If St. Augustine of Hippo were alive today to read Darwin's On the Origin of Species, would he consider it the faith destroying work that many evangelical Christians accuse it of being?
In his article "Augustine's Origin of Species," Alister McGrath looks at Augustine's theological writings, especially his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, to determine what he might have contributed to the modern debate over evolution.
Even though it was written almost 1500 years before Darwin's famous book, The Literal Meaning of Genesis provides useful insight into the debate over the interpretation of Genesis. Augustine cautions us not to place too high of an importance on a particular reading of the Genesis account:
"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."
The problem of Genesis, according to Augustine, is not the authority of the text itself but how we should interpret it. The Church should not rush to ground itself on a single interpretation, as it has done in the past regarding Genesis. Doing so could prove disastrous, especially if that one intrepration cannot stand in light of modern scientific discoveries.
Augustine may or may not have agreed with a strictly evolutionary view of creation, though he did believe that creation was a continual process. Either way, his insight into this debate that still continues nearly 1600 years later is not that he had found the authoritative interpretation of the passage, but that he realized that its interpretations can change, and should not be allowed to compromise our faith. In this regard, McGrath is right to say this big issue needs more of the "patient, generous, and gracious reflection" that Augustine promoted.
For more readings on science and religion, be sure to check out the Featured Readings at www.biologos.org.