejected based on half-baked ideas of what the Bible teaches. What he didn’t deal with is the possibility that the Biblical writers shared the assumptions of their contempory culture and that those assumptions in some cases were wrong. Augustine assumes that “our sacred writers” didn’t “share these opinions” - he thought concordism could solve any apparent problems. What we face today is the reality that the sacred writers did share beliefs that aren’t true, a flat earth most obviously, and of course evolution wasn’t even an issue on their radar (or Augustine’s.) There isn’t much for us to learn from Augustine’s specific opinions on scientific issues, but I do wish evangelicals would pay attention to his respect for empiricism (the second Book.)

Seenoevo - #75819

January 7th 2013

“The Book of Nature is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ”

Is this statement in need of correction or clarification? Nature may be revelatory, even to a pagan, of a creator (cf. Rom 1:20), but it says nothing of the Christ.


Augustine must have given some examples from his day of the “utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements” made by “Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture”. What were some of these examples, and how do they compare to the current differences in the interpretation of Genesis?


If Augustine were alive today, do you think he would give the traditional literal-historical interpretation of Genesis the “death sentence”?

(Ref #75651 of http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-intelligent-design-part-5 )

sy - #75830

January 8th 2013


I believe the answer to your last question is absolutely yes. But of course we will never know.


a.m.sibley - #75837

January 9th 2013

But being ’ scientifically foolish’ in the time of Augustine would have been to reject spontaeous generation and geocentricism. Likewise, today creationists are ‘foolish’ for rejecting the molecule to man narrative of evolution, but they will be vindicated as evidence for ID gathers pace. Instead of using a few quotes to attack opponents let us understand Augustine in his own context first.

Augustine’s struck a balance between the allegorical reading of Origen, and those who read the Bible only literally. The Jews saw symbolism in real events in the Old Testament (pesher peshat reading), the early Christians instead applied the Old Testament symbolism to Christ, but most did not reject the real history - i.e. they weren’t gnostics, - their faith was grounded in an earthly reality.


PNG - #75848

January 9th 2013

 In Augustine’s time the general perspective was Ptolemaic geocentrism, but there probably were isolated voices in favor of a flat earth, based on the Hebrew scriptures. I don’t think Augustine ever said what he was thinking of specifically in that quote, but I suspect it was Christians saying that “godless Greek science” should be rejected in favor of the old Testament flat earth (see the Wikipedia article on flat earth for the church fathers who seem to have taken that position.) I suspect Augustine thought that geocentrism could be reconciled with the Biblical references, which would indicate that concordism began way back there.

a.m.sibley - #75867

January 10th 2013

Augustine however drew a distinction between operational science and theoretical science, the former he thought might be demonstratable and shape Scripture, the latter need not force the Christian to alter his / her beliefs. Some Christians in science like to quote the passage about other Christians (inferring creationists) causing embarrassment to the faith, but this passage follows shortly after that passage and highlights the point.

“When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show than it is not contrary to our Scripture. Bul when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary lo Scrìpture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is abso- lutely False, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of doubt.’

This is a useful paper by Jennifer Hart Weed


Eddie - #75871

January 10th 2013

a. m. sibley:

I have only the passage you have quoted to go on, but I would remark that to equate “some fact of physical science” and “a theory” (the phrases used in the passage) with “operational science” and “theoretical science” without first doing a careful study of the original Latin terms used by Augustine strikes me as unscholarly.  All of these terms are loaded with connotative baggage, and it’s very important to distinguish what Augustine actually wrote from what modern interpreters are trying to read into Augustine.  

This is the case with any ancient author.  When you see any translation of Greek or Latin words coming out as “science” “natural history” “cause” “purpose” “fact” “history” “nature” “world” “universe” “matter” “energy” etc. your alarm bells should be ringing:  check the original for both vocabulary and context.

a.m.sibley - #75914

January 13th 2013

Eddie - Augustine’s example was related to whether the planets have spirits as a theoretical aspect of science. Yes, what Augustine meant by science was different to modern MN, and was perhaps more holistic in seeking to understand the world as an integrated whole involving the spiritual and material. My original point was that TEs sometimes carelessly quote Augustine out of context, but instead we should understand him in context first - so by your comments, I agree we need to read him in context without using his writing to point score inappropriately.    

Page 1 of 1   1