Augustine, Galileo and the lessons we aren’t learning

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) is considered one of the most influential thinkers in Christianity. His works and thoughts permeate western Christianity to this day with concepts such as original sin and just war. But the inspiration and lessons I take from Augustine are not the conclusions of his theology but his approach. He seemed very well aware of his own limitations in not only his understanding of the world around him but understanding what scripture is. In his Book City of God, he looks at the nature of days in the Genesis account and openly admits that what they actually mean may be beyond human understanding;

But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world’s creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say [1]

Augustine took the view that the earth was created simultaneously but that’s largely irrelevant for our purposes. Augustine’s comments show that the nature of scripture and the nature of Genesis has been up for debate well before evolution came onto the scene. Augustine showed great awareness in realising there may be a better explanation than the one he came up with and that as more information became available, others may come to different interpretations;

I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation. With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation. [2]

Did Augustine believe he was right? Absolutely. Did he take what scripture said seriously? Absolutely. Did he believe that his was the only valid interpretation? Absolutely not. Science was at its very early stages, the word didn’t even exist it was just a concept with Aristotle being very influential. But science didn’t really come into it for Augustine, he was more interested in the divinity of scripture and seemed to realise that perhaps, since God can work on an infinitely higher level to us, that our minds and indeed scripture could never fully describe him or comprehend his ways. He also seems to be quite clear in his view that the Bible was concerned with spiritual matters. Augustine though, definitely seemed aware that there other ways of learning about this world and that those methods, may reveal information that seemed to contradict what the scriptures taught about the physical world. Augustine saw the potential conflict and in his book The literal interpretation of Genesis he gave a rather stark warning;

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 hold 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”. [3]

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Augustine could see into the future. It may have taken about 1200 years or so but Augustine’s fears did eventually come true and it took another Christian by the name of Galileo Galilei, to show that the church didn’t seem to have paid much attention to Augustine.

The story of Galileo is one that gets rolled out anytime people want to suggest that religion and science are in conflict. Whilst that particular discussion is beyond the purpose of this blog, I may end up commenting on it indirectly. Just as a refresher, Galileo essentially picked up from where Copernicus left off in promoting a sun centered astronomy, based on the scientific evidence that had been gathered, much to the annoyance of the church. But Galileos main issue was not so much with the church trying to comment on matters of science (though that irked him) it was how the church was using scripture. He seemed to share traits of Augustine’s view on scripture when he said “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go[4] and his concerns about people use of scripture;

Men of profound learning and devout behavior, but who nevertheless pretend to the power of constraining others by scriptural authority to follow in a physical dispute that opinion which they think best agrees with the Bible, and then believes themselves not bound to answer the opposing reasons and experiences. [5]

The church at the time interpreted certain passages like Psalm 104:5 and Ecclesiastes 1:5 to promote an earth centered astronomy, that’s how they viewed the world (admittedly influenced by Aristotle) and would go to great lengths to enforce their view to the point of Cardinal Bellarmine stating “The doctrine attributed to Copernicus that the earth moves around the sun… contrary to the Holy Scriptures and therefore cannot be defended or held” To cut a long story short, history showed Galileo to be right and now the Church does not hold to those interpretations any longer with no problems but it was a battle. This wasn’t about science vs religion, this was about how the Bible was being used. Galileo was a committed Christian and scientist. He attributed the world to God but wanted to explore the world, study it; I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use [6]. But there were those who did not want him to use them or deviate from their view if he did. Sadly, nothing much has changed today.

There are biblical scholars who are re-examining passages like the Canaanite genocide in Deuteronomy, philosophers are looking at the nature of omniscience and omnipotence from the perspective of freewill, others are looking at passages from the perspective of the stance on homosexuality and other issues affecting the world. These are Christians who take the Bible very seriously, they study it, pray to God about it; they’re deeply committed in their faith and love for God. But the attitude of Cardinal Bellarmine is very much the attitude being taken by some in positions of power on a number of matters today. Groups like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary calling for scholars to be fired from their positions for questioning certain doctrines they hold [7]. They see it as an attack on God himself. There are those who do use the bible to attack the character of God so I understand the desire to protect the bible; but the groups of people I mentioned are not among them. Sadly, this attitude is not  limited to those in power, it’s something that permeates throughout Christian internet forums to the point where they each have their own statement of faith and anything that remotely goes against it, is either deleted or the person banned (sometimes both) As I said previously, how can we discuss our faith externally in the world if we’re not allowed to do it internally within Christian circles?

I struggle to see what can be achieved with this stance, it seems that all it’s doing is causing resentment. division and disillusionment within many Christians; they’re stuck in the middle as the arguments are being thrown over them and at them. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how we move forward, I’m not sure whether drawing a line can work. I think Justin Lee may well be onto something;  Instead of a debate, I asked people on both sides to think of the things they wish they better understood about the people who disagree with them – not the things they wanted to teach, but the things they wanted to learn. What resulted was some amazing conversation. [8]






[5] Hummel, Charles E (1986: Page 106) The Galileo Connection, InterVarsity Press




First published 12th March 2013


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