Augustine, Evolution, and Two Books

Augustine, Evolution, and Two Books August 25, 2010

Although I tend to disagree with St. Augustine on several issues, he paid us a great debt through his concept of the “Two Books.”  He held that we ought to approach the quest for knowledge by holding together the two sacred forms of revelation that God has given to humanity: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.  His belief was that these two books are God’s perfect and complementary ways to communicate with his image bearers about truth.  They are authored by the same divine pen, so they must work together rather than finding themselves in conflict with each other.  In regards to the Bible, its interpretation is multi-layered and not always intended to be read in a “plain sense” literal fashion (literal, as in a surface level reading).  One must keep in mind that God accommodated truth to package it in a way that was understandable for the original audience.  So, in regards to passages like Genesis one, Augustine did not hold to a literal six-day formation of the universe or even six distinct periods of creation; as is evident in his Literal Interpretation of Genesis (here, literal means the original intent of the authors, not skimming the surface for the “plain sense”).

St. Augustine also believed that some interpretations of difficult texts ought not be held so dogmatically that they fail to leave room for the Book of Nature to have the authority reveal truth about reality.  This is not to say that the Bible is ever wrong, but that it is possible that our perceptions of God’s perfect truth can be incorrect at times.  As Professor Lawrence Principe states regarding Augustine’s understanding of the Two Books: “Because it is often easier conclusively to prove natural and philosophical propositions than interpretations of specific biblical passages, our interpretations of biblical passages must be informed by the current state of sure scientific and other knowledge.”  Now, this does not mean that science trumps Scripture, but rather that we must have enough humility to recognize the validity of other sources of knowledge.  Dr. Principe regarding Augustine adds that a “failure to conform interpretations to the certain knowledge gained from other sources (such as the Book of Nature) opens the interpreter, and Christianity as a whole, to ridicule for being unlearned.”[1] His (Augustine’s) ultimate concern was that Christians would not affirm primitive understandings of the Bible over against modern (not modernity, but modern from the interpreter’s vantage point) revelations of science because this would discredit the validity of the faith and God he so cherished.

As we discuss key questions about science and its relationship with the Bible, it is helpful to remember the concept of the Two Books and ask difficult questions of each source of revelation in light of the other.  A key question that I have found helpful is: In an apparent contradiction between the Two Books, is there a new path that can be walked that takes the evidence of both with uncompromisable seriousness? In my own upbringing, I had only been exposed to two options.  Option one was that the Bible’s obvious conclusions always win.  Option two was to simply cast the Bible into the bottomless pit of irrelevance so that science and reason could lead us into the actual, measurable, truth about reality.  I think St. Augustine might urge us to chart a new path as we journey through the twenty-first century, so that the truth about both books might be revealed to our culture.


[1] Coursebook, Science and Religion, 8.


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  • Luke Thomas

    Kurt, before I engage in some questioning of the blog post, may I first say that I impressed with your engagement of culture and the way you do it. I have read your blog often but have not commented much for various reasons.

    I struggle myself with the statement, “His (Augustine’s) ultimate concern was that Christians would not affirm primitive understandings of the Bible over against modern revelations of science because this would discredit the validity of the faith and God he so cherished.”

    Here is why. 1. Augestine’s 5th century existence did not put him in a place to engage nature as humanity did in the modern and scientific revolution era. He would not have known the scientific knowledge of our day.
    2. The end of modern thought taken to far is atheism. I know that Augestine would not approve of this. I think if he were an everlasting observer of our world he would not have been rooting for or approving of the first deistic though (think Thomas Jefferson slicing up his Bible) and later atheistic thought. Darwin, while evolution in and of itself can be neutral evidence resulted from these form of influence and thinking.
    3. What did Augestine mean by primitive forms of Bible interpretation?, what do you mean?
    4. I am harsh defender of the Bible being taken literally when it is intended to be literal. Did God dumb down our universe creation so that the original readers understood it or more likely was that how it happened? I agree that Genesis 1 is a poem, but it is based off what really happened. Otherwise would not God be misleading us and them?
    5. I am worried that this engagement and adjusting our Biblical interpretation is engaging in deistic thought. Follow me here. Thomas Jefferson saw scientifically that God could not be creation. Logically speaking than Jesus could not be God. So he sliced up his bible literally cutting out the parts he did not like. I worry that we may slice up our Bible by not taking the creation account for what it says. We then let scientific information to slice (interpret as it would most clearly be read) Genesis 1 out to put in evolution information.

    Please note, my example of Thomas Jefferson was not to suggest at all that any person that believes evolution does not believe that Jesus is God. I am trying to give a known example of deistic thought. I am not trying to make a subtle implication of salvation. I do not think that beliefs on how created the earth are of utmost importance, but I do think believe God and Jesus created are of utmost importance.

    6. Where do you disagree with Augestine?
    7. Does evolutionary theory have anything left to prove? Is it a convincing argument on modernisms terms?

    • Luke, I appreciate your thoughts as usual, but have some disagreements and clarifications that ought to be made.

      Now let me use your systematic numbering system to answer you.

      1) First of all… my use of “modern” in the statement that you quoted is a bit confusing. I do not mean modern as in “modernity” or our modern… but what was ‘modern’ for Augustine. Hope that gives some clarity.

      2) I can agree that modernity when taken too far is atheism. I do not endorse this. But, we cannot deny that Augustine did not hold to the reading of Genesis you are attempting to support. In fact, the study that I sited makes the claim that more of Christian history supports a nonliteral reading (meaning plain sense) than a strict literalism. This is something that we must contend with. I can agree that Deism is also a problem. God’s world and God himself always go together… that is exactly my point and Augustine’s I think. Whatever issues we have with Darwin, we create a slippery slope when we assume that his views lead to or are deeply informed by deism. Also, much of Darwin’s work has been corrected and expanded upon since he first wrote on the subject.

      3) Primative forms… I guess what I mean is that just because one’s cultural understanding and tradition may have always thought a certain way about a text, does not mean that they got is all ‘right.’ The question should always be: “what did this mean for the original authors and how does this propel us forward in understanding interpretation?” I would say that the 7 day literal view imposes an understanding that is primitive, in that it is not informed by genre, worldview, etc. If a text was attempting to tell us about HOW and not simply WHO, then why for instance is the Sun and Moon not introduced until the 4th day? I think that poetry has a point, but each lyric is never that… it always points to something beyond itself.

      4) Why do you feel so strongly that this particular text has to be taken literally? God doesn’t ‘dumb down’ but he certainly accommodates truth so that the original audience would understand it. Biblical accommodation is a finely regarded evangelical biblical interpretive principle. I would ask you to consider other elements of biblical cosmology. Is heaven really up? Or is it another realm? Is there really waters above a skydome? Such cosmology laid out in the bible is inconsistent with reality. I think Genesis one has more to do with the WHO and less to do with the HOW. Great quote: “The bible teaches us how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go…” Also, I think that we can also see the way that Genesis One is a reflection on the consecration of the Temple. See The Lost World of Genesis One, by John Walton.

      5) Luke, I appreciate your humble approach toward this issue especially when you are kind enough to admit that being a theistic evolutionist does not have much bearing on the important things. Let me say that I do not believe that we are changing our view as much as we are returning to the ancient understandings that have been lost over time (even if they were ‘accommodated’ in some respects). Jefferson’s Deism caused him to cut bible verses out… Some of us are saying that the same kind of danger remains when we allow our presuppositions of a biblical text to dictate our interpretations. Also, I want to add that MANY well known evangelicals have no problem with embracing evolution: Tim Keller, CS Lewis, Billy Graham, John Stott, NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Allister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, Scot Mcknight, and many more. This is not simply a blind embrace, but one that takes the biblical text as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

      6) I disagree with Augustine on Calvinism and imposing certain elements of Greek thought on to theology. Also, I think that his just war theory was rooted in the power the church gained after Constantine and not the way of Jesus. That would be a starting point I suppose.

      7) I am not a scientist, but I sure know that the evidence seems pretty clear. Even if evolution is false, it is much more rooted than young earth creationism in my view. For more on my view, hang out at .

      Well, bro… that is a start to answering your questions. Ultimately, I see too many people set up a false polarity between science and faith, which has led many of our young people to leave the church when they head to college. This is the most discouraging part of this whole thing.

      Blessings bro! PS – I would never impose my more ‘edgy views’ on others in settings where I know that I would disrupt things… ie Chapel 🙂

      • Luke, I should add that Augustine is not a Calvinist as Calvin was preordained to be born in a different era 🙂 But I think you know what I mean!

  • I agree with Augustine’s “two book” approach, especially as it’s taught almost explicitly in Psalm 19, which begins with the “book of nature” and moves on to the “book of Torah.”

    I’m going to be teaching on this very topic in a few weeks at a seminar in GA and the main thing I will be emphasizing is that there are MULTIPLE legitimate ways to approach the text of Gen.1…and a few that are illegitimate, yet popular.

    Christians who hold too tightly to a literalistic reading of Gen.1 are often very quick to deny the literalistic interpretation of other passages which was used to dismiss Galileo’s findings from the “book of nature.” The result was a SERIOUS blow to the Church’s credibility in the eyes of the world (as well as the birth of the nonsensical “science vs. scripture” characterization that fuels the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of the world). This is PRECISELY what Augustine was trying to prevent!

  • Bobby

    I think it is important that Christians remember the chorus from a Billy Joel song: “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’.” That is to say, the conflict over the definition, nature, and source of what may be called reality has always been an issue with mankind. It did not start with the so-called Scientific Revolution – which has always been a work in progress and always shall be, unlike God’s written revelation of Himself to us. To the ancients, who were far off the mark in some ways and yet closer than we moderns in others, science and religion were blended into one art form. Granted there were many mistakes and mispronouncements about the world based on this, but at least they recognized one truth: the spiritual and the physical worlds are intimately and inextricably connected. Modern science does not recognize this fact. Unlike the (albeit misguided) marriage the ancients enjoyed, and even scientists such as Newton had no problem living with, modern science has divorced itself from any notion of anything which it cannot detect and measure. So we’re not merely talking about Christians needing to bring their Bible knowledge into greater harmony with scientific knowledge, but Science itself needing to bring its world-view into greater harmony with the Bible. That is why Darwin’s ever-renewed and constantly amended theory of Evolution is pernicious to any reconciliation; it is a world-view rather than a scientific theory. It always has been and always shall be. As far as what Christians can do, I think it would be wise to point out that God, through the Mosaic Law, took a greater interest in personal and communal hygiene than any one did in the centuries before or after, prior to the invention of the microscope and the advancement of the germ-theory of disease. In fact, one way the Black Plague was stemmed slightly in Europe is when church clerics enforced the quarantine laws within the Mosaic Law. We take it for commonsense today, with the germ-theory firmly entrenched, but neither in ancient times nor medieval times was there anyone advocating such strict cleanliness rules as ancient Israel had. All this is to point out that, ritualistic or not in terms of purpose, no man had such advanced knowledge about disease. Christians should point such things out. The ancient world certainly never posited a physical cause. The prevailing belief was in evil spirits, and Scripture never gives heed to that now so obviously absurd belief. As to Genesis 1, I personally take it poetically and literally. If you look at it from an earth-bound perspective, the cooling of the earth, the clarifying of the atmosphere (first just light, then later on the stars, sun and moon being able to be seen), the condensing of oceans and an atmosphere, tectonic activity pushing land upwards above the waters – if not accepted, all of that is very much at least allowable under current scientific knowledge of how our planet was formed. You just cannot say that God did it or that He accomplished it in six days. Another thing that is really the crux of the matter is the way that Adam’s sin affected creation. If Adam and Eve were indeed placed second unto God in terms of lordship over all creation (literally the entire universe, not just the earth) then I think one cannot overestimate the impact that the entrance of Death into this world had on the universe. If, as I suppose it did, it altered (or, rather, unbalanced) the very laws of physics then extant in the universe, things at the beginning are a rather different ballgame than the ‘primordial story’ posited by current theory which holds that current known physical laws have always been in effect more or less. Sin had a profound impact on the physical nature of the universe. That is something, I think, that few scientists or even few Christians take into account. There was no rain before the Flood. Think of how the atmospheric conditions had to be different to support such a world as that. We are really talking not only about a revolution in Christian thinking, but in human thinking overall. But there again, the entwinement of the spiritual (primary reality) with the physical (secondary reality) is cause for many to stumble, Christian and non-Christian alike.

  • LS

    I like Richard P. Feynman’s definition of science in his book “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. He stated that he thought science was “the belief in the ignorance of the experts.” Also, a few years back I watched a show on public tv about a paleontologist. She did a simple “Berean” type of experiment to test the knowledge and assumptions of the ‘experts’. The ‘experts’ had said that certain markings on bones meant that the bone ‘owner’ was carnivorous or something along those lines. The women buried a bone on a well traveled elephant pathway and behold….the same type of markings were made on the buried bone.

    I’ve been in both camps of the evolution debate and I think both camps do ‘marketing’ not necessarily ‘good science’. I wonder if the approach to help God write His values on our own hearts and those of another is to honor His Word AND think well and critically and help foster critical thinking in others while being honest about what we are sure of and what we carry in the area of assumption. I think, too, of a statement Einstein(I think) made “the difference between what the most knowledgeable person and the most ignorant person knows is trivial compared to the unknown.” I wonder if that is a call for respect and remembering the limits of our knowledge while we seek to grow in knowledge.


  • John Holmes


    Good thought about the two books concept. The more times I read Genesis, the more I see the poetic, the prophetic, the God of creation is the God of redemption. The parting of waters in Gen 1, points to the same act in Exodus, 14-15,… This is the teaching of Gen 1, not how many literal days.

    But does that mean that there is not a clear and present force to a God revealed in this as ominpotent? I once asked a friend who had just become born-again, who had a master’s in biology, and an avowed evolutionist. Do you believe that God is omnipotent. Answer Yes!
    Could he have created the universe in 6 days, Answer N0! We both had a laugh over that one…. Lets hope Darwin has not backed us into a corner.

    Second: Can you tease out theistic evolution? One of my big issues with Darwinist’s, it seems if they cannot prove a part of there theory, they just add another 100 million years and than it would happen. Is this really science and the scientific method at work or a slick game at work and really a religous philosophy???


  • Luke Thomas

    Poem vs Darwin

    I reject the argument that we can dismiss the six day creation that has a morning and evening because of God trying to make accessible to the original audience or that because it is poetry it should not be taken literally.

    1. The original audience had no understanding of creation outside of revelation. If Genesis was given to them during the exodus to entering the new land time period the purpose was to show God’s power over creationism when the surrounding cultures tended to worship the sun or moon etc. It God had used a theistic evolution could he have not made the same point writing a poem with a more accurate description of the evolutionary process?

    2. Poetry genre does not mean that it cannot be historical fact. Just because it is poetry, does not mean that it does not have historical fact within it. To use another Biblical example, Phillippians 2 is a poem, but is definitely historical.

    3. I believe that the original audience would have taken the Gen. 1 account literally. I have no reason to believe why they would not. If God had explained to them theistic evolution in poetry form denouncing the gods of that age.

    4. Even if poetry was the point of God in his revelation, his omnipotence and position as the only eye witness gives more credibility to his account than scientific evolution trying to read back. While there are evidences from the scientific method it does not trump revelation.

    5. I want to stand with many other aspects of science. It has been a source of much benevolence in the world. The ability to study and discover are great and gifts from God. I want to support the person who fights disease, improves our environment, saves lives. I just do not think science has the right vantage point on the creation of the world.

    6. Again, I don’t think this is an issue of salvation or orthodox, but an important one none the less in how we come up with truth.

    7. From John Holmes post, you note that Ex. 14 and 15 uses the same language as the parting of the waters. For the original hearer, would that have fallen under the same category as Sabbath. Remember Sabbath for the Jews was based in creation. Because God rested on the seventh day, Jews rested on the seventh. Wouldn’t the parting of the waters been confirming in both the exodous and the creation account.

    8. Finally a question. Where does the poem stop? Is the naming of the animals not literal? Is the creation of Eve not literal? The talking snake? The fall itself?

    9. P.S. Kurt, Augestine and Calvin are both McCarthurites.

  • Luke Thomas

    Sorry one more point

    Accommodation for man’s situation is an okay principle. I can understand God describing the four corners of the earth and not believe in a flat earth.

    However with creation I struggle with this. The only witness to creation was God. The only authority I would ask on creation is God. The only one who knows how he did it was God. If I was a Biblical Israelite having received revelation why would God need to accommodate that issue?

    I hold strongly to a more literal hermaneutic, because I am trying to align my life to what the word says. If we are taking a passage as not true literally I am asking myself why. In this case, I think we may be making room for what is not true by bending the truth. I guess at a base level I am not willing to leave behind right answers.

    I am worried that we do the latter to much (including myself) adjust the bible for our belief rather than the other way around.

    • Luke… thanks for your MacAurtherite comment… made me smile!

      Rather than talk in circles, I want to ask you to do me a favor and read one article. It is by Tim Keller, whom I think we both would agree is extremely credible voice (along with all the other biblical scholars I mentioned).

      Make this paper your priority because I think it does a good job at crossing the theological bridge that ought to be built between us. If you read it, i’d love to hear your thoughts!

      Blessings Brother!
      See my quotations below as a “PS”

      Also, here is a fun quote from Billy Graham…

      “I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things that they weren’t meant to say, and I think we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man… whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” — Billy Graham in “Doubt and Certainties” (1964)

      Another from John Stott…

      “Not many Christians today find it necessary to defend the concept of a literal six-day creation, for the text does not demand it, and scientific discovery appears to contradict it. The biblical text presents itself not as a scientific treatise but as a highly stylized lierary statement (deliberately framed in three pairs, the fourth “day” corresponding to the first, the fifth to the second, and the sixth to the third)…
      “It is most unfortunate that some who debate this issue (evolution) begin by assuming that the words “creation” and “evolution” are mutually exclusive. If everything has come into existence through evolution, they say, then biblical creation has been disproved, whereas if God has created all things, then evolution must be false. It is, rather, this naïve alternative which is false. It presupposes a very narrow definition of the two terms, both of which in fact have a wide range of meanings, and both of which are being freshly discussed today…
      “But my acceptance of Adam and Eve as historical is not incompatible with my belief that several forms of pre-Adamic ‘hominid’ may have existed for thousands of years previously. These hominids began to advance culturally. They made their cave drawings and buried their dead. It is conceivable that God created Adam out of one of them. You may call them homo erectus. I think you may even call some of them homo sapiens, for these are arbitrary scientific names. But Adam was the first homo divinus, if I may coin a phrase, the first man to whom may be given the Biblical designation ‘made in the image of God’. Precisely what the divine likeness was, which was stamped upon him, we do not know, for Scripture nowhere tells us. But Scripture seems to suggest that it includes rational, moral, social, and spiritual faculties which make man unlike all other creatures and like God the creator, and on account of which he was given ‘dominion’ over the lower creation.” (John Stott, Understanding the Bible: Expanded Edition; 54-56)

      And another from CS Lewis…

      “For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. he gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all of the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed in this state for ages before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past…. We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods…. They wanted some corner in this universe of which they could say to God, “This is our business, not yours.” But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives. We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, the the question is of no consequence.” (C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, 68-71)

      • One last thought. I know your answer in advance, but this is a text that the literalism camp has not done well with:

        17 Cain had sexual relations with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Then Cain founded a city, which he named Enoch, after his son. Genesis 4:17

        Where did the wife come from? Sister? Really? Or, perhaps other humans already inhabited the earth? Just another legitimate question.