Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing? Some Augustinian Considerations | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1
The obscure mysteries of the natural order, which we perceive to have been made by God the almighty craftsman, should rather be discussed by asking questions than by making affirmations.

—Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber 1.1

In this blog post I offer a preliminary glimpse into my work of applying some Augustinian principles to the current discussion about conflicts between religion and science. This post will touch on several themes I am exploring for The Colossian Forum project, Beyond Galileo—to Chalcedon: Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall.

In educated circles, religious resistance to science has a bad name. The most conspicuous contemporary manifestation of such resistance—young earth creationism—is associated with religious fundamentalism, right-wing politics, irrationalism, and ignorance. Moreover, scientific creationism is treated with disdain not only by critics of religion, but also by many Christian denominations. Like the Catholic Church’s premature condemnation of Galileo in the seventeenth century, religiously motivated rejection of evolution seems to put Christianity on the wrong side of history.

Prominent instances of science-religion conflict—contemporary and historical—play a central role in our present discussions of science and religion. Those who dismiss religion regard these instances of conflict as emblematic of the irrationalism of faith; those in many prominent Christian groups use them to support the generalization that such conflict undermines the credibility of religion and gives succor to its opponents. For this reason, the default position amongst this latter group is an advocacy of peaceful relations between science and religion. This is accomplished by proposing either that science and religion occupy separate spheres or, more commonly, that science and religion offer complementary or even overlapping perspectives on the world.

I want to suggest that this common position among the religious —the advocacy of peaceful relations between science and religion—arises in part from an absence of instances of what we might call “good” or “justifiable conflicts”. Creation science and the Galileo affair offer examples in which the relevant science seems undeniably correct. The Galileo affair, in particular, is deployed time and time again to illustrate the folly of religious opposition to science and often cited in the context of illustrating the folly of resistance to evolution. But what if there are other examples that are less clear cut and that might offer alternative models of creative tension or outright conflict? How might these impact the pressures placed on traditional doctrines of human origins and the origins of sin by the theory of evolution?

Before proceeding further it is worth clarifying which “Christian groups” I was referring to above. This includes contemporary Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and most Reformed Churches; and it includes major organizations that sponsor research and activities that promote friendly relations between science and religion, such as the John Templeton Foundation, BioLogos, and the International Society for Science and Religion. These groups have a recognizable identity in science-religion discussions and have been labeled, often in pejorative terms, as “accommodationists” or “neo-harmonizers”. Among these groups we see two approaches to the issue. One position, what I shall call the “strong irenic position”, is that conflict between science and religion is, in principle, not possible.

The strong irenic position assumes that both science and religion are, in some sense, truth tracking, which is to say that both seek to provide access to truth. It follows that conflict between science and religion is impossible because there is only one ultimate truth about things, and if both science and religion are accessing this truth, conflict between them is not possible. One traditional way in which this stance has been expressed is the motif of the “two books”—the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Since both “books” have been authored by God, they cannot be in conflict with each other.

The alternative view, what I will call a “weak irenic position”, holds that concord between science and religion has certainly been true for much of Western history, but that the peace between science and religion is more a matter of contingent historical circumstances. It is not that conflict is impossible for some set of principled reasons; it is just that the content of science for much of history past has just happened not to conflict with religion.

This weak irenic stance involves a much less essentialist understanding of science and religion. Advocates of this position may claim that science is not consistently truth tracking—a view that could be supported by pointing to the fact that scientific claims advanced in one historical period almost invariably conflict with those made in later periods. (Admittedly, this is a rather simplistic way of characterising a complicated issue. Some scientific theories claim empirical adequacy rather than “truth”, and there are differences between the claims of the physical and historical sciences. But this will do for now.) Certainly, there are also changes in the historical understanding of theological doctrines. These considerations suggest that either as a matter of historical fact or as a desirable state of affairs there is a single predominant relation between science and religion.

In the Middle Ages, for example, the doctrine of the eternity of the world was universally rejected by Christian thinkers in spite of the fact that it was advocated in the writings of Aristotle, who was the preeminent scientific authority at that time. Had religious thinkers then adhered to the “no conflict at all costs” principle of strong irenicism, they might have found themselves on the wrong side of history. This was a conflict in which, in the end, the religionists seem to have got it right. It is an intriguing historical curiosity that Augustine’s idea that the universe was created “with time” seems to have been vindicated, to some degree at least, with the advent of big bang theory. So in a sense the religious position on this particular issue seems to have been right all along. Or at least it is right for now.

By the same token, the weak irenic position might also prompt us to look closely at the details of current scientific claims, with the possibility that some aspects of a general theory might be religiously acceptable, but others not. Specifically in the case of evolutionary theory, the argument could be that while there is an undoubted scientific consensus about the truth of evolution it would not follow, of necessity, that Christian thinking must adapt itself to this reality. It would rather be a matter of considering the case on its merits, of scrutinizing every element of the theory and its variations, and of considering whether all or some or none were compatible with core Christian beliefs. (And from the assumption that there are “core” Christian beliefs it follows that some traditional doctrines may be dispensable.)

My suggestion, then, is that we should distinguish between two different irenic positions and consider whether the weaker version may have significant and unappreciated merits. One of its implications is that potential science-religion conflicts need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As we pursue this line of inquiry, Augustine offers some useful insights for dealing with tension between scientific doctrines and Christian teachings, which further support a weak view of irenicism.

First, Augustine draws our attention to the different aims of Christianity and of what was then called “Natural Philosophy”, the closest analog to modern science. He insists that the value of religion is significantly greater than that of the study of nature.

For Augustine, sound knowledge of nature is not in any sense equivalent, in terms of its worth, to sound religious knowledge and the pursuit of the blessed life [beata vita]. He also thinks that there will always be an unequal partnership between human knowledge and divine knowledge. Nonetheless, Augustine proposes that a proven truth about nature must always take precedence over an apparent literal truth of Scripture; and conversely, in cases of conflict where there is no proof for the relevant science, the literal sense of Scripture must take priority. It was this principle that Galileo sought to deploy, based on his confident assumption that he possessed a demonstrative proof of the earth’s motion (which, in fact, he did not; compelling evidence was actually developed much later).

From these considerations of Augustine’s thought, I offer two tentative suggestions:

  1. Resolving theoretical questions about the natural world is less important than seeking to understand the moral and religious purpose of our own lives. Augustine famously declared in the Soliloquies that he desired to know only God and the soul, and nothing more. For Augustine, while knowledge of the natural world is a good thing when it helps us see God more clearly, preoccupation with it is a clear example of a misplaced love—the kind of preference for lower goods that characterizes the fallen condition of human beings.
  2. We must be prudent about the status of scientific knowledge: science changes and it changes in ways that suggest it cannot be invariably truth-tracking. Augustine recognized that much contemporary speculation about the natural world fell well short of the strict requirements of scientia—the logical demonstration of a truth. This was the rather high standard that Aristotle had set for genuine scientific knowledge. For this reason, Augustine counseled against too close an alignment of uncertain science with Scripture, since subsequent reasonings or discoveries might put both in doubt. (It is interesting that in the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke rehearsed elements of these Augustinian priorities, but went further to deny that natural philosophy could ever attain the high standard of proof demanded by Aristotle. For this reason, Locke also thought that our primary focus should be morality and not natural science.)

Let’s consider these principles in the context of evolution and human origins. The broad general claim of evolutionary theory—descent with modification—is really a historical claim about past events. Historical claims fall short of logical certainty, yet many of them are so highly probable that it is hardly reasonable to doubt them. But there are specific details about the evolutionary history of humans that remain highly speculative. While there may be some consensus about the history of early humans, much of what we think we know about this rests on slender evidence. Moreover, when we consider the specific mechanisms of evolution we also move into less certain territory. Hence there are spirited discussions about the relative importance of natural selection, gene flow, genetic drift, and developmental constraints in bringing about evolutionary change. Based on the relatively short history of evolutionary thinking, then, we can anticipate that there will be future developments in these areas that change the consensus. Augustine’s principle of prudence concerning premature commitment to particular scientific doctrines seems relevant here.

This is not to concede much, if anything, to young earth creationists. But it is relevant to concerns about the apparent randomness and directionlessness of evolutionary processes, and details about our prehistory—concepts that are in tension with some elements of traditional Christian thought.

There are good reasons for thinking that strong irenicism has significant disadvantages, largely because science cannot be directly equated with “truths about the natural world”. From the fallibility of the natural sciences it follows that there is the possibility that at least some scientific doctrines might presently be in conflict with core Christian beliefs, but that these scientific doctrines could be subsequently revised in ways that reduce that tension. It also follows that we should not always presume that it is Christian doctrines that need to be reformulated in light of new scientific claims—thus my preference for weak irenicism.

The fact is that science sometimes gets things wrong. This seems undeniable from what we know from the history of science. Prudence suggests keeping a respectable distance between science and Christianity. In the specific case of evolution it cannot be doubted that the basic idea of descent with modification is well founded. But it is not a demonstrative truth; nor does it follow that every aspect of the theory is well founded, particularly those that remain the subject of debate within the field itself. It is also important to distinguish well-established theories from what are claimed to be their broader religious and philosophical implications, which may be considerably speculative.

But beyond these prudential considerations is Augustine’s valuing of activities that contribute to the cure of souls and the love of God. This represents an overriding consideration that takes us beyond quarrels about facts concerning the physical world to an advocacy of dwelling upon what is excellent and praiseworthy. Augustine’s priorities serve as a salutary reminder of the danger that well-intentioned attempts to establish peaceful relations between science and religion might lead to a neglect of what is of even more fundamental importance.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(GJDS) #3

“This represents an overriding consideration that takes us beyond quarrels about facts concerning the physical world to an advocacy of dwelling upon what is excellent and praiseworthy.”

This is consistent with people earnestly seeking verifiable facts concerning the creation, and Christians also understanding that all truth is from God, and thus is excellent and praiseworthy. I also think that God has created the Universe to be accessible to human reason and intellect for our good and to instil in us curiosity and a capacity for intellectual and aesthetic attributes. It is also noteworthy that atheists would, if they wish, participate in such activities, and appreciate them, without subscribing to any religious views (after all God reveals Himself to whoever He chooses, so wrt science, both atheists and theists have the same access to the creation).

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #4

> In the specific case of evolution it cannot be doubted that the basic idea of descent with modification is well founded.

True, but the Darwinian covers much more than that, namely Natural Selection, which people do not want to discuss but is very much open to question. So let’s get to it.


This article, as so many do, turned me off because of its reference to a religion-science debate. I find it unscientific to state that religion is debating science, rather than debating one scientific postulation compared to the many that it does not debate. It is almost never about religion vs science, but rather about religion vs evolution. Framing it as religion vs science puts the discussion out of order, and destroys communnication. It is as much one person’s science vs another persons science, much like one person’s theology vs another person’s theology. Both atheists and christians are to blame for the incorrect and damaging way the discussion is framed. It is for that reason that people talk past each other, rather than with each other.

As an aside, a well-founded conclusion is not necessarily the correct conclusion. That applies to the OEE as well as to the YEC.


I would also like to say that when people say that it is undoubted or indisputable that man has come from non-human ancestors, or that the earth is very old (billions yrs), or that days in Genesis were exactly the same length in seconds as they are measured today, then those people display a lack of charity and humility. We don’t know if seconds or minutes were exactly as long in the past as they are today, and technically, I don’t think they were. And we know for sure that there are doubts and disputes about the evolution of man, so why claim there are no disputes? That kind of language shuts down the discussion.

In addition, I am frustrated by the way assumptions are made about this issue. People merely assume their perspective is right and go from the science and physical evidence right to debating the theological ramifications. Since this is a scientific issue… I mean it is the fossils, and genetics, and radio-metric dating, and the geology and the way they are interpreted that is causing the conflict… so why not concentrate on that? If the Bible is indicating something different than the evolutionary theory, then it is likely that what we see in nature will back that up; why not look for that and concentrate on that? Evolutionary theory has plenty of holes to pick on, whether Genesis 1 is read literally or not.

Scientifically speaking, I have not seen proof of macro evolution taking place. The interpretation of fossils stretches the theory beyond credulity, and there have been more lies and fraud and mistakes especially in the theory of human descent (via fossils) than we can count. There is an amazing lack of explanation of polystrate fossils, or of missing fossils, or unchanged species, and many other issues. Faith in the theory of evolution carries speculation and hope to an amazing level that all the problems will be solved, even while more and more problems are revealed. Scientifically speaking, an old earth does not prove evolution, yet the assumption is made that it does. Evolution makes more unscientific conclusions than any other theory other than the theory of aliens, which, whoops, has also been made part of the evolutio theory by some (ie. Dawkins?). If evolution has so many problems, why do we waste time debating its implications for theology? Arguing about its implications for theology merely sidetracks the scientific problems with evolution.

(Preston Garrison) #8

I like that opening quote from Augustine. It is going straight from here to the creation-evolution shouting match calling itself a “discussion” that I have been watching on Facebook.

“well-intentioned attempts to establish peaceful relations between science and religion might lead to a neglect of what is of even more fundamental importance.”

This seems exactly backwards to me. For the last century the evolution wars have consumed absurd amounts of energy for too many Christians, who have neglected “what is of even more fundamental importance.” I can tell you from experience that it seems a fruitless effort even now to try to dissuade them from this nonsense. Many simply refuse to do what Augustine recommends in the open quote, “ask questions rather than make assertions.” If they abandoned the yelling matches they could do things that matter a lot more, like evangelism, helping the needy (both Christians and non-believers) or even having an informative talk about science, which is not a worthless endeavor if people are willing to do it. The fact that the yelling is going on not only takes the people doing it away from evangelism and other good works, it makes it more difficult for the Christians who are doing evangelism to be taken seriously. Peace between science and Christianity is entirely desirable.

“knowledge of the natural world is a good thing when it helps us see God more clearly, preoccupation with it is a clear example of a misplaced love—the kind of preference for lower goods that characterizes the fallen condition of human beings.”

If this were true, no Christian should be a scientist. I have to disagree with Augustine to that extent. Spiritual matters are clearly far more important, but God directs people to all kinds of livelihoods, not just being theologians.

On another matter, equating “scientia” with modern science doesn’t really make sense. It is understandable that Augustine would adopt this Greek view, but modern science is not a deductive process, except in deducing what should be observed if a hypothesis is correct. The critical questions in modern science are “do the observations fit what the hypothesis would predict, and do they best fit this hypothesis or another one?” No modern scientific theory is “proven” in the deductive sense. I suppose you could use “demonstrate” to signify that a hypothesis has been well supported by a large body of evidence addressing different predictions and reported by a variety of scientists. (But “demonstrate” harks back to the deductive arguments of the the scholastics, so maybe we need some other word.)

Finally, the evidence for human evolution is not the tenuous thing the author makes it out to be. It is true that it would be nice if there were more fossils, but the comparative genomic evidence more than makes up for that. We do have to be willing to go look at it. Common descent with other primates has massive amounts of genomic evidence supporting it. The fact that specific genetic mechanisms of speciation and selection are still matters of debate doesn’t affect the very well supported theory of common descent. The resources on this site are a fine place to start.

(Preston Garrison) #9

Roger, I’ve tried to discuss it with you enough to know that we have nothing more to discuss, but you might be interested in a new pre-print.

Eight thousand years of natural selection in Europe [in humans]

(Preston Garrison) #10

When people say there is no dispute, they mean there is no dispute among people actually doing research in these fields, and that is the truth. The dispute is coming from people who have a pre-existing idealogical (to use a general term) commitment to not accepting evolution or an old earth. A few of those people have advanced degrees but mostly they aren’t doing research - they are working for advocacy organizations. The number of people actually doing research in biology who don’t accept evolution is such that you could probably count them on your fingers and toes. Todd Wood and Steve Austin are two prominent ones.

The content of your post suggests that you have gotten your information strictly from anti-evolution sites. You should look at the other side too. If the biological journals are too difficult, the materials here under Resources are good. Joel Duff’s blog The Natural Historian is loaded with interesting, irenically presented stuff about topics in biology by a Christian biologist who does good research himself, with the implications for YECs pointed out.

(Merv Bitikofer) #11

I hope I’m not out of place offering some defense of the author who doesn’t seem to be present here at the moment, since I thought this article did have much to commend.

It is interesting that different people (Johnz and PGarrison above) can read the same article and come to opposite conclusions about what the article asserts. Johnz sees in it an unmitigated acceptance of common descent and deep time. PGarrison, in contrast, sees the author calling into question well-established evolutionary theory. While I’m with you otherwise, PGarrison, I think Johnz may have you on this one —I just don’t see where this author is calling mainstream evolutionary theory into question --perhaps I misread your comment? But that said, I don’t follow Johnz to his conclusions that seem to dismiss any/all evolutionary evidence. (Problems that you bring up Johnz are repeatedly and well-addressed for any who care to look, beginning on this very site.)

I for one, appreciated this author’s distinction between “strong” and “weak” irenicism as it forced me to evaluate my own leaning towards the strong variety. So I am sensitive to Harrison’s critique of the weaknesses of that position. I do think he raises good points.

One point I took away from it is that there is that much “good questioning” (and by this I believe the author meant about the details of evolutionary mechanisms, PGarrison, not the question of whether any of it happened at all) that gets lost or shunned in the heat of polemics. Not all questioning (even among lay-audiences I might add) is motivated by a desire to preserve certain religious dogmas. And even if it was in part motivated by such considerations, it isn’t clear to me why this should demote the inquiry to some unworthy status, as if scientists themselves should be expected to be untainted by any motivations apart from some “pure objectivity” which is no more than a cultural fantasy about modern science in any case. For any who have in them at least that germ of sincere desire to labor for more accurate understandings, it is unfortunate that the omnipresent climate of conflict makes it less likely that any distinction is made on their behalf by those who may be in the best position to patiently address genuine curiosity.

(Preston Garrison) #12


What I was responding to was this:

I was guessing, as noted, that the author was talking about fossil evidence, of which we could wish for much more. But if we do get at mechanism, it will have more to do with genetics than fossils, and there’s no shortage of that kind of evidence.


When I read some of the literature on genetics, what amuses me is the language of assumption. *“Their analysis can reveal their rich individual histories: how they arose, how they have been shaped by natural selection, and, often, how they perished. A comparison of the two most closely related available vertebrate genomes, those of human and mouse, already illuminates the contrasting fortunes of different genes. For some of these, the molecular clock of change ticks slowly, with few changes over tens of millions of years. For others, the pace of change is such that substantial genetic differences are evident even between different individuals of the same species.”

The reason I don’t trust the interpretations of the findings of genome comparisons, is that the interpretations are assumed before the genomes are analyzed. Evolution has done this with vestigial organs as well, by assuming that there are vestigial organs, thus attributing the characteristic to organs and appendages which are not well understood. Later we find these things are not vestigial at all, and that the evolution theory was in error as to fact as well as interpretation, and wrong in its assumptions.

Evolution was also wrong in its assumption of the similarities between human and ape genomes. It assumed the genomes would be close, and then ignored the significance of the differences. Inexorable science (not evolution theory) eventually discovered that there were far fewer non-functioning genes (junk DNA) than initially supposed, and eventually also revealed that the genomes were considerably different in size (chimp genome is 8% larger), which is a difference not included in the estimation of differences in the genomes. This leads to a similarity between humans and apes of about 87%(not 96%). In a study by Emes et al(2003), it was discovered that 80% of the genomes of mouse and humans had corresponding parts, and in genomic alignments, 40% of nucleotides are identical. If we compare both humans and chimps to this baseline of 80%, then the 87% similarity between chimps and humans becomes less significant… humans would be 20% different from mouse, and 13% different from chimps. This is mere numbers, and does not consider the actual significance or impact of the differences.

Everyone realizes that certain homologies are likely to be instigated by similar genomic characteristics, but evolution theory does not realize that this might be a foundation of construction not requiring evolutionary principles, but rather simple similarity of construction, just like all organic structures containing carbon as a basic building block. Similarity of genomes is not an evidence of evolution; it might merely correspond to a presumption of evolution, just as it corresponds equally well to a presumption of a common design or designer.

It is for these reasons that it seems that genetics will provide no more evidence of evolution than does the fossil record, and can just as easily appear to be evidence of the impossibility of evolution, based on the millions of base pair differences between genomes of different species.


P Garrison… you mention the pre-existing ideological commitment… which I observe applies to those who accept the theory of macro evolution as well. You mention there is no dispute among people actually doing research… which is somewhat true, since they claim not to dispute their assumptions of evolution. However, certainly, there are disputes about the science, since the initial claims of 99% similarity in the genome was later reduced to 96% by those doing the research. And there is no dispute that this number obscures the basic 8% difference in size of the genome, yet 87 or 88% is certainly different than 96% similarity. You may say there is no dispute, but that is semantics. When a similarity is posited, what is left unsaid is just as important, and it is in that where disputes are hidden.

When these differences are discovered and pointed out, it is not really generous on your part to suggest that this is illegitimate to point out. Research can be done in the lab, but much legitimate research is also done by reading research papers and synthesizing them. This is just as valid, and even more significant when it comes to dealing with the broader applications and interpretations of the scientific data. It would be incorrect to say that these people are not doing research.

(Peter Harrison) #15

Thanks for these comments Merv, which offer some useful clarifications of my argument. (The author is now present, with the day having begun in Australia.)

I’m certainly not trying to call into question well established elements of evolutionary theory, and thought I had stated that clearly enough. However, as you point out, there remain open questions about the relative importance of the mechanisms of evolution—natural selection, genetic drift, niche construction, extra-genetic inheritance, etc., and where one comes down on this may have significant implications for certain religious positions. More generally, of course, history suggests that all scientific theories change over time.

Returning to two of KGarrison’s points: First, about not equating scientia with modern science - yes that is exactly right, and it does have an important bearing on how relevant Augustine’s position is today. But discussion of this went well beyond what could be included in a brief blog. If you’re interested, much of my forthcoming book, The Territories of Science and Religion, discusses this very point. (It should be out from University of Chicago Press in the next few weeks).

Second, ‘if this is true, no Christian should be a scientist’. I’m not sure that this follows. The general point is that science itself needs to be located within a broader framework. If we value science, and I think we should, we could only do so by virtue of a set of values that is more fundamental than science itself. These values then, necessarily, are of more primary importance. To return to Augustine, one of his fundamental claims, against the Manichaeans, was the goodness of the created order, and hence of the importance of knowing something about it. But at the same time, he believed in a hierarchy of goods, with, crudely put, spiritual goods ranking above material goods.

(Brad Kramer) #16

I moved 7 posts to a new topic: Ecology and Natural Selection

Ecology and Natural Selection
(Mervin Bitikofer) #17


I still have this issue of irenicism percolating, especially in light of recent exchanges I’ve had in other venues.

In a paragraph about your preference for the weaker variety, you wrote: "There are good reasons for thinking that strong irenicism has significant disadvantages, largely because science cannot be directly equated with ‘truths about the natural world’. "

I think my own attachment to the stronger irenicism may be somewhat reactionary against the stubborn persistence (a reactionism in its own right from the late nineteenth century) of so many modern Christians here in the U.S. as they willingly swallow a scientistic prescription for what truth must look like.

So when you write ‘… because science cannot be directly equated with truths about the natural world’, and in that you seem to be referring to the “mere” fact that science is fallible, I’m thinking even beyond … that the whole methodology(ies) of science are themselves philosophically incomplete at a deeper level. And as such there is a significant aspect of faith that is, not so much insulated from any empirical analysis, as beyond it in principle.

So do you fear re-opening an already stubbornly issue for so many by accepting what almost looks to be a softer concordism?

gotta go for now … may finish some of these thoughts later as I can.


Even though the article turned me off because of some of the terminology, it did get some things right, such as that science sometimes gets it wrong, that much of historical science (and evolution) is speculative, and that even well founded ideas are not demonstrative truth. Since Augustine was appealed to, I would like to add something from Augustine:

"> > Perhaps we ought not to think of these creatures at the moment they were produced as subject to the processes of nature which we now observe in them, but rather as under the wonderful and unutterable power of the Wisdom of God, which reaches from end to end mightily and governs all graciously. For this power of Divine Wisdom does not reach by stages or arrive by steps. It was just as easy, then, for God to create everything as it is for Wisdom to exercise this mighty power. For through Wisdom all things were made, and the motion we now see in creatures, measured by the lapse of time, as each one fulfills its proper function, comes to creatures from those causal reasons implanted in them, which God scattered as seeds at the moment of creation when He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created. Creation, therefore, did not take place slowly in order that a slow development might be implanted in those things that are slow by nature; nor were the ages established at plodding pace at which they now pass. Time brings about the development of these creatures according to the laws of their numbers, but there was no passage of time when they received these laws at creation.2"
"Furthermore, Augustine believed the genealogies given in Genesis to be literal chronologies and that the pre-Flood patriarchs lived to be around 900 years.3 He also stated, “Unbelievers are also deceived by false documents which ascribe to history many thousand years, although we can calculate from Sacred Scripture that not 6,000 years have passed since the creation of man.”(AIG) 2. Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor (1982), Vol. 1, Book 4, Chapter 33, paragraph 51–52, p. 141, italics in the original. New York: Newman Press

(Peter Harrison) #19

johnZ - thanks for your helpful references to Augustine on creation. In the original blog post I wanted to draw out the contemporary relevance of some of Augustine’s general principles for relating religious truths to ‘scientific’ claims. But as you rightly point out, Augustine also has a very subtle position on the specific question of the emergence of living things. This could be the subject of its own post, but in light of your comments it’s worth giving a brief summary of Augustine’s views on this question, not least because your remarks might leave the wrong impression.

In On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis Augustine tried to resolve the tension between two competing ideas about the creation. On the one hand, the days of creation in Genesis 1 imply successive creations. However, a passage in Sirach 17.1 (in the doubtful Latin translation used by Augustine) suggests that God ‘created all things together [or ‘at once’]. This latter view was widely accepted by the Church Fathers and their medieval successors. However, Augustine sought to square this common view with the idea of temporal succession implied by the days of creation.

The fourth-century Greek Father Gregory of Nyssa had already provided a clue about how this might be done, proposing that ‘the sources, causes, and potencies of all things were collectively set forth in an instant’ yet, that at the same time ‘the necessary arrangement of nature required succession in the things coming into being.’ (Hexaemeron, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 44, col. 72). Augustine discovered a principle in Stoic thought that could provide a philosophical foundation for this suggestion. The principle in question was the idea of ‘causal reasons’ (rationes seminales), which is mentioned in one of the passages that you have helpfully cited. These were seed-like principles that would come to fruition at the right time. Augustine came to the view that: ‘All things were created by God in the beginning… but they could not develop and appear until the circumstances were favourable.’ (De Trinitate 3.9). This is why Augustine speaks (again in the passage that you have cited) of ‘the development of these creatures according to the laws of their numbers’. Simply put, at the moment of the original creation God implanted ‘seeds’ in the world that would subsequently develop at the appropriate time into the living things that we see around us. Augustine thus believed in both instantaneous creation and in organic development over time. In a sense, he believed in a kind of pre-determined evolution.

Ironically, Augustine’s ideas about the gradual emergence of living things were subsequently eclipsed when the Aristotle’s ideas about the fixity of species came to dominate medieval and early modern thought. These were only overturned with the advent of evolutionary thinking in the nineteenth century.

A very helpful account of Augustine’s views about this has been provided by the late Ernan McMullin, a wonderful historian and philosopher of science to whom I am very much indebted for much of the above. See his lecture ‘Evolution as a Christian Theme’, available here:


I read Augustine as saying that the way things were created in the beginning, is not the way or by the processes which we presently observe. Paraphrasing: He says that God created everything quickly, not slowly, even though not in the numbers we presently observe (the laws of their numbers). He suggests that at the moment of creation, they were not subject to the processes of nature, but rather as the power of the wisdom, which does not reach by stages or steps. He spoke and they were made. This did not take place slowly that a slow development might be implanted, nor were ages established at plodding pace at which they now pass. The laws the created animals received did not take a passage of time, did not take place slowly. The causal reasons (the laws of their behaviour and their capabilities) for the motion in creatures were implanted in them (in the creatures) at the moment of creation, which did not take place slowly.

It completely befuddles me how you can say that Augustine is suggesting the opposite of what he actually says.

(Merv Bitikofer) #21


I think the point that evolutionary creationists are making in their appeal to Augustine is that in his view, at 6 days long, creation did take place slowly! So Augustine felt (and responded to) a need to reconcile the so-called “plain” reading of Genesis 1 with the present philosophies of his time. So (and this is the point), Augustine did! That is he saw in Scripture a plausible interpretation that preserved a consistency with what was taken as the common knowledge of the time. A lesson that current-day evolutionary creationists think has been largely lost and merits consideration.

I give this reply, not because I’m any kind of Augustinian scholar, but as an exercise in clarifying for myself what I’ve learned recently from essays like this one. I trust pharrison will jump in to clean up any messes I’ve made.

(Merv Bitikofer) #22

Clarifying on my reply above … when Augustine took 6 days as happening “slowly”, that is in contrast to the obvious expectation that an omnipotent creator, (as God surely is), should be expected to create everything in an instant and without any need for rest. Hence the regard for a week as being insufferably long when such time is obviously not needed according to the wisdom of that day. So it isn’t a matter of allegedly showing that Augustine was making a bid for “deep time” and so advancing early evolutionary thought in any modern sense. That would be silly. The point of interest is that he was willing to part from a “plain” reading of Scripture at all when such was warranted by extra-biblical knowledge. That his time scale went in the opposite direction is irrelevant to that important point.