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Home  >  Features  >  SRT at 50: Augustinian Questions


Detail from Saint Augustine, painted by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century.
Detail from Saint Augustine, painted by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century.

SRT at 50: Augustinian Questions

Monday September 21 2020

In the continuing series celebrating 50 years of the Church of Scotland SRT, the Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison considers the thoughts and writing of St Augustine on faith and science.

Over the last half century, Society, Religion and Technology (SRT) have provided an outstanding example of Christian affirmation of the scientific and technological enterprise, combined with careful assessment of particular developments from the perspectives of biblical theology and ethics.

Some affirm this is a pointless exercise since, they believe, science simply leaves no room for faith. Others appreciate the mutually enriching insights of both and the importance of bringing them into close engagement. Interestingly, in a recent
survey of UK-based biologists and physicists, nearly 55% believe in a God. Many of us evidently continue to find delight in the ‘book of nature’, the ‘book of Scripture’ and their common Author.

Not all though. The creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 has been a special object of scorn in some quarters. ‘It has no more special status than the belief of a particular West African tribe that the world was created from the excrement of ants’ (Richard Dawkins). On Dawkins’ view,
the only honest way to interpret the passage is that of literalistic fundamentalism. He thinks the church’s tradition of biblical interpretation has ever been of this sort, with more nuanced
approaches representing a cowardly sell-out to the Scientific Revolution. One might wonder if this factual distortion has left Augustine of Hippo, who lived 1,000 years before the Scientific Revolution, spinning in his grave.

Augustine (354-430) was fascinated both by Genesis and the scientific developments of his time. He was eager to bring them into constructive dialogue. Between 401 and 415 he produced a major ‘literal’ commentary on Genesis 1-2. By ‘literal’ he means an interpretative
approach that takes account of the sense intended by the author and which happily embraces, as appropriate, the metaphorical and poetic. Augustine appreciates the literary sophistication of the Genesis text and shows remarkable sensitivity to the way language works.

Familiar with the various early debates on the exegesis of Genesis, Augustine held that different interpretations ‘are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received’. He warns against taking such a firm stand on one side (whether exegetical or scientific), ‘that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we
too fall with it’. He understood the danger to Christian unity when an interpretation is so strongly held as to be no interpretation at all, but ‘simply what God said’. Biblical exegetes – possibly scientists too – need at times to be reminded they are not God.

Augustine’s mature exegetical approach ‘allowed theology to avoid becoming trapped in a prescientific worldview.’ He sees the six days of creation, for example, as a way of categorising God’s work of creation, rather than a chronological account. His  understanding of ‘creation from nothing’ means time did not exist prior to creation – ‘precisely the state of affairs that many scientists believe existed before the “big bang”’. (Alister McGrath)

One of Augustine’s most remarkable insights is his understanding that creation embraces both God’s initial act of origination and his ongoing work of providential guidance. All things were created at once, but living things that would subsequently emerge were created
in the form of potentialities (‘seminal causes’). He saw embedded in the structure of creation a ‘blueprint’ for a developmental process of evolution, governed throughout by laws which
reflect their Creator’s will. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is surely hard to sustain here.

Augustine is only one of many early Christian thinkers whose insights remain profoundly relevant in the 21st century. The friendship of faith and science is long standing. The vital work of SRT, which we celebrate, has deep roots in the Christian tradition.

The Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison is minister at Orwell and Portmoak and Chair of Grasping the Nettle, a Scottish-based, cross-denominational initiative, which aims to promote an  appreciation of the friendship of science and faith. GTN has produced resources, including The God Questionwhich has been widely used in the Church and beyond.