Augustine of Hippo on the Literal Meaning of Genesis


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More than 15 centuries before Darwin's Origin of Species, Augustine of Hippo warned in his Confessions of the dangers of woodenly literalistic readings of Genesis, which he rejected on theological grounds entirely apart from scientific concerns. He later wrote a treatise, however, entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis in which he vigorously defended what he took to be the "literal" meaning of the creation narrative, while also offering some guidance for how believers should approach scientific and empirical matters. For Augustine, the literal meaning of Genesis is in fact its authoritative meaning, but this has little to do with the type of dogmatic, chronological literalism some contemporary believers insist is the only faithful and orthodox way of reading Scripture. Here is what Augustine had to say about faith and science in the face of the cosmological questions of his own day:

"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."


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2126