Alister McGrath is at his best (IMHO) when engaging with debates of science and religion. After all, he’s a scholar of both. And he’s got a really helpful and timely piece in this month’s CT on Augustine’s Origin of the Species. Augustine was of course one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Full stop. And he was an African. Which endears him to me even more. And in these days of militant scientific materialism and neo-Darwinist thinking, it is refreshing at least to find that someone from the ancient past who as something to contribute to contemporary debates.
Obviously, Augustine won’t help anyone engage with the specifics of Charles Darwin’s arguments per se but as McGrath says in his conclusion, he does open up the possibility of a freedom within the interpretative bounds of handling Genesis well.
So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates.
On this issue, Augustine is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but deeply biblical, both in substance and intention. While his approach hardly represents the last word, it needs to be on the table.
We need patient, generous, and gracious reflection on these big issues. Augustine of Hippo can help us get started.
What is important is the possibility Augustine gives us in how to handle Genesis 1-2 in particular, without either being enslaved to the scientific worldviews of the day, or ignoring them as inevitably irrelevant. Too many interpreters fall into one or other of these 2 traps. And in McGrath’s words, Augustine was simply concerned ‘to let Scripture speak for itself’. Can’t say fairer than that.
Image: Botticelli’s wonderful take on St Augustine