By many estimations, Augustine was one of the most significant theologians of the Christian age. Born in north Africa in 354 to a pagan father and pious mother, Augustine lived a playboy’s life until age 33 when he was baptized by Ambrose of Milan. After his conversion, he diligently studied theology and devoted his life to preaching and teaching. Through his writings, he left an enormous legacy that has served to inform each generation since his time of the doctrinal concepts of the fourth century.
Genesis and its account of creation often were discussed by Augustine. Therefore, it is not surprising to hear his name mentioned in the creation/evolution debate. But it is surprising to see how some modern writers employ his work (Barbero, 1994, p. 38; Frye, 1983, p. 15; Ross, 1994, pp. 16-24). First, they make an issue over Augustine’s equivocation on the exact nature of the creation days: “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (Augustine, City of God, XI:6). Second, they observe that Augustine cautioned his readers against speaking about such things as the orbit and motion of stars, lest an infidel should hear them make a mistake on these matters and dismiss their teaching concerning the resurrection and other core doctrines of Scripture (Snow, 1990, p. 25).
The impression is given, then, that if the great theologian Augustine felt skittish about strictly defining the creation days, and was wary of Christians speaking about science, then perhaps the creation-science movement is an illegitimate venture. In other words, theology and science don’t mix.
Giving Augustine his due, the fact remains that he was only a man. He held erroneous positions and missed the mark at various junctures in his theological writings. What he said is not to be considered normative. Departing from Augustine should not be construed as departing from scriptural authority.
Truth is not determined by one’s agreement with a specific scholar. This is recognized in science as well as theology. Modern scientists would bristle at being forced to conform to all of Darwin’s views. So, creationists feel unfairly treated when told their views don’t jibe with Augustine’s. If Augustine was wrong about the creation days, so be it. His mistake need not be accepted blindly.
Augustine’s point regarding a Christian discussing science seems be that caution should be taken to ensure that what is said is true: “...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...” (Augustine, as quoted in Van Till, 1990, p. 149). No creationist would deny the importance of accuracy when discussing scientific matters. Obviously, a Christian who presents erroneous information from the sciences hardly will be taken seriously. That is not to say that a Christian should not present accurate science and accurate biblical exegesis together. All truth runs in parallel lines.
What often is missed in these discussions about Augustine is his firm belief in the infallibility of Scripture and in its clear teaching of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). He wrote: “God didn’t find [some preexisting matter—BB], like something co-eternal with himself, out of which to construct the world; but he himself set it up from absolutely nothing” (Augustine, 1993, p. 151). He adamantly denied that any material thing existed before the creation week of Genesis 1: “And if the sacred and infallible Scriptures say that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...it may be understood that he made nothing previously” (City of God, XI:6).
Historically, Augustine has made many contributions to theology: some good, some not so good. His writings are worth reading, but they are not our standard. Our “faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).
Augustine (1993), “Sermon 214,” The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, translated by Edmund Hill), Sermons III/6.
Barbero, Yves (1994), “NCSE Makes Impact at AAAS Annual Meeting,” NCSE Reports, pp. 38-39, Winter/Spring.
Frye, Roland Mushat (1983), “Creation-Science Against the Religious Background,” Is God a Creationist?, ed. R.M. Frye (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), pp. 1-28.
Ross, Hugh (1994), Creation and Time (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress).
Snow, Robert E. (1990) “How Did We Get Here?,” Portraits of Creation, ed. Howard J. Van Till, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 13-25.
Van Till, Howard J. (1990), “The Character of Contemporary Natural Science,” Portraits of Creation, ed. Howard J. Van Till, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 126-165.