A Fine Tuned Universe? 3 (RJS)


Chapter eight of Alister McGrath’s new book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with the views of Augustine of Hippo on creation.  Augustine and the relationship of Augustinian thought to evolution and Darwinian natural selection was also the subject of a recent Christianity Today article by McGrath: Augustine’s Origin of Species. In fact the CT article is adapted from chapter 8 of A Fine-Tuned Universe.

Augustine reflected at length on Genesis, creation, and time. These reflections fill the second half of Confessions (Penguin Classics) and crop up in other works. Augustine also wrote several commentaries on Genesis, some readily available today including 41. St. Augustine, Vol. 1: The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Ancient Christian Writers) and a collection of several texts in Saint Augustine on Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees and on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis : An Unfinished Book (The Fathers of the Church, 84). His writings contradict at times and reflect an ongoing wrestling with science, reason, and the text of scripture.

One of Augustine’s oft quoted passages is found in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis where he reflects on the search for truth and the interpretation of scripture:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture. (Vol. 1, CH. 18:37)

The possibility of multiple interpretations requires Christians to hold the interpretation with an open hand – able to modify if progress in the search of truth, guides one way or another. Augustine’s conviction that science and reason cannot conflict in any foundational way with the faith is expressed even more strongly in a later section of the same book.

When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. (Vol. 1 CH. 21:41)

Augustine is convinced first, that the sacred scripture is written to nourish our souls; and second, that truth is consistent. The difficulty is to discern the literal (as opposed to allegorical) meaning of the text and to determine the truths that are taught. Because many passages are capable of varied interpretation we can have a spiral  where scripture feeds reason and reason helps to interpret scripture. Augustine does take a firm stand however – that truth cannot be contrary to the faith – and this guides us to the key question.

What kind of theory is contrary to Scripture and therefore to the catholic faith? How do we know?

McGrath suggests that Augustine’s interpretative framework, developed in the fifth century, provides a useful approach for us today as we seek to meet the challenges of science and faith.  We need not agree with all of Augustine’s conclusions to value and appropriate his approach. McGrath summarizes Augustine’s general view of creation as follows. (p. 107)

Augustine interweaves biblical interpretation, an appeal to “right reason” and a knowledge of contemporary science in his theological reflections concerning creation, which can be summarized as follows.

  1. God brought everything into being at a specific moment.
  2. Part of the created order takes the form of embedded causalities which emerge or evolve at a later stage.
  3. This process of development takes place within the context of God’s providential direction,  which is integrally connected to a right understanding of the concept of creation.
  4. The image of a dormant seed is an appropriate but not exact analogy for these embedded causalities.
  5. The process of generation of these dormant seeds results in the fixity of biological forms.

Part of this reflects Augustine’s interpretation of scripture, part his interpretation of the world he saw and his understanding of the science of his day, part contradicts the contemporary wisdom of his day. Augustine rejected the common wisdom of his day that matter was eternal, he accepted the fixity of forms and he rejected the six days of Genesis 1 as literal 24 hour days. Augustine viewed nature through eyes informed by theology and scripture – he did neither dismissed nor placed undue reliance on contemporary scientific opinion.

Of particular interest here is Augustine’s suggestion that God created by potencies and process. Augustine’s interpretation of scripture led him to conclude that God created not by producing ready-made plants and animals but by potencies and process. He uses the analogy of seeds  – not as literal objects but as a way to wrestle with “the theologically difficult notion of a hidden force within nature through which latent things are enacted.” (p. 102)  McGrath describes Augustine’s basic argument as follows.

Augustine’s basic argument is that God created the world complete with a series of dormant multiple potencies, which were actualized in the future through divine providence. … God must be thought of as creating in that first moment the potencies for all the kinds of living things that would come later, including humanity.

This does not mean that God created the world incomplete of imperfect, since “what God originally established in causes, he subsequently fulfilled in effects.” God’s creation extends from actualities to potentialities, all of which were bestowed in the primordial act of origination. … This process of development, Augustine declares, is governed by fundamental laws, which reflect the will of their creator: “God has established fixed laws governing the production of kinds and qualities of beings, bringing them out of concealment into full view. (p. 103-104, with quotes from On the Literal Meaning of Genesis)

Of course this does not mean that Augustine had any clue of our current views of the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the big bang, or evolution – but it does suggest that the ideas of process and potential are consistent with the scriptural witness.

Darwinian theory of evolution and natural selection and Augustine’s approach.

AugustineLateran ds.JPG

Evolution is governed by fundamental laws – this is a foundational part of any scientific theory and the theory of evolution is no exception. As Christians we hold that these laws reflect the will of their creator. But there is a bit more to it than this. In his CT article McGrath notes that Augustine would have rejected any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason, Augustine would have opposed the Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God’s providence is deeply involved throughout. The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random.

There is a fine line here – but this is an important point – our Christian theology informs aspects of our interpretation of nature.  This was true for Augustine and it is true today. A Christian worldview rejects the notion that blind cosmic chance without purpose or meaning rules the evolution of species. (Logan Gage makes the same point in his comment on McGrath’s CT article: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/05/alister_mcgrath_looks_at_augus.html).

Of course Augustine also held that time – an essential element of evolution – is part of the created order and that God is not constrained by time.  Our perspective is not God’s perspective, what appears random to us need not be random from God’s perspective.  God is not surprised by the result. It is interesting to consider how deterministic the creation and life must be however – it seems to me that there is an element of freedom built into creation and that this is in accord with God’s will and his fundamental laws.

Rejection of blind purposeless chance does not require and should not entail rejection of the embedded evidence for evolution and natural selection. At this point we would do well to heed another quote from Augustine.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, … 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; and 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. … If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his 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, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  (Vol. 1, CH. 19:39)

Many of us are convinced that the gradual development of species over billions of years – evolution in broad outline – is as nearly proven as anything in science in general or biology in particular can be. It is certain that the controversy over the age of the earth and the general outline of evolution causes many educated persons to “show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn” or at least to think that that is what they are doing.

This leads us back to the question(s) of the day.

When is a theory contrary to Scripture and therefore to the catholic faith? When should we take a stand against the wisdom of our day and when should we keep an open mind, holding our interpretation of scripture with an open hand?

Is the theory of evolution a theory contrary to the faith?  Is evolution proven from reliable evidence, consistent with our scripture and our catholic faith? Or is there some preferred middle ground? What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • Scot McKnight

    A theory of Scripture is wrong when it does not match Scripture itself — as we can know it. But this means our theory of Scripture will shift as we learn what matches Scriptures. What one generation thinks genuinely “matches” another generation may show does not match. Hence, I like so much the opening quote from Augustine — sometimes we find ourselves defending what we want instead of what Scripture says.
    Science informs us; that knowledge leads us at times to question the inaccurate understandings of science that were imposed on Scripture in a previous generation.
    We need also to submit our “new matches” to the wisdom of the catholic faith and to others who think about these things. The sin of Protestantism is radical individualism, and the cure is to remain in communion with the Great Tradition and other thinkers.

  • freelunch

    When is a theory contrary to Scripture and therefore to the catholic faith?
    Any scientific theory, because it is based on physical evidence, cannot be contrary to any valid religious claims. If a doctrine is shown to be in error because the physical evidence shows that the doctrine is mistaken, the doctrine must be corrected.
    When should we take a stand against the wisdom of our day and when should we keep an open mind, holding our interpretation of scripture with an open hand?
    I’m not sure if there is a bright line for this. What sort of wisdom are you considering? If you are just talking about scientific discoveries, interpretations of the Bible that were made in ignorance tend to be unreliable.
    Is the theory of evolution a theory contrary to the faith?
    No, though some choose their doctrines over the physical evidence.
    Is evolution proven from reliable evidence, consistent with our scripture and our catholic faith?
    Yes; yes, depending on interpretation; yes.
    Or is there some preferred middle ground?
    No, the attempts at middle ground seem to be attempts to allow those who reject scientific evidence to feel better about their rejection.

  • Rick

    Augustine stated:
    “But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the catholic faith…”
    So what is the message of Scripture, the catholic faith?
    He gave a summary (not necessarily extensive view, which certainly centers on Christ):
    “…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…”
    So is evolution contrary to that summary view? It would appear not.
    However, if is interesting that Augustine’s view helps provides freedom to deal with such issues, but it is also his (interpreted) view of original sin that causes more confusion.

  • RJS

    Augustine was rather complex – and his view of original sin certainly causes some problem. It is not clear to me however that his view of original sin is scripture based – I think that his view arises from a combination of scripture, culture, reason, and conflict. In the search for truth can’t his views be revisited?

  • Rick

    I agree. I was just pointing out that the same person who is open to interpretations of Genesis, is also the person who gives a theological view that causes some difficulties to open interpretations of Genesis.
    In regards to that original sin issue, I wonder if Augustine would put that (his view) in the core of the catholic faith.
    I don’t necessarily think it is an essential part of the catholic faith, and open to interpretation and further study. So yes, it can “be revisted”.
    By the way, you previous posts on that topic are useful.

  • Freelunch,
    Would you apply this reasoning to the resurrection? The physical evidence indicates that people don’t rise from the dead.

  • craig v.

    I suspect we need to do a better job of thinking about ‘chance’. If I remember correctly (I don’t have my books with me) Aristotle defines a chance event as one where there appears to be purpose when in fact there isn’t. I think a bad thought and then stub my toe. I conclude I’m being punished for my bad thought. A friend says, “No, you stubbed your toe by chance”. Isn’t this a valid response? I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me this is at the heart of the conversation. The evolutionist is arguing that what appears to be a purposeful process isn’t. If our understanding of chance was something like Aristotle’s, there’s no need to see in this a denial of God’s providence.

  • RJS

    craig v.
    I think that chance is a concept we need to think about carefully. Particularly what we mean theologically by chance.
    Nature as we describe it at this time has an essential element of chance built in – beginning with the quantum mechanical probability that some event will occur (absorption of light – production of a reactive species…). This inherent uncertainty drives mutations that are used in the process of evolution by natural selection. On the other hand the playing field – the universe – is not arbitrary and perhaps this drives and controls the possible ultimate outcomes of accumulated “random” events.

  • freelunch

    Would you apply this reasoning to the resurrection? The physical evidence indicates that people don’t rise from the dead.
    People don’t rise from the dead. If you tell me that people resurrect after a fixed time, I can show you that you are wrong. No religion teaches that they do so. They teach instead that there is reincarnation of a soul or a specifically miraculous resurrection during the end times. Both doctrines avoid being in conflict with observed reality.

  • Freelunch,
    What about the resurrection of Jesus? Of Lazarus? Of course you might call these “specifically miraculous resurrections” but doesn’t that beg the question?

  • RJS (#8),
    That’s the sort of caution I’m calling for; I think we agree. I would want to argue something similar, however, for a word like ‘arbitrary’. These are complex ideas, as you show, and we shouldn’t flatten them out for theological reasons.
    On a related note, I’m sometimes corrected when I say that such and such occurred by chance. I’m told that nothing occurs by chance. I usually respond by asking if we should correct Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan where Jesus states “Now by chance…”. The point, of course, is not to compare my speech with that of Jesus but to show that ‘chance’ has a perfectly good use and we shouldn’t be too quick to prohibit that use.

  • freelunch

    What about the resurrection of Jesus?
    The doctrine says He’s God. I realized that this was a natural followup question just after I posted.
    Of Lazarus?
    The gospels tell us that Jesus did this as a special miracle.
    Of course you might call these “specifically miraculous resurrections” but doesn’t that beg the question?
    Not really. It reinforces the whole idea that resurrection demands a miracle. It won’t happen otherwise. Right now, we know that it does not happen to anyone in the normal course of events. We have some stories from the New Testament that tell us that Jesus who was God on earth did manage to act contrary to nature in other events as well. I don’t have to believe or disbelieve these gospel stories to still accept the physically well-settled proposition that people do not resurrect. Whether God can resurrect people is a completely different question.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post! I’m not sure I like McGrath’s gloss in the CT article: “The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random.” My problem here is that “random” means “unpredictable.” If a set of observations is stochastic, we say it’s “random.” That isn’t — or at least it shouldn’t be — a metaphysical judgment. It’s simply a description of what we are able to observe. For example, the fluctuations of the stock market are statistically stochastic or “random,” but obviously there is agency and intentionality underlying the stock market. I’d rather that we simply note that “random” means “unpredictable” or stochastic, and call out scientists and pundits who mistakenly associate this with metaphysical randomness.
    On the main question — when is a scientific theory contrary to the catholic faith? That’s the bazillion dollar question, isn’t it? Honestly, though, I’m not sure I like the suggestion that a scientific theory could contradict the catholic faith.
    Let’s say the catholic faith affirms that God is the creator of the universe, that He is not a deceiver, that all truth comes from God, and that, properly understood, all truth that comes from God is complementary and consistent. Let’s also say that scientific theories are attempts to accurately describe the universe God created. It follows that no true scientific theory can possibly contradict the catholic faith. Thus, we’re left with the trivial statement that false scientific theories are not true.
    If a scientific theory is true and it appears to contradict the catholic faith, then, either our understanding of the catholic faith, or our scientific theory, or both, must be wrong. The important thing here is that there is a two-way street: scientific and theological theories correct each other as we move steadily closer to a more complete and accurate description of the whole of reality.
    All that said, there does seem to be a point at which the “catholic faith” is no longer recognizable as “the faith” if certain propositions are discarded. Without some notion of the Triune creator-God, the incarnate Christ, the cross, and the Resurrection, whatever “faith” exists would seem not to be the “catholic” Christian faith handed down by the Apostles and historically believed by the Church. When we get close to that line, this is where I think a person committed to the Christian faith must say “here I stand.” Perhaps this is just a way of playing Pascal’s Wager, or perhaps it is epistemically warranted (I think it is warranted).

  • JosephU

    The article asks:
    “Is the theory of evolution a theory contrary to the faith?”
    A summary of some magisterial Catholic statements and cutting edge science that say “No” to evolution are available at:
    What does the Catholic Church Teach about Origins?
    A few sample quotes include:
    – Genesis does not contain purified myths.(Pontifical Biblical Commission 1909)
    – Genesis contains real history—it gives an account of things that really happened. (Pius XII)

    – All the Fathers who wrote on the subject believed that the Creation days were no longer than 24-hour-days. (Consensus of the Fathers of the Church)

    – The “beginning” of the world included the creation of all things, the creation of Adam and Eve and the Fall (Jesus Christ [Mark 10:6]; Pope Innocent III; Blessed Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).

    – Evolution must not be taught as fact, but instead the pros and cons of evolution must be taught. (Pius XII, Humani Generis)

    – The specific complexity of genetic information in the genome does not increase spontaneously. Therefore, there is no natural process whereby reptiles can turn into birds, land mammals into whales, or chimpanzees into human beings.

    – Many worldwide natural processes indicate an age for the earth of 10,000 years or less. These include population kinetics, influx of radiocarbon into earth’s atmosphere, absence of meteorites from the geologic column, and decay of earth’s magnetic field

    – There is no gradualism in the fossil record, no intermediate types.

  • freelunch

    The page you referenced was quite selective in picking out Catholic doctrine, being quite careful to ignore anything the Church has said recently.
    The last three items, though you imply they came from the Church are not referenced and are not accepted doctrine of the Church. All three of these statements scientifically incorrect statements of the currently available evidence. They sound like they were written by science-ignorant Young Earth Creationists.

  • dopderbeck

    JosephU — first, by “catholic” with a small-c, RJS didn’t mean “Roman Catholic,” she meant the essential, basic Christian faith accepted by all or nearly all groups that can be called “Christian.”
    Second — the Roman Catholic church today has no problem at all with evolution as a description of biological origins. The sources you’ve cited are either out of date or just wrong. For a wonderful little theological reflection on creation from a Roman Catholic perspective, check out then Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) book “In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall” (http://tinyurl.com/mbhhkv). Also see “Creation and Evolution: A Conversation with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gondolfo” (http://tinyurl.com/l8qz94), among many other sources.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “A summary of some magisterial Catholic statements…[link to the Kolbe Center]”
    The Kolbe Center is heretical, not magisterial or official in any way.