Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of June 2007
by Richard Peachey
Augustine was a noted Christian leader of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Thoughtful, scholarly, and sincere in his desire for truth, he was a prolific writer who is probably best known for his massive apologetic work City of God. Anti-creationist writers have often sought support for their views in the writings of Augustine. This article will consider two recent cases of evolutionists using his words to chide creationists.
In 2001, philosopher of science Michael Ruse, who is himself a secularist and not a believer at all, attempted to "exhort" creationists as follows:
"Were one to insist on an absolutely literal reading of Genesis, one would only be giving comfort to the enemy, who would seize on the inconsistencies both within the Bible and between the Bible and commonly accepted scientific beliefs. [He then cites Augustine:] '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'" (Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 51).
More recently (2006), noted human genome researcher Francis S. Collins, a professed evangelical Christian and theistic evolutionist, quoted the same statement from Augustine, but within a larger context:
[Augustine writes:] "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 a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
"The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the 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 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 and 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 learned from experience in the light of reason?" (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster]. pp. 156f.)
Here Collins, perhaps unintentionally, makes clear (as Ruse did not) that Augustine is referring specifically to knowledge gained "from reason and experience" or "from experience in the light of reason." But evolution involves a highly speculative naturalistic reconstruction of the past, rather than an empirical fact learned through observation and experience — so Augustine's warning is not at all relevant to Christians facing the challenge of evolution!
Furthermore, in the very same context Augustine goes on to speak in this fashion:
"But more dangerous is the error of certain weak brethren who faint away when they hear these irreligious critics learnedly and eloquently discoursing on the theories of astronomy or on any of the questions relating to the elements of this universe. With a sigh, they esteem these teachers as superior to themselves, looking upon them as great men; and they return with disdain to the books which were written for the good of their souls; and, although they ought to drink from these books with relish, they can scarcely bear to take them up. . . .
"When they [non-believers] 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. And we will so cling to our Mediator, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, that we will not be led astray by the glib talk of false philosophy or frightened by the superstition of false religion" (Augustine. 1982. The Literal Meaning of Genesis. [trans. John Hammond Taylor.] New York: Newman Press. pp. 44f. [Book 1, chapters 20f.])
(Note: In all the above quotes, bold print indicates emphasis added.)
By the way, Augustine, great thinker though he was, is not especially to be relied on in discussions of origins (see Louis Lavallee, "Augustine on the Creation Days," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 32 No.4 [Dec 1989], pp. 457-464 <http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/32/32-4/32-4-pp457-464_JETS.pdf>). He did not know any Hebrew. And he held a peculiar view that the creation did take place in six days, but that it also occurred in one instant (this understanding, apparently, was based on a mistranslation of a verse from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus).
On the other hand, Augustine did accept the Scriptural record of a historical worldwide Flood, the long lifespans of the antediluvians, and the creation of man only a few thousand years ago (City of God XII.11, XV.8, 27). So whatever his faults, Augustine is really not that much help in terms of providing support for the overall modern evolutionary worldview!
For Further Reading
Tim Chaffey, "An Examination of Augustine's Commentaries on Genesis One and Their Implications on a Modern Theological Controversy." Answers Research Journal Vol. 4 (2011), pp. 89-101 <http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/arj/v4/n1/examining-augustine-genesis-commentaries>
Peter Galling and Terry Mortensen, "Augustine on the Days of Creation." <http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v7/n1/augustine-days-of-creation>
The Wikipedia article on dinosaur paleontologist Robert Bakker states the following:
"As a Pentecostal, Ecumenical Christian minister, Bakker has said there is no real conflict between religion and science, and that evolution of species and geologic history is compatible with religious belief. . . . He has advised non-believers and creationists to read the views put forward by Saint Augustine, who argued against a literal understanding of the Book of Genesis."
But in my article, above, I have shown that this early Christian writer is not as much help as Bakker might think!