St. Augustine on Science vs. Scripture

St. Augustine famously rebuked those who interpret Scripture while ignoring scientific knowledge of the natural world (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, book 1, chapters 19):

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 non-sense 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.”

In this passage St. Augustine seems to reject the idea of using Scripture to correct natural science. However, St. Augustine is sometimes used in a manner which in many cases implies the opposite. In particular, St. Augustine is also understood by many to have said that we must always understand the text in a literal sense except when it can be proved that this would imply that Scripture says something false. And “proved” here is often taken in a very strong sense. For example, Gregory Dawes speaks of this understanding of St. Augustine:

There exist two Augustinian principles that relate to apparent conflicts between the Bible and secular knowledge, one indicating when secular knowledge claims should take priority and the other when a literal reading of the biblical text should prevail. Following Ernan McMullin, I shall call the first of these the principle of the priority of demonstration.

“When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative reading of Scripture must be sought.”

When in other words, enquiry based on natural principles leads to a conclusion that appears to contradict scripture but cannot be doubted, then scripture must be reinterpreted.

By way of contrast, a second principle, the principle of the priority of scripture, states that when rational enquiry leads to something less than certainty, the authority of the literal sense of scripture is to be preferred.

“When there is an apparent conflict between a Scripture passage and an assertion about the natural world grounded on sense or reason, the literal reading of the Scripture passage should prevail as long as the latter assertion lacks demonstration.”

These principles are at least implicit in Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, his commentary on the literal sense of Genesis, and are accepted by medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas. They were employed by the church authorities during the trial of Galileo, restated by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century, and invoked by Pope Pius XII in 1950 when condemning polygenism (the view that the human race had more than one origin).

Apart from the claim that these principles are implicit in De Genesi ad litteram, there is no citation of St. Augustine here, neither in this text nor in Dawes’s footnotes. In the footnotes, he cites St. Thomas’s Summa 1a, 68, 1, Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, and Pius XII in Humani Generis.

Let’s look at these texts. St. Thomas says,

In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.

St. Thomas certainly does not say here that we should adhere to our particular explanations until they are proved with certainty to be false. He simply says that we should abandon them if that happens. This does not mean that if someone shows that there is a 95% chance that our explanation is false, we should ignore his argument because it does not conclude with certainty.

Here is the text of St. Augustine cited by St. Thomas:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

St. Augustine does not say that we should hold to our interpretations until they are proven with certainty to be false. Rather he says that “we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” This simply says that one should hold to it reasonably, and not unreasonably. But it is not reasonable to ignore reasonable arguments simply because they do not conclude with certainty. Thus, if anything, this text rejects the supposedly Augustinian principle presented by Dawes.

Dawes cites two texts from Providentissimus Deus. The first is paragraph 15:

But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires; a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the holy Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience, they knew to be most valuable. The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honourable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties. But it is most unbecoming to pass by, in ignorance or contempt, the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics – and to seek in them, to the detriment of sound doctrine and often to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics long ago have successfully employed their talent and their labour. For although the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind-as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages – that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of the Sacred Scripture, and never attain its pith.

Then comes paragraph 18:

In the second place, we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. Hence to the Professor of Sacred Scripture a knowledge of natural science will be of very great assistance in detecting such attacks on the Sacred Books, and in refuting them. There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.” If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.” To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost “Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.” Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us – `went by what sensibly appeared,” or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.

Leo XIII is not holding the principle indicated by Dawes in the first paragraph unless “reason makes it untenable” is understood to mean that reason has disproved something conclusively. But insofar as it can be unreasonable to hold something which has not yet been disproved conclusively, there is no need to understand Pope Leo in such an unreasonable way. In the second paragraph, since Leo XIII understands the truth of Scripture to be a settled principle, he simply quotes St. Augustine as saying that if something is conclusively proved to be true of the world, then we cannot interpret Scripture to contradict that; and if something is conclusively proved to be the meaning of Scripture, then we cannot understand the world to contradict that. This does not mean that you must hold to a literal meaning of Scripture when there are good arguments that the thing stated would be false, just because those arguments are not conclusive.

It is clear enough that neither Leo XIII nor St. Augustine claim such a principle in the second paragraph, and there is at least no need to understand Leo XIII to be claiming the principle in the first paragraph. The same thing is true of St. Augustine, since Leo takes these words directly from a text in De Genesi ad litteram, where he says that we should not interpret the rivers mentioned in Genesis to be only figurative, if no “necessitas cogeret,” and “ratio nulla prohibeat,” that is, if no necessity requires us to take them figuratively only, and no argument prevents us from understanding them literally. Of course, as with Leo, there is no need for us to understand St. Augustine to be denying that we could be prevented from understanding them literally by a probable argument.

Finally, here is the passage from Pius XII cited by Dawes:

It remains for Us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. In fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted.

Obviously the supposedly Augustinian principle is contained here in no way.

Dawes begins to discuss whether someone holding to these principles can accept evolution or not, and after some discussion says:

What follows? Ken Miller attributes to Augustine the view that “even the ‘literal’ meaning of Genesis must not stand in contradiction to the kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific.'” But this is not quite correct. “The kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific'” cannot offer, nor does it claim to offer, the level of certainty that would warrant a reinterpretation of the biblical text, at least on a strict interpretation of Augustine’s principles.

In the remainder of the paper Dawes does suggest some possible solutions which do not involve rejecting either Scripture or scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, like Fr. Brian Harrison, Dawes is attempting to cause tension between Scripture and the theory of evolution, although with a different motive. It is not surprising, therefore, that Fr. Harrison uses the supposed principle of St. Augustine in a similar way, except in order to argue that we must believe that the theory of evolution is false.

But this is wrong, both on the part of Fr. Harrison and on the part of Gregory Dawes, and likewise on the part of any others who argue in a similar manner, such as Robert Sungenis. St. Augustine does not hold the supposedly Augustinian principle. The texts of St. Augustine that are actually relevant to the topic are the first one quoted in this post, as well as that cited by St. Thomas, “We should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

Natural science also makes progress in the search for truth, and the text of St. Augustine applies just as well to such progress as to any other.

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2 thoughts on “St. Augustine on Science vs. Scripture

  1. […] People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine: […]

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