Saint Augustine

Human Progress


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Augustine acknowledged that change and progress in human knowledge are both possible and necessary. In matters of Scriptural interpretation he advised caution, and openness to better ideas. He wrote:-

“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In  such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

St.Augustine; The Literal  Meaning of Genesis; tr. J.H.Taylor, S.J., N.Y., Newman Press, 1982

Quoted by F.S. Collins: The Language of God; Free Press, N.Y. 2006

Augustine emphasised his point as follows:-

“Usually, even a non-christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this 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, 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 (observe) a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticised and rejected as unlearned men. 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 and 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 learned from experience in the light of reason.”

St.Augustine; Genesis

On the subject of Time he made comments as follows. Civilisation, in his view, is progressing and we remember who performed this deed or developed that technique. Thus man, and so also perhaps the universe, could not have been around all that long.

In his view,  the concept of time had no meaning before the beginning of the universe. Time was a property of the universe that God created, and time did not exist before the beginning of the universe.

St.Augustine accepted a date of about  5000BC for the creation of the universe, derived from the Book of Genesis.  Augustine was working long before Evolutionary theory was developed and Evolutionary ideas were not in general circulation until 100 years before Darwin’s time. It may be taken as very likely, if not certain, that Augustine would have accepted the principle of evolution but not , probably, Darwin’s version.

St.Augustine wrote 5 million words and he wrote them 1600 years ago. Not surprisingly, much of what he wrote has been overtaken by progress in human knowledge. This website undertakes to explain and defend his theory of knowledge and leaves discussion and judgement on his other writings to others.    

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