Re: Augustine on science

From: Jonathan Clarke (
Date: Fri Feb 08 2002 - 18:21:25 EST

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    Hi Paul

    I don't have Augustine to hand, only notes I made on him a number of years ago.

    However, assuming I read him correctly, in "The Literal Interpretation of
    Genesis" (Teske R. J. (trans). Saint Augustine on Genesis, Catholic University of
    America Press, Washington D.C., 1991) examples of Augustine accepting
    contemporary science included Aristotle's differrentiation between terrestrial
    and celestrial matter (p177-178), the sphericity of the earth and moon
    (p173-176), the hydrological cycle (p178, contra Ecc 1:7) ) and the common
    features of the human and animal body (p186).

    In "Genesis Against the Manichees" (also in Teske, op cit.) Augustine seems to
    have gone against the lieral interpretation of Genesis. Commenting on Gen 1:28
    (where God givesto animals green plants as food) hee says that this should not be
    interpreted with nave literalism, for

    We should also be warned not to understand these matters carnally from the fact
    that in Genesis the green plants and fruit bearing trees were given to every kind
    of animal and to the birds and to all the birds and to all the reptiles as food.
    Yet we see that lions, hawks, kites, and eagles feed only on meat and the killing
    of other animals. (p79)

    Thus extra-Biblical data suggested to Augustine that this passage should not be
    taken literally in saying that carnivorous animals were originally vegetarian.
    In discussing pain in childbirth (p123-124) Augustine recognises that even
    animals suffer pains when giving birth even though they were not cursed in
    Genesis 3: 16. He surmises therefore that pain in childbirth became the lot of
    women because of mortality rather than as a direct punishment. It may be seen as
    punishment because of the loss of immortality, rather than because it was a
    change from an original physical state. Augustine prefers to interpret the pain
    allegorically, as symbolising the suffering caused by the birth of carnal desire.

    To Augustine does not seem to be consistent. On one hand there is the stuff you
    mention (where is the comment on the smallness of stars from exactly, and to what
    extent was it out of step with Ptolemy, for example?), then there is the quotes

    Jon wrote:

    > << In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim)
    > (translated by J. H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982,
    > volume 41) Book 1 Chapter 19 Paragraph 39 Augustine wrote:
    > "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 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 and 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. [1 Timothy 1.7]"
    > Stephen J. Krogh, P.G. >>
    > Both Ted and Stephen have given us this valuable quotation, which evidences
    > more wisdom than many YEC's affirm. But, given Augustine's statement on the
    > smallness of the stars as confirmed by Gen 1:16, and I recall now his
    > statement rejecting the claim of long ages in Egyptian history, saying "They
    > ...being deceived by a kind of false writing, that say: 'The world has
    > continued many thousand years,' whereas the holy scripture gives us not yet
    > six thousand years since man was made." [The City of God 12:10, New York: E.
    > P. Dutton, 1945, p.317], which puts him right back into the YEC camp, I would
    > understand the quotation about not interpreting the Bible in ways that are
    > scientifically nonsensical to mean that interpretations which contradict
    > consensual science do not reflect the true meanings of Scripture because the
    > true meanings would agree with scientific truth. If so, then he is still
    > regarding the Bible as a scientific text.
    > I would like to see a statement from him which says or implies that the
    > science qua science in some part of the Bible is the science of the times, or
    > at least is not necessarily in agreement with up-to-date science. You can
    > find that in Calvin, but I have not yet seen it in Augustine. However, I have
    > read little more of Augustine than his commentary on Genesis; and, I may have
    > missed something even there.
    > Paul

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