EDIT: ACCIDENTALLY POSTED IN THIS FORUM. Can it please be moved to the Philosophy forum? Thanks!
I’ve lurked around debates on “creationism” and whatnot on these forums for some time now, and I was mildly shocked to see so many Catholics staunchly defending a literal interpretation of various events in Genesis (creation, the flood, etc). I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions lately, and much of what my favorite Saint has to say on the topic seems to be relevant. I am curious how Catholics (and Christians of all stripes) who advocate literal interpretation of Genesis feel about these passages.
All passages from Confessions comes from Sister Maria Boulding’s translation. Most of the material comes from Books V and VI.
In summary: Augustine clearly argues that the opinions of scientists regarding the natural world should be respected, and that scientific findings about the natural world should not be considered contrary to scripture, but rather that OT scriptures should be interpreted figuratively.
A little background here: At this point in the Confessions Augustine is writing about a time in his twenties when he was a member of a heretical group called the Manichees. He began to doubt the validity of this heresy when he discovered that they were making claims contrary to what the scientists of his day had discovered about the natural world. Emphasis mine:
…I then kept in mind many true conclusions which they [the scientists] had drawn from creation itself, and I saw that these could be verified by calculation… I then compared them with the assertions of [the Manichees], who had written voluminously (and incoherently) on these subjects. What I read there was confirmed neither by any rational account of solstices and equinoxes and eclipses, nor by anything else of this kind that I had learned from books of secular philosophy. I was simply bidden to believe, and what I was required to believe did not correspond to the rational explanations I had worked out and discovered by my own observations; in fact there was a wide discrepancy.
Ok, so here we have Augustine beginning to doubt this heresy based on empirical, scientific observation and the study of scientific works written by others. Indeed, in that last bolded sentence he implicitly condemns the way that the Manichees asked him to believe things that were clearly falsified by empirical observation of the natural world. In fact he directly condemns the founder of Manichaeism for preaching about the natural world in such a false way when he clearly knows nothing about it:
Obviously, Mani might have been thoroughly conversant in scientific truths, even if a stranger to piety. In fact, however, he was ignorant of them, but he still had the effrontery to teach them…
In fact, Augustine claims that it was nothing short of “providential” that Mani got so many scientific facts wrong, since that allowed many people who would have been led astray into this heresy to label it as a falsehood:
It was providential that this man talked so much about scientific subjects, and got it wrong, because this gave people who had truly studied them the chance to convict him of error.
Ok, so what we can gather from the above is basically that Augustine believes that empirical, scientific study is an effective way to evaluate the truths of the natural world, even if it is not sufficient in and of itself to find the ultimate truth, which is God. Now let’s turn to Augustine’s own conversion to Christianity.
Initially, Augustine rejected Christianity for a similar reason that he was beginning to doubt Manichaeism… some of the scriptures appeared to him to make no sense, and were incompatible with a rational account of the natural world. He only began to respect Christianity as a possibly truthful belief system, however, when he heard St. Ambrose discuss Old Testament texts in a figurative rather than a literal sense:
…I realized that the Catholic faith… was in fact intellectually respectable. This realization was particularly keen when once, and again, and indeed frequently, I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively; such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally.
Augustine here indicates that it is downright harmful (or, in his words, “death”) to interpret the Old Testament literally. He further indicates that this is not how St. Ambrose interpreted them at all.
This is further reinforced when he once again tells of the positive effects of Ambrose’s teachings on his life:
I was often delighted to hear Ambrose often asserting in his sermons to people, as a principle on which he must insist emphatically, the letter is death-dealing, but the spirit gives life. This he would tell them as he drew aside the veil of mystery and opened to them the spiritual meaning of passages which, taken literally, would seem to mislead.
From all this, I think we can conclude the following things:
-St. Augustine believed that the study of the natural world was an effective means of finding truth, and that a true faith will not reject scientifically proven theories.
-The issue of a literal interpretation of the Old Testament is not a new phenomenon, nor a result of the Enlightenment; rather, the issue was discussed even in the early Church. Which leads to my next point…
-Both St. Ambrose and St. Augustine reject the literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and reject the notion that science should be discarded in order to make a literal interpretation work.