Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Augustine on embarrassing Christians

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 hold 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.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of 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 criticized 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 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 and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

- Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 1.19.39
(translated by J.H. Taylor; Newman Press, 1982). H/T CraigS.

This issue has been around a long time.

10 comments:

Alex said...

Wow Byron! This quote sounds like it's straight out of the present day debate. Thanks for posting it. Everyone needs to see this. I might even post it at my blog at some point, with credit to you of course. Thanks again.

One Salient Oversight said...

Part of this issue is the answer to the question - What is the Bible for?

It is obvious that the Bible does not contain all information. It does not even contain all the information about God or Jesus.

What it does contain, however, is sufficient information about God and about how to live the Christian life (2 Timothy 3.16-17).

God gave us the Bible as the means by which the Holy Spirit can enlighten us with the knowledge of God and unite us with Him.

What the Bible doesn't do is contain the answers to any and every question.

byron said...

Thanks Neil - I was going to post something along those lines under the quote, but was in a hurry and so just wrote a single line. But that's basically what I wanted to say.

byron said...

Alex - it's contemporary relevance was what grabbed my attention.

byron said...

Oh, and Alex, notice that I stole it from Craig (see the link on the hat tip).

Benjamin Ady said...

wow, he nailed it, sort of. I mean what if Scripture really *does* support truly ridiculous positions? Hmmmm....

Augustine himself is in some ways a writer/communicator who is a bane to Christianity the type of which he is writing about, isn't he? That's funny, because to be human is to constantly and incessantly fall into this very trap--that whatever trap we identify others as having fallen into, we shall invariably, often in the very process of such identification, fall into said trap ourselves. Alas... No doubt I've done it just now.

Nick said...

Hey Byron...

What a great quote.
Can you tell us something more about the context? What kinds of things was he concerned about in that context....

nick

byron said...

Nick - I confess that I haven't read all of De Genesi ad litteram and that I took this quote from another blog. Thus I'm not sure of the context, but will look it up.

Augustine himself is in some ways a writer/communicator who is a bane to Christianity the type of which he is writing about, isn't he?
Did you have any particular ways in mind Ben?

Bruce Yabsley said...

Bryon I've been hoping to contribute to this thread for a while, but time hasn't permitted (nor does it permit a proper response now). First let me say thanks for the passage quoted: in my ignorance I was unaware of it.

I feel a strong urge to complicate this discussion. Much as it warms my heart to be able to call in Augustine as witness against --- I don't know, creationists, whoever --- I am more bothered by the prevailing mood in this diocese on behind-the-text questions, which is strongly compartmentalised. I don't buy the line about using the electric light excluding belief in miracles, but it is idle to claim that scientific knowledge doesn't complicate one's understanding of the miraculous, and of all sorts of scriptural statements (or background ideas, or whatever). Nevertheless, this complication is too little acknowledged. On-message statements about the absence of conflict between science and yaddah yaddah yaddah are an improvement on Bible-thumping, but they don't cut it as engagements with the material, or as something to say to thoughtful or knowledgeable people.

Creationists are an easy target. But if someone claims not to be a creationist, yet cannot bring himself to (for example) characterise the flood narrative, in a sermon, as a story --- and by that I mean, a story in a way (whatever else you wish to say about it) that a geology lesson, no matter how artfully told, is not a story --- then they are having it both ways. And I think there's a lot of people around here in that particular boat.

byron said...

Bruce - I hear you. And the boat don't float.