Wise Words (from a long time ago)

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 9.42.10 PMSt Augustine thought plenty about science and faith, and Mark Noll’s contention that we need to transcend what he calls “univocal metaphysics, harmonization, and natural theology” lead him to contend that we ought to learn to think about the science faith challenge from the angle of christology, in particular, the humanity and deity of Christ. Noll’s booklet is called “Come and See”: A Christological Invitation for Science (published by The Colossian Forum in Grand Rapids; excerpted from Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind).

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Here is Noll on how Augustine thought about disrespectful, presumptuous claims about science by those who thought they were upholding the Bible. He begins with a general orientation that prior to Augustine it was a straightforward and honest harmonizing, but he was beginning to see problems:

This situation, with some exceptions, largely prevailed until the sixteenth century and the beginnings of the modern scientific era. Yet even in the centuries when challenges to a ‘literal” reading of Scripture were fewer than later, perceptive believers knew that considerable sophistication was necessary to bring together biblical interpretation and interpretations of nature.

He enters now into the intellectual and evangelistic and apologetic and ultimate truth-bearing significance of disrespect of scientific knowledge, something that not only do some folks in the church do today but they do so with a presumptuous glee. It begins, says Augustine, with people knowing some facts:

Thus, early in the fifth century, Saint Augustine noted that perceptive non-Christians really did know a great deal about “the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth.”

Disputation or diminishing such knowledge of facts was not a good thing; in fact, it was nonsense:

Given the fact of such able observers, he held it was “a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics.” When this kind of nonsense proliferated, the great danger was that those outside the faith would believe that the Scriptures themselves (“our sacred writers”) taught the nonsense and so would be put off from the life-giving message of the Bible.

Notice where he takes this. If they hear a person utter nonsense about science, they ask, why should they believe them on metaphysics and truth about redemption?

As Augustine expressed this danger, “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?” His closing injunction was to chastise “reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture” who “defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements” by calling on “Holy Scripture for proof and even recit[ing] from memory many passages which they think support their position.” Yet comparatively speaking, in Augustine’s own lifetime and for long thereafter, there were relatively few occasions when efforts at uniting scriptural teaching with knowledge gained from study of nature posed great difficulties.

Noll proceeds to the challenges today that at times are the occasion for similar demonstrations of nonsense:

That situation changed when the results of modern science called into question a growing array of straightforward or “literal” interpretations of the Bible. From the sixteenth century onward, the number of apparent problems accumulated. Hard-won conclusions in the natural sciences, which were gained through ever more intense and ever more sophisticated study of nature, seemed to contradict what the Scriptures taught. Thus, the earth was the center of neither the solar system nor the entire universe (as might be concluded from some biblical passages); the earth was billions of years old (not of recent vintage); the universe was unimaginably vast (not sized by human scale); animal “species” designated temporary way stations on continuously changing paths of evolutionary development (not permanently fixed entities); human beings were part of this evolutionary development (not a species distinct in every way from animals).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.