Why Augustine’s young-earth creationism matters

My post asking, “Was Augustine a young-earth creationist?” inspired a lot of comments, though not the ones I was hoping for. Instead of someone knowledgeable coming along and answering my question, there debate over whether it mattered as well as a debate about young-earth creationism itself.

The fact that people seemed so willing to accept the premise that Augustine did think the earth was no more than 6,000 years old I’ll take as a small confirmation that my thinking was on the right track. In any case, I was re-reading H. Allen Orr’s review of The God Delusion and happened across a perfect example of why this matters (emphasis mine):

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Now… given that Augustine apparently believed the world was less than 6,000 years old, given that he took a pretty literalistic approach to Genesis 2 onwards, given that Augustine thought people in Hell would be tormented by literal eternal fire and a literal undying worm… shouldn’t we all be able to agree that it’s simplistic and misleading to say (without further elaboration) “but Augustine rejected literalism!” as a rebuttal to criticisms of Christianity?

  • Hjalti

    Yes, it is simplistic and misleading. I personally feel like it’s just a part of liberal Christian apologetics. I’ve oftern heard liberal priests say that YEC is only 200 years old and so on.

    • Tony

      I agree, Hjalti! Liberal Christian apologetics is all about redefining or reinterpreting whatever conveniently helps them make a pseudoprofound case, and dismissing whatever troubling moral issue or reality claim they can’t quite redefine/reinterpret just yet. They don’t take the Bible literally. Oh no, no, no! They take it SERIOUSLY…y’know, ’cause that sounds WAY more profound.
      If H. Allen Orr was paying attention he’d understand that Dawkins didn’t dissect various complex theological, philosophical, and historical arguments because he didn’t NEED to. TGD is an evidence-based, inductively-oriented assessment of claims about the existence of gods, etc. I thought that was basically the main thrust!

  • MountainTiger

    Orr appears to be trying to fit Augustine into modern discussions of literal interpretation, which distorts Augustine’s views through anachronism. The same is true of fitting Augustine into modern discussions of the age of the earth and the origins of life. The answer to lazy representations like Orr’s is not to find places where Augustine placed more weight on the literal value of the Bible than modern liberal Christians but to demonstrate why the representation of Augustine having “rejected biblical literalism” is lazy and anachronistic.

  • MNb

    “but Augustine rejected literalism!”
    Oh yes, trying to understand ancient literature in terms of the 21st Century invariably goes wrong. What I wrote about Augustinus of Hippo calling a YEC mutatis mutandis also applies to a non-literalist Augustinus. It’s just not how people thought back then. We always have to keep in mind that ancient authors did not separate fact from fiction like even YEC’s do (they just prefer to have their facts wrong).
    This article perfectly shows what I mean:

    The creationist approach is to conclude that Dutch coasts consisted of forests and woods, which was not the case and which was something the Romans actually knew from personal observations.
    The liberal christian approach is to conclude that whenever the authors wrote about forests and mountains they meant something different.
    Both are wrong. So is H Allan Orr.

    I have reread the two quotes that are used to show that Augustinus of Hippo wasn’t a literalist. I think that’s a quite far-fetched interpretation. Again I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that Augustinus simply didn’t see a conflict. From his point of view and with the available knowledge in the 4th Century it was a reasonable standpoint.
    So I agree with Mountain Tiger.

  • Rain

    If Christianity were Andy Kaufman, Augustine would be it’s Mighty Mouse saving the day, over and over and over and over and over again. Tony Clifton would be the “Tabernacle Choir” of Christianity if it were Andy Kaufman.

  • http://carnedes.blogpost.com LordGriggsSkepticGriggsyCarneadesHume

    Theologians go fluttering in the garden of philosophy but never can their arguments fructify. They say why, that’s not my religion, but what they do is to go from one bad apologetic to another, never succeeding in instantiating their God. They put old garbage into new cans that we empty.
    One philosopher states that ti’s fun to see what wrong with their arguments, and I add, ti’s mental exercise. Their God is like the perpetual motion machine in that He never will act! Yet, people still emit apologetics to which we ever find no there there. We grant them no patent.
    http:// morganroad.wordpress.com I had to start over my blogs at wordpress.com.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    … shouldn’t we all be able to agree that it’s simplistic and misleading to say (without further elaboration) “but Augustine rejected literalism!” as a rebuttal to criticisms of Christianity?

    No … and in fact in my view it would be simplistic at least and possibly misleading to say that.

    From my admittedly sparse reading around the topic, Augustine was clear that you didn’t and shouldn’t take the Bible literally, and that a great many things needed to be taken as metaphor and the like, including some parts of Genesis. Thus, it is entirely accurate to say that he rejected Biblical literalism, which is the idea that everything in the Bible must be taken as being absolutely literally true. He clearly does deny that. However, rejecting Biblical literalism does not mean that you insist that NOTHING must be taken literally, and in fact all of those who reject that — myself included — DO think that some things are meant to be taken literally. The question, then, is over what things should be taken literally. Augustine thought that the things you listed should be taken literally. The answer from others is that he was wrong about that, and that they shouldn’t be. But that Augustine rejected literalism and so to contend that contrary to some assertions Biblical literalism is NOT the heart of at least some Christian religions and is NOT a new idea made up by modern liberal Chrisitians is a perfectly valid and fair argument.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Augustine didn’t take everything in the Bible literally–but then, as I point out in chapter two of the book, neither do the vast majority of Christians today, including the ones frequently labeled “literalists.” If I described someone who thought the earth was less than 10,000 years old, that Adam and Eve literally existed, that the damned will literally burn in Hell, etc. I don’t think many people would hesitate to call them a “literalist.” There’s a sense in which Augustine wasn’t a literalist, but to say he wasn’t a literalist without qualifying that he took an awful lot of the Bible literally is misleading.

      • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

        I think this needs more unpacking, because obviously even literalists will take the explicit metaphors as metaphors, but they do tend to take anything that isn’t an explicit metaphor as something that should be taken literally, and so they start with, basically, a presumption that it must be taken literally even if it really shouldn’t or doesn’t have to be, while it seems to me — again, in limited reading — that Augustine didn’t agree with that presumption.

        Regardless, it seems that all you’ve done here is discover a potential equivocation in how “literalist” is being used, but it still seems to me to be the case that Augustine isn’t a literalist in the sense that modern liberal religious people claim he isn’t even if he thought more things ought to be taken literally than they do. And thus, to insist on the qualifier will only end up confusing arguments; the people who aren’t qualifying it aren’t doing so because the qualifier isn’t relevant for their argument, even though it might be in other cases.