Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Augustine on Science

The great theologian Augustine of Hippo (c AD 400) was one of the first people to tackle the issue of the relationship of science to Christianity. Of course, "science" in the modern sense didn't exist at the time, but I'm using "science" in the loose sense of things we can know by observing the world around us.

Here's a quote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their sizes and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and 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, an 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 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, which they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

St Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Ernan McMullin summarises Augustine's view on the relationship between science and religion as follows:

  • When trying to discern the meaning of a difficult Scriptural passage, one should keep in mind that different interpretations of the text may be possible, and that, in consequence, one should not rush into premature commitment to one of these, especially since further progress in the search for truth may later undermine this interpretation.
  • When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative meaning of Scripture must be sought.
  • 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
  • The choice of language in the scriptural writings is accommodated to the capacities of the intended audience
  • Since the primary concern of Scripture is with human salvation, texts of Scripture should not be taken to have a bearing on technical issues of natural science
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